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.

20140407_093559

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.

20140407_101933

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.

20140407_093707

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!

20140405_180507

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.

20140405_184018

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. 

20140405_184033

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.

20140405_184041

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?

20140408_200434

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:

20140408_203058

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:

20140408_201740

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.

20140408_201748

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.

20140408_200440

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.

20140404_120345

Bread

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

20140404_122605

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.

20140404_122611

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.

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.

20140405_200638

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.

20140405_200708

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.

20140405_201115

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.

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.

20140328_122935

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.

Texas de Brazil and Maoz – My Favorite Salad Bars!

Really quickly: 2 different restaurants that I am loving:

1. Maoz
20140330_122755 This casual, counter service import from Amsterdam has some killer French Fries, well spiced shawarma, and the make-your-own falafel sandwich or salad of your DREAMS. A killer salad bar with cumin scented carots, tangy cabbage salad, tabbouleh, roasted cauliflower, and a litany of sauces. Creamy tahini, cooling yogurt, garlic sauce so potent that it might make or break you night, hot sauce so potent and fiery that it makes your toes curl. Herby, bright broccoli and fresh cilantro laden salsa. Don’t forget the inexpensive but delicious hummus and babaganoush you can add to your salad bar. And, of course, the fried eggplant, with silky innards and a crispy shell.

20140330_122513

The falafel sandwich starts like this…

20140330_122748

and should end like this, covered in pickles, sauces, and vegetables from the salad bar. It’s all included (one trip only, except for more sauce), so don’t worry. The falafel is piping hot, fragrant with cumin and parsley, an served in a fluffy pita with crisp romaine. This inexpensive place ain’t Israel, but it surely feds the yen when I am stateside.

20140329_192947

2. Texas de Brazil

Remember I said I had been to a Brazilian steakhouse? Well, I am now obsessed with them and this is the best one I have been to by FAR! Modern, clean (though, truth be told, a little “mall chic”) decor, extremely well informed waitstaff, and the food is about 19 times better that the other place. A smaller but better curated salad bar filled with imported cheeses, all varieteis of spicy peppers, a soup of the day, creamy pottaoes gratin, and a host of other items. Don’t miss those tiny red peeppers that are spicy enough to rip off your top layer of lip skin or the creamy, sweet poatoao salad – almost as good as Hawaiian potato salad!

20140329_194033 The meat here is even better than the salad bar. Tender lamb chops, garlicky sausage, and the flavorful, perfectly medium rare house cut ribeye are standouts. Avoid the pork products, but everything else is commendable. And don’t miss the mini chicken Parmesan that comes around on skewers towards the end of the meal.

 I am never going to fit into my wedding gown, am I?

 

Dessert Scavenger Hunt

Let’s play a little guessing game today.

Here is a spot that is insanely expensive and was featured in a movie.

20140329_212534 It usually has a very long line and a rather surly front of house staff (though the servers are often excellent).

If you come here on a rainy night, your chances are MUCH better of getting in sooner than later.

There is no liquor menu and if you come here for the savory food, then congratulations, you are the only one who has done that…ever.

20140329_212550 (1) There are a ton of impostor Tiffany lamps and wacky things for sale as you wait – thinks like purses with eyeballs and Troll hair and muffin tins that look like jeans (so you can bake “muffin tops”…get it?).

The main event often looks like this:

20140329_213835 The best hot fudge ever…sorry Eddie’s. With soft vanilla ice cream and cake so dense and rich that it feels like a tiny bomb in your stomach.

The whipped cream is piled high and sweet.

20140329_213829

The Can’t Say No Sundae  might be even better. Same ice cream, same whipped cream, same hot fudge, so substantial and rich that it hardens against the cold ice cream, but this time…there are fresh bananas. And peanut butter pie. Smooth, nutty, creamy peanut butter pie.

I wouldn’t kick it out of bed for eating crackers.

20140329_214153

Frozen white hot chocolate.

The piece de resistance. The most vanilla-scented, smooth, purely milky taste in the world. It’s not too thick or too watery – you can drink it with a spoon. It’s mild enough for a baby to enjoy and tasty enough for 4 adults to fight over the last sip. It’s the best parts of white chocolate (sweet, buttery, rich) with none of the bad parts (waxy, overly sweet, plastic-y).

And it comes showered in edible glitter.

20140329_214103 (1)

Of course, this joint is Serendipity 3. It’s overdone, it’s overpriced, and they make you order at least $8.50 worth of food per person, so you are sure to over-eat and get a stomach ache. But, I have to say…for nostalgia or maybe even just for taste…it’s damned good and fun.

Thrice at Cookshop

Continuing with revisiting places I love…

Cookshop.

It’s not all about huevos rancheros but it IS all about eggs

20140326_095026 Egg white fritatta with roasted squash, DiPalo’s mozzarella, and walnut pesto

If you don’t think this looks good, just stop reading my blog. This is the PERFECT healthy breakfast. The squash is really sugary, which balances out the verdant, piquant pesto adds flavor to the egg whites. The mozzarella is creamy and stretchy, giving a little richness. And that pesto…wow. Fresh, garlicky, filled with basil and crunchy walnuts. This is just everything breakfast should be – filling but not heavy, multi-textured, and flavorful. Wow.
20140326_095030 Roasted broccoli and cheddar scramble

And if this doesnt’ get you salivating, please forget my name. I mean, for realsies. This is awesomely delicious. Ribbons of tangy cheddar cheese, stalks of sweet, tender but not mushy broccoli, and tons of sweetly caramelized onions. Creme fraiche enriches the scramble and makes it positively creamy. It sits atop a buttery, fluffy biscuit that is more doughy than flaky – hearty stuff that is the perfect antidote to the underdressed salad on the side. This is a great way to feel like a fatty without eating animal products.

Of course, a bellini doesn’t hut either – they make them strong and tasty.

If Cookshop was closer to my home, I would be in serious trouble.

Another Look at Koi

While reviewing  the Trump SoHo, I realized that I have been back to Koi uptown multiple times but had not re-reviewd it for years.

Let’s take another quick look, shall we?

20140325_174251 Spicy tuna on crispy rice

This never fails me. The rice is always crispy without and chewy within, with soft, fatty tuna atop. It’s pleasantly salty and a little buttery from the tuna. The kicker is that crisp, cold jalapeno that is mild at first with a heat that creeps up on you. Consistent and magnificent.
20140325_174756 Spicy and creamy shrimp tempura

So much better than Lure’s that it blows my mind. Tender, clean tasting shrimp in a crackling, thin coating and a sauce that is part hot sauce, part sweet Kewpie mayonnaise, and part crack cocaine. It’s really that good. Piping hot and a large portion. This is enough for a main meal for any appetite. It’s also a great way to get non-seafood eaters to eat shellfish. It’s crispy, mild, and covered in hot sauce…what other endorsements do you need?
20140325_175400 Shrimp chili roll

This is just damned good fusion sushi. It ain’t Nakazawa, but then, nothing is. This shrimp is wonderfully fresh and free of any off, iodine-y taste. It’s sweet and snappy atop the crispy shrimp tempura and creamy avocado roll. The sweet chili sauce is a tangy, zippy accompaniment that does nothing for its authenticity but loads for its flavor.
20140325_185125 Rice pudding brulee

Why didn’t I think of this? Sweet, rich coconut milk rice pudding under a sweet, thin sheath of crunchy sugar. Um, ideal.

This restaurant is a winner. Yeah, it’s overpriced, but it’s chic, it’s delicious, and it’s reliable. It’s a great gals night or out-of-towners rendezvous and that crispy spicy tuna is the best in the city.

So glad I took it for another spin around the blog.