Monday, April 28, 2008

Pizza Never Tasted So Good

Once a year, Passover rolls around and I clear all of the off-limits foods out of my kitchen. In past years, I’ve eaten out during the holiday, but just avoided all of the breads/grains/starches that aren’t allowed. This year, I decided to test myself and take it to the next level…not eating out at all. As Miss Menu, this was definitely a huge challenge! I usually go out to dinner at least 3 times a week, and pick up lunch during work a few times too. But, I figured that it would allow me to truly appreciate the Passover story and traditions, not to mention serve as the perfect way to go easy on my wallet and my diet for 8 days.

I tried to spread out my postings so Miss Menu wouldn’t go dark for 8 days. So, while it looked like I was enjoying dinners out, that was hardly the case. It was so hard packing my lunch and eating at home for all that time! So, it is safe to say that my first meal out again to “break” Passover was even more of treat than I would have thought! Along with all the holiday traditions and meals, my family started its own tradition of breaking Passover by binging on pizza every year. And this year, although I wasn’t with my family, I still kept the tradition alive….this time with some friends. I knew exactly where I wanted to go – my favorite neighborhood pizza place that I have ordered from numerous times, but have only dined at one time (also to break Passover 2 years ago).

Libretto’s is a family-owned pizzeria that sells slices out of the front and has a sit-down Italian restaurant in the back. There is always a great debate as to what makes a great pizza, especially in New York. I have my favorites for the authentic, brick oven pizzas (like Grimaldi’s), but when it comes to the more general New York-style pizza, Libretto’s tops my list.

Walking in, I already knew exactly what I wanted…plain cheese, and a lot of it. We decided to order one plain pie and one pepperoni pie. After we ordered, we got worried that we had way too much food coming. 16 slices for 3 people. I am proud (and slightly embarrassed!) to say that we finished all of it. I accounted for 4 1/2 pieces…a new personal record! But, after basically doing the South Beach diet for 8 days and losing 8 pounds, I felt like an absurd amount of pizza was more than justified. Maybe I should start marketing the “Passover diet!”

Back to the good stuff…
While I can’t speak to the pepperoni, the plain pizza was delicious, and even better than when it’s delivered since it’s straight out of the oven. I will note that their delivery comes very quickly. The crust was cooked perfectly leaving it a little bit doughy. The sauce and cheese both had such great flavors. All together…a perfect pie.

Another factor that scored major bonus points for me was fountain soda with free refills. In NYC, free refills are very hard to come by. There is nothing worse than getting a few refills only to see $12 worth of Diet Coke on your check. I have a minor caffeine/soda addiction, so refills to go along great pizza made me a happy camper.

In addition to regular pizzas with over a dozen topping options, Libretto’s has a huge list of specialty pizzas with really interesting topping/flavor combinations. One that caught my eye for my next visit was the Pizza alla Vodka. Pizza with vodka sauce and fresh mozzarella? What could be bad?! On my first dine-in experience, I had tried the BBQ chicken pizza, which was really good too. They also have antipasti, soups, pastas, heroes, entrees, and desserts. Suffice it to say it’s an impressive menu. I have a feeling, though, that no matter how good the other dishes may be, it would be virtually impossible for me to go to Libretto’s without getting pizza. I hope the family would take that as a major compliment!

Libretto's
546 3rd Avenue
b/t 36th & 37th Street
website
Menu Pages listing

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Loving/Hating Penelope

While Murray Hill isn’t exactly known for its culinary wonders, it does have its fare share of ethnic restaurants, whether it’s Indian in Curry Hill, Thai, Japanese, and even Turkish. What it does not have much of (at least to my knowledge) is restaurants with comfort food. Enter Penelope – a home-style restaurant/cafe that I have a love/hate feeling towards. I’ll explain.

This neighborhood doesn’t have a ton of great brunch options aside from diners. So, that is part of Penelope’s appeal. It’s a cute country-kitchen atmosphere that offers more creative, country-style takes on traditional brunch items: Nutella French Toast, Pumpkin Waffles, chicken apple sausage, and homemade baked goods like granola, scones, and muffins. Because their food is so tasty and something different than the norm, Penelope attracts a huge crowd for weekend brunch. I went with some family one time and we were told the wait would be about 45 minutes, and it ended up being 1:45. It’s just too much. And, as a result of being slammed for so many hours on end, the service becomes pretty terrible. Clearly, this area is starving for more places like this, but until that happens, it is either miss out on Penelope or put up with an incomprehensible wait and non-existent service.

Another option is to go for dinner, and while you’ll miss out on the delicious breakfast items, you’ll still get the down-home feel and some great comfort food. That’s just what I did with two friends. Even on a Tuesday night, there was still a wait, but this one was much more manageable…only 5 minutes.

The dinner menu runs the gambit from mac & cheese to chicken pot pie to sandwiches served on hand-made organic breads. I had been to Penelope for dinner before and loved two of the sandwiches I had gotten. So, I decided on the Nice Chicken Meatball sandwich. One of my friends was torn between that and the Grilled Three Cheese sandwich, so we decided to go halfsies. Didn’t take much arm-twisting on her part!

The chicken meatball sandwich was phenomenal. It’s served on a hollowed out baguette with melted fontina, tomato and pesto mayo. The chicken meatballs were such a treat since I don’t eat regular meatballs, and were so flavorful. The pesto mayo had such a great taste too and complimented the sandwich perfectly. The grilled cheese was really good too, how can you go wrong?! Only problem was it had gotten a little cold by time it was served, but other wise the three cheeses were a great combo. It normally comes on sourdough, but the waiter was happy to accommodate my friend’s request to have it on 7-grain instead. All of the sandwiches are served with homemade French fries that sprinkled with fresh herbs…so good.

So, now you see why I have a love/hate approach to this place. It’s a really cute restaurant that feels comforting almost all around…to your eyes, to your stomach, and to your wallet. Problem is it doesn’t feel comforting to wait an hour for a table. I definitely recommend trying Penelope, but avoiding it for brunch on the weekends, unless it’s a nice day and you don’t mind standing outside.

Penelope
159 Lexington Avenue
@ 30th Street
website
Menu Pages listing

Everything but the Kitchen Sink - Sinigual

UPDATE: Since posting this in April, Sinigual has opened and I had the opportunity to dine there recently. Click here for my full review of this new, contemporary Mexican restaurant. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

***

In my 5 years in NYC, I have been less than thrilled with the burrito/Mexican options here. There's a great debate over which is better...Chipotle, Blockheads, Qdoba, Burritoville to name a few. They're all edible, but none of them really do it for me.

A new sign in a storefront caught my eye on my walk home from work tonight. Looks like Sinigual, a restaurant with "contemporary Mexican cuisine," is opening soon in Midtown East. I was excited for the prospect of a new Mexican food option, especially one not far from my apartment.



Much to my dismay, after doing a little research when I got home, I learned that Sinigual is a chain that is under the same ownership as Chevy's. If any of you have been to the Chevy's in Times Square, I need not say more. If you haven't been, take Miss Menu's word for it...DON'T GO! (Quick side story should explain why: I went to Chevy's with some friends a few years ago, and one friend ordered a quesadilla with sour cream on the side. Our food comes, and the waiter sets our meals on the table and hands my friend a side of sour cream. So, she asks where her quesadilla is thinking maybe it was following right behind. And, the waiter says - and I quote - "Oh, no, you just ordered sour cream." Really? Because that's a normal thing to order?!?! Long story short, they got into an argument, the manager came over embarrassed as hell, and ended up comping our entire meal. Again, DON'T GO!)

The photos and descriptions of the dishes on the website look promising though, so I will reserve judgment until I am able to try Sinigual for myself. Has anyone heard anything more about this spot? I'll definitely give you an update once it opens and I check it out.

Sinigual
150 East 42nd Street
Actual location is 3rd Avenue b/t 41st & 42nd Streets
website

Monday, April 14, 2008

Portions, Not Flavor...to the Max

Since I'm not a red meat eater, I'm not one to frequent steak houses all that often (although I do love the side orders there). My roommate and I were going out for a joint birthday dinner, and she suggested Maxie's. I first thought, oh, Angelo & Maxie's...the steakhouse? Not my ideal pick. But, then I remember hearing that they opened a more casual restaurant behind it.

We met around 7:30, and while the bar area was packed with people having drinks and appetizers after work, the restaurant itself was pretty empty. As I scanned the menu, a handful of items caught my eye…some entrees, some sides. We decided that we were going to go all out and celebrate our birthdays in style with a ton of food….the only way to do it right!

We started with an order of Southern fried pickles and mac & cheese. I know to some of you, the thought of fried going with pickles may sound disgusting, but take my word for it – they’re delicious. I’ve had them at a few Southern/BBQ places around the city, and while Maxie’s version wasn’t my favorite (that title goes to Brother Jimmy’s version), they were still really good. They had a flavorful batter and were served with a tasty chipotle dipping sauce. The mac & cheese was just ok. It had a lot of cheese, especially the layer that was browned on the top that I love, but it needed either more salt or more flavorful cheeses. A little too bland for my liking.

I was feeling pretty full by this point, but I had already ordered my main dish…the Mediterranean Style Vegetable Burger. So, there was no turning back now. The menu said it came with a goat cheese sauce, so it seemed like an interesting twist on a veggie burger. Well, unfortunately, “interesting” is not how I’d describe this one. The burger itself was tasteless, brown mush and the sauce was so heavily seasoned with dill, it overpowered any hint of goat cheese. I picked at the “burger” for a few minutes, but then just gave up. The only saving grace to this dish were the shoestring fries that came with it. It was a heaping mound of crispy fries sprinkled with season salt (a fav of mine).

My roommate ordered the Maxie’s Chef Salad, which came with chicken, steak, and shrimp. Seems like a good pick for an indecisive diner! But, when the salad arrived, it looked like they forgot to finish preparing it. Large pieces of the meats and huge blocks of cheese covered the bowl. I guess they want to make you work for your food in order to enjoy it. It also had nothing else in it but lettuce, so if nothing else, it seems like the perfect dish for someone on the Atkins Diet.

So, Miss Menu has mixed review for Maxie’s, but I definitely think that had we ordered differently, we would have had a much better experience. At least the fries and fried pickles were good! The portions were all very large, so you definitely get your money's worth. Overall, it is a pretty interesting menu, different from your normal bar & grill. They have things like Kobe beef hot dogs and a Mexican burger served in a tortilla. Maxie’s would be a great place for a beer and a burger after work (or maybe during work! I won’t tell your boss.) in a restaurant that feels like a grown-up version of a typical bar, both in atmosphere and food.


Maxie's Bar & Grill
233 Park Avenue South
@ 19th Street
website
Menu Pages listing

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Keep It Au (Spring Street) Naturale

I met up with a friend for brunch one Saturday in SoHo on a beautiful spring day. And then, I did something I almost never do...roamed around til a restaurant caught our eye. As Miss Menu, I've become so accustomed to reading up on new restaurants and seeking out unusual places online. It's been a while since I went out for any meal without a predetermined spot in mind.

As I've mentioned before, I'm really not into the whole health/organic food or restaurant craze, so I'm always a little skeptical to try them out. My friend reassured me that I'd like Spring Street Natural, so I figured I'd be daring and give it a shot.

Since it was such a beautiful day and it was prime brunch time, we knew there would be a wait. Judging by the crowd waiting on the sidewalk and in the entry area, I was just hoping for a wait under 30 minutes. I was really hungry, so I was thrilled when the hostess said it would only be 10 minutes for a party of two.

We were seated in a little section of two-top tables that were so close together that when the girl behind me moved around, her hair would touch me...not OK. I’m pretty sure that area was made for 2 tables, but they tried to get away with squeezing in another one. We asked to move to an open table along the huge wrap-around windows. Much better. It was much more spacious, great for people-watching, and great for enjoying the sun on such a nice day.

We were given both the brunch and the lunch menus. I perused them both, and even when overlooking all the tofu and tempeh items, there were still multiple dishes that caught my eye. I was very tempted to get an omelette, but my friend reminded me that the past few brunches we’ve had together I’ve ordered omelettes. Apparently, I love my eggs on the weekends!

Between not wanting to bore you, my loyal readers, or myself, I decided to order something else, and ended up with the Grilled Free Range Chicken Burger. It was served on a toasted brioche bun with melted pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayonnaise, and came with hand-cut French fries. Not being into the free range/au naturale thing, I can’t really say if I could taste a difference between the chicken used in this burger and a chicken burger anywhere else. But, I can say that this one was delicious. It almost had the flavor of a meatloaf, with chopped onions and oregano mixed in. The pepper jack gave it a nice kick, and the chipotle mayonnaise added great flavor too.

The hand-cut fries were really tasty…fresh and crispy. The only complaint I have about them is that they were served with what I’m guessing to be an organic ketchup. Now, I’m sure it’s healthier without preservatives and partially hydrogenated whatever, but I was longing for some good ol’ Heinz to accompany these great fries.

On a negative note, I have to point out that I felt like we were being rushed the entire time. The waiter hounded us to order, and then again to pay our check. I know there was still a huge wait, but I wanted to enjoy a nice Saturday brunch and not feel like I needed to scarf down my food. To avoid this, I’d definitely recommend going here at off-peak hours on the weekend or maybe for dinner during the week. I have a feeling that the experience would be much more relaxed.

On a positive note, there were definitely a few good things to be said about Spring Street Natural. The menu is pretty extensive and offers a little something for everyone…green eaters and not. The prices are also pretty reasonable. It’s nice to see sandwiches (especially organic ones) under $10. Seems outrageous to those outside New York, I’m sure…but it’s pretty commonplace in this crazy city. Overall, I really enjoyed this meal, and think I may have turned a new leaf (no pun intended!) on this whole organic food thing.

Spring Street Natural
62 Spring Street
@ Lafayette Street
website
Menu Pages listing

Miss Menu Mentions - Midtown Lunch

I've always said how it's hard to find good food at a good price in Midtown, especially for lunch during the work week. Fortunately, Zach@MidtownLunch has created one of the most useful foodie sites I've come across. His goal is to help professionals like me "find lunch [and good lunch at that] in the food wasteland of New York's Midtown." He and his readers have some fantastic suggestions...definitely check out Midtown Lunch when if you're looking to spice up your lunch hour a bit!

Every Tuesday he turns over the site to a different Midtown Lunch’er for his or her recommendations for the best lunch in Midtown. Last week, I was lucky enough to be profiled, and here's what I had to say:

This Lunch’er is a Marketing Manager at the Wall St. Journal who can’t wait for it to get warmer so she can eat outside at Bryant Park.

Name: Shayna

Age: 27

Occupation: Marketing Manager & Blogger (http://www.missmenunyc.com/)

Where in Midtown do you Work?: The Wall Street Journal - 45th & 6th

Favorite Kind of Food: Tie between BBQ and Mexican. Growing up in Atlanta, I was surrounded by a lot of great BBQ places. Sure, people have their favorites in NYC, but it’s just not the same when the food isn’t served with a side of Southern charm by a waitress calling you “Sugar!”

Least Favorite Kind of Food: Indian

Favorite Place(s) to Eat Lunch in Midtown
: 1 - Pad See Ew at Pam Real Thai Encore at 47th b/t. 9th & 10th. This is my favorite Pad See Ew in the city. The sauce is so flavorful, and the huge portion is only $6.50. Definitely worth the walk over to 9th Ave. 2 - Falafel over rice from the cart at 48th & Park. The falafel is fresh and is served with rice, lettuce/tomato, and chickpeas that were prepared in a really tasty sauce. All of that plus a can of soda for only 5 bucks. 3 - Hunan chicken with brown rice at Ho Yip at 45th & 5th. The dish has great flavor and doesn’t skimp on veggies.

The “go-to” lunch place you and your co-workers eat at too often: Cranberry Deli on 45th b/t Broadway & 6th. I remember going there when I was visiting NYC with my family a long time ago. I was fascinated by the concept of so many different types of food all under one roof. Let me tell you, after being inundated by these delis for the last 5 years, the novelty quickly wore off. I will say that Cranberry may be one tiny notch up from the rest of the delis in the immediate area. You have to choose wisely if you do end up there, though. My go-to orders: The udon and soba soups, and sandwich #15 - grilled chicken with roasted red peppers, mozzarella, and pesto.

Place you discovered thanks to Midtown Lunch (if any)
? House of Pita on 48th b/t 5th & 6th. It was a sad day when I went there to get lunch and saw it had closed. While it wasn’t the best falafel I’ve had, I really loved their hummus and salad selections…especially the Israeli and bean salads. I heard they opened a location on 8th Ave. Unfortunately for me, it’s a little bit more of a hike, so I won’t be able to make it there as often as the original location.

If you could work anywhere (just because of the lunch) where would it be and why
? I’d live in Paris so I could order a galette oeuf fromage from a crepe stand every day for lunch. It’s a buckwheat crepe filled with Emmenthal cheese and a fried egg. This thing puts even the best egg & cheese on a roll to shame.

Is there anything you’d like to ask the Midtown Lunch readers?: I work a few blocks from Bryant Park and love eating lunch there when the weather is nice. Aside from the obvious options (’wichcraft, Chipotle, Pret a Manger, etc), does anyone have any suggestions for great (and maybe lesser known) places to pick up lunch before heading to the park?

I too can’t wait for Bryant Park to become a lunch’ing option again. For a pretty good list of lunches in the immediate vicinity, check out my Fashion Week Guide to Midtown Lunch’ing around Bryant Park. What’s your favorite Bryant Park lunch? Feel free to post it as a comment below…

Thursday, April 10, 2008

GYUd Stuff

Some people aren't fans of restaurants where you have to do the cooking yourself. They really can be found in cuisines from around the world...fondue, shabu shabu, and the type I went to recently at Gyu-Kaku, Japanese BBQ. I get that some people go out to dinner to escape having to cook their own food. But, I think Japanese BBQ (and the others) is so different and so much better than making dinner at home - for a few reasons.

First, you're in a restaurant setting...and a very cool one at that. Gyu-Kaku is a sleek, modern restaurant perched on the 2nd floor overlooking the hustle and bustle of 3rd Avenue. My friend and I were seated at the craziest table...it was a bench right up against the window that had a small table/bbq in front of you. Picture a booth divided in half long-ways. If you can handle not being able to gaze into your friend/date's eyes, then it's actually a cool setup! But, if you can't handle it, don't worry...they have regular tables too.

Second, cooking your own food makes a normal meal into a really entertaining experience. As long as you follow the waitress's instructions and don't start any fires, it's so much fun and can make for some really funny moments. Note to self...grill marks good, completely black on one side bad.

Third, the food is damn good. We ordered a little bit of everything so we could get the full experience. I got the chicken and chose the teriyaki sauce (one of four options). My friend got the US Kobe Beef Kalbi and chose the tari sauce. And we ordered the shrimp in garlic sauce and assorted vegetables to split. The assortment included corn, mushrooms, onions, eggplant, zucchini and cherry tomatoes.

All of the flavors and sauces were delicious. In addition to the marinades that came with each meat, there were three sauces available on the table for dipping as well: a spicy Japanese BBQ sauce, a ponzu soy sauce, and a ginger white soy sauce. Each one complimented the meats and vegetables so well. It was pretty easy to overcook the chicken since it was sliced so thinly, but after the first piece or two, I got the hang of it. Same went for my friend's Kobe beef.

We had enjoyed all of the food so far, but weren't quite full yet, so we decided we wanted to order something else. When we saw the waitress bring an order of Bibimbob to the table next to use, we knew that's what we had to get. If you aren't familiar with this dish, it's basically a rice dish that is brought out in a hot pot with chicken and vegetables. A raw egg is added table-side, and because the pot is so hot, the egg actually cooks in front of you. The waitress asks how spicy you want it and adds the equivalent amount of chili paste before mixing all the ingredients together. It was so unique and flavorful...I loved it.

Now, normally I skip dessert when I'm out to dinner unless it's a special occasion, but when we noticed the dessert that the same people next to use were preparing/eating, we had to have it....S'MORES!!!! First of all, s'mores are just so good, and second of all, where in the middle of this concrete jungle do you get to make your own s'mores?!?! We had the choice of milk or dark chocolate, and we went with the classic milk chocolate. They brought out two plates that each had 4 graham cracker squares, two pieces of Hershey's, and two giant marshmallows. They also give you really long skewers to roast the marshmallows with. So, we let the marshmallows catch on fire and blow them out, made our s'mores, and inevitably made a HUGE mess...it was heavenly.

Two BIG thumbs up to Gyu-Kaku. The food was terrific, the experience was fun, the atmosphere was very cool, and we had s'mores! What could be bad about that?!

Gyu-Kaku
805 3rd Avenue
@ 50th Street
website
Menu Pages listing

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Miss Menu Mentions

This whole blogging thing is still pretty new to me. Slowly but surely I'm learning the ropes, though. Aside from seeing my traffic grow and hearing positive feedback from my readers, the most exciting thing in the past 4 months has been seeing me/Miss Menu featured on other sites! Since these sites are kind enough to mention lil' old me, I wanted to share them with you too.

Cool in Your Code is an "innovative Emmy award winning “infotainment” show that breaks down what’s cool, new, undiscovered, and different throughout New York City’s 200+ zip codes. The show is currently airing 3 nights a week on NYC TV Channel 25." Each week, CiNYC's site features a different NY-centric blogger whose interview is posted on their "Around the Blog" section.

I was contacted by a CiNYC-er last month and was thrilled to share with her and the CiNYC audience my take on life in NYC. Here is the interview, which can also be seen at www.coolinyourcode.com/miss-menu:

As any New Yorker knows, you could live in NYC your whole life and be able to eat at a different restaurant every day. Miss Menu realized this exciting fact shortly after moving to the city. Coming from the South, she quickly embraced the diversity of food choices and ethnic varieties that can be found everywhere you turn. Her love of dining out became a joke among her friends, at the same time they turned to her for restaurant recommendations. On her blog, Miss Menu does not pull her punches when sharing her dining adventures. Whether she is dissing the straight out of the box rice pilaf at Ali Babi or raving about the multitude of vegetables on the pizza champion at Christina’s, there is no question where Miss Menu stands.

While Miss Menu continues to eat her way across town, we asked her what else she loves about life in the city...

What brought you to New York?
I grew up coming to New York every year with my family. The first time my parents let my brother and me go off on our own was when I fell in love with this city. We were in awe of seeing something exciting around every corner. That’s when I realized how there’s no where else in the US I’d rather live. After growing up in the South, I was definitely ready for a change of pace, and moving here after graduating from college was the perfect opportunity to take a stab at living in the Big Apple. Five years later, I couldn’t be happier.

What do you love about living in New York?
The main thing I love is the restaurants, obviously! You can find every type of food imaginable in every neighborhood. I walk down the street and get excited about spotting new restaurants I haven’t been to before and adding them to my rapidly-growing “to do” list. I also love that when I’m walking a few blocks, I can pass people from all walks of life. I love the view from my apartment window…Chrysler building to the left, and Queensboro Bridge/East River to my right. And finally, I love how at any time of day (or night), there is something going on and something to do. It’s true…this city never sleeps.

What do you think makes a New Yorker?
Someone who has thick skin and can elbow their way through crowded sidewalks. Someone with the knowledge of which way to walk when you come up the steps from the subway. Someone with the ability to quickly calculate how much to tip a cab driver. Someone who knows (not believes) that New York is the greatest city in the country, if not the world.

When you leave New York, what do you miss the most?
I miss the energy that this city has. It sometimes takes leaving New York to be reminded of how great that is. When I go home to visit my family in Atlanta, I realize how I have to take a deep breath and slow down a little. At first, it’s so relaxing. But after a while, I find myself getting a little bored and wanting to come back to NYC. And, I wouldn’t be Miss Menu if I didn’t mention how I miss the restaurant culture. Sure, other cities have some fantastic restaurants and local specialties. What makes this city so special is the ability to find fantastic ethnic restaurants within walking distance.

Do you know any tricks or insider info?
I’ve found that being even the tiniest bit friendly to service people can really pay off. I started saying “hi, how are you?” to the guy at the coffee cart outside my office. Now, as soon as he sees me walk up, he gets my order ready even if there are people ahead of me in line. I forgot my work pass one morning, and the security guard I had chatted with before let me through with no problem. I need something repaired in my apartment, and because I am friendly to the maintenance guy, he’s here in five minutes. A little geniality can go a long way!

Tell us about your blog… what is the premise, what are your main coverage areas, how did you get started?
On Miss Menu, I’m excited to share all of my NYC restaurant experiences…both the good and the not so good. Even though life in NYC can be a little uncertain at times, there is one thing I’m sure of…I will never get tired of dining out in this city. Some may say I dine out way too often, but I just think life is too short to be spent eating at home all the time when we live in one of the greatest culinary cities in the world!
This blog came to be after a few things happened: a friend kept joking that I am a walking Zagat guide; many others come to me for restaurant recommendations; and most recently, my boss nick-named me “Miss Menu” after suggesting a handful of restaurants that we could go to for an office lunch.
Follow my latest restaurant adventures, find ideas for your next meal, or even ask for suggestions. Bon Appetit!

Best corny tourist attraction that you secretly love?
Grand Central. Even though it’s a bit of a nightmare to walk through during rush hour, it really is a gorgeous building inside and out. It’s refreshing to see architecture other than modern skyscrapers. Seeing tourists taking photos of Grand Central makes me appreciate how cool it is to be able to walk through a major tourist destination on my walk to work every morning.

Best neighborhood bar?
Underground in Murray Hill. To me, it stands apart from the other bars in this neighborhood. It’s one of those bars that serves many purposes…after work bar, sports bar, lounge, outdoor bar. And, it’s hard to go wrong with their happy hour specials: $1 drafts and $3 mixed drinks.

Best late night joint?
The restaurant formerly known as Chickpea on 3rd Ave & St. Marks. It’s currently closed for remodeling and will be opened under another name, but they have some of the most authentic falafel in the city. It’s also open until 4am, which makes it a perfect fix for greasy, satisfying, late night food.

Last cultural thing that you did (movie, museum, theatre, etc…)?
I went to see the Jasper Johns’ Gray exhibit at The Met. The building itself is worth a visit. Add an incredible exhibit, and it becomes a “must see” cultural outing. It’s so impressive to see so many of his works all in one place, and to see the variety that he created using only shades of gray.

Best fancy schmancy restaurant?
Megu wins out here. Unfortunately, it’s not the type of restaurant I can dine at regularly, but I won a gift certificate to Megu at work and dined like a queen. The décor is top notch, and the food is even better. You know a place is fancy schmancy when they have a new Buddha ice sculpture brought in daily to serve as the focal point of the restaurant.

Best place to meet members of the opposite sex?
I don’t think there’s a specific spot, but I think in a city this complex, people in New York meet members of the opposite sex in a crazy variety of ways. I know people who have met on the train to Fire Island, at an apartment party, while watching a parade, and online. Some may make for better stories than others, but connecting with someone new in a city of 10 million is great no matter how it happens.

Best moviehouse?
Definitely the Sunshine Cinema on Houston. It’s a nice break from the cookie cutter mega-theaters that are found all over the city. While it lacks stadium seating, most of the theaters are pretty small and very comfortable.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A Food Network Chef's Cetrico Focus

I love venturing out to different neighborhoods in NYC. Each one has such a different feel...and more importantly for Miss Menu, even more new restaurants to try! I headed down to Tribeca on Saturday to try Centrico, an upscale Mexican restaurant. When checking out the restaurant's website and menu before heading downtown, the chef's name looked really familiar to me. I put it together that Aaron Sanchez was recently a contestant on Food Network's Next Iron Chef. Then I remembered that he was eliminated pretty early on in the competition. Hmm...I was seriously hoping he left the issues he had in the Next Iron Chef kitchen out of Centrico's kitchen!

Centrico has a great corner location...perched up high with tall ceilings and large windows that give it a very open and airy ambiance. When the weather permits, tables fill the wrap-around outdoor seating area. The restaurant has a simple, yet slightly-outdated, decor that manages to feel typically Mexican without the requisite sombreros and cacti. To start the meal off right, we ordered margaritas, which came in many different flavors, both frozen and on the rocks. I got the raspberry frozen margarita, which had freshly crushed raspberries on the bottom of the glass, topped with a very strong frozen margarita mix.

On the menu, it seemed like there were more entradas (starters) than there were platos principales (main dishes). By now, I'm sure you can guess what I suggested to my friend...let's order a bunch of appetizers to split! We weren't sure how many to order, so we started with three and let the waiter know we'd probably be ordering more later. First up for the first batch was the Queso Fundido. Think small baked casserole of hot, melty cheese with chorizo and potatoes mixed in. It was served with tiny, handmade corn tortillas that tasted so different and SO much better than the standard, packaged tortilla. My friend ate the chorizo, which left me with plenty of cheesy, potato goodness. In my opinion, melted cheese almost always tastes good, but the flavor of this dish was unbelievable.

Next up was the Plantanos Rellenos...sweet plantains filled with smoky beans,
drizzled with crema fresca. Despite not seeing or tasting much crema fresca, the flavor of the plantains with the black beans was really good. Problem was, it seemed like they had gotten cold after being prepared, and weren't as good as they probably could have been. People who know me well always think it's funny that I like plantains when bananas are one of my least favorite foods (read: I can't stand being around someone who is eating one!).

Rounding out this first batch was the Tostadas de Jaiba. Having no background in the Spanish language, I got a kick out of how that word is pronounced...sounds like High-ee-buh. Who knew?! I am usually not one to eat crab, but the waiter highly recommended this dish, so I had to give it a taste. It was made up of round tortilla chips that were topped with lump crabmeat, avocado, cilantro, and the most delicious chipotle-lime aioli. I have recently decided that I love almost every aoili I have ever had...such great, creative flavors combinations.

I was feeling pretty good at this point, but my friend wasn't satisfied yet. So, we went back for more, and decided on one more entrada each. I chose the Quesadilla de Verduras and my friend got the Camarones Crujientes. The quesadilla was described as being filled with seasonal vegetables, queso oaxaca, and topped with a roasted tomatillo salsa. Sounds pretty simple, but unfortunately it was too simple. The tortilla was one of the packaged kinds, which was disappointing after tasting the handmade ones earlier. And the seasonal vegetables consisted only of mushrooms. Now, I'm no farmer, but I'm pretty sure more than just mushrooms are in season right now...somewhere in the world. Basically, the only redeeming quality was the queso oaxaca. As I said before, melted cheese always makes it better! The tomatillo salsa was really flavorful and a nice addition too. I took my friend's word for it that the shrimp were tasty. I just couldn't get over them staring at me from the plate...can't stand when they're served head-on, even when I'm not eating them!

All in all, it was a pretty good meal. Some things were definitely amiss, and I can't help but think maybe they were similar to Sanchez's mistakes on the show. But, Centrico featured some interesting twists on class Mexican dishes. While this restaurant may not be "centrico" (centrally located) in Manhattan, it's definitely worth a trip downtown. If anything, just go to sit outside and enjoy a margarita and some queso fundido on a beautiful day.

Centrico
211 West Broadway
@ Franklin Street
website
Menu Pages listing

Sunday, April 6, 2008

No Longer Stoemped for Brunch Ideas

I’ve been fortunately to have some really good brunch experiences since my adventures as Miss Menu began, but after the brunch I had on Saturday, these all pale in comparison. A friend wanted to take me out for my birthday (I think I stretched the celebrations out to almost 2 weeks this year!), so we decided on going to brunch. Of course, it was up to me to decide where we would be dining. I knew exactly where I wanted to go, somewhere I had had in mind since I moved into my current apartment 3 years ago...Petite Abeille.

There are a few Petite Abeille locations around the city, but because it was such a nice day out, we decided to walk to the one near Stuy Town. I don’t know much about Belgian cuisine, aside from waffles and fries. So, I was looking forward to seeing what else we were in store for.

I was expecting the restaurant to be pretty crowded, but we were seated right away at a great table in the back. Waters and a basket with pieces of fresh baguette were brought out to the table seconds later. While first glancing over the brunch menu, it became apparent that a big decision had to be made…order one of the many omelette/egg dishes, or go with a more traditional Belgian waffle. These waffles come with all sorts of toppings…ice cream, strawberries, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, the combos go on and on. While these sound absolutely delicious, I wasn’t sure I could stomach all that sweetness so early in the day. So, we came up with the perfect solution…we each ordered an omelette and we ordered one plain waffle to split as dessert. Genius.

I noticed that almost all of the omelettes had pork in them, but the waiter had no problem with us making substitutions. I ordered the Ardennaise, which came with bacon, mushroom, spinach and onion. I asked if I could substitute gruyere for the bacon, and it was no problem. My friend thought that sounded like a good idea and ordered the same thing (but with egg whites).

I was expecting to see Belgian frites served on the side, but the menu mentioned that the egg dishes were served with a small mesclun salad and stoemp. I had NO clue what that was, but imagined it would be something potato-related, since that seems like a common side brunch item. When our food arrived, I saw what I assumed was the stoemp…a big orange pile of something that resembled mashed potatoes. After one bite, we quickly realized that not only was it a Belgian version of mashed potatoes, but more delicious than any mashed potatoes I had had before. After a little Wikipedia research, I learned that stoemp is dish local to the cuisines of Belgium and the Netherlands. It consists of pureed or mashed potatoes and other root vegetables. Since what we had was pretty bright orange, I’m guessing that that carrots or sweet potatoes were included also.

The omelettes themselves were definitely worth mentioning too. The eggs were cooked perfectly, and there were ample veggies inside, all creating a fantastic taste. The gruyere inside and sprinkled on top gave it a great salty flavor as well. My friend even made the comment that she eats omelettes once or twice each weekend, and this was the best one she’d had in recent memory. Even better than the ones we had at Les Halles, and so much better than the overcooked/burnt ones we’ve had at diners recently. I couldn’t agree more.

To round out a fantastic meal, we dug into the waffle. It was golden brown, light, and fluffy. I rarely order waffles, so it was a real treat, and definitely the perfect “dessert” ending to a great meal.

The decor inside Petite Abeille feels like a quaint Belgian kitchen. Blue and white-checkered tablecloths and Belgian sea salt bottles are found on the tables. Belgian beer bottles line the shelves that circle the space. And, even though they have real menus, the dishes are also written on chalkboards that are scattered throughout the restaurant. All in all, it was a fantastic brunch. The food was delicious and the atmosphere made us feel like we were really dining in a Belgian café on a beautiful spring day!


Petite Abeille
401 East 20th Street
@ 1st Avenue
website
Menu Pages listing

Saturday, April 5, 2008

This Buddha's Belly Deserves a Good Rub

Now, there are dozens of trendy sushi/Asian fusion restaurants in NYC, but there are only a few that fall into the "uber-swanky" category. I usually don't frequent those types of restaurants all that often, but they are great for special occasions like birthdays, graduations, or anniversaries. Friday night, I went out to celebrate one of my best friend's birthdays and we decided to go all out at Buddha Bar.

I hadn't been to the Buddha Bar in New York, but I celebrated my 21st birthday at the original Buddha Bar in Paris. Excited to go to the NYC location, I knew what to basically expect, but still managed to be blown away when walking into the restaurant. To say the decor is phenomenal would be an understatement. They have thought of everything...from the entranceway lined with statues to the 20-foot Buddha at one end of the dining room, the wood-carved dragons to the ornate chandeliers and wood-beam ceilings...the entire place just oozes swank (just take a look at the photos on their website if it's hard to imagine!).

We had a reservation and were seated right away at a fantastic table right next to the Buddha. It gave us a great spot to take it all in...the atmosphere, the food, and the crowd (especially the party of 40 made up mostly of 6'2" models!).

Since there were so many fantastic appetizers and sushi rolls on the menu, we decided to order those, rather than entrees. It was a great way to try a few different things on the menu from each part of the Asian fusion. We each ordered the Buddha Bar Chicken Salad. So, you're probably thinking, "a salad at a place like this?" I k know, I know...but it was really delicious, I swear! Pieces of grilled, marinated chicken were mixed with crispy wontons, cabbage, and an Asian sesame vinaigrette.

I had heard from a friend that the Chilean sea bass was fantastic at Buddha Bar, so it was great to see that there was a specialty roll with sea bass in it. The BBQ Chilean Sea Bass Roll had cooked sea bass that was coated in a sweet miso glaze. On the side was a Japanese bbq sauce to dip the roll in, rather than soy sauce. It was absolutely delicious.

To round out the meal, I ordered a side of Wok Fried Vegetable Chow Fun. I was hoping/expecting that it would be different from the chow fun I order from delivery Chinese places. And, it was...VERY different. The wide noodles were cooked perfectly and the sauce had a great flavor. Even better, there were actual vegetables in the dish (asparagus, red peppers, mushrooms, broccoli, and onions), which differs SO much from the delivery "vegetables" of onions and sprouts.

Since it was my friend's bday, we couldn't pass up ordering a dessert...especially so she could blow out a candle! We ordered the Espresso and Lemongrass/Ginger Creme Brule duo. I'm not a huge fan of coffee or coffee-flavored things, so I only had one bite of the espresso one. But, I really enjoyed the lemongrass and ginger one, which was surprisingly delicious. And, the dessert even came with a "Happy Birthday" wafer on the side.

All in all, it was a night of fantastics...fantastic scene, fantastic food, and fantastic company. If you are looking for a restaurant for a special occasion, Buddha Bars fits the bill...even if that Buddha has a big belly!


Buddha Bar
25 Little West 12th Street
b/t 9th Avenue & Washington Street
website
Menu Pages listing