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November 29, 2007

New York, Day III

Dominic Armato
The afternoon of day three in New York was a little less food-focused than days one and two, but we dropped into a couple of nice little spots while cruising around midtown. Checking out the Time-Warner Center, we hit the recently opened Bouchon Bakery. Even an hour or two after the lunch rush, Thomas Keller's high brow food court offering was sporting a 15-20 minute line at the takeout counter. I hear they have some rather nice sandwiches, soups and salads, but we just made a quick stop for pastry. Good stuff all around! We used to live right above a fantastic French bakery, so it's possible I wasn't as wowed as I should have been, but pain au chocolat and an eclair were both right on the money and straight-up traditional as they come. A bacon cheddar scone and zucchini brioche were less traditional, but no less excellent. I don't know that it's worth a significant detour, but if you're in the neighborhood and looking for something sweet, it's a great place to stop. I look forward to sampling the more substantial fare at some point.

Dominic Armato
Leaving Columbus Circle, we waltzed across the southern edge of Central Park on a coffee quest. These were no aimless wanderings. My father was introduced to Bottega del Vino earlier this year by an Italian friend of ours, and he swore up and down it was the best macchiato he'd had outside of Italy. I should mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that a friend of a friend of my father's has some manner of interest in the place, but let me assure you that this was no errant claim. Coffee, like wine, has inspired its own little subset of food fanaticism, so I'll leave the dissection of the various notes, hints and aromas to those who have sampled more brews than I have. I will only say that this is probably the first cup of coffee I've had on this side of the Atlantic that didn't leave me pining for the coffee of Italy. Bottega del Vino is also a full-service restaurant, and one that looks rather nice, at that. But that, again, will wait for another visit. We had to save room for dinner at an old standby.

Dominic Armato
New York is home to an obscene number of Italian restaurants. And from what I hear, most of them are pretty damn good. I'm not really in much of a position to say, however, because I've been to precisely one -- Cafe Fiorello. I'm sure it isn't the best Italian to be found in the city. The odds are against it no matter how good it is. But Cafe Fiorello was the location of my first dinner in New York, and I've always found it so warm and inviting and flat-out delicious that it's really difficult to stay away, especially when I haven't been in nearly four years. It's a "not too anything" kind of spot -- lively but not too loud, informal but not too casual, comforting but not too rustic, quality but not too expensive -- the perfect place for a great, satisfying meal that isn't a big production. In short, the perfect place for a relaxing dinner on our last night out without the little fellow.

Dominic Armato
Cafe Fiorello's biggest strength, arguably, is a jaw-dropping antipasto bar. I almost hesitate to call it such, since a "bar" of anything conjures up images of forlorn items under heat lamps and public health hazards. "Spread", though crude, might be a little more appropriate, since you stare slack-jawed at a vast expanse of antipasti of every kind while a server patiently awaits your selections before filling your plate for you. Going to Cafe Fiorello simply to make a meal of antipasti is an entirely legitimate endeavor. There are about two dozen selections that rotate on a daily basis, and at times I've toyed with the idea of working my way through the entire table in one sitting. It might require a midday fast and a couple of like-minded companions, but it's entirely doable. This is a quest upon which I've not yet mustered the discipline to embark, but one must have goals. On this particular evening, I selected some Tuscan white beans, lightly dressed and tender yet toothsome, a bold caponata overflowing with sweet and sour, and caramelized fennel that might have become the sole component of my entire dinner if I hadn't already ordered.

Dominic Armato
My ladylove had one of their excellent pizzas, paper thin and the size of a manhole cover. When I say paper thin, I don't exaggerate as much as you think. Cafe Fiorello's is, by far, the thinnest pizza I've met. I don't note this as an indication of excellence, merely a statement of fact, yet excellence abounds. It's simple, fresh, vibrant, and one of the lightest pizzas you'll ever meet. Don't let the surface area fool you into thinking you'll need help with it. Sadly, an old favorite, the lobster and truffle pizza, seems to have been removed from the menu. Thankfully, my favorite dish remains. Cafe Fiorello does a dynamite veal chop Milanese. It's pounded out to the size of a serving platter, more a function of its thinness than the size of the chop, and served bone-in with lightly dressed arugula and tomato on top. This, for me, is the veal Milanese by which all others are judged. They season it beautifully, keep the meat moist and tender and the breading crisp, and dress it up just a touch without gilding the lily, I love this dish.

So in the end, this particular trip ended up being as much about the greatest hits as it was about new exploration. My hope is that there won't be a similarly long break before my next trip, so that I don't feel obligated to return to the old standbys and can branch out a little more. I dunno, though... two dozen antipasti may prove to be Cafe Fiorello's siren song the next time around. And it'd make a helluva blog post.

Bouchon Bakery
Time-Warner Center
10 Columbus Circle
New York, NY 10019
Mon - Sat11:30 AM - 9:00 PM
Sun11:30 AM - 7:00 PM
Bottega del Vino
7 E. 59th St.
New York, NY 10022
Mon - Fri8:00 AM - 11:00 PM
Sat9:00 AM - 11:00 PM
Sun10:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Cafe Fiorello
1900 Broadway
New York, NY 10023
Mon - Fri11:30 AM - 1:00 AM
Sat10:00 AM - 1:00 AM
Sun10:00 AM - 11:30 PM

November 28, 2007

Thanksgiving with Skillet Doux

A brief interlude before I finish up the last New York post.

I'm always torn at Thanksgiving. It's the ultimate comfort food holiday, and I always feel like I should just be making the best damn turkey and stuffing I can muster. But then I get in front of the stove and start messing with things. I'll do a traditional Thanksgiving one of these years. But this year, it was my first Thanksgiving in the kitchen after a long layoff and we were only serving four, so I figured I'd seize the opportunity to pull out the stops. Some hit, some miss. But I actually took some notes this time around, so I'll post a recipe or two next week.

Field Greens with Apple Cinnamon Vinaigrette and Candied Pecans
This was mostly borne of my obligation to serve something green and my unwillingness to add another complex dish. I candied some pecans, then reduced down some apple cider with a lot of cinnamon and used that as the base for a sherry vinaigrette. Simple and good.

Corn and Crab Pudding with Old Bay
An ode to our temporary home. I was pretty jazzed about this one's potential, but let's just say you won't be getting this recipe. I steamed up six beautiful blue crabs for the meat and made a great stock to use as a base, but it just came off all wrong. Too eggy. Too intensely crabby. Too dirty tasting. There's a good dish in there somewhere, though. Maybe I'll revisit it at some point.

Potato Pavé with Ancho Chiles and Roasted Garlic
This one turned out quite nicely. It's a Trotter base (russet potatoes, sweet potatoes, cream, salt -- gotta love it), to which I worked in the garlic and chiles. And it's always fun to break out the mandoline.

Pork Tenderloin with Bacon Apple Stuffing and Spiced Cranberry Sauce
The big winner of the evening, even if the photo doesn't do it justice. I somehow managed to channel '70s food mag photography here. At any rate, I kept the stuffing simple (apples, bacon, bread, stock) and focused on the sauce. The sauce was a port reduction with shallots, cinnamon, cloves and allspice, blended with cranberries and finished with some homemade chicken stock and plenty of butter. And some of the leftover candied pecans from the salad were a nice garnish. The sauce turned out fabulously. I will post this recipe.

Maple-Jack Glazed Quail with Squash Stuffing and Poblano Cream
I told my sister-in-law they were Andean Pygmy Turkeys. I think I had her for about two seconds. Or maybe she was just humoring me. In any case, I love stuffing little birds for Thanksgiving. This one is an old Iron Chef Squash recipe. The stuffing is something of a mishmash, with cornbread, squash, chorizo, goat cheese, garlic, vegetables, thyme and marjoram, but it works. The sauce is just roasted poblanos and cream, and the glaze is maple syrup and whiskey. Some toasted pepitas for garnish, and these fellas are golden.

I don't have a photo, but I also did the candy cap cheesecake from Iron Chef Mushroom for dessert, albeit with a revised sauce. This one gets a recipe for sure. Nothing like watching people picking their plates clean only to inform them that the only seasoning in the cheesecake is mushrooms.

Recipes shortly. But first, back to New York.

November 26, 2007

Jean Georges

Dominic Armato
Jean Georges is a special restaurant for me.

When it comes to art appreciation, there are watershed moments when a virtuosic work opens your eyes and causes you to see the form in ways you'd never before considered. This, for me, was my first meal at Jean Georges when I was about twenty. It wasn't my first exposure to fine dining by any means, but it was my first exposure to fine dining of such an exceptional caliber. The impact on my conception of what food could be was incalculable. To this day, I'm uncertain whether Jean-George's style is perfectly suited to my palate, or if it has rather served to shape my palate over my seven or eight visits since. But in either case, I'm continually astounded by the dishes that pass my way while sitting in this temple of fine dining. I'd managed to snag a coveted reservation at Per Se, but with a table opening at Jean Georges, Mr. Keller would have to wait for another time (he's crushed, I'm sure). It had been three and a half years since my last visit to New York, and I couldn't stay away.

It's pretty much a given that a classically trained Alsatian chef who has worked extensively in Asia is going to have the key to my heart, but there are plenty of guys splitting time between both ends of the Eurasian continent about whom I don't get all starry-eyed. With the caveat that no artist should be so readily pigeonholed, I think there are three attributes that typify Jean-George's style. First, he's incredibly precise. Of course you don't earn three Michelin stars without exceptional attention to detail, but this is food that swings towards the OCD end of the spectrum. Everything is meticulously and minimally prepared and plated, and through various interviews, intentionally or no, Vongerichten has made it abundantly clear that he's obsessed with detail. There is also his exceptional creativity. Vongerichten doesn't embody the kind of exhibitionist whiz-bang madness of chefs like Grant Achatz or Michael Carlson. Rather, his unusual techniques and pairings work so well and seem so natural that it's almost easy to overlook just how unusual and innovative they are. But what truly sets him apart, I think, is the perfect clarity, simplicity and intensity of every flavor in his dishes. His ingredient lists are surprisingly short, but every ingredient is present, every ingredient has a clear and conscious role to play in the dish, and above all, every ingredient sings. Other chefs create dishes with starring and supporting roles, some meant to grab your attention, others meant to quietly blend into the background. But in a Jean-Georges dish, there are no quiet ingredients, and yet he somehow achieves total harmony between them. I've never once had to wonder what's in a dish that makes it so delicious. It's all right there for you to see, which makes it all the more remarkable.

Dominic Armato
The formal room at Jean Georges has recently been renovated, with all of its tall backs and sharp corners replaced by low, curvy, flowing leather chairs. The classy modern feel is still there, but it's a little warmer and less austere than it once was. The menu structure, however, remains the same. In addition to the prix fixe, there are two tasting menus, the Jean Georges menu and a seasonal menu. Wonderful as they are, I've done the greatest hits three or four times now, so we opted for the autumn menu. This started with an amuse trio. First, we received a tuna tartare on a cracker of crispy tapioca with a dollop of dashi emulsion. The tuna was undressed but absolutely pristine, and the emulsion took dashi's sea essence and condensed it, giving it the right amount of punch for a palate-awakener. Next up were more traditional fall flavors, a clean but intense chestnut broth with a small wild mushroom raviolo. And a Kumamoto oyster with sherry vinaigrette foam rounded out the starter. All three were potent, clean and simple -- the perfect way to start.

Dominic Armato
Our first official dish, though the least exotic, may well have been my favorite of the evening. Half-cooked sous vide egg yolks were sandwiched, along with fresh dill, between thin slices of toasted brioche and topped with a healthy dollop of caviar. For those who haven't yet encountered them, sous vide egg yolks are getting to be a trendy fine dining ingredient, perhaps bordering on trite, but this is the best use of them I've encountered by far. With the use of an immersion circulator, eggs are poached in the shell at a low temperature such that the yolk takes on an unusual semi-solid consistency but retains much of its raw yolk flavor. Egg and caviar are as classic as they come, but this concentrated egg yolk flavor is particularly well-suited to a mountain of briny caviar. The dish was a new take on a classic flavor profile, with modern technique taking it to a new level of luxuriousness. This was one of the best dishes I've had this year.

Dominic Armato
Like any other chef, Jean-Georges has his pet ingredients and recurring themes, and kanpachi sashimi is definitely among them. My last visit, I had one with a wasabi granita that blew my mind. This take wasn't quite so remarkable, but it was still a beautifully creative way to approach kanpachi. The fish (perfect, of course) was paired with a grapefruit and cherry jus that was both tart and sweet. The microplaned component you see is candied pecans, shaved down to a fine powder, and the greens are micro chives. The accompaniments were strong enough to assert themselves but not so that they overshadowed the fish. Apart from the occasional clumsy neo-maki, you hardly ever see raw fish and fruit working in concert. This particular dish worked so well, it makes me wonder why not.

Dominic Armato
I'm hesitant to call any dish I've ever had at Jean Georges disappointing. After all, "substandard" can be a little misleading when the standard is set so high, especially since I've only had one or two such dishes out of the fifty or sixty I've tasted there. But if there were one dish that didn't quite live up to the awesomeness of the rest of the meal, it was this one. Here we have little peekytoe crab fritters -- miniature crab cakes of a sort -- that sit atop a tart, fresh, cool green apple puree and are garnished with freshly grated wasabi and some assorted micro greens. I'm wholly sold on the combination of crab, tart apple and wasabi. Especially since it was honest-to-god real wasabi. I'm always a sucker for temperature contrast, and the cool apple followed by the mild flavorful sting of real wasabi is wonderful. But something about the fritters struck me as a touch clumsy. They were just a little too heavy and I thought they buried the crab a bit. That's probably being overly critical, but I'm a Marylander now. I'm supposed to be picky about these things. In any case, it was still a great dish, just not great.

Dominic Armato
It would seem that Jean-Georges is developing an affinity for grapefruit. Small wonder, given that it can be a rather complex little citrus fruit with a lot of character. It's nice to see something generally relegated to a breakfast plate getting some play. In any case, our next dish was a perfectly grilled piece of black bass. It sat atop a light sauce of ruby red grapefruit juice combined with sesame oil, and a remarkably potent tarragon puree. Caramelized radishes and an herb garnish completed the dish. This was a dish that typifies Jean-Georges. Fruit and nuts, sure. Apple and wasabi, that follows. But grapefruit, sesame, radishes and tarragon? Seriously? And yet they work together so smoothly and seem such a natural combination on the plate that if you didn't stop to consider the ingredient list, it would never strike you as unusual. Whether it simply works on its own or Vongerichten is making it work, I'm not sure. But I don't see anybody else doing it.

Dominic Armato
Poached lobster with tapioca and Gewurztraminer foam is another Jean-Georges template off of which he frequently riffs. I believe this is the third variation I've had on this dish, and each was remarkably distinct. One made me downright giddy. But I think this may have been the most sophisticated of them all. The lobster was sitting atop a base of saffron-flavored tapioca, as well as diced root vegetables. Topping the Gewurztraminer foam was a ring of passion fruit sauce. When I've had his other variations on this dish, they were sweet, light and aromatic. But here the saffron provided just a little exotic spice while the root vegetables, especially the beet, had a grounding effect that made it just little more robust and sophisticated while maintaining that airy lightness embodied by the foam. In typical Jean Georges fashion, there was a lot going on here, but every flavor was distinct, pure and intense. A beautiful dish.

Dominic Armato
It isn't exactly Jean-George's style to butter up some pumpkin and throw a ton of cinnamon on it, but he got a little closer to what some consider autumn flavors with our last savory course. Sliced venison loin sat atop braised kale, and was accompanied by quince puree, a touch of chocolate sauce and crushed cocoa nibs with some dried chiles for heat. The dish reflected that warm, spicy, robustness of fall while still maintaining the kind of clean, light touch that Vongerichten employs. Incidentally, this was some of the most spectacular venison I've ever had, by which I don't mean the composition of the dish (though that was excellent), but the meat itself. I don't think I've ever had a venison dish where the flavor of the meat itself has come through as boldly as it did here. I suppose this was the most conventional of the dishes we had. Game meats with fruit and chocolate have become conventional enough. But this really was an exceptional rendition thereof.

Dominic Armato
One of the other things I've always loved about Jean Georges is how dessert is handled. Rather than choosing a dessert, you choose a theme around which four desserts are based. Usually it's a common ingredient, but "Autumn" was also an option on this particular visit. I couldn't pass on apple, though. I'm unclear on how involved Jean-Georges himself is involved in the desserts, but I thought these were really lovely -- more so than usual, actually. I was instructed to start in the lower right, with a brûléed apple compote, pine nut cake and tamarind ice cream. Moving on to the lower left was one of my favorite flavor combinations, an apple and fennel sorbet topped with candied fennel frond. Next was the upper left, an apple fritter with Saigon cinnamon, perfect texture, sweet and crystallized on the outside, apples on the inside cooked just enough to release their flavor while still maintaining their substance. And the entire dessert was washed down with an apple soda chaser.

Dominic Armato
My ladylove, on the other hand, had no trouble resisting the apple and sticking with the autumn theme. I only had fleeting tastes of a couple of these, but I thought you'd like to see them nonetheless. The first, in the bottom left, was a purple potato cake with persimmon sorbet and some manner of berry puree. Moving to the upper left was a pumpkin mousse with a ginger spiced cake and a pomegranate tuille. Top right was quince with parmesan and some type of custard, and bottom right was a simple pomegranate sorbet. I have to say, it was wonderful to be back. I approached this meal with a little bit of trepidation. It had been nearly four years since I'd visited, and I've tried an awful lot of foods in the interim. I wondered if Jean Georges would have the same impact on me that it once did. I'd say it wasn't the same, but it wasn't any less. I found myself less astounded and more appreciative. Everything was just as delicious as I remembered, but the details meant more to me this time around. One thing is certain, and that is that Vongerichten hasn't lost a step. He's the same as he ever was, turning out stunning dishes with creative pairings and perfect execution. Jean Georges is one of those fine dining restaurants that, if I had the means, I'd love to visit once a month just to always be on top of what the man is up to. He's one of the few true geniuses working in food today, and I hate the thought that some of his creations are coming and going and I'll never know them.

Jean Georges
1 Central Park West
New York, NY 10023
Mon - Fri5:30 PM - 11:00 PM
Sat5:15 PM - 11:00 PM
Sun12:00 PM - 2:30 PM

November 15, 2007

New York, Day II

Dominic Armato

I'm a little unclear on precisely what happens if you do, but based on the signs posted around the restaurant, the stern warning of the fellow handing them out and the looks of horror on the faces of the patrons surrounding us when we discovered an extra ticket lying on the ground, I can only presume it's nothing short of tar and feathering. Or maybe just a $50 charge. Pick your poison, really.

We kicked off day two in the heart of deli central. Houston Street just east of Allen is home to two of New York's most famous, Katz's Delicatessen and Russ & Daughters. I've wanted to calibrate my deli meter for quite a while now, so these two were at the very top of my New York hit list.

Dominic Armato
Much as I consider my hometown of Chicago second to none when it comes to good eats (New York included), I like to think I can objectively identify a weakness when I see one, and deli food is one of the most glaring examples. And much as it pains me to admit it, a decade ago when I was living in Los Angeles, I spent a lot more time at Jerry's Famous than I did at Langer's (I was but a wee food lover then -- be kind). Long story short, while I've spent quality time with some pretty decent corned beef and smoked salmon over the years, my exposure to the best of the best is somewhat limited. It's hard to know what's good until you have some frame of reference, so I couldn't have been more excited about having an opportunity to develop said frame.

Dominic Armato
Katz's was the first stop, and if there were any doubts (there weren't), they were immediately put to rest the moment we set foot in the door. Katz's oozes authenticity. Check that -- Katz's screams authenticity. On a Saturday afternoon, at least, it's a total zoo with as many people standing in line and hunting for tables as there are people actually sitting to eat. Tip for those seeking seating: It's New York -- be aggressive. Once you're past the initial sensory blitz, Katz's is immediately recognizable as one of those places completely lost in time. If you eat cafeteria style, you take your little brown passport to whatever server or cutter is handling your desired foodstuff, where it is marked for tallying at the register on your way out. If you opt for table service, the fellow taking your order will be clad in a powder blue smock that went out of style, if it was ever IN style, three decades ago. Either way, you're surrounded by wood paneling and linoleum, you're seated under fluorescent lighting and the folks at the next table are practically in your lap. Whether you find this charming or distressing depends largely on your point of view, but count me in the former camp.

Dominic Armato
All of this means nothing, of course, if the food doesn't hold up. I couldn't get behind everything I tasted, but Katz's nailed it where it counted. Sides like the potato salad and cole slaw were decidedly old-school, no-frills and really creamy. Steak fries did the job but weren't anything to get excited about. Standard deli fare for my ladylove is a bowl of chicken soup, preferably with matzo, and here Katz's disappointed somewhat. The matzo was, as advertised, exceptionally fluffy and light, but the broth left something to be desired. It had a round, mellow base that I assume was thanks to the vegetables involved, but it lacked that salty chicken intensity that plays so well off matzo. The stars of the meal, unsurprisingly, were the corned beef and pastrami. Hand sliced and exceptionally moist and tender, what I enjoyed most was the lightness of the cure. There wasn't the slightest hint of the tough texture and slick feel that seems to come along with a heavier cure. They both had a fresher, meatier taste than what I'm accustomed to and I loved it. I found the pastrami to be especially revelatory. In stark contrast to the garlicky punch of the pastrami at my new neighborhood haunt, the seasoning rub and smoke on Katz's pastrami is really quite mellow, a beautifully smooth complement to the meat.

Dominic Armato
Stuffed full of beef, we walked a few doors down to check out Russ & Daughters and get a fish fix. R&D is a counter deli rather than a sit down establishment, and for four generations they've been known as one of the finest purveyors of smoked fish in the city. The shop is jaw-dropping. Decked out in gleaming white tile, there are glass cases along both walls that contain about a dozen types of smoked salmon and an equal number of other types of smoked fish, to say nothing of the case that's devoted to pickled fish and assorted salads and spreads. Additionally, they have a rather extensive selection of caviar, as well as all of the bagels and fresh cream cheeses you could need, assorted pastries and chocolates and a front window filled with a variety of stunningly beautiful dried fruits. It's the kind of market I'd love to devote a full week to, coming back for three meals a day to slowly taste my way through everything they offer. Under the circumstances, especially given our level of meat saturation, I think we did admirably.

Dominic Armato
After conferring with one of the fellows behind the counter, we walked out with five varieties of smoked fish and later did a tasting back at the hotel. First we tried their Gaspé Nova lox, which absolutely redefined smoked salmon for me. It was gently cured and smoked, with a smooth, clean flavor and not the slightest hint of underlying harshness that I've encountered with other smoked salmon. It was pure, silky salmon with a light smoky accent, and while it was good enough to eat in quantity all by itself, on a bagel with cream cheese it was like creamy salmon butter. It was shockingly good. Being a fan of belly cuts, the other salmon I picked out was the belly lox, but this I found overwhelmingly salty, even when cut with a little cream cheese. An acquired taste, I'm sure, that I've yet to acquire.

Dominic Armato
Next, we had some sturgeon which I thought was best all by itself. Smoked but not cured, the sturgeon was unbelievably fresh and moist, a pure expression of the fish with a hint of smoke. This was another universal hit, and perhaps my favorite of the lot. Rounding out the cured fishes, I picked up some sable, dusted with paprika and cured and smoked a little more aggressively than the others. It was a little strong on its own, but on a bagel with cream cheese the beauty came through. This was the most complex of the lot, quite smoky and a little firmer in texture. Another big winner that I'd have a hard time passing on next time around. Lastly, my father lit up when he saw whole smoked chubs. They invoked memories of childhood, I believe, so we brought one of those back as well. The belly portion was quite fishy -- a little too much so for my tastes -- but the side was quite lovely, with a firm but yielding texture and a little more grungy character than the cured and smoked fillets.

After this feast, it was a miracle we had room for Jean Georges, which really needs a post of its own. More soon.

Katz's Delicatessen
205 E. Houston St.
New York, NY 10001
Mon - Tue8:00 AM - 9:45 PM
Wed - Thu8:00 AM - 10:45 PM
Fri - Sat8:00 AM - 2:45 AM
Sun8:00 AM - 10:45 PM
Russ & Daughters
179 E. Houston St.
New York, NY 10002
Mon - Sat9:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Sun8:00 AM - 5:30 PM

November 14, 2007

New York, Day I

Dominic Armato
Three and a half years is really longer than any red-blooded American food nerd should go without dropping by New York, and my list of places to hit has been steadily growing during that time. But one of the benefits of relocating to the Eastern seaboard is that one of the best eatin' burgs in the union is now just a quick jaunt away. So when my folks said they'd be in Manhattan for an extended weekend and asked if we'd like to join them, my ladylove and I packed up the little fella along with approximately 437 pounds of little fella accoutrements and hopped on a train heading north. Traveling with family and infant makes it a little more difficult to maintain the kind of breakneck pace I'd ordinarily maintain while cruising a food town, but my family lovingly humored my ambitions and we managed to hit a number of good spots over our three days in Gotham.

Dominic Armato
Our first order of business on day one was to stop by the Bergdorf-Goodman men's store to drop in on an old friend. Social calls aside, however, I had an ulterior motive for this particular location. Tucked away in a corner of the top floor of the men's store is what I've always considered to be a little gem of a lunchtime spot, Cafe 745. Decked out in black and white marble with room for about 20 well-heeled lunchers, Cafe 745 doesn't do anything revolutionary. It's an upscale salad, soup and sandwich shop (a weakness, I confess) that isn't especially long on creativity, but excels when it comes to execution. Everything is crisp, fresh, meticulously assembled and beautifully presented. It probably costs a few more bucks than it should -- the beautiful people tax, no doubt -- but it's still a reasonably priced spot that I have a very hard time staying away from.

Dominic Armato
For starters, you have to love a place that offers perfect traditional deviled eggs as an appetizer. I'm a sucker for deviled eggs, and Cafe 745's are as straight-up traditional as they come, tart and mustardy and perfectly fresh. There are more interesting starters to be had, but this is one of my faves. Another is an excellent pea soup that's notable for its potency. Though I believe both stock and cream are present, they're used very sparingly and the soup is only lightly blended so as to maintain some texture. The result comes across more like a bowlful of fresh green peas than a soup. Though the salads are many and varied, on this particular afternoon I went the frisée, crab and lobster route. Finely chopped and dressed with both a sherry vinaigrette and a touch of thousand island, it's light and refreshing and doesn't bury the shellfish. My vague memories tell me that the Gotham Salad is also fantastic, but confirmation on this will have to wait until the next trip, I suppose.

Dominic Armato
After lunch we shopped Fifth Avenue (browsed may be more accurate) and spent a couple of hours walking around the Museum of Modern Art, thereby earning ourselves a mid-afternoon snack. My recent obsession with xiao long bao led me to the uptown outpost of XLB specialists Joe's Shanghai. While I'd very much like to return to Joe's for a more comprehensive review of the menu, this particular visit was a surgical strike. We got a double order of the XLB (listed simply as "pork dumplings" on the menu) and went to town. Comparing these to the specimens I recently sampled in China probably isn't fair, but I'm going to do it anyway. I thought Joe's buns were enjoyable even if there were a few annoyances that detracted from my enjoyment. For starters, they were freaking volcanic which, on top of making them exceptionally difficult to eat, also meant that much of the flavor didn't come through. Like many foods, the flavor of xiao long bao shines at a certain temperature, and apparently that temperature isn't "scalding". Once they'd cooled somewhat, they were much better. Second, the skins weren't as strong as some others I've tried and, unlike their Chinese brethren, they were served on chopped cabbage rather than a flat surface, which meant that half of them broke and disgorged their contents upon removal from the steamer. Lastly, the flavor itself, while quite bold, was kind of grungy and not as clean as I would have liked. To be clear, however, these are still great XLB -- probably the best I've had in the States. They're just suffering a bit at the hands of stiff recent competition.

Dominic Armato
With such a substantial afternoon snack under our belts, I was the only one with an appetite when 9:00 rolled around, and I found myself looking for a late night spot near the hotel. When I discovered that DB Bistro Moderne was a mere two blocks away, that pretty much sealed it -- I was going for a DB Burger. Not that I was just itching to spend $32 on a burger, but how do you pass up the perfect opportunity to sample Daniel Boulud's ode to beefy decadence? The answer is that you don't, of course, so I made a late reservation to sit at the "bar" and set out for what would probably be the most expensive hamburger I'd ever consume. "Bar" was perhaps a little misleading. The restaurant is divided into a front and a back room, and the busy corridor that connects the two is where I was seated. There were no libations of any kind, just two small high tops, two large communal high tops, a constant stream of servers and very little light (so forgive the photos). Unexpected, perhaps, but not all bad. It's a pretty boisterous place, so aside from the elevation and the added foot traffic it wasn't significantly different from the regular seats.

Dominic Armato
Despite being a solo diner, I thought it nice that they opted to start me off with a bread basket and not one but two amuses, both of which I rather enjoyed. As I've found is typical of Boulud in my limited experience with the man, these were no nonsense dishes. Boulud's food is firmly rooted in his French background and doesn't get too cute. The first amuse consisted of diced, roasted root vegetables suspended in a beef gelée and topped with a mild horseradish cream. Cold and refreshing, yet undeniably beefy, it was a lovely way to start. The other amuse was even more conventional. I received two small cannelles, one of olive tapenade and one of eggplant caviar, served with small garlic toasts the size of a quarter. In another context, you might get a bowlful of the same and a loaf of bread and dunk away, barely giving them a second thought. But the delicacy of the presentation here forces you to really focus in, savor and appreciate the dish.

Dominic Armato
You'd think I would have started with a light salad, or perhaps a small sampling of pâté, so as to better leave myself unencumbered for the entree ahead. But no, only an idiot such as myself would choose a thick, rich, creamy soup as a lead-in to the most famously decadent burger in the world. But what can I say, the artichoke velouté just hit me in the right place. At least it did on the menu. It was, as any good velouté should be, a wonderfully pure expression of creamy artichoke, with just a touch of basil oil as an accent and a small toast with tomato confit as a refresher. But I found it, oddly enough, wanting for salt. Personal preference perhaps, and excellent nonetheless, but it fell just short for me because of it. No matter. My primary objective was hot on its heels.

Dominic Armato
First, allow me to apologize, both to you and to Daniel Boulud, for what may be the least appetizing photo in the history of Skillet Doux. Trust me when I say this doesn't do the sandwich justice by a longshot. The infamous DB Burger arrived, accompanied by a cone of pommes frites. Notably, it also came with three small pots of condiments -- ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise -- immediately indicating that despite its lofty pedigree, this is still a burger. In case you've missed it, the DB Burger is a sirloin burger that's stuffed with braised short ribs, foie gras and truffles, and served on a parmesan bun. I expected a decadent gut bomb. The DB Burger was not what I expected.

For starters, it's small. Well, not small, but by burger standards it's by no means oversized. The patty is extremely thick, as you can see, but it's about the size of a baseball, and the bun was barely four inches across. More notably, the flavor was not at all what I expected. Yes, the short ribs lend a moist, succulent core. Yes, the foie gras adds an unusual level of richness. Yes, the truffles and parmesan serve to accent the beef. But what surprised me was how subtly they were used. I didn't get the sense that I was eating a crazy rich mishmash of a burger variant, but rather that I was simply enjoying one of the most succulent, juicy, supremely beefy hamburgers I'd ever tasted. Despite its high-falutin' components, the DB Burger is one that I'm convinced even the most staunchly traditional burger lover could get into. The description may be fancy, but its spirit is not. As for the price... well, let's just say that while I think the setting and components mean the $32 is justified, that doesn't necessarily mean I think it's worth it. I enjoyed it a lot. I'm glad I had it. But when I return to DB Bistro Moderne, I'll be trying something else.

745 Cafe
Bergdorf-Goodman Men's Store
745 5th Ave.
New York, NY 10151
Mon - Sat11:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Joe's Shanghai
24 W. 56th St.
New York, NY 10019
Mon - Sat11:30 AM - 10:30 PM
Sun1:00 PM - 10:30 PM
db Bistro Moderne
55 W. 44th St.
New York, NY 10036
Hours vary absurdly every day
Check their website

November 12, 2007

24 Stories Above Times Square

Dominic Armato

More shortly...

November 08, 2007

Pit Beef Prologue

Dominic Armato
You'd think this would be a total gimme.

My love for that most Chicago of beef sandwiches, the Italian beef, is deep. It abides. I ate them in quantity last year. And now here I am, a new resident of a city that considers a different type of beef sandwich, the pit beef, one of its signature foods. What's more, the pit beef is most typically produced in the same kind of borderline grungy little grub shacks that produce most of Chicago's great Italian beefs. Switch the sandwiches, beam people from one city to the other and nobody would be the wiser. You'd think I'd be feeling a special kinship with the good people of Baltimore. You'd think I'd be flying all over the city devoting the kind of obsessive attention to my adoptive beef sandwich that I did to my hometown beef sandwich. You'd think, over four months into our tour of duty out here on the East Coast, that I'd have written about the pit beef by now. But with all due deference to my new neighbors, and with the understanding that I have to try a lot more of these things before I can address the subject in an educated fashion, here's the thing:

I just can't get all that excited about pit beef.

Dominic Armato
In simplest terms, a pit beef is a large chunk of beef that's lightly seasoned on the outside, grilled over a cool fire, sliced thin and served on a kaiser roll. In practice, it's a little more involved, but not much. Most good pit beef places will let you select your level of doneness. The condiment bars are often vast and varied, but the most popular topping appears to be raw onion and horseradish or tiger sauce (horseradish and mayo), followed closely by heavy, sweet barbecue sauce. I kicked things off by visiting Chaps Pit Beef, which would seem to be the most renowned and respected of Baltimore's pit beef institutions. I sampled multiple sandwiches with multiple toppings at multiple temperatures, but the thought that kept coming back to me was, "Yeah... it's a good roast beef sandwich."

Dominic Armato
That might be a little unfair. Great care goes into their preparation, the char on the outside can add a nice bit of grungy character if you get enough of it, and there's always something to be said for stripped-down simplicity. But still... it's a good roast beef sandwich. Sometimes fairly tough, not terribly exciting, but a good pile of fire-roasted beef. Certainly worthy, and something I'll crave from time to time, but worth building a twelve part beef sandwich sequel on? Tough sell. Of course, I'm well aware that the biggest names in town aren't necessarily the best. So I dug a little deeper when searching for another establishment to try, and came up with Bull on the Run.

Dominic Armato
Bull on the Run is off the beaten path. Literally. It's a little red trailer kitchen that's parked on a commercial access road a hundred yards off Washington Boulevard in Halethorpe. The only way to spot it is the sandwich board out on the corner directing you towards "PIT BEEF --->". It's run by a couple of friendly gals who have a large enclosed 'cue on the back of the wagon and a compact but formidable condiment bar right next to the register. Much to my surprise, they're open year-round, which leads me to believe that either that BBQ gives off an awful lot of heat, or the winters in Baltimore will be a breeze after Chicago. In any case, you select your temperature (of the beef, not of the environment in which it's served), dress your sandwich and then retreat to your car to consume your meaty bounty.

Dominic Armato
And lo and behold, this meaty bounty just might be worthy of a beef-off. Bull on the Run's beef doesn't quite share Chaps' charred character, but it had something my Chaps sandwiches didn't -- a bull full of fresh beef flavor. Plus, other differences impressed. The meat still had some chew, but it was tender and every bite wasn't a wrestling match. The onions were sliced paper thin, and while that may seem a tiny detail, I assure you, it's key. Even the tiger sauce seemed a better match for my rare beef, bringing out its flavor rather than merely coexisting on the same chewy bun. I still don't quite understand the fanatical devotion so many seem to have to these sandwiches, but as all of these elements came together I realized that I'd come a little too close to writing them off entirely. I'm still not sold on a Beef-Off: Baltimore, and I need to spend the last couple months of the year better familiarizing myself with the institution. But I'm much more optimistic than I was a couple of weeks ago.

Chaps Pit Beef
5801 Pulaski Highway
Baltimore, MD 21205
Bull on the Run
3900 Block of Washington Blvd.
Halethorpe, MD 21227

November 07, 2007

Faidley's Does Fish

For those who believe Faidley's is a one trick pony -- you're almost right.

I've already seen fit to rave about Faidley's, and rightfully so. Theirs is widely considered one of the best crabcakes in a town that's all about crabcakes. But once you get past their signature dish and the coddies, I wasn't finding much to get excited about. That is until Joe H over at DonRockwell.com steered me in the direction of their fish sandwiches, which I tried twice this past week.

Dominic Armato

Faidley's is not just about the crabcakes. This is a killer sandwich. It's nothing but a fresh piece of fish, battered and fried and stuck between two slices of bread (the slaw and hot sauce were also per Joe's recommendation), but it's perfectly done. It's all about texture and temperature contrast. Cool white bread is followed by a surprisingly crispy coating, which in turn gives way to a hot, moist, flaky fish core. Pictured here is the haddock, though there are a couple of other options as well.

With this sandwich in play, what to get at Faidley's is no longer a foregone conclusion in my mind. It's that good.

Faidley Seafood
Lexington Market
203 North Paca
Baltimore, MD 21201
Mon - Sat9:00 AM - 5:00 PM

November 02, 2007

Six Pounds of Porcine Bliss

Dominic Armato

Oh, man. Where to start?

That'd be six pounds of cured pig jowls, folks. The lack of guanciale in Baltimore was quickly becoming unacceptable. This oughta hold me for a while.

More next week.

November 01, 2007

Despair and Drunkenness

Though some great food came out of it, this last trip got off to a rough start. If you caught last year's post on Peking Garden / Sichuan Garden, you know it's a place I adore. I've been there thirty times at the very least, and with the unusually long break between trips, I couldn't get down to the basement of Pacific Place fast enough. Unfortunately, rather than being met with Peking duck, liquory sweet shrimp and crispy fried conpoy, I was met with a construction site. Peking Garden / Sichuan Garden is no more. Adding insult to injury, the space was being prepared as an expansion of Zen, the restaurant next door of which I've never been terribly fond. As crushing restaurant closures go, this one was a gut punch -- a seventeen on the 1-10 scale.

Dominic Armato

But you have to look for the silver lining, so we grudgingly gave Zen another shot and ended up with a helluva shrimp dish. Drunken Shrimp can mean a lot of different things depending on where you get it, but it always falls into one of three basic categories. Most commonly, at least back home, it's just shrimp that's been stir-fried or steamed with a shaoxing-based sauce. On the other end of the spectrum, which I've not had a chance to try, is a more... challenging preparation. Live shrimp are tossed into a covered bowl with shaoxing and proceed to "drink" it up (though breathe would be more accurate). After about 15-20 minutes, once they're good and loopy, they're cracked open and eaten raw/live. The middle ground, which I attempted last year, involves getting the shrimp soused, and then steaming them before eating. Unfortunately, my shrimp kicked the proverbial bucket before making it to the booze, so it ended up being a more traditional marinade. Enter Zen. It's always nice to let somebody else properly prepare something that you've previously butchered, so when I saw these guys on the menu, I pounced. Hooooooly Christmas, were these fellas tasty. I expected a strong rice wine flavor, but this was a nuclear shaoxing bomb. Couple that with the natural sweetness of impossibly fresh shrimp, and this is one I'll be going back for. A lot.

This tradeoff is still way more downside than up, but I'll take my bitterness and do my best to drown it in wine-soaked shrimp. I hear they have some pretty good Xiao Long Bao, too.

Zen Chinese Cuisine
Pacific Place, 88 Queensway
Admiralty, Hong Kong
+852 2845 4555
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 3:00 PM, 5:30 PM - 11:00 PM
Sat11:30 AM - 5:00 PM, 5:30 PM - 11:00 PM
Sun10:30 AM - 5:00 PM, 5:30 PM - 11:00 PM