I love three day weekends. I don’t know why we don’t just do away with the 5 day week, that one extra day makes us so much better off. I know what I would do with that day. I would take advantage of the lunch specials at some of the city’s best restaurants and enjoy an especially fabulous and leisurely midday meal at a fraction of the price.
This is essentially how I spent my Labor Day holiday. Ruoxi and I made reservations at The Nomad, home to the $84 chicken for two, and treated ourselves to the $29 lunch menu. The $29 gets you an appetizer and an entree, and there are a lot of options on the menu, ranging from the light and seasonal to the crowd pleasing hearty favorites. Depending on what you choose, you could have a very dainty and refined meal, or a very filling one.
I was certainly going down the dainty route, starting off my meal with a delicious and seasonal tomato and burrata salad, while Ruoxi chose the lasagnettes. The tomatoes were so juicy and sweet, and the small ball of burrata cheese was by far the creamiest and most luscious that I’ve ever had. The bitter summery greens laced the salad with an edge so that it wouldn’t be just another pretty, pleasant plate.
The lasagnettes, on the other hand, tasted exactly as you’d expect, lasagna in miniature form. The small pieces of cheese and eggplant filled ravioli in a rich tomato sauce were everything you could dream of.
The most popular item by far was the chicken burger, a gut bomb fit for a king, filled with only the finest of ingredients that might induce gout in the process. It looked a little small at first, something in between a regular sized burger and a slider, but after two or three bites I had to take a break. No matter how full you say you are, you’ll always have room for the side of fries that come with it. These shoestring beauties are the best. They may also be the most expensive, but they are worth every penny.
If you want all the opulence with only some of the guilt, I would recommend the poached butter lobster. The lobster tasted very clean and pristine, as if it had just emerged from the water, and you could tell that the choicest parts of the lobster, specifically the hard to get and highly prized knuckle and tail meat, were used.
With all those fries and bread, dessert was out of the question. Sure, it was my day off, but living a life of leisure requires some energy, namely walking slowly to nearby boutiques and coffee shops, and maybe a subway station or two if you’re feeling especially ambitious. Living the good life requires a little bit of work, but I sure wish it were my day job.
The NoMad 1170 Broadway (between 27th and 28th St) New York, NY10001 (212) 796-1500
Eleven Madison Park. This restaurant needs no introduction. Four stars from The New York Times. Three Michelin Stars. No. 4 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. If you’re lucky enough to get a table, which is quite difficult to do, and a quick search on Opentable revealed no availability at all for the next 4 weeks, then you can be pretty confident that you will sit down to one of the best meals of your life.
I went to Eleven Madison Park over 10 years ago, which was during a different time, before all the accolades came rolling in. To me, it seemed like a pretty standard fine dining restaurant serving solid but very corporate food. Everyone kept telling me that so much had changed since then, but I was still anchored to my early, uninspired memories there. And it didn’t help that I was on an odd double date at the time, where a friend of ours wanted to sit next to us but keep the conversations separate.
I finally got my act together and returned to the new and improved Eleven Madison Park, which happened in the most random way. Chase Sapphire was selling tickets to cardholders to an exclusive tasting dinner event at Eleven Madison Park for $210 a person, and Ruoxi was all over this, calling Chase immediately for tickets as soon as he saw the event posted. $210 for a 5 course dinner with wine pairings, tax and tip included. I would say this is one of the best fine dining deals, ever.
We invited two of our dear friends, Liz and Dan, to enjoy this dinner with us. No awkward “separate but equal” double date this time! The event was held in a private room upstairs, and in the first hour, over light drinks and passed hors d’oeuvres, Chef Daniel Humm personally greeted and mingled with each one of his guests. For someone who has won so many awards, he is surprisingly very humble and low-key, which I thought was great. He wasn’t one of those over-the-top, haughty personalities that you see on Food Network or Top Chef, thank god. After about an hour of noshing on small bites, we were ready for the tasting to begin.
The food absolutely lived up to expectations. The best way to describe the cooking here is seasonal New American. You can see some inspiration from the Old World cuisines, particularly from France, but the interpretation is a very clean and balanced one. Nothing is over salted or too rich, even if there’s foie gras involved, and there’s a purpose to every ingredient, which means you can actually taste everything. I found this clarity particularly impressive. And I also liked the restaurant’s classical approach to cooking. There’s no molecular gastronomy bells and whistles here, and there doesn’t need to be, when the food alone speaks for itself, quite eloquently.
It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I still have a soft spot for Blue Hill, but this is right up there with it. If you need a reason to splurge and celebrate in the city, I can’t think of a better place. I’ve posted pictures of each course of our tasting menu so that you can get a glimpse of what to expect if you ever do the tasting there. I’m sure the menu will change depending on seasonality, and perhaps a few tweaks were made for the Chase event, but I do know that the meal will be good, regardless of the time of year or the reason.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave (between 24th and 25th St)
New York, NY 10010
This past weekend, I had an uncanny moment where I felt like I had the same meal at two different restaurants. On Saturday, I had dinner at Vic’s, the relatively new Italian-Mediterranean restaurant that replaced Five Points in Noho. The menu consisted of seasonally driven appetizers, a good selection of traditional entrees like roast chicken and flank steak, as well as a pizza and pasta selection. The next day I had a meal at Upland, a Flatiron restaurant featuring “California cuisine”. The menu consisted of seasonally driven appetizers, traditional mains like chicken and skirt steak, supplemented by pizza and pasta. You would think that Californian and Italian-Mediterranean might be materially different, but the two meals I had tasted very similar.
Atmosphere: Let’s start with the dining ambiance. Vic’s is more of a neighborhood spot, whereas Upland is more of a scene. As a result, people tend to be more dressy casual at Vic’s, with a slant towards the preppy, whereas things got a little clubby at Upland. I personally like a more comfortable, neighborhood vibe, so I would probably return to Vic’s, less so to Upland.
Starters: At Vic’s, we had the crispy sweet onions and the bitter greens, whereas at Upland we had the Japanese mackerel and the complimentary potato bread. Based on pure taste, the ones at Upland slightly edged out Vic’s’. The potato bread was outstanding–it was sweet and buttery like a brioche, dissolving into a golden pool of starch at the slightest touch. The Japanese mackerel was wonderfully rich and oily, tempered by the tangerines and brussels sprouts that came with it. The only downside was that it was very heavy…
…which was why I ultimately preferred the experience of eating the lighter vegetable dishes at Vic’s. The bitter greens were refreshing and had a lot of depth for a green salad, much more interesting than your run of the mill bibb lettuce or mesclun mix. I was hoping the onions would be thin and very fried, in which the breading and the oil would cook out all the sharp, raw flavors of the bulb, but they were a little too preserved. Luckily the side of thick, melted parmigiano cheese almost made up for the strong onion flavors lingering in my mouth.
Pizzas: I had the burrata pizza with anchovies at Vic’s, while we tried the ‘nduja pie at Upland. The burrata pizza at Vic’s won this round, hands down. I loved how the crust was super crispy and thin, and how the medley of melted burrata and anchovies created a delicious fishy, salt lick on top of the surface. The ‘nduja pie, on the other hand, was just so heavy and overbearing. The crust was way too thick, and the thick passata tomato puree was intensely concentrated, like it had been freshly squeezed from a tube of tomato paste and chorizo.
Fish. This was more of a draw–the whole roasted Long Island porgy at Vic’s vs. the whole grilled branzino at Upland. Both fillets featured wonderfully flaky and fleshy white meat that was flavorful and fantastic, although the citrus vinaigrette seasoning at Upland was a little more refined and pulled together. The Vic’s version felt like a watered down rendition of a Thai chili dish, but because the underlying meat was so good, it almost didn’t matter.
Overall, the meal at Vic’s edged out the one at Upland. Something about Vic’s felt very comfortable and cozy, and that made me want to come back. I felt like I was having dinner with an old friend, who happened to have a beautiful home with a warm, inviting dining room. Whereas at Upland, I felt like I was with my former sorority sisters one-upping each other with stories about career wins and luxury hand bag purchases. So while you might have a pizza or fish at either, the way you enjoy it may differ significantly.
And true to my word, I’ve been back to Vic’s multiple times, trying several new things in the process. I absolutely fell in love with with the “little purse” pasta, these small, chubby ravioli-like pouches filled with the creamiest ricotta cheese. There was also a roasted delicata squash appetizer that I really enjoyed, although I think it was a seasonal item that is no longer on the menu.
The burrata with mushrooms was fine, but ultimately the earthy flavors of the mushroom and the saltiness of the toast overwhelmed the delicate flavors of the cheese, which was a shame. The roasted chicken and brussels sprouts was very solid, arriving with the requisite crisped skin on top and plump, juicy meat underneath. The flank steak was a palate pleaser as well, although our medium rare arrived a little too red. I find myself planning a lot of group dinners here because everyone can find something to like from the roster of delicious, dependable classics, all at reasonable price points. Vic’s is truly a neighborhood restaurant in every sense of the word, and a very valued one at that.
— Vic’s 31 Great Jones St (between Bowery and Lafayette) New York, NY 10012 (212) 253-5700
345 Park Avenue South (between 25th and 26th St)
New York, NY 10010
New York has never been known for its Mexican food. In fact, Mexican food in New York is usually defined by an inferiority complex. We immediately defer to the West Coast as having far superior options, while we sheepishly point people in the direction of Dos Caminos and Rosa Mexicana.
But a lot has changed. Suddenly taco is becoming really trendy. We have all these places like Mission Cantina, Empellon and Taqueria Diana that are making decent tacos. And now we are home to Cosme, a high-end Mexican restaurant run by chef Enrique Olvera, who also runs Pujol, one of the top restaurants in the world. It’s shocking that something other than French, Italian or new fangled Asian is getting so much attention. There’s so much excitement that the restaurant is fully booked through 2015. Craziness. Good call on my part on booking a random table two months out on Open Table as soon as the reservations opened up.
Don’t expect a traditional Mexican menu at Cosme. You won’t see any direct references to chips and guac and the word taco makes a single appearance. Instead, you’ll see things like uni tostada or raw hamachi. Olvera has said that he didn’t come to New York to “cook like his grandmother”, and you wouldn’t find many of these items on her table. Mexican food tends to be very hearty and heavy on strong spices like garlic, cilantro and onion, but Olvera’s take is a much cleaner and more refined version. You’ll still see the traditional spices represented, and corn, whether in the form of a tortilla or a dessert, plays a pivotal role, but less familiar ingredients are utilized so that the end result is a bit more ambiguous in origin, like one of those striking Bennetton models you see in those interesting ads.
Each table gets a complimentary plate of warm, crispy tostadas with pumpkin seed butter. It’s an updated take on the chips and salsa combination that Westerners have come to expect from a Mexican restaurant. The tostadas were a bit plain on their own, but the accompanying pumpkin seed butter was packed with flavor. It tasted like a black sesame peanut butter hummus, and while it was very distinctive and original, it can never win over my heart like a bowl of good guac. I could’ve used several more tostadas than the two that they gave us, as my margarita was extremely strong. The drinks here are very potent, fyi.
The serving sizes here are small and very pricey, but the best value item by far is the duck carnitas. This dish is meant for two, but it could easily feed 4 people. The taut firmness you usually associate with duck breast gets totally broken down, and the end result is a cut of meat that is incredibly marbled and tender, the byproduct of having been braised in its own fat and oil. Even a small bite of this would be a sin, one worth committing, of course, and they give you about a thousand opportunities to do so, since the slab of meat is so large and thick. The accompanying tortillas are small, which helps you pace yourself, and the onions and salsa verde help to enhance the meat even further.
The duck carnitas was an anomaly in terms of portion size, the rest of the menu is definitely smaller and lighter. The cobia al pastor features a white fish cooked al pastor or kebab style, which is something you don’t come across everyday. The resulting flavors were surprisingly very clean and bright, and I felt like I was eating the fish in its pure form. The sweet pineapple puree was a nice complement to the cobia’s mildness, which assumed the acidity nicely.
The white ayocote bean salad was entirely different from my expectations. I was expecting an actual green salad with beans, but what arrived instead was a white bean puree that resembled a very smooth hummus, with radishes and green leaves arranged around it like a wreath. It was very oily and rich, although the vegetables helped to offset this somewhat. I guess I was confused initially as to how to best consume this. Usually when I see a white bean puree I want a piece of bread or some chips to dip into it, but this was not an option as it arrived without an arsenal of carbs. You basically had to eat the bean on its own with a few greens nestled in, which was unusual, but somehow it worked.
We ended the meal on an extreme high with the husk meringue and corn mousse, one of the best desserts I have ever had in a long time. The presentation was gorgeous–the meringue resembled a cracked egg yielding an overflowing bounty of sweet corn mousse. The mousse itself tasted like a panna cotta, although there were moments when it tasted sweet, and other times when it tasted much more salty and savory. It’s a dessert that gives you what you want, but it also keeps you on its toes with some unexpected changes, and the experience is a very rewarding one.
As I mentioned earlier, Cosme is fully booked for the next few months, but you could always try your hand at the bar, which also offers the full dining room menu. As much as I enjoyed the food here, I’m in no hurry to rush back. This is definitely a special occasion place, with special prices to match, although for good reason. Cosme is showing that Mexican food deserves a place in the realm of fine dining, and that it can be so much more than just tacos and enchiladas. And it’s nice to finally claim a really good one as one of our own–we can’t keep letting the West Coast and Rick Bayless have all the glory!
35 E. 21st St (between Park Ave and Broadway)
New York, NY 10010
Japanese food in New York is pretty awesome. Whether you want excellent soba, ramen or yakitori, you have so many options to choose from. Nothing makes me happier than a rice bowl with delicious pieces of egg and pork tonkatsu laid on top. As you would expect, there are a lot of options for a kick ass donburi bowl, and other homestyle cooking items in general, and Ootoya makes a lot of them.
Ootoya is a Japan-based chain that specializes in traditional home cooking, specifically set meals, or teishoku, which generally consists of meat, fish, rice, miso soup and a side of pickled vegetables. The quiet buzzy atmosphere and the clean minimalist surroundings with an open-air dai really make you feel as if you’ve been transported to Japan. The food, most importantly, is comparable to what they’re serving in the mother land.
I was having a particularly rough Sunday, but as soon as I had a taste of the grilled mackerel in the hokke yuan dinner set, all my troubles seemed to melt away. I was too distracted by the deliciously unctuous and salty quality of the plump mackerel pieces sitting on top of the warm, herbal bed of rice. The hot miso soup, which was notable for the presence of thick, hearty vegetables throughout, was extremely soothing and was the perfect antidote for my depressing, cold Sunday night. Mixing in some chawanmushi into the rice and blending in the mackerel ponzu sauce really cinched things together into a delicious porridge.
The kaisen don, which was essentially a chirashi bowl served with a side of requisite soup, egg custard and pickles, was like a treasure chest of fresh, flavorful raw fish. Digging through the sushi vinegar rice and finding little orange bits of Santa Barbara uni and blue fin tuna was a very satisfactory treasure hunt, indeed. I tried to stop myself from picking at all the delicious rice, but when salty salmon roe awaits you, it’s hard to say no.
Throwing back all this food with a glass of Asahi and a bowl of green tea ice cream was just what I needed for the evening. I was at peace that my day sucked, and that tomorrow was an early start of the work week. They say you shouldn’t eat your feelings, but when stress and sadness are ingested in the form of delicious donburi, then this phrase definitely needs to be revisited.
8 West 18th Street
New York, NY 10011