Posts Tagged With: restaurants

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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Categories: Italy, Sicily | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

Flavor of the Month – Gazala’s Place

Gazala's HummusI will have more about Sicily soon, but meanwhile…

This is a new monthly feature on EWZ that simply features a NYC establishment that I like right now.  Not a full blown post as I will spare you the unnecessary details and jokes and simply say GO, and why.  And yes, I’m changing the meaning of the conventional usage of “Flavor of the Month” and making it my own

There aren’t that many places more deserving to kick this thing off than Gazala’s.  I’ve been going to Gazala’s in Hell’s Kitchen for many years, and only met Gazala a handful of times.  Thats partly because for a while Gazala was cooking at the bigger Gazala near the Natural History Museum until she was forced to close it.  As a result she spends more time in Hell’s Kitchen these days, especially during lunch time making dinner preparations.  Middle Eastern is the proper way of categorizing Gazala’s, but its more than that

At the moment Gazala is in Israel, visiting her family at the Druze village of Daliat el-Carmel, in the north near Haifa.  The village where years ago as a young girl she had to make a decision that would shape the rest of her life.  The decision to whether follow the religious path or not, as every Druze boy and girl requires to decide.  Sacrifices surround each decision, and luckily for us New Yorkers she chose the non-religious path (as most do).  This essentially allowed her to travel, and bring us a taste of that druze culture.  This may be the only Druze restaurant in the country

Gazala’s Place is not a particularly sexy place.  For that go to Room Service across the street where you can swing by their many chandeliers.  But if you want some of the best and freshest Hummus in NYC, a Bourekas (like Bourek, flaky pastry stuffed with cheese and other goodies) popular with food tours, and fantastic falafel the size of a small monkey head, come to Gazala’s Place.  Her $10 lunch specials alone like the Kafta kebab with outragously delicious chicken, hummus, salad, rice, and Baba ghanoush is the best deal in Hell’s Kitchen.  Like the gift that keeps on givingGazala's Gazala's Bourekas Gazala's Meat Cigars Gazala'a Place Bourekas Gazala's Osh Al-Saria

Categories: Midtown West, New York City | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Joy Suck Club does Blue Ribbon Sushi Columbus

Blue Ribbon SquidSomeone out there in Denver owes me an American dollar.  And I know where she lives!  The bet was that taking my immediate extended family (The Joy Suck Club) to something like Blue Ribbon Sushi will be a big flop.  Last time I attempted this, we wind up in Rosa Mexicano due to the reluctance of the Denverphile who should pay me another dollar for enduring another meal at Rosa Mexicano.  The belief of the Denverite is that Blue Ribbon Sushi is all about that.. Sushi, and blue ribbons and stuff.  And that this is simply a disastrous match to the members of some of the pickiest eaters on the planet.

Introducing the Joy Suck Club….

One is so picky that anything remotely slimy will make her puke in her mouth a little.  Forget Oysters.  I’m talking about mushrooms!  She had her first mushroom at the age of 65, and said it was “ok”

One requires everything well well well done.  Forget steak!  I’m talking about pasta and eggs.

One likes generally everything, but will immediately tell you where you can get this better somewhere else even though he doesnt get out much.  “I understand this is prime meat, aged 60 days and perfectly cooked.  But there’s this place near where I live who does it better”

One can not handle anything with… whats the word I’m looking for… Flavor.  The dish requires zero flavor whatsoever.  No sauce, no seasoning.  I will take the Spaghetti alle Vongole, without the Vongole please.

And then there’s the one who needs proper lighting to enjoy his meal.  And by proper I mean nothing short but stadium power, blinding kind.  “This is good, but I cant see anything.  I would like to see what I’m eating please”

In other words, everything sucks!

Blue Ribbon Sushi Deluxe

To them we are freaks of nature.  “You are eating uncooked meat.  Should I call an ambulance now, or you’ll do it later in the middle of the night”.  And so with us in the mix I’m constantly looking for that balance.  Italian normally works, but gets a little challenging in the theater district (if nowhere near Mercato).  At Blue Ribbon I have a secret weapon that the Denverite may not know about.  Chicken!  And Salmon!  Not to mention steak, the sickest fried rice dish in town, and a very full menu.  But what I like about Blue Ribbon and large groups more is that I can reserve at any time, and have a family style meal.  I’ve done it with co-workers, and now it even passed the Joy Suck Club.  The biggest test there is

Blue Ribbon Sushi has been a staple in the Hell’s Kitchen Survival Guide, even though depending on how full the moon is, and who you ask, may or may not be in Hell’s Kitchen.  But deliciousness has no borders.  And Blue Ribbon needs to be in a neighborhood like HK.  Blue Ribbon is a chain, but one should not hold it against them.  While you can find their sensational oxtail fried rice with bone marrow and omelette  downtown as well, they do some things unique to this location.  Like the Ika Shoga, simply sauteed squid with ginger and garlic.  Why no one else does this is a mystery to me.  Its not only a dish I enjoyed many times, but I do get some pleasure from watching people react when they try it for the first time.  Mrs Ziggy, kids, and yes, even some members of the club, raved about this one.

Blue Ribbon Chicken

For me, family style meals are not about going to Carmine’s and eating 2 oversized dishes shared by 6 people.  There’s just so much you can order and share, and the quality of large dishes is almost always poor.  Instead, go to any place and simply order as many dishes as necessary of the same thing.  Blue Ribbon is great for this because some of their signature dishes like the fried rice, and the squid are very shareable.  I once sent a group there (I wasnt invited, just consulted) and pretty much wrote the entire order for them based on how many people were in the party.  You want variety, especially with picky eaters.  And Blue Ribbon chefs know how to cook

The rest of the meal was a big success with the Suck Club.  My secret weapon fried chicken, and the salmon with a light teriyaki glaze worked like magic.  The only concern was that the salmon would not be cooked enough for the club, but hey, they ate, and raved about it.  I especially loved the smoky bean sprouts and rabe that accompanied the fish.  While I’m not the biggest fan of the fried chicken, its almost always a smart order, and I’m slowly warming up to the honey sauce that comes with it.  The fried rice is a smash hit as usual, and I’ve essentially already written essays and articles about it.  Nightly specials included a fine Nobu-esque rock shrimp tempura, and finer spare ribs.  There was plenty of sushi as well, shockingly gobbled up by some JSC members who may not have been aware that they were eating raw fish.  And to complete the experience, I was reunited with my favorite Japanese light beer, Hitachino Nest.  This did not suck.

Someone in Denver awes me a buck.

Blue Ribbon
6 Columbus, 308 W 58th St (8/9)

Blue Ribbon Fried Rice Blue Ribbon Sushi Squid Blue Ribbon Ribs Blue Ribbon Salmon

Categories: Midtown West, New York City | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Lilia – Cacio e Perfect!

Lilia Agnolotti

February 23rd, 2018 Update:

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned.  Its been 643 days since my last meal at Lilia.  Its just that it continues to be one of the toughest tables in Brooklyn.  You either need to have friends in high places, or low places.  Or just call at 10 am when they open 30 days out.  Thats the biggest tip I can give you on this update.  10 am!  Not 10:01, not 9:58.  10!  Its imperative that you try the simple brilliance of Missy Robbins, and do it soon.

Add the Fettuccine to the list of classics.  Robbins uses a thin but potent Tomato Passato with spicy lamb sausage and Fennel seeds.  After the initial palate shock, it settles down into one heck of a “Red Sauce” dish.  Another new hit for me is a starter of Roasted Trumpet Mushrooms, rocket, balsamic, and Sicilian almonds (the best almonds on the planet).  Rocket?  Yes, I said, Rocket.  We are apparently the only country in the world that calls it Arugula.  Lilia gets 3 very solid Z’s.

May 24th, 2016 Post:

This burg has changed.  30 years ago, when I was a young shy boy-man growing in Brooklyn, Williamsburg was the place I used to go to fix my car.  The immediate area around Lilia, including the building that houses Lilia, was like one giant Auto Shop extravaganza.  Since I grew up poor, my first cars used to break often, and so were my visits to North Williamsburg.  Sometimes I would even need a little push on the BQE to make it to my destination.  Oh the good ol’ days.  There was no other reason to go to the area until we discovered Sea, the cheap, clubby Thai temple that is still going strong today.  My Thai preferences shifted as I got older, but Sea was the place where we could have fun as a group, and still save for those car mechanics.

Fast forward to 2016, my auto shop is now a bank, and the area overall has clearly, how do you say, gentrified? (a little Top Secret humor).  Gentrification, a term every New Yorker learns at some point.  Like when you discover the last remaining $1 dumplings place in your neighborhood has closed, or when grandpa announces during Thanksgiving dinner that he can no longer receive happy ending at his salon.  Now we travel to North Williamsburg as a family for pizza, Maine seafood, and Cacio e Pepe renditions that puts some of the neighboring borough great Cacios to shame.Lilia Cauliflower

Lilia delivered the type of meal that almost makes you want to move to Williamsburg (Parking, and lack of reliable auto shops stand in the way).  Although my team of critics and I had to wait a month to score a table (damn you Hot Lists and all your informative wisdom), the initial feeling upon enetering is that of a comfortable neighborhood spot where you just want to hang on a Sunday night.  Roomy, bright, high beam ceilings, and did I mention roomy?  A luxury these days in North Brooklyn and Manhattan.  Even when you consider the number of employees almost match the number of diners, no one is on top of you, and the space makes you want to get up and run around, with scissors, naked (I’m seeing someone about that)

Lilia Bagna càudaThe menu reads like a beautiful mashup of Italian and Dr. Seuss.  There was pasta, meat, veggies, little fish, big fish.  Or perhaps the ultra talented Missy Robbins is a PJ Harvey fan (She wasnt there to ask).  The punchy Cacio e Pepe Fritelle, from the cocktail snack section, is a must get starter.  Little fried balls of awesomeness.  The Bagna Cauda, a Piedmont specialty of veggies you dip in an anchovy garlic sauce was like the Best of Union Square Market album.  I would order this just for Robbins’ ability to pick the finest of the bunch.  Then there was this perfectly cooked Cauliflower with hints of Spicy Soppressata, Sicilian Pesto.  If there are trends all over town these days, Cauliflower and Cacio e Pepe are right up there.

The pastas here are so good, that by the end of the meal you find yourself playing “lets rank the pastas” with your neighbors.  I won!  The yellowest, longest, most beautiful, straight from an orthopedic pillow infomercial, Agnolotti, filled with Sheeps Milk cheese, and finished with butter, saffron, honey, and much needed acid from dried tomato that completes the dish.  At most places this would be #1.  Here its #3 from the three we tried.  The ‘imperfect’ Malfadini looked and tasted pretty perfect to me.  Take your average Cacio e Pepe, change the pasta to something with more texture, sharper cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano, and pink peppercorns, and you essentially got Cacio e Pepe on crack cocaine.  And then comes the tomato-less Pappardelle with veal and porcini ragu.  Quite a contrast and an upgrade over other such ragus all over town, one of which by Via Carota I’ve had days earlier.  What a difference.  Its all about the slow braised meat and its juices, reminiscent of the Ostera Morini meatless Stracci with mushrooms.

Lilia MalfadiniNormally after a start like this, secondis rarely wow.  They wowed here, but not without some quibbling.  A veal steak, far from your average veal, was cooked to pink perfection with plenty of flavor to boot from the Serrano peppers, herbs, lime and the rest of it.  The size was certainly there, but what was missing considering the previous dishes, and the price (almost $30, forget exactly) was at least one more vegetable.  The magnificent Black Bass with Salsa Verde, on the other hand, came on top a roasted potato, but was missing more bass.  Minor quibbles when considering the entire meal.

Missy Robbins was Barack Obama’s favorite chef in Chicago before he became president.  With a name like that its surprising to learn that Lilia is her first owned restaurant.  While I need another visit or two to make it official, Lilia is a top 3 Italian, and a shoe in for the Z-List.  Mazal Tov 😉

Lilia
567 Union Ave, Brooklyn
Rating: 3 Z’s (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Fritelle, Bagna Cauda, Mushroom, All pastas, Veal, BassLilia Frittelle Lilia Pappardelle Lilia Veal Lilia Black BassLilia

 

Categories: Brooklyn, New York City | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Simone’s (Provo) – Dishing Out the ‘True’ Fish and More

Simone's Conch Salad

February 6th, 2017 Update:

Coming to the island this time without my big boy camera felt weird but liberating.  It was also a way to say, “we are just going to our other home, and dont get overly excited anymore”.  And at that other home, one of the missions is to find the homey places where everyone knows your name and  your kids can run around naked.  As long as the food is a full notch above acceptable of course.  Simone’s is becoming that kind of place.  On our last dinner there we were the only secondary homeys there.  A bunch of locals hugging the terrace, including my favorite kind of locals, fishermen.  Two of them in fact.  Would local fishermen dine at a place serving frozen fish from Miami?  Would Urologists get Vasectomized by B grade Urologists?  That is the question one must ask.  Although on this date, as was the theme this week, Wahoo was the catch of the day, but boy was it good.  A beefy consistency as expected, without crossing the dryness line as Wahoo often does.

I would come back just for the Wahoo.  But not without the “Conch Ceviche” first which is essentially fancy for Conch Salad.  With its heaps of fresh veggies and heat, this may be the closest to Seaside’s Peruvian conch salad (RIP) today.  Here you also control your own destiny with an extra spoonful of Scotch Bonnet hidden below the lime.  The Seafood Chowder is another great one to add to the ever growing list of Island chowders.  This is a light, well balanced, full bodied white with delightful fishy notes.  The fine lobster, and curry snapper again, rounded another fine meal at this Three Queens of the resorts area.  Certainly not for those looking for full service, consistent, finer dining. Think of it as an easy going, eating at aunt Betsy type of place.  Except in this case aunt Betsy can flat out bring it.simons-wahoo

May 3rd, 2016 Post:

You can say we waited well over a year for the chef to show up.  Back in 2014, we sat at the foot of mount La Vista Azul waiting for the chef of ‘The Wave’ from the team behind Ricky’s Flamingo’s (only one member so far:  Ricky).  “She is coming, stuck in traffic”.  where is this traffic, Miami?  We waited until the house ran out of Bambarra Coconut, and left to Chinson’s.  Fast forward to December 2015, the place is now called Simone’s, and the head chef, coincidentally called Simone, is actually in the kitchen, not Miami, not Sunrise, not downtown Provo.  Four months later, Simone is cranking out award worthy conch salads, fresh Groupers and Snappers.

As of this writing, Simone is in no man’s land on Trip Advisor.  By the time you reach Simone on TA you either reach behemoths like Asu on the Beach, and Mookie Pookie Pizza Palace, or get finger tendinitis.  After spending some time with her, I dont get the sense that Simone is too worried.  Unlike some of her fellow counterparts, she is not going from table to table asking people to write TA reviews, nor she and her cousins busy injecting fake ones.  She only care about two things:  What people like, and what people dont like right now.

SimoneThis is Simone’s first restaurant.  But with over 15 years of cooking experience, including a long stint at nearby Sharkbite, she’s no stranger to the Provo restaurant world.  Simone has friends with benefits…  Fishermen!  One of them was sitting by the door, just watching the world go by (I apologized when I walked by).  ‘True’ Fish like freshly caught snappers and groupers can be a luxury at places like this.  In the last few years fishing in Provo has been severely erratic due to changing weather patterns and government regulations in favor of sustainability.  Even before all this, getting the correct fish that is listed on the menu has been a crapshoot everywhere.  Ever wonder why that Grouper ‘Special’ you’ve been enjoying at Caicos Cafe and Three Queens is completely different than some of the other places you tried.  That’s because it is.  That’s either Swai or Tilapia you dealing with, with the former resembling the grouper more and an upgrade in taste and texture over the Tilapia.

Simone does not only promise to serve the proper fish, but will also tell you if its frozen.  Location, and the the number of expats/locals frequenting Simone in the early going, suggest there could be some legitimacy to those promises.  Location is significant driving distance from most resorts (significant in provo = more than 5 minutes), off the road, without any views of oceans or sunsets to speak of.  Meaning the goal is for the food to take center stage.  Another good ‘local’ sign is the plethora of rotating daily nightly specials like oxtail stew and Goulash!Simone Fritters

So far so good on the food front.  Other than the uneventful, dry ribs, everything we tried was solid.  The conch fritters (the falafel of the sea) were light, just crunchy enough, and missing some of that greasiness you find elsewhere.  The jerk wings were basic but satisfying.  The curry snapper here can give Flamingo’s ‘Grouper’ a run for its money.  Fresh, perfectly cooked flaky snapper, with thick mild green sauce with onions and peppers.  Flamingo’s got the sauce, Simone got the fish.  Combine them together and you got the cure to summertime sadness.

Mrs Z is not particularly fond of the conch salad/ceviche in general but tries them all (not by force) like a trooper.  So when she declares “the best conch salad on the island”, everybody needs to pay attention. Spicy, tender, without the chewy rough stuff you normally find.  Simone simply removes the not so tender parts.  Some of the conch was as sweet as summer corn.  And she provided some scotch bonnet salsa on the side for the white folks to add more heat as they please.  Go!

Simone Wings Simone Snapper Simone Ribs Simone Drinks Simone out

Categories: Turks and Caicos | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ssam Bar Earns 3 More

 

Ssam Bar - Skate

January 18th, 2018 Update: 

Michelin season came and went, generating the usual fanfare and excitement, essential preventing most from noticing the more important stars being distributed.  Around the same time, Momofuku Ssam Bar received 3 New Your Times Stars from Pete Wells, and only those in the restaurant industry got the memo.  In fact I was told about it a few months ago by another chef when we talked about the all important subject of Skate (fish).  The conversation led to Ssam Bar whose Skate helped earn the coveted stars.

The Skate is perhaps the biggest addition to the menu by Singapore born Max Ng who took over the helm last year.  Its essentially a revolving door of Momofukus graduating from Ko to run the babies, Ssam, Nishi, Ma Peche, before moving on to other ventures around the world.  You also get a sense of maturation these days, as the chief Fuku Mr Chang swaying from the idea of “if the food is good, they will come no matter what”, making Nishi and Ssam a lot more comfortable these days.  Gone are the days of sharing a cramped communal table while studying the latest techniques in dish washing through a mountain of napkins.

Ssam Bar - Ham

And the food is of course the same old inventive awesomeness.  Good enough in fact to earn three more hard earned stars from the chief editor of EWZ.  Not sure what took me so long to finally try their Country Ham.  Benton’s ham from Madisonville, TN was silky and salty alright, but the accompanied gravy with hints of espresso is enough reason to order a plate of Ham at Ssam Bar.  Max’s additions like “Curry & Potatoes” with burrata, spinach, and Garam Marsala seasoning was more restrained for a Fuku establishment but still pleasant to the palate.  When you finish it, you wish for some naan to properly scoop the leftovers.  Roasted Cauliflower came surprisingly whole and flaky covered with just enough porky and lardo vinaigrette to keep it interesting.  The Fried Sunchokes with eggs was a little bit more dull in comparison.

And then came the main events.  The off menu rice cakes with the spicy ragu.  The rice cakes got crunchier, and the ragu less spicy over the years, but this is still a must order.  The grilled Flatiron was cooked to medium rare perfection, and probably the star with the family.  They liked it more than the Skate.  It arrived sitting on a banana leaf covered with shrimp Belacan, a funky fermented Malaysian shrimp paste.  A little too much funk for my women, so I was enjoying most of it by myself.  The smell, unlike from similar pastes like XO, is slightly off-putting, but the flavors are there.  Although I found better results when combining the Skate meat with the porky ragu from the rice cakes.  I’m ready for my Ko internship.

No dessert on this one since we are eating with the girls a mile within Spot Dessert Bar.

Ssam Bar Porgy

April 19, 2016 Post:

Servers have a tough job.  We learn more and more the more we dine.  For example, ever wonder when servers are asked “what’s good here”, they often stumble or tell you to get the most expensive dish.  The correct answer is actually the stumble, usually indicative of the “if its not good, it wouldnt be on the menu”.  But often enough, the best dish is in fact its most expensive.  Whether its the use of expensive ingredients, popularity, labor intensive, the reasons are numerous.  Servers are not stupid.  They already know all about the “Oh, he’s probably saying that to get a bigger tip”, and all the rest of them.  Which is yet another reason for the hesitations

At the last meal at Momofuku Ssam Bar I didnt ask the server “what’s good here” because I already had a good idea from previous visits, and Chowhound chatter.  The only questions I asked the server centered around the most expensive dish, the whole boneless Porgy.  “How were the bones removed”, “What’s in the green sauce”, “where did the Porgy come from”, “What was his name”.  An instant classic that blew us away like no other whole fish before.

This Long Island sound Porgy shows up in all her glory, with head and teeth and all.  Except for the main bone that was surgically removed.  The fish is dressed with the momofuku signature ginger scallion sauce which made Mrs Z take note.  One bite, and you can tell this is not your average grilled branzino.  Another bite and its an entire Havah Nagilla rendition in your mouth.  By the 5th bite, you want to run around with scissors, naked.  And then at around the 5th inning, you feel you must try the accompanied lettuce, and tortillas to make fish wraps.  You experiment by adding some pickled bean sprouts, some cabbage, and creme fraiche, and you are suddenly the world’s greatest fish taco maker.  The fish comes with all these goodies in “Ssam” style (“Ssam” essentially means everything  you need to make wraps)Ssam Bar Buns

The Porgy and the rest of the meal help cement this one, not only as part the Z-List, but as one of my favorite restaurants in NYC.  Maybe top 5.   The signature steamed buns are perhaps better then Ippudo’s me thinks now (making a historic change of mind).  The spicy sausage with rice cakes is another signature that continues to please.  The spring menu featuring the scrumptious Broccolini with thinly sliced beef tongue and egg is adds more joy.  The Porgy is $42 but can easily feed two.  Add the rice cakes, pork buns, Broccolini, and you got yourself a great meal for under $150.  The only forgettable dish this time was the Octopus salad.  No much wrong there, just average octopus

The only thing I have to mention here is that Ssam Bar will not win any comfort awards, especially if you are two people.  You will sit at a long communal table either facing workers cleaning glasses or facing each other next to other diners.  And oooh boy the place can get loud.  But we are in it for the food, and as long as no one is poking me or runs around naked with scissors, we’ll keep coming for that Porgy

Ssam Bar
207 2nd Ave (East Village)
Rating: Three Z’s (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Country Ham, Max’s Curry & Potatoes, Roasted Cauliflower, Pork Buns, Flatiron, Skate, Whole Roasted Fish Ssam, Rice Cakes

Ssam Bar - Flatiron
Ssam Bar

Categories: East Village, New York City | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Uncle Boons – Finally!

Uncle BoonsShaky initial reviews, death in the family, Michelin, the dog ate my restaurant sheet – Just some of the reasons why I never made it to Uncle Boons before.  The bizarre Michelin star actually helped for about 5 minutes since I happened to see a tweet of the leak before the news broke out, and I was able to reserve a table immediately.  But on the day of the visit, I had to cancel, and reservations since then are virtually impossible.  Just like Pasquale Jones, and others who use Resy for roughly 20% of their tables, reservations are hard to get.  Solution:  Another gondola stroll throughout Little Italy while you wait for your table.

Ironic isnt it?  That Nolita, which means North of Little Italy, that famous food street, is arguably the best food neighborhood on the east coast.  Estella, Cherche Midi, Rubirosa, Pearl & Ash, Osteria Morini, Pasquale Jones, Balaboosta, Uncle Boons are just some examples of what you’ll find in this little tiny Foodie paradise.  Thats an impressive list of Z-Listers, and Z-list wannabes.  Taking that Little Italy, Chinaton stroll is one way to combat the NoLita popularity.  Though I fear, one day, one of these “Ciao” guys trying to lure me inside a Little Italy establishment will give me an offer I cant refuse.  Btw, when a total stranger says ciao to you out of the blue, there’s zero chance that he’s Italian.

Uncle Boons Frog legsWhen you walk inside Uncle Boons you immediately notice two things.  1)  How uncomfortable everyone looks.  2) Rotisserie chickens slowly spinning behind the glass.  Clearly the chickens are there to serve as hypnosis, especially against French Rotisserie chicken loving Michelin inspectors.  Otherwise, how else would you explain the anti-Michelin scene at the bar and on the side of the entrance.  One woman was practically bent sideways while enjoying her Yum Kai Hua Pli.  Considering there are two other rooms, one with communal tables, leading you to your table is like the dining version of Russian roulette.  We survived the bullet at first it seemed, but then realized the third wheel of the booth next to us, has his back practically leaning against our table.  The place is so cramped, taking pictures of the food means taking pictures of your neighbor food as well.

But all is well at the end when the food is this good.  The two Per Se veterans created a Pok Pok like menu that is very far from your average Thai.  Just like Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker did, Matt Danzer & Ann Redding traveled all over Thailand, gathering inspiration.  And just like at Pok Pok, creative drinks is part of the game, and a certain chicken is more than just sitting pretty for Michelin inspectors.Uncle Boons Chicken

Frog Legs – If you’ve never had frog legs before, this is a good place to start.  If you had them before, order it still.  Garlic & soy marinated juicy fried legs over addictive glass noodles, and lemongrass & Thai herb salad.  There’s not a whole lot of meat on those bones understandably, but every bite counts in a big way

Crab Fried Rice – A pretty standard fried rice with heaps of chunky crab.  The flavor is there, but if there was one thing missing from that texture is some crunch by way of socarrat

Rotisserie Half Chicken – By itself, with all its tenderness and juiciness, the chicken would have been a solid but somewhat dull dish.  Which is where the sickest green mango salad comes in, along with two dipping sauces.  The lemongrass, Ginger sauce in particular works like magic with that chicken

Seafood in Broth – Another terrific dish.  Red Snapper, prawns and clams in a rich Turmeric broth.  Mrs Z’s favorite dish of the night.  Mine was the chicken

Beef Ribs – I almost ordered it, and sort of wish I did after the table next to us got it.  The best thing I can tell you for now is that it smells amazing.  Next time I would order it along with the chicken with banana blossom salad which I was all set to order until the waitress warned Mrs Z that its extremely spicy.

Dessert – I feel like the Yelp fave coconut ice cream sundae is a bit overrated.  Though it didnt make Mrs Z make a Robert de Niro face and start spitting profusely as she normally does with coconut.  The condensed milk soaked Brioche was like a French Toast gone wrong.  I dont expect greatness out of Thai dessert, so I’m not deducting anything for that.   Uncle Boons is quite possibly the best Thai in NYC right now

Uncle Boons
7 Spring St (Nolita)
$$$
Recommended Dishes: All of the above (except the Brioche)Uncle Boons Talay Uncle Boons Fried Rice Uncle Boons Coconut Ice Cream

 

 

Categories: New York City, SoHo, NoHo, Nolita | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Babbo – The Taj Mahal of NYC Italian

Babbo Black SpaghettiTo fully appreciate Babbo, one should arrive 15 minutes early.  Stand outside, check out the menu listed that includes today’s specials, and pretend that you are waiting for someone.  But more importantly, check out the people arriving.  There will be the boring arrivals – the locals and those who have eaten at Babbo before.  And then there are those with that special sparkle in their eyes.  The same sparkle you get when you finally reach Machu Picchu.  I saw a grandma with her well dressed family, pausing in front of the sign, exhale a huge sigh, followed by a smile (unless it was gas).  I watched a family of four taking their time, taking it all in, with a particularly thrilled dad who asked me to take a picture of the happy with family.  I happily obliged, and charged them $20 (the Times Square Elmo going rate at the moment).  The only time I’ve seen this type of foodie pilgrimage in NYC was the last time I waited for a slice at Di Fara.  There’s always something special about visiting a place that means so much more to other visitors.  Much like visiting the great churches of Europe, or the Taj Mahal

Babbo Ristorante is Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich first out of many ventures, opened in 1998.  One of the most celebrated Italian restaurants in NYC history, still going very strong even with an ageless menu.  Not many realize that Batali’s first was not Babbo, but a partnership at Pó, also in West Village, 5 years earlier.  Outside Babbo looks like just another neighborhood Trattoria, oddly situated on a quiet residential part of Waverly Place (may mean something to the 16 and under, unless they are like my kids who’ve been to Taim Falafel too many times).  Talking about Waverly Place kids, there were surprisingly quite a few on this particular night, some even arriving with their American Doll lookalikes.  The irony here comes after a tweet the other day where someone asked Batali if he would be willing to open a predominately kid friendly establishment.  In which he replied, kids are more than welcomed in any of his establishments already, and that he wouldnt want to alienate adults.  After all, we are talking about Italian, the granddaddy of kid friendly cuisine.Babbo

The transformation from Babbo outside to inside, is like that of a Minetta Tavern, a time machine.  Buzzy atmosphere, full bar, best of Batali ipod blasting in the background, and a VERY full staff.  Some looked busy, while some could have easily gone on a late afternoon siesta, even with the full house.  This is to me the one major difference between eating in the US and Italy.  The traffic around you is undeniable, which is why louder than usual music is required sometimes.  Not so much a complaint, but an observation.  When you score the friendliest waiter in the city of New York as we did on this night, complaints become observations.  On to the food….

Grilled Octopus with “Borlotti Marinati” and Spicy Limoncello Vinaigrette – Although it was somewhat unevenly cooked the last time, it was still good enough to not share one between four octopus loving freaks.  “Two Octopuses please”.  This time perfectly cooked, with a nice snap, and tenderness all around.  The tangy Vinaigrette, and the Borloti, aka Cranberry, aka Pinto and Cannellini had a baby beans, just add to the joy.Babbo Octopus

Pig Foot “Milanese” with Rice Beans and Arugula – Once in a while, not too often, I bump into one of those “I dont get it” dishes.  Its a popular staple on the menu, but I just dont get it.  It tasted like a potato latke gone wild.  The one that Jewish mothers throw out because it didnt come out as the other potato latkes.  Stringy, gelatiny, fried, and very flat cutlet, with a surprisingly flat flavor profile.  The only miss of the night.Babbo Pigs foot

Beef Cheek Ravioli with Crushed Squab Liver and Black Truffles – Great dish, and by far Mrs Ziggy’s fave.  If you feel any affection toward chicken liver this dish is especially for you.  Here its much about the sauce making its best Marsala interpretation, but with Squab liver mixed in with mushrooms, adding more richness to the buttery beef cheeks pureed inside the triangular ravioliBabbo Beef Cheek Ravioli

Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp, Spicy Salami Calabrese and Green Chilies (top)- Another menu staple that I’ve had before.  Its a fairly dry pasta, but packed with flavor and txture.  The squid ink Spaghetti has that nice sweet heaviness to it, with that crunchy salami, shrimp, and occasional garlic, like the gift that keeps on giving.  This is one of those dishes that makes you Google recipes when you get home.

Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage – Like a love letter from the Mario to Ziggy.  “Dear Ziggy, in honor of your unconditional support and love for Eataly, Lupa, Po, and other establishments I’ve been involved with over the years, I’m sending you these refreshing, delectable ravioli filled with peas, mint, and cheese, topped with spicy sausage tomato ragu.  As you can see, the mint and the sausage, compliment nicely, and dont overwhelm… unlike your wallet by Eataly’s Venchi chocolates.  Seriously, I know you are obsessed with Piedmont chocolates, but look at you.  Time to give it a rest.  And please please shave next time you come to Babbo.  Its a Ristorante, not a trattoria so show some respect.  Idiot!  Love, Mario”Babbo Mint Love Letters

Barbecued Skirt Steak with Endive “alla Piastra” and Salsa Verde – Just a perfectly cooked, and marinated Skirt, sliced and arranged Jenga style, on top of an ultra thick salsa verde.  A very respectable meat dishBabbo Skirt Steak

Rabbit with Honey-Glazed Baby Carrots, Peas and Salsa Verde – I normally dont have high expectations from Secondis in Italian, no matter where I go as they rarely satisfy as much as the primis and the rest of the menu.  But here they are given proper treatment, starting with this sweet, flavor packed rabbitBabbo Rabbit

Dessert – A fine chocolate cake, and a finer Semifreddo.  Another great meal at Babbo, a Z-List staple for hopefully many years to come

Babbo
110 Waverly Pl
$$$$
Recommended Dishes: Octopus, Mint Love Letters, Beef Cheek Ravioli, Black Spaghetti, Skirt, Rabbit, Semifreddo

Babbo Chocolate Cake Babbo Semifredo

 

Categories: New York City, West Village | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Weekend of Firsts: Mogador & Cookshop

Cookshop

Cookshop

We visited two old timer, neighborhood spots for the very first time this weekend, and here’s what happened.

Cafe Mogador (Williamsburg)

Considering the amount of places we visit, it almost feels embarrassing that we never made it to this popular Tagine mecca in East Village or Williamsburg.  Only the couscous gods can explain why it took me so many years, especially considering a well made Tagine is one of my favorite things to eat on this planet.  With that said, now that I’ve finally done it, and made to the schlep to the Burg, I feel like the couscous gods need more explaining to do.

Once inside, its no mistaken that you are in a bustling neighborhood spot in the heart of Williamsburg.  Arm Tattooed hipsters hovering all over, along with arm tattooed hipsters holding arm tattooed babies.  You can tell that these are the coolest babies in the world.  The ones that go to sleep before us.  The quoted 20-30 turned into a closer to an hour, though we didnt mind as the bar was roomy and the drinks were good.  Good Dark and Stormy.

Started with a nice Mixed Platter consisting of an Eggplant & Tahini concoction, an “I cant believe this is not Israeli” Arabic salad, and a surprisingly decent Hummus.  In places like this, the hummus usually lacking the creaminess, and texture that I like.  We also shared a tender tandoor marinated chicken, and a delicious grilled Halloumi cheese.  Unfortunately, and quite shockingly, the fun essentially stopped here.  The famous Tagine, with the choice of apricot & prune was fall off the bone tender and juicy alright, though somewhat one-note and sweeter than should be.  Yes, apricot and prunes are sweet, I get it.  But where are those bold Moroccan spices, the Taginess you bump into from time to time like at Bar Bolonat.  The great Mogador Tagine is widely known for the best Tagine in town (Google it).  This was more like a second place potluck dinner party with friends winner.  The same, albeit, slightly lesser degree can be said about the Couscous dishes which are almost similar to the couscous you get with the Tagine.  I would consider introducing those pearl like bubbly Israeli couscous instead to go a long with the Tagine.  133 Wythe Ave (7/8)IMG_5564

Cookshop (Chelsea)

Yes, I know, I know.  I’ve never been to Cookshop.  Like Cafe Mogador, this is another super popular neighborhood spot, and yeah, I do have some serious hood envy.  But just like with Mogador, I never felt that this is a destination place.  Cookshop is long considered as one of our premier Brunch spots, and now I see why.  40 minutes wait on a Sunday morning, even though the place is kind of huge.  Its so big that the staff, when leaving and entering the kitchen area, is instructed to direct people to the vacant airplane like bathrooms that are in the same vicinity, but not directly next to each other.  A couple of them are essentially in the kitchen.  They can easily hire a bathroom attendant whose job would be to direct traffic while wearing aviation ground headset (its really loud in there) and sticks.

We had some major cooking plans that night courtesy of the Chelsea Market nearby but we did get enough of a taste here.  We started with the Beignets, filled with Di Palo’s fresh ricotta that blended nicely with the dough.  Beignets that NOLA experts may appreciate, though I cant say the same thing about the Bloody Mary.  The kids opted for burgers.  The older opted for a fried egg with hers, which had me shed a little tear.  This is the most important milestone since she tried squid ink pasta in Venice.  The burgers were nicely cooked, though the fries were salty to the point of uneatable.  100 kuddos points for removing the Beignets from the bill after mentioning this to the waitress.

The Baked French Toast here requires more attention than it gets.  It comes with poached blood oranges, and a lovely, cinnamony cream with almonds.  The nutty bread is just rich and sweet enough.  Some of the best French Toasts we’ve had in NYC.  The Roasted Broccoli & Cheddar Scrambled eggs, with caramelized onions and a fantastic supersized buttermilk biscuit was another solid dish, if not a tad too salty as well.  We enjoyed Cookshop overall.  In a way it reminds me of one of those SF Farm-to-Hipsters spots like NOPA, albeit not quite as good.  156 10th Ave (19/20)Cookshop Beignets IMG_5579 Cookshop Burger Cookshop eggs Cookshop flowers

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

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