Monday, May 30, 2011

Le Bernardin

When we started planning our NYC trip it was discussed (of course) where we would be eating the whole time we were there. The topic of a big dinner out came up but with a limited timeline and trying to stay on a budget it got shot down. That was until, in my obsessive Manhattan map staring, I realized out hotel was literally four blocks (AKA a stones throw!) from Le Bernardin. As an avid "Top Chef" watcher Le Bernardin was on my radar. Executive Chef Eric Ripert has been a guest judge many many times and is known throughout the culinary world for his exceptional finesse with seafood. Ripert has been the Executive Chef at Le Bernardin for 7 years and in that time has earned a 4 star rating from the New York Times and 3 Michelin stars.

He has since opened other ventures on the east coast and is a major presence in the culinary world. He even has his own website, Avec Eric, which features recipes,tutorials, and other interesting information by the Chef himself. The website earned a James Beard award and the corresponding TV show has earned an Emmy nomination. Although he has many other culinary ventures Le Bernardin is still his highest acclaim. (resource: Wikipedia)
The weather was terrible on Monday morning as we left the hotel to head to our Lunch reservation. This was our last half day in NYC and this lunch the crowning glory to all our previous meals. We looked quickly for a cab, saddened that the weather (and my 5in heels, I wanted to look nice) did not permit us to walk the 4 blocks. As we walked into the foyer we were instantly engulfed in warm air, a strong contrast from the chill outdoors. We made our way through the second door held by an attendant and quickly found the coat check to our right. Turning over my coat and umbrella the coat check girl gave me a little metal piece stamped with the restaurant name and address along with a number. No paper tickets here! We checked in with the Maitre D' and he led us to our table on the back half of the restaurant seated facing the front, a perfect vantage point to watch all the action. The decor was not particularly stunning, although clean and well kept some of the artwork seemed a little dated. However there was an obvious "cut above" polish with every aspect. as we were seated a bus boy quickly appeared with a little stool on which to place our purses so they would not have to rest on the ground. We were offered still or sparkling mineral water and our waiter approached a few moments after we had been seated. A soft spoken Middle aged gentleman with impeccable manors he informed us of the nuances of the menu, items that were unavailable, and how we were to choose our three courses. I had already taken some time before our trip to peruse the menu and had pretty much determined what I wanted. We still carefully read through the menu items to see if there were any differences. Other than a few small changes to presentation (mostly likely caused but available product) everything was virtually as we expected. I also took a moment to look over the wine list. I knew what to expect and knew that in reality it was all going to be out of my price range. I splurged with a glass of chenin blanc, trying to not be too intimidated by the sommelier as she poured me a sip to taste. As soon as we had ordered a server's assistant brought of a Salmon Rillette (pictured above), essentially a salmon dip with some crisp pieces of bread. I tried not to gobble up too much of it before our meal truly started but it was delicious! Not long after another attendant brought over a large basket tray filled with 6 variety's of bread from which you were able to choose. I went with the Rosemary Olive baguette and was not disappointed!
It was only a short time before our first courses arrived. I had chosen the Kumamoto Oysters each with a different flavor of gelee starting with apple, then yuzu, and so on to more complex and savory flavors. It was incredible to taste each different one and notice the subtle flavors melt in with the oyster. Indigenous to Japan these Pacific ocean oysters are small but succulent and I enjoyed each one a lot. The presentation as you can see the left was beautiful. The hard packed ice on a seaweed bed cradled each oyster perfectly. What I was most impressed by was the small lime enhanced finger bath that was presented after our plates had been cleared so I could refresh away the aroma of the sea. I was a little uncertain just sticking my fingers right in but no one was around to judge me if I didn't perform properly!
Had I chosen any other dish from the first course section, it would have been the crab cake. Thankfully Tori my beautiful dining companion ordered it so I could have a sample! Yet another elegant presentation the warm crab was compressed into a cylinder centered on the plate and topped with ribbons of shaved mango, after the plate was placed on the table the attendant poured a fragrant consumme around the remainder of the bowl of the dish. There was a warmth and familiarity to the aroma that instantly reminded me of my days working at a Thai restaurant while in high school. Savory and sweet after one bite I wished I could lick her bowl clean but being that A) this was not my dish & B) they might kick us out for that type of behavior!
Our Entrees followed in a timely manner. I had chosen the Crispy Black Bass with Lup Cheong and Beansprout "risotto", Mini Pork Buns, & Hoisin-Plum Jus. The play between Asian flavors and french techniques throughout the meal was a delight to all the senses. My fish was cooked through with a nice crisp top. While the play on risotto didn't do much for me except add texture to the bites of fish, the play on mini pork buns where delightful. Each about the diameter of a quarter with a little pile of minced seasoned pork on top they may have been my favorite part of the whole dish especially in combination with the jus which had a similar aroma and flavor as the consumme from the crab cake but a thicker consistency and some added depth no doubt from the addition of plum.As with the crab cake the sauces were poured table side.

Tori chose the salmon for her main dish. The fish was cooked just barely on one side so the diner could appreciate the high quality. Bright pink it looked beautiful in contrast to the cool green of cream based sauce. Garnished with parsley and 4 charred escargot it was a very eye catching presentation. Our Third course was dessert. Before our dishes arrived we were presented with petite Madeleine's in pistachio and coconut flavours. All of the menu options sounded amazing but we were both drawn to a mousse- I had the Hazelnut: Chocolate hazelnut mousse with a spread of caramel, caramelized banana slices, whole toasted hazelnuts, and a brown butter ice cream. Artfully displayed on the plate (as you can see to the left) each element was delicious. I was really intrigued by the concept of the brown butter flavoured ice cream, it was not as distinctive as I had hoped, not entirely sure what I was expecting but I enjoyed it none the less.
Tori had the Pistachio Mousse which was served with a pistachio ice cream, a vanilla cream, and garnished with raspberry pearls.
The pearls dissolved in your mouth with each bite and the pistachio mousse and ice cream were just the right amount of sweet to satiate.

I find that often when I dine out I leave feeling, well, stuffed. With the light seafood fair and fine dining portions however I felt not too full not too hungry but juuuuust right.

This was definitely a unique experience for me, dining at a restaurant that stands on full ceremony. I have been to a few nicer restaurants but this one definitely had the air of how things should be done "properly". While I enjoyed the experience I can't say it was something I would want to do all the time. I spent a lot of the meal concerned with how I was sitting or if I was eating things correctly. While the staff was very nice only our server's attendant seemed at all friendly. Coming from the service industry I highly respect what they do and I think everything was done very well, perhaps it would have been interesting to see the place in action on a weekend night versus a Monday lunch. Who knows! The lunch will be one that I remember (and maybe brag about, to those who have any clue what I'm talking about) for a long time to come!

What was your first fine dining experience and how did it make you feel?

Friday, May 27, 2011

The West Village- Tartine & Magnolia Bakery

In my very limited experience with New Yorkers- Brunch is king. My kind of people. In my mind brunch is possibly the most perfect meal ever. There is no need to get up early and it makes it acceptable to start drinking before 12, I mean really- you can't go wrong with brunch. Sweet or savory, eggs or sandwiches there is something for everyone. Upon posting an announcement of my up coming NYC adventure my lovely friend Katie, who lives in Brooklyn & I had the pleasure of getting to know on my previous trip, suggested that we get together for brunch. I was uber excited to see her as well as indulge in the New York tradition. As most of my adventures go I started with a little Internet research. Ok a lot of Internet research. My goal was to find a very quintessential New York spot in a neighborhood I had yet to explore (two birds, one stone you know). As I browsed spot after spot none quite striking my fancy I finally stumbled on a great piece of luck. I was able to score THREE birds with one stone! Within a block of one another in the West Village were Tartine, raved about in New York Magazine as a great local spot that is always busy, and Magnolia Bakery of cupcake and Sex in the City fame. Win!

Sunday was an important day in Tori and my adventure for many reasons, primary among them was Sunday was the day that Tori rode the subway for the very first time! She was quite the trooper and by our second go around I would even say she became quite savvy! We hopped on a block down from our hotel and a few minutes later popped above ground in the charming West Village. What a world of difference. From the bright lights and tourist bustle of Times Square the village felt homey and quaint with people walking their dogs and beautiful brownstones everywhere. Tartine is tucked right in with all of it, a tiny little cafe with an overhang protecting the tables lining the walk way from the light mist that was still falling. As we approached 3 full sized gentleman were trying to cram themselves onto a tiny table in front of the door. After one almost toppled out of his tiny chair that was precariously slopped backwards on two different levels they conceded the table and a staff member found them a table inside. Being that we were a group of 3 much smaller girls we eagerly jumped on their table since without it we were facing an uncertain wait. One of the things that the Tartine regulars had raved about in reviews was their encouraged BYOB policy. Although we scoured the near by blocks Tori and I had no luck finding a decent place to purchase wine (I'll take the blame for the poor planning here in not investigating an acceptable purchase point). As luck would have it however Katie had shot a wedding the night before and was gifted with a bottle of homemade wine from the father of the Bride. It was definitely a unique home brew but we enjoyed it none the less. The menu featured your standard array of Benedict's, omelette's, and french toast. I was a little dismayed to find that we had come to late and their croissant selection had already sold out. I had been very much looking forward to trying one of their signature delicacies. My sadness was quelled however by how delectable their Eggs Norwegian (english muffin with smoked salmon, poached egg and hollandaise) and country potatoes were. Oh those potatoes. Silky sweet caramelized white onions inter-mingled with soft roasted peppers and potatoes with just a light crispness to the outside while maintaining that perfect soft grainy texture on the inside. Using the potatoes to sop up the excess hollandiase I couldn't have been happier! One of the unique things I also appreciated was their flat $12.95 price for any brunch meal including coffee and orange juice. Affordable and delicious with a local feel it was a great find!As we waddled away from the table we debated if we would even be able to handle the cupcakes we had been so looking forward too. Magnolia Bakery has become a New York staple by way of it's mentions on shows like Sex and the City, Spin City, & the movie Devil Wears Prada. Katie talked endlessly of the pleasure of their butter cream frosting during our brunch so we were amply excited even if not entirely hungry. Adorable from the outside the small bakery shop was packed with people, some helping themselves to the assorted cupcakes in the window display, the rest waiting their turn to pick out their treat from behind the glass front case. It was quite the overwhelming scene! Everything looked amazing but we were on a mission - Cupcakes! Magnolia has been credited by some for beginning the cupcake craze. Although it was difficult to choose I went for a chocolate cupcake with sea foam green butter cream frosting and a red velvet. I honestly don't know what it is about red velvet. I have made it before and it is truly off putting how much red dye goes into that cake. There is really nothing special beyond the fact that it will crank your A.D.D. up about 12 notches and the hint of cocoa powder leaves every debating if it is in fact chocolate or vanilla cake. For popularity's sake I "bit the bullet" and purchased one any way. I actually really enjoyed the cake portion of both of my cupcakes, it had the right sponginess that it didn't crumble too easily, was moist and flavorful, and held up well to the frosting. Oh the frosting. This was truly the main event and Katie in no way over sold it's virtues. I was instantly impressed that they had somehow managed to make cream cheese frosting that was not heavy and thick but in fact silky in texture. It was much lighter than I anticipated and I really enjoyed it. The butter cream was phenomenal. I actually didn't eat this cupcake till almost 8 hours later and it still tasted fresh and the frosting, while maintaining it's shape, had lost nothing in its creamy texture. Over all some of the best composed cupcakes I have yet to enjoy, definitely on par with Los Gatos' Icing on the Cake and putting Kara's and Sprinkles a little bit to shame.

When you vacation do you prefer the tourist locations or do you look for something with local flair?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Shake Shack NYC

I love a good Romantic Comedy. I can't help it! For me however it definitely has to be a 50- 50 effort comedy and romantic undertones. When "Something Borrowed" came into theaters I was initially wary but with a cast of actors I always enjoy ( mmm... John Krasinski) I couldn't help wanting to see it. Like almost all Romantic Comedies about hip 20- something professionals the movie takes place in New York, because obviously this is the epicenter of 20- something professionals looking for love and maybe a little adventure along the way. With an upcoming trip to New York on the books I decided this would be a great opportunity to spy out some sight seeing spots. Well we hit the jack pot when two of the main characters frequented Shake Shack a hip burger joint in the middle of Madison Square Park.

Set in the middle of the small but picturesque park on the lower east side Shake Shack has just the right combination of classic appeal with a touch modernity. The building houses the kitchen with counter order and pick up. From the edge of the roof strands of over sized fairy lights drape to the trees over little green bistro tables. It is the perfect atmosphere in this respite from the city. When we approached every table was full and a long line had formed from the ordering window. Although we were starving from our early flight it was great to have some time to think over what we wanted to order. With a simple menu featuring burgers, hot dogs, and french fries it might not seem like anything special but wait until you taste it! While doing our research a yelper had suggested ordering the cheese fries. After looking everything over I settled on the Shack Burger & a Purple Cow (a grape soda float) Tori went with a cheeseburger & a Black and White shake and we shared an order of the cheese fries.

One of the first things I noticed was the quality of the bun. Rather than the typical sponge bread buns that you find on many burgers Shake Shack serves a high quality potato bun and it is amazing the noticeable difference. The slightly chewy texture felt like it had a firm hold on all the ingredients inside and added it's own unique flavor to the whole combination. The patty is moderate sized, for those of us West Coasters accustomed to In-N-Out patties the larger patty was a plesant up grade, however it is not so large that you can't easily munch it down. The quality of ingredients is evident in every bite. As we both taste tested the cheese fries we were equally saddened and relieved that we only ordered 1 serving, like all good things I can only IMAGINE the calorie count on those suckers! The cheese was creamy and delicious, and even though it had a pale appearance of nacho cheese the flavor and texture was far superior. Just when I think I can't talk about the food any more- we get to the frozen custard. I am a connoissuer of floats but I have never EVER enjoyed the ice cream portion the way I did in the Purple cow. The frozen custard had a unique way of staying firm yet creamy through out, adding the creaminess to the soda but still being able to spoon out full bites. The velvety texture was fantastic and it made me wish that I had indulged in one of their signature "Concretes", frozen custard spun at high speed with assorted mix-ins to create unique treats. I guess it will have to be something to look forward to next time!

What are some of your favorite comfort foods that you like to enjoy with a good RomCom?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Fruit Tart Recipe! or When did I get old enough to Throw a Bridal Shower??

Life is full of milestones. First steps, First Day of School, High School Prom, Sorority Initiation, Moving Out, Traveling Abroad for the first time, Starting your First full Time Job... all of these are moments that we define ourselves by and not only ourselves but it's often how we bench mark with our peers. Well alas the dreaded bench mark has reached my door step- my friends are starting to get married. I recently turned 26 as many of you know. A nice firm placement in the mid Twenties. I like it. I'm not afraid of it. You know what I am afraid of? Finally having to admit that I and my friends are becoming full fledged adults. Something about marriage has just always screamed adulthood to me more than any other thing, and I think this is why- by promising to love honor protect and serve this other person? You are promising to stop relying on your parents when you are in a fix and start relying on each other. I realize this isn't the case for all (or let's be honest these days even most) couples but it is my solemn intention to not get married until I am in fact a reliable financially responsible mature adult. Sure when I was 13 I thought I would totally be there by 26.... yea about that... A for effort anyone? Regardless of my ability to fully grasp my adulthood, many of my beautiful, smart, and lovable friends have met their matches and are planning their walks down the aisle. Which means for me lots of planning and attending showers. Lucky for me I had my party planning partner in crime, Ms. Tori decore specialist extraordinaire, to help with this first venture into "Adult" party planning.

This is why I love Tori, because when either of us says the word party the first thing that pops into my head is food and accompanying beverage, and hers starts thinking about table-scapes. Can you say match made in heaven? And so went Sarah's shower. My mind went instantly to brunch, balancing the savory and the sweet components and concocting a unique sparkling beverage, Tori began scanning her Evite options and rental wares. This event was definitely our manifesto to date. Seating and food for 10, beautiful cookie favors prepared by Tori's mom, fun games, and copious cocktails culminated in a sun shine and smile filled afternoon not soon to be forgotten!

The Menu

Elderflower Liquor & Lime Proseco Cocktails
Small Bites:
Baked Prosciutto cups with Goat Cheese, Arugula, & Fig

Fresh Fruit Skewers with Honey Yogurt Dipping Sauce

Bacon, Gruyere, & Caramelized Onion Quiche

Dutch "Baby" Pancake with Raspberry Compote

Orzo Salad with Marinated Artichoke Heart dressing, Cherry Tomatoes, & Feta

Apricot Lemon Cream Scones with Honey Butter
Cheesecake Tropical Fruit Tart

Recipe (courtesy of Bon Appetit Magazine, via Epicurious, with a few of my own modifications)
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons (or more) ice water
1 large egg yolk

1/4 cup lemon curd

2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream

1/4 cup lemon curd
8-10 strawberries tops removed & sliced, leaving one
2 kiwis, peeled, cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds whole for the center
1 large ripe mango, halved, pitted, peeled, sliced
(any seasonal, sliceable fruit can be substituted)

For crust:
Combine flour, sugar and salt in processor. Add butter and cut in, using on/off turns, until mixture resembles coarse meal. Whisk 2 tablespoons ice water and egg yolk in small bowl. Add to dry ingredients and blend just until soft moist clumps form, adding more water by teaspoonfuls if dough is dry. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate 1 hour. (Having nice chucks of cold butter is what makes your crust nice and flaky so it is important not to overwork the dough at any stage of the preparation)
Preheat oven to 375°F. Roll out dough on lightly floured surface to 13- to 14-inch round. Transfer dough to 11-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom. Press in overhang, forming double-thick sides. Pierce crust all over with fork. Freeze crust 30 minutes. Bake until golden brown, pressing with back of fork if crust bubbles or slips, about 30 minutes. I found that it did bubble quite a bit, when I have made pastry crusts previously the instructions usually direct you to cover with foil and weigh the pastry down with beans or pie weights to eliminate this issue. I'm not sure why this recipe didn't call for that, I gave it a try without but next time I will probably weight the crust to free myself up to work on other tasks instead of having to constantly watch it. Transfer crust to rack. Spread lemon curd over bottom of crust and cool. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F.

For filling:
Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese in large bowl until smooth. Add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in egg, then vanilla. Add sour cream and beat just to blend.
Pour filling into tart crust. Bake until filling is slightly puffed and center moves slightly when pan is gently shaken, about 35 minutes. Transfer to rack and cool completely. Refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and keep refrigerated.)

For topping:
Spread a thin layer of the lemon curd over the top of the chilled baked tart. beginning on the outer edge layer the thinly sliced fruit in concentric circles till you reach the center. Try to serve within 30 minutes or so after placing the fruit, I did find that a lot of juices from the fruit began collecting on the top the longer it sat. Some is nice, a lot muddles up the presentation.

Voila! Aren't you impressive! You have created not only a tasty treat but a beautiful work of art as well. I was actually shocked when I made this myself how easy I found it to be. My only fauxpas was that I had decided somewhere in making my cooking schedule that it had to be completed in the morning only to re read the directions at 10 pm after finishing the rest of my prep and realized I in fact had to bake it the night before and only dress it in the morning! Thankfully my parents whose kitchen and patio I was borrowing were understanding of my banging around the kitchen till 12 pm!