Thursday, December 27, 2007

Quick reviews: Barney Greengrass, Levain Bakery

Barney Greengrass: Had breakfast at a diner on the UWS, Barney Greengrass, recently. The cafe is small and active, and segues right into a bakery, which actually holds the entrance to the restaurant. The space is a little cramped, but it makes up for that in a charming mural which covers all its walls.

I'd heard their egg scrambles were good, but maybe that's only for fish-lovers, as eggs + fish seem to be big on their menus. My scramble, which had eggs and swiss, turned out to be a little excessively sweet, and the eggs were not as fluffy as I would like. The toasted bagel that came with the order was nothing special, and the whole experience was pretty forgettable.


Levain Bakery: This place is famous for its chocolate chip cookies. I love chocolate chip cookies. Unfortunately, I did not really love the chocolate chip cookies at this place. I had had them once before, but not warm, so I thought they deserved a second chance. They turn out to be big almost scone-like hunks of warm dough filled with chocolate. Sounds great, right? In fact, they are only ok. I've made lots of chocolate chip cookies to me, and to me, these taste like simply somdewhat underbaked hunks of cookie dough. Which is fine, but just not particularly impressive. The dough itself is not very sweet ,which would be ok if it had amazing other flavors to display, but it doesn't. The chocolate is fine but not special. It's a pleasant experience eating the cookie, don't get me wrong, but it did not particularly make me crave it again, or send me into fits of ectasy. For the calorie count of that thing, and its classic nature, it should send me someplace great. Instead, it left me exactly where I was. Oh well.

Stars: 3/5

Great croissants at Petrossian's

After having tried croissants at Ceci-Cela (mediocre), Balthazar (bad), Claude Patisserie (decent but not great), La Bergamote (decent but not great), Payard (decent but not great), Pret a Manger (surprisingly pretty decent...but not great), and Bouchon (decent but not great), I've finally found a really good croissant in NY. It is, compliments of Chowhounders who've recommended the place, at Petrossian's Cafe -- on 7th Ave. between 57th and 58th. I actually tried a pain au chocolat here, and it had a) a truly and delightfully flaky texture all the way through, b) a shatter effect, c) a butter flavor, d) adequate amounts of good chocolate. Bravo!

Stars: 5/5

Eleven Madison Park: Fabulous Brunch

I went to brunch at EMP the other day. It's set in a contemporary and strangely beautiful space, with windows facing Gramercy Park. The interior is marked by icily beautiful vases full of bare willow stems, and on them roses bathing in tiny test tubes full of water. The inside is expansive and comfortable, suggestive of a chic but elegant hotel lobby. My one problem with the interior design was the ceiling. In the light of a gray Sunday morning, its long fluorescent light looked dingy, and the upper half of the room looked musty in comparison to the bottom half.

In any case, I ordered a baked goods package to begin with: two croissants, two pains au chocolat, and two caneles (rum cakes). All three were tasty and well-presented, but not pinnacles of their cuisine. The croissants were certainly competent but did not have the requisite flakiness and softness that defines the really great croissant. But well-presented they certainly were, and that was true for everything at this restaurant. Service was constantly friendly yet admirably detached -- watchful yet not overly intrusive or prying. Every detail has of course been thought about, including the very way that the basket of pastries is placed on your table when a coffee already sits on it.

I also ordered an egg fritata, which included zucchini, gruyere, and mushrooms. This dish was cooked to perfection, and the cheese and the vegetables all melted in my mouth. The richness of the egg and the richness of the cheese somehow came together and the result was not greasy or fatty but warm and golden. Even the side salad was carefully put together with the tenderest greens and lovingly coated with a vinaigrette, while the finger-knickingly light and airy triangles of toast next to it had a tender crunch.

Let me also mention the fantastic bread that I got served: both the french bread (especially) and the miniature olive baguette were hearty and solid on the outside yet soft and yielding on the inside. They both had the yeasty aroma that comes with really excellent bread, and compliments too to the butter, which tasted fresh and somehow European.

All in all, this was a really excellent and memorable brunch. I look forward to returning here for dinner someday (though vegetarians, my server cautioned, should call in advance to make sure the Chef has the right ingredients).

Stars: 5/5

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Shopsin's: The Diner That Could

Shopsin's in New York is well-known as being an incredible diner: at its previous location in the West Village, it boasted a menu with over 1,000 items. In its new cubby at one end of the Essex market (at the corner of Essex and Rivington, in the Lower East Side), it lives in a small unadorned area without even a sign for a name, and the sparse clattering of tables seems like it's the set for some TV version of a diner rather than the real thing. The menu is not 1,000 items right now, but it's still dazzling.

Shopsin's promises a lot, and it delivers the goods. It's inexpensive and the ambience is open, friendly, casual, and high-energy. I chatted with several other patrons during my time there, with the main topic of conversation being the extensive food selection. I ordered what my smiling (and harried! -- she was the only server on duty) waitress warned me was too much food: a huevos rancheros and a chocolate banana nut french toast bread pudding (that's typical). The huevos came out steaming hot and fresh, and nicely spicy, just as I requested it. The eggs were cheesy and runny and golden and served as a blazing anchor for the stew-like vegetable-and-beans next to it. The color and presentation worked well. Fresh corn tortillas acted as the traditional sop.

The bread pudding was also excellent, with the cooked multi-textured bread pieces contasting against the textures of the chocolate and the banana in a homey harmony. My only slight complaint is that it was a little dry -- maple syrup helped, but at the cost of obscuring some of its flavors.

All in all, this is an incredibly fun restaurant with a great atmosphere and value. My only pan is that there are too few tables: you're liable to wait, especially if you come with a group. Nevertheless, I plan to come back over and over...

Stars: 5/5

The Grandma Slice: Bleeker St. Pizza

I've tried wonderful Grandma slices at Lazzarra's and Maffei's. Bleeker St. Pizza, at the corner of Bleeker and 7th, is only fair in comparison. The slice was visually appealing, with bursts of tomato and spices cutting through the cheese. The ingredients were basically fresh and good, too, and I compulsively gobbled down the crust.. But the edge of my heated cheese slice was slightly mushy, and the sauce itself somehow reminded me of canned spaghetti sauce. I've had the regular slice at BSP, and thought it pretty good -- probably better than the grannie.

Stars: 3/5

Friday, December 21, 2007

There's a Reason We Don't Eat Red Bamboo

Red Bamboo is a fake-meat vegetarian restaurant in the Village, on W. 4th between Macdougal and 6th Ave. It sports everything from classic favorites like buffalo wings to cajun food (think "soul [soy] chicken") and asian fusion. I was excited to see the varied and interesting menu, because as a vegetarian you don't get to eat a lot of the very appetizing-looking things your friends are always munching on.

Unfortunately, RB does not live up to its promise. It's a small restaurant, with limited seating and a spartan atmosphere. Think of a cheap chinese restaurant built lengthwise and trussed up with a few more mirrors and a shinier materials, and you'll get the idea. It's warm, but a little cramped.

I started by ordering buffalo wings, which ended up being very chewy and stringy. Unfortunately, they were also extraordinarily heavy, and I felt like I was just eating big hunks of whatever protein they used to make the wings. The BBQ sauce coating the wings was gloppy and unremarkable, and the ranch dressing that went with it was mild and a touch sour. Eating even two of these wings was a mistake: I started to feel extremely full.

I had heard that the milkshakes were good here, but that turned out not to be the case. How you screw up a milkshake isn't clear, but screw it up RB did. I ordered a straberry milkshake, and it turned out to be so mild -- lacking either a lucid strawberry or a rich creamy wholesome milkiness or even an intoxicating dulce -- that it was completely pointless. I don't think I've ever said that about a milkshake before. A total waste of calories.

Finally, my entree was a black-bean ginger stirfry with fake shrimp. This was a bland and disappointing spice combination (and certainly not the "slightly spicy" that my server promised). I felt like I was eating a mound of sauteed vegetables, not cooked quite enough, so they seemed to be an endless heap of roughage, into which was sifted bits of a smoky, slightly bitter rubbery material that was supposedly the shrimp. Yuck.

Avoid this place.

Stars: 1/5

Pret a Manger: A surprisingly good Pain Au Chocolat

Walked by the English chain Pret A Manger today, and had one of their pain au chocolates. It was a surprise: pretty tasty! Granted, the initial flavor was a little dusty or chalky or not perfectly buttery, but the overall taste and, especially, the texture, was good! It had the vaunted "shatter" effect whereby the outer layers of the croissant splintered on bite and inner layers were tender but flaky. Also, the chocolate inside was moist and melty and bittersweet. An excellent pain au chocolate. Possibly the best I've had in the city so far... I've tried Payard and Patisserie Claude for them, and Balthazar and Ceci-Cela for croissants generally, and the latter two are not very good.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Dessert Truck: Scrumptious!

Had a bite a couple of nights ago at the dessert truck (read more here) parked in the evenings at the corner of 8th St. and University Pl. in the Village. I had a hot chocolate and a chocolate bread pudding. The hot chocolate was one of their very last cups (the server said they had already sold 100 that night). The girl in line in front of me very kindly let me have one of these last two cups (she was going to order them both). It was warm and sweet, and tasted like love. A delicious mixture of Valrhona and Guittard chocolates, it was definitely of the chocolate-ganache + cream variety of hot chocolate (the real kind, in other words, not the powder), and was creamy and thick --but not ridiculously so. Definitely sweet, complex flavors. Not overly dark. Excellent, just excellent.

The chocolate bread pudding was also good, though I'm skeptical that I should have had it after the sweeter hot chocolate. Great chocolatey flavor, even better warm, mildly textured mouthfeel, and a tasty vanilla creme anglais to go along with it (though I wish they had given me a little more of it).

All in all, the dessert truck is a beautiful little creation symbolic of New York's creativity and whimsy.

Stars: 5/5

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Indigo - drab Midtown Indian

Tried Indigo, an Indian restaurant at 50th between 1st and 2nd, last night. It's supposedly a big hit with the UN crowd. I'm not quite sure why. The restaurant was fairly deserted on a Tuesday night, and had good service, but not much else. The soy and spinach patties I ordered were hard and tasteless, and served with an ok sweet chutney and an unpleasantly vinegary mint chutney. The malai kofta I ordered -- cheese "dumplings" in a creamy gravy -- had a sauce that was bland and mild, even though I specifically ordered it very spicy. The dumplings themselves were mostly paneer with a rubbery outer texture and not much flavor on the inside.

Overall, very disappointing.

Stars: 1/5