Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Q&A | Kris & Amanda

July's Q&A features a sibling duo, Amanda and Kristopher (Kris for short), whom I've had the pleasure of knowing most of my life, primarily because our mothers went to high school together (in downtown Manhattan), and coincidentally, our families grew up in the same town in suburban Central Jersey. Now a stipulation about this awesome bro-and-sis pair -- they are arguably the most adventurous people I know, in both regards to food and outdoor activities. They'll be the first to try the bizarrest of foods in foreign countries as well as the first to volunteer ziplining through the jungle. Plus, they were groomed and bred by the man whom I consider the foodiest of all the foodies in my life -- their father whom I call Uncle Leon always knows the best places to go because of his incredibly discerning palate and meticulous tastes. As a family, you know they'll take care of you when it comes to things in the culinary arena.

Anyway, Amanda and Kris both inherited their father's genes in this regard, always on the prowl for something good to eat, savor, and enjoy. You'll know they'll be at the front of the beeline to try something new, and they're not afraid to be open and frank about it. If it's delicious, it's worthy of praise; if it's just not good, they will say so. Amanda and Kris are both quality individuals who have impeccable taste in all aspects of life (including food, fashion, art, and design) and are two of the most generous people I've had the chance to be around. When I'm at a loss for where/what to eat, I know they'll always have something tucked up their sleeves that will blow me away.

Thanks again to Amanda and Kris for participating in July's Q&A sesh!

Kris and Amanda enjoying fresh mojitos at the Dream Downtown Hotel pool.

Kris & Amanda

New York, NY

Kris: Sushi of Gari. It was a one-time deal: a graduation gift from my godmother. She knew of my obsession with sushi and took me there for the most spectacular meal of my life. We ordered from the Chef's Special Menu which consists of five pieces of fish that change on a constant and daily basis. Each has its own sauce that is delicately placed in between the cut of fish and the rice. They don't even bother giving you soy sauce or wasabi, because the fish has enough flavor as is. I will never forget the meal -- the Chef's Special changes every day and there is no menu. You simply order it, and five pieces of fish are brought to you. We ordered five rounds a person, and each fish was uniquley different with its own special flavor. Save this for only special occasions because it is $10 for a single piece of sushi.
Amanda: Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia. I stumbled across this charming place seven years ago while looking for a nearby jazz bar. This restaurant threw me off at first. As I walked down Walnut Street, one of the busiest streets in Philly, I saw this three-story, pale-yellow, colonial looking house, set between modern buildings. I found it peculiar and peeked inside, only to find contemporary fixtures, warm red lighting, and hot Latin music. To this day, I can't get enough of its bread (I know it's lame, but they are the most delightful mouthfuls of chewy, warm, fragrant goodness you'll ever have). Every time I head to Philly, I stop by for some ceviche, churrasco, and my must-have -- its signature Alma Colada, a blend of passionfruit juice, coconut milk, Bacardi superior and rum.

Kris: For brunch, I hardly eat at the same place twice -- there are too many brunch places here in New York City. When I'm at work in Midtown, lunch means Dishes-To-Go. Then for dinner, I like to frequent Westville, Ippudo, The Meatball Shop, and The Stanton Social. If the night leads into a drunken stupor, late night drunk eats are Artichoke Pizza, Cafeteria, and the Halal Cart on 14th Street and Irving.
: In New York City, they would be Shake Shack, Sushi Samba, Joe's Shanghai, Tiger Bar, and Pinkberry.

Kris: Any alcoholic drink that stems from a tea usually catches my interest, e.g., Chrysanthemum- or hibiscus-inspired cocktails.
Amanda: Elderflower champagne cocktail, but when this isn't available, a classic mojito will do.

Kris: Halal food with EXTRA white sauce and dumplings from hole-in-the-wall restaurants that make you question their sanitation rating. I still have a reputation to uphold so I shall withhold the rest of my dirty little secrets of indulgence! :P
Amanda: There are no secrets here! I frequently indulge in nocciola (hazelnut) gelato and/or Neuhaus chocolates. When I'm craving something savory, similar to my brother, I typically go for some sort of street food. I actually love doner kebabs (i.e., Turkish kabobs) and chicken and rice (with two lines of white sauce and two lines of hot sauce, please!). And of course, I will never pass on a chance to sip an ice cold India Pale Ale microbrew, with a side of chips or fries, of course.

Kris: Hearty mashed potatoes with EXTRA butter. It's a holiday tradition that I've always enjoyed making for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It takes a lot of preparation time, and the ingredients are sure to give you a heart attack, but then again, it's tradition.
Amanda: Well, I prefer to bake, so I love making cheesecake. I typically go for the classic recipe with a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg in the crust and a light drizzle of some fresh berry sauce. It's such a simple recipe, though I hate having to wait four hours for the cake will set in the fridge! If I'm in the mood to do some serious cooking, I enjoy making mushroom risotto. The risotto is somewhat time-consuming as you have to constantly add stock into the arborio rice, but I promise I put lots of love into that dish.

Kris: I don't really know how to say it in English, but the dish Chinese pickled cabbage with slices of beef. Both my grandpa and mom always know to make it for me when I come home after being away for a while. It's sweet and salty, and the cabbage always packs a nice crunch.
Amanda: Hmmm... I think this might be one of the toughest questions (following the words that will never lose their panache!), because I always crave home-cooked food. It always changes, but at the moment I'm missing some bo-zai-fan (literal translation in Chinese for "clay-pot rice"). My dad cooks the rice first and when the water is almost evaporated, he adds a mixture of beef, some secret ingredients, soy sauce, and fresh cilantro. Once it's done, I love digging at the bottom to get the fan zeew (excuse my Cantonese pinyin right now, haha), i.e., the burnt rice at the bottom of the pot.

Kris: As much as I would like to say a classic European destination known for its organic ingredients and traditional recipes (insert Paris or Tuscany), Hong Kong has always been filled with countless foods which I long for. Having studied abroad in Florence for a semester and traveling across Europe during that time, I came home to the U.S. without having gained any extra weight. That all changed shortly after during my two-month internship in Hong Kong. Every night was a hodgepodge of different Asian flavors, each one seemingly better than the next. To survive the high rent of Hong Kong, restaurants need to deliver, and that's just what they do. Whether it's a beautiful banquet hall or a food joint where you have to soak the chopsticks in tea to disinfect them, Hong Kong is my favorite place to eat.
Amanda: I'm torn between South America and Southeast Asia. Growing up in a Chinese family, I am more accustomed to Asian food in general, so I think I might find more comfort in going to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and the Philippines. But then again, I also have a strong desire to head on a nitty-gritty, backpacking, culinary adventure through Peru, hopefully making a stop in Ecuador to try the home cooking of Mauro, my beloved former roomie from Spain.

Kris: My father is a phenomenal cook; many people say their parents are, but I truly believe my dad is a special circumstance. I believe it stems from his humble beginnings as a child who looked at food, yearning for it, but could not afford it. So, now as a full-grown adult who can afford some of the finer foods New York has to offer, he is very selective and savors every flavor. He is hardly satisfied with a meal, and if he compliments a restaraunt, I automatically know if must be a fine one. When he was young, my father served as a bus boy to many of Chinatown's busiest restaraunts. He learned the secrets of the chefs and watched as they prepared meals for affluent customers. With that in tow, he has undoubtedly picked up recipes and ways of getting the best flavors from simple ingredients and spices. He can also prepare an entire meal in about fifteen minutes from start to finish -- a feat which I cannot possibly do.
Amanda: I don't LOVE anyone wholeheartedly, but I do appreciate Anthony Bourdain. He has this carefree, frank, and open-minded attitude towards food, and it's refreshing. I watch his show all the time ,and I get a kick out of his ex-druggie, crazy personality. In terms of game-changing culinary success, I have to say I admire Ferran Adrià, the owner and chef of the now-shuttered elBulli in Spain. His menu is ever-changing and oh-so-inspiring -- it represents culinary innovation at its finest. If I ever won the lottery, and the restaurant was still operating, I would fly myself over there for my first meal as a multi-millionaire.

Kris: After Chinese school on Saturdays back in New Jersey, my family used to go to this local Szechuan restaurant called King Palace. I remember distinctly its homemade beef stew, rice cakes, and scallion pancakes. It never got old. Unfortunately, it was run by a married couple, and the husband and main chef both became ill, so the restaurant is no-more, but the memory of it still remains as our weekly routine.
Amanda: This one's easy -- while traveling through Andorra, my boyfriend, Martin, and I found this restaurant resting up on a hill in one of the side streets of La Massana. This restaurant is part of a chain of authentic Basque restaurants (Grupo Sagardi/V.O.), but we can never remember the name. We ordered a m
agret de canard avec foie sauce, which came with a side of rocket salad. The duck was cooked to perfection, and that foie sauce was so rich though never felt heavy. I need this recipe!

Kris: Two things: people who are unwilling to try new foods and people who still want to split the bill 50-50 when you order a salad and they order something like a filet mignon.
Amanda: I'm going to have to agree with Kris on this one -- I can't stand people who are cheap and don't understand the meaning of reciprocity.

Kris: Key lime pie from Key West.
Amanda: Martin's Valentine's Day chocolate fondant! Even though his first attempt was made with salted butter rather than unsalted butter, it's still my favorite.

Kris: I'm not a huge reader of cookbooks, but I am a person who tends to prefer cooking magazines for their seasonal nuances and constant change with current trends.
Amanda: I don't use cookbooks, but if I did, it would be the one I'm in the process of making. I'm collecting family recipes from both sides of my family and will bind it to share with future generations. There's nothing that beats my coveted family recipes.

Kris: I don't know what it is in English but when something is cooked with enough flame intensity, Cantonese adults always talk about the wok hai.
Amanda: Ummm... all French culinary words? Anything said with a French accent just sounds so much more sophisticated -- maybe this is why I'm dating a French-Canadian.

Kris: Four Tines and Immaculate Infatuation.
Amanda: Well the obvious answer is Four Tines and a Napkin, but aside from that, I do find myself getting lost in the words and photos of Aran Goyoaga of Cannelle et Vanille. I am dying to take her food styling class! Stefie, if you haven't seen this blog yet, do check it out.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Drinks | Pegu Club

During Amy's brief visit to New York City this weekend, I made it a point to take her to Pegu Club in SoHo for some late Sunday evening cocktails. Thanks to Linda for the fitting recommendation!

Pegu Club, whose name "pays tribute to a storied, late-19th century British officers club in Burma," was founded by mixologist Audrey Saunders. Ms. Saunders and the team at Pegu Club have an interesting "ethos" behind its mission: they like to think themselves as "gatekeepers of classic cocktail culture" relishing in "the fine art of making drinks." For example, each day, the team squeezes fresh lemon/lime/orange/grapefruit juices by hand as well as craft their own infusions/tinctures/flavored syrups/ginger beer. Big ice cubes as well as fresh soda from small bottles (instead of soda guns) are also key at Pegu Club. These "small nuances contribute an enormous amount of extra depth to its potable potions."

Love the modern-chinoisserie interiors of the bar/lounge.

Another part of its ethos is that the team likes "to think in terms of each cocktail having its own unique personality" which therefore results in "spending many fun-filled hours perfecting new ideas and flavor combinations." The cocktail menu at Pegu Club maintains "an extensive repertoire of relished, old classics," but for the most part, it "primarily focuses on new creations to keep things interesting," mainly because "the creative process is not something they rush nor one they take lightly." The development of each drink "takes place slowly and thoughtfully and each in its own time." The menu remains undisclosed on its website for encouraging potential patrons to see what it's all about for themselves. With all of this in mind, it is clear that Pegu Club is committed to producing top-notch cocktails with high-quality ingredients and well-honed techniques. It was even more evident after having made our visit there the other night.

Our first round of cocktails were from the Pegu Club Classics 2012 section of the menu. On the left was the Pisco Punch for me, and next to it was the French Pearl for Amy.

The Pisco Punch was a pineapple-infused pisco brandy, grapefruit and lime syrups, as well as fresh lemon juice. Its description heeds its drinkers that it "goes down easy" and that "they don't call it 'punch' for nothing." It was definitely "punchy" -- that is, well-mixed and tropically fruity. The citrus meshed well with the pineapple juice. Great starter cocktail!

The French Pearl had gin, Pernod, muddled mint, lime juice, and simple syrup. Very mojito-like, the mint and lime proved to be very refreshing together in this well-balanced concoction. It was the perfect cocktail for Amy given how much she loves moijitos.

The next round of cocktails were both from the Champagne Opportunities section of the menu -- on the left was The Old Cuban and next to it was La Fleur de Paradis.

The Old Cuban is Pegu Club's "champagne mojito" with aged rum, mint, lime, Angostura bitters, and champagne. No surprise that this was Amy's other selection -- some serious mojito madness going on here! This cocktail, while similar to the other with the mint (slightly subtler here) and lime, had a little darker appearance and taste to it because of the aged rum as well as had a little more spark and excitement, which can be attributed to the sparkling aspect of the champagne. This made for a wonderful summer evening cocktail. Cannot go wrong with this choice if mojitos are you go-to.

La Fleur de Paradis was a mix of gin, elderflower liqueur, lemon and grapefruit juices, orange bitters, and champagne. I was curious about this because of the elderflower liqueur (i.e., I recall having had a similar cocktail at a different place and liking it), so I figured I'd give it a shot. It was a lot more sour/citrusy than I had initially anticipated, but it proved to be a good sipping drink for the rest of the evening -- the elderflower had a nice floral overlay.

Findings: What I really like about Pegu Club is its astringent commitment to quality -- not just in the people manning its prized bar, but in the ingredients used (all, if not most, made fresh in-house, including bottled sodas) and the techniques employed. Cocktails are anything but an afterthought and so are the patrons that will be sipping/tasting/drinking them. A good cocktail bar is as good as the rave reviews that its barstool occupants provide. Having tasted about four cocktails from the menu, I can undoubtedly gather that the menu has some really interesting things going on, especially with flavor combinations and seasonality mixed in with the innovative and the avant-garde.

I don't mind spending a little more on quality when I know I'm getting that bang for my buck. With that being said, there weren't any drinks that we had that I could say we really didn't like (they were all delicious, and each showcased its personalities as promised), which typically happens when the ratio of alcohol to mixer/juice/bitters/garnishes/spices/herbs/etc. are way too imbalanced (e.g., weakly spiked or overspiked), precluding any kind of enjoyment. So when these well-crafted cocktails are a bit hefty in price, this goes a long way in that you're guaranteed to have in your glassed possession something strikingly relishing, no matter what you order at Pegu Club.

Now I know where to tell my friends, locals and out-of-towners a like, where to go if they're in search for a way-more-than-decent cocktail -- I'll send them to Pegu Club with the biggest nudge I can give.

Price point: $13 for each classic cocktail, $17 for each champagne-infused cocktail.

--July 29, 2012

Pegu Club
77 West Houston Street
New York, NY 10012

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Brunch | Chhaya Cafe

When we were deciding where to go to brunch the next morning after a wonderful meal at Matyson, we assessed menus from an array of various choices offered to us by Dani. But I went a little further than that, and I am guilty of this with literature and bottles of wine -- my final decision rested with how clever/meaningful the restaurant/cafe's name was. Chhaya Cafe, therefore, was the clear winner, because its name is three-fold, i.e., different yet unifying meanings in three different languages.

In Sanskrit, chāyā (छाया) means shelter, shade, or shadow); in Hebrew, hāyā(חַיָה) means living or life from the word (c)hai (חַי), like in l'chaim; and in Japanese, 0-chāyā (お茶屋) means tea shop or teahouse.

With all that being said, we met up with another old high school friend, Wendy, for brunch.

On top of the regular menu, Chhaya offers daily specials written on a black clipboard in chalkboard marker.

Lisa and I both had a cup of tea -- an earl grey blend with lavender. I thought the tea bag holder was very clever.

I ordered the eggs en cocotte from the specials board -- baked eggs with wilted greens, cheese, chives, and brioche points. While the baked eggs were quite good (can't ever really go wrong with baked eggs), the brioche points were what made this dish so awesome. They were the perfect vessel on which to eat the baked eggs -- buttery, thick, and flaky.

Lisa had pancakes with strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries. Chhaya has bragging rights to arguably claim that they make the fluffiest pancakes in Philly. But don't let the fluffiness fool you -- they are very filling!

Dani had the huevos rancheros waffle from the specials board -- cornbread waffle, salsa, black beans, avocado, chorizo, a fried egg, and hollandaise. This dish ultimately combined the best breakfast options of all time -- huevos rancheros (Dani's favorite), eggs benedict (because of the hollandaise), and a Belgian waffle (only made from cornbread). Needless to say, this was the best dish we ordered that morning -- who can say no to avocado, chorizo, a fried egg, AND hollandaise all over a waffle?! Loved this refreshing twist on huevos rancheros.

Wendy had crepes with blueberry compote. The crepes themselves were super crispy -- you can tell by their browned edge, and the confectioners sugar meshed well with the thick blueberry compote, adding a sweet-and-tart taste to the warm, crisp crepe.

Me with Lisa, Dani, and Wendy at Chhaya.

Findings: Overall, the brunch menu offered at Chhaya was quite variegated and equally delicious. For such an intimate cafe as itself, it was nice to be able to choose from a relatively wide selection of things, even in a given brunch category (many types of waffles, pancakes, and crepes), along with the creative specials offered daily. The price point was also very reasonable (about $10-15 per person) along with the wait time (it wasn't too crowded, even at prime brunch hour and if all tables were full, the next available table would be ready shortly). I also liked that brunch at Chhaya isn't super pretentious and "scene-y" as it seems to be in New York City. Sometimes it's okay if you don't want to get sloshed at brunch hour, especially if you just want a nice hot beverage with some really heartily delicious brunch fare.

Price point: $6-12 for each brunch main course, $2 for each cup of tea.

--July 22, 2012

Chhaya Cafe
1823 East Passyunk Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19148

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Food for Thought | George G. Foster

“Every thing is done differently in New York from anywhere else -- but in eating the difference is more striking than in any other branch of human economy.”
--George G. Foster
from New York in Slices, Slice XVII: "The Eating Houses," 1849.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Dinner | Matyson

A little weekend trip brought me back to Philadelphia, where Lisa and I visited our dear friend, Dani, who happens to also be a fellow foodie. Our evening plans initially were for a tasting dinner at Vetri, but by the time we finalized our plans, tables there were all booked up. Fortunately, we had a Plan B (though in retrospect it didn't taste like a fall-back plan at all, considering how awesome it was!) -- dinner at Matyson, a BYOB restaurant near Rittenhouse Square. With two bottles of wine in tow (a bordeaux and a moscato d'Asti), we were ready to chow down.

Chefs Matt and Sonjia Spector opened Matyson in 2003. Immediate success ensued with the restaurant's "refined cuisine and cozy atmosphere. Though the couple departed for Napa Valley four years later, they left the restaurant with their younger cousin, Chef Ben Puchowitz, who had been working as a line cook since the restaurant's opening, as he and his father, Butch Puchowitz became full owners. Ever since, Matyson has become "a pioneer in the hugely popular BYOB scene in Philadelphia" with a cuisine that is "considered to be hyper-seasonal New American." An interesting part of the restaurant is its weekly five-course tasting menu ($45!), offered from Monday through Thursday, showcasing whatever is fresh and in season, with themes ranging anywhere from lobster to vanilla.

Although we didn't have a chance to check out the tasting menu due to it being a Saturday night, our dinner a la carte was quite lovely. We decided to start with three appetizers followed by two entrées, all to share so we could get a taste of everything. Our waitress was really helpful in guiding us through the menu as well as through several specials unlisted on the menu.

If breakfast and foie gras were to ever cross paths (like how it did at Norma's), this would be the resulting hybrid of flavors. Perhaps a loose take on a typical order French toast and bacon, the seared foie gras rested atop a slice of French toast (made using banana bread) with a drizzle of coffee maple syrup then surrounded by a crescent of hazelnut purée and sprinkled bits of serrano ham. The richness of the foie gras melted into the browned, eggy French toast with each bite, as it all soaked up the coffee-infused maple syrup which brought it all home. If cholesterol and calories weren't vital to clog-free arteries and my health, I would want this for breakfast every day. I mean, c'mon! Look at the charred side of that lobe -- how can anyone say no to that?!

Just when we thought the breakfast theme was over, our collective breath was taken away with the veal sweetbreads. Served with fingerling potatoes, a delicately poached egg, bits of fatty guanciale and black truffle over a bed of frisée, the veal sweetbreads were a lovely addition to what would've just been an extremely dressed up rendition of bacon (only here, it's Italian) and eggs (only here, it's poached and truffled) with home fries (only here, they're fingerlings). Battered and fried, the sweetbreads were savory and had that awesome textural quality to it -- that je ne sais quoi that draws most people to sweetbreads. Once we pierced the poached egg so that its yolk would bleed over the fingerlings and sweetbreads, it was very girl for herself. We savored every single bite until there were none left.

The last of our appetizers was one of the specials offered that evening -- roasted quail with wax beans, slivered almonds, and (heirloom) tomatoes. The bird was roasted to a nice brown crisp, and the meat itself was juicy and tender. The medley of wax beans (crisp and crunchy) and tomatoes (like a piece of fresh fruit) underscored the flavor composition in this dish, with the almonds added for a noteworthy textural contrast. Another wonderful starting choice!

For our main course, we decided one seafood and one meat would be the way to go. For our fish course, we chose the Alaskan halibut because we were super curious about the accompanying ingredients (in particular, the chickpea noodles). Kind of like an abbreviated bouillabaisse, the halibut was surrounded with cockle clams and a mix of vegetables (smoked tomato, eggplant, and shishito pepers) in a tomato-based broth. The broth itself was very flavorful, as the shishito peppers gave it a sweet-and-spicy kick and the infused herbs enhanced it overall, giving life to an otherwise blander halibut. The chickpea noodles (along with actual chickpeas) were also very good, the noodle's texture resembling that of a chickpea -- a very awesome alternative to the traditional starches of bread or rice. We really admired the ode to the classic fish stew here as well as the creativity behind the ingredient choice.

For our other main course, we went down the poultry route with the Long Island duck breast with baby carrots, turnips, charred corn, and fig sauce. The flavor pairing of figs with duck isn't anything new, but the charred corn was what set apart this from any duck we've had before. Broiled or roasted, the corn had these burnt bits on the outside of its kernals, adding a dimension of smokiness to the medium-rare, thickly sliced duck breast. In addition, the baby carrots, besides being incredibly adorable due to its petite size, and the turnips were as al dente as vegetables can be, too. The problem I typically run into with duck is that it tends to be dried out or overcooked, but this was not the case at all at Matyson. Yet another win for the night! :)

Though we were on our way to being completely stuffed, there were certain items on the dessert menu that could not be ignored or turned away. So yes, we got three desserts to share amongst ourselves. Look below -- could you really blame us? I say you can't! :P

My request was for the chocolate Kahlua mousse cake with coffee chantilly (i.e., sweetened cream) and hazelnuts. I should have remembered that it was a mousse cake, not at all a dense chocolate cake, because when it arrived to our table, I pretty much expected a rich, flourless chocolate cake. So imagine my own shock (all self-inflicted, of course) when I took a bite of this -- it tasted uncooked! But then I suddenly remebered -- it's supposed to have that texture! It's whipped chocolate mousse shaped into a cake! While my initial confusion melted away with each bite of mousse cake and a tiny dollop of coffee chantilly, I came to enjoy this dessert. Little did I know what the other desserts would have in store for us -- they were even better than this!

Dani had her eye set on the mint ice cream sandwich with chocolate sauce. This had the two of us distracted for the rest of the evening. The mint ice cream part of the sandwich was definitely homemade, as you can taste the bits of fresh mint used in its churning. It was also impressive how the ice cream stayed intact during the course of our nomming our way through this course -- it barely even melted a bit, yet it wasn't SO frozen that we couldn't pierce chunks from it to eat off our forks. This dessert was so different that the usual desserts you see at restaurants of haute cuisine, making our dining experience that much more refreshing and novel.

Lisa's choice was the fig brown butter tart with mascarpone ice cream. While Dani and I were investigating the mint ice cream sandwich, Lisa had her way with this intense, little tart. Savory out of our dessert choices, the tart unraveled its flaky layers as we pieced through its outer shell. The mascarpone ice cream balanced out the savory nature of this dish with something a little creamy and sweet, while the fig flavor from the inside of the tart was also a little sweet and tart. Needless to say, there were barely any crumbs left.

Dani and me at Matyson.

Dani and Lisa at Matyson.

Findings: Overall, Matyson proved to be a wonderful little gem tucked away in a surrounding block near Rittenhouse Square. Our experience with the food alone proves it to be a "pioneer in the BYOB scene" -- the dishes we had were easy to pair with a couple bottles of our choosing. It also was easy on our wallets -- something I'm not very used to with the restaurant scene in New York City, as a good BYOB restaurant (i.e., one with no liquor license or one with no corkage fee regularly) is quite hard to come by. Anyway, the culinary talent found inside the kitchen at Matyson is really something else -- Chef Ben Puchowitz really has a gift for crafting seemingly effortless dishes that have so many flavor stories to tell (e.g., breakfast for dinner takes an unexpected approach than you'd ever though possible). Rarely do I leave a restaurant saying that I loved every single dish. And by loved, I mean that if I were to go back again I wouldn't change one thing at all -- I would order everything the exact same way. If I concentrate enough, I can almost remember the seared foie gras dish bite for bite. This memory is starting to escape me, so I better return back to Matyson for an encore and to see whatever else Chef Puchowitz has hidden under that toque of his.

Watch out New York City -- Philly just might have something over you (and by something, I am referring to this stellar BYO and many others, of course).

Price point: $13-18 for each appetizer, $27-28 for each entrée, $9 for each dessert.

--July 21, 2012

37 South 19th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Brunch | August

Last weekend, Marcus and I made another brunch date (seems like it may turn into a regular thing! :P) at August, another gratuitous recommendation from Kris for its brunch food and outdoor patio with a glasshouse roof.

August offers pan-European cuisine, with "influences spanning from the Mediterranean to northern Europe" and "an emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients."
View of August's wood-fired oven and grill as well as its outdoor patio in the back.

Not only does the restaurant's name share the same name as the month, it also means "respected and impressive" as well as "stately, grand, majestic, and lofty." The restaurant sets your expectations before you're even seated!

Inside the outdoor patio -- look at the generous pour of natural light!

Marcus had the grilled steak and eggs -- skirt steak with two fried eggs, salsa verde, and toast. Runny eggs, flavorful cuts of steak, and toast to sweep it all up -- very simple, and the usual steak-and-eggs dish. Only thing we would say about this dish is that there needs to be a little more skirt steak.

I had the wood oven-baked eggs en cocette, Alsatian-style with bacon, onion, and crème fraîche. Just like the tarte flambée (i.e., an Alsatian thin crust tart with crème fraîche, onion, and Applewood-smoked bacon) I had at The Modern: Bar Room, these baked eggs essentially had the same "Alsatian" ingredients only with eggs obviously in breakfast form. Definitely one of the best combinations in an egg-centric brunch dish that I've ever had, and eating it all up over two slices of thick artisan toast made it even more delicious. Aside from the Alsatian-style, August also offers a Roman-style (i.e., tomato and mozzarella) and an Andalusian-style (i.e., chorizo and blistered peppers) -- all part of its pan-European cuisine, of course.

Findings: As far as brunch is concerned, August is a wonderful place to go if you're looking for a simple brunch spot that serves really good fare. The wood oven-baked eggs are especially noteworthy as the restaurant really does have a wood-fired oven in which these eggs are baked. On top of the good food is the ambiance. It is very laid-back and relaxed -- not the kind of overpretentious, scene-y brunches for which New York City is almost famous -- and the crowd there is very unassuming. Plus, you have the option of dining "outside" in the restaurant's outdoor glasshouse patio where you get the fantastic illusion of "dining al fresco" without the pounding heat, wind, or mosquitoes.

August is already on my list of regular places to brunch now, so go check it out! Thanks again to Kris for the great rec!

Price point: $12-19 for each brunch main course.

--July 14, 2012

359 Bleecker Street
New York, NY 10014

Friday, July 20, 2012

Dinner | Dovetail

Lisa and I had dinner last week at Chef John Fraser's Dovetail of the Upper West Side. It was a dinner inspired by a very generous Gilt City deal offered to its members a couple weeks prior -- a four-course dinner (appetizer, vegetable, main course, and dessert) with reserve wine pairings along with an exclusive kitchen tour offered at 40% off original price ($105 per person compared to the original $175). I had been there three years ago for an impromptu solo lunch for Restaurant Week (a three-course meal there for $24.07 wasn't too shabby at all!). Instead of the typical watered down courses that result from the guise of Restaurant Week (and usually, accompanying unattentive, unfriendly service), I remember how much I was impressed at the high quality of dishes that came from the kitchen and onto my table for lunch -- it was really amazing, so much so that if I had gone back with no knowledge of the menu, I'm certain I would not be to discern that my afternoon meal had come from the Restaurant Week prix fixe menu. That's when you know a restaurant is a quality one -- when they "make it work" without compromising quality, craft, and taste. Ever since, I'd been yearning to go back to see what the dinner scene would be like and how the four-course prixe fixe would fare.

Here's another restaurant whose name is intriguing to the my inner word nerd -- dovetail, to fit together easily -- to go alongside scarpetta, alinea, recette, il pittore, and jewel bako. My philosophy is that if a chef/kitchen/restaurant puts as much thought into its moniker as it does into its cuisine and menu, there's a lot to be said there. It means they're committed to the entire dining experience, and that to me, sets one restaurant apart from the rest.

It's so interesting how restaurants change from the afternoon into the evening, given that none of the décor has changed, only the ambient lighting and any natural light that trickles through the windows (that is, if there are). It had garnered a contemporary yet comfortably warm dining room where the acoustics are well balanced and the party you're with can hear every word you utter. The lighting wasn't too "romantic" either, which I give props for because I think dimmed lighting is overrated. I like to see my food (as does my DSLR's lens, haha), thank you very much! :P

Other side of the dining room at Dovetail.

Dovetail offers "contemporary American cuisine and creative use of seasonal, farm-fresh ingredients" by way of Chef John Fraser. He began his career in Los Angeles followed by some time over at The French Laundry under the mentorship of Chef Thomas Keller, which lead him to explore global haute cuisine in Paris in the kitchens of Taillevent and Maison Blanche. Chef Fraser finally arrived to New York, he opened a Greek trattoria called Snack Taverna, and two years later wound up at Compass. Eventually, in 2007, he opened Dovetail for which he has received three stars from former New York Times restaurant critic, Frank Bruni as well as one star from the revered Michelin guide.

An amuse-bouche courtesy of Dovetail's kitchen started off our dinner -- a grapefruit panna cotta with a champagne gélee and black caviar. The panna cotta was a little too tart for our liking, but the sweetness from the gélee and and the brinyness from the caviar were able to keep it a bit grounded.

Shortly after, we were given a bread vessel (not sure what else to call it, haha) with cornbread and multigrain crackers. Both were light on the stomach while satisfying our initial cravings for something salty.

Alongside the bread were these miniature fried rice balls topped with truffle aioli. These delectable bites left us wishing for more. We could have eaten about twenty of these each, not at all becoming sick of them. They were the perfect mix of fried goodness, truffled earthiness, and creaminess.

Another amuse-bouche followed -- house-smoked trout with caviar and horseradish buttermilk sauce. This was one of those combinations which really needed to be eaten together, no part of any ingredient left behind. The trout, which actually tasted salmon more than anything, was on the fishier side (it being smoked and all), but the horseradish buttermilk sauce clouded its pungency nicely and the pearls of caviar (when they could be popped -- those little suckers had a tough membrane for some reason) helped, too.

As my first course, I had the squid a la plancha (i.e., grilled squid) with snow peas, black garlic, and strawberry-rhubarb jam. Surprisingly enough, I don't believe I've consciously had rhubarb before so this was a first for me. The "red celery" that had seemed so foreign to me turned out a wonderful flavor pairing with the charred pieces of squid and the sweet strawberries. The squid itself had a favorably chewy consistency, making it easy to digest. I've had my fair share of squid, but I don't believe I've ever had it with an enhanced sweetness as it was done here. Good stuff!

Lisa was a tad bit more adventurous and instead had the rabbit and foie gras terrine with terrine with fennel mostarda, romaine, and breakfast radish. We're both clearly fans of foie gras, but when it comes to rabbit, it's a territory that had gone unexplored by Lisa and one to which I've become very averse. It's wayyy too gamy for me, but Lisa, given her affinity for liver patés and game, wanted to give it a try. I told her it'd probably be the best time to try it as it's mixed in with foie gras, so it'll soften the taste a little so she could get acquainted with it without becoming too overwhelmed. Honestly, I was concerned because when the dish arrived, it didn't come with the usual toasted brioche -- it was just straight-up terrine. Fortunately for Lisa, she really enjoyed it and could finally say that she did in fact like rabbit. The accompanying ingredients on the plate went really well with it as well.

Wine pairing-wise,we had the same pairings regardless of our course choices. We started off with {3} a multi-vintage white sparkling wine (a champagne blend of pinot noir, chardonnay, and meunier) from Lombardy, Italy produced by Quattro Mani. {2} Next came a 2010 riesling from Rheingau, Germany produced by Rüdesheimer Klosterlay of Josef Leitz designated as Kabinett for our first course. {1} Then for the second course, we were given a 2008 chardonnay from the appelation Chablis of Burgundy, France produced by Château de Béru. {not pictured, see third course for detail} Lastly, for the third course, we received a bordeaux blend of merlot and cabernet franc from the appellation of Canon Fronsac of Bordeaux, France produced by Château Lafond.

The Italian sparkling wine (not a prosecco!) was super refreshing and had a little residual sugar on the palate -- crisp and bubbly with a tinge of sweet (not super dry) was the perfect way to start -- Lisa's favorite of the evening. The next (my favorite) was one of the best riesling's I've ever had -- it had the perfect balance of depth and sweetness (pretty semi-dry) where it didn't cloud the food with which it was paired with too much. I usually run into the problem where the riesling by the glass is either too sweet or way too dry (same issue with sparkling wines). Dovetail was able to find a happy medium for these two very different wines, and our first two courses were better for it.

Another reason why Dovetail is awesome -- because I had run into serious choice paralysis with deciding on my first course (seems to be a recurring theme for me -- oh Western problems, hahaha), our captain quickly solved this for me by letting me choose my second course from the appetizer section of the menu instead of the designated vegetable section. I shamelessly went with veal sweetbreads with celery, cherries, and hazelnuts. Thank you, Dovetail, for letting me break the rules of dining etiquette. The cut of sweetbread made it easy to slice into bite-sized pieces for sweeping up the au jus mixed with the caramelized cherries. The savory and fatty characteristics of the sweetbread were countered by the warm and tart cherries, the nuttiness from the hazelnuts, and the green crisp crunch from the celery. Simplicity in ingredient choice matched with the thorough understanding of interplaying flavors is undoubtedly Dovetail's strong suit.

Lisa, who didn't deviate from the rules as I did, had the ricotta gnudi with truffles, broccoli, and parsley as her vegetable course. These little balls of ricotta gnocchi (gnudi meaning nude gnocchi) were super creamy and melted against the warmth of our palates, oozing with glorious truffled goodness. The summer veggies brought the gnudi back down to earth (pun intended!) -- fresh, juicy, and delicately crunchy. Please don't be fooled by the little beauts -- they're quite rich and heavy, so tread with caution. You'll be fuller than you thought before the third course arrives!

As for the wine pairing, the chardonnay wasn't necessarily noteworthy -- it didn't have the same flavor profile effect as did the first two for Lisa or myself, more on the blander side. Definitely tasted better with the above two courses.

For my main course, I had the aged sirloin with beef cheek lasagna and king trumpet mushrooms. Thumbs up on the sirloin (aged to a marbled perfection) and the lovely king trumpets, not so much for the beef cheek lasagna, which could've done without the tomato-and-cheese-lasagna-part. It was a little too cheesy and heavy for me, especially with the beef cheek being on the hearty side of things like short rib meat.The tomato-and-cheese was more distracting than anything, detracting from the flavors of the beef, au jus, and mushrooms which were not at all Italian-pasta-like in that regard. Perhaps if the beef cheek was served just braised off to the side with mushrooms or something, then it would have appeared more cohesive. Nevertheless, the simplicity in the preparation of the aged sirloin in and of itself was what made it so delicious, so I'm still glad I went this route with my third course.

Lisa had the pistachio-crusted duck with cauliflower, chai curry spice, and wineberries. There was certainly a lot going on with this dish, but one thing was for sure -- the duck itself was super tender at medium rare with a nice textural contrast and flavor complement from the pistachios. The cauliflower was interesting (with South Asian influences), and the tartness from the wineberries gave everything a fruity undertone. I felt the portion of duck was pretty fair and generous. Overall, the duck is a main course to consider!

A close up of the cute little side dish Lisa prepared for me so I could try her dish.

Lisa with her third course and our fourth wine pairing, the bordeaux blend of merlot and cabernet franc. We both enjoyed this red with our meat-centric dishes, as it was a nice balance of the two different grapes that created a soft, velvety taste without being too tannic. A great red overall.

For a palate cleanser, we were given a cucumber and lime sorbet. Very tart and refreshing in an odd way -- but nevertheless, it did the trick.

For tea, I got a cup of the Wood Dragon oolong from Nantou County, Taiwan, and Lisa got the Genmaicha green tea from Shizuoka, Japan -- both were soothing digestifs.

For the last course, dessert, I had the sour cherry consommé with toasted rice créme brûlèe, ginger, and black sesame. Undoubtedly Asian-inspired flavors, the tartness of the cherry consommé blended well with the savory aspects of the rest of the dessert's components. Very much like a créme brûlèe with a berry drizzle, only reversed. The ginger was not as subtle as I anticipated but somehow it worked well.

Lisa went with the milk chocolate gianduja crémeux with strawberries, hazelnuts, and olive oil ice cream, a lovely combination of sweet, tart, nutty, and savory at a chilled temperature. As I'm more of a dark chocolate person, I felt the milk chocolate was a little overpowering sweetness-wise, but I imagine for lovers of milk chocolate, there are no reservations with this dessert course. The strawberries did well to soften the sweetness on the palate. For those who like simple desserts, this is the way to go.

To conclude our meal, we had some mignardises, which included a peanut butter and jelly macaron, a blueberry milk chocolate truffle, salted brownie, and a lychee pâté de fruit with the last two being our favorites.

Findings: Overall, our dining experience at Dovetail was very solid. All of our course choices were great, and there wasn't any one dish that we didn't enjoy -- a feat that is pretty hard to accomplish with us. I definitely see two Michelin star potential here with Chef John Fraser, especially given the beautiful execution of the dishes both in flavor and presentation. You really feel comfortable dining there with the service being attentive while knowing when to leave its patrons be. Another noteworthy aspect of our experience was the wine pairings -- they worked out really well with our menu choices, and that in and of itself makes it almost imperative to return for next season's menu change. All in all, Dovetail makes for a restaurant where you're guaranteed to have simply delicious food, wonderful pairings, and lovely service.

Price point: $105 per person for a four-course prix fixe dinner via Gilt City, not including gratuity.

--July 12, 2012

105 West 77th Street
New York, NY 10024

Gilt City
Dovetail four-course dinner deal was available here*!

* This deal is no longer available, as the event was sold out and has passed.


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