Posts Tagged With: restaurants

Ulivo – Meet the Widow Maker

ulivo-widow-makerAlthough I made reservations at Ulivo a few weeks ago, it wasnt until the day before when I finally accepted the difficult fact that may change Xmas for us forever.  On this Xmas eve the Ziggy family will not eat Chinese food.  Shocking, I know.  It was mainly due to the following factors:  I’ve been blessing myself with way too much Chinese food as of late (I’ve been to the new Chaan Teng in Hell’s Kitchen three times in the past 2 weeks).  We havent had a big family Italian meal pretty much since Sicily (although I’ve been desperately trying to return to Lilia with no avail).

But the main reason for my visit is to finally have a proper meal at Mercato’s vivacious sister Ulivo.  I vowed to bring the family since I first tried it in the summer.  Besides, half a year after opening is the best time to go, after the establishment figures out what works and what doesnt.  This is also why I rather take 10 recent Yelp reviews as opposed to one NYT review two year ago, right after the place opened.

But Ulivo’s main focus from day uno, its bread and butter or EVOO if you will, is the stuff that comes out from the machine pictured above.  I got an Espresso Maker as a holiday gift which I appreciate dont get me wrong.  But I do have a special room in the house that I keep vacant for that one special something.  Its nicely decorated with a blue and sailor motif.  And when I show the house I often get a “Oh, is it for a future boy in your life”, “Kind of.  Its for my Pasta machine”.  I dubbed this one the Widow Maker because I know that would be the end of me (in a very good way) once I get my hands on one of these.  Its the creme de la creme of pasta machines.  So not surprisingly Ulivo’s 12 fresh and 2 dry pastas mask much of the menu.  Though the two dry ones are not exactly the forgotten Jonas brothers.

I know those guys.  I know them from my many visits to Mercato.  They dont look to sensationalize or wow with ingredient combinations that make the “Hot Lists” or Instagram.  Although they were close with the now more subdued pasta with crab.  They just want to continue making regional, mostly southern, dishes with the best ingredients possibly.  They dont just want to attract locals and visitors, but also Italian expats seeking homeland flavors.  They are not shy to incorporate some ingredients like Bottarga (fish roe) and anchovies that some may find too strong.  And as is the case in the south and the islands (Sicily, Sardinia), fresh tomato sauce is a key ingredient.  Here’s what we ate…

*** Dark, hurried iPhone photos Alert***

Potato and Prosciutto Croquettes, Arancini.  Special app that evening.  This was an excellent starter, in particular the croquettes.  What a difference some Prosciutto make.  A nice little ode to Sicilian street snacks

ulivo-salumiSalumi and Formaggi.  Solid all around.  Properly sliced Bolognese Mortadella. Culatello from Zibello which is not commonly found in NYC.  Sopressata without that Sopressata funk that I dislike sometimes.  Silky smooth Burrata, along with other aged cheeses that fill your mouth with nutty goodness.

Polpo – This is where things begin to get interesting.  What looked like an entire smallish Portuguese Octopus, lightly fried, bathed in an addictive spicy puree of Fava ‘nduja.

Busiate – One of the only places in NYC where you can find real Busiate imported from Sicily.  They keep it simple here just like in just about every Trattoria in Trapani.  Pesto made with almonds, fresh tomato, basil, and garlic.  Similar in a way to the Trenette in Mercato.  As much as I wish to see a more elaborate Busiate (eggplant, swordfish, pistachios, etc), I do get that its very hard to get the proper ingredient here, especially fresh swordfish.

Schiaffoni – This is the pasta with crab that made my best pasta list, although its a little more subdued now as its missing much of the crab. I had a feeling that may happen as eating it was a messy affair, but they may have other reasons.  You still have a few claws and the terrific crab flavor of the Paccheri-like pasta, but wife wasnt a fan.

Paccheri – A special that night with lamb ragu and tomatoes.  No complaints here.

Gnocchi – This is Ricotta Gnocchi.  Small, potent cubes topped with a veal Ragu. Full of flavor, just like the meaty Gnocchi in Mercato

Dessert – After a meal this rich, a nice proper Tiramisu fits the bill, and this version is as solid and light as it gets.  Though for something richer you may opt for the pictured Chocolaty Ricotta Tortino.

This is another solid option in the increasingly posh hotel district NoMad.  The main difference with this one is the lack of coverage which makes it easier to reserve even on a Saturday night.  This why you need Uncle Ziggy!

Ulivo
4 W 28th St (5/6) NoMad/Flatiron
Rating: Two Z’s (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Salumi, Polpo, Busiate, Schiaffoni, Gnocchi, Tiramisu

ulivo-gnocchiulivo-busiateulivo-ricotta-tortino

Categories: Gramercy, Flatiron, New York City | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

American Cut Burger Bar – NYC’s Best Kept Lunch Secret?

american-cut-mfcBloggers who lunch.  Doesnt quite have the same ring to it, but holds much truth.  Bloggers love to eat, and unlike many others respect and value each lunch like their life dependent on it.  There’s nothing more disappointing than a lunch fail, or checking the hours of a hot tip only to discover they open at 6 pm.  Well, I guess I can think of a few things more disappointing (current Walking Dead season feels like the writers got replaced with real zombies) but you understand what I mean.  Talking to some restaurant owners lately, like Bruno Pizza, you get a sense that they would really love to open for lunch but just dont have the talent to do so.  Not to mention the slower lunch demand in residential neighborhoods like East Village and Hell’s Kitchen.

Even Yelp is confused on how to handle the current hours of Z-List noob American Cut, as its listing the restaurant, not the bar.  But the “Burger Bar” is open in Tribeca and it might be NYC’s biggest lunch secret.  You see for a while fellow Anguilla lover Marc Forgione and American Cut offered limited burgers at the bar.  They would send a tweet each day at 4:20 to announce how many burgers were available.  As a result, people started missing parole interviews and would forget to pick up their kids from daycare, in order to get a crack at the burger.  After day care owners complained, and local senior citizens petitioned that they cant get there fast enough, American Cut decided to convert its bar into a Burger Bar with its own dedicated menu a la a less fancy NoMad Bar.

And as you can imagine, burgers dominate much of the menu.  There’s a burger of the day, a “competition” shake shack like sounding burger (perhaps thats why its called competition), and a full 8 oz American Cut Burger.  Gotta start this new relationship with the namesake, which is a proper steakhouse burger.  A perfectly cooked medium rare patty of brisket, short rib and dry aged rib eye, with bourbon onions and beer cheese.  Beer cheese!   A common thing if you are from Wisconsin, but not so much in NYC.  Some will scold at the idea, but if the option is there to add egg, I do it even on premium beef.  This burger ranks high up there with the best of them.american-cut-burger

And then there’s the MFC, Marc Forgione’s Chicken which I had on another day.  Possibly the most outrageous fried chicken sandwich in a city suddenly filled with outrageous fried chickens.  Buttermilk/Tobasco marinaded, sprinkled with a special spice blend from the spice master Lior Lev Sercarz, and coated with Chili peppercorn honey which you get more on the side.  The chicken lies between two house made everything Biscuits lightly smothered with their own ranch, and pickles.  It all somehow works nicely, with the juicy tender crispy chicken leading the way.  Only caveat is that the sandwich is a little large and to eat it can be a little laborious.  But the way I see it, to fully enjoy a Marc Forgione’s Chicken, you need to work it my friend!  Ok ok, sounded funnier in my head

Another little issue with both the chicken and the burger is that the slaw you get on the side is a little too oniony (and i love oniony).  And the fries the second time around were overcooked, otherwise they can be solid.  Go!

American Cut Burger Bar
363 Greenwich St (Franklin/Harrison), Tribeca
Rating: Two Z’s (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as thatamerican-cut-burger-bar

Categories: New York City, TriBeCa | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Atoboy – Helping Make NoMad Great Again

atoboy-atoboy-2The Schnied is over.  I finally made it to Atoboy, and I finally ate something worthy of more than one Z (stars).  Friends parties, family events, the dog ate my schedule, are just some of the reasons I had to cancel Atoboy about 5 times.  At some point it became a joke, and at another point a curse I thought perhaps I should not be tempered with.  I tempered!  The constant barrage of food porn by an army of Instagrammers kept the plans intact, but it took me a few good months to finally make it.

Atoboy is the newest Korean bad boy in the NoMad, an area that started to feel somewhat stale as of late (New Mercato sibling Ulivo will be next to check out).  A Jungsik alum introduced a whimsical menu of Korean Banchan, small tapas like dishes.  A set price of $36 allows you to choose one dish from three sections. One can add more a la carte ($9, $12, $15 respectfully) and dessert which I recommend here.  Decor as you can see is Industrial Bushwick Chic.  I totally made that up, but you bought it admit it.  Not something you normally see in the increasingly elegant purse-bench filled NoMad hotel zone

atoboy-tartareA friendly waitress guided us well throughout.  Only issue is something that haunts us in just about every tapas like joint, but got elevated here.  A constant flow of arriving dishes.  You eat non stop here, and within an hour you are pretty much done.  For $160 for two that included tip/tax, two Gruners, two desserts, an extra small plate, and $2 upgrade to seasoned rice (yes!), I was expecting to linger a little longer with my date.  I will break the food by rounds, and list my favorites at the end as well

First round – We ordered an extra dish here, the Cobia, served raw, finely diced and mixed with Korean pear, hockey puck tartare style.  Nice combination of textures and flavors.  The least exciting of the early three was surprisingly the heavily Instagrammed beef tartare, a Korean style tartare, thinly sliced strips instead of finely chopped which is my preference.  The “Eggplant “on first glance looked like a babaganoush gone horribly wrong, but resulted in the best dish early on by far.  A spoonful of the layers of eggplant, Dungeness crab and tomato jelly led by that smoky eggplant was pure ecstasyatoboy-sunchoke

Second round – I was a little bored with the “Egg” with Sea urchin, Watercress, Quinoa.  The egg white was in charge throughout and needed something more.  Far cry from a similar egg dish at the NoMad (not fair I know) nearby.  The meaty Jerusalem Sunchoke was more like it, with Oyster mushroom, Black truffles, and Orange.  One of the better dishes of the night

Third round – Fried chicken tempura style with peanut sauce featured a good amount of tender, juicy, delicious meat.  Looks greasier than it actually is.  Mrs Z wasnt as much of a fan though to be fair.  The Brisket with Foie gras infused gravy and more Oyster mushroom looked and tasted like a sick meat stew.  A solid dish, but one of those where the main ingredient (unevenly tender meat cubes) is the least exciting thing there.  Love the garlic chips, the sauce, the mushrooms, and once I started dipping the mushrooms from the Sunchoke dish, I almost wet myself.  From the sauce that is.atoboy-chicken

Dessert.  A tale of two desserts. Panna Cotta with frozen pomegranate was outstanding.  Its all about the cookie crumble in the middle tying everything nicely together.  Black Raspberry Cake was just like a fine pretty cake you get at your corner pastry shop.  Should have tried the Granita with walnuts and burrata.  Go!

Atoboy
43 E 28th St (Madison/Park)
Rating: Two Z’s (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Cobia, Eggplant, Sunchoke, Chicken, Brisket, Panna Cota

atoboy-cobia atoboy-eggplant atoboy-various atoboy-brisketatoboy-desert atoboy

 

Categories: Gramercy, Flatiron, New York City | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Foodpourri

danji-big-korean-breakfastRandom EWZ food discoveries, announcements, and other nonsense…

Danji, the long time EWZ fave in the kitchen of hell is now doing brunch.  In addition to the best tofu dish in town, you can now enjoy delicacies like the Big Korean Breakfast (top picture), Kimchi bacon fried rice, and their version of the Filipino Sisig.  This medium size Jew did the big Korean Breakfast and (of course) the tofu last week, and as much as I enjoyed them, I would love to try the other offerings next time

Talking about Sisigs, I accidentally had it twice last month.  My favorite was in Maharlika in East Village.  Gorgeously fried pig ears, snout, belly with garlic, chilies on top of garlicky rice.  Just a solid combination of flavors and textures.  And while you at it, try their Lumpia rollsimg_4401

lam-zhou-handmade-noodle-dumplingsHaving trouble sleeping?  Problems in the bedroom, ever since Prosperity Dumplings closed by the health dep’t.  Before you reach for the red pill, blue pill or any pill for that matter, check out Lam Zhou Handmade Noodle in Chinatown.  Even at room temperature, you get some of the tastiest fried pork dumplings in NYC today.  8 for $3 is still quite cheaper than what all the new places charging today

In Pizza news, while I dont normally get excited about Sullivan Street Bakery‘s thin, often room temp Roman pies (I do get excited about everything else), the day I walked into a fresh Pizza Capicola changed all that.  Coppa ham, green olives, chili, fennel, Mascarpone.  A masterful combo with plenty of nice heat to keep your taste buds happy for a while.

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Discoering Los Mariscos in Chelsea Market is like discovering a secret Speakeasy, or Tom Hanks discovering a secret garden full of typewriters.  The Los Tacos #1 team leased the space that leads from the tacos hallway to 15th st where there’s a separate entrance.  The place meant to resemble a Mexican seafood shack, and the Baja style fish and shrimp tacos are as solid as they get in NYC.  And at $3 to $4, quite affordable for Chelsea Marketlos-mariscos

I’ve been eating quite a bit in Brooklyn as of late.  Some ups, some downs, with the highlight coming from the most unexpected, Olivier Bistro in Park Slope.  Homey, basic French Bistro fare done well.  Escargot, Hanger, Daurade special particular standouts.

Stop me when I start sounding like Crazy Eddy, but the new East Village Food Tour is beginning to look like a smashing success food and sightseeing wise.  I assembled a pretty nice route that includes a stop at the always fun Caracas Arepa Bar where we’ll sample some Venezuelan mini Arepas they do especially for the tour.  Not all tours will be the same, but this one is shaping to be one the most popular stops.caracas-bar-pork-shoulder-mini-arepas

img_4469In my constant pursuit of great Soup Dumplings (Xiaolongbao) in NYC that included the much hyped Drunken Dumplings, and others, The Bao in, you guessed it, East Village, makes possibly the best I’ve had in NYC.  Thin skin that holds it on, and a very fine filling of pork and crab which is what I recommend.  Love the dumplings, not so much the stuffier than it should be, $10 per person minimum, space.

Right below Bao on St Marks place is another place we’ve been obsessing with as of late, Spot Dessert Bar.  Playful, imaginary desserts like the Harvest, a plant of berries and soft cheesecake that you water with black rose milk tea.  Dont overlook however the more normal looking and sounding Green tea lava cake spot-dessert-bar

In Bakery news, I cant get enough of Breads Bakery (Jerusalem baguettes, babka, multiple locations), and Arcade Bakery in Tribeca.  Arcade is located in a lobby of an office building and the hours are office kind hours (m-f 8-4).  Go early for the sensational buttery Laminated Baguette, Whiskey-pecan Babka and call me in the morning.

Miso Cherry!  Say it with me, c’mon.  Slower.  Say it like you mean it.  Meeesooo Cherry!  Another wacky Oddfellows Ice Cream flavor that is perhaps the best ice cream/Gelato I’ve had this year.

Stay Hungry My Friends arcade-bakery oddfellows-miso-cherry-ice-cream

Categories: Brooklyn, Chelsea, Chinatown, East Village, Midtown West, New York City | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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

la-vara-appsla-vara-migas-aragonesas la-vara-suckling-pig

Categories: Brooklyn, New York City | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

fish-cheeks-seafood fish-cheeks-exterior

Categories: New York City, SoHo, NoHo, Nolita | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

L’Arco Dei Cappuccini – Hidden Gem in Taormina

img_8838As is the case with just about any super touristy city, our best meal in Taormina was outside of the tourist path.  Not only did it best the much more famous, highly anticipated dinner at Tischi Toschi (which wasnt even known by our hosts), but special Brownie Points are given for flat out curing me out of my misery.  Ok, lets rewind this one to one of the biggest mistakes of the trip with this very important tip…

If you head to Taormina and wish to climb to Santuario Madonna della Rocca, which will seem fairly short according to Google, make sure its a) Not over 90 degrees, and b) The church is open!  The only thing this tiring shadeless climb accomplished was slightly increase the radius of my bald spot.  And no one warned me that the views from the top were not a whole lot more dramatic than the views from the quarter way up.  An hour later, before munching on the excellent Da Cristina Arancini, the heat started to get to me.  I even remember hallucinating, seeing a bar named Ziggy in the area, though my family still claims it was a real place.  Do I cancel lunch plans?  Never!  The show must go on.img_8841

Taormina, for much of its recent history was a popular playground for the English aristocrats.  Today, its still a major British hub, some of which make it their yearly summer destination.  At L’Arco we had a nice chat with a British gentleman who vacations in Taormina every year for the past 17 years.  He told us that L’Arco Dei Cappuccini, is one of his favorite seafood restaurants in Europe.  That statement started to show more merit after he told us about his travels, and after the first few bites of that Octopus Carpaccio.

Its most likely the finest Octopus Carpaccio I ever had.  They press octopus into this huge cube (the waiter brought one from the kitchen to show us), smoke it and slice it into this thin silky smooth mortadella like slices and drizzle with olive oil.  Simply phenomenal!  Fresh langoustine, crumbed with deliciousness and baked was sweet and succulent.  More awesomeness from the Primis.  Fresh tagliatelle with zucchini flowers and grouper tasted so light and heavenly.  And more tagliatelle with tuna that tasted almost like sausage.  An extremely enjoyable light lunch

And yes, felt much better after that.  Maybe I needed a break, who knows, but this meal saved an otherwise lackluster afternoon.  Until we got to Ortigia at least.img_8839 img_8843 img_8844

Categories: Sicily | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Avlee – My Big Fat Greek Dinner

avlee-branzinoGreek food has become all Greek to me over the years.  I used to frequent the Greek kitchens of Hell’s Kitchen like Uncle Nick’s and the aptly named The Greek Kitchen for many years.  But a combination of newer, more exciting neighborhood offerings, along with their inability to cook meats to the proper temperature consistently, contributed to an abrupt stop.  Then there was Elia in Bay Ridge, a family favorite for years, that generally delivered, albeit with a heftier cost and a bigger Mediterranean emphasis.  And since we go to Europe more often than Astoria, there’s a better chance for us to eat octopus in Santorini than Queens.  Avlee Greek Kitchen, a little dinette in Carroll Gardens felt like a taste of Astoria in Brooklyn

It starts and ends with the boss.  As with any household I suppose.  I just finished all my chores for today, and I’m given the green light to watch first week of Football and write to you fine folks about Avlee.  Multi-tasking.  Well I still have to take out the garbage and take out the dishes from the dishwasher but its too soon for that.  Thankfully I havent quite graduated from putting the dishes inside the dishwasher.  Apparently I’m doing it all wrongavlee

Andrew Poulos who runs the show at Avlee was practically born with a spatula inside a Greek kitchen.  Andrew grew up in Bay Ridge where the closest thing to Greek food in the 70’s, and 80’s was the Greek Diner.  I know because I was there as well for much of that, visiting the same Greek diners.  Nowadays we just call them diners.  Andrew spent much of his youth in Brooklyn Heights in his father’s restaurant.  One thing that separates people like Andrew from the more famous chefs out there who went to culinary schools and worked in the trendiest kitchens, is a lifetime of experience in how to connect to the customer.  You can tell much from talking to him, and you can tell even more from talking to his relaxed and happy staff.

The comfortable room is small and simply decorated, with the open kitchen spreading on one side.  The menu reads like a typical Greek eatery with all the usual suspects.  Except that in this case everything is prepared with special care and the absolute best ingredients they can get.  Avlee after all, means “Garden”, and much of the ingredients come from Andrew’s own garden.  Avlee doesnt have a freezer.avlee-apps

We started with the classic spreads.  A trio of Tzatziki, Hummus, and Tirokafteri (feta, bell peppers, jalapeno, cayenne) which stole the show with its wonderful front-end heat.  The Greek chunky hummus made me momentarily forget that I belong to creamy camp (sounds like a summer camp for fat kids).  We liked the Tiropita, like mini flaky “bourekases” filled with feta and eggs.  One of my favorite Mediterranean staples is stuff (figs, olives, dates) wrapped with cured meats, and here the figs stuffed with feta and wrapped with prosciutto delivered an enticing sweet and savory combination.  The prosciutto gave it a nice oomph.

avlee-octopusThe octopus should tell you everything you need to know about this place.  Instead of dressing it with heavy dose of romesco, chorizo, greens and/or potatoes as so many do, what you got here is the bare bones in its purest form.  A gorgeously thick tentacle, perfectly tenderized and charred with a light dressing of olive oil, capers, and mustard seeds.  Fresh as if hours before it was swimming near the coast of Portugal minding its own business.  One of the better Octopuses as of late (bested more popular spots like Aurora a few days prior).  Click on the picture for the full affect.

No complaints about the main course either.  A whole grilled Branzini I couldnt cook better myself (I try and try).  It was accompanied by two sides not pictured.  A Kale and Chickpeas salad which I liked more than Mrs Z.  And Gigande, those tender large beans baked with onion and tomato, tasted like a distant dry cousin of the sickest borscht on the planet.  Finished off with a a fine Baklava.  I’m not Baklava’s biggest fan even though I love everything nuts and honey but this one was satisfying.

In full disclosure, the circumstances of this review are different than my regular posts.  I was invited to Avlee by Andrew for a comped meal in exchange for a review.  As I mentioned back via email, a review would follow only if the meal is good and worthwhile to write about, as I seldom write negative reviews.  Thankfully, any unpleasantness was easily avoided after a very enjoyable meal.  Everything I wrote is true, including my chores.

Avlee Greek Kitchen
349 Smith St (2nd/Carroll), Brooklyn

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Salmoriglio (Agrigento) – Valley of the Awesomeness

IMG_0026Yesterday I was having lunch with an old friend, and a new friend, and we were discussing my favorite subject in great length, Italy.  There was a moment during the conversation where I tried to convey that between all the sights, scenery, and everything that Italy has to offer, at the end of the day my favorite thing to do there is simply eat.  Those are the moments that stay with me longer than anything else.  I explained how two trips ago, I realized that a day that includes a 3 hour lunch, and a stroll in a small town or winery, is as magical to us than a day filled with sightseeing.  The old friend seemed to understand, while the new friend struggled to relate to such nonsense, but did try her best

IMG_0027Take Salmoriglio, a gem in between two of Sicily’s biggest gems.  The jaw dropping, magnificent Scala dei Turchi, and the mind blowing, inspiring Valley of the Temples.  I was inspired to find water quickly (it was hot), while Mrs Z found her inspiration in the green statue in front the Temple of Concordia.  She was very worried that it’s temporary would be missing, and we all dodged a meltdown as big as when the pissing fountain in Prague wasnt pissing.  But what made the day so perfect was what we did in between those two star attractions.  A meal that was only bested by one particular dinner about 20 minutes off Trapani a few days later.  Its just one of those meals that felt so perfect that day.  And when you look back at the pictures, and go “hey, remember this octopus?” or “hey remember the Gnocchi?” only to get a “Yes, I remember, now can you stop with your food porn and finish emptying the dishwasher already”  Yes dear!

Considering this was lunch in the middle of the week, Salmoriglio in the port town of Porto Empedocle, wasnt exactly buzzing this time.  But a quick look at the kitchen, and the empty rooms inside suggests that the place buzzes often.  We sat outside on the pleasant sidewalk setup, while a team of 4 cooks carefully and masterfully assemble dishes behind the glass.  You get a sense of Michelin type attention to detail without the Michelin prices.  No tourists in sight, almost zero English spoken, but we managed fine with hand signals and my ever so improving “Menu Italian”.. “Ahh, “Uova al Forno?”  Thats “Menu Italian” for “Are the eggs baked”?

We started with a stunning assortment of raw goodies that included scampi, snapper tartare, bacalao, tuna, oysters, and more of that sweet goodness gambero rosso we couldnt get enough of during the trip.  Sliced octopus with olives, capers tomatoes was simple octopus perfection.  Gnocchi with bright fresh red sauce, cheese and basil was outstanding.  Why similar dishes dont taste the same back home?  Ingredients.  Their signature spaghetti with Ricci (sea urchin) delivered richness and flavors I haven’t experienced from Ricci before.  A plate of grilled seafood including just about the best swordfish steak I ever had, more gambero rosso, scampi, calamari and an outrageously delicious baby octopus.  At this point I realized that I prefer the gambero rossos (red shrimp) slightly cooked instead of raw, which gives it a little texture.  Raw is great, but sort of too limp in comparison.  A truly fantastic meal

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Macallè – A Gem Well Hidden in Ortigia, Siracusa

IMG_9176One of the joys of travel to me, not so much to others, is the time spent researching the destination.  Reading food blogs, online magazines, finding those obscure dining spots, stores, attractions.  That new gelato shop that was just opened by a master ice cream maker and not quite on the tourist trail yet.  All part of the fun.  Other travelers we talk to derive no pleasure out of this.  And for some of them, the research process can be a painful chore, like folding laundry, or changing diapers.  Grandpas diapers.  The one thing I learned however over the years is that staying flexible and going with the flow is equally as important.  And no matter how much research you do, you may somehow bump into a Macallè, a place that makes you look silly, with all that research dimmed just about useless.

Researching Sicily is more challenging than mainland Italy due to lack of information out there.  Tourism in general is a fairly new concept for Sicilians, and Italians visiting Sicily.  Its like mainland Italy 20 years ago.  There are practically no food blogs written by locals.  To find the right places you need to make local friends quickly, and in the case of Macallè, friends in high places.  After our tour of the market with chef Lele, I was essentially at his disposal.  First stop was Pani_Co for some local beer tasting, followed by dinner at Macallè where Lele consults.IMG_9181

Macallè, just like 99% of the restaurants we visited in Sicily, is a family affair.  Chef Maurizio, Margherita, and son run a tight ship in a corner of Ortigia not too frequented by tourists.  I didnt think its possible on this island but you may not see one tourist walking by in this corner unless he’s lost and trying desperately to get back.  When I asked Maurizio how a visitor like me would find this place without the help of a Lele, he said I would need to stay in one of the few area hotels that recommends it.  This is the definition of “Hidden Gem”.  And while the place gets generally high praise on Trip Advisor, the TA algorithm that takes into account the quantity of reviews, ranks Macallè fairly low as of this writing.  In Sicily, more than anywhere else, Trip Advisor is king.  Because there’s not much else.

Chef Maurizio created a playful, whimsical take on Sicilian cuisine.  He’s very proud and passionate about his ingredients, and in Slow Food style explains where this and that came from and why.  The menu options include a “Leave it to Macallè” 30 euro 4 courser which we took advantage of, and a la carte items like the sensational chicken.  You will be hard pressed to find a juicier, more flavor packed bird.  It was so good we ordered it twice, something as rare as the Olympics.  Buttery swordfish, pistachio bruschetta with raw Gambero Rosso (red shrimp) from Mazara and white scampi set the tone nicely early on.  Clams with mussels, gnocchi in a delicious clear broth.  After several meals on the island, I realize that Mussels is the one must eat especially in the summer.  That saltiness and flavor stays with you hours later even at the most inappropriate times!  Marinated Squid cooked in three stages, sitting on top of a small hockey puck of mashed potato shows the attention to details here.  Perfectly sautéed tuna on a bed of delicious peppers with sweet sautéed onions.  To make peppers taste this good requires some work and a lot of love.  The kids enjoyed their own Bruschetta (same as ours), the magnificent chicken, and Tagliolini with shrimp and shrimp broth.  Easily our favorite meal in Ortigia.

Macallè
Via Santi Coronati 42/44, Syracuse

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