Saturday, May 31, 2008

Run Like the Bulls to Pamplona

One of my friends and a fellow blogger Smith was working on a feature about his favorite deals in Manhattan…some of them are well-known and some are pretty secretive. Only the cool kids are in the know! So, we met for lunch one day to try out one of the great deals. Pamplona is a modern Spanish restaurant in the Flatiron area that features a great tapas menu along with a host of other dishes. When I first glanced over the menu, my first thought was, “um, a $30 lunch during the workday isn't my idea of a deal!” Then Smith quickly informed me that they have unpublicized lunch deal: soups, salads, sandwiches all for under $6. Ahh, much better.

We walked in and saw no mention of a lunch menu, but spoke to the hostess and she rattled off the take-out specials of the day. The menu rotates daily, but from the options she told us about, it seems like there’s something on the menu for all tastes, whether it’s steak, chicken or vegetarian.

I ordered the chicken sandwich, which came with roast chicken, avocado, manchego cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a garlic aioli served on a fresh baguette. I knew it’d probably be good, but was thinking to myself, “how different can this chicken sandwich really be from the ones I order at the deli across from my office?!” Well, VERY different. First off, it was a huge sandwich, probably a foot-long, and only $6! Second, the chicken was very flavorful and moist. The avocado was nice and ripe. I love anything that has melted manchego on it, so that was a no-brainer! And lastly, the baguette was the perfect consistency…crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside.

I was sold…but, it left me wishing my office was a little closer! Smith ordered a soup/sandwich combo (which is only $5!) and got a ½ steak sandwich (prepared in a similar fashion to my chicken one) and a cup of green gazpacho. I didn’t try his sandwich, but the gazpacho was delicious and very refreshing on a warm Spring day.

If you work anywhere in the vicinity of 28th b/t Madison and Park Aves, you must try Pamplona for lunch! It’s not fair to us who work in the 40s and 50s if you don’t! Another great perk is its proximity to Madison Square Park. Fantastic way to get a great meal at a great price and break up the work day by spending lunch in a beautiful park!

37 East 28th Street
b/t Park & Madison Avenue
Menu Pages listing

Friday, May 30, 2008

Lay the S'mac Down

What is there not to love about mac ‘n cheese?! And, more importantly, what is there not to love about a mac ‘n cheese restaurant?!?! Unless you’re lactose intolerant, you have no excuse! Many of you may know the goodness that I am talking about…S’mac. I had heard about this restaurant for years since it opened, but for some reason, never made it there. With my friend in from out of town, we decided to venture down to S’mac in the East Village to meet another friend for lunch.

For whatever reason, mac ‘n cheese is very popular in NYC and is easy to find on menus all around town, whether it’s as a side item or an entire entrée. Most of the time, they are pretty straightforward recipes, varying in the levels of cheesiness and crustiness. But S’mac takes it to an entirely different level. Sure, the basics are there…elbow macaroni and cheese, but that is about where the similarities stop.

The menu features 10 versions of mac ‘n cheese that literally take you around the globe, ranging from Parisienne to Alpine to Mediterranean to good ol’ American. Three sizes are available: Nosh, Major Munch, and Mongo. Let me tell you that this stuff is RICH…so unless you have a very hearty appetite, don’t be fooled by the seemingly small size of the Nosh.

Since I am literally the most indecisive person when it comes to ordering anything at a restaurant, especially one that has multiple varieties of the same thing, I quickly asked my friend if he was interested in sharing anything. We both wanted to be adventurous and try some of the creative mac ‘n cheese varieties, but felt like we couldn’t miss out on the All-American, the more typical version. It's said to be “just the way you remember it as a kid! Nostalgia at its finest.”

We decided to go with our own Nosh and then would split an All-American Nosh. I ordered the Buffalo Chicken Mac, with cheddar & American cheeses, boneless chicken pieces, and buffalo wing sauce, with the option to have it topped it off with crumbled blue cheese. It was so good, so rich, so cheesy, so spicy, and really tasted just like buffalo chicken…but with noodles! My friend got the Alpine, with gruyere and slab bacon, and really enjoyed the flavor. The All-American was phenomenal. It tasted how you expect mac ‘n cheese should taste, but turned up a few notches! And so fresh, right out of the oven with a nice crust on top. Our other friend got the La Mancha, but in the Major Munch size. She ate maybe 1/3rd of it! We helped her out a little, mainly because I wanted to be able to sample 4 varieties. This was probably the biggest departure from the traditional mac ‘n cheese, using manchego cheese with fennel and shallots.

If you’re thinking “holy crap” at this point, I’m right there with you! There was no way we were finishing all of this. Good news, we clearly weren't the only ones to have this problem. They have take-out containers sitting out so you can bring home the leftovers. And, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it reheated. For the health-conscious (although I'm not sure why these people would even be going to S'mac!), there are multi-grain and gluten-free pasta options available for every dish.

This is definitely not the type of restaurant I could dine at on a regular basis (way too rich!), but for a special treat, it is definitely worth getting a little s'mac-ed around!

345 East 12th Street
b/t 1st & 2nd Avenue
Menu Pages listing

Make A Vezzo of This Place

In Murray Hill, there are a hundred and one pizza places. There are a dozen and one sit-down pizza restaurants. But, to my knowledge, there is only one brick-oven pizza place. It was a very welcomed addition to the neighborhood in my book! And, I was excited to finally try it out.

Aside from its brick oven, Vezzo stood out in a lot of other ways too. As soon as I walked in, I noticed how the restaurant has a very warm feeling with exposed brick and pipes and dim lighting. And that was even on a cool, rainy night. It has a vibe that is different from any of the other Italian/pizza places nearby. It felt more comfortable and authentic with people drinking Peronis and wine out of carafes.

There was a pretty long wait on a Saturday night and virtually no waiting area. So, when a few seats opened up the bar, my friend and I were happy to sit there rather than keep waiting. We decided to share a salad and a pizza. I almost never dine at the bar anywhere, so it was fun to change it up and to also be in the middle of all the action. The hostess was also playing the roll of waitress, bartender, and busboy, so things seemed a little frantic, but service was still very quick and attentive.

We started with the Greek salad that was served with black olives, feta cheese, cucumbers, yellow peppers, sweet red onions, and tomatoes. The salad arrived very quickly, but looked like it was completely dry. Soon followed bottles of extra virgin olive oil and white balsamic vinegar. I had never heard of, let alone had, white balsamic vinegar, but I have since become a huge fan. It was similar in flavor to regular balsamic, but something about it made it better!

We looked over the huge list of pizza options and noticed how many creative combos there were: Chixpotle, El Greco, Spicy Garden. We ended up going with Fromaggio Blanco, which had fresh ricotta, fresh mozzarella, spinach, and basil. Even though it had no sauce, it was far from dry or bland. With a little dash of garlic powder, the pizza was delicious. There was a little too much fresh basil on top, but it was easy to pick off. The pizza was super thin, and the crust was perfect…not too doughy, but not too crispy.

In Italian, vezzo means "habit." They must have known they had a good thing going because I definitely would like to make a habit of this place. I am eager to go back and try some of the other pizza combinations. The other pizzas we saw on other diners’ tables all looked fantastic. Vezzo is the perfect kind of place to go with friends, sit back, and enjoy the great food, drink, and atmosphere.

178 Lexington Avenue
@ 31st Street
Menu Pages listing

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Everything But the Kitchen Sink - I Miss Paris Style!

Well, I have returned from the land of wine, cheese, more wine, and more cheese, and I think it's safe to say that I ate my way through Paris (and Corsica)! My brother did a phenomenal job of picking restaurants for us to dine at and buying great food for us to eat on our picnics. I couldn’t have been happier that a) the decision-making was out of my hands for a change, and b) that we didn’t waste any time roaming around from restaurant to restaurant reading menus trying to decide where to eat. As I mentioned in my first post, I always ran into that problem when I lived in Paris 6 years ago, and it was because of this that I learned the fine art of restaurant researching. I guess I have that experience to thank for the creation of Miss Menu, though!

So, I’m not going to go into detail about each of the restaurants we went to since this is Miss Menu NYC, and not Miss Menu Paris. But, for those of you who have been to Paris, are planning on going in the future, or just love the city like I do, then I figure you may appreciate a quick “best of/favorite” list.

Best falafel (IN. THE. WORLD.) – L’As Du Fallafel
I have had some really great falafel in New York and all over Israel, but this one is the best one I’ve ever had…and plenty of bigtime food critics couldn’t agree more. The name translates to "The Ace of Falafel," and they aren't joking. The falafel itself was absolutely perfect, but what made this sandwich really stand out were the toppings: grilled eggplant, seasoned cucumbers, pickled cabbage, and a really flavorful, spicy (but not too spicy) harisa.

Best salade de chevre chaud – Page 35
This salad appears on every single café/bistro/brasserie menu, but the one at Page 35 really blew me away. This one had a unique dressing (most French salads have the same generic, bland dressing) and goat cheese that was served warm on the most delicious, garlicky round toast/croutons.

Best soufflé – Le Cigale Recamier
Even though the word is clearly French, I never really thought of soufflés as being a French dish. My brother took me to this soufflé restaurant where there were 10 savory and 6 sweet soufflés on the menu (along with regular appetizers and entrees as well). I ordered a cheese soufflé for my entrée, and we shared a chocolate soufflé. Both were absolute perfection. Making soufflé is a true art form because not preparing and cooking it precisely can cause the entire thing to collapse.

Really good (but hard to pick a best!) Nutella crepe – crepes stand at Place Odéon
You have to look for a crepes stand where they are making the crepe itself to order and in front of you. Some busy crepes stands in touristy areas have a stack of already-made crepes so all they have to do is put it back on the griddle and add the toppings. This crepe was prepared fresh and the guy added ample Nutella…mmm. Sure, they have Nutella crepes in NYC. They appear at every single street fair, but you should know that the Nutella made in the US doesn’t even compare to the Nutella made in Europe. Different oils, different amounts of chocolate and hazelnut…all of these things make Nutella from Europe so much better. And that, my friends, is why I had to bring a jar home with me!

Best beer - Pietra from Corsica
I'm by no means an expert beer connoisseur, but I always love finding a beer that I really enjoy the taste of. Having had plenty of wine over the past week, I decided to order a local beer while we were sitting at a cafe on the marina in Calvi. It was really good, and came in a really cool glass too! I have no clue if they sell Pietra in the states, but I'll definitely be keeping my eyes open for it now.

Best soupe a l'ognion (French onion soup) - Cafe on Rue de Buci
This dish is one of the things I lived off of my first time in Paris, and even though they have it at every French restaurant in NYC, it was great to have an authentic bowl of it while I was there. There's always usually a good amount of gruyere or emmenthal cheese melted on the top, but this bowl literally had the equivalent of an entire package of cheese on it. Good to the last drop.

Favorite new cheese -
I have close to zero knowledge about cheeses or cheese-making, but I will tell you that this one was delicious. We bought it at an outdoor market for only 1€50 each
(along with 4 others), and we ended up having it at three of our wine & cheese "pique-niques" in different parks around Paris. A piece along with a fresh baguette and a bottle of wine made for the perfect lunch or snack.

So that's my post-France wrap-up. It was an incredible trip, but it's good to be back. Don't get me wrong, I love Paris so much, but there was a lot I missed about NYC too. Au revoir, t'aime! Good to be back, New York!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Everything But the Kitchen Sink - Paris Style!

To my loyal readers - So sorry for the lack of posts lately. I have been way too preoccupied with preparing for my big trip to France!! Can you blame me?! It's been 6 years since I was there as a student, and now I'll be visiting my brother who is spending the semester there. Six days in Paris and five in Corsica = my personal heaven.

I'm very curious to see how I'll view Paris dining now that I have thoroughly fallen in love the NYC restaurant scene And even more so now that my palate has expanded since I was there last.

I am off to the land of some of my food favorites: fries, crepes (especially the egg & cheese kind I mentioned in my Midtown Lunch'er profile!), cheese, wine, and onion soup. I'll definitely be skipping the frog legs and escargot though! I'd love to one day have a Miss Menu Paris, but until then, I'll be sure to update you once I return on some of the great meals I'll have had.

Au revoir et bon appetit!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

"Ess" Them by the Dozen

A trip to NYC wouldn't be complete without a true New York bagel. Much like the great debate on pizza, there is much discussion as to what makes a good bagel. My favorite (and fortunately my friend's favorite too) is Ess-a-bagel. So, we decided to make a stop there on the way to the Yankees that is my kind of Saturday!

"Ess" in Yiddish means "eat," and you certainly won't find me arguing with that glorious concept: eat-a-bagel. Ess-a-bagel makes all of its bagels on the premises in both locations. This ensures that no matter what time you go, there will always be fresh bagels available. Sometimes, they are so fresh that they are almost too hot to handle when you sit down to eat them. This is the reason that toasting is looked so down upon by the employees. I couldn't agree more. Why ruin perfection?! They are soft and chewy in the inside and nice and crunchy on the outside.

Everything at Ess-a-bagel is in excess. The bagels are massive and they are overflowing with toppings, no matter if it's a lot of schmear, lox, or tuna salad. I ordered the whole wheat bagel with plain cream cheese, and my friend got a sesame bagel with butter. Both had so much that we ended up scraping some off. But they were still divine.

Aside from the dozen varieties of bagel flavors, there are also dozens of schmear flavors ranging from veggie to scallion tofu to (and I'm not even joking with this) Oreo. There are dozens of "appetizing" - i.e. tuna salad, egg salad, whitefish salad, etc. and dozens of other goodies like pastries and knishes. You get the idea. Everything I've ever ordered there has been delicious, with one exception...the egg sandwiches. Because they don't have a griddle, they make their "eggs" in the microwave. If you're dying for an egg & cheese that badly, bypass Ess-a and head to your local bodega.

Ess-a-bagel seems quintessentially "New York" to me, and that's part of its appeal. Its wood-paneled walls and decor haven't been touched in decades. There are sesame and poppy seeds all over the floor, but rather than being dirty, it somehow gives the place more character.

For some added amusement, watch for the crotchety employees to speak a few words of Japanese to the hoards of tourists who found Ess-a-bagel in a guide book. And then watch the tourists' reaction...priceless.

831 3rd Avenue
b/t 50th & 51st Street
Menu Pages listing

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Oh Yes to Food, Ono to Service

I had a friend from home in town this weekend (who was also with me at Pompano) who used to live in New York. This seemed like the perfect reason to cash in some of my AmEx In:NYC points. These points provide gift certificates to a host of restaurants and bars around the city...some of them my friend and I have already been to and are more run-of-the-mill, and some are very upscale and ones I probably wouldn't frequent except for a special occasion. Between having a gift certificate to use at a high-end spot and a good friend visiting, Ono fit the bill.

It goes without saying that Ono is definitely one of those uber-trendy Asian fusion restaurants. Its locale alone (both in the Hotel Gansevoort and in the Meat Packing District) is enough to make this a hot spot. On top of that, as soon as you walk in, you are accosted by trendiness. The lighting is dim, the decor is modern, the DJ is spinning house music, the bar is packed. Pure swank.

We were seated on the 2nd floor next to a huge window overlooking the Ono garden and the heart of the Meat Packing District...such a great vantage point. We started with the cocktail list and both were in the mood to try something unique. I ordered the Raspirinha...a Caipirinha with muddled raspberries, except they were out of raspberries so I got strawberry instead. Cachaca is a very different-tasting alcohol, definitely nothing I'm used to, but it was a really good drink. My friend ordered a cucumber margarita that could only be described as "refreshing."

We began to take a look over the menu and noticed that a majority of it was made up of small plates and sushi, with a few large plates at the bottom. We decided to share a few things (shocker!) and ordered the chicken and scallop robatas, a spider roll, and wasabi mashed potatoes. The robatas were two skewers of each meat served with five dipping sauces. The chicken and scallops were both cooked very well and had a great grilled flavor, but it was really the sauces that made these dishes. We sampled all five and really liked them all: shisho pesto, spicy plum miso, sesame mustard, scallion ponzu, and kimchee. The spider futomaki was delicious...the crab was so fresh and fried to perfection, and the spicy japanese mayo gave it an extra boost of flavor. And as generic a side item as it sounds, the wasabe mashed potatoes were fantastic. They were creamy and garlicky, with a wasabi flavor that wasn't too overpowering. Wasabi peas were mixed in, which gave it a surprising crunch.

I never go into restaurants like this expecting the service to be phenomenal. I think it's part of the job interview that the wait staff has to prove it can be snooty. That is unless the diners are dropping hundreds of dollars, in which case they are your best friend. When our waitress heard that we weren't ordering anything else (even though our tab was close to $100), she went very quickly from friendly to pushy. She left the bill with us immediately and proceeded to stop by three times to ask if it was ready. But, then when we were actually ready to pay, she was MIA and couldn't be bothered.

But, Miss Menu is never one to let mediocre service ruin an otherwise great experience. It was the perfect opportunity to try a great new place with a great old friend.

One quick Miss Menu pointer: If you are planning on dining at Ono and want to make your reservation through Open Table, be sure to go to the site directly, not linking from Ono's website. If you do it via Ono's site, it will tell you that dining points are not applicable to that meal. Sure it's only 100 points, but with all of the dining out I've been doing lately, I'm hoping to have another gift certificate heading my way!

at Hotel Gansevoort
18 9th Avenue
b/t 13th & Gansevoort Street
Menu Pages listing

Friday, May 2, 2008

Yo Quiero Pompano

In the past I have expressed my disdain for the Mexican food (especially burritos) in New York. But, thanks to a suggestion from a friend and fellow blogger, I have found a place that may have completely changed my opinion for good. Pompano Taqueria is the off-shoot of Pompano, a high-end Mexican restaurant run by Chef Richard Sandoval. This taco is truly a hidden gem, unless you are fortunate enough to work in the building in which it is located.

Pompano Taqueria has a small, but impressive, menu that features flavor combinations that are available on tacos, quesadillas, tortas, or burritos. I had to go with the namesake items and ordered two tacos: one Alambre with grilled chicken and one Pescado. I also made it a combo, which, for $2.50 more, gives you rice and beans, a soda, and a bag of homemade tortilla chips. But, here’s a Miss Menu tip: If you order two tacos (or more), it automatically comes with chips.

But, back to the heavenly tacos. The Alambre consisted of perfectly grilled chicken with poblano rajas (grilled peppers) and melted manchego cheese served in a flour tortilla. I have only recently begun to truly appreciate the goodness that is manchego cheese. And now that I have seen the light, I can’t get enough of it. This may have easily been the best taco I’ve ever had, and without a doubt the best one I’ve ever had in NYC. I seriously didn’t want to finish the last bite!

The Pescado featured sautéed king fish with napa cabbage and a chipotle sauce in a flour tortilla. The king fish was really tender and not fishy at all. The cabbage gave it a great crunch, but I wasn’t the biggest fan of the chipotle sauce. I know chipotle is suppose to be smoky, but this was a little too much. If you are a chipotle flavor fan, then I’m sure you’ll love this taco though.

Now, for the extras. The authentic chips were fantastic and not greasy at all. They definitely were good enough to eat on their own, but tasted even better with the salsas. There was a salsa/toppings bar next to the cash register that features 3 salsas, a pica de gallo, chopped red onions, and cilantro. I tried the roasted tomato and the tomatillo salsas, both of which were very flavorful. I didn’t even want to put them on the tacos because the flavors were so good on their own. The rice and beans were pretty disappointing. The rice was on the bland side and the beans tasted straight out of the can. I ended up pouring some of the roasted tomato salsa on them to give it a boost. It helped a little, but I would have rather had another taco than fill up on the rice and beans.

Another Miss Menu tip: If you call ahead, you can skip the line and walk right up to the front to pick up your order. If you work in Midtown West, this makes it even more reason to make the trek to 3rd Avenue during your lunch hour! The line to order doesn’t take long, but there can be a decent wait to pick up your food. I waited about 10 minutes. At least you can be sure that the tacos aren’t pre-made and sitting under a heat lamp!

All in all, this was one of the best Midtown lunches I’ve had, without a doubt. The food was delicious, and you could taste how fresh the quality ingredients were. Pompano Taqueria is seriously unlike anything else available in the area and a true culinary treat. I’m already planning my next taco outing!

Pompano Taqueria
Pavillion Food Court - Lower Level
805 Third avenue
b/t 49th & 50th Street

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Kitschy Cowgirl

I'm not sure what it is about Southern/BBQ restaurants that make the owners feel the need to decorate it in the most over-the-top manner. They try to cover every square inch of wall space with every country/western knick knack known to man. Of course there are exceptions to this rule (the more classy joints), but Cowgirl fits right in with the "chotchkies galore" mentality when it comes to its decor.

Old highway signs, gun racks, and cowboy hats decorate the space and the wooden booths make you feel like you're in a western saloon. If I hadn't been to Cowgirl before, I would have been convinced that this place was a complete tourist trap. My co-workers and I went there for dinner before another colleague's performance a few blocks away. I quickly reassured them that it was a fun, neighborhood restaurant and we'd have a great meal.

Just as soon as we were seated and our drink orders were taken, chips and black-eyed pea salsa was brought to our table. As weird as we all thought it looked at first glance, this salsa was absolutely delicious. I didn't want to fill up on the chips and salsa too much, but luckily the little bowl went quickly among the four of us.

There were so many dishes that really caught my eye on the menu...I knew it was going to be a tough choice! Cowgirl was too unique to order any of the typical items like fajitas or a bbq chicken sandwich, so it was easy to eliminate those. Then, something stood out to me and I knew I had to order it...a Frito pie. Most of you from above the Mason-Dixon line probably have no clue what a Frito pie is. Imagine Frito chips (you know, those salty, greasy, corn chips) covered in chili and all the fixin's.

Cowgirl took it to the next level, further convincing me they have some creative chefs in that kitchen! Not only was the veggie chili (there is also the choice of beef brisket) served on top of the Fritos, but the entire dish was served IN a Fritos bag!!

The Fritos got soggy pretty quickly under the heat of the chili, but the first few bites had a great crunch. The chili itself was delicious...a little sweet, a little spicy, and had a lot of beans and veggies in it. The whole thing was topped with shredded cheddar, sour cream, chopped onions, and jalapenos. It seemed like a small portion at first, but was definitely very hearty.

So far, so good. To add to the great experience, if you order the 32oz fountain drinks, there are free refills...and you know how I feel about that! Granted most people cannot consume 64 ounces of soda in one sitting, but then again, who ever claimed Miss Menu was "most people?!" My co-workers really enjoyed their meals too. Two got the Cowtown Quesadillas with pulled chicken and another got Papa Joel's Pulled Pork sandwich. They also liked the frozen margaritas, one was mango flavor and the other was made with Jameson instead of tequila.

If you're looking for a cute (if not slightly over-decorated!) place with a lively atmosphere, great bar scene and happy hour, and some good ol' down-home cooking, Cowgirl is the place for you. Happy eatin', y'all!

519 Hudson Street
@ West 10th Street
Menu Pages listing