Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hola Arepa!

My brother was in town for the weekend, and we debated for almost an hour where we should have lunch last Saturday. After flipping through a handful of top sandwich lists from NYMag, Serious Eats, etc., we finally decided on Caracas Arepa Bar. I’ve walked by this dozens of times on the way to other restaurants in the East Village, and we were excited to finally try it.

We walked into a packed, tiny space with a few tables waiting ahead of us. Luckily, there were 2 open seats at a side bar area that I guess no one else was interested in. After seeing how cramped everyone was at their tables, we both agreed that this worked out very well.

Both the hostess and the server were so nice, and patiently walked us through the menu and provided some great recommendations. We asked the server how the guasacaca (Venezuelan style guacamole) & chips were, and her face spoke volumes. Without totally knocking the guac, she instead recommended we try the tostones mochimeros. Guac can be good, but never really anything so special. So we were happy to get a recommendation from someone who a) knows the menu, and b) is from Venezuela.

The tostones came out and our jaws immediately dropped. These huge slices of fried green plantains were topped with a green “mojito” mayo, a squeeze of lemon, and crumbly white cheese. 

The edges were perfectly crispy, and the center was just a little soft, so it was a great combo of textures. The mojito mayo had a nice light flavor that didn’t mask the plantain taste at all. And the cheese was light too, and had a great slightly salty flavor. The bites that had no mayo on it were perfect for dousing in Caracas’s secret hot sauce. The only info we could get from the hostess (and was probably more than she was supposed to say!) was that it had “like 1000 different peppers in it” and was made with passion fruit. Sweet and spicy…and so damn good.

The arepa I ordered was La Mulata. This was made of grilled white cheese with jalapenos, sautéed red peppers, fried sweet plantains, and black beans. . The saltiness of the cheese was the perfect complement to the sweet plantains. It was SO good on its own. But, I, of course, managed to squeeze the hot sauce onto almost every bite, which made it taste even better. It was a total mess to eat, but it was worth every extra napkin I used.

My brother ordered Los Muchachos, which came highly recommended by the server. This arepa came with grilled chorizo, spicy white cheese, jalapenos, and sautéed peppers. He said the chorizo was really flavorful, and hard to go wrong with a chunk of grilled cheese.

Two doors down (with Luke’s Lobster squeezed in between) is Caracas To-Go. They have a few (even smaller) tables, but I think the sit-down restaurant makes for a better atmosphere. Since that was my only arepa experience, I am very eager to go back and try other varieties. They also feature a brunch menu with arepas featuring eggs. Definitely may have to give that a whirl!

Caracas Arepa Bar
93 East 7th Street
b/t 1st Avenue & Avenue A
Menu Pages listing

Monday, February 14, 2011

Essex Saves the Night

I’m embarrassed to even think about how long it’s been since my last Miss Menu post (I think it’s about 6 months…gasp!). Hopefully in the meantime, you have enjoyed my frequent tweets and occasional Facebook posts. But, I am determined to make it happen more regularly!

And without further ado…

After a bit of drama at another restaurant (a story I’ll save for another time!), JB and I ended up at Essex last night for dinner. I had been there a few times, but the first two were for brunch and the third was for a pretty weak prix-fixe dinner for NYE a few years ago. I was excited to go back to give it another shot, especially since it wasn’t super busy. And hopefully the chef wouldn’t mass producing and rushing out the food this time.

We were seated in one of the two upper areas, which I was excited about. The space has a great warehouse/loft atmosphere, dim lighting and a great view out onto the street from the second floor. 

The server came over and greeted us with a big smile – a huge relief after the debacle at the other restaurant. Turns out that on Sundays, Essex a) has happy hour all day with half-priced drinks and $1 oysters, and b) features their brunch menu until 8pm, which includes 3 brunch cocktails and an entrée for only $20. Looking around, you could definitely tell who had taken advantage of one of these boozy specials!

So many items on the menu caught my eye, but we decided to start with one of the “Essex Famous” potato pancakes and an order of “banitzas.” 

The potato pancake was topped with melted goat cheese and served on arugala. While it may not have tasted like one of my grandma’s latkes, the potato pancake was crispy and flavorful…and the goat cheese complimented it very well. The “banitzas” (no clue why it’s in quotes on the menu!) was a twist on spanikopita, made with phyllo triangles filled with spinach and queso blanco. They were really tasty, but a little too greasy. 

JB also ordered a half-dozen oysters trying a few east coast and a few west coast ones. I don’t eat them, but according to our server, east coast ones are saltier and smaller and west coast ones are creamier and larger.

For my entrée, I decided to go with the manchego mac & cheese with edamame, haricot vert & citrus salad. When it arrived, I was definitely a little confused. There were 3 pieces of what looked like breakfast sausage on my plate next to the mac, so I told JB they were all his. Then I remembered that brunch was being served all day and I probably got the brunch version. 

The server brought out the salad on a separate plate, and informed me that it was actually chicken apple sausage. So this non-pork eater was excited to have a taste of that, even though JB’s reaction to the non-pork sausage was “meh.” The bites of the mac & cheese that had a lot of cheese on it were really good, but the other bites were pretty bland. I was definitely expecting to be more wowed by the manchego – one of my favorite cheeses as of late.

JB ordered the half-pound angus burger Essex style, which was topped with BBQ short rib and gruyere cheese and was served with French fries. He said the burger was really well cooked, and the short rib was a great, flavorful addition. I liked the fries a lot too. Gotta love ones cooked in peanut oil.

This trip back to Essex was definitely a huge improvement over the last one, and I’d love to go back and try some of the other dishes that caught my eye. Good food, good service, and good company made for a great evening.

Essex Restaurant
120 Essex Street
@ Rivington Street
Menu Pages listing