Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Crazy Days

Sometimes it's hard to keep up on my blog because I feel a bit like The Scream and that's about all I have to say right now.

Except that I also really wish I had time and sanity to post about some amazing, incredible, chewy, buttery, cinnamon cookies. No, not snickerdoodles. Later.

Friday, October 17, 2008

New York, part 4

After Del Posto, Heidi and I decided to see the Statue of Liberty at night from across the water and take pictures. On the way (sort of), we passed by the New York Stock Exchange during its calmest hours, just days before it started falling apart. The building looks pretty solid, though, so at least that's not going anywhere.

As we neared a very dimly lit Battery Park and saw tons of police officers just hanging around the periphery (though not a foot inside it), I remembered that Battery Park is often used in Law & Order, where all the bad stuff happens at night. We saw a very small, faraway glimpse of the beautifully lit Statue of Liberty, but that was as close as we dared get. So we hopped back on the subway, and that wrapped up our evening.

Day two of two started with a plan to head up toward Jacques Torres soon after it opened (9 a.m.), find some pastries or something for breakfast, and then look around Central Park and the general area before lunch. Instead, as we headed over to the Times Square subway station (a block from the hotel), we walked right into a huge outdoor market that wasn't there on Friday. It was a really nice surprise. Heidi and I really weren't that hungry (surprise, surprise) after so much food the day before, so we split a smoothie from a vendor made from freshly chopped mango, oranges, some pineapple juice, and ice. It was delicious, especially since I prefer to start my day with a smoothie. Then we shopped a bit: I bought a tie for Mark, a cashmere scarf for me, and a pashmina shawl each for Emily and me. I think the total, with smoothie, was about $25. Not a bad deal.

We then headed up to Amsterdam Avenue and the irresistible Jacques Torres chocolate shop, which you can read about here (if you haven't already). (By the way, I've added a picture of the cookies after I made them at home, and they are as delicious as the ones at the store!) After indulging in chocolate, we took a peek at Central Park, looked for some painkillers for Heidi's headache (to no avail), and visited L'Occitane, one of the very best little stores on the planet with several locations worldwide. Though I'm not a huge shopper, if I had lots of extra money, I would probably buy everything in that store. Or online.

After a bit of shopping, we headed over to Trump Tower to lunch at the Nougatine Room at Jean-Georges. Once again, I don't have access to the menu we ordered from, so I'll have to do my best at explaining our selections.

I took a picture of my roll, by the way, because the crumb was so nice. The bread was airy and chewy and slightly crusty, and deserved a photograph.

Heidi and I went for the very affordable $24.07 prix fixe menu, which meant we each ordered an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert. The prix fixe menu was separate from the regular lunch menu and had two options for each course.

For the first course, I had the soup: a spicy tomato broth with cockles and kafir. Cockles would be a small shellfish, like the Irish song "Cockles and Mussels", and kafir would refer to very thin leaves from the kafir lime tree. The tomato soup was poured over the cockles, kafir leaves, and a few other greens at the table, which was a lovely presentation I very much enjoyed. I was expecting and hoping for a light soup, since it was called a broth, but there was definitely a touch of cream (though certainly nothing like 50%). It was very good, and nicely offset the rich chocolate from the morning.

Heidi opted for the salad, Romaine hearts with a balsamic vinaigrette (I think) and spicy pickled plums. They were very interesting, and they packed quite a punch! I thought they were delicious, and I'd love to try making some maybe next year, as they're great for salad. Maybe not so punchy, though, as Heidi couldn't finish the dish due to her burning mouth.

Our entrées were beautiful. Heidi ordered the beef tenderloin (I think it was tenderloin...) served over broccoli rabe and corn purée of some sort. (I don't remember what they called it.) The beef was topped with a black pepper butter. I thought the whole thing was delicious and would have eaten hers had I not been full from mine, but it didn't appeal to Heidi quite as much. In the dish's defense, though, she had a splitting migraine by this time and was not enjoying much.

I ordered the salmon with napa cabbage, bacon, porcini mushrooms, and a miso mushroom broth. It was topped with mustard seeds. It's pictured below as a large picture because it was the very best entrée I had in New York, and I can't wait to have it again. Of course, that may be never, but maybe, someday, I can figure out how to make it. I'm not sure what the fronds and seeds are. Maybe fennel fronds? I think they're a little stiff for that. The mustard seeds were superfluous and did nothing for the dish other than top an otherwise ordinary-looking piece of perfectly medium or medium-rare, whatever is perfect, salmon. Not only was the salmon exquisitely prepared, the Napa cabbage was just perfectly sautéed with the mushrooms and bacon, and the miso mushroom broth was warm and soothing in every way. I loved this dish. Loved it.

Well, to make up for that, our dessert arrived. We both ordered the non-chocolate option, sure nothing could top what we'd had that morning. I don't know why we didn't learn from our trip to Del Posto and go with chocolate, since nice restaurants work hard at perfecting their chocolate offerings. Instead, we opted for something "refreshing". That would be yogurt panna cotta served over a sponge cake, gelato, and minted fresh peaches over a strawberry purée. The peaches and purée were very small but good. The yogurt panna cotta was inedible. Maybe too much gelatin in the panna cotta? Bad yogurt? It really was unpalatable. The gelato was far worse. I couldn't remember what it was supposed to be. Black pepper? Snot? Seriously, it was that bad. It reminded me of the bad additions to Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans in Harry Potter. Horrific is not going too far, I promise. And look at the picture. Is that a pretty presentation? If you think it might be, then, believe me, the camera did wonders for it. It was very unappealing from the moment it arrived. However, by this time there wasn't any space left anywhere in our bodies for food, so we didn't send the desserts back.

Anyhow, I don't fault Jean-Georges. He gave me one of the best entrées of my life, remember? I can forgive him. And the cost of the meal was amazing for a very high-quality restaurant with excellent (if a bit stuffy, okay not just a bit) service.

With the Nougatine Room behind us, the two of us headed out to continue our conquest of New York. We had gifts to buy for our kids, places to see, that sort of thing. We visited Rockefeller Center and the American Girl Place – without our girls – and admired how pretty some of New York is. We also tasted the chocolate at Teuscher Chocolates and opted to return to Jacques Torres for more take-home chocolate and take-home cookies. That was one of our best decisions on the trip.

We had tickets for the broadway show Wicked at 8:00, and we'd certainly had plenty of food since arriving in New York, so we opted to have a really light evening meal. I'd seen a great pizza stand at the food court at Grand Central Station. We headed over ther, where I ordered a slice with sausage and soppresetta or something like that. It tasted very rich for such a thin little slice. I was surprised how strong the meat was, but it was delicious and a great place to get a little pizza.

Then we headed off to Gershwin Theatre and Wicked. Since this is a food blog, I'm not going into that except to say that it was an amazing experience and we were thrilled throughout the entire performance. I wanted to stay in my seat and watch the whole thing again, but I'm pretty sure everyone was going home.

After the show, Heidi and I changed back into our normal digs and took the subway down to Chinatown. Once again, police officers lined the streets, so we were either very safe or not at all, and I chose not to worry. I didn't take my camera to that area, but there's a great disparity in how clean the streets are between some places and others in the city. I suppose that's true everywhere.

We went out for a late night dinner at Wo Hop, a 21/7 downstairs Chinese cafe in Chinatown. (It's closed from 7am - 10am daily.) The sweet and pungent chicken was good (made with large slices of pickles), but the steamed dumplings were really good. They were fist size, filled with a pork mixture, and looked like oversized potstickers. Six large dumplings came on a plate, happily nestled in potsticker sauce, a combination of soy and something sweet, I think.

Exhausted and happy, we returned to the hotel, chatted too long, slept very few hours, and headed to separate airports and back to our families.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

New York, part 3

It's now been nearly a month since New York, and I haven't finished my write-up. What a slacker! Anyhow, to continue...

Heidi and I made a tourist stop Friday afternoon, taking the subway a little out of the way to see Grand Central Station. It's magnificent. It's amazing that such care was taken with a travel station, but I suppose traveling used to be more for the well-to-do. Below are several pictures, which you can click on to get a larger view.

Dinner that evening was at Del Posto, an upscale Mario Batali restaurant. We'd originally planned on dining at Babbo, a very popular Batali restaurant in Greenwich Village, but the only reservation I could get (on the day reservations opened) was 10:45 p.m. Yikes! Del Posto was more accomodating, though I think when I called I must have filled in someone else's cancellation, as 6:15 and 10:45 were my options.

Del Posto was an amazing experience. The waiters were attentive and professional, and were excellent at putting us right at ease. There was no pretension that they were better than we, but at the same time it was clear we were dining at a higher level. A talented jazz pianist filled the room with music – good jazz, because there's good jazz and lounge-type gets-old-fast jazz. The decorations were very classic but elegant, and the lighting enough to clearly see your companion and food, but not all the way across the room. There are several options for ordering, and we chose to go with a menu that would give us several courses, one of which we'd share. (As a note, the menu has already changed so much I'm going to have to do my best explaining what we ordered!)

Before anything we'd chosen arrived, the waiter brought out a small dish with amuse bouches from the chef. They included a whipped mortadella ball and a breaded and fried disk of some Italian cheese. The cheese was good, the mortadella not so much, and I thought it a strange sample of the chef's talents. Still, I felt pampered.

Then a bread basket was brought out with two portions each of five types of bread: a crispy breadstick, a focaccia roll, a rustic white roll, a whole wheat olive roll, and something else. Hopefully Heidi will remember better. Knowing how much food was in store, Heidi and each split a roll and then ate half of what we'd taken, so we could try them all. They were all very good, with an especially excellent crumb on the rustic white, but my favorite was the breadstick. I think it was made with a generous amount of olive oil in it; it had a nice crunch on the outside and the inside was spacious but flavorful and almost pastry-like, nothing like the rustic white. I'd like to learn to make them. If I do, I'll pass the recipe on.

For my first course, I ordered a tuna and beef dish. Those are small cubes of fatty tuna (the kind you'd use for good sushi) and tenderloin, seasoned with herbs and sesame seeds, and accompanied with a mellow, slightly sweet sauce. While the meat was a touch large for bite-size, the flavors were delicious and the tuna melted wonderfully in my mouth.

Still, as much as I loved it (especially the tuna), it was trumped by the horseradish panna cotta on Heidi's plate. This panna cotta was loose enough to nearly be a thick sauce. It was light and delicate and one of the two best things I tasted in New York that wasn't chocolate. It was an accompaniment to her lobster with (I think) a puréed pea sauce that was very nice and fresh but totally masked the flavor of the lobster. That didn't really matter, though, because they could have just put a generous dollop of horseradish panna cotta by itself on a plate and it would have been worth it.

The next course, the primi, was shared, so we each chose an item and they brought one out first on two plates, then followed it with the next. Our first was Heidi's choice: toasted semolina crespelle with sweet garlic, pancetta, and pesto. A crespelle, as we discovered, is a crèpe, and a delicious one at that. I ordered the handmade meat-filled ravioli with browned butter. It wasn't called ravioli, I'm sure, but I don't recall its name. My first intent in going to a Mario Batali restaurant was to try the pasta, to see how it tasted, how thin the noodles were, and know what the texture is supposed to be. Assuming Mario knows, and I think he does, the noodles should be as thin as you can possibly get them, the texture delicate and moist, and the browned butter not too brown. I could have just had a large serving of that for dinner, frankly. In fact, I hope to try to replicate it in my own kitchen, but who knows when, and who knows how long it will take to get my noodles so perfect?

My entrée was roast duck alla scappi with sweet corn polenta, trevisano, and campari. If you're looking at the picture, it's easy to spot the duck and sweet corn polenta. The trevisano is a type of radicchio, which was definitely used in making the bitter and unappealing round of something to the left of the entrée. The campari is a liquor that was used in making the dish, so I'm sure its flavor has been imparted somewhere, but I don't know it at all, so I didn't recognize it. I did learn something, two things, from this dish: 1. Making polenta from sweet corn is a fabulous idea, and I'll have to tackle that. 2. I don't care for duck. It has a very strong poultry flavor to it, and it's tough if overcooked, so thus the medium-rare look, which probably does nothing to diminish the strong taste. Not the best dish, but I still admired how excellently prepared and presented it was.

Heidi ordered an almond-crusted halibut with fresh vegetables and a light sauce. It was very good. I was concerned when the waiter mentioned the dish that an almond crust would be overpowering for the delicate flavors of halibut, but Heidi really enjoyed it. I preferred it without the crust, but it was cooked perfectly, and the vegetables were very nice.

After such a lovely meal, all that was left was dessert. We had just soaked everything in, too. The atmosphere was so relaxing and elegant, and it was rejuvenating to be there for a couple of hours, attended to gingerly by three waiters who knew everything about each dish, including intricate details about its preparation and authenticity. We were offered a cheese plate before dessert, but Heidi isn't a cheese fanatic, and I knew if I sampled them, I might not have room for dessert. Oh, I definitely have to go back.

For dessert, I chose the butterscotch semifreddo, similar to a slightly soft but dense ice cream, which was served with strawberries, cake crumbles, and a milk caramel. The butterscotch flavor was warm and soothing, not overly sweet, and the strawberries were a perfect match. I really enjoy trying items like semifreddo at a nice restaurant because I know what to aim for in my home kitchen. In fact, I sincerely regret not trying risotto in New York, something I was hoping to taste while there for the texture, so I could be sure to get it right here. (I have made it, but I don't know how my texture compares with what it ought to be.)

Back to dessert. It's funny, but when I think of dessert at Del Posto, I have to think for a moment or two to remember what I ordered because what I really think of is Heidi's dessert. I opted not to order chocolate since we'd had a nice chocolate dessert at Mesa Grill for lunch, but Heidi was smart enough to not let that get in the way. Her chocolate soufflé was amazing, and I genuinely think of it at least every few days since we've been back, anxious to replicate it. Her soufflé was served in a smart little demitasse cup, dusted with powdered sugar, and accompanied with an outstanding hazelnut gelato. When it was brought to the table, the waiter broke the top open with a spoon and poured an intense chocolate sauce from a small, delicate silver pitcher inside the dessert. The chocolate was not only intense but smooth and of the best quality. Seriously, the best dessert.

So, of course, we assumed we were done after dessert. Little did we know, there was more to come. (Not enough experience in fine dining?) Our third waiter, who seemed to take over about a third of the way into the evening, brought out confections. He placed two of each on a plate for us to share, and they included jellies, biscotti, something coconut, and a few other things. Nothing as amazing as dessert, but everything interesting and a delight.

That was the entire experience of Del Posto. Everything was smooth and perfectly placed and calming. Heidi and I left feeling better than a day at the spa. It was our most unaffordable meal in New York, but definitely my best.