Tolani Wine Bar’s Surprisingly Delicious Menu

If you need a place on the UWS that isn’t brunch, cookies, or over the top fancy, your options are somewhat limited. Luckily, Tolani is on 80th and Amsterdam to fill that girls-night-out void.

It’s a South African influenced wine bar  with a dark, cool vibe that is sexy enough for a date but elegant enough to take the parents for brunch. with a hefty by the glass list as well as an extensive selection of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons. Better yet, it has a food menu. Not just bar food, but real sharing plate, restaurant food. The kind of food that makes you salivate just looking at it but that doesn’t require a foodie degree to enjoy. Catch my drift:
20141028_194335 Tuna carpaccio with olives, fried garlic, and arugula

An interesting, savory take on tuna tartare. The tuna is paper thin, reminiscent of beef carpaccio but with an even more velvety texture. The garlic is crispy and a little spicy and the olives provide a Nicoise-esque punch of salinity. This is light and a great way to start the evening.

20141028_200943 Fish tacos

Best dish of the night, hand down. This taco is so far superior to many other grilled fish tacos in town. The grouper is meaty but mild, perfect for its spicy (but not overly so) tomatillo salsa. Crispy cabbage, buttery avocado, and a quick spritz of lime all complete the package in a warm corn tortilla. It’s juicy, crispy, spicy, and fresh…all of the things that make Mexican food great. Best of all, it’s simple. It relies on awesome ingredients so here isn’t any weird crema or nouveau wrap to muck up the clean tastes of the food. There is only one to an order here, so be sure to order enough for the table.
20141028_200949 Lamb, beef, and veal meatballs with ricotta

Delicious and so satisfying on a chilly night.  The meatballs are spicy and robust, with the lamb bringing out some earthy flavors. The sauce is long cooked and sweet; richer and more wine-y than light summer sauces. A sprinkling of salty Parmesan cheese and some creamy ricotta make this more of a stew than a meatball. Be sure to ask for more warm bread to sop up the delicious sauce.  20141028_211707 African bread pudding

I don’t know what makes this African, but it’s delicious – like a deep-fried bread pudding with a spongy texture. Crispy, light,a nd positively soaked in a thick vanilla-y creme anglais.

Tolani is well priced with excellent service and really good food! The portions are tiny, so don’t take big eaters here, but there’s a great happy hour and the food is really worthwhile. Finally, a place on the UWS that fits the bill for a relaxed night out on the town.

New York’s New “Luxe”

And now, an article that I wrote that was never published…until now!

NYC is the grand dame of USA cities. It’s known for grandiose hotels with fabled guests, storied restaurants, and rooms that have been documented in every movie from Plaza Suite onwards. However, there is a new wave of hotels that promises to make the old guard up its ante. These hotels are sparkling, swanky, and still deliver on luxury. Here’s the latest and greatest of where to rest your head in the city that never sleeps.

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The Park Hyatt – the most anticipated opening of the year in NYC, or perhaps of the last few years. The luxurious Park Hyatt brand is world renowned for its elegant design, superior service, and incredible restaurants, but with the new flagship location in NYC, it may have well outdone itself. It’s located conveniently in midtown with a modern Christian de Portzamparc design, iphone chargers in every room, and a mini bottle of Krug in the mini bar. That’s right…Krug. Expect rainforest showers in every room, a 25th floor indoor lap pool, and – if you are interested – a breakfast at one of the hotel’s restaurants, The Back Room, that include Dom Perignon champagne, a Beluga caviar bagel, and foie gras toast. Start spreading the news – upscale in midtown is here to stay.

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The Refinery – The 1920s meets the 2000s in this small boutique hotel. Located just steps from Bryant Park, it takes advantage of its central location with a summertime rooftop bar that lets imbibers take a break from the city mayhem and relax in the open air. It also offers stark black and white dramatic furnishings and locally created art, wifi, air conditioning, and a communal fitness room. Enjoy the seasonal fare at the hotel’s Parker and Quinn restaurant or enjoy Koreatown, only a few steps away from the hotel. Best of all, sit in your elegant room and enjoy a view of Manhattan.

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The Viceroy – Hello, blue skies! Only a block away from Central Park, The Viceroy blends modern conveniences with the stately history of the city – after all, it’s right near the glitzy jewelry stores on 5th Avenue! Each room has luxury linens, espresso machines, and flat screen TVs. Enjoy nightly complimentary cocktails in the bar, and indulge in American fare at Kingside, a restaurant by celebrated chef and “Chopped” judge, Marc Murphy.  

Snacks and Sips at Joe’s Pub

Earlier this week I went to a fabulous show at Joe’s Pub – a great cabaret theater downtown where there is, of course, a minimum. We went far above our minimum because we were hungry, but here is what you can expect:

20141013_185323 A very well made, though ill photographed, dirty martini. It’s too bad that the picture is so terrible, because the stemware used is great (way less likely to spill than traditional martini glasses), the vodka is chilled to the point of icy, and there is just enough olive juice in there to make the drink border on savory without being salty.  20141013_185824 Fries with aioli

So good. Like gourmet McDonald’s.  No parmesan cheese, no truffle oil- just crispy, hot fries with Heinz ketchup and buttery, creamy aioli.  20141013_185842 Pickle plate

Good, if not especially memorable. Who doesn’t love a plate of snappy, vinegary pickled veggies? 20141013_185831 Homemade farmers cheese with seeded crackers

Okay, this is craveable. I would get it again in any restaurant. It’s a dense, creamy cheese that tastes almost like melted cream cheese. It’s layered with woodsy oregano and a pool of olive oil. Served with those garlicky seeded crackers, it’s just delicious.

The food is good and so are the drinks, but they are of course way overpriced – it’s a cabaret, what do you expect? The food isn’t as great as the offerings at 54 Below, but the entertainment is great, and after just 2 of those excellent martinis, you will have reached your food minimum and be in a great mood to enjoy the show.

That Time I Got to Go to The University Club

I went to a wedding the other night, and the bride knew that I was going to remark on the food.

I mean…how could I not? I’m not getting back in here anytime soon!

This shindig was held at The University Club…ultra fancy, ultra swanky – the kind of place that Jay Gatsby would risk hell and high water to frequent. It’s an immense building on 5th Avenue and the look is all dark wood, heavy tapestries, and gilded fixtures…you know the type.

I was SO glad that I put on deodorant…this isn’t the type of spot where stank will go undetected.

When we got upstairs to the ornate dining room, we were starving and I have to say that I didn’t know what to expect. Could a place this fancy and old school have food that would be appealing to the couples’ food savvy friends?

In a word – yup!

20140920_202337 Mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes

This is as delicious as something that I would make at home, after carefully sniffing tomatoes at the farmers market and schlepping downtown to get tender mozzarella. This tastes like it was made by hand by someone who really cares about ingredients – who chose tart cherry tomatoes and sweet heirloom ones to compliment each other. Who dressed the room temperature mozzarella in a spicy olive oil and plenty of pepper. This is simple and delightful. The last of summer’s tomatoes to usher in the first of the new couple’s tomorrows.

Wow…when I am good, I am GOOD.
20140920_212800 Rack of lamb au jus with wilted spinach and roasted potatoes

This lamb isn’t just wedding good…it’s RESTAURANT good! I don’t think it was the 2 martinis (because who DOESN’T love an open bar, amirite?), I think that it was just an excellently made plate. The lamb is medium rare -pink almost to the edges but not bloody or raw. It’s deep and robust, with peppery, rosemary scented jus that just cries out for those roasted potatoes. The lamb was really spectacular – I’m telling you that I couldn’t stop eating it.
20140920_222001 Dessert buffet

The piece de resistance was the entirely gluten free dessert buffet. Creamy creme brulee, vibrant macarons, airy chocolate mousse, and more. As much as you wanted, all in tiny, bite size servings.

Actually, this whole meal was gluten free and prepared and presented so well that if I hadn’t known ahead of time, I wouldn’t have even guessed it. The pacing and service is excellent, the setting is stunning and the food is modern and delicious.

Unfortunately, you have to be a member to have your wedding there, but if you are or if you get invited there…I highly recommend dieting the week before. Because this is one wedding meal thta you will want to eat.

Off the Chain at Hillstone

I never think chain restaurants are going to be good. It’s that weird, uppity NYC thing of being a foodie in the age of locavoreism and popups. It’s stupid – sometimes places are just chains because they appeal to lots of people and make money. And why? Because they are delicious!

Case in point…Hillstone. Which used to be Houston’s. And in some places, still IS Houston’s…I think it has to do with those calorie counts that chains are required to print in their menus.

I had a very tasty lunch there. Expensive, but PERFECT for a business lunch or dinner. Oh yeah, and it’s the darkest restaurant in which I have ever dined.

20140917_142511 Peruvian corn

Not the wonderfully plump, buttery, sweet kernels of corn that I expect when I read this on the menu, but tasty all the same. Somewhere between southwestern and Indian, it’s tossed with firm zucchini and spicy jalapenos in a buttery, cumin and coriander dusted glaze. It’s actually a great appetizer – grab that corn while you can, because pumpkin season approaches.
20140917_145052 Ahi tuna salad with mangos, tomatoes, and avocado
20140917_145059 This is legit – too legit to quit, in fact. The ahi tuna is excellent quality – meaty in texture and mild in taste, crusted in a salty, slightly spicy rub that is complemented by scallions and tart ponzu sauce. The salad alongside is filled with sweet mangos and the butteriest avocado imaginable. It’s healthy but satisfying thanks to the myriad of flavors and textures. If you like Asian fusion – which I do – you will love this.  20140917_145121 Fries

Shoestring. Hot, crispy, not too salty. Served with spicy mayo and standard ketchup. Just get them, already.

Please come here if budget isn’t an issue and you are on the Eastside. Or the middle fo the country. This is LEAGUES better than what I think of fast food as being. Service is great and so is food…don’t worry, I promise to still be snobby about most things.

Nighttime Brunch at Egg Shop

What’s a gal to do when the hottest brunch spot is not only way downtown and doesn’t take reservations, but also has a 2+ hour wait on weekends?

She has brunch for dinner, of course.

20140915_203241 Egg Shop is the latest darling of the brunch world. It is – as it sounds –  a sweet, small, retrofitted eatery specializing in one thing: eggs. In bowls, on toast, and in every incarnation you can imagine. Though it’s supposedly bumper-to-bumper packed on the weekends, on a weekday night, it was positively deserted except for the pleasant waitstaff and enticing, tiny open kitchen.

20140915_204526 Egg salt and pepper shakers…come on…this is adorable. 20140915_204609 Avocado toast with heirloom tomatoes and a poached egg

Thick, seeded toast smeared with buttery avocado and topped with sweet heirloom tomatoes and…

20140915_204648

a gorgeous poached egg. Tender whites, gooey yolk. Warm and comforting atop those juicy tomatoes and that lush avocado. This is so simple that you could make it at home…but you know you wouldn’t. I doused this with the homemade hot sauce and it was such a satisfying meal that I may just make it for myself tonight, after all.
20140915_204619 Egg salad with fried chicken

The best fried chicken I have had in recent memory. I can’t tell you how good it is. Juicy with a thick, craggy crust and not too thick – perfect for eating between two slices of toast. The egg salad isn’t made with mayo but it’s still creamy and loaded with piquant, aggressive flavors like coriander, dill, and fresh herbs. It’s light and punchy instead of stodgy like egg salad often is.  It’s more of a spread, a backdrop, for that lovely fried chicken. This doesn’t need anything – not hot sauce, not mayo…nada. Just your mouth.

This place is kind of overpriced, but it was fun for a weeknight meal. The service is great and the food is delish. I would NEVER wait more than 20 minutes to eat here – 30 minutes max. But if I was int the neighborhood again, I would be happy to eat here again and try a Bloody Mary, too.

Long live evening brunch!

Weekday Breakfast at Le Grainne

This is a short and to the point write up:

Le Grainne is a lovely weekday breakfast spot.

It’s on 9th avenue, in that stretch of Chelsea just above Chelsea Market – you know, that street where there are still graceful brownstones and cute boutiques, like NYC wasn’t about to become one big shopping mall.

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There is a very small but pretty sidewalk seating area, and inside it’s cozy and Parisian-feeling. The perfect place to catch up with a friend over a bowl of cafe au lait and a crispy croissant.

20140911_093912 Goat cheese and leek crepe

Maybe this isn’t how Parisians do breakfast, but this is how they should do it. Because this is both delicious and wholesome – sure beats that chocolate croissant in the “keeping you full” department. The goat cheese is melty and soft, less dense than cream cheese and with an unmistakable tang. The leeks are a little crunchy for my tastes, so next time I might go with goat cheese au naturel. The crepe itself is expertly prepared – whisper thin and crispy, substantial enough to hold the goat cheese but not at all doughy. The salad alongside is lightly dressed in a mustardy vinaigrette – fresh and tasty.
20140911_093916 This place is charming! The food is lovely, the prices are fair, and the service is a little more laid back than I prefer, but hey…it’s faster than it would be if this place actually was in France!

Enjoy the weekend, everyone!

Dirty French – Dirty in All the Right Places

I’ll cut to the chase: I ate at what is probably the hottest opening of the (late) summer this weekend.

Dirty French, from the team behind Carbone and ZZ’s Clam Bar, among others, is on the Lower East Side and it couldn’t be cooler. It’s in The Ludlow hotel and the look is ultra cool Brooklyn meets Moroccan bazaar meets modern art gallery. It’s dark, it’s loud, and the hostesses are all impossibly beautiful. I felt pretty old and uncool, so don’t bring parents or an intimate first date here. This is prime real estate for business people with deep pockets, Euro-celebs, and – of course – foodies looking to see if Dirty French lives up to its elder siblings’ reputations.

The menu isn’t classical French – it’s made up of all of the foods of places that French cuisine has had influence – heavy on the Moroccan and New Orleans dishes.

Shall we begin?

20140906_204318 Oysters shown tableside

Honestly, it seems gimmicky. They are all East coast oysters, which I certainly enjoy, but there is nothing like a small, deep cupped, creamy West Coast oyster. I find East Coast oysters to – generally -be a little brinier and flatter tasting. These come in a variety of preparations, with spicy garnish or baked with garlic and butter, but we didn’t try any that night. Also, this raw bar selection is market price, which is always scary when it comes time for the check.
20140906_205820 Ludlow Gimlet

A refreshing, cooling citrus cocktail.None of that pine-y taste that gin sometimes has. It’s a little sweet from the apricot liqueur, which softens the tart lime juice and rounds out the edges. This is strong but not hit-you-over-the-head-powerful and it’s an ideal aperetif.
20140906_210330 Warm bread and herbed yogurt

One of the hits of the night. No kidding…what’s the last time that you can say that the complimentary bread was a better than the foie gras (which, by the way, was good enough to try but not to get again – a little greasy and lacking salt)? This arrives on a silver platter piping hot from the oven. It’s a naan/doughnut hybrid that is puffy, doughy, and slicked with butter and salt. It’s tasty enough to eat on its own, but when you spoon some sumac dusted yogurt over it and let it melt into the warm bread…well, then it’s a course unto itself. Cool, hot, creamy, tangy, soft, and buttery…I’m not writing a poem, I’m just eating bread. Really, stupidly, amazingly tasty bread.
20140906_210959 Beet and Roquefort salad

This could be so mundane, but the attention to detail makes it shine brighter than similar salads in town. The beets are clearly home roasted, with a toothsome texture and almost candy sweet taste that is echoed by the crunchy candied walnuts. Thinly sliced apples, miniscule slivers of chives, and some really creamy, salty Roquefort complete the dish. Everything is bite sized and easy to enjoy in one mouthful. Plus, it helps lighten up a meat-focused meal.
20140906_211007 Boudin with pickled onions and Creole mustard

Outstanding – a refined, subtle version of the down home original. This is what a great restaurant does – it takes something that you know and love, and honors it by putting its own stamp on the food. Dirty French succeeds here, with a sausage that is tender and rich with pork and liver flavor. It’s not overly garlicky or salty and really lets the minerally taste of the liver shine, almost like chicken liver pate. The outside is crispy and lacquered in an almost sweet glaze that works with the pickled onions and the spicy Creole mustard. If you like sausage, you just have to try this boudin…it is a show stopper.

20140906_211112 Lamb carpaccio with figs, yogurt, and pita

Unique and tasty, but not a must order. The lamb is beautifully butchered and sliced paper thin in sweet, mild slices, but it lacks a lot of taste. The figs and yogurt seem to overpower it. I prefer steak tartare to carpaccio, and perhaps if the lab was ground instead of slice, it would have been more to my liking, but here it just disappeared.
20140906_213545 Chicken with crepes

Shut. it. down.  (Thanks, Rachel Zoe). Get this. Moroccan chicken meets Peking duck. The breasts are seared and served with harissa, spicy mustard, and sweet chutney that you roll into thin crepes like Peking duck. The legs come later, barbecued under a peppery, lacquered skin that is the legal version of crack. The legs come fully intact with feet and claws, so order another cocktail if you are feeling squeamish.
20140906_213852 Or just eat another one or 2 of the white meat filled crepes.

I didn’t even touch on the salmon maison or the absolutely EXCELLENT, UNMISSABLE POMMES FRITES (do not leave here without getting these!). So, most of the food was excellent and the vibe was super cool – why am I not giving this place an unmitigated rave review? A few things brought down the general feel of the night:

Service: Aloof at first, then warmed up to excellent service by the end of the night. Still, the beginning was so reserved and slow (cocktails alone took about 20 minutes), that it was hard to shake that.

Price: It’s expensive and without many of the perks that you get from restaurants in a similar price range. No mignardises, no super personalized attention, no questions about allergies to certain foods.

Location: Wherever you live, this is not near it. It’s just a PITA to get down here, and while I might visit it a lot more if it was farther west or farther uptown, I’m unlikely to make another special visit here.

So, what’s my takeaway? This place is great, if expensive. It needs to iron out a few kinks, but the food is interesting and delicious – not to mention, much needed in the Moroccan void that is NYC. Its longevity will, I predict, be determined by how well it fine tunes its service and listens to the neighborhood’s demands, since few of us are likely to make this a weekly trip.

But, with pommes frites and bread like this…a trip at least once is well worth it.

Dirty French on Urbanspoon

Andanada 141 – Hidden Tapas on the UWS

In New York City, you have to look down or you will miss stuff.

You will miss a pile of dog poop you are about to step in, a dropped 20 dollar bill, or sometimes a hidden neighborhood gem.

I mean, have any of you even looked into the basement level of 69th Street near Broadway, into the charming restaurant Andanada 141?

It’s a tapas place with live flamenco dancers and music twice a week, a beautiful covered garden out back, and a jovial, upbeat atmosphere that is perfect for a date with a loved one or close friend. It’s lively but not too noisy and the by-the-glass wine list is varied. The rose cava is especiallydelightful.

20140826_193855 Patatas Bravas

Not the best version of the dish, but it fits the bill. The potatoes are peeled and very creamy with an exterior that could be a little saltier and crisper. The tomato sauce is weirdly sweet, but the mayonnaise is clearly homemade. It’s rich and eggy – the perfect foil for those hot potatoes.
20140826_193422 Cod Croquettes
On the money. Be sure to dip them in the accompanying red pepper sauce, which is smoky and a little sweet instead of spicy, or they will taste too fishy. The sauce eradicates any note of fishiness or funk. All you are left with is a thick, crispy crust and soft interior. Don’t miss the garlic shrimp either, which come snappy and swimming in garlicky oil that is the perfect bread dip.

20140826_191248 Fried Artichokes

Crispy and dense with a flurry of nutty Parmesan cheese. It needs some acid and salt – maybe a Caesar-like vinaigrette would help? But as it stands, I wouldn’t get these again.
20140826_191230 Ham Croquetas

Hit of the night. A thin, crunchy breadcrumb shell outside soft, mashed potaot-meets-Ibercio-fatty-porky-goodness inside. Steaming hot and the right mix of hot, soft, crunchy, and salty. We should have ordered another dish of these!

Andanada 141 isn’t going to win the best tapas restaurant of the year. But the food is very good, the prices are great, and the service is friendly. Sit there for hours or get out of there in an hour flat – it’s up to you. I would totally come back here, get the shrimp, potatoes, and both croquetas again.

See what happens when you look DOWN to smell the roses?

Bites to Savor This Weekend and Beyond!

Food I’m enjoying around town:

20140525_195750 Chocolate mint ice cream bar from Treat House

Generally, I find these gourmet Rice Krispy treats overpriced and dry – nothing beats licking the spoon of some still warm, freshly made treats. But this ice cream version does surprisingly well. The ice cream is what kicks it up the notch – it’s really, sharply minty 0 this is a grown up’s treat. It’s coated in a thick layer of crisp chocolate and the “cookies,” which are really Rice Krispy treats, provide a crunchy, chewy counterpart. This is a fun, light ending to a meal out on the UWS.
20140809_115858 Haul from Tucker Square Greenmarket

SUNGOLD TOMATOES SUNGOLD TOMATOES SUNGOLD TOMATOES. This year, the sungolds are INSANE. Sweet, light, juicy, firm…they are perfect raw and even better slowly roasted. The peaches are just going out of season now, but you can still find some wonderful late season ones - yellow peaches;  the whites have been super mealy. Tiny bell peppers and sheep’s milk cheeses in pungent blue and tangy yellow. This farmer’s market is never too crowded and never too expensive – the vendors are lovely and invite you to try anything that looks delicious and the variety is usually excellent. Give it a go, and say hi if you see me! 20140819_184057 20140819_191126 Mexican food at Dahlia’s

Nothing groundbreaking, but there are strong margaritas, fair prices, and an adorable patio looking over Harrison Street – worth the price of admission! You have to savor this sunlight as long as you can – September is upon us and this lovely weather will be but a memory sooner than we can imagine. The guacamole is plentiful and not crazy expensive and the menu is full of lots of familiar Tex-Mex fare – order up and enjoy!