Best Soups in Hell

Its that time of the year. Soup season in Hell’s Kitchen. Other than Mocu Mocu which is now Closed Closed nothing has changed. All these amazing soups are ready to be consumed. Check em out!

Eating With Ziggy

Akamaru Modern Ippudo Akamaru Modern Ippudo

Winter is here in beautiful Hell’s Kitchen.  The sky is blue, the birds are chirping, and the cabbies are singing “I feel pretty, oh so pretty” and other West Side Story tunes.  That’s what it feels like after you have any of those soups below on a cold NY day.  Let me put this another way… I’m not a soup person.  It rarely excites me, and I would never go out of my way for decent soup.  So for me to write about soup, it must be something special.  This post is 15 years in the making really, and none of these are your average homemade Ratatouille moment grandma soups.  For that I recommend grandma!  (although I will touch on some of those at the end)

Caldo de Bola at Nano – Perhaps I should have added to the above “Unless your Grandma is Ecuadorian”.  A tiny Eucadorian hole…

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Werkstatt – Ich Habe Gut Geschlafen

Why is this place not packed every night? Another outstanding meal at Werkstatt with friends. Add the paprika chicken to the lineup of recs, and go immediately to Ditmas Park. Come early and check out the historic Prospect Park South next door

Eating With Ziggy

Werkstatt PretzelI slept well that night.  Like a baby caressed by his mother’s bosoms while sucking on a Jack Daniels soaked pacifier.  It was that kind of night after that kind of evening at Werkstatt.  A gamble of sorts, bringing my entire family to a place I’ve never been before for a family celebration.  A high percentage gamble considering the Austrian fare, though in reality all that was required was a Schnitzel, and a fan.  Comfort food on Coney Island Ave is not so new to us (see Nargis Cafe), but comfort Austrian cuisine, boasting a former 4 NYT stars chef is like having a Michelin Star restaurant in the Staten Island mall.

Werkstatt BeerSo why did it take 9 months for me to get to Werkstatt?  Because its the lone Google Star in an area that I rarely visit.  Ditmas Park is like Family Guy.  I never seek it, but when I bump…

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More About the Tours

img_7125I’m getting a lot of questions about the tours, so want to put this out there.  I started booking tours for this month and well into January, and already have some days full.  But quite a few are still open, and with all the bookings I got so far a schedule is born, well sort of (send me your dates).

About the tours and prices:  These are not budget tours by any stretch.  Compared to what you get at some of the other tours (half a slice of pizza, half a hod dog, half a joke. I know because I took some of these tours), this one is quite gourmet.  In case you havent noticed, I’m a food snob (Ask my wife about her attempt at tacos last night –  I was being super nice).  I take you to some of my favorite places, with little regard to price.  Each place comes with a personality, and a story.  Keep in mind that a proper mid range meal in NYC is around $75 per person.  And some of the tour agencies charge you between $200 (two hours) to $600 (Full day) for a private tour.  I have to keep prices as low as I possibly can, for the time being at least.

img_3935Brooklyn Tour – I pick you up from the hotel (assuming its conveniently located) at 9:00 AM and we travel through Brooklyn like no other tour company does to my knowledge, in a comfortable car.  We hit very diverse, ethnic, and in some cases picturesque neighborhoods like Sunset Park, Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Flatbush – Ditmas Park, and historic Prospect Park South.  If we’ll have time we’ll get to Red Hook too.  This is the real Brooklyn.  We’ll walk and explore about 3 or 4 neighborhoods, and eat some wonderful stuff.  Other tours just drive around from one pizza place to another fooling tourists into believing they cant get better in Manhattan.  They certainly can.  I suspect we are back anywhere from 4 to 6 pm depending on how much fun we have and traffic.  During Christmas season we’ll end in Dyker Heights for the lights ($100 per.  2 person minimum for now.  Will work with families).  4 people max.

Hell’s Kitchen Food Tour –  This neighborhood has a very complex and violent history and I know it very well.  We’ll explore the area for about 4 hours, and eat at some of my favorite spots.  Plenty of photo opportunities, and interesting sights on the way with some surprises.  This is a very local experience, and you’ll have a nice understanding of the area.  $60 per.  We meet at 2 pm on the southeast corner of West 48th st and 8th ave (In front of FDNY Engine 54).  5 people max.

East Village Food Tour – Similar to the Hell’s Kitchen tour except that this is an entirely different neighborhood with its own unique history and stories.  It reminds me of Sicily in a sense that the neighborhood went through so much, with a constant flow of invasions of people and cultures.  Oh and only the best food neighborhood on the east coast.  About 4 hours.  $60 per person.  Meet at 2 pm, Location TBD.  5 people max.

Hells Kitchen tour via Local Expeditions – Essentially the same as the food tour without most of the food stops.  Its a 2-3 hour area tour with just a couple of food stops.  $40 per.  We meet at 10 am on the southeast corner of West 48th st and 8th ave (In front of FDNY Engine 54).  10 people max.

For any inquiries email

Soon I will have a separate site for the tours, so not to make this a commercial area.  Its still a food blog first.


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La Vara – I Rest My Case

la-vara-gurrulosPrologue:  I waited until after the Yom Kippur Tsom is over so not to offend or temp anyone.  Although I doubt any of the pictures here would make anyone break off their fast.     Apologies for the lack of decent photos as of late.  I forgot my camera (and skills) at home for this one.

Am I becoming a food brat, or turning into Mr Grumpy?  Am I on the way to joining The Joy Suck Club?  I’m only in my late 30’s (46 to be exact).  But ever since I started grading them I cant get over the one star hump.  Sure, we’ve had good meals as of late at places like Olivier Bistro in Park Slope where the poor lighting (OMG I AM joining the club) and casual neighborhoody traits dont quite make it an exciting post.  This post should have really been about Atoboy, baby Jungsik, which I had to cancel 4 times in the past two weeks.  But trying La Vara was long overdue, and frankly I expected more.

la-vara-dauradeIf La Vara feels like a place whose owners are concentrating on opening their 4th restaurant, it is.  Alex Raij practically owns Chelsea with her two tapas joints, and Tia Pol where she started before a messy divorce.  But it was La Vara getting all the accolades including the all important, coveted Michelin Star.  When I told my wife the place has a Michelin Star after the meal, I received the same look when she discovered the pissing fountain in Prague wasnt pissing.  And while I wasnt particularly hungry after the meal which included plenty of dishes, let the record show that for the first time ever, Mrs Z required a snack when we got home.  The title of this post is a result of another example that Michelin one stars in NYC is a random mishmash of names that arent very Micheliny and consistent, making the entire achievement dubious when they lose the star after one or two years.

At the end of the meal, when I looked around I noticed something I dont normally see in Michelin restaurants.  We are the youngest people in the room including the staff, a redder flag than being the youngest in my book.  Is that why they wanted to sit the 4 of us (all mid 40’s) at the awkward table for 8 right in front even though we had reservations?  Were we not cool enough for the odd communal table in the middle of the room?  But we requested to move and they happily obliged.  I’m just puzzled sometimes when we show up to a place with reservations and dont have an acceptable table reserved (I’m looking at you too Narcissa).  The service throughout was efficient, but at the same time cold, and impersonal.  Maybe, just maybe, we were simply not cool enough for La Vara.

Because if we would, perhaps the waiter would explain to us that the roasted market vegetables today were just broccoli rabe that required all of the Romesco sauce to ease the bitterness.  Perhaps the bread would not have been stale and we would have gotten it way before midway.  Its the little things that can add up.  I suppose if anyone cared to look at their website as of late, one would notice the Gurrulos, the Gnocchi like Fluffy semolina pasta is still offered with ground goat meat which they stopped offering two years ago.  Maybe at the same time they would have noticed that Gurrulos have now been autocorrected to Guerrillas.  Website false advertisement is a little pet peeve of mine.  Its either that or lack of attention.

la-vara-meatballsBut it wasnt a total disaster by any stretch.  The Daurade special arrived simply cooked, covered with a nice mild red sauce and tasted like Daurade should.  The suckling pig had a nice amount of rendered fat and cracklings, though the accompanying sauce was rather meek.  Both at $31 could have come with some vegetables to make it a little more worthwhile, especially considering you are sharing everything.  Sidenote:  I swear to the food gods that the next time a waiter tells me small dishes are meant for sharing, I will remind him that Employees Must Wash Hands.

The rest of the meal featured wrinkly basic Shishitos, the culinary Russian Roulette when you eat with someone not normally susceptible to spicy food.  One of about 10 peppers is spicy, and sure enough my friend’s first bite was ooooohhh boy.  The best thing I ate was probably the Berenjena con miel, fried eggplant sticks with honey and cheese.  Although my honey wasnt too fond of the honey.   Lamb meatballs were dense and meaty, but average when it comes to meatballs in the city.  Migas Aragonesas, a fried concoction of bread, chorizo and egg was fine.  And an almond and fig hard tart sounded much better than it was. A mostly basic biscuit.

La Vara
268 Clinton St, Brooklyn
Rating: One Z (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that

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Scala dei Turchi and Valley of the Temples

img_9979Reason #42 why you need two weeks in Sicily.  The stupendous whiter than white Turkish steps, and the magnificent Valley of the Temples are 20 minutes apart near the ancient (but not so any more) city of Agrigento.  Do it in style, with fresh seafood lunch at Salmoriglio in Porto Empedocle, right between the two attractions.  Probably one of the most memorable single days I’ve had in any trip.  Staying in the surreal Ciuci’s Manor surly helped.  The way to see the temples, especially on a hot summer day, is to park at the bottom of the valley, take a taxi to the top (3 euros), and walk down.  At Scala dei Turchi you park in the parking lot off the road, and go down to the beach.  Takes about 20 minutes to reach the steps.  Bring plenty of water to both

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Hell’s Kitchen Heroes and Villains

img_4256Its that time of the year again.  When you take the bus or the ferry, and you look left and go “what the f$%^k is that”, followed by “Oh, it must be Comic Con weekend”.  Its a great weekend to bike on 9th ave, checking out the scene flocking to Javits.  I had plans to write a post about the best places to eat near Javits in anticipation, but kinda forgot got busy with all sorts of assignments.  One of which was a request by Hell’s Kitchen’s own W42ST to write about the food heroes and villains of Hell’s Kitchen.  The result… there are now 3 places requiring me to wear my Natcho Libre attire in order to come incognito.  Page 38-39.


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This is Modicarte

img_9276“These are caper bushes. Lizards poop the caper seeds inside the stones, and a year later we have capers” exclaimed Maurizio while we toured his property in the cooler hills just outside Modica.  The previous day he showed us his pepper garden where he grows some nasty stuff including Jalapeño, Ghost, Carolina Ripper, and Habaneros.  The garden overlooks the beautiful country side, sitting in front of Maurzio’s sister pottery studio, where seasonal students stay for a week to learn the craft.  Add olive trees, tomatoes and a whole lot more to his backyard arsenal.  For a New Yorker like me, the entire scene and three day stay is surreal.

img_9274An hour prior I was smashing those lizard dropping capers and mixing it with parsley, garlic and bread crumbs.  Then we dipped thin slices of pork loin into that and rolled them around Ragusa cheese sticks, cigar style.  That was our meat course.  Under Maurizio and his adorable mom’s (who laughed at all my jokes even though she didnt understand a word) supervision we cooked all sorts of traditional area specialties.  We baked bread.  We made eggplant ravioli (who knew it was a thing) served with fresh tomato sauce. We baked Focaccia Tomasini rolls, a local traditional snack filled with ricotta, onions, and fresh sausage.  Everything obviously delicious when YOU make it, especially those amazing Tomasini rolls pictured here twice.  Most of the stuff I havent even heard of before that day.  There’s not a whole lot in common between NYC Sicilian and Sicilian Sicilian turns out.

By the end of the night I was counting my blessings that we don’t need to drive anywhere, and I can just roll myself with some help from the lizards to bad.  When Maurizio ran out of wine and homemade alcohol, he started emptying his dad’s which was a few houses down.  Maurizio will discuss anything and everything with you with great interest. He used to cook at Ciccio Sultano’s famed Doumo (Arguably Sicily’s best), but preferred to waiter at another Sicily legend, Cafe Sicilia.  He loved interacting with people and it certainly shows. His love for food and his unconditional love for Crocs is very evident.  When we exchanged gifts, we gave him a bottle of wine, and he gave us a gift that made me teary eyed all the way to Aragona, 5 jalapeno peppers.

The setting overlooking Modica and its Duomo made leaving that terrace very difficult each morning.  Each breakfast featured a new item that Maurizio or mama cooked. Usually some nutty pastry, bread or cookie of sorts.  That same Duomo was watching us the entire time while we cooked in the sprawling open kitchen.  Only the next day while finally sober, going to the mesmerizing Modica for the first time, I realize that that is a different church, not the famous cathedral.  Either way, the whole stay at Modicarte with the ex-chef and mama felt very genuine, filled with moments we will never forget.  Next time I bring crocs.

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Fish Cheeks – Getting Cheeky With Thai Seafood

fish-cheeks-dishesBetter late than never, but I’ve decided to start starring the places due to popular demand.

Its fitting that on the day of removing the shuttered Le Philosophe from the Z-List, I visit the newest tenant, Fish Cheeks.  Gone are the philosophers hanging on the wall, the foie gras hanging from the Tournedo Rossinis, and in is a colorful, fishy Thai eatery with some early identity issues.  On paper, Fish Cheeks looks and sounds like one of the most exciting new openings of the year, perhaps except for the name.  When two brothers reunite from two corners of the world, to form their first restaurant, one could expect a better name.  “Cheeks” and “Fish” should never be part of any name, unless its a brothel or something.

I can give you a very solid argument why going to places as soon as they open is the best time.  Initial buzz, easy to get a table, chefs and staff are guaranteed to work their tuches off in order to please you in today’s “everyone’s a critic world”.  But I can also give you a very solid argument to wait a year until the proprietors mature, smooth things out while figuring out what works and what doesnt.  Very often, I see menus that are very different than where they were a year ago (Nishi).  And while publishers like NYT and NY Mag do a good job taking their time before reviewing a place, 2-3 years down the road, the reviews start to look stale and premature.

fish-cheeksEverybody has to start somewhere.  Fish Cheeks certainly delivers enough positive elements to warrant a visit for anyone who loves Thai food and especially Thai Seafood.  But at the same time, it can use some more maturing.  It’s one thing to cook at world renowned places as the brothers did (Bangkok’s esteemed Nahm for one), but opening in NYC is another animal.  In the last 5 years we’ve seen a Thai revolution of sorts and the competition is getting fiercer by the minute.  When was the last time you saw Pad Thai on Instagram.  Actually, the only philosophy you’ll see on the Philosopher wall today, is the proclamation of a No Pad Thai Zone.  Cute, but doubt many expect Pad Thai in a place that takes Grub Street hot list by storm, and in that location.

Another assumption that the brothers can make is that New Yorkers dont need reminders that we can share.  They bill themselves as a place to experience “Family Style”, including the right side of the menu stating “Family Style Dishes”.  No, the dishes are not particularly bigger than other Thai places, and its a just a matter of time until a Yelper goes “How do I share the 2 Shrimp in the Goong Aob Woon Senn with 4 of my closest friends”.  In Thai joints in general, “family style” whatever that means today is already assumed by many if not most.  What is not assumed is getting the main courses 3 minutes after getting the appetizers.  If the idea of Family Style here is that all the dishes arrive at the same time including the appetizers, than perhaps make the prices reflect a more Fast Food joint, than a place you linger in.  We were done within an hour.

fish-cheeks-porkBut I’m willing to play along and forget if the food takes me to places my taste buds havent gone before (I’v read it in another blog.  Dating for Pizza Lovers).  The crispy Fried Chicken served with sweet Chili sauce was a respectable starter, but an average quality compared to Somtum Der and many more these days.  More like it was the Namtok Pork, bathed in delicious Thai herbs and spices, though not entirely unfamiliar flavors.  Crab Fried Rice, not only featured plenty of crab but the rice had that nice crunch that I prefer (take note Uncle Boons)

The fried whole Branzino is deboned, sort of butterflied, and perhaps the most interesting dish here.  We had to order another one, not because it was particularly impressive but because half of our party could not fully enjoy the spicier stuff.  The coconut crab curry while packed with deep flavors, was a little too much for the women (we were with another couple by the way).  Almost equally as fiery, the Seafood Pad Cha was indeed ChikaLicious! (you see what I did there?), though marginally better than an occasional Pure Thai Cookhouse special.  And since Thai joints are not exactly known for their dessert, you can walk to ChikaLicious or the closer phenom Spot Dessert Club.  The lone coconut dessert at Fish Cheeks will make my wife and her sister do their best De Niro impression while spitting profusely.  Its very embarrassing.  For them.  While we record it with our iPhones.

Many like myself will rejoice in the heat levels at Fish Cheeks no doubt.  But the problem is that when you make your most desirable sounding dishes very spicy, you create a “Family Style” ordering problem for those coming with, well, families, or friends with more sensitive palates.  Raise your hand if all your friends can handle a lot of heat.  You are in the 1% I’m guessing.  For the rest of us, it will be “Hey, do you want to go back to Fish Cheeks, remember, that place we went with your sister about a year ago”, “Oh that spicy place where I almost got hospitalized?  How about something more Obamacare friendly”.  But I do wish them well, and a longer tenure than the previous tenant.

Fish Cheeks
55 Bond St (Bowery/Lafayette)
Rating: One Z (out of 4)

Stars range from Good to Exceptional.  Simple as that

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Z-List Changes Explained

NoMad Tagliatelle

The NoMad

Hey, even Michelin will not give an explanation when they take away your star.  I’m better than that.  So lets stop the hate mail, and threats, and allow me to explain the absentees

The NoMad – Last meal including the shaky service was simply not up to par.  The place feels a lot more touristy these days perhaps due to the fame and/or location becoming a major hotel zone.  When you eat there, there’s no denying that you are eating inside a hotel no matter what room you choose.  And higher prices making it more challenging to stay under the $100 mark unless you are a vegetarian.  I do like what they do at the NoMad Bar however and I prefer to go there

Ma Peche  – A slow, steady decline for me since chef Paul got shipped to Sydney.  It gotten too hit or miss while my favorite dishes were getting erased one at a time.  The last straw was the inexcusable disappearance of the Cajun wings.  I miss that Carribean element chef Paul introduced.  Much prefer Nishi, but Ma Peche in that area is still a decent choice

Le Philosophe – Closed.  Coincidentally ate the new tenant Fish Cheeks last night.  Review to come

Babbo – My reasoning for excluding this one is not as solid as the other ones.  Babbo is like the grandaddy, the Peter Luger of NYC Italian scene, and in some ways it has something to do with it.  I just find places like Pasquale Jones, Lilia and even something like Osteria Morini a little bit more interesting today.  The menu is way too big, the place is very touristy, but for the most part they do everything well

Golden Unicorn – I still think this is a good option for weekend dim sum but there are other places I rather go for Chinese.  Like Biang!

Pam Real Thai –  Still love Pam, nothing changed.  In fact nothing seemed to change in the past 15 years.  They have the same specials on the board for as long as I remember, and on their menu they simply cross out stuff they dont have anymore with a pen.  But with the addition of Uncle Boons I felt like I needed to remove one of the many Thai and this was a no brainer.  In Hell’s Kitchen I do prefer Pure Thai Cookhouse these days, and as much as I love Pam, I never felt entirely comfortable recommending the space

The Z-List

Babbo Black Spaghetti



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