Sunday, March 30, 2008

One Strike for Moonstruck

I’ve mentioned in the past how there are two types of brunch restaurants…the greasy spoon and the fancier, and usually healthier, spot. Long overdue, I finally made it to a greasy spoon. It was the morning after my birthday celebration, and suffice it to say, the grease was much needed…as was a lot of water and a Diet Coke!

After trying to go to another place in the East Village that turned out to be Indian (not the most appetizing at this hour…if ever), we ended up at Moonstruck on 2nd. I have been to all of the other Moonstruck Diners, most of them located in Murray Hill. So, this one was a nice compromise…I knew exactly what to expect, but it was also a change of scenery.

Despite a usual Sunday brunch rush, the restaurant wasn’t too packed, and we were seated right away…next to floor-to-ceiling windows, which was as a great treat since it was such a nice day. Waters arrived very quickly, as did our waiter. I usually am not a creature of habit, but for some reason, when I’m at Moonstruck, I always order the same thing. And, this time was no different. I got a feta omelette with French fries and whole wheat toast. My friend ordered eggs benedict, plus spinach, minus Canadian bacon.

Unfortunately, our waiter goofed, so the food took a really long time to come out. He was very apologetic, so I let it slide…this time! The omelette hit the spot, but I was disappointed by the fries. They were very hot, so at least they hadn’t been sitting around too long. But, they were extremely undercooked and borderline soggy. I usually really like Moonstruck’s fries, but after waiting for so long for our food, I didn’t want to bother sending them back. My friend really liked the eggs benedict, and was happy that they were accommodating with the substitutions.

Moonstruck serves its purpose well, but doesn’t go above and beyond by any means. If you’re looking for a great atmosphere and interesting dishes, skip this place. But, if you’re looking for a straightforward breakfast/brunch meal with a very extensive menu, then definitely give Moonstruck a shot.

Moonstruck on 2nd
88 2nd Avenue
@ 5th Street
Menu Pages listing

The Perfect Porkless Meal

There are a handful of Irish pubs within a block from my office, but the one frequented the most by my co-workers is The Perfect Pint. It almost feels like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. I had been there before for drinks, but had never eaten there. I went with my boss and a girl who was visiting from our Frankfurt office. I thought we should take her somewhere a little more exciting since pubs are pretty common in most European cities, but The Perfect Pint it was.

I had no clue how popular The Pint was as a lunch spot. The 2nd floor was completely full, so the hostess seated us on the 3rd floor. I was totally surprised by the menu. It was really extensive, running the gambit from typical pub fare to pretty creative dishes. It wasn’t 5-star, gourmet cuisine, but it was definitely better than expected.

I was looking over the long list of sandwiches available, and one really caught my eye: the Turkey Cuban. As a non-pork eater, I always feel like I’m missing out on a lot of great food items. Granted, nowadays there are a lot of alternatives for my bunch that allow us to enjoy these items...turkey/veggie hot dogs, sausage, bacon. The list goes on and on. Some (well maybe most...or even all!) pork fans laugh at these things, but I’m glad that they exist!

So when I saw the Turkey Cuban sandwich listed on the menu, I was really excited because I have always wanted to try it. A real Cuban sandwich is made with two kinds of ham, though. But, this one was made with two kinds of turkey...roasted and hickory smoked. It came hot and pressed, which made the bread really crispy and the Swiss cheese really melted. It was also dressed with pickles and a garlicky Dijon mustard. Say what you will about turkey versions of anything, but this was a fantastic sandwich, no matter how you slice it (no pun intended!). It came with really good fries as well...crispy and salty, can’t go wrong!

My boss got the Incredible Lamb Burger, which was topped with tzatziki sauce. If only they had made that in a turkey or veggie version, I would’ve gone with that for sure. I love, love, love a good tzatziki sauce. The other girl ordered the Bruschetta Chicken sandwich that was served on ciabatta bread. They both really enjoyed their meals as well.

The service can be a little spotty because they get slammed during the lunch rush and the wait staff is spread pretty thinly. Otherwise, the food came quickly and was fresh. Nothing is worse than food that is kept sitting under heat lamps while the rest of the table’s meals are being prepared. For $10-11 sandwiches, The Perfect Pint isn’t a bargain lunch, but it is a great option for a casual, sit-down lunch that serves up some really great food.

The Perfect Pint
123 West 45th Street
b/t 6th Avenue & Broadway
Menu Pages listing

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Worth a Trip Down Under

My co-workers wanted to take my out to happy hour for my birthday. So, in a true Miss Menu fashion, I did a little research to find a fun bar close to my office that had drink specials and good food. Wanting to avoid the normal midtown pubs and touristy bars, but not travel too far for those who commute. I came across a newer bar called The Australian that seemed to fit the bill.

The Australian successfully melds a few different types of venues all into one. It's part sports bar, part pub, part lounge, and part restaurant. It was decorated with Australian-themed items, but not overdone. I had called the day before to ask if there was a way to reserve an area since we'd be a big group. The hostess was really helpful in explaining the different options I could reserve. We ended up with a very large booth in the back that comfortably sat 12. It was seriously the largest booth I've ever seen! I am definitely going to keep this place in mind next time I want to go somewhere that can easily accommodate a big group.

We ordered a few rounds of drinks and also ordered food (I had to, otherwise I couldn't write about it!) A few co-workers ordered regular burgers and said they were over-cooked. But, a few of us decided to share a bunch of appetizers, some more exotic than others. We ordered the seasoned potato wedges that were served with sour cream and a sweet chili sauce...they were delicious, and gone in seconds. Next up was the steak cut chips, which were essentially steak fries. They were unremarkable, but the sauces they came with were very tasty. One was a smoky bbq, and the other was a wild lime aioli.

We also got lamb nachos and kangaroo sate sticks. Clearly this is where my snacking stopped. Aside from the fact that I don't eat red meat, the idea of eating a roo is just wrong. I had texted an Australian friend of mine telling him how my friends were eating roo, and he responded, "that's so can you eat our national mascot?!" Apparently it tastes most similar to veal, but I will certainly be taking their word for it. The nachos (minus the lamb) were tasty, covered in a sweet pico de gallo type salsa.

All in all it was a fun birthday happy hour. The drinks kept flowing and the food was very tasty. I was a big fan of how they took staple bar food and kicked it up a notch. It made it feel more authentic Australian and more inventive.

One thing to note (which we found out the hard way!), the specials for both food and drinks are only available in the front bar area, and not in the rear dining area, which is where we were.

The Australian
20 West 38th Street
b/t 5th & 6th Avenue
Menu Pages listing

Monday, March 24, 2008

Tres,Tres Bon...Almost

If you've ever watched (or just flipped past) the Travel Channel on TV, there's a good chance you've heard of Anthony Bourdain. Also an author, this chef seems to be everywhere right now. I was always enthralled with hearing about his exotic food experiences. I recently saw an episode of No Reservations in which he went back to his alma mater after not having cooked in a restaurant for 8 years. It was at that point that I decided it was time to finally try this notorious restaurant where he serves as Chef-at-Large...Brasserie Les Halles.

A friend of mine had a few out-of-town visitors and we were brainstorming places that we could all go for a Sunday brunch. Of course, picking a restaurant never comes without some restrictions. That Sunday was Easter Sunday, so it made getting reservations for our party of five a little trickier. We also wanted to go to a restaurant that was central to all of us. It was the perfect opportunity to head to Les Halles for its Revolutionary Brunch.

Upon entering, you really get the sense that this is an authentic French brasserie. The ambiance is lively and the dark wood walls are almost completely covered by antique French posters, giving it a great feel. We were seated at a round table, which is always nice for a larger group.

We all decided to order off the Revolutionary Brunch menu, although the full lunch menu was available as well. This prix-fixe menu includes fresh-squeezed orange juice, a croissant, and your choice of a variety of egg and crepe entrees. I ordered the Omelette Savoyarde (an omelette filled with gruyere cheese - one of my favorites), which came with the infamous French fries. Anthony Bourdain has touted them as the best in the country...and as a wannabe fry connoisseur, it was my turn to put them to the test!

Les Halles is a little pricier than your greasy spoon diner, but the quality is light years better. The eggs were all cooked to perfection...light and fluffy, and not one brown spot to be seen. The omelettes I've always gotten at diners have been overcooked, brown, and dried out. The croissant was melt-in-your-mouth good. It was flaky on the outside and buttery on the inside. So, now to the fries. They were good. Very good. The best I've ever had? I'm not so sure. But, you could tell they were made fresh and in-house, and from what I could tell were fried in peanut oil, which I always think gives fries a much better flavor.

My friends got the Ouefs Poches a l'Ecossaise (eggs benedict with smoked salmon) and the Omelette Forestiere (wild mushroom omelette). It was hysterical hearing them try to pronounce these dishes. But, I give them credit for trying!

So, my experience sounds close to perfect right? Well, here's the bad news: the service was miserable. I cut them a little slack because it was peak Sunday brunch hour and it was packed. But, these are all experienced waiters and waitresses who know what it takes to handle a rush and be a good server. Unfortunately, our server was hoping we were just stupid tourists who didn't know better (like most of the patrons that day) so he could turn the table quickly. He was rude, abrupt, and MIA most of the time. It took us 3 requests and 30 minutes to get water. But, after he put the bill on the table, he was stopping by to check up on us every 5 minutes.

All in all, I'm glad we chose Les Halles to see what all the hype was about. I did love the omelette, the fries, the croissant, and the ambiance. I just think next time I will try to go at an off-peak time in hopes of more attentive, friendly service.

Les Halles
411 Park Avenue South
b/t 28th & 29th Street
Menu Pages listing

Saturday, March 22, 2008

See Clearly at the Blind Pig

There are almost as many sports bars in NYC as there are restaurants. Almost. So, when it came time to pick a bar to watch the first few days/nights of the NCAA tournament, my friends and I had plenty of options. We wanted to find a bar that had a ton of TVs, big tables where we could camp out to watch the games, and order food and drinks.

We decided on Blind Pig on 14th Street, and it was a great pick. It felt like I was back at a college bar, and to watch college basketball games, it made a really fun, lively atmosphere. We got a table that seated 8 pretty comfortably. There were probably 8 big screen TVs, so all of the games were in easy view.

I was there around dinner time, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to try Blind Pig's food. The menu was surprisingly extensive for a bar. It had all of the expected bar foods...wings, nachos, burgers, etc. But, they also had things like chili, ribs, and filet of sole. I wasn't feeling that daring. I ordered the buffalo chicken wrap, which came with waffle fries and a pickle. The flavor of the buffalo sauce was really good...had a good kick, but not too hot. It didn't have tomatoes in it, which I loved. The blue cheese came on the side, so it was nice that the wrap wasn't doused in it. And to round it out, the waffle fries were seasoned and crispy. I love all fries, but I definitely think waffle fries are my favorite variety.

Even though my alma mater lost in the first round that night, it was still a really fun night...made even better by good friends, good food, and good beer.

Blind Pig
233 East 14th Street
b/t 2nd & 3rd Avenue
Menu Pages listing

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

O'Lunney Toons

Wanting to take part in some sort of St. Patty's Day festivities without actually going to the parade, my co-worker and I decided that the perfect solution would be to go to an Irish pub for lunch. There are dozens of pubs in the few blocks of my office, but O'Lunney's is a really big bar, so we figured we'd have the most luck getting a table there. As expected, there was a huge, lively crowd inside, and a few parties ahead of us. Luckily, there was a table in the bar area that opened up after just a few minutes. We sat right at the window, gave us a great view of the debauchery going on outside, and the people singing and cheering inside the bar.

If we were going to continue with the celebration, then there was only one option for our drink order...Irish beer. My co-worker got the quintessential St. Patty's Day beer...a Guinness. I ordered my very first Harp Lager (shh, don't tell my boss!), and I really liked the taste. Will have to remember that one for my next Irish pub adventure.

O'Lunney's had a limited menu for the holiday, so I debated what to order. I felt wrong getting a chicken sandwich even though I had had it before and really liked it. So I decided to change it up a bit and got fish and chips. And I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Obviously you can't really go wrong with anything that's fried, but I was more expecting a frozen piece of mystery fish. The good news is it was far from that. The pieces of cod were freshly battered and fried in a delicious beer batter. It was served with crispy fries, homemade tartar sauce, and a pickle. Now, I will say that it was pretty dish was $16. But, I was in the spirit and it ended up being worth it. My co-worker got the corned beef and cabbage, and said it was really good. I took his word for it...he knew better than to offer me a piece of beef!

The rest of the restaurant was filled mostly with far-from-sober parade patrons, rather than the usual office lunch crowd. It definitely made for an entertaining dining experience. Groups decked out in green gear spontaneously burst out into song and danced around the bar. We had a hard time motivating to go back to work when we we could have easily sat there and watch the shamrocks and leprechauns all afternoon. So, if you're looking for a lively, authentic atmosphere, with great food in the Times Square area, definitely check out O'Lunney's. Cheers!

145 West 45th Street
b/t 6th Avenue & Broadway
Menu Pages listing

Sunday, March 16, 2008

EN? Maybe out.

New York is known for a lot of things when it comes to its restaurant culture. One trend that seems to be ever-present and always popular is the uber-modern, high-end Japanese/Sushi joint. I'm sure a few come to your mind...Bond St., Nobu, Tao, Megu, and where I dined last week...EN Japanese Brasserie. This restaurant is newer to the scene, although it's been open for a few years now.

I went to EN when it first opened and had a great experience. I was blown away by the design of the restaurant and its decor. It's a huge, loft-like space with an open kitchen. Everywhere you look there is a really cool design element, from the soy sauce to the chopsticks, from the concrete slab floor to the furniture. The meal I had there was phenomenal, and the service was excellent.

So, it's safe to say that this prior experience set my expectations at a pretty high level for my visit last week. In addition to that, there were a few things that were out of our control that made this meal turn out the way it did. First off, we were seated in the bar dining area, rather than the main dining room. This had a cool atmosphere too, but paled in comparison to the main room. The tables were more lounge tables with arm chairs, which made it sort of uncomfortable, especially if you're really tall.

Now to the food. The menu changes semi-annually, so you can never be sure as to what will be featured when you get there. We decided to order a few dishes to split...some good and some not so good. EN is known for its homemade tofu. While I'm not the biggest tofu fan, I figured having some served on top of a salad would be a good way to try it without ordering an entire dish of it. Unfortunately, that was a bad call! The EN House Salad was made up of greens that were more stems than leaves, walnuts, tofu skin, and a soy milk dressing. The entire thing was bland and gross. Now I wasn't expecting your typical ginger dressing green salad served at every sushi place, but this was just too much. I was tempted to ask for soy sauce to pour all over the salad, but decided to just stop eating it.

Luckily the next dish offered some redemption. The Sea Bass Kara-Age was small pieces of fish marinated in sake and then lightly fried, which were delicious. We also ordered the EN Garlic Shiso Fried Rice. It had a great taste without the garlic being too overwhelming. My friend had heard that the duck at EN was a dish not to miss, so we got that. I don't eat duck, but he enjoyed it. It was topped with grated daikon that had been cooked in a ponzu citrus soy that was so flavorful I ended up putting some on top of my rice to give it a little extra kick.

Overall, I wasn't blown away by this experience. The waiter was MIA most of the time, and the busboy ended up getting us a few things that we needed. I had hoped for a great night with fantastic food, but no such luck. I think all of this would have changed, though, if we had been seated in the main dining area and ordered a few different dishes. I wouldn't rule EN out from recommending it to friends, but I would highly suggest asking the waiter/waitress for good suggestions and descriptions of each dish.

EN Japanese Brasserie
435 Hudson Street
b/t Leroy & Morton Street
Menu Pages listing

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Take a Sip

For some reason, I have been on such a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food kick lately. So, after throwing out a few restaurant ideas to my friend who I was having dinner with, I was excited that we decided on Sip Sak.

From the ambiance to the food to the service, Sip Sak gets it right. I came across a handful of reviews that have torn this place apart, and I have to say after having eaten there twice now, I still have no clue what these people are complaining about. We were greeted by the smiling chef/owner Orhan Yegen. He took us to our table right away. And then...the fun really began. We decided to order a bunch of dishes and share everything (my fav!), but we had no clue just how much food we were in store for!

We started off ordering the hummus and cacik appetizers. Cacik is similar to a Greek tzatziki sauce...made of thick yogurt with cucumber and garlic. Both were served with fresh, thick pita, and I am convinced I could have made a meal out of just these two starters! We had hoped to order the falafel, but they ran out earlier in the evening. Next came the Greek salad, which was massive and delicious. Mixed greens were covered with feta, artichokes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and stuffed grape leaves. And last, but certainly not least, was the spicy chicken...hand-chopped grilled chicken spiced with hot red peppers, served over rice. The chicken had a great flavor, but was somewhat reminiscent of a chicken patty or giant chicken nugget. Not that I'm saying that's a bad thing ;)

The waiter almost convinced us to order a dessert...and the baklava certainly sounded tempting. But, at this point I was thrilled with everything we had eaten and also very full!

We decided to be adventurous and ordered glasses of Turkish wines. They were both pretty good...but I am no wine expert, so I won't even begin to try and describe them. I just felt weird ordering a wine from Argentina in a Turkish restaurant!

So, aside from them being out of falafel, I literally have nothing bad to say about Sip Sak. I was almost looking for something wrong during the meal (bad idea!), but seriously could not find a thing. The service was attentive and prompt. The atmosphere was very cool...has a great Turkish vibe without being over the top. And the food was authentic, reasonably priced, and very tasty. What could be bad about any of that?!

Sip Sak
928 2nd Avenue
b/t 49th & 50th Streets
Menu Pages listing

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Run from the Border

As I mentioned in my last post, Mexican restaurants can be very hit-or-miss. Unfortunately, after a great meal at El Rio Grande, I was slightly let down by Viva Pancho the next night. Now, I should clarify that I still had a great time out with my co-workers for one of their birthdays, but that great time was hardly complimented by great food.

Viva Pancho is a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant just off from Times Square, and tucked in between Virgil's Real Barbecue and a deli. It would be easy to miss if there wasn't a man in a sombrero standing in front of the restaurant holding a menu. Once inside, the restaurant feels like it's trying a little too hard to feel authentic. On a more positive note, the host/waitstaff is accommodating for large parties, like we were, and the service is very fast.

I have come to Viva Pancho before both for drinks and for meals, and I quickly learned after a meal or two that their food is just plain bad. The enchiladas and burritos are way too light on filling. The chicken is poor quality, slimy dark meat, and almost all of the dishes are bland. Even the salsa is watery and mediocre. But, I have learned one thing...after these experiences, the drinks are the only safe bet.

Our group ordered a few pitchers of margaritas, which were great. I've also had the sangria that was very good. I ended up trying some of my friend's chicken fajitas, and I have to say that if/when I go back to Viva Pancho, I will definitely be ordering those. Because some of my co-workers frequent the restaurant a lot and know some of the waiters, they brought out a few rounds of fruity shots on the house, as well two desserts. See, I can find the positive in every situation! The flan was just ok, but the fried ice cream blew me away. Huge pieces of fried cinnamon dough were covered with vanilla ice cream. Divine! Actually, I may rethink that fajita idea. Is it wrong to order just a margarita and dessert next time?!

Next time I have a craving for Mexican food during work, I will definitely turn here for some Midtown Lunch ideas. Or if you have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments section. Gracias!

Viva Pancho
156 West 44th Street
b/t 6th & 7th Avenue
Menu Pages listing

Run for the Border

To me, Mexican restaurants in NYC fall into one of two categories: great food, or great margaritas and crappy food. So, when you come across one that fits into both categories, it's worth making note of it. I had been to Rio Grande numerous times for drinks. The two large bar areas (and large patio areas when the weather is nice) attract a huge after-work crowd that comes for one thing, and one thing only...the margaritas. Ask anyone who works in Midtown, and they're bound to have had one of these small, but lethal drinks. They are available in different flavors such as strawberry and pomegranate. But, be warned, the flavored, frozen ones are much stronger than the regular flavor because the tequila is added by hand rather than pre-mixed.

Ok, so the drinks are great, but how was the food, you ask? Well, when I finally went to Rio Grande for dinner, and not just drinks, I discovered that the food is actually very good. And dinner there last week was no different.

The tortilla chips they bring out to the table are nothing special, but what turns them into fabulous are the two salsas that are served with them. One is a more familiar pico de gallo-style salsa. The other, though...I haven't been able to figure out quite what it is (my waiter didn't even know), but it has become my favorite salsa-type dip. What one of my friends and I have coined "the green sauce" could best describe it as a tomatillo, cilantro salsa. Pure deliciousness.

I ordered a chicken quesadilla, and it was delicious. Unlike some Mexican restaurants in this city, they actually use white meat chicken. It was marinated and cooked really well, giving it a great flavor. My friend ordered the Burrito San Francisco, and really liked it as well. It was a good size, but not overstuffed, and was served with rice and beans.

Whether you are looking for a fun place to grab a drink cold drink on a hot day, or a restaurant serving quality, tasty Tex-Mex fare...Vamos al Rio Grande!

El Rio Grande
160 East 38th Street
b/t 3rd & Lexington Avenue
Menu Pages listing

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

East Village Food Adventure - Part 5

Our last stop on the tour was Cecel Crepe CafĂ©, and despite the fact that I was well past the point of “full,” I can always find a little extra room for anything crepe or Nutella-related. These two items, especially when served together, hold a very special place in my heart…and my stomach.

It wasn’t until I spent a semester in Paris during college that I discovered the heaven-sent chocolate hazelnut spread known as Nutella. I’m embarrassed (or maybe proud) to admit that I had at least one Nutella crepe each week, sometimes for a snack, sometimes late-night, and always delicious.

So, I like to consider myself a true, knowledgeable crepe connoisseur. This is not to say I could make them on my own (I wish!) because it definitely takes a large round griddle and a very steady hand. But, after watching crepes being made countless times, I saw how much batter should be poured, how much Nutella should be spread (while the crepe is still on the griddle so the Nutella can melt), and how the crepes should be folded.

What better way to round out a fantastic food adventure than with dessert, right? Wrong. Unfortunately. It wasn't soon after NYC Food Guy and Miss Menu arrived at Cecel Crepe Cafe that I realized our food adventure wasn't going to end on the high note we had hoped for. I ordered a small crepe with just Nutella. Simple enough, right?

Somehow, the "chef" managed to mess it up in every way possible. He didn't put enough batter onto the griddle, which made the crepe itself really flimsy. He put refrigerated cream onto it, which made what should be a hot crepe very cold. Then, when he went to put on the Nutella, instead of opening up a jar, he took out a squeeze bottle and squirted imitation, watered-down "hazelnut spread" onto the crepe. The end result was a mushy, cold, terrible excuse for a crepe. I know this may sound harsh, but I think it's time for the chef/owner should try to find a new calling.

There are plenty of great crepes places in NYC, so I'll definitely be planning an outing soon to satisfy my Nutella crepe craving. All in all, this East Village food adventure was a huge success. I was able to try a lot of new places and new foods, all for under $25. Stay tuned for the next food adventure!

Cecel Crepe Cafe
135 1st Avenue
b/t St. Marks Place & 9th Street
Menu Pages listing

East Village Food Adventure - Part 4

The next stop on the cheap eats East Village food tour was the one I was looking most forward to before we started this whole thing. Since I don’t eat red meat or pork, my hot dog intake is pretty limited to an occasional turkey hot dog during a summer BBQ. I feel like I miss out on the whole hot dog culture in NYC…eating them at a Yankees game, Coney Island, or the famous Grey’s Papaya. So, I was really excited to learn that, at Crif Dogs, all of their creative hot dog concoctions are available for both their deep-fried beef franks as well as veggie dogs.

I stared at the menu board debating what to order. My brother works at a family friend’s Chicago-style hot dog shop in Atlanta when he’s home from college. He’s a huge foodie and would always tell us about the crazy combos of condiments and fixin’s he’d come up with when it was slow at work. So, I was prepared for some insane combinations, but Crif Dogs takes it to a whole new level. After deciding I couldn’t stomach a fried egg, avocado, or cream cheese on my veggie dog at this juncture, I decided to go with the veggie corn dog.

I have no clue why I was imaging it to look like frozen corn dogs that were served in my elementary school. But, when they called our name, my jaw dropped. This thing looked like a mini football with a wooden stick at one end. The batter had a great taste, only problem was it wasn’t fried long enough, so the inside of it was still a little soggy. The veggie dog itself tasted pretty good, but probably could have stood another few minutes in the fryer as well.

Ok, so I was a little disappointed. But, there was something else at our table that I knew would turn my frown upside down…TATER TOTS!!! I’ve only seen them served at one other place in NYC, at Big Daddy’s Diner. Needless to say, nothing bad can come of tater tots. That, combined with a fountain orange soda, arcade games, and great music, and there I was like a kid in a candy store.

NYC Food Guy went with the Chihuahua dog, and seemed to like it a lot. Think bacon-wrapped hot dog topped with sour cream and avocado. I may have to experiment with that one veggie-style on my next trip to Crif Dogs. But, with the way I was feeling after walking out of that place, it may be a while before that happens! A much-needed breather in Tompkins Square park was in order before moving on to the next and final spot.

Crif Dogs
113 St. Marks Place
b/t Avenue A & 1st Avenue
Menu Pages listing

Monday, March 10, 2008

East Village Food Adventure - Part 3

We continued across 14th Street, and I was beginning to have second thoughts. I was already starting to feel pretty full, but knew I had to continue on. No pain, no gain, right?! Next up was Vinny Vincenz…what I thought would be your run-of-the-mill pizza joint, but turned out to be something a little more special than that. Plastered on the front windows was review after review about Vinny’s self-proclaimed specialty – the Sicilian slice.

In full disclosure, I have to be upfront and say that growing up in the South, the closest I came to eating Sicilian pizza was Pizza Hut’s pan pizza. Now that I’ve been in New York for a few years, my Sicilian experiences have been less than thrilling. All that bread, so little sauce and cheese…not my thing.

After having a fresh slice of a Vinny Vincenz Sicilian pie, I think I may finally understand its appeal. The dough was light and airy, and not too thick. The sauce had a nice, sweet flavor, and there was enough cheese to make a cheese-lover like me happy. Nine times out of ten, I’m going to stick with a regular pizza. But, it’s good to know that there’s Sicilian out there that I enjoy too.

Miss Menu had an interesting observation – Since not all slices are created equal in a Sicilian pie, one can request which specific slice they want from the pan. Some people love the corners with two edges of crust. Others love the middle pieces with no crust at all. Not knowing my preference, I went with a 1-crust edge piece. I have decided that’s my favorite…a crust to serve as a handle, and three sides covered in deliciousness.

I ended up only eating about half the slice to save room for the rest of the adventure…but even that didn’t help enough. I had to sit Stop 4 out…the Mexican grocery Zaragoza. No way was spicy Mexican going to sit well right now! Hoping this breather would leave me feeling better, we continued on down the list. I was excited for the next stop…Crif Dogs!

Vinny Vincenz
231 First Avenue
b/t 13th & 14th Streets
Menu Pages listing

East Village Food Adventure - Part 2

The second stop was at Thai Me Up, and turned out to be my favorite of the whole food adventure. I’m not so sure I would have walked into this place without a little reinforcement from NYC Food Guy because I truly did not get the concept of Thai food served on a sandwich But, Thai Me Up’s Black Pearl sandwich had received some fabulous reviews and was a “must-try” for this outing. It did anything but disappoint.

But let me back up a second here. Before I get into the sandwich itself, I think a little background on this restaurant is much deserved. Hailing from Jerusalem, the owner Amir is the first (at least that Miss Menu has seen) to bring this concept to New York…one that is apparently almost as popular in Israel as falafel. He was very proud to tell us about his store and the quality of its products. He even walked us through the cooking process and helped us figure out how and what to order.

Seven vegetables (mushrooms, peppers, corn, cabbage, snow peas, carrots, and broccoli) are steamed using only water. No oil used = guilt-free goodness!

Step 1 – Choose a sandwich or noodle/rice bowl. If you choose the sandwich, Amir will even inform you that the baguette is served “scooped out,” basically the outer, crunchy shell is left and the soft white bread is tossed. This acts as a great serving device. Unfortunately, that doesn’t prevent it from being very messy!
Step 2 – Pick your protein: chicken, tofu, or beef…or just stick with veggie
Step 3 – Select a sauce: Black Pearl, White Ginger, or Pine Grand (Amir said that they are listed in order of his preference and of popularity)
Step 4 – Add additional toppings/condiments: Lettuce, Tomato, and Mayo mix

The result is pure magic. The Black Pearl sandwich was almost too good for words. I was surprised how well Thai/Asian flavors worked with the French baguette. The Black Pearl sauce itself was delicious…”the bbq sauce of Asia,” as it’s been coined. And the mayo mix added a great additional layer of flavor.

I have already started recommending Thai Me Up to friends, and cannot wait to go back. Hard to go wrong with great taste, great value, and a great owner who really cares about his product. An additional perk is that it’s open until midnight, and they are considering staying open later on the weekends to appeal to the late night/post bar crowd. If you are ever on your way to Chickpea or on 14th Street for any other reason, definitely stop in and give Thai Me Up a chance. I promise you will leave very satisfied!

Two down, and how many more to go?!

Thai Me Up
238 East 14th Street
b/t 2nd & 3rd Avenue
Menu Pages listing

East Village Food Adventure - Part 1

As the saying goes, “two heads are better than one.” And, that certainly was true when it came to the East Village food adventure that I went on with NYC Food Guy on Sunday. Usually, when I’m dining out with my friends, I’m the only one truly analyzing a restaurant…its food, its atmosphere, its inner-workings. That’s part of what made Sunday so fun (obviously the food didn’t hurt!). I had someone there to share in the commentary and offer another critical eye (well, two).

We set out from 14th & 3rd with only a few simple rules:
1 - The meal had to be under $10 per person
2 - There could be no wait staff, just counter service
3 - Continue on the adventure until you feel sick

With a massive list and a map in hand, we set out. First stop was Vanessa’s Dumplings. The menu consisted mostly of fried or steamed dumplings, sushi, and their house specialty, sesame pancake sandwiches. My pork-less diet eliminated a good amount of menu items, but NYC Food Guy was willing to humor me.

Ordering the namesake dumplings was a no-brainer, and having not had a sesame pancake before, we had to go with that as well. The steamed vegetable dumplings were really tasty. They were made fresh and actually had visible vegetables inside, not the mushy mixture often found in fast food dumplings. The sesame pancake was a pleasant surprise. Not sure what to expect, I really enjoyed the texture and the flavor of the pancake itself, which wasn’t too heavy on the sesame. Carrots, lettuce, cucumber, and bean sprouts served as the “meat” of the sandwich, and was mixed with an Asian vinaigrette of sorts.

Off to a great start. If you’re in the Union Square area, Vanessa’s Dumplings is a great spot for a quick, cheap Japanese fix. The day was young, but we wasted no time…next stop, here we come!

Vanessa's Dumplings
220 East 14th Street
b/t 2nd & 3rd Avenue
Menu Pages listing

Monday, March 3, 2008

Babar's Paradise

When I went to the website for The Elephant, it struck me that French and Thai is an unusual fusion for a restaurant to try to pull off. And to be honest, I left the restaurant without really noticing anything "French" about it, with the exception of a picture near the bar of Babar, the famous French cartoon elephant. If anything, it had a bit of a Latin American feel. But regardless of what the restaurant was going for vs. what they actually turn out, I really liked The Elephant.

The restaurant was pretty empty when I got there...but then again, it was 7pm on a Sunday. So I noticed that the space was smaller, but didn't get the sense that it was cramped. That all changed by the end of the meal. The dining area was filling up, the bar area was packed, and the tables were so cramped (literally zero space between tables) that to get into the booth side, they host had to pull out the entire table into the walkway, and then push it back in. Luckily I was sitting at a single table in the middle of the restaurant. But in that spot, I accidentally kicked the waitress and host when I crossed my legs. Oops!

Ok, enough complaining...moving onto the fun stuff: the food. Actually, drinks first. I mentioned how the restaurant felt a little Latin American to me. I think it was a combo of the chili pepper lights hanging and the sangria that I ordered. The sangria was really good...not too sweet, and very refreshing. They also have a very extensive and creative cocktail list, which is my guess as to why the bar area was so busy.

The menu is pretty large. As a non-pork eater, I was a bit discouraged at first glance when I noticed a lot of the dishes contained pork. Then I was happy to see a lot of different options for vegetarians, meat lovers, and those who fall somewhere in the middle (like me!).

Unbeknownst to me, I ordered the dish that everyone on every restaurant review raves about...the Moo Shu. It was served in a large (almost too large for the table, but I'll let it slide because it was so good) mixing bowl resembling a wok. Rather than being served in the more traditional manner with everything already mixed together, the ingredients came separated, so you could make each wrap to your liking.

The chicken had a great flavor and was cooked perfectly. There was an interesting Asian coleslaw made of cabbage, edamame, and some other greens. There was a section of bean sprouts, as well as red onions and carrots. Three sauces were also favorite was the hoisin sauce, along with a chili paste and a spicy citrus sauce. You also have the option of making a wrap in a pancake (much like a tortilla) or in a large piece of lettuce. Both taste great, and are equally messy to eat. So prepare to get your hands dirty!

I also had some of my friend's pad thai. While it was pretty spicy, it lacked in flavor. I know pad thai shoudn't be swimming in sauce, but it was a little on the dry side. Maybe I just need to expand my pad thai knowledge before I totally pass judgment!

Overall, it was a fun experience. The atmosphere (while crowded) was lively, the food was really good, and the service was attentive. I could definitely see The Elephant becoming part of my stomping grounds!

The Elephant
58 East 1st Street
b/t 1st & 2nd Avenue
Menu Pages listing

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Ali Nada

As a food blogger, and someone who dines out a lot, I'm bound to have some less than pleasant dining experiences in NYC. I know not every meal is going to be top notch and receive high praise from me. But, I always feel a sense of disappointment and regret when the experience rates anywhere from mediocre to downright awful. Sometimes this is a result of poor service, ordering the wrong thing, or just bad food.

Dinner last week at Ali Baba was a combination of a few of those things...much to my chagrin. I had been there before and really enjoyed my first experience. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for this most recent one. I have been craving Middle Eastern food a lot recently, and was looking forward to Ali Baba. After the fresh, flavorful pita came out, it was all downhill from there. The service was spotty, either making us feel rushed or neglected. We were seating right next to the area where the waitstaff lingers in between tables, barking orders at each other and bumping into the back of my chair.

Then came the food. I ordered the falafel dinner, imagining falafel, hummus and maybe some salad/veggies to go along with it. What came out was like a massive appetizer and was hardly entree worthy. There was a plate covered in hummus, topped with 6 falafel balls and 3 tomato slices. Disappointing. The falafel was really good...crunchy on the outside and flavorful on the inside. But, I would have been much better off ordering the falafel appetizer and a salad or a side of vegetables.

It wasn't much better for my friend, who ordered chicken kabobs. Can't go wrong with that, right?! Wrong. The chicken was good, but it was served with straight-out-of-the-box rice pilaf...ya know, the kind that your mom has undoubtedly prepared for you at some point in your life. (And the kind my friend coincidentally had left over in her fridge from dinner a few nights before!) There was zero attempt to try to cover up the fact that it was anything but authentic. Neither of us remembered rice pilaf being served the last time we had been to Ali Baba, so we were both pretty shocked when we saw it showing up on everyone's plates. Don't get me wrong...I love rice pilaf, but just not in a restaurant setting, especially in a cuisine that features great sides like couscous.

Ali Baba had always been such a reliable, neighborhood restaurant, but we both left feeling a pretty frustrated. We hoped it was because we just ordered wrong, but when a restaurant skimps on things that much, I'm led to believe that they're looking out more for their bottom line than for their customer satisfaction.

Ali Baba
212 East 34th Street
b/t 2nd & 3rd Avenue
Menu Pages listing