The NoMad Hotel Dining Room–New York City

Anyone who reads my blog or listens to me on the KCUR Food Critics show knows that my husband doesn’t like to spend a lot of money on “fancy” restaurant meals. So it was with some trepidation that I booked a table at The NoMad hotel in New York to celebrate my son’s birthday last month. I had heard it was a beautiful space and, since we hadn’t been to Eleven Madison Park where owner/chef Daniel Humm made his name, I figured this would be a way to experience Humm’s cuisine on a less formal scale. Not inexpensive by any stretch, but less so than the $195 multi-course meal at EMP.

The dining area is divided into 4 very distinct rooms–The Atrium (the largest and loudest), the Library (a gorgeous bar that serves light snacks), the Parlour (smaller than the atrium but still humming), and the Fireplace (the smallest and quietest). Each room is gorgeous, but I asked for a quiet room in advance because I wanted to be able to have real conversation rather than having to shout across the table. We lucked out and got a table in the five table Fireplace room. I don’t  know if they have a real fire in the winter, but this was summer and the fireplace was filled with candles to create a lovely glow.

Corn with corn cream--The Nomad

My husband was so impressed with the service throughout the evening that he didn’t complain about the hefty bill. Everyone who came by our table (and there were many) had been beautifully trained to provide smooth, knowledgeable and friendly service, not a surprise really since Eleven Madison Park was originally a Danny Meyer restaurant, so Daniel Humm learned hospitality at the knee of a master. But it did elevate the evening beyond the enjoyment of a good meal.

Fluke--The Nomad

Every dish was visually striking and there was an intensity of flavor in each bite. Here’s what we had:

CORN
ROASTED WITH TOMATO, BASIL & CORN CREAM

FLUKE
MARINATED WITH TOMATO-DASHI & LEMON VERBENAP1020068

LAMB
GLAZED WITH ROMAINE, CUMIN & YOGURT Crab and Meyer lemon pasta---The Nomad

TAGLIATELLE
KING CRAB, MEYER LEMON & BLACK PEPPER

SUCKLING PIG
CONFIT WITH PEACHES, ARUGULA & BACON MARMALADESuckling Pig with Peaches and Arugula--The Nomad

CHICKEN
WHOLE-ROASTED FOR TWO: FOIE GRAS, BLACK TRUFFLE, BRIOCHE Roast chicken for two--The NomadChicken breast with truffled mashed potatoes--The Nomad

CHOCOLATEThigh and vegetables--The Nomad
MALTED GANACHE WITH CHOCOLATE FONDANT & MALT ICE CREAMChocolate---The Nomad

STRAWBERRIES
POACHED WITH ANGEL FOOD CAKE, RICOTTA & ANISE HYSSOPStrawberry with angel food cake, ricotta and anise--The Nomad

 

The chicken is the specialty of the house, and is based on a similar dish served at Eleven Madison Park. The entire bird is presented at the table with a flourish, and then taken back to the kitchen where the breast is plated for two, and served with a fricassee of  thigh meat, mushrooms and shallots that is presented on the side in a cast iron vessel. The chicken’s stuffing of foie gras, truffles and brioche transforms what could be a very pedestrian dish into an incredibly rich indulgence.

What we all noticed is that the menu description of each dish paled in comparison to what we ate. To say I ate a bowl of corn doesn’t begin to express the nuances of the dish, either in the  preparation or the presentation, and so it was with everything we experienced that evening.

The NoMad is a treat for all the senses. Without question it was a lovely spot to celebrate a special occasion.

The NoMad on Urbanspoon

Locanda Verde–New York City

Locanda Verde has been on the map for quite some time. This charming Italian hot spot in Tribeca is owned by Andrew Carmellini, who just added The Dutch to his resume. Securing a reservation for dinner is no easy task, so rather than eat super early or late, we opted for brunch. Tables started filling slowly at 11:00 am, but by the time we left at 12:30, the place was packed and people were hanging out on the sidewalk waiting for people like us to abandon our table. To the waiter’s credit, we were never rushed as I’ve heard often happens in New York City restaurants. (In Kansas City would you ever be offered a dessert menu only be told by your server a few minutes later that you couldn’t order dessert because they needed to turn the table? True story…..)

No such issue at Locanda Verde as we took our time settling in and perusing the menu, which had so many appealing options that we couldn’t decide what to order.

At Locanda Verde I only took two photos before I was informed by management that they don’t allow diners to take pictures. That must be a new policy because there are photos of their dishes all over the Internet which, in fact, helped me decide what to order.

We started with Sheep’s Milk Ricotta with truffle honey and burnt orange toast for the table, though we were tempted by the pastries that were beautifully displayed on a nearby counter. The server also brought some very soft and spongy focaccia which we had no trouble devouring.

Moving on, I ordered shrimp and grits with a poached egg, and it was as luscious as the server described. Other dishes at the table included a soft scrambled egg crostini with leeks and mushrooms, wood-fired baked eggs with corona beans, mozzarella and black Tuscan kale, and lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberries and Meyer lemon curd. Not a dud in the group. In fact, everyone was happy and sated when we left, and I suspect a return visit is in our future. It would be hard for me not to repeat the same meal, but the dinner menu looks so amazing, I might try a little harder to score a night-time reservation.

Locanda Verde on Urbanspoon

Empellon–New York City

Empellon is located in the West Village, along one of those cute little streets that makes me think I’m far from the Big Apple. (But could someone tell me how West 4th St. and West 10th St. can logically intersect?) Recently opened by Alex Stupak, the former pastry chef of WD-50 is garnering some nice reviews.

The restaurant consists of two rooms. The front room is disturbingly loud, but we were fortunate to be placed in the back room. Perhaps they seat the pretty people in front, but we lucked out without knowing it at the time. The white brick walls and eclectic art in the back room are also more serene than the wild mural that dominates that scene as you walk in the door.

It may seem too pedestrian, but be sure to accompany your margarita or beer with the chips and salsa.  Four gorgeous salsas come to the table with a beautiful explanation of their ingredients, including chipotle, tomatillos, pumpkin, guajillo chiles, peanuts and cashews.  Try as we might, the two of us couldn’t decide which was our favorite of the bunch.

Ceviches are a specialty here, including black bass with beets and guava puree and big eye tuna with Salsa Mexicana. We opted for an unusual riff, and tried the octopus with parsnip and Salsa Papanteca (with chipotle and pumpkin seeds.)   Though I admired the creativity, it was hard to distinguish the flavors and seemed surprisingly one-dimensional.

Queso Fundido is another appetizer with some intriguing variations. Instead of the typical melted cheese for scooping onto warm tortillas, chorizo, pea tendrils  or mushrooms can be added to the mix. We skipped this, and went right for the tacos, which comprise the bulk of the menu.

We wanted to sample as many varieties as we could, so got the appetizer portion of each. They can be ordered as an appetizer (2 to an order) or entree (3 to an order but still no side dishes).

The scallop tacos were incredible. I thought I’d seen it all when it comes to tacos, and though I’ve made scallop nachos, it never occurred to me to translate that concept to a soft tortilla, rolled up with orange and silky habanero sauce with avocado puree.

Skirt steak is a favorite of mine  in general and this was prepared sous vide (under vacuum) to an ideal medium rare. With garlic and lime mojo de ajo, it hit the spot.

The lamb barbacoa has online reviewers drooling, but we went for the duck confit instead and were not disappointed. (It’s not currently on the menu, so try the lamb!)

Other options for taco fillings include lobster, chicken, pork, sweetbreads and tongue.

My benchmark for this kind of upscale Mexican meal is Frontera Grill in Chicago. Did Empellon measure up? In some respects, yes, though the overall experience was not as transcending. But it’s a nice change of pace from the kind of evening you’d have at Gotham Bar, Gramercy Tavern, Babbo, or Marea.

Empellon on Urbanspoon

The Spotted Pig–New York City

The Spotted Pig is somewhat of an institution in New York City’s West Village, which I’ve concluded is my favorite area in Manhattan. Small, winding streets, some cobblestoned, are lined with quaint retail storefronts and attractive Boston-like townhomes. The Pig has been on the scene since 2003, certainly not as long as many beloved New York icons. But it was one of the first gastropubs so it has a unique spot in the city’s food lore.

Gastropubs are popping up all over the country, but what are they really? A gastropub is a pub that serves high quality food, and no one does it better than chef/owner April Bloomfield, which only makes sense since she hails from England. The Spotted Pig also has a quirky and fun vibe. Walking through the door, it’s hard to know where to look first, there’s so much to take in. An attractive bar is situated in the first of two rooms, rooms that are barely separated by an arched, punched-out brick wall, and all of the tables are crammed close together.  The ceiling is lined with pressed tin, and small porcine figurines dot the restaurant. The restaurant is bigger than it looks at first glance; there’s a second floor full of tables and another bar.  Potted plants overflowing with herbs and flowers cover the walls outside to complete the charming scene.

The menu only has a handful of entrees, but the large assortments of “Plates” (considered first courses or appetizers) range from roasted beets and smoked haddock chowder to soft shell crab and ricotta gnudi.

I was there for lunch, and decided to listen to all of the reviewers who have raved about the hamburger with blue cheese. It was  huge, juicy and heavenly. I don’t eat meat, much less a burger, very often, so when I do it has to be something special, and this was. It definitely lived up to the hype.

We also enjoyed a wonderful pressed Cuban sandwich with slices of pork tenderloin and swiss cheese. I think I detected ham as well, which is a traditional ingredient, but it was definitely heavy on the pork. It didn’t have mustard as a Cuban typically does, but it was loaded with pickles and I got mustard on the side so I was a happy camper.  The burger came with a huge mound of shoestring fries, the ideal accompaniment for both sandwiches.

The Spotted Pig doesn’t take reservations, which is why I went for lunch on a Monday, figuring I wouldn’t have trouble getting a table and I didn’t. I’d love to go for dinner or brunch sometime, but I’m not especially fond of waiting for a table. I suspect it would be worth the patience to go back. If our two dishes were any indication, there’s a reason the Spotted Pig has achieved cult status.

The Spotted Pig on Urbanspoon

ABC Kitchen–New York City

Recently named the James Beard ” New Restaurant of the Year 2011″, this was not an easy reservation to snag. But it was worth the effort to get a table at ABC Kitchen in New York City. It’s in the old ABC Home space and that alone is an enticement. The restaurant employs artisan, sustainable, local and recycled materials on the walls and at the table, marrying beautifully with the food on the plate.

ABC Kitchen is currently the hottest restaurant in Jean-Georges Vongerichton’s empire, with good reason. It’s an incredibly cool-looking space, with a fabulous array of lighting fixtures hung and strung throughout the restaurant. (The overall effect is quite dark, hence my pictures didn’t come out well enough to give you an accurate portrayal.) It’s also a celebrity hot spot–we saw actor Hugh Jackman and magician David Blaine chatting it up with Chef Jean-Georges.

But the food is the real star here. Though the appetizers and salads were more inventive and eye-popping than the entrees, we enjoyed all the dishes we ordered. And the presentation was marvelous.

We started with spring pea soup. The bright Kelly green puree was dotted with fresh peas and had several mouth-watering croutons floating on top.

Having read countless online reviews that the Roasted Carrot and Avocado salad was a must, we followed instructions and were not disappointed. The way the carrots were roasted brought out their sweetness in remarkable fashion which, when combined with the buttery avocado made for an unlikely but lively duo.

The tuna sashimi marinated with ginger and mint was not the best I’ve ever had, but it was silky and refreshing.

There are a number of pastas and pizzas on the menu, and tempted as I was by all of the raves I had read about the mushroom pizza with a fried egg is a real winner, we decided to go for the mozzarella and bread instead. It turned out to be a great decision, as one of the highlights of the dinner was the large bowl of warm, fresh mozzarella covered with olive oil, sprinkled with freshly grated black pepper and sea salt, and served with a spoon and awesome bread.

We also shared fresh cavatelli with guanciale, ramps, spring vegetables and pecorino. Not a complicated dish at all, but deeply satisfying. We fought each other for the last bite.

The two entrees we split were the steamed halibut with mushrooms, asparagus and topped spring onion chili vinaigrette, and black bass with chiles, herbs, spinach and potato. As I mentioned, next time I’ll skip the entrees, which were lovely but not sensational. They just couldn’t compete with the appetizers and salads. I wouldn’t resist one of those pizzas either.

I would, however, have dessert again. The same one. We ordered a sundae with caramel ice cream, fudge sauce and popcorn. Fortunately, it was a huge bowl, though the three of us managed to scrape the sides. What a stellar combination.

My only complaint about the evening is that the hard surfaces and tall ceilings result in a very loud decibel level, making it a bit problematic for easy conversation. But nothing could detract from the meal itself. It was a glowing example of how fresh is best and food need not be complicated to be delicious– culinary artistry at its finest.

ABC Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Momofuku Saam Bar–New York City

In case anyone has wondered what kind of meal really makes me happy, read on.

I am a fan of all things David Chang. His cookbook, which could double as a bookend, holds my attention like a Greg Iles thriller, and the index of recipes conjures up a fantasy of meals to be created.

Each time I go to New York City, I try to eat at one of the restaurants in his empire. So far I have been unsuccessful securing a spot a KO, the tiny 12 seat counter that features a very expensive prix-fixe lunch or dinner, but I am always delighted to visit either Momofuku Saam Bar or the Noodle Bar. (Chang is also chef at Ma Peche in the Chambers Hotel, but its menu is not as off-the-wall or exciting as the original two.)

So, on a recent trip to NYC I found myself at Momofuku Saam Bar to revel in some of my favorites, though we did venture further into the menu this time to try some new items. What I love is that every dish is different and more interesting than the one before and, most importantly, Chang’s creations aren’t what I would usually make  for my family. Yes, I have made the Bo Saam dinner (a slow roasted pork butt with kimchee, special sauces and lettuce for wrapping), but the only dishes from the House of Chang that usually grace our dinner table are vegetable dishes like the charred Brussel sprouts with mint, fish sauce and Rice Krispies (the recipe calls for puffed rice of some kind, but Rice Krispies are a suitable alternative).

We started our lunch with the mussels. Assuming that we expected the mussels to get the traditional treatment of hot broth, our server explained that these are brined and served cold. He was right, that is not what I would have expected, but we ordered them anyway and we were all enthralled. They were served in a Mason jar, in the pickling juice, mixed with kohlrabi, wild spinach and shishito peppers. Grilled slices of bread accompany the dish to serve as a vessel for the mussels and that glorious liquid.

Next came Market Greens with XO sauce. I had mistakenly assumed that meant lettuce greens–rather the bowl was filled with wild greens, including ramps,  which made it far more interesting. XO sauce is a spicy mixture of garlic, chiles, dried shrimp, ginger and grapeseed oil. Sweet, salty and spicy, it packed a punch, but didn’t overwhelm the greens and provided a pleasing counterpoint.

No visit is complete without the steamed pork buns with cucumber, scallions and hoisin, and they didn’t disappoint.

Next up, another new item. David Chang has turned his focus from pork to duck, and there are many renditions of it on the menu, including steamed buns with pulled duck, duck dumplings and duck sandwiches. We opted for the rotisserie duck over rice with chive pancake, ginger scallion sauce and lettuce leaves for wrapping.  It’s essentially a riff on his Bo Saam spread which features the pork butt I alluded to above.  I liked the crisp duck pieces, but the duck slices didn’t send me into the stratosphere.Worth eating, yes, but definitely my least favorite dish of the day.

Lastly, we enjoyed an old favorite–spicy pork sausage and rice cakes–a dish that has to be eaten and seen to be understood. The photo will help explain it, I wish I could do it justice with an apt description. It is incredibly complex, with layers of flavors and textures. The rice cakes are not the dry, sawdust cylinders that they sell  in health food stores, these are chewy and gelatinous, but still boring unless roasted in oil, as they are here. Roasting gives them a crisp exterior while retaining their chewiness on the inside, an irresistible result. Ground pork is sauteed with Chang’s Red Dragon sauce of  dried red chilies, garlic, ssämjang (Korean pepper paste), Sichuan peppercorns, onions and mirin, and tossed with the rice cakes. Crispy shallots are sprinkled on top. Wow.

Fortunately I was with two hungry young men, enabling me to try all of these fun dishes without having to overindulge. Still, I was glad our next adventure was a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and back. After all, I had to work up an appetite for dinner!

Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon

 

Il Mulino Aspen

If you’ve never been to one of  Il Mulino‘s many locations, I have two words for you, “pace yourself”. I recently went to the one in Aspen–the original is in New York, though there are locations across the country and in Tokyo. From the very moment you sit down you will be inundated with food. In quick succession a waiter comes by with a chunk of cheese from a massive wheel of Parmesan, bruschetta with tomatoes and basil, lightly fried and thinly sliced zucchini, salami and a variety of breads. Who needs dinner?

After inhaling all the food set before us, we turned our attention to the menu, a feast in its own right. There’s a mouth-watering list of pastas, along with risotto, fish, veal, beef and lamb. Since there were eight of us, we thought it would be fun to sample several of the pastas, passing them around the table family style. Each of us ordered an entrée as well.

Big mistake.

The waiter brought each of us our own plate of four pastas, which taken as a whole was enough for an entire meal. Whether the waiter misunderstood our wishes and thought we wanted enough for eight, or decided to take advantage of us by giving us double what we ordered,  it’s hard to know.  But the upshot was that we felt compelled to eat the pastas because they were so outstanding, leaving little room for our entree when it arrived.

The pastas included a very light gnocchi with pesto, pappardelle with sausage, a house capellini, and mushroom ravioli. All were excellent but I thought the pasta with sausage led the parade.

Thinking we were only going to have a bite of each of the appetizer pastas, my husband and I ordered pasta for our main dish. Living in Kansas City, we don’t have the luxury of eating pasta of this quality very often, so it seemed like a good bet. With more room in my stomach, it definitely would have been. I ordered a squid ink linguine with seafood in an arrabbiata sauce, which is one of my favorites, and this was as good as it gets. My husband ordered angel hair with the same spicy tomato sauce, and he was equally enthralled. Especially since there were plenty of leftovers for the next day.

Others in our group ordered veal Parmagiana. I have NEVER seen anything as huge. It looked exactly like a 12 inch pizza, only instead of crust on the bottom there was a piece of veal with the bone still attached.

We were all ready to roll out of the gorgeous restaurant when the waiter came by with a bucket holding cold grappa for all of us. He scooped up a glass for each of us with our bill. Nice touch.

Il Mulino’s sleek ambiance and smooth service would make this a restaurant to remember even if the food had been less than stellar. Was there too much to eat? Definitely, but that was partly our fault for the way we ordered, and of course, for the way we attacked the food. Would I go back? In a heartbeat.

Il Mulino New York on Urbanspoon

Maialino New York

For a recent trip to New York, I was armed with a long list of restaurants I was eager to try. 

One of them was Maialino, recently named best new restaurant by Zagat, and restaurateur Danny Meyer’s latest addition to his ever-expanding empire.  And, because pasta is my husband’s favorite food group, it seemed a good bet to satisfy that craving. However, I was not able to get a reservation for the night/time we requested, despite having called 28 days in advance as suggested. (This is standard for a Danny Meyer restaurant, both in terms of protocol  and difficulty in scoring a reservation.)  Rather than move around other reservations, we went for Sunday brunch instead.

A blessing in disguise, perhaps? While reviews of dinner service have been mixed, everything I had read about brunch indicated this was the time to go. Located on the first floor of the Gramercy Park Hotel, light streams in from the expansive windows, smells of rich coffee waff through the air, pastries and breads are piled high on cake plates  and many menu items are usually only found in Rome (where Meyer did extensive research before opening Maialino.)

Baked eggs in spicy tomato sauce are the perfect vehicle for the awesome bread that is brought to the table, scrambled eggs with pecorino and black pepper are light and fluffy, and the poached eggs with turnips and greens form a delightful combination.

To my husband’s delight, pasta plays a major role  at brunch, not just in the afternoon or evening hours. He chose a Roman specialty, Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe, a simple pasta with Pecorino cheese and a healthy dose of black pepper. The other selections include some form of pork, either guanciale or suckling pig ragu (except the ravioli which, like the cacio e pepe, is also heavy on the butter).

Panini, including one on chewy ciabatta with porchetta, arugula and fried eggs, round out the selections. It was substantial to say the least, but the quality of the bread (the likes of which cannot be found in Kansas City), kept me from leaving more than a few crumbs on the plate.

Maialino means “baby pig” in  Italian, so pork is king here. The thick  pepper bacon is more like chewy pork than what one thinks of as crisp bacon, but it works. Salty, fatty and rich, this side dish should be shared  to keep the arteries from instantly clogging.

The olive oil muffins and toffee glazed brioche had been highly touted, so we also ordered a couple of those as well, and we were not disappointed.

The overall effect of the dining room is mesmerizing. The layout is ingenious, with nooks and counters interspersed with  communal tables, tables for two and round tables for large groups. Wine bottles are displayed at one end, wood beams and tile floors complete the look.

For a change of pace from the typical waffle and pancake brunch, you’ll do no better than Maialino, but make a reservation!

Maialino on Urbanspoon

Mario Batali’s Eataly in New York

Wow. I knew it would be worth seeing, but before my visit to Eataly, I could never have imagined such a concept. Billed as an Italian food hall, this endeavor was developed by Mario Batali, Lidia and Joseph Bastianich. It’s a food lover’s dream.Beautiful, beautiful food is everywhere the eye can see–much like Disneyland is for kids, this was for me.

A fishmonger displays the freshest of fish, next to the pasta maker who has just completed rolling sheets of pasta. Next to the gelato counter is a patisserie and coffee stand, and beyond that is a man making fresh mozzarella to put in the cheese case. Hungry for a bite of salami to go with some strong Italian cheese? Pick from an astonishing array of both, and it will be beautifully displayed on a wood tray for you to take to a marble table for a leisurely bite or a quick inhale.

Food stalls and retail sections are intermingled with restaurants and there is seating throughout for both. Pizza is blistered in an imported pizza oven, pastas are whipped up Batali-style, and even vegetables are roasted for light eating. While not an easy place to navigate, especially as the 50,000 square foot space fills up in the afternoon, it’s well worth the hassle  to not only see the whole setup, but to buy a little, eat a little and simply marvel at the extravaganza that these very smart operators have created.