Cha Pa’s – Vietnamese in the Theater District

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I hit up Cha Pa’s because I was in that part of town. And, of course, because I love Vietnamese food. When I lived in Tucson, there was the BEST pho restaurant  - Pho 88. I spent many happy calories there. Sadly, I have been less lucky with pho here in The Big Apple. So, I headed to Cha Pa’s to see if I could get my fix. 
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The restaurant is tiny and casual – come here in jeans and a t-shirt and you will feel totally at home.  20141122_182808 Spring rolls

Lovely! Crispy and light, but filled with a dense mixture of cabbage, beanthread noodles, and ground pork. Dipped in a light, citrusy-sweet sauce, it’s just what you want when you crave spring rolls. They are fragrant, well-balanced, and addictive.
20141122_183101 Vietnamese coffee soda

Like a coffee flavored egg cream. Not my style, but if you like egg creams and coffee, this will be right up your alley! Sweet, creamy, and lightly fizzy!
20141122_183540 Shaking Steak

WOW! I have never had shaking steak before, but this is outstanding! Flank steak that is so tender that it might as well be filet mignon. It’s coated in some sort of VERY light, crispy coating and then dressed in a sweet and salty glaze. It’s served over wilted watercress and pickled onions, which add dimensions of bitterness and tang. The steak is SO tender that you can cut it simply with your teeth. It’s sticky sweet, beefy, and very rich. I would eat this again tomorrow and simply have to try making it at home.

Cha Pa’s isn’t too expensive and I love the food. However, the service is abysmal and my co-diners were less than pleased with their entrees. So, I would come here if you are in the hood and the lunch specials are cheap. Or I would order in in my pajamas.

And I’m still searching for the pho of my dreams here in NYC.

Melt Shop – More Than Just an After-Tot

Sometimes, you want a good grilled cheese.

And other times, you want to go to a grilled cheese restaurant after you have already eaten dinner and indulge in some tater tots.

I didn’t plan on it, it was a total after-tot…get it?

I know, my dad humor is wasted on you foodies.

I went to Melt Shop after dinner but before seeing the inimitable Aaron Lazar in “The Last Ship” especially for these:

20141122_191416 Loaded tots

Do you see anything wrong with this photograph? Because if you do, you should probably find a different blog – this one just ain’t for you. These are decadence personified – Yeah, Amurrica! Crispy tater tots positively LOADED with creamy cheese sauce, crunchy bacon, slightly spicy pickled jalapenos, and a generous shower of garlicky Parmesan cheese. This is too much and yet just enough. It’s over the top and low end. It’s crispy bacon and salty parmesan cheese. It’s wonderfully rich nacho cheese and tart, none-too-limp jalapenos. It’s just about perfect.

20141122_191307 Heath Bar crunch and Nutella-fluff milkshakes

As if you couldn’t guess…these are also exemplary. The Nutella-fluff is almost intimidatingly sweet, with ribbons of smooth Nutella and the sugary, sticky backnote of marshmallow fluff – only serious sweet tooths need apply to this one. The Heath Bar crunch is more my style – floral vanilla milkshake studded with chocolatey, crunchy bits of Heath Bars. Both shakes are thick but still sippable, which I like – I hate a milkshake that is too thick to sip with a straw. 

I have to go back for the sandwiches, I know this. But for quick counter service, a friendly and clean dining room, and a location literally at Broadway’s doorstep…you can’t do better than Melt Shop for a delicious snack.

Don’t make it just an after-tot. 

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.

Skip These Dishes at These Excellent Restaurants

I tend to only write about the restaurants I love. Because, unless the errors are really egrigious or a restaurant htat has been lauded is so not worth your time and money and I think that you should actively avoid it.

However, many good restaurants – even great restaurants – have one or two clunker dishes. Dishes that, if you orer them, may color your view of an otherwise excellent restaurant.

So, when visiting these restaurants, you should avoid these dishes:

20140601_182341 Red Farm fried lobster and cheese sticks

To be honest, this whole meal was kinda a disappointing. But these cheese sticks were by FAR the most miserable item that we ordered. Yes, miserable. Fishy lobster. I can’t even remember any other taste, because the lobster was so offensively awful. It tastes fake, rotten, foul…ugh. And maybe that’s why the rest of the meal was disappointing. I need to go back and enjoy a meal without the gross taste of bad shellfish in my mouth.
20140609_192830 Fabrick red snapper ceviche

Loved this meal – hated this dish. Weird, fishy, off taste (in case you can’t guess, anything less than totally pristine seafood is my major gustatory bugaboo) and the fish skin was not crispy enough so it turned rather soggy. By all means, skip this and order the lovely flatbread or the addictive candied bacon.
20140704_184348 Minetta Tavern oxtail and foie gras terrine

High end cat food. Bizarre, slimy texture that is so dense that the meat itself almost gasps for air. The flavors are muddied and it seems like a waste of excellent ingredients. Do yourself a favor and order a different appetizer from the excellent menu.
20140705_114241 Russ and Daughters Cafe new Holland herring

This just tastes like a big ole slimeball with a visually displeasing tail and some rather tickly bones. I so badly wanted to love this. I know that all over Asmterdam this is considered a delicacy and that these particularly tender and mild herring only come in for a few weeks every year. The lines can wrap around the corner of the Russ and Daughters shop when word comes in that this stuff is in stock. And…yet…I just couldn’t get into this. Oh well, more for you.

Benihana – Making My Birthday One to Remember!

Okay, so I indulged in one of my favorite, basest pleasures on the night that I turned 30.

It involved a ton of grease, a sweaty man performing tricks, and a private room.

Get your mind out of the gutter.

We went to BENIHANA!

I haven’t been here for YEARS. I used to love these sort of teppan yaki places – jovial waitstaff, food for days, onions that turned into volcanos (though sadly the volcanos these days have no real fire – seems that one too many drunk ladies set her hair on fire.

I really do miss those volcanos.

But everything else is totally the same as my suburban youth! I mean, it’s like time has stood still, from the dark interiors to the white clothed chefs!

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It’s still dinner and a show!

20140801_212404 The chef flirts with you and your friends shamelessly and, yes, is very handy with a spatula.

20140801_204940 Onion soup

Tasteless – totally limp scallions and raw mushrooms. The soup tastes really minerally and meaty in a rather abrasive way – this was really the low point. But it was included with the meal - I didn’t even remember that restaurants still included things with meals. We got this with the price of our entree…what’s the last time THAT happened to you?
20140801_205459 Ginger salad

Iceberg lettuce, a fluffy tangle of carrot shreds, and piquant, spicy ginger dressing. It’s JUST like I remember it!

I mean, am I listening to Backstreet Boys and wearing knockoff Juicy sweatpants again or am I just imagining this time travel? 20140801_212605 Chicken fried rice

A $5 upgrade and well worth it. It’s made in front of you with fresh chicken, diced onions, and SO MUCH seasoned butter. Piping hot, marvelously greasy, and just enough soy. I dare you to finish the gargantuan pile of fried rice.  20140801_213457 Hibachi steak and mushroom

A lot of steak, cooked to a lovely medium rare. A little tough, but with wonderful salty, meaty flavor and juicy mushrooms. And so much of it – what’s the last time that I had this much steak for $25? My parent’s house in 1990? 20140801_214337 Scallops

Buttery, tender, and so delicious that the fair price will, again, surprise you. They lack the dense texture and slight briny taste of really high-end, dry scallops, but in this setting and with the other high fat, high salt food, this is ideal. It stands up to the other strong flavors. They are so mild and buttery – they are ideal for people who are skittish around seafood. The shrimp, which is included in each meal, isn’t quite as memorable, but it’s snappy and garlicky.

20140801_204927 Benihana was possibly my favorite birthday night ever. It was tasty, well priced, and so, SO fun! Private room, birthday photos from the chef, and more nostalgia than I could shake a stick at. I can’t recommend this place enough for a celebration where the atmosphere and price point matter at least as much, if not more, than the food.

Next time, I’m bringing my Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper and really making the theme work! 

David Burke’s Fabrick Brings Flavor and Flair to the Garment District

David Burke has a new baby in town…that he gave up for adoption.

Let me explain:

His new restaurant, Fabrick, is part of the David Burke group. It has his name attached to it. It draws inspiration from him. But he isn’t in the kitchen - not now, not ever.

So…how does the fare fare?

Yes, I love dad jokes. Get used to it.

20140609_185603 20140609_190207 The restaurant, located in the garment district’s hottest new neighbor, the Archer hotel, is all industrial chic with pops of color. It’s casual and airy, perfect for a quick lunch in between shopping or a first date afer work. The high tables even have actual chairs with backs, which I totally appreciate.  20140609_191559 Though the menu descriptions aren’t online yet, go for the blackberry lime rickey. It’s tart and refreshing, mixed with a good kick of vodka and a floater of prosecco. 20140609_192822 Smoked salmon pizza

Yes, it’s done all over the place and has been since 1989, but who cares? This one is excellent and even a little more unique than I was expecting. First of all, the dough is served warm, like a pizza, so the thinly cut pastrami cured salmon melts into the bread. Second, it has pickled ramps for an unexpectedly garlicky pickled element. The horseradish cream picks up the spicy coriander and pepper rub on the salmon and the final sprinkling of sweet pea shoots finishes the pizza nicely. 
20140609_201554 Candied bacon

Boy, is this good! Sure, I make it, but when I make it, it doesn’t come on a cute little clothesline. Nor does it come with house pickled vegetables to add some lightness to the dish and cur through the fat and sugar. That fat and sugar is good though…sticky, crispy, meaty, and oh so sweet. A winner in my book.
20140609_205144 Lobster bolognese

Good, but not revolutionary. The thick pasta is cooked until it’s JUST past al dente, so it’s a little mushier than I enjoy, but still tasty. A chili-infused tomato sauce that is more bright and sweet than truly spicy, topped with a generous portion of buttery lobster claw meat. It’s good…not amazing.

20140609_205228 Skirt steak with chimichurri sauce

Fabulous! This would be welcome at a steakhouse, let alone at a non-meat-specialty restaurant. The steak is charred outside and tender within. It has a beefy flavor, with a bit more chew than filet mignon but the hearty, meaty flavor really compensates for that. This is delicious with the garlicky, salty, verdant chimichurri sauce and the sautéed veggies alongside. I will absolutely get this when I return.
20140609_213539 Peach melba doughnuts

Oh Zac Young, how you make my heart melt. You are cute, you are a celerity, and you make DAMNED GREAT doughnuts! These are unbelievable. They come in a tin and then are unearthed like pineapple upside down cake. Then, a bow of creme fraiche is mixed with they syrupy, juicy peach topping so you can tempter the fluffy, bready, yeasty doughnuts with some tangy, fragrant, vanilla scented creme fraiche. This is an adult doughnut – it’s sweet and fruity but the doughnut isles isn’t too sweet – that’s why the peaches and the creme fraiche shine so brightly.

This place is a GREAT addition to the garment district. It’s not quite destination worthy, but in a few more months afer it gets is sea legs, it may bet there. The food is delicious, the prices are upscale but fair, and the service is great. I would come here any time.

Chef Burke, they done ya proud.

Disclaimer: This was a press meal. I was not required to write about my experiences, and my opinions are my own and unbiased.

Sandwiches – America’s Pride and Joy

Quick break to say…Hi!!! I may be recapping Europe, but I am back in the good ole US of A and am indulging in what we do best:

Sandwiches. 

(and a couple of tacos)

Here is what I have been enjoying lately:

image (1) Al pastor tacos from Taqueria Diana

This East Village isn’t more than a  hole in the wall and the tacos cost less than $5 per, but they are delicious. Greasy and messy in the best way possible. The pork is slowly roasted on a spit with pineapple, then diced into sweet, salty, juicy hunks that fall apart if you look at them the wrong way. Get yours with some of the vibrant, cilantro-y guacamole and you won’t regret it. It’s not as spicy as I could take it, but nothing is, and this is as good sober as it is drunk – NOT true of all tacos!
image (2) Green chile mac and sliders from Mexicue

This Mad Square Eats spot was win and lose. The green chile mac is insipid and lacking in both real chile bite and sharp cheddary tang. The sandwiches, however, were great! The pulled chicken slider with cheese and pickles is juicy and bright with a vinegary, bright BBQ sauce. The brisket burnt ends chili is PHENOMENAL! Burnt ends are those wonderfully charred bits of meat and fat that get incinerated when a large brisket is cooked. They are only improved by the addition of a chipotle-rich sauce, horseradish crema, and some pickled jalapenos. Slap it all on a soft potato bun and y’all are in business.  image (3) Pomme Palais roast beef sandwich

Because trust fund babies want to eat well, too. This isn’t insanely expensive – it’s what you might be spending at a casual sit down place in the East Village, but the shop is cute enough to eat in and the sandwiches are GOOD. The roast beef is juicy and tastes like a great steak sandwich. It sits on bread that is floury and substantial enough to house the nutty Gruyere and horseradish mayo, but still tears apart easily. This is filling but not heavy – I work for the place, but I have gone back here and paid full price to eat it more than once.

image Fish tacos at El Toro Blanco

Shi-shi but really delish. Mild, flaky cod inside a puffy, crispy beer batter. It’s served in warmed flour tortillas with radishes, buttery avocado, and just a smidge of jalapeno aioli. So many places bury their delicious fish under mountains of goopy sauces – not necessary when the ingredients are so fresh and tasty. A squirt of lime is all that’s needed to complete this plate.

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.

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.