Restaurant Week Series: Tavern on the Green

And the fat life continues!

Taken from http://www.tavernonthegreen.com

What: Landmark American restaurant in Central Park near Lincoln Center. You may recognize the name from Ghostbusters, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Futurama, Seinfeld and the Simpsons. Originally a sheepfold but turned into a restaurant in the 1930s.

Ambiance: Lounge with sofas in one room and tables in another. The room with tables has glass walls, which was pretty cool since we could see people jogging around Central Park and could also feel the sun warming us up. Waiters were very friendly and seemed to be having a good time. Fancy, sleek and modern feel, almost like a hotel.

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Appetizer: Salmon tartare with black pepper and fennel crème fraîche and grilled garlic toast. Salmon was soft and tender, not too chewy despite not being the fattiest salmon I’ve had. Dill sprinkled on top provided a gentle sourness that highlighted the sweet freshness of the fish. Almost no briny seafood odor at all. Crème fraîche was rich and smooth without being heavy and brought out the milky undertones of the salmon (I know, salmon actually can taste milky. Quite surprising). Bread was thinly sliced and provided a rough crunch to contrast with the smooth softness of the fish, and the neutralizing toasted flavor of the bread, as well as the sharp but subtly sweet garlic and the aroma of the oil, made all the flavors blend so seamlessly that I could not tell where one ended and the other began. Was slightly disappointed when I finished the garlic bread; eating the salmon alone, while still delicious, was just not the same.

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Main course: Grilled half-chicken, portabella mushroom potato gratin, roasted autumn vegetables, shaved vegetable salad of arugula, beets, onions, thinly sliced asparagus, and cucumbers. Salad was refreshing with a slightly sour and vinegar-like dressing, which, combined with the beets, made the otherwise-bitter arugula grassy sweet. The thin potato slices of the gratin were firm but not undercooked; nice tender texture with the slightest hint of graininess. Mushrooms provided a squishy and juicy sweetness that highlighted the subtle milky cheesiness of the dish, but I would have liked more mushrooms because I’m obsessed. I’m pretty sure the “roasted autumn vegetable” was yucca, and this was the first time I tried it. It was almost like a cross between a potato and a mushroom in terms of taste and texture; slightly sweet and squishy yet milky and tender at the same time. Seasoned with herbs that provided a savory fragrance and brought out the natural freshness of the vegetable. Chicken drumstick and wing part were juicy and tender with the skin lightly fried to a crusty crispiness with a slight roughness from the salt that was cooked into it. Middle section of the chicken was pretty dry, but at least it wasn’t tough. Extremely flavorful with seasoning of rosemary and other herbs, as well as the fragrant oil, that highlighted the natural sweetness of the meat.

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Dessert: Mixed berry compote with raspberry sorbet. Almost like a berry soup, which was pretty fun. Had almost a syrupy sweetness characteristic of compote, but it didn’t mask the natural flavor of the berries. Berries weren’t cooked to the point of mush; still had structure and bite to them. Sorbet wasn’t pure fruit sorbet; had a little milk in there, more like ice cream. Served a bit too solid and it was difficult to eat, but not icy and was still rich with a nice graininess from the raspberry seeds (that’s how you know that it’s the real deal).

Overall: Extremely nice setting, cozy and comfortable seating, and food was definitely made with quality ingredients. There was just so much food that this lunch was literally the only meal I ate for the entire day. Definitely a memorable experience! Thanks Caroline for taking me!

Rating: 5/5 spoons 🙂

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Restaurant Week Series: Il Mulino Downtown

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Clearly, I’m a very lazy photographer when the only camera I have is my iPhone.

It’s officially New York Restaurant Week! Yaaayyyy!!!! For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, this is when hundreds of the city’s best and most expensive restaurants, many of which are helmed by Michelin-starred chefs, offer three-course lunches for $25 and three-course dinners for $38 when they would ordinarily cost in the hundreds. That means loads of my parents’ money will be going towards a very worthy cause: the contentment (and enlargement) of my stomach. I won’t have time to do very thorough reviews of all the restaurants I go to, especially since the essays/midterms grind will begin very soon, but I thought that I could just give a brief overview of the places I go to, starting with Il Mulino. I’m hanging my head in shame because I actually went on Friday with my friends Seth, Iqraz and Amelia, but of course essays and reading and other extracurricular activities got in the way, so I’m just writing this now.

What: Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village, the original one of several Il Mulino restaurants around the country. Dress code is classy, so no jeans or sneakers allowed!

Ambiance: Very cozy and comfortable atmosphere, with vintage décor and cute little displays of marinated fruits in bottles and other curiosities from Italy. Despite the restaurant having a dress code, it didn’t feel pretentious even if they did have a coat check and waiters dressed in tuxes. The quaint rustic charm took me back to Italy.

Bread: sliced baguette and toasted focaccia slices drenched in olive oil and seasoned with onion and garlic. Baguette wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but the focaccia was pretty fantastic! Crunchy texture and took on a sweet aroma from the dominant onion and garlic flavor. Olive oil made it slightly softer and more chewy. IMG_0144-1

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Pre-appetizer: Parmesan cheese chunks, salami, bruschetta with a tomato tapenade, and a mussel. Parmesan cheese was absolutely phenomenal, and this is coming from someone who refused to eat cheese by itself for half of her life! Crumbly and slightly grainy texture with only a little of the pungency that is characteristic of cheese, but this pungency was accompanied by a sweetness that made it go away; very well-developed and pure flavor. Salami wasn’t too salty or strong, and had a good balance of spices. Bruschetta was moist from the tomato but not soggy; provided some resistance during chewing but not necessarily elastic. Ingredients were pretty fresh, and the tomato had a milder, sweeter, and less sour taste than your ordinary supermarket produce. Mussel was pretty fresh, though not as fresh as the seafood I’ve had in my mom’s hometown (which is just about the absolute freshest seafood you can get in the world).

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Appetizer: Mixed green salad with red onions, tomatoes, and heart of palm. Again, ingredients were pretty fresh and I really liked the heart of palm, but they were too heavy-handed with the sour dressing; it masked the fragrance of the vegetables. I also tried a bite of Seth’s mozzarella that was part of his caprese salad, and, like the parmesan, it was mind-blowing. It was made from the milk of an Italian water buffalo, which meant that it had a richer, sweeter, and rounder flavor and was much creamier than the slightly sour and curdled cow’s milk mozzarella found in grocery stores.

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Main course: Salmone Livornaise with onions, capers, and black olives in a light tomato broth. The broth was refreshing and gentle, and the olives and capers provided a slight sourness to accompany that of the tomatoes. The fish wasn’t the fattiest salmon I had, but it was reasonably tender. The first few bites were fantastic; I appreciated the overall mildness in flavor and texture, and the taste was pretty pure. But then, after a bit, the mildness started to get… well, boring. Even though the waiter had sprinkled on some black pepper, I didn’t get that smoky sharp piquancy to contrast with the low notes of the other ingredients and take the dish to the next level. The salmon/tomato/capers/olives combination is a pretty standard in Italian cooking, but I felt like they just played it safe with tried-and-true methods, even if they did use quality ingredients.

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Dessert: Flourless chocolate cake with an almond and a vanilla cream on the side. One of the most dense chocolate cakes I’ve eaten, in a good way; at each bite, I first felt that I was eating cake, but then as it dissolved into a thick puddle of chocolatey goo in my mouth I almost felt like I was eating pure chocolate. Almond cream was spiked with some sort of alcohol, which gave it a more mature and rich taste, and the tropical nuttiness of the almonds was a great complement to the slight bitterness of the chocolate.

Overall: Highlights were definitely the parmesan, mozzarella, focaccia and cake. Everything else I tried was decent but not mind-blowing.

Rating: 4/5

Tea and Sympathy

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One of my friends and I spent a pleasant Valentine’s Day afternoon going downtown to the Chelsea/West Village area to avoid homework, because that’s all I seem to be doing these days. In fact, I’m avoiding my homework by writing this blog post; I may or may not regret it later. But who wants to write about torture in the Aeneid when there’s food and fun to be had?

Anyways, this will be slightly different since I won’t be writing about a meal I had per se; more of a new culinary and cultural experience. I actually had a new culinary experience yesterday as well when I went with a friend to a fairly new café in midtown called Bibble and Sip that would have been worth writing about. Their pistachio cake with matcha and raspberry gelée was phenomenal with the light, airy and fluffy white chocolate mousse that caressed and clung to the tongue as it melted into a puddle of rich creaminess and the aromatic green tea and sweet nut flavors, and the raspberry gelée gave the cake an extra layer of stickiness and sweet yet tangy floral flavor. The earl grey cream puff was crispy on the outside instead of soft and squishy as cream puffs usually are, and it contained a sinfully smooth and rich cream whose added earl grey flavor mellowed out the vanilla and milk notes to provide more depth and balance. But I’m not making a separate post for that because I don’t have pictures. Just know that those were some of the best and by far the most unique café desserts I’ve had in a very long time.

The new culinary and cultural experience that I had this fine, freezing and snowy V-day afternoon was, can you imagine, afternoon tea the British way. I had known that the Brits love their tea and scones, especially in the late afternoon, but I had no idea that there were places in the city where you could experience that until my friend mentioned it last week (Shoutout to Caroline for taking me here and hanging out with me!). And Tea and Sympathy is pretty legit since it’s run by actual English people.

We made our way downtown to the establishment through a gentle screen of snowflakes while the bitter cold (by California standards, anyways) around us stung and cut. When we got there, Tea and Sympathy was filled, but they didn’t allow us to wait indoors where it was warm; we had to queue up outside with the other customers, and they would only let us in two at a time as customers left. We waited outside in the bitter cold for about thirty minutes before we could thaw indoors.

But when the tea came, oh how pleasant it was! I ordered a vanilla mint tea, which was obviously different from the grassy teas made from tea leaves that I grew up drinking. The vanilla flavor was extremely subtle, but the mint provided a curious cooling effect that contrasted with the heat of the water. This cooling effect quickly turned to warmth as the tea made its way down to my stomach. The result was a comfortable and refreshing feeling that warmed me through and through, from the top of my head down to my toes.

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Even better than the tea were the scones that we ordered. I had no exposure to what scones were supposed to be like, having only ever had the stuff from Starbucks and the ones made from Trader Joes package mixes, but these were definitely infinitely better. They were soft and tender and fluffy, and the clotted cream provided an amazing level of richness that made the scone transition seamlessly from soft and fluffy to silky and smooth. The strawberry jam was fresh and not too sweet, though I must say that I may have liked the raspberry jam a little better. I found myself very disappointed when I had finished my two scones, and that is the hallmark of quality food; it should always leave you wanting more.

I also saw that they had a more intense afternoon tea option on their menu that included assorted sandwiches and pastries in addition to scones and tea, but I decided not to order it simply because it was too much and too pricey. An possibility would be to come with a larger group, order one of those and just add on a couple of extra teas; I think I’ll do that next time and report on the sandwiches and pastries! But even without the sandwiches and pastries, this was a really fantastic cultural experience, and I don’t think I can go back to eating regular biscuits with butter and jam ever again. And of course I gotta wonder why the Americans dumped all that tea into Boston Harbor so many centuries ago; we probably would still have the tradition of afternoon tea if that didn’t happen. What a waste.

Rating: 5/5*

*Note: Not based on how good the food and drink consumed actually tasted, but rather on how happy the experience made me feel. Tea and Sympathy also serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner foods, which I did not have the chance to sample.

Jack’s Wife Freda

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I’ve finally gotten a chance to take a breather from my homework and write about my latest food adventure from this past weekend! And now I’m wondering why I haven’t done it sooner, because honestly work can wait. Food? Not so much.

I had heard fantastic things about Jack’s Wife Freda, a cute little Mediterranean-style brunch spot in the heart of SoHo known for its innovative and whimsical culinary creations. I had actually tried to go there the day before school started with a friend, but we were discouraged by the 1.5-hour wait and decided to go next door instead (bad choice). But I’ve since realized that any brunch spot worth going to will always be ridiculously crowded on weekends, so my friend and I figured that we should just go down there and eat no matter how much work we had to do (Shoutout to Cindy for telling me about this place and providing great company! Gotta do this again soon!). Because food has to take top priority, obviously.

So we did our waiting and looked at the menu in the meantime to see which of the many amazing dishes we were going to get. It was pretty agonizing being hungry and seeing the waiters constantly bring out some of the restaurant’s most popular creations, and I couldn’t decide on what to order since everything the waiters brought out seemed like something that I had to try. Because I was so indecisive, I splurged and ordered two dishes. Who needs a diet? Not this girl.

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Green Shakshuka

The three dishes that made their way to our table were their famous green shakshuka served with challah toast; rosewater waffles topped with mixed berries, Lebanese yogurt and honey syrup; and poached eggs with grilled tomato and haloumi. Shakshuka is a northern African meal very common in Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Algeria and Egypt that consists of poached eggs in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, onions and cumin, but Jack’s Wife Freda’s shakshuka puts a green spin on the traditional red dish. I tasted just the green sauce without the eggs or toast first, and it had a strong tangy spice to it that was bright and sunny, making it a good contrast to the cold winter day. The lemony acidity tamed the spiciness, and reduced it from mildly spicy to pleasantly piquant. I couldn’t really identify everything that went in the sauce because the lemony flavor masked almost everything else, but I could taste some parsley and cilantro. It had lots of intense spices that made it almost curry-like, though not as sweet. The challah toast was beautifully crispy on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth fluffy on the inside and neutralized the sauce even more. The eggs provided a slippery and tender bite to the toast and dissolved to a squishy consistency.

Poached Eggs
Poached Eggs

My dish included poached eggs on top of two slices of haloumi cheese and grilled tomato with a side of sourdough toast, and I asked for some additional avocado slices on the side. The toast was very crunchy and difficult to cut, and it was difficult to eat all of that stuff together in one bite, but I discovered that it didn’t really matter, since any combination of ingredients was pretty consistent. The green sauce on top had a surprising vinegar flavor that paired well with the juicy tomato seasoned with some garlic and pepper notes and the slightly milky and rubbery cheese. The yolks of the poached eggs weren’t as runny as other poached eggs I’ve had, but I was okay with that; it was less messy to eat, though perhaps less satisfying. It’s always fun to poke the yolk bubble of a runny egg and watch the spurt of yellow gush forth. I would’ve liked the toast to be easier to cut, but it balanced out all of the flavors from the other ingredients. The avocado was a slight disappointment, though, since it was underripe and not very creamy or rich.

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Rosewater Waffle

I saved the sweet for last, as usual. The rosewater waffle was light and fluffy, but it didn’t have any crispiness to it, which I had hoped for. The flavor more than made up for the ordinary texture, though. The rosewater gave a subtle flowery fragrance to the waffle, and I absolutely loved how they didn’t skimp on the berries. They made sure that a waffle wasn’t too dry, and I enjoyed the medley of happy and cheerful strawberries, mature and sophisticated raspberries, mellow and dry blueberries, and mysterious and sensuous blackberries. The dollop of yogurt provided a slightly sour tang and creaminess, but the unique honey syrup was what truly elevated the experience. Whipped cream and maple syrup? No thank you! Actually I’d probably still eat maple syrup since I still am rather fond of it, especially the kind that comes from Canada. Anyways, the honey syrup was very liquidy but surprisingly it didn’t turn the waffle soggy when I poured it all over. Because it was liquified, it was lighter and less cloying than regular honey, and the gentle but insistent floral notes neutralized the sourness of the yogurt and complemented the rose flavor.

When Cindy and I left the restaurant, we both agreed that our lives would never be the same. Everything was not only delicious but also felt so refreshing and clean afterwards. The dishes weren’t perfect, but it was clear that they prepared each one with love and care, using only the best ingredients; it felt almost like a home-cooked meal. And that’s definitely saying something. Plus, they gave us some adorable postcards to take home at the end! Jack and Freda have definitely stolen our hearts!

Rating: 5/5 spoons!!!!

P.S. New York Restaurant Week is coming up!!!! Be on the lookout for some fun stuff! Hopefully more 5-spoon reviews? Or who knows, maybe even 6/5 spoons? 😉

Cookshop

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I’m writing this post from the car as my mom and I are driving up to Massachusetts to visit my brother. This morning (or should I say afternoon) we had brunch downtown near Chelsea at Cookshop, and I just couldn’t wait to write about the experience. With a three-hour drive ahead of me, I figured I might as well do something productive, right?

Anyways, Cookshop. Fantastic location in a great part of the city, though I find myself constantly in agony over the fact that literally everything awesome is downtown and at least a half an hour from campus. When we got there at 12:30, it was so ridiculously crowded that we could hardly move without bumping into other people. The wait time for a table for two was about an hour, as was expected for a popular New York brunch place on a weekend. I figured it would be worth it to stay, since it would have taken us a while to find another good restaurant.

When we did get seated, the waitress was very prompt in taking care of our beverages and our orders, which was pretty impressive considering just how busy they were. Because it was so crowded, there were a million different conversations going on around us and it did feel a bit too noisy at times, but it didn’t feel like people were encroaching on our privacy. It still felt difficult to hold a conversation, so if you’re looking to have a nice long chat with a friend, you’d probably be better off trying another place. But besides the noise, the atmosphere was pretty lively and cheerful. I also enjoyed the décor and the rows of potted plants that were stacked on shelves nailed to the wall.

Our food came pretty soon after we placed our order, which was again very impressive. The victims: a trout pâté with salmon roe, crème fraîche, marinated chopped onions and toast; and gingerbread pancakes with apples, cinnamon butter, candied pecans and maple syrup. I tried the trout dish first, since I have this rule about eating savory foods before sweet foods. It’s just a quirk that I think may have started a few years ago; I don’t remember. The trout definitely wasn’t a traditional brunch food, but it was delicious. The crust of the toast was in between crispy and crunchy, and the bread part was loose and fluffy with a fragrant crisp on the exterior. The trout pâté wasn’t exactly spreadable on top of the toast because it was quite chunky, but I loved the combination of textures from the tender fish chunks and the bread. The salmon roe added another layer of complexity with the fun bursts of juice and slightly different fish flavor from the trout. It’s easy to make a pâté too rich, but this one was surprisingly light even considering the mayo in it. The chopped marinated onion topping gave a sweet and sour tang that elevated the subtle seafood-bitterness of the fish. The only drawback was that I don’t know if the fish was the absolute freshest in the world, but it was acceptable. The portion size was more like an appetizer than a main dish, but it was still enough for us.

I then started on the pancakes. From the menu description I thought the apples would be put on top of the pancakes, but they were actually cooked into the pancakes themselves. I actually apple foodstuffs cooked that way since the apple is distributed more evenly. My first bite of fluffy pancake and soft and juicy apple was pleasant, but nothing life-changing. I thought that the gingerbread, cinnamon, and apple were comforting fall-inspired flavors, though I did feel like the pancake, while not nearly as dry as some of the pancakes I’ve had before, did cling to my mouth for milliseconds too long. It wasn’t any fluffier than, say, Community Food and Juice’s pancakes, which are cheaper and much closer to campus. The cinnamon butter made it better, though. Then I ate the pancake with one of the candied pecans.

And I died.

My first thought was that I had no idea that these flavors could combine together so perfectly. The slightly sweetened nuttiness of the pecans was stunning paired with the gingerbread, cinnamon, ginger, and apple, and the toasted crunchiness gave the otherwise ordinary texture of the pancakes greater dimension. The flavors didn’t so much explode together as they led me on a journey from one flavor to the next; the rich earthy pecan balanced by the sugar coating was followed by the aromatic ginger and cinnamon from the pancake and butter and finally the melodious and almost flowery fragrance of the apples. The maple syrup brought all of the spices and flavors together, and I found myself wondering why I didn’t eat the pancake with the syrup from the start.

Though the wait was pretty long and the food more on the pricy side, this was definitely among the better brunches I’ve had. If I go back, I’d like to try some of their other more whimsical choices, such as their grapefruit brûlée. There are still so many other famous brunch spots that are on my to-try list that it might be a while until I return. However, I definitely would recommend this spot to anyone looking for a nice weekend brunch.

Rating: 4.5/5 spoons