Thursday, May 22, 2008
I had an addictive loaf of Turkish bread, which is chewy and in its being served in long broad strips that have to be torn, reminded me somehow a little of focaccia. I ordered just two dishes: lebni, a yogurt, walnut, and dill dip, and falafel. The lebni was fantastic, combining the cooling power of fresh, thick fage-like yogurt with a subtle crunch of walnut and a hint of edgy sourness. I wanted to eat every drop of it off the plate. The falafel was good, but not as great as the lebni. Several thick falafels were served with a tahini sauce. Overall, the whole dish was a little too mild for my liking. It was still good, however. The bread and lebni alone made this restaurant return-worthy in my opinion, and merits it a recommendation.
So it was with some trepidation and some excitement that I went back to Avra for lunch and sampled their more workaday Greek cuisine. It turns out they haven't missed a beat.
Starting with their wholesome Greek bread served with a dipping sauce a little reminiscent of a thin hummus, just about everything was quite tasty. We started with cooked lima beans -- the weakest dish served, because to my taste they were somewhat overcooked -- and moved on to a wonderfully chewy Greek oven-baked cheese. We then tried immensely garlicky (in a good way) zucchini chips served with a cool yogurt dipping sauce. For my main course, I had a delicately-cooked Greek pasta in a fresh tomato sauce and feta cheese. Oregano fries were crisp and as attractive as I remembered them.
Perhaps my only hesitation (though it is one of Avra's charms) is that this food is not particularly fancy, and could easily have been served at a much humbler restaurant. But what you get here is good, well-seasoned and adeptly cooked food in a nice atmosphere and with solid service.
Portions were generous, and prices, if not cheap, are reasonable for a beautiful and lively place in midtown. It's filled with people doing business lunches on the weekdays, and would be the perfect place for a laidback yet elegant dining experience.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Fiamma is an Italian restaurant in Soho, on Spring St. between Sullivan and Sixth Ave. After you enter and your coats are taken, an elevator takes you to the elegant second floor of the restaurant, filled with curvaciously fluted vases and decanters and snazzy Italian artwork on the walls. A quiet atmosphere pervades the place.
Food was often pretty but unfortunately disappointing in taste. I had a vegetarian tasting. My first course was a white asparagus whose pecorino and mint foam accompaniments did not form a cohesive whole. My second course was a set of fried mozarella and squash blossoms with marinara. These were deep-fried in a batter. The marinara was rich and delicate, with onion accenting and giving texture. But the blossoms themselves did not have the crunchy shell they should have. They tasted like they had sat a little too long, and the oil had sogged up the batter. The third course was a tagliatelle with ricotta inside. The ricotta filling was dense and lemony, but it was just too heavy and simply did not taste that great. My final course was a simple "vegetable dish" that the chef had prepared, full of spring greens (I had called ahead and indicated that there would be vegetarians in the group). This was crunchy and tasted decent, but was hardly anything special. It felt a lot like the hot version of a salad. Dessert was a strange chocolate cake layered on pistachio shortbread and topped with a scoop of basil gelato. Again, not a combination that worked all that well. Though it was inventive.
My companions who ate meat-based dishes had similar reactions, though there were one or two dishes they liked.
Servers had a good attitude, but they also messed up twice, in delivering the wrong courses and in charging us for a bottle of wine they should not have (they corrected it when it was pointed out).
Overall, this is not a restaurant that I'd recommend, given the very high prices and the decidedly shrug-inducing (or worse, perplexing) flavor of the food.Stars: 2/5
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
I'll give quick summaries of the many dishes I tried:
Pita bread - a little too tough for my taste, but warm and otherwise reasonably tasty
Hummus - Good but slightly too sour, and I'd prefer it served warm ala Hummus Place
Baba Ghanouj - competent but somehow not compelling
Warm eggplant - a tasty, tangy take on eggplant, cross sections of eggplant are served with a tomato-based sauce. This dish had a nice texture, and again, shows this restaurant's tendency towards sourness. But overall it was tasty and had me going back to seconds.
Salad with palm - this was a very plain salad, and the palm was good.
Brussels sprouts -- Here Brussels sprouts were cooked with fig puree, walnut, and mint. Tasty, but not as good as the sprouts at Alta. The sauce detracted from the crispness of sprouts that can be so pleasing.
Duck egg with kashkashar cheese - The duck egg is not fertilized. This is an excellent dish, the standout of the table. It's listed under the "meat" section but is actually vegetarian. The dense texture of the egg and cheese meld together seamlessly and have a pleasingly bite and savor.
Falafel - These were a bit dry and did not come with nearly enough Tahini sauce.
Cheese rolls - These spring rolls with a blend of feta and kashkashal cheese was tender on the outside and had a pleasing saltiness on the inside. A moderate winner.
Overall, the service was elegant and the decor enjoyable, but the food only above-average. A qualified recommendation.
Sunday, May 11, 2008
We ordered a few different vegetarian things. Wontons with cheese in them were like high-quality mozzarella sticks, except that they used some kind of cheese more akin to swiss. These were tender and tasty. A cold udon noodles with dipping sauce was clear and refreshing. Roasted eggplants were creamy; yams were crispy but seemed perhaps a little undercooked. Green peppers were slightly spicy and had a nice flavor. The sake we ordered with the meal was decent and cheap.
Overall, a very nice atmosphere, and good food. I look forward to trying more Japanese food and expanding my culinary outlook.
Friday, May 9, 2008
Stars: 5/5 (for the chocolate croissants) and 3/5 for everything else
Bad croissants at La Tropezienne's E. Harlem neighbor, Samba Bakery. This French bakery's almond croissant was heavy and soggy from the almond filling, and the filling didn't taste that gret either. Bad stuff.
The slice joint is tiny, just large enough to stand in, basically. I ordered two plain slices -- that's all they had -- and got two slices with tender crusts, slightly runny cheese, and light, bright sauce. I liked the crust, and the cheese was decent, but the sauce was a a little too underspiced for my preference. Good pizza, but definitely not great, and not a destination pizza. Just another slice joint.
Thursday, May 8, 2008
And pizza is what Luzzo's is known for. To prepare for it, I ordered a pinenut and greens salad, which came with a balsalmic vinegar dressing that was a touch too strong, though the cooked ricotta cheese ball on top was a nice touch. The pizza I ordered came with parmesan, mozarella, and cherry tomatoes. While the ingredients and crust were generally good, the crust was a bit too chewy. More problematically, there just wasn't enough spice or oomph in either the sauce or the cheese. The whole pizza was way too bland -- even on the salt I think they skimped. This is a pity, because I had high hopes for this place. And at the prices they charge -- $18 for a 12" pizza -- this cannot be justified. For pure Neapolitan pizza, Una Pizza Napoletana and L'Asso are better bets.
Nevertheless, it looks like Manhattan's best pizza overall remains square slices: at Lazzara's and Sullivan St. Bakery (with Adrienne's, Maffei's, Pizza Pala, and Adrienne's coming in as decent runners-up).
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Food was tasty and an excellent value. The bread basket was a scrumptious beginning, and I especially liked the warm pieces of focaccio that looked and tasted a lot like Indian naan bread. The bread came with a tapenade made from sundried tomatoes. An appetizer of sauteed mushrooms was tender but a little underspiced, but my eggplant parmesan entree was well-cooked, simple, amply loaded with cheese, and satisfying. This is traditional red-sauce cooking, but it is done very well.
Unfortunately, this sandwich did not do it for me. The ingredients were not bold enough or flavorful enough to make it go beyond the sum of its somewhat humdrum parts. The bread was good, but I already knew that.
I also had churros and hot chocolate for dessert. These are two small churros, each about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of a normal churro you might buy at a concession stand. They are also much denser and chewier. I found them good but not bursting with flavor. I liked the hot chocolate all right, but it is clearly not a ganache-based hot chocolate -- it used cocoa powder, and did not seem to have been completely mixed (I got a couple of "bits" of cocoa or something in it).
Nevertheless, the grocery part of Despana impresses me a lot more. They take the time to put in small samples of several of their products, including varieties of honey, vinegar, olive oil, and Spanish salsa, that you can taste on small tearings of bread they thoughtfully provide. These were without exception tasty products. That's where Despana has focused its attention, and it shows.
Saturday, May 3, 2008
Anyhow, the service was excellent, if slightly fawning. I ordered a buffalo ricotta flan, with pine nuts, cauliflower, and a candied apple to start. This was bland and unsatisfying, and the ingredients did not mesh into a coherent dish.
My second course, a papardelle with trumpet royale mushroom ragu, was considerably better. A nice, hearty, slightly nutty taste to that made me want to keep eating. A side of fig puree provided a touch of sweetness that cut the savor of the ragu and added a tasty complexity to the dish. The presentation of the dish was fairly plain, though, and I couldn't help but think that though I enjoyed this dish, it is not a dish that showed culinary magnificence.
Dessert, though, was something else. Falai's passionfruit souffle is ultralight, airty, subtly fruity, and has sugar coating the walls of the souffle that remind me of candyshops and childhood. This was a really topnotch souffle, no question about it.
Overall, except for that souffle, though, Falai strikes a note of indifference in me, and while it certainly isn't bad, it didn't win a place in my heart.
Friday, May 2, 2008
Thursday, May 1, 2008
Strong, pungent (and tasty) flavors: that's what I took away from my Casa Mono experience. Admittedly, the ensalada mono combined bitter greens with chopped sweet pimiento almonds and slices of a mealy cheese and turned out to be refreshing and slightly sweet. However, ramps were a smooth bitter cut by romesco sauce, and had an addictive, tender-but-chewy texture. Pimiento peppers were oil-soaked and piquant, slightly bitter, addictive, and impressive. Dessert was crema catalan: a kind of slightly thinner creme brulee burnt properly on top, leaving the the cream itself served mostly cool -- as it should be served.
Service was polite and formal, but went out of its way to be accommodating. I sat at the bar, and got to watch the kitchen the whole time, which was a treat. Wine was tasty but expensive ($15 for a cuarto of a wine that goes for $13/bottle).
One caution for vegetarians: they smear the grill with some kind of chicken or duck fat. I have to shrug and just deal with it, because god knows what they do at most restaurants. But if you're particular, you should beware.