Monday, July 28, 2008

Good, Bon, Bueno, or Buono?!

Now that I made it back to the US, it was time for Miss Menu to get down to business. I extended my trip and stayed a week longer than my new friends. So, I organized a little reunion dinner for the night I got back. A bunch of restaurant options immediately started running through my head…needed a place that could accommodate 8 of us, had a fun atmosphere (or at least one that could handle our raucous!), and had good drinks. Even though I had only been back for all of 12 hours, I was already experiencing some serious Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food withdrawal, so choosing Casaville was a no-brianer. I had eaten there when it first opened last year and had a really good experience. So, without over thinking it (which I tend to do without fail!), I made a reservation.

We had an 8:30 reservation, but we had all discussed meeting at 8. When we got there at 8, the restaurant was deserted. They seemed hesitant to seat us before our actual time, but after pretty much taking over the bar area, they seated us a few minutes later. We had the entire back section to ourselves. Needless to say, I was thrilled at how great this was all working out. So rare for big group dinners go off without a hitch. The server was very attentive…quickly bringing out bread baskets and waters, answering our questions about the menu, and offering up great suggestions on what and how much to order.

But, a few minutes after sitting down, we quickly realized there was a pretty big problem. They had just opened the front windows/doors so the A/C was doing nothing. And, the ceiling fan above us was broken. It was pretty warm, pretty warm. But, we ordered more pitchers of ice cold sangria and made the most of it. The sangria was good…not nearly as sweet as I expected it to be, but had a lot of fruit in it and definitely did the job. We easily went through 3 pitchers.

It took us a while to figure out what to order…did we want to order a ton of tapas to share, our own entrees, or a little bit of both. We went with the latter. I started with a few tapas among three of us, and then we all got our own entrees. First up was Brie Tied - warm brie cheese with fried grapes and honey. I’ve had warm brie with fruit before, but this one was fantastic…a perfectly flaky crust, a little salty and a little sweet, and you seriously can't go wrong with melted cheese. I also got the Petite Paella with saffron rice with shrimp, calamari, and mussels. Even though I don’t eat the shellfish, I love the flavor of paella (as a friend pointed out, I basically like saffron-flavored rice!) So, he ate the seafood and I helped with the rice and veggies (aka peas). It seemed to be a little bit lacking in the strong flavor that I was expecting, but was by no means bad. Also ordered were the Calamari Grille (grilled calamari in oregano, garlic and olive oil), Clams (steamed little necks clams with sofrito, garlic and olive oil), and Crevette a L'ail (sauteed shrimp in garlic sauce). Everyone really enjoyed all of these. I dipped some of the baguette in the sauces, so I can attest to them being delicious…so flavorful and very garlicky.

Next up were the entrees. The popular pick among the group was the Paella Valenciana with chorizo, chicken, shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari. I tasted it and was blown away by how much more flavorful this batch of paella was than our petite paella from before. Not sure if it was because of all the other ingredients or if this round just had more sauce and seasoning. Glad I was able to have a taste of everyone else’s though!

I ordered a vegetable couscous, which came with a delicious broth on the side that I added myself. The couscous was cooked really well…light and fluffy. There was a nice mix of veggies…chickpeas, carrots, zucchini, and onions. And in true Moroccan style, raisins were thrown on top, which always give a nice added flavor and consistency. Another friend ordered the pesto pasta, which I thought was a little random, but he said it was tasty, if not a little heavy on the cream. Next time, stick with the Spanish food, M.E.!

So, you may be reading this thinking, what kind of restaurant is this?! Moroccan couscous, Spanish paella, and Italian pasta. Casaville has great food, but a bit of a personality disorder, trying to be a few too many cuisines all in one. Granted most of these cuisines come from the Mediterranean area, but after dining here twice, I’m still not totally sure what to label Casaville. The restaurant itself may be slightly confused, but the chef certainly is not. All the food I tried was great. The atmosphere has a very warm, lively feel with vintage French posters and Moroccan light fixtures and drapery. Whether you’re looking for a nice, low-key spot to grab dinner mid-week, a lively place to dine with a group of friends on the weekend, or a spot to have a nice Sunday brunch (with live music), Casaville fits the bill.

633 2nd Avenue
b/t 34th & 35th Streets
Menu Pages listing

Everything But the Kitchen Sink - Israel Style!

And, I’m back! I have to start by apologizing to all my loyal readers for my extended absence. I have been out of town for about 4 of the last 5 weeks, and am finally getting back into the swing of things. Thanks for hanging in there. Definitely expect a lot more posts in the coming days/weeks…hopefully they will have been worth the wait!!

Now back to the good stuff…the food! I spent 2 ½ weeks in Israel, which were 2 ½ of the best weeks of my life. While I’m sure most of you don’t have a trip planned there in the near future, it wouldn’t be fair of me to deprive you of the great food experiences I had over there! Here’s a quick Israel dining recap:

Falafel and Hummus:
Falafel and hummus are to Israelis as pizza is to New Yorkers, cheesesteaks are to Philadelphians, and BBQ is to Southerners. In other words, calling it a staple doesn’t even begin to do it justice. Food establishments serving these two items can be found everywhere: in every neighborhood, at sit-down restaurants and at food stands, and even in mall food courts. Lucky for me, I LOVE falafel and hummus. A lot. I have them pretty frequently in NYC, but there is something about having the pair in Israel that makes them taste so much better. It reminds me of the Hebrew National hot dog’s definitely because they “answer to a higher authority!”

Falafel served in a laffa instead of a pita at the mall:
Think fluffy burrito filled with falafel, hummus, eggplant, cucumber, and french fries (aka chips). Perfection!

It wasn't my favorite, but Abu Chassan is viewed as the best hummus in Tel Aviv/Jaffa:
Now, this was my absolute favorite of the entire trip:

Drooling yet?!

So, it may seem/look like all I ate for 2+ weeks was hummus and/or falafel. Well, it was close. I think I counted eating falafel 8 times. As for the hummus, I lost track. It was served at every meal I had except 3…including breakfast! But, I did have some other really good food while I was there. We had a great dinner at a sushi restaurant in Jerusalem called Gong. Can’t go wrong with delicious sushi served on wooden boats, endless sake bombs, and fantastic new friends.

We also went to a small chain called Burger Bar, which is very similar to a lot of burger concepts in NYC (Better Burger, goodburger, Five Guys, etc.). Of course, I didn’t have a burger, but they had fantastic chicken and veggie options, great fries and onion rings, and at least a dozen tasty sauces to go with the sandwiches.

I'm really sad that my 2008 foreign travels are over, but I have a feeling that dining out in NYC will help ease the pain. With all of the various cuisines, restaurants in this city can very easily turn a dinner out with friends into your very own world-traveling adventure!