Sunday, April 30, 2006

casa @ cupcake cafe (or is it the other way?)

51 Wilkinson Rd as I know it no longer exists, with my parents having moved out and the construction crew moving in. I haven't lived there permanently since 2001, but it is home as i know it and the only home i acknowledge, the apartments in chicago and now nyc are still just long-term accomodation.
So it was with some sense of delight that I found casa about 10 streets away from my apartment that channeled 51 wilkinson. Why do I say so? Like 51 wilkinson, casa is probably owned by a master hoarder of things, and the room and walls reflected the owner's sensibilities. The decor is an odd mish-mash of stuff inherited from grandparents, lugged in from the flea market 2 streets down, but all lovingly collected and exhibited. I was complimenting the guy manning the store about the beautiful antique cash register and he promptly told me about its history, its design and where he got it from. And proceeded to talk about the coffee grinder next to it, as old and as well maintained, and fully functional as the cash register had been. Just like the way it was at home, where my mum couldn't bear to throw a lot of the old stuff that she had amassed throughout the years and had to bring them to the new place.
It was also odd that the cool and dark room at the back of the store felt like the dining room at home, where i spent many hours poring over my study notes on the dining table, which was the only table big enough for me to spread my junk all across it. Which was incidentally what i did in casa, I picked the biggest table n dumped my cfa notes on it, ordered some breakfast and coffee and pretended to be a good student when I was actually paying a lot more attention to the coffee and warm strawberry waffle that i was to what I was supposed to be reading.
Anyway, casa's supposed to be an offshoot of the popular cupcake cafe a mere block away, so there's obviously fresh cupcakes. But when i was there, the barista, also the cashier and server (v. capable one man show) was making another customer waffles on a double waffle iron, and the smell of freshly made waffle, compounded with images of me slathering it with butter and dousing it with syrup just meant that I had to get it too... I also got a nice big cup of iced coffee that went brilliantly with the sweet syrup... I'm no real coffee connoiseur even though I drink a lot of it, but the coffee was not bitter and the expresso to milk ratio was just right. just one of the best way to start a productive saturday morning.

545 9th Ave (40th and 41st st)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Italian on a rainy day

black tagliatelle
Originally uploaded by hong.ruoxi.

It puked rain yesterday, all day long, so XH, Gerrie and my plans to visit Basta Pasta was shot... But we were still determined to eat pasta (well, I was), so we decided to just pick an italian restaurant as close as possible and hope for the best.
I made some searches on menupages and based on the reviews picked Roberto Passon. Hey! less than half a block away! 4 stars! ok.. that settled it...
Anyway, the food was fresh and decent but really nothing that special. They don't let you go hungry though, and the plates pretty much overflowed with food. My black tagliatelle with mussels and clams was ok. After the transcendatial arroz negro in Barcelona, I have yet to find another black squid ink stained dish that tasted as great, but tt's really not their fault. The arroz negro was really good =) XH had a very filling plate of spaghetti carbonara, while Gerrie took the prize for best dish of the night with rabbit on baked polenta. The polenta in particular was crunchy outside and creamy inside. Like a good piece of fried 萝卜糕
Alton Brown's little blurb about "polenta, grits, its the same thing" made gerrie and i very interested in getting our hands on some grits soon too =)
The three of us split a large warm banana tart for dessert, and while good, tasted too much like breakfast (banana nut loaf) for me to order it again.
Overall, the restaurant is a nice neighborhood place with some interesting things on the menu (black pasta, portuguese octopus, chicken liver), but given all things, I still prefer Maria Pia just a block further from home, because its more spacious and the servers were just a tad friendlier.

Roberto Passon
741 9th Ave (50th St)

Up we go to Beyoglu!

While in training, Tyler told me about Beyoglu and praised the place to the skies. In fact, he bestowed it his golden "thumbs up". Very high praise indeed. Unfortunately Beyoglu is on the Upper East Side and I live in Hell's Kitchen. The distance outweighed my appetite for turkish delights and so I remained stuck in midtown. A trip to Chinatown and a chance meeting with Tyler and his wife at Yeah Shanghai- another great recommendation he had made earlier and which I had fallen in love with - reminded me that this is a man with impeccable taste in food. To disregard his recommendation on Beyoglu would be a big mistake.
Finally, nine long months after the glowing recommendation was given, I took the subway 40 blocks up to 81st and 3rd withYanru and Andreea in tow to try out some authentic Turkish food. Man, was I dumb to have taken so long to get there. In short, the food was fantastic, servings were generous, the service very warm and the check very kind to the wallet!
Beyoglu is apparently very popular among Upper East-Siders and when we got there around 7, it was pretty packed already. Not an easy feat, given the plethora of food choices in the vicinity. Thankfully New Yorkers eat late. There wasn't any room left on the first floor, which was decorated in mediterranean style, with orange walls and blue tiles all around, so we were ushered to the dining room on the second floor. The room on the second floor was decorated like a cross between a provincial french dining room and the reincarnation of an italian restaurant and felt a little incongruous with the 1st floor and the turkish music playing softly in the background. But that was soon forgiven and forgotten when the food arrived.
I remembered Tyler telling me to order from the appetizer menu because he liked it best, so we decided to split a mezze plate and share a kebab amongst us girls. There was plenty to go around and with yummy bread flowing freely from the kitchen into our mouths, we didn't even manage to finish all the food. The lamb and beef kebab we had was well spiced and well cooked, but since I'm not a big meat eater, I thought it was above average but not by much. The mezze plate however, was insanely tasty. We had stuffed grape leaves, hummus, baba ghanoush, ezme (a spicy diced salad), tabbouleh, sauteed spinach and home made yogurt and all were excellently made. The yogurt was thick and tangy, the hummus and baba ghanoush creamy and smoky and were excellent foils to the sharper tastes of the salad and the very lemony and extremely yummy tabbouleh.

Mezze plate (LHS), Kebab (RHS) looks the same, yah?

Yanru declared it "the best tabbouleh I've ever eaten" And the bread is home made and warm and we could not stop tearing more bread to dip into the various appetizers. We had tried to be civilized and used spoons to scoop the spreads into individual plates in the beginning, but hygiene really plays second fiddle to easy access to good food in this case =) I was fairly certain we mopped up every bit of food on that plate. It was that good. I guess it was lucky that both the Singaporeans and the Romanian had no issues with double dipping =p We ate almond pudding after that, which was a fair but not awe-inspiring rice pudding specked with slivers of almond, bringing the feasting to a rich and decadent end.
Besides the food, service was also relatively attentive and our server was very helpful at explaining the dishes and making recommendations. During dinner we complained that the a/c was a little too strong to the server and she promptly remedied it by turning it down a little. She did this despite the fact that the room was packed and she was busying serving other table, which made us very appreciative and subsequently bigger tippers.
I may have been slow getting there, but I will definitely be back!

Beyoglu, 1431 3rd Ave (81st St)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Mozart for music and desserts

I need to get the whole take pictures before I eat part down. I need to commit it to memory.. "take pictures before you stick your chopsticks in and make a hole in the fish"... " take pictures or you are not allowed to it" ... bleah...
So yes, no pictures of Cafe Mozart in its full glory, or the apple and walnut pie i consumed at midnight on friday night after catching La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera. But people who hang out near the Lincoln Center area know all about this place, because it serves above average desserts in a cute setting, and doesn't close until past midnight, when all the other cute cafes in the area have long closed for the night. They even have a pianist playing live music from 8 pm to midnight most nights, although the room is so noisy when its packed that the music falls onto deaf ears most of the time. I feel sorry for the pianist, playing for unappreciative diners who, quite sensibly, are there for the conversation and the food and not for the music.
About the desserts, they are really good. The chocolate desserts are sinfully rich while the tarts, filled generously with fruit, come with a nice warm and crumbly crust and served with fresh cream... When eaten at midnight, its heavenly =) I had the apple walnut sour cream pie. It was most of a crumble, but I am not complaining. The apple to walnut ratio was quite nice and the crumbles, while a little too sweet for my taste, was warm and slightly crispy. When mushed up with the soft, tart, baked apples and the crunchy walnuts, the texture was very pleasing. Of course you pay for it the next day, but whatever...Oh, and since its called Cafe Mozart, it does serve some austrian desserts, such as sacher torte and linzer torte. I dont think I've tried either, so I cannot comment on the authenticity of the austrian items. I've also tried the dinner menu before and I'm not as enthralled by it as I am by the sweets. First, I really do like sweets a lot more than savory foods, and second, there was nothing really special. They covered their bases by offering pasta, fish and chicken and hamburgers too, but there wasn't anything too out of the ordinary that made me stop and appreciate the food a little more.
A tiny gripe: there is a serious dearth of food places open late at night in the Upper West Side. Besides Mozart, we saw Penang open and that was about it. All the other eateries were in the midst of closing shop by 11 pm. I guess people have more sensible sleep schedules there =)

Cafe Mozart
154 W70th St (Between Broadway & Columbus)

Thursday, April 13, 2006

belated blockheads post

This is a little belated. It is about ZZX and me at blockheads, and since he is back in Singapore and should be over his jet lag by now, this just proves that it is more than a little late... but i blame it on food poisoning.
Anyway, sometime last week ZZX was in town and he happened to be at the port authority, so we decided to meet there and then proceed to 9th Ave for some nosh. I live in the area, but as seamless and boxed dinners take over my life during weeknights, I am shamefully ill-informed about the restaurant scene in Hell's kitchen, save for my half a dozen trusty dependables (Mee, Grand Sichuan, Maria Pia, Shimizu, Wondee Siam and Blockheads, there i said it, 6). And since ZZX vetoed everything asian and wanted to try something hard to find in Singapore, i brought him to Blockhead Burritos...
BLOCKHEADS? U BROUGHT YOUR FRIEND TO EAT BASTARDIZED MEXICAN FOOD? WHAT KIND OF FRIEND ARE YOU??? yanru was thoroughly disgusted with me the next day. But, it was ok, because ZZX really wanted to try mexican food, he was happy with what he got, and even happier with his $3 margarita, so I was happy too =)
so at blockheads, we obviously ate burritos. (For the uninitiated, burritos are basically mexican-style popiah) These guys were HUGE and filled with fresh ingredients (beans, rice, meat, guacamole, with a healthy dose of salsa and sour cream on the side). you can have it for 2 or 3 meals, depending on how you sliced it. So does it make a lot of sense that we ordered one each? Sure! we were just exhibiting greed! Once again, with $3 drinks that came with healthy doses of tequila, who can complain?
At some point during the meal, when we were both too stuffed to talk, i commented that i ate the same amount as ZZX did. Which prompted him to rapidly cut up another wedge of the burrito and stuff it into his mouth. What does that prove?

1. He is very macho and can handle his burrito
2. He is being silly
3. He is hungry

Oh anyway, as I said, the burritos were at least good for 2 meals (unless you were like Mark who painfully finished the whole thing in one sitting) , so we packed the remainder home... next came the unpleasant part, i believe the source of food poisoning to be 3 day old burritos that had somehow gone bad sitting in the fridge... not that i blame blockheads or anything, but keep in mind, everything is best eaten fresh, and if you weren't as greedy as we were, SHARE!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Plump clouds of joy

We were looking for some dessert last Friday in the east village, but instead of going to Veniero's for cannolis, I suggested going to Cha-An for tea and some Japanese styled desserts instead. My dining partners obliged, thank goodness. Or else we would not have been able to try the house mochi. So good that it has taken me three tries to write about it. I swear this will be the last time I make any more edits, because I am tired and really need to get on with life and stop torturing myself with finding the right words to do the desserts justice. Anyway, just do me and yourself a favor and go to Cha-An when you are in the area, relax in the simply furnished but elegant room, sit back and let the dessert makers wow you with the subtley flavored and perfectly shaped and plated sweet treats.
The three of us each chose something different from the dessert menu. One loving suggestion to the proprietors... Expand your dessert menu! It consisted of less than 10 desserts, including two types of mochi and ice-cream =( that means 3 more visits with friends and I would have exhausted the menu...
Anyway, Ying got 2 scoops of ice cream. The green tea tasted normal, but the sake icecream was really strong and very special. You would like it if you enjoyed rice wine. I ordered the black sesame creme brulee (pictured above). The custard was soft and had the right amount of smokiness coming from the creme brulee and the ice cream was homemade and just creamy enough.
The star of the show, the scene stealer, the diva, and whatever other accolades I can pile on to a dessert was the chocolate mochi Yanru ordered. My only regret was "why didn't I order it?" Then I would have 3 perfectly shaped soft and plump mochi filled with earl-grey flavored chocolate all to myself =( It was really great, the glutinous skin was so thin it was almost translucent, but it did not lose its chewy texture. The chocolate was thick and smooth, and the earl grey flavors accentuated the sweet chocolate well. Neither flavor overpowered the other and it felt so great when you had a little tinge of chocolate left in your mouth and the fragrance of the tea just permeates through that little bit of chocolate into your bloodstream... so good... My tummy is smiling just thinking of it. I kid you not, go try it soon!
FYI, they serve meals and a lot of tea if only their dessert menu was as extensive as their tea menu =)

Cha An Japanese Tea House
230 E 9th St, NY 10003

Monday, April 03, 2006

Where are the orchids?

Answer: Everywhere!
A profusion of orchids, all of the cloth and plastic kind greeted us at Fake Orchid, a thai restaurant in the east village on Friday night. We were there because Yanru read rave reviews about the place on menupages and wanted to test whether the food was up to snuff. I tagged along, fully intrigued with the choice of name. Would you call your restaurant Fake Something? Would you? Don't you want to be the most authentic? Shouldn't your name should bolster the authenticity of your cuisine? Anyway i digress...
At about 6:30 pm, we walked into a small and relatively empty restaurant. No people to watch? No matter at all, because our eyes were promptly assaulted by a slew of bright and crazy looking things that filled the room. The ambience in the small dining room is super kitschy and very fun, what with the mismatched furniture and serving ware, bright wall décor, fairy lights and tons of fake orchids. Fake orchids littered on table tops, hung from the ceiling, interwoven into the glittery lights on the walls, even attached to the disco ball (disco ball??!!) in the middle of the room…

Crazy Room in the dark!!
Crazy room with flash... See the offending disco ball?
The kitchen and room are manned by two thai ladies and service was very relaxed but gracious. We liked Fake Orchid because it was fun to hang out there, and besides us girls, the room was relatively empty save for 2 couples. They seemed to be enjoying themselves too, but before you drag your man there, please make sure he'll feel comfortable sitting in the cramped quarters basking in pink lighting. We tried imagining a colleague sitting there and he looked pretty miserable in our minds =)
Oh and the food was fairly decent although we found it slightly pricy (entrees around 9-12 dollars) compared to other thai places in the area, such as Klong. The Fake Orchid curry I ordered was neither too sweet nor over-spiced, and I liked the addition of the lychees into the curry. It didn't do anything to enhance the taste of the curry, but at least the very least, relieves some boredom from chewing too much chicken. I also like the inclusion of edamame in the curry, adds a little bit of crunch which I enjoyed.
In the end, I think we enjoyed our meal, but while it might be a good standby for a casual night out, I might give the other thai restaurants in the neighborhood a shot (and there are very many) before going back again. Truth to be told, I think I'm getting too old to stomach this much cuteness in such a tiny space =)

Fake Orchid
440 E9th St
(between 1st Ave and Ave A)

Sunday, April 02, 2006

seamless web

Besides yahoo finance, seamless web must be the website most frequented by working professionals in the city, too busy to cook or to visit a restaurant when they could be eating in the office instead. Since I rely so much on it for meals, I might as well derive some fun out of staying in the office for dinner and write about what I eat... sheesh...why does it feel like a primary school science project?
anyway, the city in question refers to New York; seamless web is the product of some genius who must have gotten fed up with collecting wads of takeout menus and found a way to consolidate them in virtual format; bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation amongst food delivery people and me = me! haha... i'm a lunatic...