Food for Thought

July 12, 2010

This past weekend was our now annual reunion trip to Saratoga Springs. If you haven’t been to Saratoga, particularly in the summer, you should put it on your list. It’s a beautiful town, with a ton of life and we have found it extremely easy to find weekend rentals for a crew. It is always fun to see what’s new and what has mysteriously remained (I’ll never understand Hot Sauce stores), because for food and booze, the town is full of awesome options.

The stand out addition to the town is the Saratoga Winery which started production back in 07 but has just recently started selling their 2008 vintages. The tasting room was a blast! But as with most reunion trips, we did a lot of reminiscing at some of our old, favorite spots.

Our Saturday night meal got me thinking though. Gotchya’s, a restaurant I had only been to once before, has a quirky yet familiar italian menu full of fresh pasta, great flavors, and fun service. At least that’s what we had all remembered. This time around, we felt like we had intruded on someone’s family dinner; and this was not a family I would want as my own. The place was fairly empty scattered with what had to be regulars. Nothing came easy. Ordering took forever, the food took longer, and that fresh, homemade menu was replaced by overwhelming large portions of so, so food.

Since we all had such positive memories, and had also all agreed on the new assessment, had the restaurant really lost it’s touch, had the service had an off night, or had we really been the ones that changed? Since we all gorged on Hattie’s fried chicken the night before without thinking twice, I can’t say it was all about us. But there is no question, expectations and experiences change your food perspective. At least we all still like each other!

So maybe we won’t be going back to Gotchya’s, but I’m sure we will be back in Saratoga!


The Top of The List: Blue Hill at Stone Barns

July 2, 2010

Farm to table, local, sustainable, and organic are labeling terms that bombard our every food experience. And even if you spend the time to educate yourself on what is “good” and what is “bad”, confusion is inevitable. Good for me? Good for the environment? Good for the country? But there is nothing confusing about what Dan Barber has accomplished at Stone Barns, a center for food and agriculture. Simply put, the experience of dining at Blue Hill is a whimsically and intelligent reminder of how beautiful the connection between our farms and our food can truly be. Here, labels are not necessary.

I’ve mentioned before my fear of expectations. Hype is a growing symptom in the restaurant industry. A symptom that has doomed establishments before they even open their doors. Yet to say I was hyped in my anticipation to dine at Blue Hill would be a bit of an understatement. No problems here; my expectations were surpassed before we even exited the car.

Driving through the windy roads of the farm you get the first glimpses of the magnitude of Stone Barns. Cows grazing, vegetables growing, and farmers tending is the instant sign that this will not be your typical dinner reservations.  We spent two hours roaming the farm snapping photos and pausing in awe of what we were seeing. Sure maybe I was a bit more pumped to see the varietals of lettuce where Em was a bit more excited to see the donkey and sheep, but it didn’t matter. Maybe we got lucky with the weather and the sun set, but Stone Barns felt straight out of a fairy tale.

When we made our way through the dining room to sit out on the patio for a drink (see the first pic above), I found my eyes darting in all directions to catch what was being served; more anticipation. But I know the best settler for anticipation: cocktails. A  pickled ramp martini and a farm strawberry sangria were highlighted by crisp freshness perfect for the late setting sun; romance in every way, shape, and form.

As we finished our cocktails, we were taken to our table where we were greeted with the “menu”. At Blue Hill, choosing  apps and entrees flies out the window replaced only by a list. A list of freshly available ingredients that will be crafted into a mix of small plates making up a five course or eight course feast excites as the very definition of seasonality. The majority of the food does come from Stone Barns. The rest to be supplemented by local farms, sustainable fisheries in Maine, and other Hudson Valley specialities.

A series of amouses fly from the kitchen each showcasing simplicity at it’s finest. Baby vegetable crudite that taste so freshly picked you are sure the added flavor is the earth itself. Sugar snap pea “burgers”, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and sesame seeds, and house made charcuterie continue to mystify as little bites pack more flavor than you ever thought imaginable. Surprisingly Em’s favorite, and one of the most interesting pieces to our meal was the pork liver mouse sandwiched by two thin wafers of  bitter dark chocolate. If I told you it tasted like bologna would you think I was nuts?

Even with all this food, little did we know our meal had barely begun. Fresh bread served with farm churned butter and vegetable salts (beet, asparagus, and carrot) was good enough to eat forever. It’s a good thing I stopped after two thick slices because it would have kept on coming.

The first course, a medley of summer fruits and vegetables included the stand out grilled peaches along with a number of other perfectly plated bites of the early days of summer. Next came a gorgeous bowl of maine shellfish w/ english peas and sepia (a cuttlefish related to squid) garnished tableside with poppy seeds straight from the source. Third came a soft poached egg that creamed perfectly with a few more english peas artistically covered by rice paper embedded with flowers and fresh herbs. It was the only time we considered taking the camera out, but our noses and stomachs won out. Last of the savory courses showcased a cut of lamb I had never had before. The lamb’s neck was rich and gamey, but tender like a skirt steak to the point of ridiculousness. I could have had three more! Our meal concluded with a “peach melba”. A juicy sweet peach over a loose cookie topped with fresh berries and honey shaved ice.

Looking back at the meal, I can’t help but obsess over the simplicity. But even more so, the level of flavor achieved through this simplicity. And it’s clear that the chefs and the wait staff are more than the typical. They carry out their jobs in great appreciation of what the farm produces for them, and for us. They are knowledgable, friendly, and attentive almost to the point of absurdity. Although I can only imagine some of the folks they must attend to.

Blue Hill is like no other. At least not in this country. At least not that I’m aware of. For me, it was the greatest experience I could have asked for. My earnest appreciation goes to what Blue Hill stands for, and the elegant execution is inspiring. It may be a bit out of the typical “Friday night out” price range for most of us but I promise you it’s worth it.

Enjoy your 4th of July!

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

July 1, 2010

The night at Blue Hill at Stone Barns was without a doubt the most memorable culinary experience I have ever had. I unfortunately do not have time to post more today but I wanted to share some pictures of the “menu”. We spent two hours wandering through the farm taking in the magnitude of what Dan Barber has accomplished. More to come tomorrow…

The List: Gemelli (Narberth, PA)

October 29, 2009

“Where have you been!”

I know. I asked myself the same question this morning. It’s been a crazy month and despite having kept busy in the kitchen, I haven’t been letting you in on my most recent endeavors. Even with some more work for Silver Caterers (which I’ll post soon), I find myself searching for some new inspiration. Because no matter how well you can cook, sometimes you just need a refresher. A refresher on what makes a dish fantastic, and what makes a meal truly memorable.

This past weekend, I ventured home (outside of Philadelphia) and had one of those truly memorable meals. My good friend, Clark Gilbert, just recently opened his own BYO in downtown Narberth. Gemelli, a French and Italian inspired bistro, has a awesome menu studded with classic flavors and creative twists that could get any diner excited. We had the opportunity to go on a Friday night where the dining room was bustling as the kitchen (which is open to the diners) pumped out dish after dish. I’m always a bit amazed with open air kitchens, mainly because it requires so much more. And anyone who has worked in a restaurant, front or back of the house, can appreciate that.

But it was the food and service together that make Gemelli so special. The four of us tried a number of the appetizers including the beet salad, the mussels, the calamari special, and the tuna tartare with veal cheeks. All were prepared perfectly, but the tuna tartare was my favorite. The combination of flavors and textures took a fairly common menu item and made it feel brand new. For entrees, my gemelli with lamb bolognese, merguez, and broccoli rabe was savory and delicious. Although I was too busy eating my own to sample the spinach and ricotta ravioli and the chicken breast with piperade, I am sure they were both delicious. Why? Well an empty plate is the surest sign of success. But lastly, my favorite dish, a dish I had been excited for since I found out Clark was opening Gemelli, was the pappardelle with braised rabbit, cerignola olives, and spinach. If you haven’t had rabbit or even if you had, this rich and hearty dish is the one to try. The balance between the ingredients is a perfect example of what cooking should be.

But what’s a meal without good service. In a space that is easily filled, especially on a busy weekend night, not once did we feel rushed or unattended. And you might be saying to yourself, “well you knew the chef”. That may be true, but it’s easy to see through the sounds of conversation and clinking forks and spoons that this dining room was being run correctly. And with fantastically priced menu items and the prospect of bringing your own wine, how can you really go wrong?

Ultimately, Gemelli is the kind of place you would want to be a regular at. So go give it a shot. You won’t be disappointed.

Gemelli Menu

The List: Five Napkin Burger

September 30, 2009

Five Knapkin Burger

Burgers are no longer just burgers. Whether it’s been the economy playing a role or maybe even more the ever growing popularity of jazzed up comfort food, burgers have become the talk of the town. How can I be so sure…Enter Martha Stewart.

I’ve never really been a Martha follower but I know many that live and die by her recipes and suggestions. But when I heard that she was having a burger episode, I knew I had to check it out. With the likes of Daniel Boulud, Pat LaFrieda, and Bill O’Donnel (Corner Bistro) appearing to discuss their preferences in burgers, I knew this was more than just Martha. And man, was I pleasantly surprised to see Andy D’amico show up to discuss his Five Napkin Burger. A burger which I’ve been meaning to try for a long time…

I have been to two other Andy D’Amico restaurants (Marseilles and Nizza) and have loved them both. I have not however been to Nice Matin, the restaurant where his newest restaurant, “Five Napkin Burger” gets its name. The burger in question had been on the menu at Nice Matin, and with the spark of the new place, the quality had to be high. I finally made it to FNB last week and having seen the deliciously thick all chuck patty topped with carmelized onions, comte cheese, and rosemary aioli on the show, I wasn’t about to try anything else. That is until I saw this….

Five Knapkin Hot Dog

Are you serious! The Five Napkin Dog, an 8 oz kobe beef hot dog topped with mustard, cheddar, relish, tomatoes, onions, pickles and jalapenos was too appealing to resist. Luckily for me, I was eating with a few others who went for the burger. But back to the hot dog. I never order hot dogs at a restaurant. They are either puny and regular, or not really hot dogs. Sure I understand that a sausage is the same idea, but if you say hot dog, I want hot dog. This version was not only huge, it was delicious. With such savory all beef flavor without really any of the grease. You’d think after chowing down on such a big hot dog, you’d feel a bit nauseous. Not I; not even after I ate a third of one of the burgers.

Martha was dead right including the FNB on the show. This burger is thick, juicy and really delicious. And Andy’s suggestion that I remembered right at the last minute is spot on. He says they laugh when people reach for the ketchup. It sounds ridiculous right? It’s a burger, so put ketchup on it. Well give this one a shot with out because the combination of flavors is spot on. And just with the hot dog, the juiciness doesn’t end up as heaviness. The bun is a great compliment soaking up all the great flavors and the french fries are crispy and salty as the should be. The portions are great, the prices are reasonable and if you’re in the area, you have to give this one a shot. I’m sure the other options are great as well, but it will be tough to stray from their Five Napkin classics.

The List: Vatan

August 19, 2009

Picture 2

For the two years I have lived in New York I have always been intrigued by Vatan. A vegetarian indian restaurant sitting on third ave directly next to the hell that is Tonic, Vatan always seemed to be a bit mysterious. Maybe it was the fact that renovations kept it closed for a good portion of these years or maybe more so because of the deliciously eclectic menu they serve in what I had only heard was a whimsical ambiance. With all the restaurant information online, it’s rare I walk into a place unaware of their menu and the $31 prix fixe menu (all you can eat) consisting of a multitude of Indian dishes served all to everyone is completely consistent with how I enjoy Indian cuisine. But I was very concerned going in because of all the recent poor reviews I read on a number of the restaurant review websites. I was prepared to be let down and to only wish I had traveled down to Raj Mahal instead. But I was overwhelmingly surprised with our meal.

The ambiance is really different. Unlike the vast majority of restaurants that pack you in like a can of sardines to maximize their customer base, Vatan has a bi-level seating arrangment with a ton of open space leaving you to enjoy your meal with your other guests. The lighting is darker than you’d expect but it is lit up by a giant purple lit Ganesha (I believe I’m correct on this one). All in all, as you dine with your shoes flipped to the side, you don’t feel like you are in the city, and that is always appreciated.

Picture 1

The food is served almost immediately starting with the appetizers. As I mentioned the menu consists of a multitude of vegetarian indian dishes and each guest is served a small portion of everything on a cafeteria like platter. I’ll admit the immediateness of the service reminds you that the food has probably been made in large portions and is sitting in the back waiting, but that was quickly erased when I started eating. The highlights of the platter for me were the fried hot peppers with garam masala and a really interesting fried pastry filled with a yogurt and potato sauce called Sev Puri. Each of the components had the strong flavors so loved in Indian Cuisine and the portions were much larger than necessary.

This I think was the most interesting part of my experience. So many of the reviews I had read commented on how the portions were too small. The thing is, the plates are provided giving you a small sample of each. The point isn’t to walk in and order an appetizer and an entree. It is to enjoy the variety and those reviewers complaining about this clearly suffered from a mistake in expectation.

As we received our entree portion (offered in mild, medium, and spicy) I was already a bit on the full side. But the dishes served during this course were just as enjoyable as the appetizers. The lentil soup and the cauliflower and green pea dish really stood out in my mind as the best. The entrees were pretty typical of what you would expect from Indian Cuisine but nevertheless, the execution and the variety was once again fantastic. I’m not really sure how people are capable of ordering more (it is all you can eat) because I was beyond full before the dessert showed up.

Luckily the dessert platter was much smaller consisting of a small cup of amazing chai tea, along with some mango ice cream and what we were told was “made from lentils”. Everything was fantastic and the lentil dessert was really interesting. Almost like a sweet lentil fritter. I’m not sure how I finished it all, but I did.

Honestly, I really enjoyed this place. With all the negative reviews of late and the higher than usual price for Indian food, I was expecting disappointment. But therein lies the problem with reviews. Sure, if you want good Indian food for cheap, Vatan is not for you, but if you are looking for an interesting environment to enjoy a whole bunch of variety than is $31 all that bad. We go out to eat for the experience not just the food and I was thrilled with our experience. That being said, Vatan is probably an occasion restaurant. I think I’ll stick to Raj Majal for my regular Indian fixes.

Vatan: 7.5/10

The List: Dumont Burger

August 10, 2009

With all the continued talk of eating in on a budget (thanks Time magazine cheapskate blog), and the creativity that goes along with it, it would be easy to forget about all of the wonderful options for dining out. Challenging yourself in the kitchen is crucial to gain the confidence it takes to cook and eat well on your own, but to ignore the perspective gained and the experienced had from dining out would be a big mistake.

Dumont Burger

One of the most discussed topics in the food world as of late is the re-emergence of the burger. You’d be hard pressed to find a food blog or food magazine that hasn’t come up with their ultimate list. But with burgers, there is so much to consider. Are you a greasy spoon lover? What’s your bun preference? Thick or thin? American or swiss? Can one list really account for all these discrepancies. Well I’d argue not, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying their recommendations.

Epicurious recently listed Dumont Burger in Williamsburg as one of their top 12 burgers in the country. I have heard great things about Dumont and having passed by it multiple times and seen a packed house, I had only hoped their reputation was valid. The atmosphere is pretty consisent with that of the area. You know what your getting when you head over to Williamsburg and despite the “hipster tude” that was complained about in other reviews, I found our waitress pleasant and helpful.

Despite the enormity of the burger plates from those sitting next to us, we decided to start with a bowl of corn and clam chowder. The soup was really awesome. A ton of that salty clam flavor with just enough corn sweetness. I think this was a special for the night, but if you happen to see it on the menu, give it a shot.

As for the burgers, once again the taste and execution was spot on. They actually offer a smaller version of the burger which is nice considering not everyone can devour one of the full sized, but that didn’t stop me. At $12.50, this burger is a great deal. Served with fries or a salad, the only complaint would be the additional cost for toppings (including cheese). But that being said, the meal was well worth it. The burger was thick and juicy, cooked perfectly, and seasoned really well. The house made pickles were a really nice touch and the fresh toppings (bibb lettuce, tomato, and red onion) were actually fresh. And what about the bun? The fluffy brioche absorbs the juices of the burger and compliments the patty perfectly. The fries were also really great (crispy and salty) and clearly not an afterthought like they are at so many burger joints.

I could easily understand why Epicurious would rate Dumont Burger so highly. An exceptional example of great execution and fresh ingredients bundled with great sides and cold beer. What else could you really ask for?

Dumont Burger: 8.5/10

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