The List: Cocoron NYC

October 25, 2011

 

Cocoron Soba Noodles - Photo from Serious Eats

It’s been over 8 months since I last posted about a restaurant; that post being about our meal at Eleven Madison Park, by far one of the most fantastic and lavish meals I’ve ever had in my life. So it seems awfully fitting that the latest restaurant on my List, 8 months later, gets back to my core. Cocoron, a 20 or so seat Soba noodle shop on the LES is not fancy or expensive. But I can tell you one thing, it’s friggin delicious!

Ramen noodles have become a NYC craze as of late. The perfect example was our recent attempt at Ippudo. Touted as one of the city’s best, Ippudo is packed to the gills on a regular basis. I should have known better before going but when being told there was a two and half hour wait to dine, it’s fate was sealed. I’ll probably never go back. Here’s the thing, I’m sure it is great, but two and half hours for noodles…no thanks!

But after we waited a full hour and fifteen for Cocoron, my reaction at Ippudo became a bit clearer. I think it was more the attitude of it all than the length of time. Because once we finally got four spots at Cocoron’s noodle bar (the few tables only seat two, so you can probably get a table much quicker if you are in a duo), we were treated like real guests. The waiter and waitress walked us through the menu and meal from start to finish while we marveled in the clean and fresh flavors that each dish presented.

I followed recommendations listed on my favorite food site (serious eats), and we started with the homemade silken tofu, pork and okara croquettes, and raw octopus. All three were delicious but the tofu was a perfect representation of what can happen when a few quality ingredients come together. The tofu was luscious and sweet paired perfectly with bonito, nori, scallions, and freshly grated ginger; truly wonderful.

But it was the soba dishes that really caught my attention. They come in three main ways. The “dip”  comes as fresh soba noodles next to a simmering pot of broth for self-cooking and eating. The “hot” comes as a more simplistic noodle soup and the “cold” comes with freshly cooked soba noodles ready to be doused in a chilled and flavorful sauce. My “cold” soba dish was studded with delicious pork and freshly grated mountain yam and came with a mind-blowing sesame sauce. The flavors were so clean and complimented the earthy noodles fantastically. While I only tried the broth from the other three dishes on the table, the rest of the group proclaimed more of the same. Flavor, flavor, flavor! And it’s a testament to their menu as your night continues. Because unlike a big bowl of salty ramen, a meal at Cocoron leaves you feeling healthful and satisfied.

And that comes from an attention to detail that goes beyond a typical meal out with friends. For example, when my noodles arrived before everyone elses, I waited like my mother taught me too. But the waitress informed me to eat up as the noodles were ideal at that moment and not to be left un-eaten. Luckily none of the others cared as their piping out noodle dishes came quickly thereafter. And how about the end of the meal? A note card arrives explaining the importance of Sobayu, a delicate broth they cook the noodles in. This seems strange, until you read further. Soba noodles are packed with vitamins, although some of the key ones are water-soluble ending up in the cooking liquid. The bonito broth mixed with the lingering sauce or broth is really divine.What a meal!

Cocoron means “heartwarming”. A fitting name for a great new addition to the List…


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The List: Eleven Madison Park

February 16, 2011

It was a year ago that I received a gift certificate to Eleven Madison Park. Widely considered one of the finest dining experiences in New York City, EMP was at the very top of my list. And while it seems odd it took over a year to finally make it there, I am thrilled we waited. Because after being anointed one of the world’s top 50 restaurants and receiving the rare 4th star from the New York Times, the Chef and General Manager decided to make drastic changes. These drastic changes would include the evolution of the dining experience starting with the “menu” as you can see above. 4 course meals that are directed by a single ingredient would make for a radically new experience for the diners all while maintaining the close attention to the details that made EMP what it was. Now while I can’t speak on the “before”, the “after” is a whimsical and powerful testament to the beauty of fine dining.

Simply put EMP delivered exceptional service and an ambience that screams “we pay attention to detail”. And while fine dining can often be stuffy and a bit off-putting to us commoners, Em and I were taken away by the evening. Luckily servers at a place like EMP are smart enough to adapt to their customers. But the food clearly remains the star.

Small bites of wonderment starting flying out of the kitchen onto our table as soon as our “order” was taken. A halibut dashi poured over a bundle of thyme and seaweed served like a “tea” was exceptional. Somehow managing to be delicate and bursting with flavor all at the same time, there is no question I will be craving this “tea” in the future. The miniature baguettes with two types of butter and sea salt sounds simple but the execution was flawless. The goat’s milk butter was truly amazing. And then came the truffle beignets. You’ve heard me mention the New Orleans classics from Cafe Du Monde a million times but these truffle packed versions were a whole new experience.

And then came the 4 courses. The most memorable being a hamachi carpachio with freeze-dried citrus and the black truffle puree that was texturally ridiculous. The desserts pairing chocolate with black sesame and coconut with tropical fruits were both familiar and radical in the same. And with every plate being presented as a piece of art work, our eyes did as much work as our taste buds.

While I want to apologize for seeming dramatic and over the top with my description, I simply can not. Dining at Eleven Madison Park will always be one of my most cherished food memories. And while the price tag may make this a rare occurrence, I feel it was truly worth it. What a stunning meal!


The List: Gemelli (Again!)

October 13, 2010

Gemelli's Vitello Tonnato

Even with all the great family time (I still can’t believe I’m an uncle!), I was able to check off a year-long to-do from the list. It’s been too long, but I can finally call myself a repeat customer at Gemelli in Narberth, PA. If only I could call myself a regular!

It’s rare I write about a restaurant more than once but in the case of Gemelli, an exception is warranted. It had been almost a year since my last meal at this Italian and French inspired bistro but unlike many places that experience immediate success, Clark Gilbert has managed to maintain the sense of comfort and warmth without a hint of fuss. Keeping true to it’s BYO beginnings, the dining room was once again filled with what seemed like a healthy mix of regulars and newbies creating a buzz that only furthers the excitement of the truly mouth-watering menu.

This time around we shared two appetizers and two entrees. The Calamari Salad balances earthy fingerling potatoes with perfectly cooked squid and is given the brightness and the freshness of olives and a bit of balsamic reduction. The flavors come together perfectly bite my bite as a really great way to start a meal. Sharing this along with the Arancini (fried risotto balls) proved to be a great decision as the lightness of the calamari was appreciated even more within the context of these fantastically fried balls of rich and creamy risotto. The key components to a good arancini are a crispy exterior, a creamy inside, and a great sauce as a resting place. In this case, the romesco absolutely hit the spot!

Continuing on with our entrees, and our bottle of wine (is there anything better than a good byo?) there was less and less true conversation, replaced more and more by “oohs” and “ahhs”. I should have known when we so thoroughly enjoyed the arancini, but the Jumbo Shrimp over Risotto with Peas and Tomato Broth was really exceptional. I know it sounds ridiculous to say, but I’ve become a bit of a risotto snob and it’s rare I find a risotto out to eat that I feel far surpasses my own. Particularly as many restaurants, even some of the best, continue to rely on ingredients over true technique to create the creamy consistency. But this risotto was expertly cooked and was the perfect resting place for the succulent shrimp.

With a menu full of fantastic sounding pasta dishes, it was tough to choose but the Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli with Garlic Sausage was packed with flavor and delicious to the very last bite as our second entree. Interestingly enough, I have never been a huge fan of ravioli, mainly because the typical preparations tend to be on the boring side. But with the garlic sausage and a healthy portion of stewed peppers and onions, boring would be the last word I used to describe this dish!

Even with all this praise for Clark and his kitchen’s offerings, a meal at Gemelli is truly capped off by the service and the atmosphere. I’ve been thinking more and more about restaurant decor, as it is very tough to define what is good and what is bad. But maybe in Gemelli I have found the answer. Rather than being bombarded with over the top trendy decorations or the contrasting artistic sparsity, Gemelli’s decor is warm, welcoming, and extremely comforting; and with fantastic service, it’s the kind of place that makes you want to be a regular. I know I do!


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 Best Meal I’ve Ever Eaten…

June 16, 2010

Please bear with me on this one. Because as one of the bazillion food lovers, and one of the katrillion food bloggers, speaking in superlatives is as common as that god damn Jay Z song playing during a New York sporting event. So when can we say that the best is truly the best? When does an exclamation of excellence warrant the full attention bestowed on the honoree? And when does a meal transcend the words we use to describe it?

Simply put, it’s about passion. I know, it seems dramatic. After all, I’m talking about food. But no matter what the source is, we never forget the moments when “chills” sweep over us. Maybe you’re falling in love, maybe you’ve made an artistic breakthrough, or maybe you’ve found your calling. Or maybe you’re eating at Maialino.

I have written about my previous dining experiences at Danny Meyer’s recently opened Roman Trattoria but it was this past experience that I can not get out of my every thought. In fact it has taken me an additional day to digest the experience in order to attempt this description. My love for this restaurant has not changed. The design, ambiance, and service are exceptional; right in my wheelhouse. But the food is where the passion really lies.

I could easily write on and on about the crispy and comforting fried artichokes or the bold yet delicate tripe with fresh mint and tomatoes or the perfectly pan seared sea bass served over a bed of pancetta and asparagus. All three dishes were delicious. But when I took my first bite of the Pollo all Diavola, a half chicken roasted with black pepper and pickled chili, everything I had thought I knew about food was frozen in time, replaced by one thing: chills.

At this point you may think I’m nuts. After all, I am talking about roasted chicken. An overplayed, often boring rendition of a meal we’ve been eating forever. Well, I urge you to try Maialino’s. The chicken is expertly cooked providing a crispy exterior wrapping a melt in your mouth breast and thigh. But the sauce, a delicate broth of pickled chili is where the dish really shines. I have followed the rule, in my own cooking along with my own eating, that acidity pairs with richness like no other combination of flavors; the proof, none better than this chicken.

I know this is a meal that will forever change my outlook on food and the emotion it can evoke. I still find myself salivating in attempts to re-taste this chicken; to find those chills. And yes, I plan on heading back to Maialino for another meal, but not quite yet. Because the best moments in your life are meant to be cherished, not replayed into submission…

“…Concrete jungle where dreams are made of…”


The List (Harvest) and Links

June 4, 2010

As I mentioned earlier in the week, we really had a great time in Montauk. And when we go back there is two things I can be sure of. We’ll be staying at the Ocean Resort Inn, and we’ll be eating at Harvest. Harvest was described to me prior to our weekend out there, as an awesome family style Italian restaurant. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I ate somewhere family style. Unfortunately it may have been at Vinny Testa’s in Wynnewood, so let’s just say I was looking forward to some new memories.

Harvest manages to create the vibe of a romantic, upscale restaurant all while catering to the casual atmosphere that permeates through this quant beach town. In simple terms, it’s very nice without being stuffy. And just like the decor, the food would not disappoint. We started off with a simple and delicious fried calamari salad for the table that makes you realize how so often in other restaurants, calamari is underwhelming. This was lightly battered, fried to perfection and served with lightly dressed greens that complimented the richness of the squid perfectly. And with a little fresh-baked bread, I knew we were in for a good meal.

For our entrees we shared two plates (remember, family style = giant portions). The first, a seafood brushetta, which contained all of my favorite shellfish, cooked perfectly in a light white wine broth served over garlic toast, which was amazing. I’m not going to assume all of that seafood was “wild caught” locally but there is something about eating seafood when you are at the beach. It’s incomparable. The second, a duck ragu served with broccoli rabe and pappardelle was equally amazing and complimented the seafood perfectly. Many menus now have a “ragu and pappardelle” dish on the menu. But so many of them are rich to the point of nausea. This version was light, and flavorful and truly memorable.

Point being, if you’re planning on heading out to Montauk anytime soon, book a reservation at Harvest. You won’t be disappointed. Now for some weekend links…

Cuban Sandwich Mac and Cheese Lasagna – What!? This may be the most brilliant thing ever created. Sounds so good and I can’t wait to try this out sometime soon. The problem is I will need to have a number of people over for this one. Otherwise I will eat the whole thing!

101 Best Sandwiches in New York – Thanks to my buddy Timmy who pointed this out to me. Although I will warn you that it’s a lot to go through. I wonder if there are any obvious ones you’ve had that you think they missed. And I also wonder how quickly (if there isn’t one already) someone will start a blog on “eating the 101 best sandwiches in new york”. Food bloggers are so annoying…

This just in, Chef’s smoke pot – I know this is from a week or two back but I had been wanting to mention it. Maybe it’s cause I live in New York and grew up in the Northeast, but honestly this article seems just a bit outdated and a bit silly. Sensory manipulation has impacted what we eat and how for all of time, so in that context, “haute stoner cuisine” doesn’t seem like much of revelation. What do you think?


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