Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Food Field Trip NYC: Snoopy goes Gaga

This year B and I escaped to New York City for Thanksgiving.  Thanks to stumbling upon Jet Luxury, a company that manages rooms in 4 and 5 star hotels, we snagged a great rate at the indulgent Trump Soho.  I am not a fan of The Donald in any way; at least that was the case prior to this trip.  But after a stay at this property, I appreciate that his powers--or at least his name--translated into a truly world-class hotel.  Collapsing onto the bed felt like being enveloped into a cloud; the hotel's location was the perfect base for all New York City has to offer...shopping, art, shows, and of course, food!

To start our journey we played the ultimate tourists and rose early to join the masses at the 85th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Prior to giving up any and all personal space on the parade route--an experience I hope never to replicate--we needed caffeine and fuel.  While the holiday pickings on Spring Street were slim, Balthazar was open and a flurry of activity.  The cinnamon bun I selected from a myriad of flaky pastries did not disappoint.  It was airy and sweet, without being cloying.  It was so delectable that B went back on Friday to get two more for breakfast.
Balthazar on Urbanspoon

After the parade, we quickly ducked into the subway. Famished, we called around to see what was open for a casual lunch.  Lombardi's had been on our short list for a while, so we headed to this NY pizza institution for a coal fired pie.  The service was brusque and ambivalent.  RC Cola products stand in for Coke or Pepsi (yes, this brand apparently still exists), but the pizza--with its charred crust, gooey mozzarella, and fragrant, flavorful sauce--was just excellent.  Lunch for two at this cash-only destination was a reasonable $40.
Lombardi's Pizza on Urbanspoon

After a long winter's nap on Thanksgiving Day, we embarked upon an enchanting evening at Tocqueville.  This charming, elegant, and seemingly hidden dining room was the ideal setting for Thanksgiving dinner.  Since the restaurant was at capacity, we had to wait a bit for our table.  The delay allowed us to enjoy a sublime cocktail, the Tocqueville Toddy, which consisted of mulled warm apple cider with brueil calvados. The fragrant potion set the tone for a seasonal meal in an intimate dining room with soaring ceilings, low light, and plush banquettes. The sommelier helped B select a wine--an impressive Washington Cabernet--that complimented the three- course ($95 pp) prix fix. Highlights included a creamless caramelized chestnut and pumpkin soup and dry-aged striploin of beef in black truffle jus. Being a purist, I opted for the turkey, which was moist, flavorful, and well served by the accompanying sweet potato-maple mousseline.
Tocqueville on Urbanspoon

Dining in NYC couples well with drama.  Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than at DB Moderne Bistro.  This was hands-down the best pre-theatre meal I have ever had.  While the dining room was full, service was attentive; excellent wines were available in the 1/4 litre, and the $45 three-course prix fix offerings were diverse.  Each of our (combined) six separate courses was flawless.  A starter of pasta, pumpkin, mushrooms, and greens captured the essence of the season in every bite. The Coq au Vin was was so rich and caramelized, that the entree looked more like short-ribs than chicken and tasted divine.  It left us wanting more and wondering, how did they do that?  The desserts were delicate and rich, offering savory and sweet choices. 
db Bistro Moderne on Urbanspoon

New York City is always a wonderland at the holidays, when seasonal treats, stalls, and stores spring up all around the city. Case in point: Gaga's Workshop at Barney's.  This surreal world, comprising the 5th floor of this luxury landmark, consists entirely of a Gaga inspired art installation and merchandise running the entire Gaga-gamut: from sunglasses to studded leather bracelets. True Gaga-fanatics can score a $95 chocolate shoe or a $45 rock candy bracelet.  Yes, prices are at the superstar level, but this experience is free and a must-see if you are in NYC.  If you try the chocolate let me know.  I could not justify the purchase price.  But do not fear, I did not want for sweets.

In my opinion the best chocolate chip cookie anywhere is found right in Manhattan.  City Bakery's Birdbath Soho was conveniently located just blocks from our hotel and I could not resist the pull of that cookie in the window!  The classic chocolate chip cookie is crunchy and chewy, bursting with rich chocolate chunks, sweet with brown sugar; and very shareable at about six inches in diameter.  At $3, this cookie is an escape that I think even Lady Gaga would appreciate.
Birdbath on Urbanspoon

Thanksgiving is a time to indulge and that we did!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ray'slon-Ballston Corridor

With last month's quiet opening of Ray's to the Third, the latest creation of Michael Landrum, Wilson Blvd is fast becoming Ray's World.  The restaurant occupies the sprawling first floor space of the Bennett Park apartments -- the long speculated location of Landrum's now (apparently defunct) seafood concept, Ray's the Catch.  Ray's to the Third follows the land-loving and somewhat tired Landrum playbook, and is somewhere in between the original Ray's the Steaks and Ray's Hellburger on account of both price point and menu offerings.  The majority of the staff was out-placed from the now "closed for renovations" Ray's East River.

True to form, the Third's food is decent-to-good, comforting and flavorful. The spicy fried chicken gets its heat from both the batter and a devilishly good dipping sauce.  The talented and entertaining Wayne, who came down from the Steaks (and before that, Old Ebbitt Grill) to manage the Third, would not relay the secret recipe, but he did tell me the sauce starts with habanero paste and vinegar, and is kicked up with paprika and chili powder adding heat and depth.  Regardless of the exact recipe, the sauce is hellishly hot and a perfect companion for the chicken.  For about $12 you get two large pieces of fried chicken, a tangy coleslaw, decent (but not nearly as good as the Steaks) macaroni and cheese, and chunk of jalapeno corn bread.  The steaks, cheaper cuts of meat than up the street, hover between $15 and $20; pretty good fries replace yawnishly requisite mashed potatoes and creamed spinach sides.

While I would not go out of my way to eat at Ray's to the Third, it is a welcome neighborhood addition to the Orange Line corridor.  The Third offers a solid option for casual dining with plenty of seating, a local clientele, and if recent visits are any indication, no waiting.  But if you do have to wait or just wish to dine solo, the Third (unlike the others) offers draft beer and a full bar.

Though my excitement for this once grand Titan of fine/casual dining has waned in recent months, I still have perhaps an unrealistic hope that the Ray's Empire may once again be great....

Ray's To the Third on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 7, 2011

Food Field Trip Havana: Time Travel

Without question, Cuba is one of the most challenging international destinations to (legally) visit for a US citizen. Though the country possesses a rich and unique culinary tradition, the embargo has taken its toll on the country's cuisine and for the first time in a long time, I did not mind the fact that Cuba was not going to be a foodie destination. The country is still is so sensory, that the constant, pulsing stimuli you are surrounded by negated my urge for food finds. Plus, how do you critique a country that does so well with what they have, but lacks the resources of the rest of the world?!

Cuba lies a mere 90 miles off the coast of Florida, but amid the political environment it might as well be a world away. The government- imposed (on both sides) strained separation is immediately palpable. Upon landing in Havana or Miami, charter flight passengers erupt in applause--a unique occurrence on a 45 minute, incident-free journey. Such constant energy and tension fueled our Cuban experience.

Havana is like nowhere else. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful city, which is simultaneously resplendent and crumbling. The people are proud of their land and culture, and it is this pride that pulses through the streets and drives the city. From the once traditionally stunning, now deteriorating, yet still beautiful (within-the-state-of-decay) buildings to the 60,000 or so restored (to varying degrees of success) classic cars, Havana is perhaps the only place on earth where you can time travel. The city is more or less the same as it was in 1959, but the culture has not stagnated; if anything, based on the people-to-people journey that we experienced with the Harvard Alumni Association and Distant Horizons, Havana’s art's scene is vibrant, even thriving in what can only be described as a very constrained environment.

Before I talk about the unique and surreal dining B and I enjoyed in Havana, I need to qualify our experience. There is a dual economy in Cuba: one for locals and another for international tourists. 25 Pesos (the local currency) is more or less equal to 1 US dollar converted into a CUC (the tourist currency). So it is hard to praise either the government-run or paladares (privately owned) restaurants that we visited since such meals are out of reach to the vast majority of Cubans. Food is at a premium. Despite Cuba’s lush landscape, agriculture is limited and the land is severely underutilized, meaning that Cuba relies heavily on imported food, much of which is imported from the US (quietly exempt from the embargo [US speak] or blockade [Cuban speak]). It is within this dichotomy that I talk about our experience.

As Anthony Bordain noted on his "No Reservations" visit, Cubans make decent beer and fabulous rum. Alcohol was very much a part of this journey, from the requisite welcome mojito at most paladares to drinking like Hemingway at La Floridita to the downright practical reality of downing a beer to bolster one's intake of calories and carbohydrates. While I have had my fill of mojitos for perhaps a lifetime, I was quite impressed with the full-bodied Bucanero beer and B gained an appreciation for the 7 year-aged Havana Club as an apertif.

The meals varied wildly in terms of quality and flavor, but on the whole service was nostalgically formal and beyond gracious.  With the exception of a succulent roast pork at the Hotel Nacional, the paladares, small private restaurants run out of people's homes, offered more creative and robust dishes than hotel and government-owned restaurants.
Our trip to Vistamar, a paladar in the once-ritzy Miramar section of the city was simultaneously enchanting and haunting.  From our perch on the balcony of this ocean front home, we could see what was once a magnificent block of late 50s-era homes complete with seaside swimming pools, but is now an eerie spread of empty, faded aquamarine pits.  While the variety was limited, the seafood here was local and fresh.  The butter poached Caribbean lobster was an incredibly flavorful feast at less than $20 a person. 

We also had the opportunity to dine at La Guarida, Cuba's most storied paladar. The food here was world-class, and the setting other-worldly  La Guarida is located on the top floor of a decaying (but like most of Havana) once grandiose apartment building.  You climb three flights of crumbling stairs before entering a candlelit wonderland with whimsical, off-beat decor (a chair was suspended mid-wall and Jesus and John the Baptist statues graced the hallway to the bathroom).  The environment and food at La Guarida was unlike most other places in Cuba, with not only air conditioning but complex flavors and a relative variety of ingredients.  The standout was my meaty grouper filet in a garlic sauce.

One of my favorite food travel moments of my 32 years was lunch at the home of artist Jose Fuster.  Fuster is sometimes referred to as the Cuban Picasso, whose vibrant media spans painting, ceramics, and sculpture.  Fuster  has taken his talents quite literally to the streets and has brightened up his entire neighborhood with vibrant mosaics.  Our glimpse into FusterWorld was accompanied by a menu of spicy lobster, fried fish, and beans and rice.  The meal was very good in and of itself, but dining at the epicenter of his magical, surrealist version of Cuba was the real treat.

B and I were the youngest (in some cases by a half century or so) travelers on this Harvard Alumni Association trip.  Our group meal times allowed us a forum to distill and challenge one another’s notions of what we were experiencing. In spite of the "just OK" quality of the food at most dinners, the conversation was always flowing as heavily as the rum. And while I may not embark on group travel again anytime soon, this simultaneously fascinating and frustrating experience opened my eyes to Cuba and I am still (and likely will be for some time) processing this wrinkle in time!