Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tasty n Alder Brunch in Portland

One of the most interesting things I read when I was researching restaurants is that Portland is apparently "the city for brunch."  Living near New York City, I always thought that brunch was a NYC thing, but a New York brunch tends to be overpriced and much more focused on alcohol than I'd like (endless mimosas aren't such a good deal when you only drink one glass).  I like Portland's brunch style much more.

The Cast Iron Frittata

My friend G. - who, by my standards, is a Portland expert, given her three years living there - suggested that we eat at Tasty n Alder.  When I checked her suggestion on Yelp (because, let's be honest, I trust my friends, but I'm also a little bit of a Yelp fiend), it was strongly back by positive reviews, and she's been living here for three years, so I saw no reason not to go.
It was Easter Sunday the day we decided to eat here, so G gamely went to the restaurant first to put our names on the list while I stayed at her apartment getting ready (I have to look my finest while I third-wheel my dear friends, right?).
Our group of 3 (G, her fiance D, and myself) were added to the list at around 12:30ish.  We were told the wait would be about one hour.  We ended up killing some time at the coffeeshop across the street, where we all got our morning dose of caffeine.  We got a text that our table was ready a little after 1:30pm.  Having not eaten yet all morning, I was ready to dig into some food!
We ordered the Cast Iron Frittata, the Fried Egg and Cheddar Biscuit with fried chicken, the Bim Bop Bacon and Eggs, and the Whole Toad.
I was hoping for some table snacks while we waited... free muffins? free bread? my stomach was growling.  But alas, nothing.  However, the wait wasn't too long.

The Fried Egg and Cheddar Biscuit was the first dish to arrive. For any non-cheese eaters like myself, this dish can easily be made without cheese, since they just put a slice of cheddar on the biscuit. Unfortunately, I didn't realize this at the time (the name of the dish is kind of misleading), so I didn't eat any of the dish. My friends seems to enjoy it though. The chicken is a thin breaded breast. The egg had a nice runny yolk, and the biscuit came out steaming hot.  Also, my apologies, but we were all so hungry when the dish arrived, I forgot to take a picture.

Bim Bop Bacon and Eggs
Next, came the Cast Iron Frittata (pictured above). This had nettles, roasted asparagus, caramelized onions, and salsa verde.  The combination was stellar.  We requested the cheese on the side (I believe it's supposed to be fontina), and it came in a cute little ceramic bowl so that my cheese-loving friends were able to sprinkle their frittata with as much cheese as they desired.  The frittata had great texture.  It was fluffy, absolutely delicious, and very satisfying. This was actually my favorite dish of the meal.

Then we had the Bim Bop Bacon and Eggs. This come out in a hot stone bowl (like the Korean dish bibimbap). Everything is stirred up, so you get soft bacon, runny eggs, and crispy rice all mixed up. So tasty. Also very filling. It's bigger than it looks!  This dish almost, almost beat the Cast Iron Frittata on the delicious-ness scale, but I'm not a big fan of spicy kimchi, which was almost mixed in with the rice.  I will say that the soft cooked bacon was a discovery.  I normally am a thick-cut crispy bacon girl, but this dish definitely warmed me up to soft bacon.  It wasn't gooey, and it was definitely cooked, but it was... moist?  That's a terrible word to use to convey something delicious, but what I want you to understand is that it was very enjoyable.

Finally, the last dish to come to the table was The Whole Toad. This is a baked egg bread pudding, which comes with even more bread. Carbs on carbs.  No problemo.  Except... is there cheese in this bread pudding?  I don't know, but I wasn't particularly fond of this dish.  There was a slight sourness or tartness to the egg pudding, and the ratio of eggs to bread leaned more heavily on the latter, while I had been hoping it would be the other way around (more eggs than bread).

As a drink, I ordered The Driver's Seat which is a non-alcoholic drink with earl grey syrup, mint, and lime juice. Sadly I didn't get any hints of earl grey, as the lime was very overpowering.  But the drink was refreshing and did go well with brunch.  My friends both ordered orange juice, which is freshly squeezed, but comes in a tiny glass (maybe 6oz?), so it's a little overpriced.

We considered ordering a sweet dish, but after these four plates came out, we were so stuffed, we called it quits. Next time though, that Griddled Banana Walnut Bread will be mine!  The table next to us ordered it and it looked and smelled delicious.
Over all, we had great service in a very comfortable environment. I'd happily come back again.

Tasty n Alder
580 SW 12th Ave
Portland, OR 97205

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Ken's Artisan Bakery and Portland

If there's anything you surely must know about me, it's that I am a dessert person.  Above all else (except, perhaps, my husband), I love sweets.
So when I started looking up places to eat in Portland and I heard about Ken's Artisan Bakery and the croissants, macarons, and other pastries that come out of their ovens, I knew that I had to go.
In fact, on my first day in Portland, this was the first place I went to start my morning.  It was a great decision.  Friendly service, yummy pastries, good food, and reasonable prices.  I had no complaints!

I walked in at around 10ish on a Friday morning, and many of the tables were taken. I took that as a good sign. I lingered near the cash register for a while, debating what to drink and what goodies to try. I apologized for not being able to make up my mind, but the man behind the counter was really patient with me.  I ended up ordering an Oregon croissant, a blood orange macaron, and a cafe latte (as per the suggestion of the man behind the counter).

I settled down at one of the empty tables I managed to snag to enjoy my breakfast. The coffee wasn't that strong and wasn't that hot, so I didn't really enjoy it much, but that might also be because lattes aren't normally my thing and this place obviously isn't a coffeeshop. On to the sweet stuff! The Oregon croissant has marionberries baked into the flakey pastry, and its flecked with sugar crystals, which add a nice combination of soft tartness and sweet crunch. I polished this off quickly, and I liked it so much, I ended up coming back to the bakery before I left the city to buy two more to keep me company on my travels home. The croissant is the perfect breakfast since it isn't too sweet.

The blood orange macaron I ordered was also delicious. The candied kumquat on top added a perfect little bit of acidity to offset the sweetness, and the texture of both the macaron itself and the filling were perfect.

I also decided to eat lunch here with my friend G, who lives in the city.  We both went with their lunch deal, which is either a half soup or half salad with a half sandwich combo.  G. went with salad and sandwich while I went with soup and sandwich.  For a mere $8, I had an egg salad sandwich and white bean soup. Both were delicious. The soup was warm, hearty, and perfectly seasoned. It was great for a drizzly day. The egg salad sandwich was well balanced - egg wasn't chopped too small, there wasn't an overwhelming amount of mayo, and there was just a slight bite from the mustard. The bread they used was sturdy but not heavy, and I liked their plating with the edible violet.
If I lived in the area, I think this would be my go-to spot for sweets and lazy day lunches.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

Sometimes, I get really carried away with cravings for specific foods.  Prime example: chocolate chip cookies.  Who doesn't like chocolate chip cookies?  And I know that everyone always talks about the "best" chocolate chip cookie, whether it best the New York Time's best chocolate chip cookie recipe, of the "world's best" chocolate chip cookie recipe, or maybe some famous chef's version of the best chocolate chip cookie recipe.  But for me, this one is it.
It's taken some tweaking and some little edits here and there, but this is now my constant go-to recipe, my version of "the best chocolate chip cookies."

A lot of the measurements are by weight, and seriously if you don't have a digital scale, stop reading this sentence right now and go get one.  Okay, are we all good?  Because digital scales will change the way you bake.  First of all, measuring your ingredients by weight is far more accurate and allows for more precision in baking.  One hundred grams of flour will always be one hundred grams.  But one cup of flour on one day might be more than the next day, depending on how well sifted the flour is.  So please, use a digital scale.  Also, less things to wash!  Just place a bowl on your scale, zero it, add one ingredient, zero it, add your next ingredient, and so one.  Easy peasy.

Now about the actual recipe: it has molasses and brown sugar which makes it chewy, it has just enough depth from whole wheat flour (although you can ditch this if you want and just use the all purpose), it has just enough salt, and these cookies taste delicious even when you bake them the same day that you make the dough.  I stopped believing that was true of cookies for a while.  I was making batches and batches of cookies, baking half immediately and half on the next day and all the recipes I tested did not taste as good if you didn't chill the dough.  This recipe though?  These cookies are delicious.  And, these cookies taste good hot.  Because honestly, I've found that most cookies don't taste good hot.  Most cookies are way better after you've let them cool.  These babies are tasty all the time.  Basically, I'm repeating myself over and over again.  This recipe is wonderful and these cookies are delightful.

More importantly, I've included in the recipe below, all of the notes that I put into my recipe when sending it to my sister who has previously messed up break-and-bake chocolate chip cookies.  If you follow all my notes in the recipe, you will be golden.  You will look like a pro.  So be kind to yourself and your loved one: make these.  Bake these.  Eat these.  You will find happiness.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

My Kind of Love

Forget flowers, I'm a dessert girl.  And luckily, I married a man who understands that.  So this morning, in celebration of this Hallmark holiday -- aka Valentine's Day -- he woke up early, went into New York City (which, by the way, takes us roughly 1 hour and 30 minutes round trip by public transit), and bought me Doughnut Plant for breakfast.  Now that is love.  Or at least, the kind of love that I want in my life.

I've written about Doughnut Plant before.  I love that this business started as a one-man show and has now grown to multiple locations around New York City.  I love that despite their growth, they have remained true to their beliefs.  They make all of their fillings and glazes in house, and source a lot of their ingredients (e.g. raspberries, peaches, milk, etc.) from other local suppliers.  And also, their doughnuts taste good.  I mean, really really good.  If I were to make a list of things I want to eat for my last meal, their crème brûlée doughnut would probably be my dessert.

This particular Valentine's Day doughnut box was a first for them.  The doughnut seeds* are bigger than usual, and have flavors like rose, orange chocolate, and peanut butter cup.  They were an excellent, if perhaps slightly unhealthy, breakfast, and we still have a few leftover to snack on for the rest of the day as we relax together.

*The name for their round, filled doughnuts that do not have holes in the middle

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Brunch at The 420 Smokehouse

When I was growing up, my parents occasionally took us up to Montreal to visit some close family friends.  We fell in love with Schwartz's, a Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen that serves this smoked meat that is to die for.
While planning this Canada trip, I knew that a drive to Montreal would be a bit far, but I hoped to find something similar in Toronto.  I looked for restaurants and delis that serve smoked meat and after some searching, came upon The 420 Smokehouse, a restaurant which actually smokes all of their own meat, and which had received rather good Yelp reviews.  I immediately sent the menu out to my friends, all of whom quickly approved of it, and we decided to make it our first meal stop in Toronto.

We arrived on a Saturday at around 11:30am, ready for our first meal of the day.  It was myself, my husband, and our two friends.  We easily found street parking and headed inside, to the empty restaurant.  I was a little surprised that there was no one else there, but our server was friendly, and we picked a cozy table near the window.
We started our meal with some spiked drinks, all of which are 6.50 CAD each.  We tried the Ski Jump, which is hot chocolate with Peppermint Schnapps and Frangelico.  Unfortunately, we were told that they were out of Frangelico, so we had it with just peppermint.  It was okay, but very sweet. We also tried the Spanish coffee (with Kahlua and Brandy) and the Irish coffee (with Irish whiskey and Irish Mist).  Both were strong, and were topped with a generous serving of whipped cream and shavings of chocolate.

One of my friends ordered the Breakfast Burger (12 CAD), which is a 4 oz. beef patty with bacon, cheddar cheese, a fried egg, and homefries.   He enjoyed it, and actually couldn't even finish all of it.

I ordered the smoked chicken and waffles (12 CAD), which was not very impressive.  The plate had two large waffles and two pieces of breaded chicken breast.  The serving was large, but the chicken was rather dry and uninspired.  I was also a bit disappointed that it was all white meat, as I was hoping for some dark meat (though this may be a little bit my fault, since I didn't ask).

My husband ordered the 420 Breakfast which includes 2 eggs any style (he had them poached), with
bacon, lightly smoked sausage, home fries, and toast (11 CAD). The eggs came out a big soft for him, but everything else was fine.
My other friend ordered the smoked meat poutine (large, for $15). This was okay overall. The smoked meat was delicious, but everyone felt that there was a distinct lack of cheese, and the fries seemed to have been tossed in gravy a while before serving, since they were not very crispy.  There also wasn't as much gravy as we were hoping there would be. The little bits of smoked in the poutine were so good though, I asked if I could order a plate of this alone. Our waiter asked the kitchen and then told me that a plate would be $8, which was fine by me. It was delicious. Fatty, full bodied smokey flavor that just melted in the mouth. Perfection. This was the best part of the meal.

Our overall brunch experience was just average, but the smoked meat was delicious. I probably would only come back for the meat, but I don't think I'd do brunch here again.  Maybe we should have come for the lunch and tried the sandwiches and entrees.  Oh well.  On to the next meal!

*Other things to note: Service is a bit slow, but friendly.  They do have free Wi-Fi. The bathroom is clean.

The 420 Smokehouse
420 Parliament Street
Toronto, ON M5A 3A1

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Ice Wine Tasting and Niagara-on-the-Lake

If there's one thing that sets me apart from most people my age, it is that I don't like alcohol.  I mean, I'm not Puritan and I have no real aversion to a nice mixed drink, but most of the time, I just prefer not to ingest any ethanol.  This is in part because I am Asian, and therefore get the "Asian glow" in which my cheeks turn shades of pink, and also in part because alcohol just makes me sleepy.

The one exception to my standard alcohol avoidance though is ice wine.  I first tried this one Thanksgiving with my family.  My parents would occasionally share a glass of red wine with dinner, but they rarely drank sweet wine when I was growing up, and this particular wine was a discovery for me.  It was a dessert wine, but with a nice balance of tartness, and a very pleasant almost caramelized honey taste.  The rest of my family was equally fond of it, and so we dabbled in sweet wines.  I tasted Niagara Falls ice wine from Jackson Triggs, and my parents went to the Niagara Ice Wine Festival one winter and raved about it to my sister and I.  When I had time this winter, I finally decided that it was time for me to take a trip up north and have my first ever winery experience.  I went with my husband and two close friends of ours who had never tried ice wine before.

We went up to Niagara Falls, spent the night there, and then drove out the next day to the ice wineries.  We used the Peller Wine Country Touring passes, which are sold for $20 online, as part of the our wine tasting experience.  This pass allows you to visit Trius Winery at Hillebrand, Wine Country Vinters, Thirty Bench, and Peller Estates.  We actually didn't buy our passes, but received the vouchers for free with our hotel stay (The Ramada at Niagara), so it was a fantastic deal for us.

Trius Winery at Hillebrand
1249 Niagara Stone Road
Niagara On the Lake, ON L0S 1J0 Canada

This was our first stop of the day, at 12pm on Friday.  The touring pass allows you to go on a general tour of the winery.  We had a very unenthusiastic female guide, but we still enjoyed the tour. You get to see a lot of the wine making machines and apparatuses and explore a larger portion of the cellars than you do at any other winery. After the tour, they have (included) a structured tasting of a white wine, a red wine, and an ice wine. The white wine and red wine were fairly average, and the Vidal ice wine was my least favorite ice wine that I've ever tried (and I've enjoyed many ice wines, from Inniskillin and Jackson Triggs to various ice wines from Austria and Germany).  It had a strange metallic taste that was rather off putting.

I was a little disappointed by the tasting, although my friends enjoy the structure of it and the tips that our guide had for how to taste and judge a wine as well as what to do for wine pairings.
 After we finished our tour, we walked through their shop.  They do have a wine tasting "bar" where you can pay to taste certain wines. 
 It was $7 to taste a selection of any 3 wines from their menu.  This seemed like a fantastic deal for the ice wines, so we tried a sparkling wine, a Riesling ice wine, and a Cabernet franc ice wine (and I kept saying "we" because we paid for and shared one tasting among the four of us friends).  My friends were partial to the Cabernet Franc.  It was my first time trying a red ice wine, and I didn't enjoy it as much as the Riesling.  The Riesling ice wine actually ended up being my favorite wine that I tasted at all the wineries, so we came back that night at the end of our day of touring to buy a bottle for ourselves.
If you do a tasting and then buy a bottle, the cost of the tasting ($7) goes towards the cost of your bottle, which was nice.  This means you essentially get to do the tasting for free!

Peller Estates 
290 John Street E
Niagara On the Lake, ON L0S 1J0 Canada

The tour that was available with our wine pass was the "3 Generations of Wine Making" which includes a tasting of a white, a red, and a Vidal ice wine. They also have grape juice available for any children (or designated drivers!) on the tour.  We arrived shortly before the tour at 1:30pm (on Friday).
Ben was our tour guide and we loved him.  He was funny and knowledgeable.  We started the tour with a brief history of the Peller Estates, then we went outside, saw the vines, and learned a little bit about the Niagara wine country.  Afterwards, we went back inside and had a structured wine tasting in the cellars.  Because I am not particularly fond of dry wines, I opted to try to grape juices instead of the white wine and the red wine.  The juices, which are actually made from the same grape as the wine, were very pleasant to drink.  The Vidal ice wine here was also quiet enjoyable - much better than the Vidal at Trius - but it did not match up to the Riesling I tried at Trius.
Note that there is a very nice restaurant at this winery at which you can enjoy lunch or dinner.  We actually had a reservation here for dinner and returned later at night for a wonderful dining experience.

Wine Country Vinters
27 Queen St
Niagara-on-the-Lake ON L0S 1J0 Canada

While this is not a winery, we had a very pleasant experience with the wine tasting here. The area has a very nice small town feel, and we found street parking easily. We arrived at the wine shop a little after 6pm. There was a very friendly woman who helped us with our tasting. She was very sweet and welcoming and we enjoyed easy banter with her.  She told us that the standard tasting is 3 wines: the Wayne Gretsky white, red, and another wine that I forget. My friend all enjoyed the Wayne Gretsky wines, although my husband asked for something a little more oaky and bolder, more in the style of Bordeaux wines. She took out a Thirty Bench red for him to try that he very much enjoyed.  Our friends all tried this as their third wine as well. I am not a big red/white wine drinker, so I asked if I could have a tasting of just one or two ice wines instead (since ice wine was not originally included, and ice wine is more expensive than regular wine). She very kindly accommodated me and allowed me to try the Wayne Gretsky Vidal ice wine as well as a Cabernet franc ice wine. Both were very good.  She was also very generous with her pours. She did not push us to buy anything, although my friends did buy two bottles. I would happily come back here again!

Thirty Bench Winery
4281 Mountainview Rd
Lincoln, ON L0R 1B0 Canada

This winery was a little bit far from the other vineyards, but was on the way to Toronto, and so we decided there was no harm in stopping here briefly Saturday morning.  They do not have any ice wine, but they have a large menu of reds and whites available for tasting, as well as a few rose wines.  Our touring pass allowed each person to sample three wines of their choosing.  Between the four of us, we managed to sample most of the wine menu.  My husband was particularly fond of the "Steel Post" white wine, which is surprising, as he is typically a red wine drinker, partial to "oaky" French wines.
The grounds are simple, but rustically beautiful. They have plenty of picnic tables for sitting outside in the summer.  The parking lot is gravel and mud so be prepared in the bad weather; our shoes got pretty messy just during the short walk from the car to the winery entrance!
Also, as a note for parents with kids: they do have a small table with coloring books and picture books. They do not have juices available for kids to drink.

We had a good experience with the wine touring pass, however, because I wanted to drink more ice wine, we also added two other wineries to our tour of the Niagara-on-the-Lake region.  The first was Pillitteri (1696 Niagara Stone Road), which offers free public wine tours.  We arrived shortly before their 3pm tour.  The tour doesn't allow you to see much of their grounds, but they do show you some pictures on the wall and the wine cellar.  Overall, we thought it was fairly boring.  Afterwards, there is a structured wine tasting of three of their basic wines, but we thought it was a rather below average experience.  You can pay $2 to taste ice wine, but the line for this was so long, that we did not think it was worth it.
We also went to Colaneri Estate (348 Concession 6 Rd), which offers tastings anytime from 11am to 5:15pm.  They charge $5 for 5 wines (red or white) and $5 for a tasting of ice wine.  The fees are waved if you purchase.  Thought we did try their Riesling and Cabernet France ice wines, we did not end up purchasing anything here.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas from your Foodie Neighbor

We decided to be wild this year for Christmas and switch up our regular menu in the D. household.  Instead of our traditional rosemary Cornish game hen, my parents made ribs (pictured up front).  They made them with their usual loving method, which has forever ruined me for anyone else's ribs; the meat is marinated with fish sauce (nuoc mam), broiled for a nice caramelized and charred outer layer, then pressured cooked to achieve the perfect fall-off-the-bone texture, then baked once more with a marinade of apricot sauce and ginger.  Heavenly.
We also had cornbread with sausage and apples, cauliflower with lemon dressing, and Brussels sprouts with browned butter sauce and bacon.
This food is love.

Merry Christmas, readers!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Brunch at Public in Manhattan

I have to admit, I'm not a big brunch person.  I know, to say this is almost sacrilege, especially considering how much New Yorkers around me seem to love their brunch, but I find the meal to frequently be overpriced and uninspired.  I can make delicious pancakes at home, and honestly, charging me more than $14 for poached eggs, no matter what you serve them with, is kind of a rip off.  But when my sister up from DC to visit me, she sent me the menu for brunch at Public, and I immediately okay-ed it.
First of all, there is a great variety of creative dishes on the menu, it's not too expensive, and most important of all, I saw a brunch dish that included foie gras.  Sold.  Get your purse, we're going out to eat.
Because my sister was taking the morning bus from DC to NYC, she ended up arriving at the restaurant before I did.  She put our names down for a table, and then sat down at the bar at around 11:30am and ordered a latte while waiting for me.  I joined her a little bit before noon.  The hostess came and asked if we wanted a table since there was space, but we decided to stay at the bar, since it was brightly lit, not loud, and there was a good view of the restaurant.  Plus, it fun to watch the bartenders make everyone's morning cocktails.

After some deliberating over the menu, I ordered the Black Pudding Waffles with red wine poached pears and whipped foie gras butter.  This sounded a little risky even to me - the avid lover of all things foie gras - but the bartender assured me it is delicious.  I'm glad I decided to try it because it was excellent.  I would order this again in a heartbeat.  In fact, even as I write this, I am contemplating going back for brunch immediately so that I taste this once more.  The waffles were decadent and smooth; if I wasn't told they were made with black pudding, I wouldn't have known, but they had a delicious savoriness that was really nice.   I also loved the foie gras butter and poached pear combination. I cleaned my plate.

My sister ordered the Tea-smoked Salmon with poached eggs on multi-grain bread.  This was also a big hit.  The salmon filet is fragrant from being smoked with tea.  The poached egg had a perfectly runny yolk, and we loved how the hearty bread stood up to the flavors and the moistness of the egg yolk.  I would be happy to order this again too.

We also were given two little black sesame biscuits, drizzled with lavender honey. The biscuits were alright, but the honey was like heaven. I'd eat that stuff on its own.

For brunch drinks (which, honestly, I wouldn't have ordered, but the bartender kindly gave us two free glasses, perhaps out of pity for the two girls at the bar avidly staring at every drink he sent out to the tables), we tried the Salty Dog, which has gin and grapefruit juice.  It was light and refreshing from the grapefruit, but had a fairly strong alcohol kick.

For dessert, my sister and I split the Concord Grape Panna Cotta (not pictured, because, sadly, it wasn't that attractive).  This is served with a grape sorbet with prosecco foam and candied peanuts. The peanut and grape combination kind of reminded me of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, minus the bread.  Neither my sister nor I were fans of the foam, as it was made with egg whites and was not strongly flavored with prosecco; it tasted kind of strange.  The panna cotta was fine, as was the sorbet, but after the amazing main courses, I was expecting a little bit more wow factor from dessert.  Maybe my opinion is being swayed by the fact that I don't really like grapes.

My sister got the brunch prix fixe deal which is $24 for a coffee (they let her latte count), entree, and dessert.  My dish was $14 (a steal!). Our cocktails were a gift from the bartender and the biscuits were free (I think all tables are given them) so our lovely meal was less than $40 before tip.  Not bad for the delicious brunch.  I can't wait to go back!

210 Elizabeth St
New York, NY 10012
Tel. 212-343-7011

Sunday, July 27, 2014

NYC Restaurant Week Lunch at Riverpark

I wait for restaurant week all year long.  It happens twice a year - once in the winter and once in the summer - and as soon as the restaurant list is released, I'm scanning over it and checking the menus for where I want to eat.  I have a fairly strict set of criteria for restaurants.  I only eat at restaurants that are expensive enough that I might not eat at them normally.  If the lunch prix fixe for Restaurant week is $25, I will also not make a reservation at a restaurant where the entrees typically cost around $15 because that's hardly a good deal.  And if the restaurant is only offering two choices for the main course and one is chicken and the other is pasta, I also won't eat there.  This is partially because I generally find chicken not to be that exciting and partially because, once again, I don't feel like I'm getting my money's worth if I'm paying $25 for chicken that I can buy at the market for less than $2 per pound.  And ditto for pasta.  So with these criteria in mind, I quickly narrow down my list of potential restaurants to try.
Last year I read some effusively wonderful reviews of the Restaurant Week experience at Tom Colicchio’s Riverpark, on the East side of Manhattan.  Main courses for lunch typically run $18 - $25 with desserts from $8 (for simple sorbet or ice cream) to $14.  They offer a nice selection of choices for Restaurant Week - more than four options for each course! - so my criteria were met, and I made my reservation.
The only problem with Restaurant Week is that you have to make reservations during the week.  For anyone who works and can't easily take a 2-3 hours lunch break, this is difficult.  I, luckily (or perhaps unluckily... depends on your point of view), don't work, so I had no problem with this.  I couldn't find anyone to go with me though, so I decided to hell with it, it's my birthday, and went to lunch with just the company of a good book, which I figured I would read while waiting in between courses.  Both the hostess and my waiter seemed very sympathetic to the fact that I was dining alone.  I don't know if this was because I had noted that it was my birthday when I made the reservation, so they pitied the girl celebrating alone, or if it was because they seated me outside, where I just happened to be surrounded by couples, romantically enjoying each other's presence.  Either way, I wasn't particularly bothered.

My lunch began with the Sweet Corn Panna Cotta. It was served with a corn salad, avocado, lime crème fraîche, and huitlacoche (apparently a type of corn fungus???) vinaigrette. I was not a big fan of any of the items accompanying the panna cotta (and this was before I came home and google told me that one of the ingredients was corn fungus).  The corn salad was fine but I honestly couldn't tell if it was fresh corn or canned corn, which is kind of sad.  The avocado was rather over-salted/over-seasoned and the vinaigrette was far too strong.   I loved the corn panna cotta though.  The texture was on point - quiveringly light - and the flavor was stellar.  I'd order it again in a heartbeat, I just wouldn't waste my time eating anything else on the plate.

The bread served with the meal is in the form of a mini baguette, served with good cold butter. It was really good; light, with a nice crust.  I finished my first one with my appetizer, and was asked if I wanted more with my entree. (The answer to that is always yes.)

My main course was the Lamb Ribs and Sausage, served with tempura artichokes, olives, almonds, and a yogurt sauce.  My ribs were scorched.  By that, I mean, they arrived at the table black. I had to scrape off the burnt outside layer, and then sadly found that the meat was over-seasoned.  I was also not a big fan of the yogurt sauce. The sausage was a bit dry, but not bad. The biggest problem was that this was just not a good summer dish.  It felt heavy and I was tired of it after a few bites.  The fish dishes being ordered around me looked far tastier and I wish I had ordered that instead.
I was given - for free - a side of grilled okra (typically $6).  I was unsure if this was because it was my birthday or because they felt pity for me because I was dining alone.  Either way, it was a nice touch and I enjoyed the veggies, but they were also fairly scorched.  Is this the new style?  Maybe I'm just unsophisticated.

For dessert, I had the Basil Cream Puff served with strawberries, granola, and strawberry sorbet. This was amazing.  Really.  The basil cream puff was so fragrant, and the combination with the fresh strawberries and the sorbet was on point.  I wish I could have had two more servings of this.  I enjoyed every single spoonful.

The service was very friendly. I got a happy birthday message on my menu and a candle on my dessert. The timing of the dishes was also good. It was a leisurely meal, and I never felt rushed, but I never felt that service was slow.

While I was fairly disappointed by my main course, I don't think the lamb is normally scorched that way, and I did enjoy both of my other dishes.  I had a good overall experience and left full.  I had been so looking forward to Riverpark though, I couldn't decide if they let me down or if it was a fluke, so I wanted to give them another chance.  I don't typically do this, but I decided to go back for another Restaurant Week lunch (and this time, I did have company).

Cured salmon appetizer (left) and merluza with faro and heirloom tomatoes main course (right)

On my second visit, I started with the house cured Atlantic salmon, which is a fairly simple dish. It was rather generously salted, but that only encouraged me to eat their bread, which is quite good. I also enjoyed the slightly brined cucumbers.

For my main course I ordered the merluza, which is a white fish served with heirloom tomatoes and faro.  A tomato consumme is poured on top, tableside.  I really loved this dish.  It was light, fragrant, and perfect for summer.  The tomatoes provided a lovely accompanying acidity to the flaky fish, and the texture of the faro was perfect.  There was nothing to complain about.

For my dessert, I considered trying the peach cobbler, but I had so enjoyed the basil cream puffs with raspberry sorbet the last time I was here that I wanted to order it again.  It did not disappoint.

Amusingly, I had the same waiter for lunch that I had had for my previous lunch.  He remembered me (I suppose it's hard to forget an Asian girl who dines alone on her birthday), and service was just as friendly and attentive as it had been the first time.

The seating area outside is beautiful.  As their website describes, this restaurant is located in a "garden plaza with romantic East River views."  What they fail to mention is the construction going on around the area, or the sounds of traffic which you can clearly hear if you sit outside.  However, neither of these things bothered me.  The area is very comfortable, with pillows on the "booth" sides and a nice breeze coming off the water and the shade from the building keeps you cool, even when it's hot out.

In general, I think Riverpark earned itself a solid B.  There's definitely room for improvement in terms of seasoning (less salt!) and cooking (there's a difference between a nice char and a terrible scorch), but the creativity and flavors are there, if they can just get down the execution.  For $25, it's not a bad deal.

450 E 29th St.
New York, NY 10016
Tel. 212.729.9790

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Strawberry Rhubarb Oat Bars / Rustic Tart

I love summer fruit.  I could easily eat several pounds of strawberries for a meal.  In fact, I have.  That's one of my favorite things about going berry picking.  But what this means is that I rarely ever bake berries when I have them because I find the fresh product so tantalizing.  It's hard to save any for a cake or pie.  This year, however, I impulsively bought some rhubarb at the market and I knew they'd go well with some strawberries, and since you don't eat rhubarb raw, one thing lead to another and before I knew it, I was in the kitchen making these bars.

I want to call them oat bars because the name has a healthy sound that seems to justify my eating them for breakfast.  Both times I made this recipe though, I actually used a 9-inch spring form tart pan and I thought it worked beautifully and would be a lovely way to make this for a picnic or dessert when entertaining so hence why I am also calling this a rustic tart.

This recipe is so simple - it honestly takes no more than 10 minutes of prep time, and that includes washing and cutting the fruit.  There are weight measurements for the oat base, which makes it easy to do everything with a kitchen scale, just kitting the "Tare" button as you go.  Then, the ingredients are mixed in whatever pan you'll be baking with, and the fruit is only lightly sweetened, so the natural flavor is really allowed to shine.

I have a feeling that if you make this once, you may find yourself eating it for breakfast, lunch, and dessert, just as I did.

Strawberry Rhubarb Oat Bars
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
yields one 8x8 pan OR one 9 inch tart pan

1 cup (80 grams) rolled oats
3/4 cup (95 grams) all purpose flour
2 tablespoons (15 grams) whole wheat flour (if you don't have this on hand, just use all purpose flour)
1/2 cup (95 grams) light brown sugar
pinch of salt (1-2 grams)
6 tablespoons (85 grams) salted butter, melted
1-2 stalks of rhubarb, diced small
1 cup (1/2 pin) small-diced strawberries
1 tablespoon (15 grams) granulated or raw sugar

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.  Lightly butter an 8x8 baking pan or a 9-inch tart pan.
Combine the oats, all purpose flour, whole wheat flour (if using), brown sugar, and salt in bottom of baking pan and mix.
Pour the melted butter on top and stir until clumps form.   I find it easiest to do this with my hands.
Optional: set aside 1/3 cup of the crumble mixture if you want a topping.
Press the rest of the crumb mixture evenly against the bottom of the pan.
Spread your diced berries and rhubarb evenly over the crust.  Sprinkle with granulated or raw sugar.
Scatter reserved crumbs (if using) over the fruit.
Bake bars on the middle rack of your oven at 375F for 30 to 35 minutes.
Allow to cool in pan before cutting.
Note that bars will crisp up in the fridge if placed there for a few hours after cooling.

Leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 days (if they last that long!).  Bars do get a little softer on the second day, but they remain just as delicious on day 3 as they are when fresh out of oven.