Thursday, January 24, 2008

East Meets West on the East Side

I don't love going to restaurants more than once because of the sheer volume of great restaurants in New York. I almost feel guilty back because it means I'm missing out on trying somewhere new. Since I decided only to write about restaurants I dine at going forward, I made an exception to this rule...since they'll all be new to Miss Menu! So last night, that's just what I did at Chino's.

When I've mentioned Chino's to people in the past, most of the time they've never heard of it, and can't picture having walked past it on 3rd Avenue. But my experience last night was quite the opposite...very memorable. As I mentioned in a recent post, I've been very drawn to tapas/small plates-style eating lately, whether it be Spanish, Italian, or in Chino's case Asian fusion.

My first experience at Chino's was a pleasant surprise...a cool ambiance, creative dishes, and a great value. And last night was no different. We ordered four small plates for two people, and it was the perfect amount of food. They have the service down to a science...bring out the cold dishes pretty quickly, and then after a nice breather, bring out the hot dishes. A much better approach than bombarding a tiny table with too many plates.

Chino's gets it right. They take somewhat typical Asian dishes and give them all really interesting twists. My favorites last night were the Seared Tuna Summer Rolls and Chino's Chow Fun. Rather than being prepared in the typical summer or spring roll style, these rolls were served like pieces of sushi, along with a fantastic green peanut sauce. The tuna was so fresh, and the papaya gave it a great flavor. The chow fun is a complete 180 from the typical chow fun you'd order from your local Chinese takeout/delivery place, with a really flavorful sauce and mix of fresh vegetables.

Chino's is definitely a hidden gem in a neighborhood that lacks great restaurants. So, if you find yourself on 3rd Avenue, make sure you don't walk right past this place next time!

3rd Avenue
b/t 16th & 17th Streets
Menu Pages listing

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Worth the Schlep for this Schmear

While New York is the culinary capital of the country (at least in my opinion), it goes without saying that this city is notorious for two foods that are seldom replicated as well anywhere outside the Tri-state area: bagels and pizza. Rumor has it that this is because of the quality of the water here. I once heard about a pizzeria in LA that has NYC water delivered daily to make better, more authentic NY pizza. But now, we're going to turn our focus to bagels.

There are a handful of bagel/smoked fish places in New york, familiar to both the locals and the tourists. But, it's really exciting to find a new bagel place to add to the list...and that's just what I did. Zucker's Bagels & Smoked Fish just opened this past fall, yet has a feel that suggests it has been around almost as long as such New York icons as Russ & Daughters and Barney Greengrass, which both opened in the early 1900s. Zucker's shares the same owners as the well-known Murray's Bagels in Chelsea, but these two have very different atmospheres.

In addition to a large variety of bagels, the menu runs the gambit from smoked fish to dozens of schmears to deli meats. I went a different route and got an egg & cheese sandwich on a bagel. In most bagel places except kosher ones, you'd normally see bacon or sausage available to go on the sandwich, but since I don't eat pork, I was excited to see both turkey bacon and chicken sausage on the menu too. The bagels were very fresh, and were more on the crunchy side than chewy. I personally prefer more chewy bagels, but Zucker's were still very good.

Zucker's may be pretty far downtown, but it's definitely worth the schlep, especially if you work in the area (very close to both WFC and City Hall), or if you have visitors and are showing them around downtown.

Zucker's Bagels & Smoked Fish
146 Chambers Street
b/t Hudson & Greewich Streets
Menu Pages listing

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Total BBQ Bug-out

As I've mentioned in a past post, the casual, sit-down restaurant is hard to come by in Midtown Manhattan. But I have a few places up my sleeve for when I need a change of pace from the usual deli. One of these was Havana Central, but after my bad experience there last time, the jury is still out if I'll go back. Unfortunately, one of my other safeties Spanky's bugged me out yesterday...literally.

I may not be the typical Southern belle, especially after living in NYC for almost 5 years. Even so, I still love the occasional Southern meal, especially BBQ. Something about that cuisine is so comforting to me. Guess that's why they call it comfort food! There are dozens of BBQ restaurants in the city...some are trendy, some are chains, some are just gross. So, it's hard to find ones that aren't over-hyped, but still serve really good food, with the key to Southern food...a great BBQ sauce. That's why I was so excited to have discovered Spanky's last year. Spanky's had everything going for it...location (1 block from my office), a fun atmosphere, great (and different) food, great prices, and small crowds (despite basically being in Times Square).

So, as I said, I went to Spanky's yesterday for lunch. Everything was going smoothly at first. I usually get the same thing every time...the hacked BBQ chicken sandwich with fries. But, I decided to change it up yesterday and got the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich with a great Cajun mayo. The sandwich was really good, the fries were great as usual, and (possibly my favorite part), the waitress had just brought out refills on our Diet Cokes. I was content. For those of you who may not know, free refills are VERY hard to come by in Manhattan. Quick aside...I learned this the hard way in my first month in New York. I had 2 refills (3 glasses total) while out to brunch one day, and when the bill came, the sodas cost me more than my entree. As much as I love (and am addicted to) Diet Coke, it's really not worth $12!!!

Where were we? Oh right...just as I finished my sandwich, I saw this awful looking bug crawling across my plate. I threw down my sandwich, jumped out of my chair, and screamed. I'm pretty sure the entire restaurant was looking at me. Now, this is New York after all. So, as terrible as it sounds, it's not horribly uncommon to see flies in a restaurant, or maybe even a roach scurry across the floor. But, this was a bug I had never seen before...AND it was on my food.

The bus boy quickly came over and cleared the food away, so noble of him. But, as he walked the plates back to that station where they keep the dirty dishes and condiments, etc., he knocked the bug off the plate, onto the floor, and then stomped on pretty plain site of all the customers. The manager came running over apologizing profusely, and offered to comp our meal. He said that the restaurant was sprayed last night. Seems to me like they need to hire a new exterminator!

Another Midtown disappointment. I'm upset that another one of my favorite work-week lunch spots has to be crossed off the least until I am no longer skeeved out! Guess I better turn to the folks at Midtown Lunch for some new lunch inspiration!

127 West 43rd Street
b/t 6th & Broadway
Menu Pages listing

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Max(?) and the Chocolate Factory

After dinner last night at Otto, we were definitely too full for dessert, but weren't ready to call it a night. I came up with a compromise...Max Brenner. If you have never been to Max Brenner, the experience can be summed up in one word. CHOCOLATE. The scent of chocolate fills the air, everything is decorated in shades of brown, and there are pipes full of chocolate running through the restaurant. A chocolate lover's dream, or as Max Brenner calls it, a chocolate love story.

So you might be asking, why are we going to a chocolate/dessert restaurant after just finishing a huge meal? Well in addition to the desserts covered in chocolate (chocolate covered waffles, chocolate crepes, chocolate mousse, etc.) and a full savory menu, they also have a coffee bar.

Now, I'm not a coffee drinker, but I love a good cup of hot chocolate. And lucky for us, Max Brenner is known for his hot chocolate. It's a little more expensive than Starbuck's, but it is about 100 times better. When you order, you're able to choose between dark, milk, and white chocolate. I was a little disappointed when I saw the tiny cup it came in, but after taking one sip, I quickly realized why it's so small...this was the richest (and best) hot chocolate I have ever tasted.

If you're in the Union Square area, and are experiencing a major sweet tooth, Max Brenner is the spot for you.

Some suggestions (and this comes from this another visit as well as last night):
- The savory crepes (while not made of chocolate) are fantastic, especially the Smoked Turkey Mushroom Crepe
- The Munchies Waffle is unreal...possibly even better than Belgian Belgium.
- Order the hot chocolage in the Hug Mug. It's a special mug that Max Brenner designed to give you the ultimate, cozy hot chocolate experience.

Max Brenner
b/t 13th & 14th Streets
Menu Pages listing

A True Iron Chef

I'm sure you have all seen the Food Network show Iron Chef America. And you probably also know that many of the Iron Chefs have restaurants in New York and around the country. I have been to one of Bobby Flay's restaurants, Bar Americain, but had never been to any of Mario Batali's. Lucky for me, that all changed last night. I had heard of Otto since I moved to NYC, but had never been there before. So, I was very excited when it was suggested for dinner last night. (And I have to say, as much as I love being the one who always recommends or decides on a restaurant, it was so nice to have someone else pick for a change. Just tell me when and where, and I'm there!)

I didn't know much about Otto, except that it was Mario Batali's more casual restaurant...a "pizzeria," the website calls it. Once we were seated and given menus, it quickly became clear that it was much more than just a pizzeria. It was essentially an Italian version of Spanish tapas...with inexpensive, small plates. I was sold! I love sharing and being able to try a lot of different dishes on the menu, versus just ordering an entree.

I had begun to notice this "Italian tapas" trend creeping up around the city, and apparently I wasn't the only one to pick up on this. While Otto wasn't specifically mentioned, Adam Platt of New York magazine (my alma mater!) devoted an entire section to The Italian Small-Plates Invasion in the recent Where to Eat 2008 issue. I guess Mario was a few steps ahead of the trend, since Otto opened in 2003.

It was hard to decide which small plates to order because so many sounded great. After a little debate, we ordered a specialty bruschetta, a plate of three cheeses that we selected, two vegetable antipasti, and one pizza. It was the perfect amount of food for three people. The cheeses were all very good, and were served with a trio of dipping sauces to accent the flavors of the cheese. The pizza was cooked in a wood-burning oven, which always makes it taste so much better. They were all great choices.

Some suggestions:
- The bruschetta is del giorno (makes me think of Jim Carey's "soup du jour" comment in Dumb and Dumber!). On Tuesdays, it's the white bean and olive oil one that I had last night. Each day's sounded great though.
- The best dip was the honey with black and red pepper flakes. Sounds weird, I know. The only other time I eat honey is when I dip apples in it once a year! But, trust me, it was delicious.
- Don't hesitate to ask the waiter/waitress a lot of questions. Most of the menu is in Italian, so there were a lot of cheeses and meats I wasn't familiar with.

1 Fifth Avenue
@ 8th Street
Menu Pages listing

Thursday, January 10, 2008

STILL a good deal

If you've ever tried to decide what bar to go to with your friends in NYC, then I'm sure you know what a headache it can turn into. Similar to restaurants, there are just so many options...type of bar, location, type of crowd, cover charge/no cover charge...the list goes on and on. My friends often ask me for recommendations of where they should have their birthday or where they should take their out-of-town visitors. I'm always happy to make suggestions, but I think that'd make up another blog all together! So until Miss Menu is ready to retire, I think I'll stick to restaurants!

I will make one exception now, though, because a) I actually haven't gone out to eat all week, and b) I did eat at the bar I went to last night! Hope you don't mind!

My co-workers decided we were long overdue for a happy hour, and decided last night was the perfect chance. One colleague is leaving for her weddding in India for 3 weeks, and another just started her job on Monday. So, after a bit of brainstorming, I came up with a bar that I thought would please everyone, with good hour deals, subway access that's close to the office, and a location that's not hard for people to leave from when commuting home. We decided on the bar Still.

I had been to Still two years ago on a Wednesday, when they had a great happy hour deal...$10 open bar and 1/2-priced appetizers. When we arrived last night, we discovered that it had changed. Now it was $20 open bar and a special deal on the appetizer sampler. Still (no pun intended!), it was a great deal and everyone was excited for a fun night out.

While it's by no means my favorite bar in the city, it was perfect for what we needed. We got a section of tables at the front of the bar. The bartenders were really friendly. And the food that we ordered was really good. We got three (count 'em 3!) appetizer samplers and an order of chicken nachos. The samplers were perfect for our big group...a little bit of everything on one plate. They also have a full restaurant menu with sandwiches, salads, and entrees.

So, if you're looking for a hassle-free bar or place to get a casual meal near Union Square, I'd definitely recommend Still.

192 Third Ave
@ 17th Street

Friday, January 4, 2008

The (Not) Hottest Spot North of Havana

If you work in Midtown Manhattan, then you know how it goes for lunch during the work week. There are dozens (maybe hundreds) of delis for picking up a quick lunch, and endless upper-end restaurants for business lunches. But, the kind of restaurant that's few and far between is the casual, sit-down restaurant.

When I first started at my current job, I was excited to go out to lunch with co-workers to find out some of the options around my office. One of the first places I went was Havana Central, and since then, I have probably been there 5 or 6 times, for meals or drinks. And every time, I have always loved my experiences there. Since it's a Cuban restaurant, it's a nice change of pace from the regular ol' sandwich and fry places. And, the atmosphere is cool...palm trees, nice decor, and Cuban music makes for an overall pleasant setting.

When going out to lunch yesterday, Havana central seemed like a great choice. Unfortunately, by the end of the meal, I think my opinion of the place changed for the worse. Havana Central is smart...they know their weekday customers are usually on their lunch hour, so they created the limited "Menu Rapido." This guarantees that your food will be served within 15 minutes of ordering. I think that may have lead to some of yesterday's problems. For food to be prepared and served so quickly, it's bound to have been prepared in advance. So, two of the 3 items we ordered came out pretty cold. Usually that's not a problem...find the waiter and have him warm it up. But, the waiter was nowhere to be found. By the time he came over to ask the generic "Is everything ok?" it was too late.

BUT I am hoping that this was just a fluke...and that the freezing cold weather yesterday had something to do with the luke warm food. I'm not going to completely throw in the towel on Havana. I think I'll just skip it as a lunch destination, and stick to their happy hour with great sangria and mojitos

Havana Central
151 West 46th Street
b/t 6th & 7th Avenues
Menu Pages listing

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Shot (of Sake) in the Dark

I was pretty sure I had heard of Ginger before, but also knew I had never eaten there. But the second I walked in and saw the stack of take-out menus on the counter, I knew why it sounded familiar. It's one of the dozens of menus that get slid under my door each week by delivery guys. Great. My friends left the restaurant selection up to me since I'm the one with a new restaurant blog, and I picked place that does 95% of its business via take-out/delivery!

Once I looked past the menus, my first thought was, wow this place is deserted and so plain inside. Guess it wouldn't make sense to spend a single penny on decor if next to no one is going to see it. I saw my friends at one of the two tables that were occupied, and hoped that they wouldn't be slightly disappointed like I was. Luckily we were all just excited to see each other after the holiday "break," and I was off the hook. (Right girls?!)

I've mentioned in a previous post how I'm not exactly the most adventurous sushi eater. I am proud to say, though, that I've come a long way from my days in college where I'd order my staple of chicken teriyaki, while all of my friends were served wooden boats covered in dozens of sushi rolls. Despite my increasing willingness to try new things in the past few years, there's still something comforting about ordering the good ol' chicken teriyaki. And if I'm going that route, why not go all out and order a bento box...which is exactly what I did last night at Ginger.

I knew my eyes were bigger than my stomach, and I was OK with that. Something about a lot of food, including hot miso soup sounded so good on a night with temperatures below 20 degrees. I have no clue what "bento" means in Japanese, but my guess at a translation would be "a little bit of everything." And that is exactly what I got. Granted everything was very small portions, but it included miso soup, vegetable gyoza, a California roll, seaweed salad, green salad, mixed tempura, and chicken teriyaki. I think I'm in another food coma after typing that all out!

I was really happy that it all worked out in the end...we enjoyed our food, and, of course, the company. But if you're looking for a cool ambiance or lively crowd (aside from the people you're with!), pass this one by.

Some suggestions:
- Unless you live in around the block and don't want to wait for delivery, I'd just order in from this place. Of the countless sushi/japanese menus I have in my apartment, I may move this one a little closer to the top of the stack.
- I've decided a bento box is a great solution when you're feeling indecisive about what to order.
- The tempura was really fresh, and very tasty.

146 East 55th Street
b/t 3rd & Lexington Avenues

Menu Pages listing

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Mamma Mia

When my cousins invited me to join them for dinner, I was really excited to hear that we were going to Nero. I had always seen it when I've been out in the Meat Packing district, but had never been. At first glance, it was hard to tell if it was a trendy Meat Packing restaurant, or if it was an authentic Italian restaurant. Let's see which it turned out to be...

The atmosphere at Nero is very cool...feels like a dark wine cellar with exposed brick walls and most of the lighting coming from candles scattered around the restaurant. 1 point for "authentic Italian restaurant." The music got a little louder as the meal went on, which is when I noticed that all the sudden Kayne West was playing. 1 point "trendy Meat Packing restaurant."

Nero has a great list of Italian wines to choose from. Each glass comes with extra wine in one of those mini-carafes. Just like at Snack Taverna, I butchered the pronunciation of the wine I wanted to order, when the waiter corrected me with a heavy Italian accent. 1 point "authentic Italian restaurant."

The food itself was fantastic. The appetizers we shared were great...and the pasta dish I ordered was even better. 2 points "authentic Italian restaurant."

Turns out I shouldn't have questioned how good the food would be just because of the restaurant's location. "Authentic Italian restaurant" is the clear winner! We were 9 people, and they had our table ready and seated us immediately. Definitely a great restaurant pick for a big group. But because of the ambience, especially with the candle lighting, it would also be a great place for a date.

Some suggestions:
- Be sure to try (or ask for) the white bean salad that they bring out with the bread basket. Nice change of pace from the usual olive oil.
- Going back on what I said about the philosophy that everything fried is good not always holding true, the fritti mista (I think that's what it was called) appetizer was to die for. Fried artichokes, fried zucchini, and fried shrimp, and fried calamari. How can you go wrong?!

46 Gansevoort Street
@ Greenwich Street
Menu Pages listing