Charming Charleston: Drinks and Dessert

I can finally say that I see the light. I see why people are obsessed with the South and don’t want to leave it once they visit there. 

I have seen the light in the form of Charleston, South Carolina. Beautiful shop-lined streets, horse and carriage rides just because it’s Saturday, and food.

WOW. FOOD. 

I had two outrageously delicious restaurant meals, but if you wanted to get just drinks and desserts, you could do that in Charleston and be mighty pleased. 20141115_134448 Sugar Bakeshop

This diminutive bakery is what Magnolia must have been before “Sex and the City” turned it into the slut of the West Village. It’s no larger than your first studio walk up and filled to the brim with cookies and cupcakes. The servers are helpful, the prices are more than fair, and the cupcakes are DIVINE. Don’t miss the cream cheese icing if you can help it – it’s the smoothest, creamiest icing I have ever enjoyed, with just the slightest tang. 20141115_134759 Lemon cupcake

For the true lemon baked goods connoisseur. The cake is fluffy and moist, with a very tender, loose crumb. It doesn’t crumble, it more melts in your mouth. The center is filled with a tart, pleasantly lip-puckering lemon curd, and the icing is bright, rich, and very sweet. It’s refreshing and decadent at the same time. A must get, especially if the weather is nice enough so that you can enjoy the bakery’s adorable courtyard while you indulge. 
20141115_195101The Gin Joint

Some of the best cocktails for the price that I have enjoyed anywhere. For $10…that’s right, $10…I treated myself to a bespoke cocktail using only the words “vegetal” and “strong.” This beaut came with gin, aperol, and cucumber. It’s definitely strong, but also well balanced – sweet, tart, and a little savory. It’s the ideal way to start the evening – or end it! The restaurant is tiny (a theme in Charleston eateries), but friendly and upscale-casual. I would definitely go back for another drink or one of the delicious looking pork buns!

Next up: Bloody Marys and fried chicken

The Best of British Food at Jones Woods Foundry

Anyone who says that British food isn’t tasty has either seen Oliver! one too many times or is just working off of jokes made in the 1980s.

Because British food is just delicious – clotted cream, savory pies, and fresh, briny seafood.

Jones Woods Foundry brings the best of British food to the Upper East Side in the form of a cool, beer-focused gastropub.

jones

The restaurant has a long, narrow bar area that expands into a larger (but still pretty cozy!) dining area. By 7 pm on a Tuesday night, the area was hopping and we had to wait for a seat at the bar. Though there is a comprehensive bar menu, if you want a longer, more comfortable meal, you should definitely make a reservation. The dining room reaches pretty high decibels, so keep this in mind more for a dinner with friends than one with your grandparents.

[ox 360Cod mash toast

One of my dining companions laughed as he took a taste and said “it’s whitefish on toast!” This is a lot like my favorite whitefish salad – creamy, slightly salty, mixed with fluffy mashed potatoes. However, I would compare it more to baccala. It has a faintly, smoky fishiness that is pleasant if you like lox or other smoked fish. It’s spread on crunchy bread and is a great starter.

jones liver

Chicken liver and foie gras mousse

Now THIS is chopped livah. Incredibly smooth and rich with foie but airy, too. It balances the mineral-heavy chicken liver with the fatty, almost sweet taste of the foie. It actually does melt in the mouth, leaving behind only the memory of the  umami-heavy spread. Sprinkled with coarse grains of  salt, it disappears all too fast. Don’t share this…it’s just too delicious.
jones grouperFlorida grouper with whipped cauliflower, spinach, and sweet onions

Another winning dish. Brits love combining salty and savory, and often pair a sweet chutney with salty cheese or hearty meats. This play on sweet and salty works so well with fish that I may have to make it on my own at home. The onions are cooked slowly with red wine so they become very sweet in the way that only onions can. Layered upon the mild white fish, the tastes blend and become savory-sweet-salty-meaty. Really, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The cauliflower is creamy and light and the garlicky spinach is the perfect accompaniment. This dish is fantastic and I would order it again in a heartbeat.

jones menuJones Woods Foundry once and for all puts to sleep the notion that British food isn’t delicious. Because it just is! The food here is different than what you see on American gastropub menus and is made carefully with thought to texture, aroma, and flavor. The beef and cocktail menu is varied, the service is excellent, and the atmosphere is always a party. The one downside is the expense – the food is a little pricey for the portion size. However, for a real taste of British food (the lamb and rosemary pie is also a winner!), you can’t do better than Jones Woods Foundry. 

Jones Wood Foundry on Urbanspoon

Get Your Fix at Ardesia

I am a wine bar addict always in search of my next fix.

I will go anywhere to find it – that great bottle of vinho verde, that perfectly roasted macadamia nut and salted caramel brittle.

And, like all those who are dedicated to finding the best, I know to look on the far edges of town.

After all, that’s how I ended up at Ardesia.

pix 015This spacious wine bar is hardly a hidden gem, but it’s so far west that I have never frequented it. This is far west – as in, if you don’t watch it you might go out the side door and end up on the west side highway west. It took awhile to schlep there but once I arrived, I was glad I came.

pix 016The space is much larger than a standard wine bar, with a comfortable lounge, a long bar, and lots of outdoor seating on the patio.

pix 018It was empty when I arrived, but by 6:30pm, people were swarming the joint. This is a really great place for drinks with a few friends.

pix 019Lillet spritz

If you think white wine spritzers are all about moms at country clubs named Buffy, you are sorely mistaken. This spritzer, made with lillet, prosecco, grapefruit bitters, and lemon, is as complex and tasty as any cocktail I have had. The prosecco is crisp and a little sweet, which works perfectly with the herbal, aromatic lillet. The grapefruit provides a touch of bitterness, and the lemon adds a final, bright acidity. If you like negronis, this light cocktail is a must try.

pix 022Fava bean crostini

Favas, where have you been all my life?! This crostini is so packed full of flavor that it belies its tiny size. Grassy and garlicky, with a slight sweetness and some salty pecorino cheese. It’s not totally smooth, which really makes it more satisfying and hearty. The bread is from Amy’s, which elevates the dish even further. Crispy and creamy at the same time – this is the perfect small bite to accompany wine.

pix 023Cheese plate

I know cheese. Maybe you do, too.

Forget everything you want to order and let the server make you a plate.

We had stinky cheeses, creamy cheeses, silky cheese and hard cheeses. Cheeses that were grassy and soft, nutty and firm, smooth and rich. Cheese that came with pickled ramps, tiny potato chips, and homemade(incredible) graham crackers. Accompanied, of course, by Amy’s bread.

I have no idea what cheeses I ate because I was 2 white wine spritzers in at this point.

Okay, so I sound  little bit like Buffy at the country club at this point.

Ardesia is worth the trek. They have a great weekend and weekday happy hour, a lovely menu (next time I am definitely getting the duck banh mi), and the pricing is fair for the quality of food and excellent service.

Actually, I’m kinda jonesing now.

I think I need another lillet hit.

Ardesia on Urbanspoon

Aria Raises the (Wine) Bar

Wine bars are plentiful in NYC, but great wine bars are hard to find. So often, there is a large selection of wine, but it is exorbitantly priced or only the usual suspects. Perhaps the atmosphere is lovely but the service is snooty or the food is subpar. Worst of all, sometimes everything is great but there is just no place to sit.
Aria avoids all of these pitfalls and goes above and beyond in every respect. As a bullet point list:

- The atmosphere is ethereal and dreamy, but not too cutesy. A long farmhouse table in the center of the restaurant hosts many diners and the bar seats patrons on both sides, doubling the number of people who can sit. If you arrive with only half of your party, you will be promptly seated and offered drink service, and–as a major plus—this place takes reservations. The few cozy tables to the sides are ideal for a first date.

-The wine list is varied, well priced, and focused, but not solely, on Italian varietals. There is often an herbal, light albarino from Spain that won’t break the bank, and the house prosecco is sweet and bubbly, an ideal aperitif. Though the wine is served in tumblers, the effect is charming, not lazy.
-The food, an area where so many wine bars fail, is where Aria excels.

The bread that comes to the table is crusty and charred, with a tangy interior.

The pappardelle with veal Bolognese is toothsome and hearty, with a mild veal ragu that is lush and fragrant.

The mussels are sweet and tender, served in a garlicky white wine broth.

This wine bar goes above and beyond the call of duty – it is a wine bar, a full bar, a restaurant, and an ideal meeting place. The price is right, the service is attentive but not pushy, and the atmosphere is elegant without being uptight. It really raises the (wine) bar in NYC. 

Aria Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Bites and Sips Around the City

There is just one burning question every New Yorker needs to know (now that we know that Dan was Gossip Girl):

What are the tastiest snacks, bites, and drinks around town, and where can you get them?

Read on, hungry city dweller:

Hummus Plate at Le Pain Quotidien

Ah yes, this upscale coffee shop/bakery does more than just great breakfasts. Order the hummus plate and you will be surprised at how tasty it is. The hummus is thick and lemony, slick with fruity olive oil. The kalamata olives atop are juicy and soft, the perfect salty counterpart to the hummus.Also on the plate is garlicky, almost velvety babaganoush and quinoa tabouleh that is earthy, herby, and chock full of juicy tomatoes and diced onions. The sour wheat, crusty white, and sweet raisin breads served alongside complete the dish. This is enough for a very satisfying lunch or a shared snack plate among 3 friends. It’s amazing how well this Belgian place does a middle eastern plate.

Foccacia de Recco at Rosemary’s

This locavore west village restaurant is a little too pricey for what you get, but there is one thing worth trying here. The foccacia filled with milky, creamy stracchino cheese is among the best breads in the city. Your order arrives piping hot, slick with slightly spicy olive oil and topped with grains of coarse sea salt. When you tear a chunk off the bread, the first scent that hits you is the rosemary, deep and woodsy. Then, the tantalizing smells of yeast and spicy olive oil hits your nostrils. The taste is as good as the aroma. The bread is pliant and soft, with a thin crust, punctuated by sharp rosemary needles. The inside is filled with that mild, creamy cheese, so soft that it makes mozzarella look hard and pungent. This is like grilled cheese on steroids, and it’s worth a visit to the restaurant to try this.

Any cocktail at The Dutch

I have been here several times, and each time have ordered a different cocktail. Every single one has been exemplary – well balanced, interesting but but not different just to be weird, nuanced and also pronounced in all the right places. The bartenders are knowledgeable but not snobby, and have no problem recommending something that you will like. The bar is small but comfortable and the vibe is extremely laid back. Of course, also order something to eat, but this is a great place to get a little tipsy before dinner.

Beef Carpaccio with Truffle Oil at Slightly Oliver

I know I have talked about this place before, but it deserves more mention because I just love it. The cocktails, the  faux-British vibe, and the tasty small plates make this a real gem on the Upper West Side. This carpaccio, made with tender slices of beef and dressed with a peppery arugula salad with a tiny fried quail egg and toast, is a perfect appetizer or even light meal. The addition of truffle oil just elevates it. Mushrooms and beef are always a win, especially when the beef is filet mignon and the mushrooms are truffles.

#winning

Wine and Roses – A Serviceable UWS Wine Bar

The West Village is full of quaint, interesting wine bars that offer a great selection of wine by the glass, tasty small plates, and excellent service. The Upper West Side? Not so much. So, when a friend suggested we check out Wine andRoses a few months ago, I was all about it. After all, a gal needs her wine.

Said like someone who self medicates.

The small restaurant is well laid out, with plenty of windows, a few high tables, and a large bar that comfortably seats many. We went for brunch, so it wasn’t insanely busy, but I could see how a place like this could get hopping on a weeknight after work.

We started with mimosas which were were, while unexceptional, tasty. They used good sparkling wine, neither too sweet nor too dry, that mixed well with the the tart, thick orange juice. Too many places screw up mimosas, so this was a pleasure.

Watermelon and tomato stack with feta and balsamic glaze*

Like the mimosa, nothing unexpected, but a very tasty dish. The watermelon is juicy and sweet, making the tomatoes more acidic, earthy flavors come ot the forefront. The feta is creamy and salty without being bitter, and the thick balsamic glaze adds tang. This just shows that when food is done well, it need not be complicated. 

Flatbread with  wild mushrooms, mascarpone and goat cheeses, and white truffle oil

An excellent flatbread. A crispy, crackerlike crust topped with meaty sauteed mushrooms and a combination of slightly funky goat cheese and buttery mascarpone cheese. It is topped with salty, nutty shards of fresh Parmesan cheese and a drizzling of truffle oil, heady and rich. This is light and satisfying at the same time.

The only issue I have with this place is the pricing – its a bit high for what you get, which is good but not destination worthy. However, it’s one of the only establishments of its kind in the hood. The service is, if not overly friendly, competent, and the wine by the glass selction looks lovely. While I wouldn’t run here again, I would stop by if I was nearby and desperately craving a glass of prosecco.

Once again, said like someone who self medicates. 

 *Yes, this eatery was visited so long ago that tomatoes were still in season. Yeesh. 

Cotton Candy and Dirty Water Dogs

It’s time for a little roundup of some of the best bites I have had in recent weeks. Without further ado:

Fried Olives at Acqua

This UWS eatery has some delicious food on the menu. The ravioli I sampled was tender and filled to bursting with a subtle veal stuffing, well dressed in a creamy but not overpowering sauce. There is also a good wine list, including a very nice prosecco by the glass. however, that isn’t what I am talking about. What I am talking about is what you get with that glass of prosecco, when you order it at the postage stamp sized bar. It’s about tiny green olives, briny and fragrant, served warm in a crispy breadcrumb coating. They are juicy and meaty, not overly bitter, and a perfect start to the meal. Get here early and sit at the bar for what might be one of the most underrated bar snacks in the city – the bowl is complimentary and refilled as often as you like. I emptied a bowl myself and was never made to feel bad for it. Just bring cash, since this is one of the last restaurants (perhaps on the planet) that refuses to take credit cards.\

Champange and Amaro cocktail at Bathtub Gin

I love this tiny speakeasy more and more every time I go. Just go to Stone Street Coffee Company, wait for the red light to go on at 6 pm, and enter into a secret den of tin ceilings, luxurious bathrooms, and excellent cocktails. This one (I could kick myself for not writing down the name), is one of my new favorites. Amaro is a walnut liquor that is extremely nutty and edges on the savory side of sweet. It works well with the light, floral champagne, grounding it and giving it body. It is a lighter version of scotch – deep, complex, alcoholic enough to make you sit up and take notice. Highly recommended.

Cotton candy at Landmarc

A totally whimsical ending to an otherwise standard meal. A pink cloud of airy, fluffy spun sugar arrives just above room temperature at the table. As you pull off tufts of the stuff and let them melt in your mouth, just try not to giggle. It is sweet and sugary – that’s it. No black pepper, no salmon foam, nothing weird or complex. It is just nostalgic, light, and very sweet – the perfect ending to any meal.

Hot dog  with mustard, onions, and kraut at Papaya King

Because it’s not all about champagne cocktails. Sometimes, you want a cheapo hot dog made out of mystery meat and a cottony bun. It is salty, savory, and slightly funky with sauerkraut. It is so utterly satisfying on a cold day, especially with a tall paper cup filled with bitter, chemical filled Diet Coke.  I ate this sober and am proud that I did. After 6 years here, I think I might finally be a New Yorker.

Landmarc on Urbanspoon

Murray’s Cheese Bar – Small in Size, Big in Flavor

It’s not that a world without cheese would cease to exist for me. Rather, it’s that I simply wouldn’t believe in it. It would be the boogey-man, or some other scary figment of a child’s imagination.

I believe in cheese the way that some people believe in showering every day.

Murray’s Cheese Bar must feel the same way as I do. Run by the cheese-niuses (def: a cheese genius) this new restaurant right down the street from the Bleecker Street location of the shop had high acclaim from one of my favorite lactose loving gals. Of course, I promised to check it out ASAP.

The restaurant is very narrow and cozy. It manages to feel spacious thanks to a long, wide bar at which you can sit comfortably and order cheese and wine, though there are also a few tables. Come here with a close friend or 2 but not more than that you really want to be able to chat while you chow.

Ellsworth Creamery Buffalo Cheese Curds with celery and blue cheese dip

Squeaky, bouncy cheese curds, fried so that they are warm on the inside and crispy on the outside. Doused in a garlicky, spicy buffalo sauce, this is at least as good as my favorite wings- maybe even better, considering the high-end blue cheese dressing that accompanies it. Creamy and peppery with huge hunks of soft, assertive blue cheese. This is one of the best renditions of buffalo anything in the city.

Trio of dips with crackers:

Pimento Cheese, A Taste Of The South prairie breeze cheddar, pimento, paprika. Creamy, with hunks of medium sharp cheddar. A bit too mild for my taste, sweet with the pimentos and lacking any bite from cayenne or freshness from scallions. My least favorite of the dips.
Obatdza, A Taste Of Bavaria romadur, vermont butter and cheese creamery butter, horseradish, caraway. Easily the most unusual dish of the night. Romadur makes blue cheese look like low fat american cheese - subtly put, this stuff is stanky. Bottom of the sock drawer, wake up with your eyes tearing, stanky. I LOVED it. The soft dip had notes of wood, grass, and ocean air-  it was really that unique, all thanks to the fabulous ramudur cheese. The caraway brought out the woodsy notes, but butter helped tone down the strong flavors, and the horseradish cut right through the stank. If you love kimchi, steak tartare, or other strong foods…this may be for you!
Kopanisti, A Taste Of Greece feta, pepperoncini, dill – standard but tasty. Good, creamy Greek feta, none too bitter, mixed with tangy pepperoncini and grassy dill. Fresh, flavorful, and a crowd pleaser.

Haloumi with mint, lemon, and olive oil

Simple? Sure, but so well executed. The halloumi is crispy and salty, splitting to reveal melty insides, stretching like the  your favorite grilled cheese sandwich. The lemon caramelizes, turning sweet and deep in the oven, tempering the bright mint. A finish of sweet, rich olive oil brings the dish together in a way that proves that Murray’s really knows what it is doing.

Look, the food and atmosphere here makes it a destination eatery.  In fact, throw away the menu and just have the cheese-passionate staff choose your meal for you! If you like cheese, fair prices, and great service, you really must come here.

And if you don’t like any of these things, go find a technology blog, cause this one really isn’t with you.

Betel – Fantastic Happy Hour in the West Village

If you find yourself out of work early (say, by 5:30) and anywhere near the West Village, you have to head to this spot. It is one of the best places in the city to grab some really flavorful food and inventive drinks for great happy hour prices. Though it gets crowded later on, early for happy hour is pretty mellow,so you can get the bartenders’ full attention (and the gentleman who served me was very cute and Australian ladies…or maybe he was just Australian and the accent made him cute…who knows, right?)

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Betel is a year old Asian restaurant, focused on the flavors of Thailand and Malaysia. It is dark, small, and oozes “hip.” You know the type: long communal tables, exposed brick, and sexy music. This is a fantastic first date place – hey, if your date doesn’t like these libations and foods, you don’t want to stick with him/her for long.

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Lychee margarita with lime juice, silver tequila, lychee puree, and raw sugar rim

This is for those of you who like a drink to taste like there islittle alcohol in your juice, but act like there is a little juice in with your alcohol. The tequila is smooth and citrusy, with a little bit of bite that works well with the sweet, aromatic lychee puree and the fresh lime juice. This is more like a sweet and sour juice with just the barest kick of tequila, but after 2 just try to stand up without swaying. It’s in there…

Smoked Duck Sausage with chiles and ginger (right)

Soft duck sausage, smoky and gamey, served on a betel leaf that is slightly waxy but without much flavor. The sausage is intensely meaty, tempered by the sharp pickled ginger and a chile so spicy that you really have to eat it at your own risk. It is positively fiery, picking up the deep woodsy notes of the duck. it adds a high, bright note to a very musky bite, but – once again – with the ginger, this is a lot of heat and not much relief. Consider yourself warned.

Chicken Betel Leaf with roasted shallot and eggplant relish, lemongrass and mint (left)
Now, here is something that everyone can get into.  Diced chicken laced with tangy shallot and eggplant relish, pickled and salty enough to counteract the herbal lemongrass and zip of mint. The chicken is moist and juicy, full of sour and salty flavors. that is toned down by the cool lettuce cup. These small bites are so addictive you might need 2 orders.

Sweet and sour pork ribs

Absolutely the belle of the ball. Saucy, juicy, and satisfying on every carnivorous level. Tender bbq pork, charred at the edges, crunchy and smoky. Underneath the thick lacquer of sweet and tangy sauce, the meat is tender and juicy, striking the perfect balance between melting in the mouth too quickly and having too much chew. Sharp scallions atop the deep, hearty ribs, are the final touch.

 The food here is delicious any time of night, but when you get it for almost half off, there is no excuse to miss it. The bartenders are really great – my glass of water is always full, they are never pushy with the drinks, and food comes out fast and hot. Now that you know about Betel, the only thing keeping you from checking out happy hour is work.

That stuff always gets in the way.

C. Comme – Champage Tasting Room in Epernay

The best part about visiting Champagne is, obviously, the champagne. There is so much more to the drink than the Moet and Cristal that we see in the USA. Everywhere you go in the region, there are signs outside personal homes advertising vineyards that make champagne. These champagnes are as LEAST as delicious as the famous stuff, and I often prefer them…the only difference is that you can’t try it if you visit Champagne.  These champagnes are so inexpensive that it does not make financial sense for the winemakers to export the stuff, so the only way to buy it is to visit the vineyard. They don’t even export to Paris. Of course, if you are only in Champagne for a day, it’s really pretty tough to get to multiple vineyards. That’s why C. Comme is so genius.

This charming shop and tasting room offers the best of the small wineries in the area. It is a champagne Disneyland.


There is a vast underground cave with champagnes ranging from extremely cheap ones ($12) to ones in the thousand dollar range. They come in tiny demi bottles all the way up to massive magnums, and from blanc de blancs all the way through to roses. Row after row of champagne that you have never seen before and may never see again.

There is a small gourmet emporium, selling items like foie gras, infused honeys, and locally made preserves.

They also sell these rose biscuits by Fossier, which are generally only found in the Champagne region. These pink biscuits, which resemble airy ladyfingers. Made to be eaten with champagne, they are dipped in the glass, then turn to sweet fizz in your mouth. They aren’t necessarily addictive or delicious on their own, but when you eat them in Champagne, with champagne, they really do add to the experience.

Then, of course,there is the small, pretty tasting room. Decorated with comfortable couches and elegant tables, this is where you are presented with a binder full of champagne choices. Though you could order a bottle, that isn’t way to go. Do not even order by the glass. Order the tasting flight, where you get 6 good size glasses of champagne for about $50. This includes champagne made from different grapes, with different sugar contents (dosage), and from different vineyards. This is champagne from Champagne, for less than $10 a glass. It is an incredible deal. Maybe you won’t like each one, but how will you know what you do like until you know the difference between them all? The servers speak excellent English and are extremely helpful – and, of course, whatever you love you are free to buy downstairs, for considerably less than you would pay for it at home (if you could even find it at home!)

A word to the wise – don’t upgrade to  the larger tasting glasses unless you can really taste your liquor – this place opens at 11 am, and that alcohol creeps up on you.

If you feel yourself getting a little tipsy – which you will – order a small plate off the food menu. The menu is a little pricey but not insane, and by that point, you are in Champagne, so you know you are going to be spending some serious money anyway. The foie gras pate is just delicious. Smooth, rich, incredibly delicate tasting. Served with house pickled vegetables and fresh, sweet tomatoes, it is an elegant and totally indulgent accompaniment to this ultimately indulgent day.

C. Comme is a gem. It is a place to taste all that the region has to offer, eat some gourmet nibbles, and buy champagnes that you could never even find outside of this region.

Just don’t blame me if it’s hard to go back to drinking Bud Light after this.