Norma’s is a Dud

Remember when I was so hoity-toity and proud about ignoring reviews and doing whatever the hell I wanted?

Wow, that was short sighted of me.

I recently went to the much maligned Norma’s in the Parker Meridien hotel. It is written up everywhere for serving huge portions of overpriced foods, for having lackluster service, and for feeling totally mechanical without any warmth.

I’m sad to say that the stories are true.

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The atmosphere is basically at the end of the hotel lobby – it doesn’t feel any more special than your standard Vegas hotel coffee shop. Which wouldn’t matter if the service were great. Or even good. But when you spend a majority of the meal flagging down your server to beg for some water and HEAVEN FORBID that you need hot sauce before you eat your eggs…it takes away from the uniqueness of the place. And even that wouldn’t matter if each entree wasn’t over $20.

Which, of course, each one is.

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Huevos Rancheros

Good. Not great. Not Cookshop, that’s for sure. The quesadillas are a great idea – decadent pockets of melted cheese and crispy tortillas topped with properly fried eggs. But there is no sour cream. No piquant pickled onions. The hot sauce is generic and the beans are watery. Don’t get me wrong, I ate this – it’s tasty. But it is not craveable. And it’s not worth it.

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The smoothie shot at the beginning of the meal was the best part. Guava, pineapple, orange, and passion fruit made for a surprisingly tropical way to start the day in chilly NYC.

However, it’s still not enough. Not nearly enough.

Do follow my review or don’t; the choice is up to you.

But dont’ say that that I didn’t warn ya.

The Surprisingly Delicious Il Mulino

I try never to listen to reviews. I don’t trust them because one man’s Dos Caminos is another man’s Taco Bell – and who is to say which one that man prefers.

Sometimes this gets me into trouble. Sometimes, it’s a draw. And sometimes, it lads me into a wonderful meal for which my expectations were really low.

Such was my delightful experience at the uptown Il Mulino.

Il Mulino is a veritable institution in the west village. It’s slightly easier to get a reservation there than its inspiration, Rao’s. It’s a club to which everyone belongs, as long as you come in with a reservation, which will likely be on the very early or somewhat late side.

Hey, I could be down with some prosecco at 6pm.

The vibe and atmosphere is old school elegance - break out your Birkin bags, and no ripped jeans, gents. The lighting is so low that even we, four young and healthy people, had to break out our iPhone flashlights. But you won’t read your menu for the first few minutes that you are there anyway.

First, you will order a bottle of wine from the rather small and overpriced list – how can you not? It’s such a celebratory feeling being ushered to your tiny, lamp lit table by a tuxedoed Italian man who spouts nothing but compliments, bella this and prego that….you need to drink to keep that buzz going!

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Then, you will receive a chunk of parmesan from a large wheel. It’s nutty, salty, and a little sweet.

Then, there is the spicy hard salami.

Then there is the zucchini, oily and addictive.

Don’t forget the mussels bruschetta, where the mussels are a little blah but the crostini is downright fabulous. Tart, juicy, sweet, and a little earthy. Just a hint of garlic. Sorry for the lack of photos – toldja that the restaurant was insanely dark!

I wish I got a photo of the overflowing bread baskets. Yes, multiple. Spicy, crispy foccacia, fresh doughy tomato foccacia, wheat country bread, and garlic bread so cheesy, savory, and delicious that it must be baked with pure crack cocaine.

Yeah, it’s that tasty.

Only then do you get to look at the impossible-to-decipher-in-this-darkness menu.

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Porcini ravioli

Keep your oysters and other aphrodisiacs. This is the sexiest dish that I ave ever eaten. It’s swimming in a creamy, truffle inflected sauce. It’s firm but pillowy and light on the inside, with cheesy, woodsy, meaty porcini mushrooms. The pasta is tender and the serving is gigantic – easily enough for 2 light eaters. It’s rich and heavy in the most wonderful way. It’s almost heady with all of those mushrooms and cream. It’s intoxicating. 

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Chicken alla Romana

The most shocking of the night, because it tastes so home cooked. If you told me that your nonna was back there cooking it, I would believe you in a heartbeat. The most tender chicken in a lemony, almost velvety sauce with capers, mushrooms and artichoke hearts. The chicken reaches that magical point of fall apart tender but not yet mushy. It’s so bright and comforting – it’s really tasty in every way. It doesn’t come with a side dish, but get some more of the garlic bread to sop up that wonderful sauce. Trust me, you will want it all.

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Veal Milanese

A lighter option to veal Parmigiano. Thin, wonderfully tender veal that is so soft and sweet that my fiance announced that it must have been smuggled into the country, because he had never tasted veal like this. It has a crunchy, thin breading that isn’t at all soggy and is well seasoned with salt and dried oregano. It’s covered with fresh tomatoes that are so sweet and juicy that it reminds me that the crap I have been eating all winter is finally giving way to spring and summer fruit. I would order this again, but would also like to try the much more sinful Parmigiano version.

Il Mulino gets an unfair rap as overly pricey and subpar. It was absolutely fair for the amount and quality of food that we got. The servers asked us if we wanted appetizers or dessert but did NOT push us. We were not rushed, pressured to upgrade our wine selection. or made to feel in any way that we were less than because we only ordered entrees. We were even gifted some fig grappa at the end to entice us to return. The service was efficient, warm, and genuine. It was an excellent meal, and though not a cheap one, a fairly priced one.

So even though I don’t  follow reviews, you should follow mine. For that time when you don’t  have to pinch pennies, Il Mulino is too delish to miss!

PJ Clarke’s – Appetizer Hot Spot

The nicest thing about NYC is the ability to walk out of  my front door and stumble into any number of awesome restaurants. No driving, no reservations, no pre planning. It’s  a (sadly costly) luxury and I never take it for granted.

When you grow up in the suburbs, you never take anything about city life for granted.

PJ Clarke’s is near-ish to my house and it says that it has been around (the original location) since 1884. With that kind of longevity, it had to be pretty good, right?

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The atmosphere is great – party pub, part restaurant, and entirely chill. Come here in jeans, with kids, sit at the bar for a few quick oysters…whatever you want. It doesn’t feel grimy, it just feels comfy. Major win.

The service is quick and friendly, and the food – well, a lot of it is really great!

Let’s start with the less than great:

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Au Poivre burger
I know, this should be the best part, right? But sadly, it just isn’t. The bun is cottony and the meat itself is underseasoned. It lacks the salty char of a grilled burger or the melting softness of a steamed burger. It’s cooked to order but there is barely any seasoning – beef needs salt. Or maybe some of that au poivre sauce which was applied so sparingly that I only tasted the spicy, hot taste of pepper in one or two bites of the whole burger. The toppings are fresh but also bland…this whole thing just lacks technique and seasoning. It’s too bad, because the raw ingredients seem great and the accompanying fries are thin and lovely. They even have my favorite ketchup.

Now, onto the better stuff:

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Short rib egg rolls with mashed potatoes

So delicious. What I wish my Reuben egg rolls tasted like. Thick and stuffed to the brim with tender, juicy short ribs and buttery mashed potatoes. Crisp on the outside and hearty on the inside, dipped in a rather fiery and creamy horseradish sauce, they are unmissable. This is so good that I would come here just for a drink and these. They are the ultimate guilty pleasure. So, so good, and – speaking from experience – - much easier to order than to make at home.

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Chopped kale salad

Shockingly good. Who would come to a burger place for a salad? Me, I guess. The kale is properly tenderized and served with creamy feta, avocado, and a bright but not sour lemon dressing. This is a great counterpart to that rather – how shall we say? – heavy main courses.

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PJ Clarke’s isn’t my favorite place in the neighborhood, even though the service is great. It’s just a little pricey for a sub-par burger. However, the cocktail and beer list is extensive and those short rib egg rolls are maybe my favorite dish within 10 blocks of my front door. I will be back for a drink and an appetizer in short time! Then, I can just mosy over somewhere nearby for my main course.

Gotta love the city life. 

Amaranth – Lunchtime Bargains for Millionaires

What’s the last time that you ate at a restaurant that was so obviously shi-shi that you felt weird taking pictures?

For me, it was last week. I have taken pictures from Paris to Tokyo and never blinked twice, but this was a little different.

It was ladies-who-lunch different.

We wandered into Amaranth because we were starving and it was in front of our eyes. When we arrived at noon it was empty but an hour later, the place was packed to the rafters. It’s a standard brassiere – small tables shrouded in white, a mirrored bar, and servers who are efficient but not overly friendly.

It’s the clientele that gives this joint its bite. Women dressed from head to toe in Hermes. Men wearing smoking jackets and riotous scarves. Children with the latest ipads and dogs with rainboots that cost as much as my wedding gown.

You can imagine why I didnt’ want to be conspicuous in my Target shirt and Ross purse.

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Bread

Fresh, hot, soft – served with mild and fruity olive oil. Not exactly reinventing the wheel here, but tasty nonetheless.

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Lentilles au vianigrette

Delicious. Al dente and meaty with that grassy, earthy taste that only lentils have. They are mixed with a sharp, shallot-laced vinaigrette that brightens the dish. This is a classic dish in France, and though it would be better here if they added some salty, crispy lardons, it is still a very serviceable rendition.

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Omelette with salad and fries.

The quintessential French lunch. This version is perhaps a bit overcooked on the bottom – a true French omelette never has even a hint of brown – but the feta is wonderfully creamy and smooth and the onions are cooked to a soft, sweet jam. The salad alongside is lightly dressed in a vinaigrette similar to the lentils and the accompanying frites are a little salty but crispy, hot, and fresh.

This meal has some missteps, but its reliable if you are in the neighborhood. It’s overpriced to me, but, then, if I was buying the clothing that these women were wearing, I would think that this lunch was a steal, too. And then I might feel okay taking some pictures with flash.

Well, I would still be shopping the outlets for those designer duds. So maybe not.

The Far Eastern Side of France at Paris Baguette

When I saw a Paris Baguette going up right near my house, I got excited. After all, wasn’t this the Korean owned, French inspired bakery with things like bulgogi sandwiches? We really need more Asian food up this-a-way, so I was pretty excited.

This, however, is much more continental version of the mini chain.

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The minuscule shop (only 4 seats in the whole place) is pristine and filled with the scents of yeast and butter.

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By looking at the overflowing pastry cases, filled with loaves of fresh bread and beautiful cakes, you might as well think that you were in France.

Until you get a little closer.

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Curry croquettes? Franks in Danish dough?

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And what the hell is hash brown bread and why am I not eating it right now?

This is the Asian influence…love it!

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Roasted veggie and goat cheese sandwich

My decidedly un-Asian offering was finger-lickin’ good. The bread is thick enough to house the garlicky pesto and creamy goat cheese without crumbling, yet the crust is very pliant so it breaks easily under your teeth. The vegetables are super fresh – no limp lettuce or green tomatoes here. And the house roasted tomatoes are wonderful – plump and spiced with oregano and olive oil. They are so soft and juicy that they are almost confit style – really something else! The sandwich is filling and properly sized – no afternoon naps needed to recover.

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Pistachio macaron

Satisfies the craving but not much more. The cookie is a little soft and the ganache is a little on the sweet side. It’s still nutty and delicious, but it’s not the best in town.

Paris Baguette is a nice spot if you are in the mood for a quick pastry or sandwich, but it isn’t destination worthy. It’s pricey and the seating is so limited that it isn’t really good for a leisurely meal.

Come on, banh mi place, open up near me!

Decadent Desserts at Payard

When I happened upon Payard with some of my friends last weekend, I could have just walked right by and gotten some frozen yogurt down the block.

Fro yo is healthy, it’s tasty, and it’s cheap.

But then you would have had to check my body for foreign hosts because there is of course no way in HELL that I would ever pass up pastries for frozen yogurt.

Francois Payard isn’t just some flash in the pan. He is the man who created perhaps the world’s most sought after flourless chocolate cake, the man who brought fine French pastries to the masses before cronuts were even a twinkle in a rat’s eye, and the man who would not let a rent dispute shutter his much-loved cafe.

The newer version of his eponymous restaurant and bakery is sleek and bright, with a friendly, casual atmosphere that belies its pedigree. We dined there with a family with kids,a couple on a date, and our rag-tag foursome – it’s really one size fits all.

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Macarons

Sadly, these don’t measure up to my favorite macarons or even those at Francois’s more casual outlet, FPB. These must have been made in the morning and are a little dried out and chewy – not the airy, crackly, rich confections that I prefer. However, the flavor is dead on. The passion fruit chocolate is fruit forward and tangy with smooth, creamy chocolate ganache in between the cookies. I would try these once more, but only if they were freshly made.

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Tarte Dulce de Leche

Oh, so THIS is why the man is a living legend. Buttery, nutty crust that reminds me of an especially rich, refined version of those addictive almond cookies at Chinese restaurants. It’s covered in gooey caramel that is more like buttery toffee and less like the rather bitter, burnt stuff that sometimes passes as caramel. Atop THAT is whipped cream so light and fluffy that it seems like a health food. It’s fragrant and lightly flecked with vanilla beans…perfect with a couple of crunchy candied almonds on top. This is elegant, varied in texture, and delicious.

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Geroge V

A grown up Milky Way candy bar. Dark, sticky, rich, dense. Creamy, chocolatey, shiny, and moist. Decadent in every way, but I could only eat about 2 bites before I cried uncle. This is all chocolate and caramel, with just a hint of nuttiness at the very end of the bite.  This is incredibly rich and heavy. Just the way I like ‘em.

Come here for some wonderful, elegant desserts, but get them to go. The service is worse than bad. It’s scattered, uniformed, and very sloowwww. However, the desserts are really special. I would get them for any dinner party or elegant event. I could probably wreck one of those tarts all on my own, but I’m not supposed to admit that, right?

So glad that I never choose the fro yo.

Russo’s – The Pizzeria of My Youth

On my little suburban jaunt, I needed more than lunch with appetizers and dessert.

Because once I am out of the 212, calories don’t count.

Luckily, my sister directed us to Russo’s Pizzeria.

I don’t know wheer she found it – it isn’t on any blog that I can find.

But it is one of the best old school slices I have ever, ever had.

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The joint is just like the one that I grew up going to - Winner’s, in Westlake, for any of my 818 peeps (ok that’s it for the area-code slang).

It’s family owned with some vinyl covered table, an ancient menu on the wall, and a bulletin board with business cards for towing companies, fliers for babysitters, and advertisements for local school plays.

It’s impossible not to like this place immediately.

And that’s before you even try the pizza.

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Sausage, Meatball, and Cheese

Be still, my heart.

The slices are thin and properly floppy, with doughy, floury bones. They aren’t too charred, but the best street slices aren’t. The sauce is mild and oregano heavy and the cheese is stretchy and tangy, put on with a light had so as not to overwhelm the delicate sauce. The meatballs are soft, spiked with fennel, and this sausage…oh this sausage. Shaved into thin, garlicky ribbons that almost melt into the cheese with porky goodness. Tiny crisp edges and melting, soft meat…this is the best sausage pizza I have ever had.

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This place is ridiculously cheap and the owner couldn’t be more efficient or kind. If you find yourself in town, come here.

After all, when calories don’t count, what do you have to lose?

What is my Excuse?

I have 2 posts waiting to be published. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t post Friday, and when I realized (in shock and fear) that I hadn’t posted today, I knew that something was wrong. 

Luckily, I am skilled in the art of self diagnosing. 

I am getting married in way, way less than a month’s time.

Via Urban Dictionary:

Bride Brain

A less invasive, but more expensive version of a frontal lobotomy. Experienced by most brides, as they enter a catatonic state which renders them incapable of sustaining any thought or conversation that does not involve cake, caterers, flowers, wedding dress designers, Chinese wedding dress knockoff designers, updo’s, hair pieces, color schemes, wedding themes, and personalized M&M’s.
Bride Brain symptoms include, but are not limited to, driving erratically because they can’t stop staring at their shiny diamond ring; being amused by the resentment of all their single girlfriends, rewinding songs several hundred times while imagining themselves walking down the aisle, and starvation induced bitchiness which is generally followed by late night binging at a Dairy Queen. (Note that this can only occur outside of the bride’s native geographic area, where they can’t possibly run into anyone they know).

Symptoms are ordinarily well controlled with valium, alcohol and endless hours of watching youtube “first dance” videos.

I have avoided it for a long time but I have been struck by the dreaded bride brain. I have contracted a stress-related illness, have hit my head HARD getting into cabs twice last weeks, have snapped at everyone from my dad to my sweet front desk person (I apologized), and have generally lost my damn mind.
I doubt I will forget to post again. But in case I do…I am so sorry. Coming up tomorrow, the pizza of my youth.

3 West Restaurant in Bridgewater – Why I Love Suburbia

On a recent rainy Saturday in suburbia, I had such a delightful lunch that I figured I should blog it. This restaurant isn’t just good for a lazy day road trip, it’s good for a New York City restaurant.

I know how snobby that sounds.

Don’t worry, I promise to watch trashy tv and eat an awesome Doritos Locos Taco as penance.

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I found 3 West on my favorite app, Foodspotting, and loved the atmosphere from the second my family and I walked in. Cozy, warm, and inviting with brass fixtures, heavy wood paneling, and a rumbling fireplace. It’s the kind of place that is upscale but not snobby and where you could easily take your well-behaved kids for a brunch treat. Even better, get a sitter and come here with your significant other for a few drinks off of the extensive cocktail menu.

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Crispy shrimp spring rolls

Just what you imagine. Crispy, light, filled with aromatic vegetables and such mild, buttery shrimp that it might as well have been pork. Served with sweet-spicy chili sauce and a garlicky aioli, these could easily be eaten by the tray. They are juicy but not soggy and served piping hot – nothing worse than an old eggroll.

If that isn’t a saying, it should be one.

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Wasabi edamame hummus

WHOA. I rarely order hummus off of a menu unless it’s at a mediateranean or middle eastern restaurant, and I didn’t order this – my mom did.

Mama knows best.

This hummus is craveable. It uses chickpeas, garlic, onions, lemon, AND edamame, wasabi, and various asian spices. It’s savory, it’s thick and has some texture, and it has that wonderful, nasal-clearing property that wasabi has. I wish it had a little nutty component form some sesame oil, but other than that it was top-notch and spot on. SErved with freshly fried wonton crisps, we made quick work of this.  Forget Tuscan Hummus, it’s all about this Asian version.

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Spicy chopped salad flatbread

This is pretty much everything I love about food.

Fresh vegetables – check. Creamy chip0tle dressing with a slow, gently burn that heats up to a pleasant frenzy? Check. Buttery avocado and crispy bacon? Check. Crumbly, salty feta – double check - they aren’t stingy here! Warm, freshly fired pizza dough with a charred underskirt and pillowy top? Check.

Yeah, I ate this like it was my job.

The desserts here aren’t special, but everything else is! The service is personalized and attentive (ie, they heard us talking about my upcoming nuptials and brought us a celebratory cookie at the end of the meal), the atmosphere is lovely, and the food is well priced and just delicious. If this were in the city, I would be here week in and week out. I just can’t say enough about it.

Plus, when you are done with lunch, you can go to Target.

Who doesn’t love suburbia?

Dan Tempura House – a Perfect Date with Myself

There is something to be said for the solo lunch. A break from work, only an hour from when you leave the desk to when you are back. A day when you can’t look at a computer screen for even one second longer. An afternoon when you have a wonderful novel or a terrible magazine. A moment by yourself where you don’t need to eat the best food for it to be…perfect. 20140328_122741 Dan Tempura House isn’t ever busy, especially at lunch time. That’s perfect for the solo diner. No one to look at you with pity while you pore over the latest issue of New York Magazine or Young Adult novel, thinking “what a sad soul who must eat lunch alone.” All you want to yell to those people is “are you kidding me?! This is better than therapy! Those silent monks don’t know what they are missing! THIS is the way to achieve ultimate happiness!!”20140328_122750 Low sodium soy sauce, an unpictured Diet Coke, and a date with myself. Perfect. 20140328_122948 Ginger-miso salad

The same all over town. Fresh lettuce and taught tomatoes served with ample dressing that isn’t the water stuff found at some places. It’s thick and pleasantly pulpy with spicy ginger.

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Miso soup

The standard stuff you make at home – salty, warm and savory, filled with slippery tofu and a few scallions. Filling and exactly as expected.

20140328_123619 (1)Spicy tuna roll with avocado and asparagus

This is barely sushi. The rolls are huge and sloppy with rice that is too warm and borders on mushy. But the tuna is very fresh and very spicy. It’s minced with Japanese mayo and chili sauce until it is soft and creamy. The asparagus is crunchy and grassy and the avocado is buttery. It’s fresh and plentiful. It’s possibly the worst fresh sushi I have ever had. And yet…it’s perfect for a solo meal. It’s trashy. It’s delicious. It’s what I want to eat with no one to judge me.

It’s a cheaply priced lunch special. It’s always efficient, properly performed service.

And it goes so well with People magazine.

It doesn’t go so well with other actual people.

It’s a lovely date with yourself.