Hand rolls are often relegated to the sidelines at sushi restaurants. During an omakase, the emphasis is on the sushi or sashimi, and if a handroll is included, it usually arrives towards the end, when the diner’s attention wanes and the superfluous rice muffles the flavors of the fish. DOMODOMO, a sushi bar in Greenwich Village, is one of those rare restaurants that specializes in hand rolls, featuring them in ways that are much more interesting than the ubiquitous spicy mayo variety.

domodomo entrance
domodomo entrance

The restaurant has the clean, minimalist look of a traditional sushi bar, but the atmosphere is a lot more lively than the serious-minded silence that fills the room of other places. That’s not to say that this levity implies a lower level of skill at DOMODOMO. It’s true that they take a nontraditional approach to their hand rolls. At times they might pre-treat their fish in a bbq soy glaze or in a Korean seasoning, for instance, rather than having the customer season to taste with soy sauce, but it’s all done very thoughtfully and not in a gimmicky way. You won’t find gigantic, nonsensical Dragon or Spider rolls on this menu.

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a glass of kagua, the ideal beer to complement japanese food
shrimp peach salad
shrimp peach salad
chawanmushi with black truffle sauce
chawanmushi with black truffle sauce
sushi platter - amberjack, branzino, yellowtail, cured salmon, fluke and bluefin tuna
sushi platter – amberjack, branzino, yellowtail, cured salmon, fluke and bluefin tuna
bay scallop with korean seasoning, unagi and japanese spotted prawn
bay scallop with korean soy sauce seasoning, smoked unagi in chocolate kabayaki sauce and japanese spotted prawn
blue crab hand roll
blue crab hand roll

The menu also offers a variety of appetizers and select sushi pieces to complement your hand rolls. I would recommend the hand roll course, which features a good mix of things–cooked plates, hand rolls, a few sushi pieces and a dessert. If you’re going a la carte, the blue crab, unagi and lobster hand rolls are must do’s, and if you’re not really feeling the whole hand roll thing, the sushi menu for $52 is a very good deal that lets you have a more traditional sushi bar experience that’s more fish and less rice. The sushi, by the way, was clean, fresh and delicious, with the salmon, unagi and ebi pieces really standing out. DOMODOMO is dedicated to quality, and their fish can certainly stand on its own without the protective cover of sushi rice.

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water chestnut panna cotta
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hojicha pudding

I am a huge fan of green tea anything, so of course, for dessert, I ordered the hojicha pudding, a light panna cotta-like custard that was flavored with roasted green tea. The water chestnut panna cotta had a very similar flavor profile, except it was nuttier and earthier. In general, the desserts here are sweet but subtle in that understated Japanese way, as they should be, because anything sweeter would overshadow the fantastic sushi that came beforehand.

138 W. Houston St (between Macdougal and Sullivan St)
New York, NY 10012
(646) 707-0301

Manousheh, a Lebanese Snack Food

If the thought of another sandwich or wrap is leaving you feeling uninspired, why not try a manousheh instead? The manousheh is a Lebanese flatbread that is usually topped with zaatar seasoning, cheese and olive oil.  It has the look and feel of a very thin crust pizza, down to the details of a crust made blistery and bubbly from the heat of a wood-fire oven, but it is much lighter in taste and weight. The crust is lightly dusted with herbs and olive oil, and if meat and cheese are involved, they are used in moderation.

These flatbreads aren’t very common in New York City, but you can try them at Manousheh in Greenwich Village, a restaurant dedicated to broadening the reach of this snack food beyond the borders of Lebanon. I tried the zaatar, which consists of dried thyme, sumac and sesame seeds, and added on a side of veggies. It was nutty and tasty, although a bit on the salty side, so I was glad that the cucumbers and tomatoes were there to balance out the flavors. I’d say it was a very good snack, although not quite substantial enough to make a meal out of it. I’d recommend the lahem bi ajine for something more filling, a manousheh topped with organic grass fed ground beef, tomatoes and onion. This had more in common with a traditional pizza, but it was a much more nimbler version, as it wasn’t weighed down by heavy grease and sauce.

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zaatar manousheh with extra veggies
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lahem bi ajine – grass fed ground beef, tomatoes and onion, with extra veggies

Overall I did appreciate the nuanced and balanced savory flavor profile, and how the litheness of the bread didn’t make you feel so full and carb-loaded. Sometimes it did feel a little too skinny on fillings, although that’s not something a side of veggies or cheese couldn’t solve. We get a little too comfortable with our eating routine, and eating this manousheh is a great and accessible way to branch out.

193 Bleecker St (between Macdougal and Minetta St)
New York, NY 10012
(347) 971-5778

Central Thai Food at Kiin Thai

Kiin Thai is a college date night type of place. Like you’re tired of eating in the dining hall, but you want something nicer than pizza or Mexican, so this stylish Thai restaurant hits that sweet spot of serving interesting food at a reasonable price point.

But that “college date night” qualifier says something. In college, you’re not really all that picky about what you eat. Instant ramen noodles and Totino’s boxed pizza were all fair game. But as you get older, you start eating a lot more real food and developing standards, and the college hot spots don’t cut it anymore.

I wasn’t expecting Kiin Thai to be a college date night type of place. I thought it would be many notches above that, as it is run by the owners of the highly regarded Isaan Thai restaurant Somtum Der. But there’s a real difference between the two restaurants. Somtum Der is like the sure footed parent with a strong point of view, whereas Kiin Thai is the people pleasing college kid still figuring it out.

The decor at Kiin Thai is very nice, but it feels a little out of character for a Thai restaurant. There’s a lot of whitewashed wood and mason jars, which to me reads more farm-to-table American than central Thailand. This is the whole people-pleaser aspect that I was talking about earlier. I feel like the owners thought this farm-to-table decor was trendy and was what New Yorkers wanted, and hence they decided to furnish things this way, rather than being driven by authenticity. Maybe things have changed in Thailand, but when I was there several years ago, things weren’t being served out of mason jars…

pad thai with shrimp wrapped in egg crepe
pad thai with shrimp wrapped in egg crepe

Here’s an obvious example of Kiin Thai not quite figuring things out–the pad thai did not come fully seasoned. Instead, the peanuts, red pepper flakes and sugar came on the side. I’m a little confused by why the restaurant didn’t have the confidence to assert its point of view and season everything fully beforehand. It’s a cop out, frankly–no one can blame them for the flavors if the diners have to season the dish themselves. I guess on the plus side, because it wasn’t fully seasoned, the pad thai wan’t overly sweet like bad takeout style, but in the same vein, it was also pretty bland.

grandma's grilled pork and grilled sticky rice
grandma’s grilled pork and grilled sticky rice

I did enjoy the grandma’s pork chops, which were served playfully as lollipops. The ground meat was seasoned well, with a hint of coconut, lemongrass and cilantro in the blend, and the patties really came alive with the dipping sauce, which generated a lot of explosive heat.

royal seafood omelette
royal seafood omelette

The biggest disappointment by far was the royal seafood omelette. There was nothing regal about this sad omelette, which had an unappetizing gray color about it. My suspicions were confirmed when I took a bite. I felt like I was eating this weird filler, like industrial powdered egg with bits of canned crab meat mixed throughout. It was so bad, we didn’t even finish it. When you think to how much potential this dish could have had, it made the misstep that much more tragic.

So this is what happens when you run a restaurant that isn’t true to its roots. There’s no strong point of view, other than to cater to as many palates as possible, which results in cooking that lacks soul. Everything looks very pretty, but like a bland pageant queen, Kiin Thai lacks real substance. Not that that bothered the NYU kids around me, who looked like they were enjoying themselves. They’ll know better in a few years’ time…

Kiin Thai
36 E. 8th St (between University Pl and Greene St)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 529-2363

Kiin Thai

For a Girly Brunch, try Claudette or Dimes

Rule number one of girly brunch – it’s all about the surroundings. A charming rustic French salon or a beachy California surf shack are both appropriate. Second rule of girly brunch – food options must be light but tasty. Omelettes and salads are musts, chicken and waffles less so. Extra points for superfoods like acai and quinoa. Third rule of girly brunch – lively background noise is nice, but not so much that you can’t hear your girl friends speak. Gossip is no fun when it involves screaming over each other. And the last and most important rule is the presence of mimosas or pressed juices. Getting tipsy while watching your figure during brunch is the girliest of moves.

I had a back-to-back weekend of girly brunches–one at Claudette, the new West Village French restaurant owned by the people of Rosemary’s, and another at Dimes, a small and pleasant cafe that looks like a Saturdays Surf boutique, located all the way in the depths of Chinatown. If you’re the type of girl who carries a Goyard or Celine bag, then you would like the scene at Claudette, whereas if you’re more into sustainable farming and tote bags, then you’d feel more at home at Dimes.

Dimes is tiny and doesn’t take reservations, so be prepared to put your names down and wait. The restaurant is known for its acai bowls and breakfast sandwiches, but I was feeling extra healthy that morning so I ordered the big salad, a bowl of kale and other market greens, squash, brussels sprouts, pumpkin seeds and grapes. I ordered the dressing on the side, which was probably a mistake, because this was the kind of salad that desperately needed dressing. The greens were so raw and dry, that you really needed to mix the liquid in there to tenderize the greens and bring them back to edible form. That being said, I’ve had better vegan salads, such as the spizy sabzi at Sweetgreens–this one was too literal a bowl of chopped vegetables.

dimes - the big salad
the big salad with market greens, brussels sprouts, delicata squash, concord grapes, pumpkin seeds

The spicy quinoa bowl, on the other hand, was the right amount of self-righteous healthy and tasty. I think it helped that there was the perfect combination of good fats, texture and body, and it was all seasoned very well, so you felt like you were getting a square and satisfactory meal out of the vegetables. It’s definitely something I would return to Dimes for and order again, along with the delicious acai bowls.

spiced quinoa bowl with chickpeas, asparagus, eggplant, peppers
spiced quinoa bowl with chickpeas, asparagus, eggplant, peppers
dimes - bluberry and banana acai bowl
acai bowl with lavender, blueberry, banana, cash cream, goji granola, almond milk

Claudette’s brunch menu is very much farm-to-table driven, with a French and occasionally Middle Eastern accent. Think spicy harissa baked eggs, ratatouille tart and a variety of seasonal vegetable starters. The omelette au crab caught my eye–who doesn’t love fresh crab and cooked eggs together?–although the dish ended up being rather lackluster, like the Sarah, Plain and Tall of omelettes. The eggs were also very light and slightly runny inside, which isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker, but something to note for those who do care about things like that.

omelette au crabe - lump jonah crab, roasted corn, cherry tomato
omelette au crabe – lump jonah crab, roasted corn, cherry tomato

The provencal chicken salad certainly had a lot of personality flavor-wise, which explains why I basically ate half of my sister’s order. The dressing was the key element here, a bright orange vinaigrette consisting of light olive oil with a touch of acid notes and exotic hints of caraway seeds that brought out a zesty, aromatic quality in the ingredients. It was especially delicious when coating the bulgur, elevating a normally salt-of-the-earth grain to something interesting and refined.

provencal chicken salad with carrots, bulger, pistachio, caraway and orange vinaigrette
provencal chicken salad with carrots, bulger, pistachio, caraway and orange vinaigrette

I characterize these places as girly ones, but obviously men were reasonably well represented in the dining rooms. After all, the California and French aesthetic is appealing to both genders. My point is that sometimes girls can get very particular about their brunch places, in that it has to be super cute and let them indulge their Girls / SATC fantasies for a weekend, and these two check those boxes. So if you’re looking to throw back all-you-can-drink bloody marys with greasy eggs and bacon, then you won’t find it at either Claudette or Dimes. But if you want to make your girlfriend or female friends happy, then you’ve come to the right spots.

143 Division St (between Ludlow and Orchard St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 240-9410

24 5th Ave (between 10th and 9th St)
New York, NY 10011
(212) 868-2424

Italian Excess Done Right at Carbone

Carbone - bar

My teacher in middle school once asked us if there was one food you could eat for the rest of your life, what would that be? Without hesitation, I said that my choice would be spaghetti and meatballs, an answer that was met with approval by all of my classmates. I loved all things red-sauce Italian–spaghetti, lasagna, ravioli, chicken parm, etc. It didn’t matter if it came out of a Stouffer’s box or from the sketchy school cafeteria, I would eat it all.

Italian cuisine is clearly a broad field that extends beyond red-sauce classics. Spaghetti and meatballs is like the gateway drug to more interesting offerings like squid ink pasta, orecchiette or cavatelli. The only places in the city that specialize in the Italian of our childhood seem to be those questionable restaurants in Little Italy that have not received a local or a Michelin Star in quite some time.

Carbone, however, is bringing classic Italian back to the people of New York City. There’s no shame in ordering huge plates of crowd-pleasing favorites like spaghetti and meatballs here. Instead of shirking from the stigma of being old school Italian, they wear it proudly as a badge of honor. Waiters in tacky burgundy bow ties try to smoothly upsell you on their house specials while “That’s Amore” blasts in the background.

Despite the kitschy Italiano concept, the food here is all business. It’s basically the most elevated form of old-school Italian American culinary excess that’s out there, and by a long mile. It doesn’t do justice to put Carbone in the same league as a Tony’s DiNapoli or a random Mario/Luigi/Giorgio’s restaurant because it’s a category killer. Yes, the portions are big and things are coated in mozzarella and parmesan cheese, but not in a way that is oversalted or heavy-handed. Anything done in excess serves to enhance the main ingredient on display, so that your focus is on how good the food is, rather than on how fat you feel.

Carbone - garlic bread and fresh mozzarella
nothing says italian like fantastic garlic bread and fresh mozzarella
Carbone - tableside caesar manner
caesar salad’s a stage

They say with food, presentation is everything, and that’s certainly the case with the tableside preparation of caesar salad, which I really enjoyed. Many people have raved about the caesar salad here, and while I didn’t find it quite worthy of the highest praise, I did appreciate the creamy texture and the surprisingly mild and muted flavors in the dressing, which generously coated the fresh romaine lettuce leaves. The anchovies provided some nice salty accents, and the croutons were dense, salty and fantastic. Overall, a great start to the meal.

Carbone - raw scallops
carbone does a mean raw bar–don’t pass on the scallops

While Carbone is famous for its over-the-top culinary presentation, I actually preferred their more low-key dishes. My favorites were the raw scallops, a special catch of the day, and the spicy rigatoni vodka. I’m not sure where Carbone gets their scallops, but from the taste of them, it seemed like they dove right into the coast that morning and brought them back to the restaurant the same day. You know how when you eat a really good piece of sashimi, it almost melts in your mouth, because something about being fresh from the ocean gives it that amazing quality? That’s what these scallops were like. You didn’t even have to do much to them because they were so good to begin with. Just some great olive oil and citrus were all that was needed to let the scallops shine.

Carbone - spicy rigatoni vodka
spicy rigatoni vodka – simplicity at its best

The spicy rigatoni was another simple dish that really left an impression. The pasta was al dente and coated in a spicy tomato sauce, which at first doesn’t seem like anything special. But this was quite possibly the most well-balanced tomato sauce that I’ve ever tried. Tomato sauces can be weighed down with savory meat and garlic flavors, or they can fall on the other end of the spectrum with a light sweetness lacking depth. I’m not sure how Carbone achieves it, perhaps vodka is the magical ingredient, but the spice, the sweetness of the tomatoes and the cream were very bright and pleasant.

Carbone - Mario's meatballs
Mario’s meatballs

The humble meatball also gets the VIP treatment here. This isn’t a meatball that uses crumbly, low-grade meat parts in its preparation. When you cut into it, it’s remarkably smooth and almost pate-like in its consistency. I felt like i was eating a light and porous ham, as opposed to a hamburger patty densely rolled into a ball, which is a common pitfall of many mediocre meatballs.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the road back to excess with the arrival of the enormous veal parmesan and the thick slab of pork chop. This Goliath of a veal parmesan was no joke–it was pretty intimidating, the way it came with the bone still on and coated in a generous layer of melted mozzarella cheese. While they call it veal parm for two, it really takes at least 4 people to crush it, which we did. Even beneath the veil of cheese and sauce, however, you could tell that the veal was tender and flavorful. This isn’t just an exercise in gluttony, it’s a thoughtful presentation to enhance the protein without getting weighed down by the rich accoutrements.    

Carbone - veal parm
veal parm – here today…
Carbone - veal parm postpartum
…bone tomorrow!

As if that weren’t enough, we also split an order of the pork chop & peppers, which was a delicious slab of richly marbled meat. I was pretty impressed by how closely it resembled rib eye; this isn’t the lean and meek pork chop loin that we’ve come to expect. It was so unabashedly big and rough and primitive in its presentation. But like Ron Swanson, it may be large and rough on the inside, but it’s tender and all heartfelt on the inside.

Carbone - pork chop and peppers
pork chop and peppers – a nice piece of meat

Despite its humble Italian American origins, the prices at Carbone are anything but. All in, and without alcohol, lunch came out to an aggressive ~$60-$70 a person. A meal here is definitely for an occasion, and one that you only do once. It’s sort of like the time that I ran a half-marathon last year. It was intense, it was extreme, and I felt accomplished, but I wouldn’t ever do it again. And that’s how I feel about Carbone. I checked the box and loved doing so, but time to move on.

181 Thompson Street (between Bleecker and Houston)
New York, NY 10012
(212) 933-0707