The Best Thing I Ate Last Week: Spicy Tuna Takumi Taco

I finally made it to Smorgusburg this past Sunday. With the original Brooklyn Flea three and a half blocks west of our apartment in the Winter, and three and a half blocks east in the Summer, I have never felt much need to trek up to Williamsburg for the Flea relocated there, and have never held much desire to see its food-centric offshoot, Smorgusburg, which opened last year in May, 2011. On a lazy Sunday, however, when it was a little too cloudy for the beach, Alex and I decided to venture north to the ‘Burg for a gluttonous morning at what has become the quintessential, open-air, artisanal Brooklyn food market.

The highlight from Smorgusburg was the Spicy Tuna Taco from Takumi Taco. Japanese-Mexican fusion: an epic combo in my book. And no wonder I liked it so much. Founder Mark Spitzer is the executive chef atBond Street, one of my favorite Asian-fusian restaurants in the city, home to the Wasabi Bloody Mary (with Citrus Vodka, Wasabi, Shichimi Cucumber, shaken and served in a martini glass), the Spicy Crispy Shrimp (with Yuzu Calamanci Vinaigrette and Chipotle Aioli) and the swanky ambiance that has kept my girlfriends and me coming back for years. Takumi Taco packs the same punch of flavors into fusian street food, and it works perfectly in the Spicy Tuna Taco: Sashimi grade big eye tuna with jicama, avocado, cucumber and spicy mayo in a crispy gyoza shell. It took a lot of willpower not to go back for a second. Luckily, there were plenty of other tempting items to try.

Walter’s

Every day it seems like some Manhattan-based restaurant opens an outpost in Williamsburg. Just recently, a restaurant from Williamsburg opened an outpost in Fort Greene. Walter’s, of Williamsburg’s Walter Foods, opened a few months ago on prime real estate, on the corner of Cumberland and Dekalb, facing the park.
A welcome addition to the neighborhood, Walter’s is open late, unlike most of Fort Greene’s dining establishments. The food lives up to high neighborhood standards. The Deviled Eggs are perfectly spicy and the Crab Cakes with Sherry and Cayenne Aioli are lightly battered for a crispy outside and moist inside. A Roasted Half Chicken with Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Market Vegetables and Tarragon Gremolata is tender, juicy, and excellent.

An extensive and wondrously nostalgic cocktail list offers standbys like the Singapore Sling (Gin, Cointreau, Cherry Liqueur and Pineapple), a Sazerac and a Mint Julep. Unique, masterful takes on other old favorites include the Bramble (Gin, Lemonade and Blackberry) and the Fig Sidecar (Aged Rum, Fig Syrup, and Fresh Lemonade).

A large, oval mirror on the wall behind the bar illuminates the long, gorgeous interior, as well as the beautiful, bohemian Brooklynites clustering in lively pockets from the bar to the back booths. I’m thrilled that Walter’s is only a block away. The bottom of the menu reads: “If you love us, tell Danny. If you don’t, please tell Dylan.” Well, Danny, I love you guys.

Sichuan and Bowling in Sunset Park

I’ve only been to Sunset Park twice, and both times I’ve followed the exact same itinerary – and what a worthy one it is. I can’t wait to return and continue exploring, next time, to be sure, with a different line up. Regardless of where my next visit takes me, however, I have a feeling I will always recommend my twice-tried plan to any visitor; remarkably, it’s a plan that would suit pretty much any group size and appeal to pretty much any age group.

The plan is a simple one: a two-stop trip with a nice, long walk in-between. Chinese food, followed by a walk in Sunset Park – the actual park, not the entire neighborhood- followed by bowling.

You’ll begin at Metro Cafe, a friendly, causal and delicious Sichuan restaurant on Eighth Avenue (at 50th Street), which has become known as the Chinatown of Brooklyn. The texture of the spicy Mapo Tofu will woo even a non-tofu eater, and the divine, sweet and sour Pork with Eggplant in Garlic is a perfect accompaniment. Wash it all down with a Tsingtao or two, and you’re ready to bowl.


To get to the bowling alley, take a digestive walk through Sunset Park, where the views of Manhattan are real. The elevated vantage point is such that you might feel you are on a mountain, looking down on the city from across an expansive body of water. And I do mean expansive. If you felt like the trip down to Sunset Park was leading you too far from home, this view will not soothe your separation anxiety. When you are done admiring the views and the great distance, Melody Lanes awaits.

Melody Lanes is an institution. I imagine it feels just the same as it did the day opened. Heavily patterned carpet covers the floor of the entrance, where on one side sits the sign-up desk and shoe exchange, and on the other side sits the barroom, where the infamous bartender, Peter Napolitano, resides.

Mr. Napolitano is a verifiable hoot. He sports a bow-tie, suspenders, and the fattest chops you’ve ever seen. He’s ready to launch a minimum ten-minute-long-story to anyone that nears his tap. Deservingly dubbed a “bartender-philosopher” by The New York Times in a wonderful exposé from May, 2009, Peter Napolitano is one of a kind. During my last visit to the bowling alley, my lovely boyfriend and I got to hear Peter explain how the house he grew up in backed right up to the hospital where he was born. On a paper napkin, he drew a diagram to show us how the window of the room where his mother gave birth literally faced his childhood bunk beds, and although they have since built a building in-between the the hospital and his house, Peter could show us the alley-way that would still permit a clear pathway from window to window. Peter is a spectacular storyteller and a truly congenial man. Although I still didn’t want to ask for his photograph, he’s the type of person who wouldn’t think anything of it and would gladly agree with no suspicion or reservations. If only everyone was so unassuming and trustworthy.
One side of the bowling alley are the disco-bowling lanes, flashing lights, music, disco-ball and all. These are the lanes for the recreational bowler, and where I’ve bowled both times. The opposing side is reserved for the leagues and professional bowlers: the lights are fully iluminated and the sound of ten pins falling in one fell strike is the primary noise coming from this side of the room. As a layman, it’s fun to watch the other side, although I did feel somewhat intrusive even at the full distance of five, empty lanes away from the action.

But Melody Lanes is a friendly place; everyone is there to have a good time, and it was refreshing, for me, to hang out among people of all ages and backgrounds in one, communal space. If you still have room after a Sichuan feast, have some curly fries, a beer, and a gum ball, and maybe feel like you’ve gone back in time for a brief moment. Whatever you do, don’t miss the chance to hear a tale from the legendary, Bay Ridge-born bartender.

The Best Thing I Ate Last Week: Fried Chicken from Hill Country Chicken

The best thing I ate last week was fried chicken from Hill Country Chicken.  Devoted to fried chicken, hand-cut french fries and pies – oh the pies! – Hill Country Chicken pays homage to the founders’ childhood memories of eating Texas-style homemade grub: “hearty, crave-able comfort food served lovingly, casually and unpretentiously.”

In a town where trying too hard is the number one offense and a surefire way to looking uncool, manyrestaurants – and people – run the risk of overdoing the “unpretentious” thing. By trying to be too carefree or “low-brow,” they often come across as inauthentic and out-of-touch. Hill country is neither one of those things. It succeeds in its mission of serving food “casually and unpretentiously,” with cafeteria-style service and a short, straightforward menu. The restaurant’s homey decor with a hint of kitch is inviting, in that it’s quaint and cozy but also playful.

Photo Credit: Serious Eats

Like its older sister Hill Country (serving what many call the best Texas BBQ in town), Hill Country Chicken hits the nail on the head. The classic fried chicken is brined in buttermilk and herbs, and fried with the skin on.  Mama El’s recipe, also brined in buttermilk and herbs, is dipped skinless into a crunchy batter. Both styles are outstanding, and both the Hill Country Classic Fried Chicken Breast and the Mama El’s Fried Chicken Thigh are the best things I ate last week.

The Best Thing I Ate Last Week: Jewish Deli-Themed Dination Supper Club

The best meal I ate last week was the best meal I’ve eaten in 2013, and actually, in recent history. Good friend Daniel Meyer has started a supper club, for a good cause. Dination combines two great things: sharing a good meal with friends and giving to a good cause. The basic concept is simple, and the results have been extraordinary thus far. You get a group of friends together for a meal, choose a charity or cause to donate to, and as long as you raise more than the cost of the meal – be it any amount, small or large – you’ve done a good thing (or two, actually, because you’ve gotten a great meal out of it!).

I was lucky enough to attend Saturday’s Jewish-Deli-themed dinner, and words can’t do the evening justice. We raised $300 for the Food Bank of New York City, and walked home — bacon peanut brittle in hand — buzzed on great food, loud laughs, Dr. Brown’s Dark & Stormy’s and giving to a worthy cause. See below for the menu and see here for some photos of the exquisite food.

Daniel, the brainchild behind this outrageous menu and the awesome dination, is a self-taught, brilliant chef. Yes, the bagels were homemade. Yes, so was the smoked bluefish pate. Yes, the gravlax melted in my mouth with the creme fraiche dressing, and were elevated to new heights with a crunch of pumpernickel crouton and the crisp watercress. Yes, the chicken-liver crostini was perfect for dipping in the matzo dumpling soup, which was better than my mother’s (sorry, mom). Yes, the pastrami short ribs were smoked with wood chips and coals out back on Daniel’s grill and yes, the caraway mashed potatoes were pure genius, offering that jewish rye flavor that fits so right with pastrami and (yes, homemade) pickles. For a lover of cinnamon raison bagels who is constantly coming to their defense, the cinnamon raisin bread pudding with (YES!) cream cheese ice cream blew me away. Adjectives or descriptions won’t do any good here. Sign up for a dination dinner and see what I mean. I know this is just the first of many for me!

The Best Thing I Ate Last Week: White Anchovy Crostini from Hillside

Covering only six blocks, Vinegar Hill is one of the smallest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Nestled between the Navy Yard and Dumbo, the tiny Historic District is comprised of three, distint stretches of cobble stone streets, lined by brick, Greek Rival row houses. On Hudson Street at the corner of Water Street sits theVinegar Hill House, one of my all-time favorite restaurants in the city. Elegantly rustic, the restaurant is cozy and beautiful, and the menu, changing weekly “based on the best ingredients purveyors are carrying,” offers exquisit comfort food.

Two months ago, Vinegar Hill House opened Hillside, its sister restaurant next door. While Hillside works as a great place to wait for a table at Vinegar Hill House with a glass of wine or an appetizer, this wine bar, with its little but lovely menu, is a wonderful destination on its own. Last Thursday, Alex and I met there on a beautiful summer night, and watched the sky grow dark over the old smoke stacks and brick buildings outside the window. Over a few glasses of Muscadet, we shared a summery dinner that confirmed this little sister restaurant is already as brilliant as its elder. We started with a Peach and Ricotta Salad with baby heirloom tomatoes, followed by an Anchovy Crostini, and finally Pork Ribs with Apricot over French lentils.


The Anchovy Crostini was far and away the best thing that I ate last week.  A thick, white fillet almost melted onto a thin spread of slightly sweet butter on top of a slice of toasty bread. A garnish of roasted red pepper tied the sweet and salty flavors together. It was perfect. If you’re dubious of anchovies, the rich, meaty fillet in this dish will quell any skepticism. While the menu may change like its sister restaurant, I hope they keep the anchovy crostini on a regular rotation!

The Best Thing I Ate Last Week: Brunch at Buvette

The best thing I ate last week was brunch at Buvette. Jodi Williams, the masterful chef behind this charming, self-described “gastrotheque” on Grove Street and Bleeker, is also the chef of my all-time favorite: Gottino, the “Gastroteca” not far away on Greenwich Avenue. Two of the most lovely establishments in Manhattan, Buvette and Gottino are oriented towards small plates for any hour of the day. Brunch at Buvette is full of butter – and why shouldn’t it be? The food is french-inspired and the beautiful, 50-person two-room space, with a communal table in the back, feels like an elegant kitchen straight out of Provence.

We started brunch at Buvette with Anchoiade – a tartine with salted butter and anchovies; Pesto Di Noci – a walnut pesto tartine with parmesan and thyme; and a fig and honey tartine. Next I had steamed eggs with smoked salmon and creme fraiche on buttered toast, while my neighbor had Les Oeufs Americaine — sunny-side up eggs and bacon on toast. Everything was heavenly. As its website says, “I love Buvette.”

Seersucker

I finally made it to Seersucker, the much-talked-about, Southern restaurant that opened in Carroll Gardens last June. I met two friends there late on a Wednesday night, in the middle of a downpour. After trudging through puddles and torrential rain, I couldn’t have landed in a more inviting spot. Despite its simple, clean, and almost stark interior, Seersucker feels cozy and intimate.

Maybe it’s the dim lights, or the personable staff, or the wood paneling and oversized mason jars on the back wall. Whatever it is, the minute you walk inside, you feel at ease and at home.The young, very attractive waitstaff are dressed in denim tops and bottoms, looking hip but low-key, like the restaurant itself. When you first sit down, you’re offered flat or sparkling water – both on tap. A simple amenity that sets the tone for what’s to come.

Following the wonderful trend about town these days, (or at least the town of Brooklyn), most ingredients are locally sourced from small farms and distributors, and many come from the Carroll Gardens farmer’s market right across the street. We started with an heirloom tomato salad with ricotta that completely blew us away, and the entrees were equally as astonishing. My favorite was the Potato Crusted North Carolina Trout with Zucchini, Virginia Peanuts and Sweet & Sour Tomato.

Serving refined Southern cooking and subtle but deeply felt Southern hospitality, Seersucker brings a freshly foreign flavor to Carroll Gardens. Fitting in with the neighborhood by embracing the local community, Seersucker also brings with it a new and almost ethereal vibe – one that is entirely welcome in this once wholly Italian community that is now pervasively gentrified with the familiar. Its menu changing with the seasons, Seersucker will no doubt stay as fresh as the food and ambiance it delivers.

Brooklyn Edible Social Club

Ricotta & Duck Prosciutto Terrine
Peppermint, Sweet Pea

It’s been over a month since my first underground dining experience, and I keep putting off writing about it because nothing I could say could quite do the meal justice. I suppose I literally can not find the words to describe it.
But the whole experience was such a pleasure, I’m forcing myself to put something down on this page- something that won’t begin to live up, but will just have to do because I really must share it.

On a rainy Saturday night in early June, my lovely boyfriend and I trotted down the road of impending gentrification from Fort Greene to Bed-Stuy, and landed at a stranger’s apartment, greeted by ten other strangers, a chef and a host. We had arrived at the Brooklyn Edible Social Club, a supper club I had stumbled upon during some light internet reading one fateful afternoon.


Chilled Strawberry Salmorejo

Basil, Piperita Mint, Almonds, Chevre

The Brooklyn Edible Social Club belongs to two kind, generous and fun souls – she a former DJ turned graphic designer and overseer of the supper club; he a jovial and intuitive chef, passionate about locally sourced food and the exquisite master behind the meal.
Host and chef aim to keep the dinners small, at only twelve people per night, to encourage a communal environment where everyone talks to everyone. Sitting across from two school teachers, next to two documentary film-makers, down the table from a banker and even further down from a symphony musician, my lovely boyfriend and I did, in fact, get to know everyone.


Steamed Mussels

Young Garlic, Smoked Pepper Beurre Blanc

Garlic Scape Biscuits

The table shared the different wines we had each brought, shared anecdotes about the most outrageous food we had ever eaten, and definitely shared our utter astonishment at the quality, originality and superb taste of each dish. I can’t event pick a favorite they were all so outstanding.
Before each course, our gracious and humble chef, dawning denim cut-offs, suspenders, and a bandanna around his thick, dark hair, explained what we had prepared for us. Every ingredient was seasonable and fresh – having been grown and bought locally. Every dish was unique but accessible, and indisputably incredible.

Portions were perfect, leaving time to explore and linger over the flavors, but leaving you wanting more, with room for the next course. Everything was cooked to perfection. No one left a crumb on a plate or a drop in a bowl.

Roasted Hanger Steak
Chipolata Sausage, Radishes, Sauce Verde

The menu followed a wonderful succesion, commencing with an ever-so-slightly chilled Ricotta and Duck Terrine which blew everyone away, an exciting harbinger of the extraordinary meal to follow.
The Strawberry Salmorejo, a chilled soup made of strawberries, was slightly sweet, slightly creamy, but somehow definitely a savory dish; the blend of basil, mint, almonds and chevre producing an exceptional flavor. I’ve never tasted Mussels cooked so right, and in a sauce just enough buttery, tangy and spicey, everyone spooned up every last drop.

The Hanger Steak was phenomenal – tender as could be and accompanied by pickled radishes and a green sauce that no-one could quite identify or get enough of. Finally, the flaky, crusty Rubarb Tart Tatin had just enough salt to bring out the flavor and maintain the sweet.

Rhubarb Tarte Tatin

Hibiscus & Prosecco Float

The bar set unreasonably high for my first supper club experience, I am afraid no other supper club will quite compare! I have decided, however, to take upon the grave responsibility of finding out, the night at the Brooklyn Edible Social Club having undoubtedly reved my curiosity engine for supper clubs, despite my sneaking suspicion that nothing could top this first trial.
It was one of the most special dining experiences I have ever had the fortune to take part in, and one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. I’d put it in the “Best Meals I’ve Ever Had” book.
At the end of this too-delicious-to-be-true dinner, I asked the chef how he developed his recipes. He didn’t use recipes, he told me. He just thought about what ingredients would work well together and how, went to a few farmer’s markets to see what was available, and composed his dishes by intuition. A true artist.

As we sat and listened to records selected by whoever felt like playing a tune, sipped on coffee and chewed Mary Jane candies, the communal enthusiasm for food, new friends, and taking a chance permeated the room. Ten strangers, a chef and a host, and my lovely boyfriend – the loveliest dinner date of them all – knew they had just shared an evening no one would forget.

Va beh’

On Dean Street in Brooklyn, between Fourth and Fifth Avenue, you can find yourself in Italy for an evening. Va beh’, a new restaurant on the south side of Dean and somewhat eclipsed by the mounting Barclays Center, is discreetly tucked away from the chaos that surrounds it on all sides. It almost feels like you’re entering a secret passageway when you step through its doors.

What you find inside is a true, bustling Italian restaurant, where wine and sparkling water run from taps on the wall; the menu is scrawled in romantic, black script on a marble wall, the volume’s on high and a slightly chaotic frenzy fills the room with a communal sense of excitement and frivolity.

The wait and bar staff are Italian, adding to the sense of authenticity. The food leaves you wondering whether or not you have, in fact, somehow been transported to a little kitchen in Milan. A rarity in any restaurant no matter the locale or cuisine, the dishes are not too salty, which makes them actually taste homemade. A smoked trout crostini is meaty but light, melting in your mouth with the accompanying lightly grilled and olive-oil-brushed hunks of fresh country loaf. The pastas are divine, as to be expected. As are the meatballs. Nothing is too fancy, and it’s all made with the highest quality ingredients — exactly how Italian food is meant to be.

Owners Michele and Qiana Di Bar and Andrew Alari wanted to recreate the casual, everyday dining experience they had growing up in Milan, and that’s exactly what they’ve accomplished. With only a few tables (you can see it at here – www.kidfriendlyhome.com/best-cheap-vanity-table-reviews/), be prepared to wait a little while; But you’ll be offered a glass of the best wine they have open and a dish of olives while you wait. The lines will only get longer as word gets out, so run, don’t walk, to Va Beh’ where it really is all good.

And Now… Pok Pok Phat Thai

Just two weeks old, Pok Pok Phat Thai has officially replaced Pok Pok Wing, swapping the now famous Ike’s Wings for rice (or flat) noodles in the dish we were all, if secretly, missing from Andy Ricker’s New York outposts. I know this dish from my sister, Sarah, she usually for her kids every weekend (alse check the newest article of her blog – kids outdoor playhouse). Ricker explained that in Thailand, phat thai is typically a street food – hence its absence at Pok Pok NY. But he found a place for this fawned-over noodle dish in Pok Pok Wing’s old quarters, which is now dedicated to phat thai. For me, this news was a slice of heaven, delivered.

You can still get the amazing Ike’s Wings at Pok Pok NY, but the Lower East Side’s subterranean Pok Pok is now serving noodles – with ground pork, prawns, ground pork and prawns, or served vegan. For the full experience, don’t miss the drinking vinegars in flavors like tamarind, honey and apple. Housemade vinegar mixed with soda water provides a sharp, lightly carbonated, refreshment to ready and relieve your mouth for a heaping pile of noodles.

The Best Thing I Ate Last Week: Caramel Sticky Bun from Roberta’s

The best thing I ate last week was a burnt caramel sticky bun from Roberta’s Bread. Every Saturday and Sunday, Fort Greene residents are blessed with a special delivery from the one and only Roberta’s to the one and only Greene Grape.

Around 8:30 a.m., neighbors start furtively dashing into the Greene Grape, where an almost nervous crowd starts to hover around the counter in anticipation. These sticky, buttery, chewy, salty caramel buns are one of the neighborhood’s best-kept secrets; neighbors are addicted, and now so am I. “They’re like crack,” I’ve been told on two, separate occasions by cashiers at the Greene Grape.

And they know best – they see the same Fort Greene residents weekend morning after weekend morning, coming in to get their fix. We all have our vices. Add to my list these to-die-for sticky buns.

The Sweet Side of the Subcontinent

Dessert might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about South Asian food, but sweets are an integral part of South Asian cuisine and culture. Often overlooked, forgotten or even unknown outside of South Asia, sweets seem to have gotten lost in translation on many of the Westernized menus that we find in the United States. Where thousands of stand-alone shops sell nothing but sweets in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, in the United States shops that offer any kind South Asian sweet, let alone ones singularly dedicated to sweets, are few and far between.

From deep-fried pancakes soaked in sugary syrup, to fudge-like squares garnished with edible, silver foil, South Asian sweets come in all shapes, sizes and flavors. With such great and delicious variety, it’s too bad these confections seem to have such a low profile outside of South Asia.

Having not been exposed to the wonderful world of South Asian sweets before I studied in India, I was relieved and excited to discover that my sweet tooth would not be neglected during my stay. I quickly fell for mithai: a broad category of milk-based sweets. Burfi, one of the most popular types of mithai, became one of my favorites. Burfi itself can come in many flavors — like kaaju burfi, made with cashews; pista burfi, made with pistachios; or badam burfi, made with almonds. Gulab jamuns — deep-fried dough made of milk-solids, soaked in sweet syrup — became a decadent vice for me, and I couldn’t escape jalebi — a circular or pretzel-shaped, deep-fried, orange treat, sold on so many street corners. Justifying my indulgent exploration into the world of South Asian sweets were the encouraging words of nearly everyone I shared a meal with. A little milk- and sugar-based dessert was good for my digestion, I was told, and would help settle the acidity of a spicy meal. I was in heaven.

Not only are sweets an important part of a complete, South Asian meal, but they are also an essential part of daily culture. Upon my arrival in India, I learned that giving and receiving sweets is a habitual way both to show hospitality and to thank someone for hosting you. Even as clueless as I was when I first arrived at my new home, I knew that I shouldn’t decline the rasgulla — a cottage-cheese-like dumpling, boiled in sugar syrup — I was offered. If you are visiting someone’s home, you should never show up empty-handed, even, as my Bangladeshi friend Shanaz Chowdhury says, if you’re a frequent visitor. While the tradition sometimes strays in the United States to bringing beer, wine or alcohol, it is still very common, Shanaz explains, to bring a mixed box of sweets when you go to someone’s house.

Exchanging sweets is also a central part of festivals like Diwali, one of the most important festivals for Hindus, and personal celebrations, like weddings, having a baby or getting a new job. If a new baby is born into your family, you buy sweets for your friends — not the other way around. Likewise, if you get hired, you share your accomplishment by offering treats, not by accepting them. My nephew was born when I was living in a small town outside the city of Jaipur, and following the advice of a friend, I bought ladoos and burfi to deliver my good news properly. I love this tradition of giving, instead of receiving, when you have good news to share.

Unfortunately, finding good sweets outside of the South Asian subcontinent proves to be quite the task. Despite the abundance of Indian restaurants and food stores in New York City, for example, you will be hard pressed to find many specialty sweet shops. In Manhattan, Spice Corner in Curry Hill offers the best and largest selection you can find. If you want to find alternatives to this Curry Hill market in the city, you’ll have to sit down at a restaurant. But even at restaurants, dessert, if offered, is often an afterthought.The Masala Wala in the Lower East Side makes an excellent gulab jamun, but this seems to be the exception, not the rule.

In New York, the sweets really worth eating, and in shops of their own, are in Jackson Heights, Queens. AtRajbhog, you can find up to 10 kinds of burfi, up to five varieties of ladoos and outstanding gulab jamuns. A block away, Maharaja Sweets offers an excellent array of almond and cashew rolls decorated with with Varakh — a thin layer of silver foil — alongside more burfi, rasgulla and jalebi.

With so many varieties, there really is a mithai for everyone. The trick may be finding them, but once you do, you’ll definitely be going back for more!

The Best Thing I Ate Last Week: Salt-Baked Branzino With Caramelized Lemon

Il Buco is one of, if not my absolute, favorite restaurants in the city. When Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria opened last year, I couldn’t wait to try it. Wait I did, however, until finally last week I was able to go, to celebrate my mom’s birthday. I didn’t take any photos. An article about cameras in restaurants was fresh on my mind, and to be entirely honest, I fall into the camp that hates taking photos and seeing photos taken in restaurants. It’s obviously a continuous conflict for me, seeing as I happen to blog about food…

Anyway, I didn’t break out my camera at Il Buco Alimentari, and so I have no photos of this incredible Branzino. But I couldn’t resist sharing it and noting it on my “Best Thing I Ate” list because it hasn’t really left my mind. The salumi della cassa (housemade salumi) from Flying Pigs Farm and the Ricotta are runners-up, but the salty, sumptuous Branzino was out of this world. Underneath a signature, custom-made chandelier – Il Buco was originally artist Warren Muller’s studio and the restaurant is decorated with his amazing, funky chandeliers – I was in total heaven. I love Branzino – a Mediterranean seabass – and this one tops every one I’ve ever had.

Shelsky’s Smoked Fish

Appetizing (noun) is most easily explained as food that you would eat with a bagel: from smoked salmon and whitefish to homemade salads and cream cheese. This Jewish American food group gave rise to the appetizing shop, which reflects Jewish dietary laws that prohibit selling or consuming meat and dairy products together.  Appetizing shops sell dairy and fish, and delicatessens — traditionally — sell cured and pickled meat. Early in the 20th century, Eastern European Jewish immigrants brought appetizing cuisine to New York, and today that legacy is an emblematic food of the city: a bagel with lox and cream cheese. What says New York more than that?

Ironically, the bagel-lox-and-cream-cheese legacy has actually contributed to the slow disappearance of appetizing shops, which used to be a dime a dozen in New York. The ubiquity of this classic New York combo has cast a large shadow over the other important components of appetizing — whitefish salad, pickled herring, sturgeon, and sable, to name a few — and the shops have become nearly obsolete. Russ and Daughters, a stalwart of the Lower East Side, has been “appetizing since 1914″ and is thankfully still going strong. It is one of the only remaining stores in a neighborhood that used to be home to more than 30 appetizing shops, and happens to have some of the best whitefish salad on the planet. Brooklyn, for all its specialty food shops and Jewish roots, was sorely lacking an appetizing shop north of Prospect Park untilShelsky’s Smoked Fish opened in Carroll Gardens.

Peter Shelsky opened the store because he was tired of schlepping into Manhattan for whitefish, and he is restoring some heritage to the borough in the process. For a brilliant combination of all of the best that Shelsky’s has to offer, the “Brooklyn Native” is the perfect sandwich — Gaspe Nova, smoked Whitefish Salad, pickled herring, and sour pickles are served on a bagel or bialy. I am partial to the bialy, which is every so slightly toasted so as not to sacrifice the fluffy middle. The sandwich begins with a layer of creamy whitefish salad, which, made with chopped cucumber and celery, has just the right amount of crunch. Next comes two layers of Gaspe Nova so fresh it practically melts in your mouth. Not overly smoky, this Nova goes really well with the next layer, a slightly sweet piece of pickled herring that is much meatier than the salmon, offering a unique consistency in addition to the new flavor. Finally, a few sour pickles top off the salty stack, all enveloped, of course, by the bagel or bialy. The distinct texture of each component in the “Brooklyn Native” is an integral part of this sandwich’s character.

Other Shelsky’s sandwiches, like the “Member of the Tribe” (Gaspe Nova, scallion or plain cream cheese served on a bagel) or the namesake “Peter Shelsky” (Gaspe Nova, sable, pickled herring with cream sauce and onion, scallion cream cheese served on bagel or bialy) offer similarly complex, flavor-packed options. “The Great Gatsby” (pastrami cured salmon, horseradish cream cheese, honey mustard, and red onion) or the “Dr. Goldstein Special”(duck fat-laced chopped liver and apple horseradish sauce served between two schmaltz-fried potato latkes) take tradition to a whole new level. For those new to the cuisine, Shelsky’s sandwiches are a great introduction to the world of appetizing — a world that will hopefully see a revival in the city where it really came of age. Head down to Carroll Gardens (historically not a Jewish neighborhood, as it were), for a taste of authentic appetizing, and some of the best sandwiches this side of the bridge.

The Best Thing I Ate Last Week: Sushi at Neta

It’s really a toss-up this week among a few, incredible dishes. I don’t typically eat out as as much as I did last week, but with a few friends in town and my birthday this past Saturday, Indulgence with a capital I became the word of the week. I took the opportunity of a friend in from L.A. to try Rosemary’s for a leisurely lunch. The Foccacia di Recca filled with Straccino cheese is one of the runners up for the best thing I ate last week. The sharp, melted Straccino is sandwiched between two, fluffy squares of salty foccacia for a decadently delicious starter. The chopped salad at Rosemary’s is perfect, as is the olive oil cake.

I took the opportunity of another friend in town and my encroaching birthday to grab a glass of wine and crostini at what is perhaps my favorite wine bar in the city: Gottino, where the food and ambiance are impeccable. The crostinis — from Acciughe E Burro salted anchovies and homemade butter, to Pesto Di Noci walnut pesto with parmesan and thyme, to my favorite, Carciofi E Mentuccia slow cooked artichokes, mint and pecorino – make the perfect appetizer or after-work small plate.

Photos of Neta, New York City
This photo of Neta is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Alex and I took a wonderful trip to Vermont, full of foliage, crisp air, vistas of rolling hills spotted with red barns and farm silos, and of course, a lot of food and wine. We stayed at the North Hero House for two nights, a beyond charming bed and breakfast on North Hero island on Lake Champlain. The kitchen at North Hero House sources almost all of its ingredients from local farms and purveyors, listing the sources on the menu so that you know where most, if not all, of your dish came from. The almost startlingly tender Free-Range Misty Knoll Chicken cooked two ways: slow-roasted breast and crispy leg confit, served with summer vegetable succotash and roasted chicken jus is another runner-up for the best thing I ate last week. We also spent a night in Middlebury, where we ate at the classic favorite of my college friends:American Flatbread, which was doing the farm to table thing before it was a thing. The pizza is cooked in a big, earthen oven in the middle of the restaurant and sliced into sticks as opposed to pie slices. And I couldn’t leave Middlebury without a sandwich from another old favorite: Otter Creek Bakery. It was a perfect, Fall weekend, mixed with new sights (Mount Mansfield, the North East Kingdom, the Champlain islands) and nostalgia (long drives, slow walks, and my college town).

But the meal that takes the birthday cake for this week comes from Neta, a new, upscale sushi restaurant in Greenwich Village. Where do I begin? Elegant, sophisticated, fresh. The words don’t do the food or the restaurant itself justice. Alex and I tried King Mushrooms with spicy pomme frites and serrano peppers; sushi so fresh it not only lives up to but essentially epitomizes the restaurant’s name (Neta means “the fresh ingredients of sushi”); and a few “omakase” or “chef’s choice,” including lobster and fluke wrapped in cucumber. Delicate touches to each dish elevate but never upstage the freshness and quality of the ingredients. From small plates to sushi, our whole meal at Neta was the best thing I ate last week.

Billy’s Bakery: The Perfect Cupcake

I have a new favorite cupcake. I know, I know. Cupcakes are so passé. Doughnuts are the new cupcakes, and today’s doughnuts are tomorrow’s macaroons and yesterday’s whoopie pies. I know. But there is something ridiculous about the vanilla buttercream frosting at Billy’s Bakery. I have been partial to Buttercup Bake Shop on the East Side until now, but the West Side’s Billy’s has just officially won me over. Founded in 2003, Billy’s Bakery is not new news. In fact, it’s old news. But this oldie is a goodie, and the Chocolate Cupcake with Vanilla Frosting just wont first place in my New York Cupcake Rank.
(At 9pm on a Wednesday night, looks like the Almond Pistachio was completely sold out).

Tribeca Trails

Last night Alex — my beloved boyfriend who tirelessly humors me in my endless pursuit of new restaurants — and I ate at a lovely, little restaurant in Tribeca: Tiny’s and the Bar Upstairs. The three-story restaurant and bar is impeccably decorated: elegantly rustic without feeling contrived, the restaurant, and bar upstairs, are as charming as the people in it. Matt Abramcyk, former owner of the now-closed but forever-famous Beatrice Inn, hit the nail on the head with this landmarc Tribeca townhouse turned cute and cozy restaurant filled with antique chairs and walled by perfectly distressed, exposed brick, wood and tin.We shared burrata on toasted baguette with arugula and rhubarb mustard- the mustard was the best part. I had grilled hake, which, with a slightly battered coat and perfectly soft inside, was delicious on top of a white bean spread and arugula. Alex had the hanger steak, served on crispy, cubed potatoes. The simple menu is refreshing, and the food is tasty and not overwhelmingly heavy. The china is floral and, of course, antique. Our cocktails – I had The White Lady, made of muddled raspberry, vodka and soda water; my lovely one had a Whiskey Sour – were delightful and not too strong. Tiny’s is quiet and not overwhelming in anyway, which is actually a delightful treat in a city where sensory-overload is the norm.

Unintentionally, we ended up at another one of Mr. Abramyck’s Tribeca establishments after dinner. En route to a comedy show at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca – a variety show featuring the hilarious Kristin Schaal, we were searching for somewhere to have an outdoor cocktail, and spotted the one and only outdoor table at Smith and Mills: it was free and calling our name. Round two of sipping drinks among Mr. Abramyck’s beautiful, just-so decor speedily commenced. Although I’m afraid it’s a little passé at this point -Gasp!- Smith and Mills is still one of my favorite bars. I’d more-than-happily go for their dark and stormy any winter night, and their champaign cocktail and salmon tartar any summer evening.

 

Sipping our pre-comedy show cocktails, we realized our table was directly facing the booth where we sat at Locanda Verde the weekend prior. Having salivated over Locanda Verde since its opening, I was thrilled to finally take a great occasion to dine at this still-hot spot last week. Alex and I had met for a drink there a year ago, and when we returned this time, the restaurant was just as vibrant as ever.
I loved my cocktail, loved our bottle of wine, and loved our appetizers: Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Crostini with Sea Salt and Herbs, and Warm Asparagus with an Organic Egg and Pancetta and Truffled Vinaigrette. And while my lovely boyfriend’s Girandole with Homemade Duck Sausage, Chickpeas, Escarole, and Fiore Sardo was very good, my Grilled Branzino with Roasted Sunchokes, Dandelion and Salsa Rossa was less than wonderful. It almost tasted like it was microwaved, even though I know it couldn’t have been, could it?!
I thought, for a moment, that I might have been better off sticking to cocktails and appetizers, which usually proves the best route at many restaurants of Locanda Verde’s size. I think, however, that I was just a little unlucky and perhaps a little over-excited, and will next time only order Branzino if it’s a special. At last, despite my somewhat disappointing main course, the appetizers, drinks, and incredible ambiance made for a fantastically festive evening, and if I can get another reservation, I certainly would love to return.

Rucola

Rucola is my favorite new restaurant. On a quiet, residential corner in tree-lined Boreum Hill, Rucolo seems like it’s always been a part of the neighborhood. Decorative but homey, it’s the restaurant version of all the wonderful, federal-style town houses down the block. A few precious tables sit outside the ornamental, cast-iron facade of the restaurant – a facade spotted with picture-perfect, tin flower pots. Inside, a long, communal table, surrounded by smaller tables on three sides and a bustling bar on the other, foster a convivial vibe. The friendly staff make you feel at home under the rustic, wood-paneled ceiling and milk-bottle chandeliers.

I’ve been twice now for dinner, and can’t wait to go back for breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner again. Both times I’ve gone for dinner, I’ve started at the bar. And both times, I couldn’t resist my summer liqueur of choice: Aperol. The first night, I ordered the Basil Bite, which was an elegant and tasty mix Gin, Aperol, Cynar, Orange Bitters, and Basil. The second night, I ordered the Tirulian Schpritz, made of Gin, Aperol, Yellow Chartreuse, Lemon, Grapefruit. While the Basil Bite may have won my heart, I loved both Aperol-flavored cocktails alike.

For dinner, I’ve had the Caponata – Eggplant, Currant, Caper, and Olga’s mint – which was flavorful and wonderful on crispy, French bread. Twice, because it’s so delicious, I’ve had the Crudo – Bronzino, Toasted Pistachio, Pickled Rhubarb, Herbs, and Ligurian Olive Oil, sliced thin and drizzled with spicy oil. It was explosively flavorful but light enough for me to enjoy the buttery, cheese sprinkled corn at my side.

I’ve also loved the Market Squash Salad – English Cucumber, Ricotta Salata, and Toasted Sesame – and the ultimately fresh Strozzapreti – Green Garlic Pesto, Zucchini, and Grana Padan (a hard, Italian cheese). I’ve tasted the LI Duck, whose seasonal ingredients – Fresh Cherries and Braised Swiss Chard – made what I often think of a wintery meat, light and summery instead.

Perhaps the most special part of Rucola is This Batch, a customizable CSA of sorts that the restaurant offers. I’ve just signed up and am eager for the weekly emails that will announce the week’s produce offering. I’ll be able to choose whether or not I want to purchase it, at a single or family-size portion, all for a discounted price. Sounds pretty great to me! I’m challenging myself to cook a Rucola-worthy dish with whatever ingredients I get. It may take me a few decades to perfect food so good, but I have no doubt the restaurant – an instant, neighborhood classic – will be around long enough to see me try.

Can’t Wait for Thanksgiving? You Don’t Have to!

New Yorkers may be known for a lot of things. Patience isn’t one of them. We like our lines short, our take-out fast and our coffee on the go. If you’re wondering who’s standing in an hour-long line for a cupcake, it isn’t a New Yorker.

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Henry Public’s Turkey Leg Sandwich.
Photo Credit: Dan Hallman
 

Some things, however, are worth waiting for, and on this short list, Thanksgiving will always make the cut. New Yorker or not, we all look forward to that joyous day when we gather our loved ones and stuff ourselves with turkey and gravy. Maybe we’ll watch a parade or some football, or maybe we’ll completely unplug for the day. Whatever we do, the feast is always the main event. It’s a day, and a feast, worth waiting for… Unless you absolutely can’t.

If you simply can’t wait for the last Thursday in November, or if you love this day of gluttony so much that you need a sneak preview — an amuse-bouche, if you’d like — then fear not. There is bounty of restaurants serving Thanksgiving fare all year round in this wonderfully impatient, 24/7 city. Thanksgiving at a restaurant. How New York. Yes, flocks of New Yorkers will be eating their annual feast in a restaurant this year, like they have in years past. If you’re looking for day-of Thanksgiving dinners, restaurants from Williamsburg’s new Reynard to the classic Katz’s Delicatessen will be serving grand feasts this year.

But if you need a quick, Thanksgiving fix before the big day, you can find what you’re craving if you know where to look. Here are some of my favorites for Thanksgiving a la carte:

Andrew Carmellini’s The Dutch, one of last year’s hottest restaurants, serves a buttery corn bread to every dinner table. If it’s mashed potatoes you love, the ever-expanding Meatball Shop serves a decadent side of creamy, mashed potatoes that’s not to be missed. If you’re looking for something a little different, Westvilleserves a great plate of pesto mashed potatoes. I’m still searching for good stuffing — the king of Thanksgiving, in my book. Homemade stuffing is really hard to contend with. Any recommendations on restaurants serving great stuffing?

For turkey, look no further than Henry Public, the charming, antique-filled bar and restaurant where you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time to the 19th century. Henry Public’s turkey leg sandwich is legendary among Brooklynites. Braised in milk, the meat is so tender it’s almost shocking, and this sandwich is definitely worthy of all the hype.

Love them or hate them, Brussels sprouts will be dawning many a Thanksgiving table, and these days they’re practically everywhere you look. Some of the best can be found at Alta, served crispy with fuji apples, crème fraiche and pistachios. For a totally unique version, Prospect Height’s Chuko serves spicy, crunchy Brussels sprouts with fish sauce and peanuts.

Some of the best pumpkin pie hails from Hill Country Chicken, which has its very own pie menu. Four and Twenty Blackbirds in Park Slope, selling whole pies or by the slice, also makes a mean pumpkin pie — as well as other Fall pies like salted caramel apple.

And if you want it all in one, Momofuko Milk Bar‘s Thanksgiving croissant couldn’t get much better.

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Hill Country Chicken’s Pumpkin Pie
Photo Credit: Hill Country Chicken
 

The best part is, when the day finally comes and goes, and you’ve plowed through the last of your leftovers, these Thanksgiving staples will still be around, for the best of Thanksgiving, all year round.

Brooklyn Kolache Co.

Summer is the season for BBQ, and this summer, Texas BBQ seems to be getting a lot of attention in New York. Hill Country Barbecue Market, which opened five years ago in June of 2007, is in the spotlight once again, after Pete Wells of the New York Times gave it two stars (and “BBQ snob” Daniel Vaughn acknowledged it had all the right pieces but fell victim to one of New York’s biggest clichés: it was rushed). There’s more to Texan cuisine, however, than BBQ, and food-forward Brooklyn is now home to New York’s most recent Texan import: the Kolache.

Brooklyn is the ultimate haven for specialty food shops. From Brooklyn Brine Co.’s pickles to the recently opened gourmet mayonnaise shop Empire Mayo, you can find pretty much any specialty food you want in Brooklyn. Up until two moths ago, however, Texans looking for a taste of home couldn’t find one important part of their morning routine: the Kolache. Czech in origin, a Kolache is a round, doughy pastry with a sweet or savory filling, and is apparently a popular breakfast on-the-go in the Lone Star State. When Texas native Autumn Stanford moved to Brooklyn, she was shocked to find that with all its specialty food shops, Brooklyn was missing these “neat-to-eat” pastries.

Stanford started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for what would become Brooklyn Kolache Co., the one and only Kolache establishment in the borough. It opened in March of 2012, on Dekalb Avenue at Bedford Avenue in BedStuy. With its big, open seating area and sizable garden out back, there’s more space and exposed brick at Brooklyn Kolache Co. than you’re likely to find anywhere closer to Manhattan. In addition to Kolaches, you can find Pigs in a Blanket and Cinnamon Rolls — who can argue with that comfort-food combo? Coffee comes from Kitten Coffee, a gourmet coffee roaster right up the street, which, incidentally, founded the firstBarista school in the New York.

I had never tried a Kolache before I visited Brooklyn Kolache Co., and like many firsts, this one was one to remember. I started with a Cherry and Cheese Kolache: the dough was fluffy and slightly chewy, and the smooth, sweet-cheese filling was the perfect anchor for the tart, cherry topping. Next I tried the Sausage, Cheese and Jalapeno Kolache, which I could see becoming an addictive hangover cure.

Whatever the filling, the dough itself is the main event. Slightly sweet, it compliments both a sweet and savory middle, and the ratio of dough to filling — heavy on the dough, light on the filling — leaves no confusion as to who’s boss.

The cafe is bright and casual, with funky art covering the walls and mellow music playing at a perfect volume for getting some work done or for enjoying a peaceful breakfast. Light pours in from french doors that open to the lovely back yard, where more tables can be found for lingering over these decadent Texan treats. Follow their website’s suggestion: “Stop by and try one!” Somewhere between a bagel and a doughnut, a Kolache is a cross between two New York staples, and this Texan treasure is working perfectly in Brooklyn.