Friday, April 27, 2007

Union Square Cafe

Last Sunday Dawn and I dined at Union Square Cafe to investigate the reasons why it is one of the toughest reservation to score in a city filled with tough reservations, and how it has managed to stay atop the Zagat's most popular list for over a decade in a city where a new restaurant is born every 2 hours.
The place: For a place that charged so much, I was certainly expecting a much plusher setting instead of the slightly dated room with sloping floors and a tiny bathroom located too close to the main dining area. But as I settled into our table on the narrow alcove overhanging the main room, laughing heartily at times, sharing food casually with Dawn and peering voyeuristically at the food diners downstairs were eating, I realized that in a room that makes everyday food unique and ordinary events special, there was no room for opulent furnishings and chandeliers.
The savory: A pioneer of the New American bistro since its beginnings in 1985, Union Square Cafe has spawned many copycats. I guess I am spoiled and have been enjoying my fair share of seasonal cuisine and local produce, so while the food was fair, we were not particularly thrilled by the appetizer and entrees. The batter for the frito misto we shared as an appetizer was light and the seafood fresh. My osso buco was tender and the bone marrow a rich spread for good bread but too heavy for me that I brought most of it home. Dawn's duck was tasty, but a little tough and over-salted. Unlike the duo of duck she enjoyed at Cafe Boulud, where she was still waxing lyrical over, its unlikely that she'll remember this duck by next week.
The sweet: Easily the star of the night was the perennial favorite warm banana tart with macadamia brittle and vanilla ice-cream. The alchemy the pastry chef performed on the warm banana encased in the light, barely-there pastry shell, sweet and uncloying vanilla icecream and slightly salted caramel macadamia nuts was pure magic. It was so insanely good that I almost swooned upon my first bite. This humble looking tart is easily the best dessert I've ever had. Our second dish, a baked alaskan with chocolate icecream and served with fresh and candied orange and kumquat slices was unfortunately overshadowed by the extraordinary tart and played second fiddle. Without the tart however, it would have also been a successful dish.
The service: A little slow throughout the whole meal and our server seemed to be very busy with many tables at once. But, Danny Meyer is famous for his dedication towards great service and likewise our server was professional yet friendly and helpful at the same time. I had when making the reservations mentioned that we were celebrating Dawn's college graduation and our server came up to us before the meal to congratulate her. It was such a joy watching Dawn's surprised reaction. As for the icing on the cake, one of our dessert, the baked alaskan was comped, courtesy of the restaurant in commemoration of the happy occasion. It is no wonder the Union Square Cafe is the restaurant people choose to celebrate their special days.
The verdict: The banana tart is enough to bring me back over and over again, but the polished yet personable service makes this a true gem.

Union Square Cafe
21 East 16th St (bet Union Square West and 5th Ave)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Starstruck at Singapore Day

Sunshine days, tropical heat and snaking lines of hungry eaters. The ingredients that made Singapore Singapore were all present in Central Park on Saturday. In a bid to stir up some patriotism and elicit goodwill amongst the overseas Singaporeans, the government decided to stage an I LOVE SINGAPORE event, with Kit Chan belting out "Home", the requisite VIP GOH speech (the DPM was there. you need to be Singaporean to understand the acronyms) and the stars of the show, hawker/street food.
The lines were a little overwhelming at first, but worked more efficiently that the "line that morphs into a triangle that morphs into a bunched up mess" queue system that happens when one tries to get onto an SBS bus or an MRT train. The food was also very good, since the government managed to pay the best hawkers to close shop for a week and fly halfway across the world with their barang barang, and cook for the priviledged few in NYC and nearby cities for free. The servings weren't generous (they had to feed thousands afterall) but the quality was uniformly good, if not even better than in Singapore. When was the last time you ever got chunks of beef in your prata curry? Dawn, my excitable young cousin happily chomped away on kiliney kaya toast, prata, char kuey teow, chili crab and downed a bowl of peppery bak kut teh in the simmering heat. Pictures of local specialties follow...

Yeo's should make Gerrie and I their new spokespeople... seriously... Walter poses happily

Prata on the griddle. A mundane sight in Singapore, but so exotic in New York

Mr Char Kway Teow showing off his stirfry skills on the oversized wok. Unfortunately Uncle is very law by law.. Flirting did not yield bigger portions

I had much more fun than I initially anticipated, and was hardly guilt-ridden about not studying for my exam on this gorgeous day. The pleasure intensified when I met Calvin Trillin, my favorite food writer and talked to him for a good 5 minutes. Mr Trillin was quietly minding his own business and snooping around the tented areas perhaps seeking respite from the heat when Walt helped me accost him and I just descended on him like a starstruck groupie. And now I know which type of fan I am, not the dumbfounded type but the crazily chatty type that would not let her idol get a word into the conversation. I was trying to impress him with my knowledge of Singapore restaurants in the city but drew a blank, being so excited to see him. After I finally blurted out the location of one of my favorite places, he looked genuinely disappointed and said "i know exactly where you're talking about. But isn't it Malaysian?" and left. Oh god... my one chance in promoting my fair island's cuisine to a man with great appetite and discerning tastes, and all I could do was to tell him to go to a Malaysian restaurant!!! Thankfully he will be eating in Singapore very soon under the watchful guidance of KF Seetoh and hopefully that may redeem our reputation as the street food capital of the world!

Singapore (Malaysian) restaurants in the city to feed that occasional craving:

Sanur (18 Doyers St, only place in Manhattan with Nonya Kueh)
Nonya (194 Grand St)
New Malaysia (Chinatown Arcade, Bet Canal & Elizabeth Sts, the one I told Mr. Trillin about)
Jaya (90 Baxter St, Bet White & Canal Sts)

Sunday, April 15, 2007


This cozy Japanese restaurant feels like an extension of someone's home. And eating there with a couple of people whose company you enjoy is as comfortable as eating at home, but tastier and with better plateware.

Between the 4 of us, we had a miso-marinated eggplant cold dish, a Japanese omelette simmered in dashi stock and pork dumplings for appetizers. All were passable but too expensive. Better value was found on the entree side of the menu, where we shared slices of grilled miso-cod (flaky, fresh, a tad salty); 2 egg shaped croquettes; a big bowl of buta kakuni (fatty pork simmering in a sweet soy sauce, not meltingly soft but not bad) and very juicy and delicious fried oysters that was surprisingly brimming with hot liquid as we bit into them.

Dessert was intricatedly presented, three distinct items on a single long platter. Like the savory items before it, the flavors are traditional and unadulaterated. We enjoyed the glutinous rice cakes with matcha powder and the red beans with vanilla ice cream, but really loved the white sesame pudding, a wobbly study of milky sweetness perfumed but not overpowered by the nuttiness of sesame. And at $7, the dish was a downright bargain.
Chiyono delivers unsophisticated but comforting home-style dishes and does not cater to the mass of exotic sushi rollers lovers in the city. Indeed you will not find degustatory revelations amongst platters of fried foods and simply grilled fish, and in truth the food's not at all impressive, but the ingredients are fresh and the food presented with such care that you can't help but thank the good proprietress for her efforts for preparing a homecooked meal. A comfortable room (dominated by a communal table, not an ice buddha), a few good friends, a friendly but slow server and an earnest Japanese mama taking care of your daily nourishment, I'm glad not every Japanese restaurant in town is a Nobu.

328 E6th St (Bet 1st & 2nd Ave)

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Del Posto Enoteca

I went to dinner at Del Posto last night, but instead of shelling out hundreds, I had a very tasty and affordable meal at its casual dining corner, the Enoteca. For $45, one can partake in 5 courses spanning the entire spectrum of the menu, from antipasti down to the dolci. And with about a half dozen choices per course, you're getting none of that Restaurant Week crap of getting to choose between only dry chicken breast or salmon.

Dinner starts with a basket of about 5-6 different house-made breads, served with a pat of sweet butter and another pat of lardo, unadulterated pork lard perfumed with rosemary, utterly spreadable but a little too rich for me. Germaine and her friend Charmaine selected the luxurious beef carpaccio, simply dressed with oil, pepper, salt and melted mozzarella while I had a luscious grilled octopus. We then had 2 perfectly al-dente pastas, the famous bucatini alla Amatriciana, a thick spaghetti with a small hole running through the strand, slick with a spicy, intense tomato sauce. The other pasta was little ears of orcchiette in a peppery chard base. Both featured the smoky goodness of pancetta and a lot of heat. And as if we needed more pig, Germaine and I picked the roasted pork loin as our secondi, served just a little pink with a sweet applesauce to cut through the fat. The cod that Charmaine got was perfectly cooked, but overall the very big plates of entrees paled in comparison to the pastas.
The desserts were generally good, ranging from the very rich chocolate pudding to the tart and refreshing passionfruit sorbet in my 4-sorbet plate, but we were so full that they did not taste quite as impressive as they sounded on paper. Another reason why the desserts lost some points was due to the fact that some of the desserts such as the chocolate cake and the tart could be found sitting on the table next to where we were seated. While I know intellectually that most restaurant desserts are pre-made, its something else to actually watch the panettone dry out in front of you.
The corner of the enoteca was elegant and cozy, a little too tight but perfect for couples and small groups. Unfortunately none of my pictures came out right due to the dimness of the room. Service was very gracious, and despite spending much less than the big rollers in the main room, we were not treated like second class citizens. My request to pack my entree home was taken without the slightest bit of disapproval and my pork loin met me at the coat check, where the server had thoughtfully left. For pork and pasta fiends alike, eating at Del Posto's Enoteca may be the best semi-fine dining deal in the city.

Del Posto
85 Tenth Ave (Bet 15th & 16th St)
(The enoteca takes only same-day reservations, lines open at 10AM)