Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mario Batali's Babbo

Babbo is *the* Mario Batali restaurant. Known for its bustling scene and snobby waiters, it's been a favorite of hipsters, bankers, and celebrities alike. Oh wait, until Batali bit one of those hands. But we'll ignore that for today.

Chickpea crostini 7/10: Always a good start to a Babbo meal.

I don't know why they make the bread so crusty. It is fun to watch the waiters scape the crumbs away with a spoon instead of one of those folded metal things, but still. It cannot be fun for them.

Who ordered rabbit food! The arugula salad was good, but I dug around for a while before I realized that it was nothing but leaves under there.

Prosciutto 8/10: It's just prosciutto, but perfectly sliced prosciutto. The bread was a little hard.

Marinated fresh sardines 8/10: It's very good if you love sardines. It's nice and soft to chew. The fish taste is still strong, but it doesn't linger, which makes it more pleasant than more aged sardines.

Mushrooms? 5/10: I can't remember what it is! uhoh!

Octopus 8/10: I always thought that babbo had the best octopus ever, but after having had The Harrison's octopus very recently, I actually think that The Harrison has the better octopus! This one comes with a superior limoncello sauce though.

Black pasta with crab 7/10: Their last version of black pasta that Babbo had would have been a 10/10. It had crunchy bits of soppressata and instead of crab, it was rock shrimp. Every version of this pasta I've ever had had a hint of spice... except this one. It was bland and lacking somehow. But can't say that I don't love the al denta strands of squid ink pasta and the big lumps of crab meat.

Mint love letters 8.5/10: As minty as ever. these pieces of ravioli are jammed packed with the good green stuff. I like having this dish in between meat heavy pastas.

Bucatini 8/10: Guanciale or pig jowl is one of Batali's favorite ingredients, and it's not hard to see why. It adds a depth of flavor to the dish, and the fat helps bind the pasta and sauce together.

Basically all of Babbo's pastas are very good. I could eat pasta there all day!

Quail 8.5/10: This portion is bigger than it looks at first glance. There are actually 2 quail in this picture.  Personally I would have found a more harmonious way to plate 2 birds, but I guess it's not anything unnatural.

They're cooked perfectly. The skin was a little sticky and seared, they removed all of the bones in the body, and the sauce on the bottom was tangy and sweet. It wasn't the best quail I ever had, but it was pretty darn close.

Beef tongue 10/10: How many high end restaurants serve tongue and brains (e.g. the calf brain ravioli that we didn't get this time)? So when you come upon one, you must take advantage of it. Tongue is one of the most tender meats on the body, and if it weren't for the horrible habit most people have of trying to visualize what they're eating moving around, it would be a better loved cut.

The meat completely melts in your mouth. The dijon mustard is perfect for the seared slabs of meat. You don't have to go to a special region of Japan for this buttery cut meat, and by lowing, the muscle is naturally massaged every day. Every one of your big macs was once attached to some bovine with one of these. Learn to enjoy it before other people discover it and the price goes sky high.

Veal chop 7/10: I told the person who ordered this that it would be fatty, and it was. Most of Babbo's main dishes are good but not great, and much too fatty for my taste.

If you go, I'd also recommend the ribeye for two or the duck, but the best thing to do is to eat all pasta and maybe share a main.

Babbo was where I had my first bite of homemade pasta, and Batali's cookbook was one of my first. For that I will be eternally thankful. Everything here is done with a certain flair and seriousness that you must take as a given before you walk in. The staff here isn't aren't as fun as Batali on TV, but you have to forgive them for that, because the other issue at Babbo that has been hurting Batali and Bastianich in the news lately is the horrible wages at their restaurants. Although I hate to support a business with such inexcusable flaws, I can't help but visit the iconic restaurant every once in a while. So if you do enjoy it here, remember to tip well. And by the way, because of the labor lawsuit, you can forgetting about bumping into the the Iron Chef.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Harrison

The Harrison is always delicious. It's your perfect friendly neighborhood restaurant with top notch food. But because it's situated within spitting distance of the likes of Nobu, Wolfgang's steakhouse, and Tribeca Grill, it never gets the recognition that it so richly deserves.

Pan fried gnocchi with pesto sauce 8.5/10: When did gnocchi become so good? Maybe this one was a little heavy on the potatoes, but it was still bouncy and soft. The duck confit, tomatoes, and pesto made a great dry sauce.

Soft shell crab 6.5/10: They could have given us a meatier soft shell crab... or more of them. It's a very easy protein to cook, and they did it well, but there was just nothing interesting about the dish.

Octopus 8.5/10; The octopus itself is one of my favorite octopuses. In its many iterations at the Harrison, it's always impossibly tender and well charred. I'm not sure what's going on with the harissa sauce. It was too overpowering.

Parmesan salsa 6/10: Great idea to mix parmesan this way. Not very interesting beyond that.

Cod with yukon potatoes 8/10: or so the menu said. The waitress said brandade, so they must cook multiple fish this way - in a deconstructed croquette with a crusty layer of melted cheese on top. It's a great dip. I could have polished off a whole loaf of bread with this.

Deconstructed romanesco sauce with fava beans and pieces of bread 5/10: It was just a difficult-to-eat cooked salad to me.

Lamb osso bucco 9.5/10: So tender and good. I don't know what those white strips were, but the meat was incredibly tender, the stew underneath was herby, and the chickpeas added more body to the dish. I wish I had found some delicious soft cooked tendon. That would have made my night.

Birffday cake (spelled Birthday cake on the menu) 8/10: It's not just your usual moist chocolate cake with ganache and mouse, but there's some crunchy crispy chocolate bits on top like a rice cracker.  The surprise (because you cannot see a thing on that cake) made the crispy rice cracker thing that much better.

Coconut bread pudding 6.5/10: Too dense.

Chocolate shell with caramel mouse 6.5/10: It was like a deconstructed peanut butter cup. It was clearly better than your regular old peanut butter cup, but nothing made it great.

Deconstruction seemed to be a theme this time around, but for the most part, it worked.

The Harrison is low key luxury. Jimmy Bradley may not be a household name, but he's well respected and rarely misses. Despite the small operation, the menus are constantly changing here. Even the wine list has evolved over the years. Both the innovation and old staples such as the octopus keep me coming back for more.

Monday, April 15, 2013

L'Apicio: L'Artusi's better sibling

I've been meaning to try L'Apicio for some time given all the rave reviews. L'Artusi is a good restaurant. There were certainly some memorable dishes (mushroom and egg and pancetta), but the pasta there was only okay.

L'Apicio, on the other hand, has much better pasta, and I dare say better appetizers too.

Fresh ricotta with rhubarb and multigrain crackers 10/10: This dish was so simple and elegant. Each component was delicious and different on its own, and in aggregate, it was one of my favorite cheese appetizers ever. In particular, the crackers were something special. So sweet and crunchy... if Nature's Valley made this, I climb Half Dome just to eat the crackers.

Warm mushroom salad 6/10: Everything was good, but the combination of frisee, mushrooms, and hazelnuts was somewhat confusing. I could barely taste the hazelnuts.

Octopus 7/10: I have no complaints about the octopus. The fregola (I thought they were lentils but they're actually pasta pieces) were way over salted and over sauced. They were just chewy *things*. And I think we got one maybe 2 tentacles per dish. Were they running of octopus so early?

Ramps, pancetta, and eggs ?: I didn't have it. I just got it because it sounded similar to the signature mushroom dish at L'Artusi, and I figure that it would be good. This NY obsession with ramps is kind of out of control. If you think it's cool to have ramp breath... leeks, chives, and garlic are available throughout the year.

Polenta with rabbit 7/10: L'Apicio is known for its polentas, and I must say that it's better than most of the polentas that I've had. I couldn't really taste the rabbit, and it didn't do much to improve the dish. Maybe I would have liked one of the other polentas better. I would try the calamari puttanesca one next time.

Brussels sprouts 3/10: Someone must have dropped them into the fire. It's not easy to do this by mistake.

Beets 3/10: The beets were covered in this pinkish cheese/mayo sauce - it almost makes me think that it belongs at some random buffet or came out of a plastic box. Even if the problem were just the presentation, it's a big problem.

Mushroom gnocchi 10/10: One of the best gnocchis I've ever had. Gnocchi has the tendency to taste dense or heavy, but these little pillows had just the right amount of bounce and really soaked in the flavors. It had a great balance of potato and starch that I have yet to achieve at home.

Duck Riso 6.5/10: I love risotto, and I love duck. If I were eating by myself, this would have been the 2nd dish (after the gnocchi) that I would have ordered. But it has a strange taste. The duck did not go well with the chorizo. The two flavorful meats were fighting each other, and both completely overpowered the risotto.

Spicy pork sausage casarecce 7/10: Delicious, spicy, al dente. It's a great classic pasta dish. The kick was strong enough that the dish stood out and brought a unique flavor to the table.

Tagliatelle with salumi ragu 6.8/10: This, on the other hand, was a classic, but did not stand out. Also the sheets of pasta folded upon themselves with no sauce to separate the layers, and they stuck a little. I know that happens when I cook pasta, but I don't expect it to happen at a restaurant!

Orecchiette with ribollita ragu: 8/10: I had to look up what ribollita is. It's a Tuscan vegetable soup. The orecchiette was perfectly done, and the bread crumbs were a great touch after having many pastas that did not have a crunchy element. This was one of the better balanced pastas in terms of texture, seasoning, and overall taste.

We were all stuffed after this wild round of carbs, so we didn't have any dessert. If I could have, I would have asked for another round of that ricotta appetizer!

Overall, L'Apicio outshines its older well-established sibling restaurant (I haven't decided on the gender of either restaurant). Sure L'Artusi has its merits (location, location, and egg and mushroom app), but L'Apicio is much more well rounded. The atmosphere is just as vibrant. And I guess the neighborhood is not quite as hip, but it's up and coming, and the only better restaurant I can think of nearby needs to be booked a month in advance.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Landmarc: Throwback!

Landmarc was all the craze a few years ago, and the only thing that's changed about this small neighborhood restaurant... is well the city around it. Like all other hyped up things in New York City, the City loves you, worships you, uses you, and eventually leaves you in the dust (to state it nicely... this is a food blog after all).

Bone marrow 7/10: I don't know where they found a cow with such big bones, but the portions were definitely unnaturally large. They weren't as soft and gooey as other places.

Goat cheese profiteroles 5/10: They were such lonely dollops. They tasted a little heavy, and I don't know the meaning of the salad. I don't want to eat these profiteroles with salad.

Lamb meatballs 6.8/10: They were good.

Chicken liver mousse 8.5/10: It was pretty good mousse! No one wanted to dig into it because of the suspicious container. Even the waiter was confused and tried to remove it untouched.

This is what the mousse looked like inside. The picked onions were great! I think everyone else at the table missed out.

Calamari 5/10: It's just calamari. Kind of boring.

Skirt steak with green peppercorn sauce 7.5/10: If you're thinking that this steak looks like scorched earth, it wasn't bad camera work. It was actually this dark. It was on the medium side of medium rare, but still tender and delicious. The gravy was good. The fries were average diner fries.

Brussel sprouts and sauteed mushrooms 7/10

My neighbors were eating a lamb shank and a rib eye that would not fit on a normal plate. They must have gotten these cuts from the giant animal chunk factory where the bone marrow came from.

Dessert sampler 6.5/10: A bunch of bad desserts sandwiched between a good creme brulee and a delicious blueberry compote.

My favorite course: Cotton candy!! I'm pretty sure that it's supposed to be for children, but I always ask for it anyway. And it's so so good. Double throwback!

There are lots of restaurants like this in Manhattan that are good but not great. Reliable but not timeless. But if they all ended with cotton candy, I'd visit them more often (or maybe just the closest one).

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Cafe China - Michelin must be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of stars behind

First I would like to apologize for the horribly blurry pictures. 7 people were crammed around a rickety square table that was much too high for anything other than building legos. I didn't want to try to stand up every few minutes and knock over everything from water to lamps. Can't say that the ambiance wasn't authentic!

Some of our party wanted to have some authentic Chinese food, and Michelin just recently honored Cafe China with 1 star. It's closer to the center of the city than most Chinese restaurants, so why not?

The walls (and the website) are covered with pictures of Shanghai girls. The menu, however, clearly had a strong Sichuan influence. Confusion.

In any case, we ordered a wide variety of dishes.

Scallion pancakes: 9.5/10: Flakey layers with just the right amount of scallions. I am definitely not there yet with my own pancakes.

Five spice beef: 7.5/10: A little too tough and under spiced.

"Husband and Wife Special" which is just beef tendons in chili sauce. 10/10: We didn't tell people what it was made of, and it was one of the most popular dishes of the night! It was thinly sliced, tender, and the chili oil was delicious.

Dumplings: I didn't eat any. I was disappointed in the plating. It's something that's so easy to make pretty, why pile it into a bowl? I plate my dinners better than this.

Xiao long bao: 8/10 Shanghainese pork dumplings that are filled with soup. The flavor was good and I liked that it wasn't fatty, but there wasn't enough soup. They were also cooked too close together and nearly ripped. It was steamed on paper (which sticks and tears the dumpling!!), instead of cabbage. We also didn't get tongs to pick them up.

Spicy wonton: 5/10 mediocre wontons, mediocre chili oil.

Ma Po Tofu: 2/10. Come on. 1: no ground meat. okay maybe we're trying to be vegetarian friendly, so I let this one slide. 2: Overcooked firm tofu - unforgivable. 3: Not enough Sichuan spice. If I don't feel the heat or the numbness, then we must not be eating mapo tofu. End of story.

Cumin Lamb: 8/10 It was rather delicious. The lamb was thinly sliced and caked with cumin. The serving size was a little small, and we got more dried peppers than lamb. It was almost just as good as the lamb skewers from the cart on the street in Queens. That was a compliment (for those of you who have never visited the cart).

Sliced pork with garlic sauce: 4/10 I've had more versions of this dish than any other dish in Chinese cuisine. The Chinese name, by the way, is "sliced pork in FISH sauce". It's so classic that you can usually order it even when it's not on the menu. It was below average.

Fried rice. I didn't eat it. I didn't need to taste it to see that they hardly added anything other than scallions. I think I see egg, but who knows. 3/10.

Sweet and sour spare ribs 7/10: They didn't say that it was red cooked, and then it was red cooked, so I got a little confused. It was very tender and yummy. But it was red cooked, and therefore sweet and salty, not sweet and sour.

Fish slices 6/10: Another benchmark dish for me. This is just to see how good restaurants are at flavoring delicate dishes, and how fresh their fish is. The fish is fresh, the flavoring is lacking.

Three pepper chicken: 8/10: 3rd properly spiced dish I had after the husband and wife special and the cumin lamb. The heat was truly fun to eat. The dried chilis clung onto that chicken like white on rice. It was very good. But the chicken dried out.

Overall, it was a good meal with great company, and a fun variety of foods. The waiters seemed disinterested, which was a little sad. They looked like hipsters and could have been a little more fun. I hear the Tsingdao beer there is sour tasting, which sounds disturbing.

...and now my rant:

Michelin gave Cafe China 1 star. They must have thought that the benchmark for Chinese food is Panda Express. Allow me to explain. In my silly head, 1 Michelin star as something great that you cannot easily find, and the combination of food, service, and decor, is a cut above the rest. There should at least be some innovation or special ingredients that put a spin on old dishes. 2 stars is supposed to be an *experience*, and 3 stars is supposed to be a *revelation*.

So Michelin, why did you choose to give this Chinese restaurant of all Chinese restaurants a star? Have you not had the husband and wife special and spicy wontons at Taiwan Cafe on a dirty street corner of Boston Chinatown? Or all the Sichuan dishes at Wu Liang Ye/Grand Sichuan/Ollies in New York, where the good dishes taste the same, and some dishes such as Ma Po Tofu is incomparably better? Does plating not matter? Because I'm looking at the other 1 Michelin star restaurants on your list, and their plating is beautiful. Does this mean that you will give Lao Si Chuan in Chicago 3 stars? Give me a farking break, Michelin. Go to China and learn about the food.

If Cafe China deserves one star, then the streets of China should be littered with stars.