Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Nashville Skyline

A few weeks ago, Significant Eater and I took a road trip.  I guess back in the day a road trip actually took place on the road; for us, some of it took place in the air, but why quibble?  We flew to Knoxville, TN, spent a night there, and then drove west to Nashville for a few days.

There was some music playing...
As the marquee for the Historic Tennessee Theatre reads, we'd headed south to take in a couple of Elvis Costello shows, and enjoy 2 cities we'd never been to before. But, since we'd arrived just about lunch time, there was some eating to be done, right then and there, before even checking into our hotel. 

Knoxville and Nashville aren't necessarily considered BBQ heaven, at least not by the BBQ experts. Didn't stop us, as this was the first place we headed to, straight from the airport...
Where they pay homage to one of the greats...
Since we'd left DC at 7 AM, we were hungry... 

Sadly, the best part of this BBQ meal were the sides (especially the fried okra), though the sausage wasn't bad...
Knoxville's known for a few things (I think).  It's a cute little town, with nice parks and public art...
It's also known for this thing...
The Sunsphere, symbol of the 1982 World's Fair; held, I guess, in Knoxville. After enjoying the sights, we were ready for an early pre-show dinner; we'd heard about Knox Mason from a friend of a friend of a friend and off we went. Earnest, quaint and delicious w/just a hint of preciousness and we loved it, from the Sweetwater pimento cheese served with Saw Works beer bread (yes, every producer gets props on the menu)...
To the Anson Mills' Carolina Gold 'Risotto' with late season asparagus, to the Mitchell Farm ribeye with a ton of confited fingerlings ($20!!) - we were happy campers.   Going to Knoxville? Go to Knox Mason.

We wanted to hit the road early for Nashville; yes, so we could get there in time for lunch.  But to fortify for the drive, we walked over to the town center, where a huge market is held every weekend...
And a pourover from a guy without a beard is a possibility.  We wanted a proper sit-down breakfast however, so another recommend...
Served us just fine...

After breakfast, a mere 4-hour drive later, and we were in Nashville. Here...
Martin's in Nashville is one of a 4-unit chainlet (in what appeared to be an old garage), founded by Pat Martin, a well-known pitmaster.  This ain't no roadside shop...
This is Bar-B-Que, baby!  The food was pretty good - Sig Eater enjoyed her smoky pulled pork sandwich, though my Memphis Dry Rub ribs were, well, just a little dry...
After a nice walk around downtown Nashville, and perhaps a nice little nap in our 68° hotel room (oh -  a travel tip - don't go to Nashville in the summer, it's a freakin' steam bath), we were ready to head out for another pre-show dinner, and some fine dining in this historic old house...
The home to...
Yep, right there in Nashville, Sean Brock's 2nd location of Husk. Great cocktails, a fantastic room looking out onto a vegetable garden, and some excellent eats, including Sig Eater's hominy cakes...
And my chicken heart and liver skewers, served with Alabama white barbecue sauce (which uses mayo as its base rather than tomato)...
Perfect on those innards. Elvis' show beckoned, and off to the historic Ryman Auditorium we went - via taxi, as I was getting a little homesick. A great show at the Ryman was the topper to a fine day.  

Nashville has a pretty happening coffee scene, so we ended up here (in what appeared to be an old garage) first thing the next morning...
At Crema, which was the perfect way to start our day. Then we took a bit of a drive to find lunch. When you're greeted by this in the parking lot...
You keep your fingers crossed...
That Jim'N Nick's Community Bar-B-Que will do you right.  It's a chain, but sometimes you get lucky at a chain...
And finally have some ribs worthy of the drive (check out that smoke ring).  Sig Eater even liked her smoked chicken salad, so we went 2 for 2 at this lunch. And lest you think all we do is eat, we also drove around Nashville's Music Row to see this...
And this...
Dinner was a low-key affair (post-Elvis, Sunday night, after all) and we ended up a few blocks from our hotel at The Southern, a big, bustling bar with steak and oysters as the draw. Service was extra-friendly (the oysterman comped us a few of his favorites) and we had a nice enough time, and okay enough food, before heading back to our hotel.

Since our flight back to DC wasn't until 2 PM or so, I had a plan. Head out for some coffee, and grab some final 'cue on the way to the airport. Now, you never know what you're gonna run into when you go out for coffee in other cities, but check this out...
In what appeared to be an old garage, Barista Parlor sits in an unassuming location of East Nashville.  It's huge. You know it's hip, because the baristas are all wearing canvas aprons, as if they were ready to butcher elk.  Some of their brews are made via these...
 And, direct from Brooklyn, they sell this...
And lots of coffee beans, too...
Despite all the posing, the coffee was great, the wait was fairly interminable, but hey - that's coffee - stop complaining!

Right up the road from Barista Parlor, in what appeared to be an old garage, sat our final destination  - Edley's Bar-B-Que - winner of the 2013 Nashville Scene Reader's Poll Best BBQ!  We ordered two lunches to go; Sig Eater a spicy pulled pork sandwich and me the smoked turkey platter, for something a little different.  We kept our fingers crossed they wouldn't be confiscated by the TSA.

And you know what? Even out of styrofoam, this was probably the best bbq of the trip - I'm sorry I missed the ribs (available at dinner only), but my turkey was juicy and smoky and her pulled pork sandwich was juicy and smoky, and the covetous looks we garnered were proof that we might've hit Nashville BBQ's mother lode.

I don't know when the next time the two of us will have a chance to be down this way - but if it happens, I'm sure it'll be music related and I hope it'll be in the winter...did I mention it was about 1,000,000 degrees?  But it's a beautiful part of our country, the people were great and there's plenty to eat.  There's even a Nashville Skyline...

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Cherche Midi - Keith Don't Go

Keith Don't Go is the name of a song on Nils Lofgren's 2nd album, Cry Tough. It has absolutely nothing to do with the new Keith McNally restaurant Cherche Midi, which is in the same spot as the old Keith McNally restaurant, Pulino's, which closed six months or so ago - I just thought it sounded like a good title for this post.

In any event, in a mere six months, Keith has transformed what was once Pulino's, an Italian pizzeria slash trattoria into Cherche Midi, a French, well, bistro slash brasserie, I guess. In early visits, I liked Pulino's food; there was some cool stuff on that menu - I particularly remember a dish with smoked sable, a guilty pleasure of mine.  What I didn't like about Pulino's was the corner; to be exact, the southwest corner of Bowery and Houston Streets, in my mind one of the most heinous corners in Manhattan on which to put a restaurant. As someone on a website I frequent, and where I started an argument about this particular corner noted, "there is no joy going to the corner of Bowery and Houston." Additionally, the place had windows that were thrown open to that corner; why exactly, I'll never know...my memory fails, but there may have even been cafe tables outside, which is great if you like eating at a bus stop.

Fast forward to now, and even though you can't change the corner, the windows are gone and once inside you'll barely know where you are; if your imagination works well, maybe you'll think you're on the right bank - although that might be pushing it. Suffice to say - it's a hell of a lot nicer inside now, though if you're sensitive to noise, it's as noisy as many of the McNally places, especially as the evening progresses.

Significant Eater and I had stopped in about two weeks ago for an after dinner drink and last night I made my way back, specifically to try the burger, which has been raved about in various articles, in blogs, etc.  So when I arrived early last night, I took a seat at the practically empty bar, and checked out the drink menu.
The head bartender just happens to be the bartender I've known for years from another McNally joint, Schiller's Liquor Bar, and he rightly steered me towards a Julia's Blush, a riff on a Jasmine (a drink I first had made for me by Kenta Goto at Pegu Club).  It's Campari heavy, with gin, lemon juice and agave taming the bitter - and it's delicious and perfect for a hot night.

It's also $15, as are all the cocktails, which in this day and age in NYC is not crazy, but once the price creeps up to $17, all bets are off. I enjoyed it as I decided what to have for my appetizer; thankfully, the menu is simple compared to the new style of menu. You know the ones -  with starters, small plates, middle sized plates, larger plates, in-between plates, pre-desserts, desserts, and on and on, until you end splitting like 7 things and paying twice as much as you used to.  Here, it's appetizers, entrees and sides - what a concept!

I decided on something cold for my appetizer, an heirloom tomato gazpacho with pickled shrimp...
And it was quite good.  Thick and rich, not too smooth, with the pickled shrimp adding a nice, well, pickled note. For my entree, the burger.  A LaFreida burger (is there a freakin' burger that isn't LaFreida's?), it's allegedly made from dry-aged trimmings from the dry-aged prime rib, which is also on the menu, along with some short-rib, which isn't. It's topped with roasted mushrooms, bacon marmalade and aged gruyere, and I'm guessing the buns are made somewhere in the McNally world - like at Balthazar bakery. It comes with fries, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle slices, and it looks like this...
It's good.  It was cooked to perfection. It's really good, as a matter of fact, the dry-aged beef adding that cheesy funkiness I happen to like. If I have one complaint, it's that the bun may be a little too big for the burger, but it was toasted and held together beautifully, and you can't ask for much more than that. And the fries - still some of my favorite fries in the city. From Balthazar, to Minetta, to Schiller's - the fries are fine.  And just to pretend I might be in France - I dip 'em in mustard - try it, you might be surprised.

The tariff for the burger and fries - $21.  Not bad, when you consider that a side of fries is $9 on this menu. Same price as the Spotted Pig's and cheaper than Minetta Tavern's Black Label entry.

It'll be interesting to me to see if Cherche Midi has a long run. As I mentioned above, I felt that one of the main reasons for Pulino's closure was specifically the location.  But now the Bowery is home to a dozen or more restaurants, all on a stretch that was unimaginable a decade ago.  The crowd is different than Schiller's was, back when it was the lower east side's hottest spot and they could squeeze 8 models into a booth made for 4.  So it remains to be seen whether the crowds will continue to come (and it was crowded by the time I left last night), with all those other choices nearby.

Me - I'm heading back with Significant Eater soon.  The menu has lots to explore, and it's the kind of food we really like to eat. My guess? On our next visit, she's gonna want that burger too.

Cherche Midi 
282 Bowery, NYC

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bagel Wars

New York City has never been short on bagels.  At least not since the early 1900s, when the International Bagel Bakers Local 338 was formed. Hundreds of bagel bakeries existed - my paternal great-grandfather was a bagel baker in the Bronx - as a matter of fact, he and my great-grandmother are buried in the Bronx Baker's Mutual Aid Society plot at a cemetery in Springfield Gardens, Queens. (I also have a seltzer-man in my background, who sold seltzer off of a horse-drawn cart, but that's another story).  Of course, hundreds of bagel bakers and bakeries meant that there eventually were competing unions, non-union shops, strikes, strife, walkouts, lockouts and all that good stuff that comes along with a good product, the labor that it takes to make a good product...and ownership. Socialism aside (and Socialism is what was behind those early labor unions and why they were important), along came Harry Lender, who basically screwed the pooch, by first mass-producing bagels (with a machine he bought, but didn't invent) and then by perfecting the slicing and freezing of his mass-produced bagel.

Eventually, all hell broke loose, bagels grew to ginormous size, and whoever first put a blueberry into a bagel should get 30 smacks with a stale bialy. When I moved to California (a long time ago), I was sad and missed bagels (and don't get me started on pizza); that is, until I found a bagel place where they actually made bagels the old-fashioned way - hand-rolled, boiled and baked - in San Jo freakin' se. I patronized them for years until I moved back to New York...the land of the giant bagel (I'm looking at you, you decrepit, old, morally, spiritually and physically bankrupt H&H) - the better to make a sandwich on - something a bagel was never meant to do, in my opinion; that's what sliced bread, baguettes, rolls, lettuce leaves (please) and god-knows-what are all for - NOT BAGELS!  

Fast forward to 2014 and within the last three months, two brand-new bagel places have opened (and I think there's another on the way).  Both claim to hand-roll, boil and then bake their bagels the old-fashioned way - even if one is Montreal style, and boils in honey water and bakes in a wood-fueled oven, and blah blah blah (I imagine old Harry is spinning in his grave about now). So, what better way to spend some time, with Significant Eater available as a taster, than by trying these two new offerings?

Let's first take a look at the products side by side. Hmmm.....

I detect some ginormity in the Baz bagel, as well as a rather generous hand with the toppings...


When put on a scale, the Baz bagel weighed anywhere from 2 - 3 ounces more than the Black Seed bagel - which was right in the ballpark of what a real bagel should weigh (just under 3 ounces). Here's an interior view for perspective...
But really, it's all about taste, isn't it?  And to be honest, to really taste-test a bagel, they should be eaten fresh - not the next day, not frozen, not whatever, but because of time constraints, I had to use the toaster.  One half of each bagel was cream cheesed, and one half was buttered...
The far-from-final analysis gave us a clear-cut favorite.  The density, the weight, the crustiness and the taste of the Black Seed bagel did it for us...though Sig Eater did note that they were a bit sweet from their honey-water dip. The wood-burning smoke is evident while the bagels are still in their bag, but not really so much in the finished product.  And the Baz bagel, which had a nice flavor, just did not have enough crust-to-crumb ratio for us...it's sandwich sized. Additionally, and don't tell Sig Eater, I tasted the bagels before they were toasted - and liked Black Seed's more that way as well.

Oh - one little thing - I still prefer the minis that Russ & Daughters sells - they're specially made for R & D by the Bagel Hole in Park Slope, and they're my favorite.  You can't make a sandwich on them, and why would you?  Bagels were always meant to be enjoyed, a half at a time, with a schmear and a bit of lox.

So don't worry, great-grandpa Harry.  Someone will get it right one of these days.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Ship NYC

The Ship New York is a brand new cocktail bar (lounge, place, joint?) that has just opened at 158 Lafayette Street, so I'd say it's slightly off the beaten path - at this point, although there are hotels and stuff quite nearby.  Its owners and partners have great backgrounds; one is a partner at Little Branch, and two boast stints at places as near and dear as Milk & Honey, PDT, Freeman's, The National, and on and on.  From the outside, it's kind of foreboding...
But once inside, it's quite dramatic, boasting high, high ceilings, cool architectural details, great booths, and a fine bar.  It makes you feel like you're in the hull of a...well, really great ship...
The man in charge of the bar, Cervantes Ramirez, is a well-known cocktailian about town.  He was there at the beginning of PDT, so nothing more needs to be said, other than he's a truly nice guy who knows his spirits.

Before enjoying my first cocktail, Cervantes gave us a tour of the space and the underground tunnels and passageways that led to who-knows-where? I mean, there's also an entrance to the building on Grand Street, and back in the days of prohibition, this part of town was rumored to have lots of stuff going on under its streets.

Once back at the bar, I ordered a Martini (yeah, gin) with both an olive and a twist, or as it's called on the menu, an Oliver Twist.  It was just what was needed on this first real hot, humid and sticky day of summer...
Perfectly executed, and followed by a nice, light Americano. The menu is loaded with classics but don't forget - the knowledge behind the stick is vast, and they'll make you anything you want to drink. I particularly like that they have a drink called a Bartender's Choice, and while certainly not the first place to offer such a concoction, they state plainly and simply on the menu that if you don't like it you can send it back and there'll be no hard feelings. Hospitality with a capital H.

There's also a food menu, with bites that look like they'll go perfectly with cocktails.  Since we had dinner plans, we didn't indulge, but that's just one more reason for a return trip.

The Ship New York
158 Lafayette Street, New York

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Bees Have It; Bar Primi and Bacchanal, That Is

Restaurants open at a pretty fast clip here in NYC.  As summer approaches, it sure seems like a new one opens every day.  And though I'm not usually one to run to a restaurant that's only been open for a day or two, over the past few weeks we've tried a number of brand-new places.

There was, you'll recall, Bâtard.  Then, over the past week, Bar Primi, Bacchanal and a new ice cream parlor, Morgenstern's. Where to start?

Well, let's start with Andrew Carmellini and Sal Lamboglia's Bar Primi.  I met a friend; we sat at the bar. Had a laugh when I went to move one of the bar stools, which looked heavy and meaty, and turned out to weigh about 4 ounces.  Picked it up with my pinky. And it, like most bar stools these days, was about as comfortable as it was heavy.  But fuggetaboutthat, because we really liked what we ate. One starter, stuffed meatballs, was delicious.  Big, tasty balls, stuffed with a bit of cheese, topped with a fantastic red sauce.  3 to an order - $12, and worth it. Another starter was the baked clams and these I didn't like half as much.  4 to an order - $12...take a pass.

Then on to the pastas - something AC has always gotten right. These were no different; as a matter of fact, they were great. My bucatini with lamb "Amatriciana" was nice and funky from the lamb, with a nice hit (like a good Amatriciana has) of heat. The pasta was cooked perfectly.  Friend's spinach cavatelli was also a winner, served with a white veal sugo and topped with Piave cheese, a full-bodied cow's milk from the Veneto. Good stuff.  The pastas (for now) are all under $20.  Cocktails were OK; there are at least 15 Italians wines on offer by the glass.

On Friday night, Significant Eater and I walked the other way on Bowery, to the corner of Kenmare St., and checked out brand-new Bacchanal in The Sohotel.   Chef Scott Bryan also comes with quite a pedigree.  Cocktail king Naren Young heads up the bar, and the cocktails are, as to be expected, great.  As are the people behind the bar - and I'll give a shout out to both Erica and Vanessa, who took great care of us. But once again, I'll point out that the bar stools are mostly meant for the young 'uns, who will undoubtedly be flocking here as the Bowery morphs into the new Meat Packing district.

While our starter of codfish fritters were just right, we weren't knocked out by the sweetbreads. Described as "crisp sweetbreads" on the menu, I think I was expecting something more along the lines of Chang's seminal popcorn sweetbreads, from back in the day at Momo.  We moved on to a pasta and a risotto dish, both of which, to be frank, left us wanting more. The swiss chard and ricotta agnolotti were kind of one note, and the poppy seeds in the sauce were just, to my mind, weird.  The hen of the wood risotto was served quite soupy, the way a seafood risotto should be served; I guess I expect a mushroom risotto to be a bit "tighter." It's a work-in-progress, obviously, and with a chef this good, I expect it will only get better.

For dessert, we headed up the block to #2 Rivington Street, where Morgenstern's Finest Ice Cream parlor just opened. Significant Eater went inside to order, while I watched the parade go by on the street.  Place was jammed; the ice-cream was good. But I'll probably still head to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, which has always been my favorite for frozen treats on the lower east side.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Bâtard - We're On Hallowed Ground In Tribeca

I guess you could call it hallowed ground, that space at 239 West Broadway, where some 30 years ago Drew Nieporent, along with a youthful (weren't we all?) David Bouley, opened Montrachet, their ode to fine French cuisine and, of course, fine wine.  At the time, I was living in the San Francisco Bay area, toiling away in Silicon Valley, barbecuing and grilling in my backyard, and heading to Jeremiah Tower's Stars and Berkeley's gourmet ghetto whenever I got the chance.

Montrachet had a fine run, followed in the same space by Corton, with its esteemed chef Paul Liebrandt.  When PL left (after 5 years) to open The Elm in Williamsburg last summer, Nieporent was cagey about what would happen next with this space that has been a destination for 30 years. Fast forward to May, 2014 and now we know; happily, Significant Eater and I got a taste of it this past weekend.

Along with co-conspirators John Winterman (late of Daniel) and Chef Markus Glocker (late of Gordon Ramsey at The London), Drew and the rest of his team appear to have another winner on their hands. My wet Plymouth Martini was well made and served in a beautiful (though unchilled) glass - I hope the $17 tariff will cover breakage, and Sig Eater's Aviation was just right.

Menus are offered in 2, 3 or 4 courses...
And surprise, surprise...this kitchen can actually figure out how to parse your order, unlike (too) many places that open these days, where the dishes come out of the kitchen when they're ready, not you.  You want 3 savory courses? No problem.  One of you wants to order 3 courses and one wants 4? They can do that - I know because that's what we did; they handled it well, but then again these guys are pros.

Sig Eater's first course was the English pea soup...
Simple, right?  And just about perfect; the creamy texture of the soup makes those crispy, organ-y sweetbreads even better. Tiny pea tendrils and a salsify crumble add bite and crunch.

Lobster and asparagus make a fine combo, no?
Indeed, here they do, with the chunks of delicate lobster accompanied by stuffed zucchini blossoms and an expertly fried quail egg.   The kitchen was kind enough (and once again, pro enough) to split my second savory onto two plates, so we didn't have to battle each other for that last spoonful of the insanely rich Parmesan risotto.  Beware - if you order and eat a whole portion of this, your appetite will wane, even with the nettles, ramps and sunchokes doing their best to help ward off the gout.

Sig Eater decided to have beef for her main course...
The tender strip was fine, but the braised cheek really brought the beef.  Served with a cauliflower puree, baumkuchen (go ahead, look it up), and Romanesco, this ought to satisfy one's cow craving for a while.

And my main? Rabbit, "Flavors of Bouillabaisse," of course.  I had already heard about how good the rabbit was, but I still was knocked out by the tenderness of the bunny.  And the fabulous saffron ravioli didn't hurt either. Take a look at the little ribs served along with the chunks of rabbit...
Just a fabulous dish.  Dessert, or rather cheese, beckoned, and we shared our order of Époisses, because eating a whole order would have been, well, decadent.  And then, since the kitchen was out of the Key Lime pie, we were comped the Black Forest, which satisfied Sig Eater's chocolate craving (for the night, at least). I ordered the poached stone fruits, which was fine to counter my guilt for eating like a pig, though you'd really have to convince me to order lemon thyme ice cream if any other flavors are available.

And what to drink with all this food?  Well, I'm a wine neophyte, but the by the glass list seems to go along with a broad swath of the menu...
A pet peeve? Sure. When I asked which wine might go nicely with the lobster, I was poured the most expensive glass of white, and then again with my rabbit. And when Sig Eater asked the same question about her beef, you got it - the most expensive red got poured. And then the 2nd most expensive red for a second glass. So be aware - our wine bill was $111, and the 2 cocktails added another $31. It's not a complaint, just a pet peeve - and a caveat emptor - because I could've just as easily ordered a glass by name. I did that with the risotto course, and enjoyed my choice of the New York Riesling with the rich rice.

As I've mentioned in some previous blog posts, Sig Eater and I are celebrating some big-deal birthdays this year, and we're treating ourselves well. But even if it wasn't a big birthday year, we'll happily return to Bâtard.  For a one-week old restaurant, and a first visit, the food and service were fine indeed.

Bâtard
239 West Broadway, NYC
(212) 219-2777