Posts Tagged ‘restaurant review’

worth a drive

The New York Times has a new article up entitled “Four Paris Restaurants Worth a Metro Ride”, and when it was published ten days ago about as many people emailed it to me. I hope to pay a visit some of those tables next month, though truthfully I’m still a little peeved at author Mark Bittman for blowing one of my favorite local-ish restaurants, Astier, with a mention in the paper of record. I guess I can kiss my insider badge goodbye. . .

I know some people (ahem, most of you) consider Iowa City a trek in and of itself. With so many fantastic dining options downtown — many of which I’d continue to frequent if they were transplanted to New York City, high praise indeed — it can be tempting, even here, to fall into geographic snobbishness. Kalona, twenty miles southwest of our cosmopolitan little city, is a town of less then 2500. Getting there is a drive through pure country, and yet I’d been wanting to go for a good year. Why? Food, of course.

It’s called Tuscan Moon, and it’s a quiet, unassuming, delicious restaurant housed in the historic Old Kalona Hotel. There’s a gorgeous patio for outdoor dining, but the inside is just as fun: with old hardwood floors, exposed brick walls, chandeliers and high ceilings, it’s a real trip. When we went last weekend, there was a classical guitarist performing and the owner was circulating, asking how everyone’s meal was. It’s that kind of place.

My dinner was a perfectly respectable showcase of the restaurant’s home-cooked Italian roots: a very fine Caesar salad and an enormous plate of farfalle with bolognese sauce (which came, in true home style, with a slice of soft white loaf bread). I think Billy’s selections really hit it out of the park, though, demonstrating what happy heights Tuscan Moon can sail to outside the Italian box. There was the simply presented yellow fin sashimi and then — oh my — jerk-rubbed, grilled pork tenderloin with mango salsa. It was a special that night, but I heard they’re turning it into a regular menu item. I hope so, because it’s what I’d get next time. The smoky, charred flavor of the grill and spices were a brilliant foil to the sweet, juicy mango. It was a totally different level. It was grown up and sophisticated and wow, Kalona! Small but mighty. You done good.

sam’s pizza

The story of our journey to Sam’s Pizza on Thursday night is an existential one, which ran the gamut of dinner indecision from Mexican to pasta to sushi to burgers to finally settling somewhere around “I just want something new”. Oh, and included “My stomach hurts.” We finally settled on Sam’s Pizza: new to us, low-key, downtown. Even before walking in, I knew it couldn’t touch the likes of 2Amys or Motorino, but I hoped it might eclipse Pagliai’s , a local institution whose appeal regrettably escapes me.

We started with an order of cheesy bread, which was fabulous. Most pizza places just make the bread part out of leftover pizza dough, which is tasty but means the appetizer’s essentially cheese pizza, hold the sauce. Not so at Sam’s. It’s a doughy loaf of French bread, split open and buttered within an inch of its life, then topped with cheese. You get warm marinara sauce, too. Not bad for a sport’s bar. In terms of pizza, they offer both deep dish and thin crust. I’m lukewarm on deep dish in the best of circumstances, so the choice was a no-brainer.

And the verdict? It’s a different take on “thin crust” altogether, because unlike those primo New York pizzerias where “thin crust” means soft, chewy and charred, Sam’s is positively crispy. Like, cracker-crispy and about as thin — but also pretty good, especially the tomato sauce. It’s obviously a great place to catch a game (a game, the game, whatever game’s on), and the food’s yummy, to boot. Also worth mentioning: impressive drink specials. And the pinball machine, pool, and darts. I’m not sure about its future as a dinner-only destination, but it’s the ideal spot to meet friends for a late nice brew and bite. Approved!

eatalian gelato

This afternoon, B and I visited Eataly, Mario Batali’s sprawling indoor Italian food market with stalls for cured meats, fresh pasta, all kinds of cheese and coffee, breads, intricate patisserie confections, pop-up restaurants, positively pornographic tableaux of basil leaves and cherry tomatoes — and, of course, gelato. What we came for. And I had to admit we arrived a little spoiled: on Wednesday, we’d popped into Grom while meandering around the West Village. Grom is a total Italian import: they have dozens of shops up and down the boot, plus a couple international locations (New York being one). So it is good. It’s all natural, no preservatives or weird coloring, organic when possible, and as a result, I would imagine, of this exacting quality control/ingredient sourcing and know-how, each flavor tastes like the truest iteration of itself. The chocolate is deep, with coffee undertones and only a little bitter, while the vanilla is incredibly mellow and luscious. The coffee gelato is like a strong pull of espresso. The best.

Which is all to say, we’re pretty tough customers, so watch out. (We’re kind of a big deal.) The length of Eataly’s gelato line certainly pointed to a large fan base. There were about a dozen flavors to choose from — traditional fruit flavors plus your typical chocolate, vanilla, hazelnut, coffee and so on. B got the stracciatella, and I had vanilla with cookies crushed in it (name forgotten; sorry). And I loved how, unlike many gelaterias, they offered crunchy cones and not just plastic cups.

In point of fact, I think Grom’s pure, intense flavors make it the better gelato. But both places are so wonderful, so at-the-top-of-their-game, that you really can’t go wrong with either. And lest we forget, Eataly’s shop lives inside a wonderful Italian market/eatery, and it’s hard to discount the delight of munching on a cone of bacio gelato while picking up fresh tortellini, mozzerella (made on site!) and a fistful of chocolates. Not that I’ve done this. A girl can dream. Barring that, have your sweet across the street in Madison Square Park. When we had ours, it was seventy degrees out — there are truly no better days.

our favorite late-night bites

Whenever B and I come back to New York, our mealtimes eke out a tender balance between returning to our favorite college haunts and keeping up with new restaurants. It makes the list quite long — indeed, often too long. A trip to Motorino is made at Grimaldi’s expense; breakfast at Clinton Street Baking Company likely means postponing the Donut Shop again. But there are some non-negotiables.

For Billy, it’s Pommes Frites, a tiny shop on Second Avenue that attracts out-the-door lines of nightly visitors. They fry the thick-cut potatoes in two vats of boiling oil directly behind the counter, toss them with seasoning salt, and pack them into paper cones for on-site or take-away consumption. And the sauces, of course. They are the point. Dozens ranging from basic mustard to Vietnamese Pineapple Mayo and Parmesan Peppercorn. The Sundried Tomato Mayo is our favorite, a sort of gussied-up, glossy ketchup.

For me, it’s dessert from the Dessert Truck — which began as an actual, roving truck about four years ago, but soon after switched operations to an actual brick and mortar store. I’m sure business has only gone up since, but I selfishly hated their move. The truck always parked on Third Avenue (extremely central), and the store is in deep into the Lower East Side (less so). But last night, as B and I crossed Astor Place, there was that little truck, making an exceptional appearance in its former stomping ground for this week only. Their chocolate bread pudding makes me cry. It’s warm and dense, surrounded by a moat of creme anglaise and a hat of whipped cream. No ordinary creme anglaise custard, mind you: get the bacon flavor, which won the Throwdown against Bobby Flay and imparts a smoky flavor to the whole thing, balancing the sweetness of the chocolate and pushing the entire dessert beyond.

the quintessential pillow crust

It’s possible I could have planned this better. Maybe called Delta to rework some flights and emerged with a minimal price difference. But perhaps that would have been more trouble than it’s worth. In any case, less than 36 hours after returning to Iowa from London, I boarded a plane back east. B and I were off on spring break and bound for Washington, DC. (Tomorrow, we leave for New York. I’ve been a little behind.)

I was shocked to realize that I’d never taken B to the best pizza in the city, 2 Amys, so we set about remedying that terrible oversight on Saturday. It felt a little eager (or obsessive) to be walking into a pizzeria at 11:30am — and seeing their homemade doughnuts so prominently displayed only intensified this feeling — but by noon there was already a line. Early bird, meet worm.

2 Amys is a local institution, and for about a year I was extremely spoiled in having a friend who lived across the street from it. We call in our order, pick it up, and walk out feeling quite superior to all the poor suckers waiting for a table. But then our school schedules and summer plans stopped coordinating and well, the world turns ever on. The fact remains, 2 Amys’s crust is perhaps the best I’ve ever tasted. The center of the crust — the bit that supports sauce, cheese, and other toppings — is extremely thin, sometimes learning toward the under-baked. And then the edges are massive, pillowy puffs of dough, some regions charred to perfection and always a light, chewy consistency. It is a singular, always delicious combination of the razor-thin with the doughy. For what it’s worth, 2 Amys is also a member of the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association, an Italian organization which strictly regulates what can be called Neapolitan pizza (and theirs can be).

On Saturday, we started with their bruschetta, slices of grilled bread topped with their tomato-basil ragout, which tastes just like summer. B had their hearty Abruzzese pizza: polpettine (little meatballs), garlic, parsley, and pecorino. I went with their Santa Brigida, a more traditional bent with tomato, fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and arugula. I think the best I’ve had, though, remains a specialty from this December: thin, long strips of grilled zucchini, cherry tomatoes and olive oil, with a mound of burrata mozzarella in the middle. Simply heavenly. But then, that’s the rule here.

two more newbies

Grahamwich wasn’t the only new restaurant Boyfriend and I tried on last weekend’s trip to Chicago. We returned to Mercadito and The Gage for two winning dinners, but every lunch and brunch was an entirely new venture, and a successful one to boot.

We had planned on a sushi place slightly outside our geographic comfort zone for Saturday lunch. Then it was Saturday, it was eleven o’clock in the morning, and we were just beginning to stir. Hungrily. A quick poke around Yelp pointed us to Friends Sushi, right off Michigan Avenue and only five blocks from the Museum of Contemporary Art. Ding, ding, ding! Outside was bitingly cold, with a fierce wind roaring up the avenues, and when we tumbled into Friends — frozen fingers, runny noses and all! — it felt like the warmest place in the world. It felt like a warm bath. I am not joking. I can tell that, if I lived in Chicago, I would while away whole afternoons here: the heat, the ying-yang shaped tables and plates, the vaguely purple walls, it’s all very soothing.

We started with some nectar-of-the-gods miso soup and sinus-clearing pork shumai infused with wasabi. Then we split three fabulous rolls. The Crispy-Creamy, which is (and I copy directly from the website) shrimp tempura, avocado, asparagus, scallions, cream cheese, wasabi tobiko, spicy sauce topped with parmesan cheese, tempura crumb, creamy wasabi sauce, and unagi sauce. I know it sounds like TOO MUCH, like PICK A THEME AND STICK WITH IT, but it wasn’t. It all married perfectly in crispy-creamy mouthful. Then the Big Friends roll, because I am incapable of omitting eel from a sushi experience, which includes soft shell crab tempura, spicy scallop, asian pear, avocado, masago, topped with unagi, shrimp, unagi glaze, and spicy mayo. Asian pear! I know! It gave the whole roll a wonderful fresh crispness. Finally we had the deceptively named Fire Wing, about half as spicy as the name implies, with fresh salmon, avocado, asparagus, masago, scallions, and spicy sauce, with a layer of tuna and white tuna on top. I have no idea how their outlandish-sounding concoctions manage to amount to much more than their elaborate and many parts; it’s just the magic of a clever sushi chef. (And Chicagoans, take note: they deliver!)

The other new place was Yolk, a locally famous brunch spot that was nearly overrun with Bears fans last Sunday. We waited a perfectly reasonable 20 minutes to be seated, and then began the terrible task of sifting through the dozens of menu items, including fritatas, skillets, omelets, scramblers, benedicts and their ilk, pancakes, crepes, french toasts, and every imaginable combination of egg/meat/potato. Here is the old adage about the 21st century made abundantly clear: we are afraid to chose, because each choice necessarily shuts another door. I was tempted by their veggie skillet, I truly was, even though I was going to negate its, um, “health benefits” and order a side of bacon AND PANCAKES, but then I saw their Tour de France French Toast.

Three specialty breads, dipped in an egg-and-cream batter, grilled, and topped with fresh fruit. And syrup. There wasa sweet orange bread with strawberries, a banana nut with bananas, and the best, a lemon-poppyseed with blueberries. My mouth waters just thinking about it. These weren’t true french toasts, with that classic exterior crunch and gooey center, but they were wonderful all the same. A true case of dessert for breakfast, but I happen to think vacation warrants such excesses. And I want to go back immediately.

a fancy sandwich

We actually got a good dumping of snow last night — and it’s still flurrying — and I say “actually” because I didn’t know it was supposed to snow at all. Way to check the weather report! Way to salt the driveway! The view out the window this morning was quite a surprise. When we left Chicago yesterday afternoon the snow was just beginning to dust the city, and it must have crept westward under the cover of night.

Another thing sticking with me from the weekend: our Friday sandwiches at Grahamwich, of Graham Elliot restaurant fame. We made a beeline for the joint immediately after checking into the hotel, and after a few minutes of purposeful hovering managed to snag a corner seat at their long communal table in back. Otherwise, there’s some counters for elbow-parking and sandwich-chomping, but most people, on Friday at least, we taking away. I’d hate to think of the crush on Saturdays.

We started, as is our wont, with the truffle oil popcorn, the same kind diners get for free at Graham Elliot, and which they have thankfully exported here. It’s five dollars, but comes in a huge bag that we could only barrel halfway through. And I kept thinking, kernel after kernel, We could make this at home. Hold the truffle oil, sure, but grated parmesan, chopped chives, black pepper and sea salt? Pantry items! This may be worth investigating.

Billy, in his Billy way, got the reuben: pastrami, rutabaga sauerkraut, toasted caraway seeds, gruyere fondu and 1000 island dressing on marbled rye. I’m not a reuben girl, but this was fantastically delicious. And messy. Plus, just look at it! Beautiful!

I am a grilled cheese girl, though, especially if it’s Wisconsin cheddar (for taste), cheese curds (for ooze), prosciutto, and tomato marmalade on a Pullman loaf, all toasted together. It was one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches I’ve had: savory, powerfully gooey, with some salty meat and the tomato soup already built-in. Not that I’m biased or anything, but we definitely got the best options on the menu. (Except maybe the short rib sandwich. And the pork shoulder press.)

It’s true, hipsters don’t have any problems finding the place, but don’t let that stop you. It’s just one good bite after another. And if at all possible, leave some real estate in your stomach for their desserts, including Greek yogurt soft serve sprinkled with dark chocolate, pomegranate seeds, and glazed chestnuts, which I did not try but have dreamed about. Yum!