Sunday, September 30, 2007

Maze by Gordon Ramsey

Both Ruoyi and Chloe were in town a few Fridays ago and as tradition would have it whenever my cousins visit town, I always get a treat courtesy of my uncle. We headed to Maze, casual sister to the more formal Gordon Ramsey restaurant, US outposts of the celebrity chef's restaurant empire. Unlike Gordon Ramsey's tv shows, where he raves and rants at incompetent sou-chefs, there are no theatrics in the restaurant, just solid food in a cool space. First impressions about the place was favorable. The banquettes wide and comfortable, and the place less than half-filled before 8 - seemingly undiscovered by the pre-theater set- was nice and quiet. Lighting was dim and flattering for pictures (which we took shamelessly) and service, besides our sullen and no-nonsense server, was efficient and friendly, but not overly pushy.

With regards to the food, it must be said that fashionable sets will do very well with the beautifully plated dishes and deftly seasoned food. Like the bar room at the Modern in nearby MoMa, portions are meant to be tapas-sized and the slim prices (for a midtown celebrity chef joint at least) reflects that. For the hungry set however, the little tastes may be slightly too precious, as the three of us found out.
Behold Ruoyi's lobster and chicken confit caesar salad, with a piece of lobster the size of a quarter, flanked by two pieces of similarly sized poached chicken. Ruoyi offered me a taste, but I didn't have the heart, it being so petite.
Smoked duck breast, crispy tongue and smoked foie gras. We laughed when this plate appeared. Who knew smoked duck breast meant razor thin slices of duck prosciutto? The tongue was crispy, but pretty tasteless but the smooth foie gras custard had a lovely texture and was very spreadable on bread.

Quail and Foie Gras. The quail had a fantastically crisp skin and the right about of soy, while the lobe of foie gras was rich, unctuous and downright generous compared to the lobster quarter. At some point, I gave up using my cutlery, picked up and quail leg and started gnawing.

By some twist of fate, Chloe, the smallest eater in the group ended up with the largest, almost regular sized dishes. In fact, when her duo of beef appeared, we went "wow.. this is huge". Her halibut wasn't that badly sized either, and had a decidedly spanish flair, with iberian ham, chorizo and some mussels thrown into the mix. Unfortunately though, the strong flavors upstaged the otherwise well cooked fish.

Desserts were next, with Ruoyi's apple themed shotglass being the best. Apple green gelee was sweet and tart, topped with foamy caramel and icy apple cider granite. If only there was more of that, and the accompanying beignet.
Interestingly, the only regular sized things on the menu were the petit fours, a fun chocolate truffle filled with melted peanut creme, and blocks of homemade peanut brittle, which was rustic and tasty, but somewhat out of place. Why would you serve peanut brittle twice the size of your entree?
With its location and the quality of its food, Maze should be a very good place for some peckish bites amongst girlfriends. But for girls with manly appetites, take me for example, all's not lost. After-all, there's always Junior's for an after-theater supper.
Maze by Gordon Ramsey at the London
151 W54 St (6th & 7th Ave)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Madeleine's Crepes

Something made me happy and a tad heavier on Saturday.
Trying to avoid the weekend masses at Starbucks, I decided to do some work instead at CyberCafe on 49th St instead. Since it's an internet cafe, there is obviously no free wifi to freeload, and there were all but a handful of tourists making use of overpriced internet quietly. No soccer games were showing on the projection screen slung across the backwall either. Peace and quiet finally.
What makes CyberCafe even more perfect for an antisocial reader is its bounty of more than decent coffee and food. While there are no pies on weekends, Madeleine, a sweet old French lady is on board to make some traditional French crepes. I was extremely pleased with my crepe, the simplest of them all, with all but a squirt of lemon, a brush of honey and a fairydust of powdered sugar. The crepe was paper-thin, crispy on the edges and with a little chewy give, not fat, doughy and tasteless like the foodcourt variants. Sweet, sour, buttery. It was delicious.
While I was polishing off my crepe, I felt a tap on the shoulder. There was Madeleine, smiling away with a fat slice of cake in her hands. "Here you go", she said. "You're my first customer today, so this is on the house."
Wow... When did I ever get so lucky? And it wasn't just some day-old cake she was trying to clear too! She had just baked it that day, an unassuming but rich butter-cake, almost dripping with moisture, topped with a compote of fresh plums to celebrate the end of summer and stone fruit season. The plums were sticky, sweet and tart at the same time, and a splash of grand marnier (her secret ingredient, she smiled conspiratorially as she told me) gave the jam a heady scent. The fresh cream that accompanied that cake was the real deal, creamy, milky and fragrant. Definitely not from a can. It took me willpower not to finish the cream. But the cake, I did. After all, it was a gift from a most charming hostess. One that made me heavy, but more importantly happy.

Madeleine the crepe lady
250 W. 49th St. (btw. B’way & 8th)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dinner at Yankee Stadium

A Nathan's hot dog, some peanuts and a bag of Cracker Jack. This is the requisite dinner at the famed Yankee Stadium, which I visited with my colleagues for the very first time. The hot dog, while encased in a cold unremarkable bun had great snap, the peanuts was fun ammunition and Cracker Jack popcorn sure beats micronuked Orville Redenbacher's. Snoopy, with his Metlife sponsored Yankee shirt was an excellent dining companion, gamely posing with the vast stadium as its background. My coworkers weren't bad too, gamely coaching me on baseball basics. Had I known watching a live game was this much fun, I would have sang "Take me out to the ballgame" sooner!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Jean Georges

My little sister is in town for the very first time and like a proud, slightly over-coddling older sibling, I was eager to show her quintessentially New York scenes. She's covered the sights on her own, from the verdant fields in Central Park to the garishly mesmerizing lights in Times Square, so I decided to induct her to the decadent New York dining scene at Jean Georges.
The menu is built like this: for $28, one can choose two dishes from about 15 dishes, with each additional savory dish $12 and dessert for $8. To start, fresh bread and a trio of amuse bouches are served. The amuse bouches were fun, each yielding different textures and flavors. The pinkie sized ball of mozzarella was mild and sweet, the corn fritters a crispy bite while the cucumber water with lime "foam" tended to be a touch acidic, with a spicy kick at the end. Each bite into my starter, a bowl of corn ravioli, brings forth a burst of sweetness characteristic of fresh corn. The slightly charred kernels tasted a little like pop-corn, while the beautiful tomatos, at the peak of tomato season, was packed with flavor. Likewise, Ruoyi's ruby ribbons of tuna, a ceviche of sorts in a tangy ginger and soy based sauce was artfully presented and tasted as great as it looked.
A platter of expertly fried sweetbreads extended the summery theme, when paired with slightly tart roasted peaches and peppery arugula. A dash of pink peppercorn salt for added flavor and pizzazz. Throughout the menu, Ruoyi's braised short-rib was the only concession to the coming of fall weather, and it was no-frills but very hearty, though its vinegar base a tad sour.
No meal ends without dessert, and so we shared the summer themed one, as if that would make autumn stop dead in its tracks. The cherry souffle, with its fluffy purplish and white peak was pleasant but the accompanying cheese with peaches suffered from very aggressive cheese.
Even if one opted out of dessert, Jean Georges is still not letting you go without something sweet and petit fours are rolled out in style. We delighted in the surprisingly pleasant licorice-flavored chocolate bon bon, with a slight anisey rush at the very end, and ruoyi loved the plump marshmallow pillows that the server cut out of long marshmallow ribbons, particularly the strawberry ones, complete with seeds. Last but not least were lilliputan macarons that would surely interest any miniature enthusiasts.
In the realm of fine dining, Ruoyi is a convert. And who wouldn't be, when for a fraction of what dinner costs, one can immerse in the soothing grey and mauve surroundings and be treated, if not like kings and queens, then at the very least like princesses?

Jean Georges
1 Central Park West

Friday, September 07, 2007

It only takes a trip to the furnace-like subway station to remind one that despite a humid August having given way to a slightly drier September, we've not quite seen the end of summer.
For a refreshing treat on that rare unpredictably hot September day almost guaranteed to come in the next few weeks, I suggest a quick jaunt to Cafe Whatever in Chinatown, for a big bowl of Chinese styled desserts. Whatever Cafe is a franchisee of a popular Hong Kong dessert chain, Hui Lau Shan, and serves up a repetoire of brilliantly colored fruit-based desserts. The most popular of them all is the mango pudding, a wobbly milk based custard dyed orange with the heady mango juice and topped with fresh seasonal fruits and a large scoop of coconut ice. Mango and coconut. You've almost left Manhattan for a tropical island.
If cool puddings and icy sago drinks aren't your cup of tea, there's a short list of traditional chinese desserts too. I am a fan of the double-boiled milk pudding with ginger, a sure cure for the common cold, as well as the double-boiled papaya with white fungus thats supposedly great for the complexion. For the chi-chi types, there are even desserts packed with ultra-luxe exotic ingredients, such as bird's nest and hasmar, although I can't vouch for their authenticity. But at such low prices, I suspect you'll enjoy it anyway.

Cafe Whatever
150 Centre St (Between Walker & White Sts)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Spotted Pig

At Spotted Pig, the massively popular "gastropub" in the Village, where an astonishing number of size zeros can be found digging into hearty dinners while drinking pints of beer, it is not the namesake but its bovine friend, in the form of an obscenely expensive, yet perfect burger, that enjoys #1 popularity amongst scores of diners.
A hefty beef patty, lightly charred and wonderfully juicy is topped with salty and stinky roquefort cheese that smells aggressive but tastes much mellower. The brioche bun comes with perfect grill marks and while soft and chewy, manages to encase the patty, juice and all, without falling apart. The near perfect meat-bun pairing ensured that by the time I finished the entire burger, self-control be gone, there was nary a drop of meat juice nor stray ground chuck left on the plate. Being a lover of thick cut fries, I'm somewhat ambivalent about the crispy but non-greasy haystack of shoestring fries that accompanies that burger, but these were made better with the addition of fried garlic slivers. The garlic chips, I am glad to report, are neither bitter or rancid from over-frying and adds flavor to the chips. A burger, a beer and a distended tummy in the aftermath, this is comfort dining at its best.

Spotted Pig
314 W11th St (at Greenwich St)