Friday, March 21, 2008

Quick reports: Freeman's, Babycakes, Birdbath, Isle Thai, Milk & Cookies, Jack's Stir Brew, Primitivo Osteria

Freeman's - This trendy LES hunting-lodge lookalike occupies a memorable cul-de-sac at the end of Freeman's Alley between Christie's and Rivington. My friend and I were lucky in that we did not have to wait for a table (admittedly, this was on a Tuesday night around 10 pm). We ordered an artichoke dip which came with toasted bread and was delicious. My entree was a good but not special macaroni and cheese. For a drink, my friend and I both ordered French 75s -- cocktails which champaigne in them and which tasted like excellent fizzy lemonades. Delicious. Stars: 4/5

Birdbath: This W. Village cookie house, owned by the same folks that own City Bakery, has tempting stacks of cookies in wooden shelving. I tried the City Bakery chocolate chip cookies at this establishment. Why, might you ask, would I do this, since I had tried them once before and found them just decent? I wanted to give them a second chance. But I found their taste somewhat commercial and unimpressive. Stars: 3/5

Isle Thai - I had a cheap thai lunch special at this near-John's-pizza-on-Bleecker place. A nice starter salad and a tasty curry made for perfectly solid and satisfying if not amazingly complex thai food. Stars: 4/5

Milk & Cookies - this West Village bakery temtped me in with its name and with its heavenly aroma when I got inside. Unfortunately, the chocolate chip cookie which I got did not live up to the billing. It was clearly an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie, and did not have enough chocolate in it. It also tasted a bit dry. Stars: 2/5 (although I feel like some of the other cookies might be a lot better, and I thought their option of a "design your own cookie" cookie was pretty cool)

Jack's Stir Brew Coffee - Another W. Village dealie, this 27-Zagat rated coffeehouse with black and white pictures of what look to me like its owner and family and friends up on the wall is cheerful and feels like home. I ordered "happy jack" latte with cinnamon and honey, which was mild and slightly spiced and relaxing. I also got one of Aunt Rose's chocolate chip cookies, which came warm right out of the oven (because they had run out; I had to wait 15 minutes for the privilege) and tasted delicious. The edges were slightly crispy and inside seemed like brown sugar, and a little bit the texture of a warm apple sauce. This is a very good cookie, and a great place. Stars: 5/5

Primitivo Osteria: This Italian west of Union Square on 14th is fairly mediocre in ambiance and execution. Mediocre appetizers in the form of bruschetta and artichokes with gruyere cheese (the artichokes were fairly heavily and cooked somewhat artlessly), a mediocre entree in the form of a basil pesto pasta that completely lacked kick and possibly salt, and mediocre desserts (my tres leches cake was pretty forgettable), and the fact that the food took forever to get there... Stars: 1/5

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Quick reports: Sugar Sweet Sunshine, Latin Clinton Restaurant, Cocoa Bar, Babycakes, Roasting Plant

Sugar Sweet Sunshine: I tried the pumpkin cupcake there previously and really liked it. This time, though, I tried the pistachio, which had a buttercream frosting on it that was far too buttery. Really disappointing.

Clinton Latin Restaurant: Decent but unremarkable mexican/latin food. I had huevos rancheros, which were served with a large mound of rice and beans and a ton of cheese covering them. The actual eggs were on some fried tortillas that were kind of leathery.

Cocoa Bar (on the lower east side): I tried the white hot chocolate here, which tasted a lot like warm milk with white cocoa in it. Not bad, not great. Decent.

Babycakes: I tried the red velvet cupcake, which is gluten- and dairy-free, at this vegan bakery. It was tasty, though the various flavorings gave it a hint of a bitter flavor that gave away its ingredients. The frosting was dense and tasty, though, and the cake itself was kind of addictive. This is a tasty cupcake.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Franny's: Perfect Pizza, Excellent Meal

Had dinner at Franny's in Prospect Heights. It's located in a simple but elegant space, with the kitchen visible at the end of the long rectangular restaurant, and a cartoon-like painting of a city section on one wall.

The wait here, I've heard, can be notoriously long, but I came early, and on a weeknight, and I was seated immediately. I ordered potato croquettes to start, and a pizza with provolone piccante and onions.

The potato croquettes are small balls of mashed potatoes flashed fried in bread crumbs from Sullivan St. Bakery, and dusted with parmesan cheese. The SSB reference caught me when I heard my waitress describe the croquettes; I'm in love with SSB's pizza, so I figured these croquettes had to be good. And indeed they were. They were pretty much as good as you might expect garlic mashed potatoes in crispy little balls to be. They are not, to be honest, addictingly good, or amazingly good, but I'm willing to admit they're probably as good as what they are can be.

The pizza, however, is on another level entirely. This is definitely one of the top pizzas I've ever eaten: a just rival to Di Fara's in Midwood, better than Grimaldi's in DUMBO, and significantly better than Lucali's to my taste. First of all, the pizza on the plate is essentially individual-sized if you're at all hungry, and came on an ordinary plate looking vital and gorgeous.

Slicing the pizza up myself was fun, and biting into it even more so. The immediate impression I had was that I might be in love with this pizza. The crust is soft and yet has the stretch -- has the life in it -- that makes it feel that it has been lovingly hand-tossed and worked on. The soft yieldingness as you bite into it, the slight toughness as you chew it, and again the softness as it dissolves: that's a great pizza crust.

The cheese was, appropriately, piquant, and aromatic, and the onions juicy and sweet. The sauce was brilliantly tomatoey and spiced, and showcased a hint of bittersweetness that was both gourmet and comfort food at once. All these things came together in a pizza that's a work of art. Needless to say, I devoured it.

For dessert, I decided on an almond gelato, made right at the store, that was another work of art. Generously apportioned into a small bowl, the gelato was run through with streaks of roasted and caramelized almonds, with a hint of salt that cut through the thin sweetness of the gelato. The gelato was not super-creamy, but almost reminded me a little bit of a sorbet. It had a wholeness to its flavors that spoke of top-notch ingredients.

Croquettes, pizza, and ice cream: this is not the Atkins diet. Nor is it particularly cheap for all that. But this is a meal that was easily worth it, both in dollars and in calories. It's among New York's best, no doubt about it.

Stars: 5/5

Rheon Cafe: Pretty bad croissant

Had an almond croissant, and it was pretty chewy, and smelled a little like toffee. Pretty bad.

Stars: 2/5

Kee's Chocolate: A NYC Original, but a Bit Uneven

Kee's Chocolate

I visited this chocolatier with a most artist-like in SoHo. The long wide, rectangular room, is broad and mostly emtpy, and seems geared to focus the visitor's attention nearly reverentially at a small cabinet filled with a few varieties of chocolate truffles. I ordered the pistachio and the creme brulee truffles, and also decided to try a fennel macaron.

The pistachio was excellent, both visually and taste-wise. The small ball of white chocolate and nuts was coasted with pistachio bits on the outside, and was smooth, creamy, and, above all, balanced in flavor. Harmonious and fresh, it seemed like a simple and seamless melding of natural and man-made construct.

The creme brulee, apparently the most popular flavor, was a little mixed. I popped the whole thing into my mouth as the nice lady at the counter told me to do -- and as I bit in was rewarded with a gush of a milky, sweet but slightly sour liquid. It went well with the crunch of the chocolate beneath it, but I wasn't sure I liked the brulee filling overall. It reminded me just a little of buttermilk. On the other hand, I can't quite say I disliked it either.

The macaron was another draw. Though the fennel filling was surprisingly tasty, the cookie itself was too chewy for my taste. It didn't melt in my mouth, and eating it a felt a bit too much like work.

Stars: 4/5

Banh Mi Saigon Bakery: A Crowd- and Wallet-Pleaser

Banh Mi Saigon Bakery is a delightful, spare deli-looking Vietnamese restaurant, really more a takeout counter with a few benches nearby, near the corner of Mott and Hester Streets in Chinatown. In a notable bit of space-saving bricolage, the bakery is simply square at the end of a small corridor full of counters displaying jewelry for sale.

The restaurant has only ten options for sandwiches, which are nearly its entire menu. I ordered #6, the Buddhist sandwich, and an ice coffee. The sandwich came big in two thick baguette cuts which were stuffed to the gills with mushrooms, kimchi-style pickled vegetables, and marinated cuts of tofu. Intermingled with it were what tasted like a chili mayonnaise and another, more piquant hot sauce. The cold of vegetables, the spice of the sauces, the warmth of the tofu, the heartiness of the baguette -- this was a world of variety, taste, texture, and all for $4.50 -- a $4.50 sandwich that could serve two for lunch!

This is clearly one of Manhattan's great lunch deals, and a superb sandwich, period.

Stars: 5/5

Aurora: Merely Mediocre

Aurora in Williamsburg is a contemporary Italian restaurant in Williamsburg that has a somewhat trendy feel to it. The main restaurant has an adjoining glass-ceilinged backyard space, much liek taht of August in the West Village. We ordered three salads: beet, pear, and endive, and all were excellent, especially the pear, which had been candied and was now fleshy, tender, and heavy with juice and spices. My entree, a gnocchi in sage and butter, was considerably more disappointing: it was heavy and chewy, and not particularly bursting with flavor. Desserts were decent, not great. A ricotta pie was crumbly and reminded me a lot of a fruitcake. A chocolate-pear dessert did not quite succeed and reminded me most of the filling of a fig newton in taste and texture. I had high hopes for Aurora given the reviews, but in the end this was just another acceptable Italian restaurant.

Stars: 3/5

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Alta Review: An incredible and atmospheric tapas home

Had dinner at Alta recently on a weekday night. It's located on E. 10th st. between 5th and 6th, on a gorgeous block full of beautiful old homes and tree-lined sidewalks. At one point on the street, a tree twists its root up the wall of one building in a haunting melding of city and nature.
Alta's atmosphere fits the mysterious and hidden theme perfectly. Tucked into a small storefront, it turns out to be much larger inside, but its size cannot be seen all at once. The restaurant inside is structured like a home with multiple levels. I was ushered past a narrow bar area, through the kitchen, and into a nook with just a few other tables. Orange creme walls reminded me of Spain. I later saw other spaces for tables outside the kitchen on the same level in a square surrounding a balcony that looked upon another area of tables below. Wooden trusses crisscrossed the ceiling. This is a very atmospheric place.

Anyway, enough about that and on to the food. Alta is a tapas place, and a really excellent one for vegetarians like me. I ended up ordering a brussel sprout salad, a mozarella appetizer, a "truffle surprise" in phyllo dough, and a flatbread, mushroom, and cheese concoction. Dishes came as they were made.

All were excellent, especially the brussel sprout salad, which actually had no thread-like sprouts in it at all. Instead, it was the actual hard nutty green vegetable itself, slightly warm, combined with fuji apples, crème fraiche, and pistachio nuts. Aromatic and downright addictive.
The smoked mozarella came in a fried dough and was served with a tangy balsamic tomato sauce that gave just the right craveable quality to the dish.

The flatbread was also quite good, though perhaps the least distinguished of the bunch. The bread itself was a little leathery, though still basically quite tasty.

The truffle surprise was enclosed in a deep fried phyllo dough sacks that were wonderfully flaky.

The surprise (you still have to taste it to really get it, so I'm not ruining much) was a super-creamy truffle concoction inside.

Dessert was another tapas-style set of brown butter crepes filled with caramelized bananas, lemon curd, and sweet and salty macadamia nuts. It was simple, not TOO filling, and very satisfying. The crepes were cold and the bananas were lukewarm and so the whole thing had a "snack" quality to it that was in tune with the rest of the goods.

Alta serves creative food that nevertheless hits the spot and makes you want more. I highly recommend it.

Stars: 5/5