Press Tasting Dinner
El Maguey y La Tuna is a little Mexican restaurant, slightly off the beaten path, on Houston between Avenue B and Attorney Street. Though a bit out of the way, it’s worth a visit for their authentic Mexican moles, which come from recipes that have been passed down from family origins in Puebla. The prices here are fairly reasonable – ranging from about $10-$15 – and the newly added brunch is a steal at $11.95 plus a cocktail. I found the ambiance intimate and warm and the dishes full of rich flavors.
Cactus Salad: I’ve never had a cactus salad before, but this was a simple plate of cactus, lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro and avocado. It was nothing fancy, but definitely fresh and good.
Pancita: This was a spicy tripe soup with onions and lime. I really liked the spice and flavor in this soup. Though tripe, cow stomach, is a little strange texturally, I ended up eating it all, and I couldn’t get enough of the soup. Though it was something I would never have thought to order on my own, I’d definitely order it in the future.
Enchiladas al Maguey: These enchiladas were made with homemade corn tortillas, filled with chicken and covered in the specialty mole that takes two days to create. The flavor of this mole was delicious, though similar to traditional moles I’ve had in the past. Overall the dish was nice.
Mole Verde Pork: This was my favorite of the night. The mole verde had fantastic flavor and was unlike anything I’ve had before. The pork also just melted in my mouth.
Chile Relleno with 5 Chile Mole: I have to admit I’m not always a fan of chile relleno and this version was tasty. The 5 chile mole had great flavor, like the previous two, and the cheese-filled chile was good with a nice texture.
All the dishes were served with rice and beans, which went well with everything.
Banana Pinata: Though there’s nothing complicated about this, it’s a perfectly nice end to the meal. The fried outside is filled with banana (my fav!) with a scoop of ice cream on the side. It’s very simple and sweet.
El Maguey y La Tuna: 321 E Houston St, New York, NY ($-$$)
Betony, located in midtown, and named by many sources as the best restaurant opening of 2013, offers up high-class food with a high-class experience. Your coat is taken at the door and from there you are attentively waited on from beginning to end. The food is thoughtful, the presentation is stunning, and the meal is well-paced with the utmost attention to detail. While one could argue the food is a bit pretentious – i.e. small portions for the price + overly creative renditions – the interior and atmosphere, though fancy, does not feel stuffy. And honestly despite any of my claims of pretension, the food is incredibly good. It’s definitely a pricey meal, but you’re paying for fine dining at its best.
The Start: The meal began with a canister filled with crackers that tasted like fancy Cheez-Its and salted bread sticks that were tooth pick thin, yet utter salted goodness. These snacks were polished off quickly. We were then brought out individual rye bread rolls with fresh butter. These were really great. It is also worth nothing that each individual roll is made fresh and sent out immediately upon baking completion. It’s the details like this that make the dining experience at Betony really something. We were then served an amuse-bouche, which in this case was a hot foamy “soup” bursting with apple and hazelnut flavors. It was warm and rustic, and though I loved the flavors, the consistency was a bit strange and foreign.
Foie Gras Bonbons: These little balls of joy were made with cashews, and two lines of salt and black pepper were provided for additional seasoning. These one-biters burst in your mouth with a rich, buttery, nutty flavor. They’re unlike anything I’ve ever eaten and damn delicious.
“Lobster Roll:” This play on a lobster roll comes in the form of what looks and texturally feels like a pirouline that is filled with lobster and crème fraîche. Though the flavor here is delicious and spot-on, the texture is a little strange. I definitely liked it, but with only four on a plate, you don’t really have the portion size to really get your head around the dish.
Both entrees were intricate, visually stunning and involved juice/sauce components that were poured on the dish at the table.
Sautéed Duck Breast: This duck breast is served with glazed cabbage, over a quince (tastes like apple) purée. On a side plate there is a baked apple and duck confit with greens. The duck is perfectly cooked with a delicious skin. The cabbage and quince add great flavor and texture to the dish. The baked apple tastes like a little bite of apple pie, and the duck confit is a nice surprise. From the flavors to the details, the dish is utter perfection.
Grilled Short Rib: As good as the duck is, the grilled short rib is even better. It’s perfectly cooked with so much (fatty) flavor and just melts in your mouth. All of the side elements are also perfect in flavor and texture from the potato and potato puree, to the grilled leeks, and the juice that covers the dish. Each component comes together to make something both delicious and memorable.
Betony: 41 W 57th St, New York, NY ($$$$)
This newly opened little South Village spot is the only place in the city to get Chicago deep-dish pizza. I’ve never been to Chicago, nor do I have a real basis for comparison, but I brought along two Chicago natives for the taste-test. The menu is very simple – there’s a selection of 3-4 basic salads and sandwiches, along with Chicago deep-dish pizza with your choice of various toppings. I actually really liked the limited menu. Sometimes it’s smart to keep things simple, especially if that which you’re cooking up is good. Aside from food, I thought the ambiance of this place was just great – really dark, cozy and fun. There was a lot of action going on at the bar, and because it’s so small, there was a nice interaction between the other diners and the bartender, Dillon, who is Emmet’s (the owner’s) brother. Together they’ve created a cool hangout that has a real authenticity to it that comes through in both the food and the feel.
Caesar Salad: This is a very basic Caesar with yummy little croutons. It was nothing special, but was a nice enough start to the meal.
Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza: We ordered this deep-dish half sausage and half pepperoni. It took about 35 minutes to cook. Once presented with this enormous pie, there was an additional small wait time before cutting, while the cheese finished melting (hence the small hour glass). Once able to dig-in, I was more than pleased. The mozzarella they used here was really fresh and cheesy and the crust was both flavorful and crispy. I’ve always been concerned that I’d find Chicago-style pizza to be too saucy, but I thought this was just right with a good flavor too. My Chicagoans liked the pizza, as well. It wasn’t as good as each of their favorites back home, but they felt like it was an incredibly good version. Both the pepperoni and sausage were good choices, but I was partial to the sausage in the end. Since you really can only consume one or two slices of this style, I had leftovers, which were equally as good reheated the next day. I’m definitely planning a return visit to Emmett’s, especially before everyone else finds out how good it is!
Emmett’s: 50 Macdougal Street New York, NY ($$)
Basta Pasta is a Japanese Italian export. It’s an Italian restaurant that was originally established in Tokyo, Japan in 1985, and now has a Flatiron outpost serving up Italian food by a Japanese chef and staff. Though it might seem like this would be a Japanese/Italian fusion, it is purely just Italian food. There are some inventive elements to the dishes, but for the most part I found most of the flavors odd or boring and most certainly way over-priced for what it was. It’s one of those places that I would go back if someone else suggested it, but I’d stick to just the pastas.
Insalata Mista: This salad consisted of Boston lettuce and mesclun salad with tarragon balsamic dressing and wood smoked sliced duck breast. I thought this dish was okay. The salad was standard and the duck breast was sliced nicely. The smokiness was a little strange though, but overall I enjoyed it enough.
Tonno Fresco Scottato: Prime tuna tataki with original wasabi tartar sauce, cauliflower, fingerling potatoes, hearts of palm, and a saffron orange sauce. Based on the menu description, I wasn’t expecting the dish that came out, which was basically tuna atop a potato salad of sorts. Though I’ve liked mustard-based or spicy potato salads before, this one was just a little too odd for me. There was something off in the flavoring and not enough potato to other ingredients. The tuna had a nice texture; I just couldn’t get past this wasabi tartar potato concoction.
Asparagi Gratinati: Al-dente asparagus with a golden Parmesan crust. This was exactly that – delicious asparagus covered in a crispy Parmesan layer. It was nothing particularly inventive, but good.
Spaghetti con Prosciutto e Parmigiano: Perhaps the coolest item on the menu, this is spaghetti with Parmigiano Reggiano and Parma Prosciutto served table side in a half wheel of Parmesan cheese. The hot spaghetti is thrown into the Parmesan wheel and spooned around, so that the Parmesan melts into the spaghetti. It is then topped with the prosciutto. The pasta is perfectly al-dente and the bites that had a lot of cheese were really delicious. Overall, I thought this was a successful dish.
Farfalle con Salmone e Crema: Bow tie pasta tossed with lightly smoked salmon, asparagus and fresh tomatoes in a tarragon grain mustard cream sauce. When the dish arrived it definitely needed to be mixed up. The flavors on their own were very strong and pungent, but together made for an interesting fusion. There were bites where I loved the mustard cream sauce, and others where I questioned if it actually worked. The salmon was fairly smoky and salty, which wasn’t my favorite. Overall though the pasta was perfectly cooked and if anything I admired the originality of the flavors. It was good, but not throughout. And yet… I’d probably order it again. My relationship with this I’d say is just complicated.
Basta Pasta: 37 W 17th St, New York, NY ($$-$$$)
13. Jambalaya Balls with Dirty Gravy from Exchange Alley (Previously Reviewed)
This appetizer was awesome. These balls had a nice spice to them and a great consistency – think Italian arancini (rice balls) but jambalaya-filled. The dirty gravy, which was dirty and muddy looking indeed, was tasty as hell, and took these balls to the next level.
12. Melanzane E Caprino from Aria Wine Bar (Previously Reviewed)
Simply grilled eggplant stuffed with goat cheese; it’s insanely good. The eggplant is grilled perfectly and even has a slight crisp to give the dish some texture, so it’s not just eggplant and goat cheese mush. There is a heavy-handed filling of goat cheese that’s creamy with a slight pungency. All the flavors really work well.
11. Spaghetti from Scarpetta
Though incredibly simple in a tomato and basil sauce, this is the best spaghetti I’ve ever had. There is a thickness and texture to the spaghetti itself that is unique, and the flavors of the tomato and basil are bold and delicious.
10. Willow Road, specifically the Spiced Lamb Bites, Twenty Greens Salad and the Fried Chicken (Previously Reviewed)
When I first tried Willow Road seven months ago, the restaurant quickly skyrocketed to the top of my favorite restaurants list. There is just something so simple and chic about the place. Though at first the food doesn’t sound all that interesting, Todd MacDonald (the executive chef) has really taken American comfort food to the next level. There’s just a refined lightness to all the dishes, dishes that could easily be boring and heavy. In the end, it’s the perfect spot because it’s the kind of place you could convince anyone, even an unadventurous eater, to try, without having to compromise on surprising and sophisticated flavor.
9. Roasted Chicken from Charlie Bird (Previously Reviewed)
I think this might be the best chicken dish I’ve ever had. It’s juicy and flavorful and comes with the chicken liver pate that is just outrageously good. It was also topped with some crunchy pieces of chicken skin that I couldn’t get enough of. Overall, this was a really flavorful and interesting dish.
8. Hangar Steak from L’Artusi (Previously Reviewed)
The steak was perfect (medium rare) and the potatoes were maybe the best I’ve ever had, crispy with so much flavor. They don’t even need the salsa bianco, which is a sophisticated and tasty sour cream/onion dip. I feel like even if you come here to get some pasta, it’s worth ordering a side of these potatoes. I wasn’t necessarily expecting to be blown away by the steak dish, but it was one of my favorites of the night.
7. Chocolate Cake from Charlie Bird (Previously Reviewed)
This was a warm chocolate cake with olive oil gelato and caramelized rice krispies. It’s definitely one of my favorite desserts in recent memory. Again, it’s chocolate with amazing olive oil gelato and caramelized rice krispies. Need I say more? The crunch, the sweetness of it all – perfection.
6. Schmutzy Fries from DGS Delicatessen (Previously Reviewed)
Fries topped with smoked meats, swiss cheese, Russian dressing, and sauerkraut. I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to feel about this mish mosh of toppings, but I knew I had to give it a try. Turns out, this is one of the greatest food creations ever. With such strong flavored toppings, I thought they might compete, but instead everything came together. The sauerkraut wasn’t too sour, the meat wasn’t too smoky, the Russian dressing wasn’t pungent; everything just balanced out. This is an incredible shared starter when you’re sober, and I can only imagine this is a fantastic late-night or next-day drunk food option. Just saying.
5. Creamy Polenta from Scarpetta (Previously Reviewed)
This was a creamy polenta, which they cover in a fricassee of truffled mushrooms. The mushrooms come to the table separately simmering in a sauce and are then poured over the polenta. The combination is perfection. The flavors of the truffle with the texture of the polenta make for an incredible mixture in your mouth.
4. New Zealand Red Doe with Flavors of Gin from Musket Room (Previously Reviewed)
This dish was truly incredible. The venison was cooked perfectly and had a lot of flavor on its own. But when combined with the other ingredients and flavors on the plate, the dish was taken to the next level. There was an incredibly creamy and delicious celery root purée, meringue (yes meringue) and grilled fennel. I never would have thought that these flavors would work together, but they really did. The sweetness of the meringue paired so nicely with the rustic, gamey taste of venison, and even paired well with the fennel and puree. Each bite was a flavor party in my mouth. I also really just enjoyed the different consistencies together. This dish was beautiful, creative and all kinds of delicious.
3. Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Crostini from Locanda Verde (Previously Reviewed)
It’s sheep’s milk ricotta with sea salt and herbs with a side of bread that is perfectly toasted and covered in olive oil. I know it’s super simple, but this ricotta is incredible. It’s creamy and salty and when spread on the bread just melts in your mouth. The size of this appetizer is deceivingly large, as well. It’s really a nice helping of ricotta that can last throughout the meal.
2. Tuna Tartare from Traif
I never got around to reviewing Traif, which had a number of delicious dishes. However, the one that really stood out was the spicy bigeye tuna tartare atop tempura japanese eggplant covered in kecap manis (an Indonesian sweet soy sauce). The flavors are incredible – the tuna is spicy and the eggplant is soft – and it all just melts in your mouth.
1. Live Diver Scallop from Charlie Bird (Previously Reviewed)
I’m IN LOVE with this scallop dish. The scallop is raw and sliced thin topped with garlic chives in a brown butter sauce that is drizzled at the table. This was perfection in my mouth.
Exchange Alley: 424 E 9th Street New York, NY ($$)
Aria Wine Bar: 117 Perry St New York, NY ($$-$$$)
Willow Road: 85 10th Avenue New York, NY ($$-$$$)
L’Artusi: 228 W 10th St. New York, NY ($$$)
DGS Delicatessen: 1317 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC ($$)
Scarpetta: 355 W 14th St. New York, NY ($$$)
The Musket Room: 265 Elizabeth St. New York, NY ($$$)
Locanda Verde: 377 Greenwich St, New York, NY ($$$)
Traif: 229 S 4th St, Brooklyn, NY ($$-$$$)
Charlie Bird: 5 King St. New York, NY ($$$)
Locanda Verde, located in Tribeca, is a solid Italian spot. This was my first visit to an Andrew Carmellini restaurant – he’s also the chef and partner at The Dutch and Lafayette, and for the most part I was pleased. I liked the rustic and expansive dining room. It had a warm feel to it that went well with the warming Italian dishes that followed. However, even though I enjoyed all of the dishes, there was only one dish (maybe two) that really left an impression on me. Though I have to admit that one dish, being the Sheep’s Milk Ricotta, really blew me away. In all, I just feel like the menu has dishes you can find at other restaurants, and those other restaurants are making them slightly better, slightly more memorable. It’s almost on the same level as Scarpetta or L’Artusi, or even Willow Road, just not quite there.
Bread: The bread at Locanda Verde is where it’s at. They start off the meal by delivering some amazing focaccia. Though you might convince yourself there’s no need to order any crostini because you get focaccia at the start, splurge on the carbs (you’re at an Italian restaurant!) and make sure to order multiple bread dishes.
Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Crostini: This is one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. It’s sheep’s milk ricotta with sea salt and herbs with a side of bread that is perfectly toasted and covered in olive oil. I know it’s super simple, but this ricotta is incredible. It’s creamy and salty and when spread on the bread just melts in your mouth. The size of this appetizer is deceivingly large, as well. It’s really a nice helping of ricotta that can last throughout the meal. This is the one dish to make sure you have on your table.
Blue Crab Crostini: This is nice – blue crab with jalapeño and tomato. The blue crab is fresh and delightful and pairs nicely with the jalapeño and tomato. It’s no sheep’s milk ricotta, but definitely a solid crostini.
Steak Tartare Piemontese: Steak tartare with hazelnuts, truffles and crispy guanciale. I thought this was a nice steak tartare. It had a really nice texture and flavor and I liked the quail egg on top. However, the bacon did seem a little out of place. I wasn’t quite sure how to include that in the bites. And of the appetizers I ordered that came with bread, I preferred the blue crab and sheep’s milk ricotta a bit more.
Insalata D’Andrea: In a sea of bread and spreads, it was a good idea to order a salad. Made with apple (love fruit in my salads), fennel, marcona almonds and asiago, it was a delicious and fresh respite from everything else. It reminded me a lot of the Willow Road salad that I had earlier in the year, but not quite as successful. It’s definitely a nice salad though with a good balance of flavors and textures.
Lamb Meatball Sliders: These meatball sliders were delicious with caprino and cucumber. The meatball is the perfect size and moist with nice flavoring. I liked the cheese and the cucumber added a nice crunch. Nevertheless, I felt like they were pretty standard, nothing special. I found myself again comparing them to the lamb burger bites at Willow Road, which I recall liking more.
Strozzapreti Verde: Green pasta with a white duck ragu, pancetta and chestnuts. This dish was incredibly unique and delicious. I loved the pasta, which looks like green beans and this creamy, white duck ragu is something else. Covered in cheese and pancetta, each bite was dynamic and crazy good.
Hazelnut Honey Cake: This hazelnut honey cake comes with a poached pear, ricotta crema and spiced pear sorbetto. I liked the flavors in this dessert for the most part. It was light and not too sweet; however, the cake was a bit dry (even for me). I’d probably try a different dessert next time.
Locanda Verde: 377 Greenwich St, New York, NY ($$$)
El Toro Blanco, located on the edge of the West Village, opened about a year ago. Since then, I’ve heard mixed reviews on the food, which I didn’t find all that surprising, as good, affordable Mexican food in the city tends to be an anomaly. But I decided to give it a shot for my most recent “girls night out;” my friends are super into Mexican and any drink that contains tequila. We clearly have our priorities straight. All in all, I have to say I was fairly impressed. I really liked all of the food and the cocktails, and I thought the portion sizes were fair for the price. It’s not the most authentic Mexican food around, but then again it’s not trying to be. It’s a great, trendy little spot for a fairly affordable night of cocktails, guac and tacos.
La Piñatita: tequila, lime, pineapple, housemade falernum
Raspberry Tequila Sangria: red wine, tequila, cointreau, raspberry, lime, ginger
The drinks here are pretty great. Around the table, it seemed everyone was pleased. Both of the two I ordered were delicious, though the Raspberry Tequila Sangria was a bit on the sweet side.
Guacamole and a Trio of Salsas: I’m usually fairly content with the guacamole wherever I go; it isn’t often that I encounter inedible guac. But this one is particularly great – really delicious and creamy. The chips also have a nice crunch and are really well salted, plus they made sure to keep them coming once we ran out. I also liked that you got a trio of salsas with this, which were all really tasty. Each one had a varying degree of spice, but if I recall the “orange/yellow” salsa was the spiciest and my favorite. I would definitely start off the meal with an order of this!
Empanadas Costillas: This empanada is filled with roasted short rib and Oaxaca cheese with an ancho barbecue and crema dipping sauce. These empanadas were delicious. The short rib was moist and flavorful, and this ancho barbecue sauce had a nice kick. For the record, it comes with three (not two as pictured), making for a fairly large appetizer portion.
Sonoran Cheese Crisp: This was described on the menu as a baked open-faced quesadilla with mexican cheese, poblano rajas, roasted tomato and epazote. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect here, but it certainly wasn’t a mexican pizza, which is what arrived. The tortilla “dough” was flaky and buttery, and the ingredients on top were fresh and flavorful. Overall, I ended up really liking this!
Camarones en Barbacoa Tacos: chipotle barbecued gulf shrimp, cumin slaw, roasted tomato, and avocado
Al Pastor Tacos: spit roasted berkshire pork, pasilla negro, roasted pineapple, onion, avocado and queso cotija
I was fairly impressed with the tacos, an item that sadly tends to be really hit or miss in this city. Each order comes with two tacos, which is pretty standard. The shrimp ones were perfection. They were refreshing with a nice citrus and barbecue flavor and really packed a nice bite. The pork ones weren’t as good, but definitely not bad. My main issue was that there was only one slice of pineapple on top, which would have been a nice flavor and texture to have in each bite, as the citrus from the pineapple cut the slightly overwhelming sauce. It was also a messier taco, with the sauce almost completely soaking through. My plan for next time will probably involve revisiting these shrimp tacos and trying a different option over the pork.
El Toro Blanco: 257 Avenue of the Americas New York, NY ($$)
So I finally got my hands on one (or three) of Dominique Ansel’s infamous cronuts. Somehow I was able to sneak into the online pre-order system before it blew up.
So what’s the verdict?
These things are pretty tasty. As one can imagine, it tastes exactly as its name describes – or more specifically if a Krispy Kreme doughnut mixed with a croissant. For me, this was an elevated and superior alternative to the yeast doughnut.
Is it worth waiting in line for 5 hours? No. Is it damn good if you can get it off the pre-order system? Yes.
It is also worth noting that I didn’t eat them all at once, but rather ate them over the course of three days. Strangely enough, I found that the cronuts only got tastier.
Modern Filipino restaurant Maharlika, located in the East Village, is a pretty lively spot. While the dishes are interesting and vibrant, I was most impressed by the ambiance. The service was attentive and friendly, classic ’90s music was blasting in the background and a lot of the wait staff was wearing these fun “My Best Friend is Filipino” t-shirts, which they advertise on their sister restaurant Jeepney’s website. I just felt like it was a party all-around. Though the menu can be intimidating at first, a lot of the options have meats that are more familiar than you realize and there are definitely plenty of less adventurous options that still showcase the unique and bold Filipino flavors. All in all, it will make for a fun and tasty night.
Chicharron: This was a great (free) starter served with an Asian dipping sauce reminiscent or the same as the dipping sauce you get with Thai spring rolls. The chicharron were crunchy and oily – very flavorful – and went great with this sauce.
Lumpiang Barquillos: These were crispy, tightly rolled rice paper cigars with beef, pork and aromatic vegetables. I loved these! The dish had so much flavor. It was slightly sweet and heavily spiced and had a nice little crunch.
Beef Short Rib Kaldereta: Slow braised short rib with grilled pineapple, oven roasted baby potatoes, crispy fried Spanish chorizo and a tomato puree. This was another great dish. I loved the combination of the beef, pineapple and tangy tomato sauce. Perhaps the beef could have been slightly softer. And the potatoes sort of seemed like they were just thrown in there, though they did taste good doused in the sauce. Overall I was a fan of the flavors in this dish.
Pork Adobo: Pork spare ribs braised in a traditional adobo sauce (soy sauce, bay leaf, peppercorn and sugarcane vinegar) served with roasted fingerling potatoes and preserved lemon. I really enjoyed these ribs. They were pretty soft and meaty, and they were just perfect covered in this adobo sauce (though I warn you it is a bit sticky). Again, the potatoes seem like a bit of an after thought, but I enjoyed them. This again was a dish with delicious, powerful flavor and properly prepared meat.
Maharlika: 111 1st Ave New York, NY ($$)
This week I attended a second exclusive meet-and-mingle dinner for Tabélog, this time at Midtown restaurant Jukai, which served up traditional Japanese cuisine from Chef Watanabe. The event featured seasonal Japanese dishes with sake and beer (from sponsor Asahi Beer) pairings.
Most, if not all, of the dishes we sampled can be found on the regular Jukai menu. I specifically enjoyed the salmon, which had a delicious crispy skin, and the spanish mackerel, which came in an incredible ground radish sauce. Unfortunately, I had to leave early and missed out on the shabu-shabu, a Japanese dish featuring thinly sliced beef boiled in water, which I heard was one of the best of the night!
Assorted Starter: Squid with sea urchin (bowl), egg omelet with spinach (bottom left), pickled mushrooms and onions (center), smoked duck (top right), Jamon Iberico with persimmon (right).
Salmon with marinated sake lee
Spanish mackerel with ground radish
Jukai: 237 E 53rd St New York, NY