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eater’s digest: northern spy food co.

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

As a food writer, it’s easy to to fall into a habit of extremes, toggling from insatiable to oversaturated. This is typically the curse of chasing trends, following the buzz or, worse yet, a desire to be the first to discover a new, unsung food locale. But then there are the restaurants we discover off-the-clock. The plates that satiate us, without leaving us feeling stuffed. The mouthfuls that remind us why we got excited by food in the first place—which, for me, has nothing to do with standing in line three hours for a cronut.

My food appreciation began with the ingredients at my disposal and the thrill of testing out a new flavor or texture—most especially, those with a specific taste of place. In short, I fell hard for cooking with local ingredients, and the chefs who thrill me most are the ones who revive that feeling of discovery.

Porgy with fava and yellow eyed beans in green garlic broth

Porgy with fava and yellow eyed beans in green garlic broth

In Manhattan, Northern Spy Food Co. is a singular example of this type of restaurant. Over the past year, I’ve eaten there four times—more any other restaurant, except maybe the more casual Co. Pane—yet I never got so far as to write a review. They were meals without ulterior motives, an opportunity to indulge in anonymity. In fact, I ate there the way critics would ideally eat at restaurants: often, and casually, without explicit intentions to review them. The true gems are the places that consistently satisfy and surprise you, steeping over time until they blossom into a story.

Let’s start with Northern Spy’s kale salad. Or don’t, in fact. It’s been raved about so often that it overshadows other dishes on the menu – plates like the equally irreplaceable Elysian Fields lamb or smoked bluefish rillettes. In that spirit, I decided on one rule for this review – if I’ve already eaten it, it’s off the table.

And so it was that I started off with pickled eggs. Normally, this wouldn’t be a dish that I’d choose, as all my favorite egg preparations include a runny yolk. Pink with beet juice, they were certainly acidic but also mildly sweet. The yolk maintained a certain creaminess, if the white was a bit more resistant than I’d usually prefer. But I approached them objectively, and they grew on me with each bite, providing yet again that N’Spy sense of discovery, the same that I’d found before.

Chilled watercress soup

Chilled watercress soup

The rest of the dishes were less challenging, but no less interesting. First up, the chilled watercress soup. The texture of this gorgeous pastel palette of food is nothing short of spectacular, coating your mouth with cool green flavor, without the cumbersome weight of cream.

Then came the strawberry salad with goat milk yogurt and fresh herbs. Tart and sweet, it featured both fresh red and pickled green berries, cut with the funkiness of goat cheese, the refreshing crunch of fennel, and the bright, lemony bite of sorrel. I’ll go right ahead and call it the salad of the summer.

Speaking of summer, I highly recommend the refreshing celery tonic cocktail. I’d been eyeing it for months, and it met all my expectations, balancing refreshment with bitter and vegetal notes. For those who like ginger, the Spy Glass is the spicy, fruitier cousin of a Bloody Mary, and also shouldn’t be missed.

northernspy_1

Celery tonic and Spyglass cocktail

Back to the eats, the warm squid salad arrived all tender coils: squid, carrot and daikon radish, garnished with a streak of dark black ink. Accented with the rich flavor of pork belly, it reminded me of a pork and clam dish I once ate in a bistro in Lisbon, a remarkable marriage of land and sea.

For our first entree, we tried the Porgy special—mildly briny and flaky, but more oily than flimsier white fish. Served in a green garlic broth with favas and yellow eyed beans, it was fragrant and comforting, the tender beans yielding beautifully under the impeccably moist, pink-tinged fish.

Broccoli with cabbage, mustard, pretzel

Broccoli with cabbage, mustard, pretzel

But the real scene-stealer was the sleeper on the menu: the broccoli with “cabbage, mustard and pretzel.” If it sounds like a vegetarian beer hall dish, you’re not entirely off track. Tender stalks, breaded and fried in crisp pretzel crumbs, made me wonder if I ever needed to eat juicy sausage again. Negotiating over who would get to drag the last floret through the mustard and pesto sauces, I couldn’t help but think that this was no mere vegetarian alternative. This was a definitive dish – the kind that can make a chef’s career (kale salad be damned).

Ending on a sweet note, (and still entranced by the pretzel-breaded broccoli stalks) we opted for the pretzel waffle with strawberry ice cream and caramel sauce. A flatter, compact, Scandinavian-style waffle, it brought al dente texture and salt, an excellent contrast to the sticky caramel and creamy, concentrated strawberry scoop. Yet again, we found ourselves bartering for the final bite.

Pretzel waffle with strawberry ice cream and caramel

Pretzel waffle with strawberry ice cream and caramel

If this sounds like a rave review, it is. I don’t promise that each of your taste buds will explode with new ideas or ingredients, but—like a good tea–the dishes at Northern Spy develop as they steep. Rather than being at their best on the first bite, they evolve as you uncover each layer of complexity. It’s the ultimate in “slow food,” in fact. Not only is it local and sustainable, but you’re best eating it at a leisurely pace, lest you let one of the subtler elements pass you by.

Northern Spy Food Co.
511 E 12th St
(212) 228-5100

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eater’s digest: al di là

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

One of the great misconceptions that people often have is that I’ve eaten at all the restaurants in my neighborhood. The truth is, if I’m near home, I’m usually cooking. Moreover, something nearby is no more likely of an edible destination than others, as I’ve never been shy about traveling far and wide for the perfect bite.

That said, moving to South Brooklyn has opened the flood gates to an entirely new world of local eats. Though I still spend a hefty chunk of my paycheck on groceries at the Coop, the unique culture of small business in this borough has inspired me to spend more time outside my kitchen. And so it was that on a recent weekend I arrived at Al Di Là.

Soup of the day.

Soup of the day.

Now, eating Italian food in restaurants is a tricky thing. Raised on la cucina della nonna, I typically opt to explore more obscure cuisines on my restaurant outings. To boot, if I’m dining with the discriminating palates of my parents and sister, the bar for a “pasta joint” is set pretty high. But as I’ve eaten in more and more of the excellent Italian establishments in NYC, I’ve come to appreciate the perfection of truly al dente pasta or the difference between everyday minestrone and a masterpiece.

In this ever-crowded genre of restaurant fare, Al Di Là inches ahead with grace and little fanfare. The dining room is a quirky spin on bistro chic, with a red/maroon and gold aesthetic that repeats in the wall paper, curtains and painted-to-look-vintage tin ceiling.  The dishes echo this unassuming – yet distinctive – charm, with slight details that consistently offer something more than expected.

Spaghetti carbonara.

Spaghetti carbonara.

A mild mandolined salad of white winter vegetables was refreshing, elegant and crisp. The soup of the day contained everything but the kitchen sink, and yet achieved a refined balance – in particular, the contrast of bright, just-wilted greens with the slow-built flavors of meat stock. The pastas, too, were an upgrade on the classics. The carbonara tasted distinctly grown-up, with pronounced, lingering notes of white wine and far-superior-to-your-average bacon. An indescribably delicious cavatelli with cauliflower ragu had me bartering “a-bite-for-a-bite” so often that I surely ate half of my sister’s plate.

Cavatelli with cauliflower ragu.

Cavatelli with cauliflower ragu.

These are the meals that inspire me as a cook. The dishes that remind me that ingredients, timing and the tiniest dash of creativity are the difference between great and phenomenal. The days where we laugh ourselves silly, sopping up every last bit of sauce with our bread. The ones where we walk out of the restaurant not stuffed, but satisfied – knowing we’ve truly shared a meal.

Al Di Là
248 5th Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11215
718.783.4565

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eater’s digest: new taste of the upper west side (part 3)

The insatiable critic herself, Gail Greene

Saturday night I had the pleasure of attending “Best of the West“, an event honoring legendary food critic Gail Greene. As suggested, the evening featured many of the tastiest establishments on the Upper West Side, regaling attendees with more of an fine dining feel than the previous evening’s “Comfort Classics.”

Scallop Crudo, Nick & Toni’s

Seafood dominated the night’s selections, and undercooked was king. From crudo to cured, the fish was delicate and fresh across the board, but for me, there was one clear winner: the scallop crudo from Nick & Toni’s Cafe. Paired with just a dash of flake salt and a few firm, bright peas, this simple scallop stood out from the pack.

Tomato Six Ways, Gastroarte

Another memorable selection was Gastroarte‘s “Tomato Six Ways.” Fresh, sundried and even gelatinized, chef Jesús Núñez’s take on the omnipresent fruit was an inventive reminder that there’s really nothing better than a spectacular tomato.

Yet if the aforementioned plates were refreshing departures from the realm of over-thought restaurant eats, it was two more intellectual plates that truly surpassed my expectations for the evening.

Jean Georges’ Avocado & Asparagus Salad

The first was Jean Georges‘ gorgeous avocado and asparagus salad. Creamy smashed avocado enveloped the most perfectly cooked asparagus my teeth have ever encountered. Tender, yet still al dente, the vegetable’s iconic bitterness that lasted just long enough to impart flavor, but vanished before becoming unpleasant. Topped with sorrel flower and toasted sesame seeds, the dish left a lingering nutty memento on the tongue.

Quail Egg, Cured Carrot & Chicken Feed, Dovetail

The second was Dovetail‘s quail egg, cured carrot and chicken feed. The words “chicken feed” by no means enticed me, but these nutty, grains offered an exquisite chew  – definitely the best texture of the night. The quail egg also had a great, creamy mouth-feel, and the cured carrots offered a bright, acidic crunch.

And finally, a few more-than-honorable mentions:

  • Chef Michael Psilakis proved his worth in proteins…
    • with his moist, deeply flavorful Kefi meatball (the best meat of the weekend, in my humble opinion)
    •  and a perfectly balanced corvino crudo from Fishtag (impressive, considering the fish was paired with a bevy of potentially overpowering ingredients).
  • The Tangled Vine confirmed its reputation for winning seasonal eats, serving a cured mackerel and a medley of barely-cooked spring veggies.

    Fava Bean Raviolo, Nice Matin

    Fava Bean Raviolo, Nice Matin

  • Nice Matin‘s creamy fava bean raviolo had me rethinking my allegiance to all things al-dente

For more photos of the evening’s offerings, check out my profile on Instagram or this album on Facebook.

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eater’s digest: new taste of the upper west side (part 1)

This year marks the fifth year of the annual New Taste of the Upper West Side, the largest neighborhood dining event in NYC. Just nearing my second anniversary as an UWS’ider, I jumped at this opportunity to rub elbows with other hyper-local foodies and to sample the neighborhood’s most outstanding eats.

Last night kicked things off with a refined, vegetarian feast at Dovetail. The dinner was inspired by Chef John Fraser’s Monday night dinners, which go beyond “meatless” to craft dishes where vegetables are truly the star, rather than the supporting cast.

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My favorite bites of the evening were the delicate, green chic peas in Brown’s asparagus dish, the creamy cheese/wild nettle fusion in Robbin’s risotto, and the textural contrast of the crunchy greens adorning Dieterle’s spring truffle raviolo. But I truly felt all the chefs did a remarkable job, working under Top Chef challenge-like constraints (sharing an unfamiliar kitchen with an unfamiliar crew and co-chefs). I’m looking forward to seeing what they have planned for Friday’s “Comfort Classics” and Saturday’s “Best of the West.”

Proceeds to benefit the Columbus Avenue BID’s streetscape beautification projects, as well as the Greenhouse Classroom and Citymeals-on-Wheels. To learn more, visit: New Taste of the Upper West Side.

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eater’s digest: the publican

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

It was Easter morning, and early.  After a full weekend of eating at the hippest restaurants in town, the last thing my family needed to pack in before our 11 a.m. flight was a hearty brunch.  And yet, here we were, twenty minutes outside of the Loop, face-to-face with portraits of overstuffed swine, and feeling a bit pot-bellied ourselves.

Yet any sense of gluttonous remorse vanished during this almost-religious brunch experience.  The ambiance might be described as Amish-alternative, appropriate for only the hippest of post-prayer gatherings.  Boxed-in booths hid behind hinged, church pew-style doors, while a central U of sturdy, stylized banquet tables filled the core of the high-ceilinged space.  Tall-backed, numbered, wooden chairs with convenient sub-seat shelves only underscored the quirky-meets-functional vibe, as did the table’s condiment-toting lazy susan.

This impressive, yet homey attention to dining-room decor was happily equaled – if not surpassed – in the kitchen.  From finger-lickin’-good pecan sticky buns (I should’ve ordered a batch to-go!) to rich red-wine poached eggs, the portions were perfect and the flavors on-point.  Not to mention that our food was beautifully lit by the soft morning light, streaming through curtains that looked like they were stolen from an elder’s country home.  The all-around favorite, however, was the ridiculously addictive french fries with (what I can only assume was home-made) mayonnaise.  Normally a fair-weather fan of potatoes, I found myself stealing more than my share of my sister’s side of fries.

It could’ve been our lovely waitress, the quaint Sunday-best of our neighboring diners, or the sentimental sense that this was our last Chicago meal – but I’ve a feeling that I could’ve eaten that food blind-folded in a basement and still savored every bite.  The Publican is namely perfectly – relaxed and accommodating, with just a touch of posh perfectionism.  And if I were lucky enough to be heading back to Chicago this Easter weekend, it’s exactly the place I’d choose for my final, pre-flight bite.

The Publican
837 West Fulton Market
Chicago 60607
(312) 733-9555

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eater’s digest : txikito

Me & My Basques at the Fêtes de Bayonne

Read the original post at HonestCooking.com.

When I lived in Paris, almost all my friends were Basque (or wanted to be).  I was addicted to their lively energy, their no-holds-barred humor and their endless appreciation for good food and drink.  At the same time,  “Basque” was becoming one of the hottest buzzwords in cuisine, in large part due to Ferran Adrià and the heavily Michelin-starred city of San Sebastián.  So it was with great anticipation and expectations that I finally visited the Pays Basque myself, an experience that can only be described as exceptional, given the region’s distinctive geographic diversity and resulting wealth of signature foodstuffs.

It’s this Basque commitment to and celebration of locally-sourced, exquisite ingredients that has typically made me skeptical of “Basque” spin-offs in the ‘States.  However, when I heard that an unpretentious, creative and stereotypically hard-to-pronounce Basque outpost had opened in Chelsea, I couldn’t help popping in for a bite.

Pouring Basque cider is an art in itself.

I first visited Txikito during Cider Week, though the restaurant features the distinctively dry and acidic Basque cider year-round.  The ambiance mirrored that of its pizzeria neighbor, Co Pane, with clean lines and concrete floors.  The interior, in fact, set a precedent that stood throughout the meal: seeming simplicity backed by elevated conception.  Familiar flavors unfurled with new intensity, yet one never overpowered the other.  Odors evoked near-primal pleasure (I literally held the “grilled cheese” to my nose for about a minute before even tasting it).  It was all such an enjoyable blur that didn’t even think to document the experience.  So much the better, since I planned to come back.

This week offered the perfect opportunity to return to Txikito, with one of my favorite dining companions in tow.  Despite arriving early on a Monday night, the restaurant was already packed, so we seated ourselves at the small but pleasant bar.  My cohort had already heard me rave about the txixi txanpi (shrimp and wild mushroom grilled cheese), so that was quickly decided upon as our starter.  As previously implied, the odor of these perfectly ridged, miniature sandwiches is truly incomparable, their flavor grounded by earthy mushrooms and balanced by light, slightly sweet shrimp.

TXIPIRON "ENCEBOLLADO": squid ribbons a la plantxa w/ sweet onion and pine nuts

From there we chose the esparragos, (white asparagus, celery-black truffle vinaigrette and chopped egg), an elegant, well-balanced dish, though not the most remarkable on the menu. Then came the txipiron “encebollado” (squid ribbons over pine nut/sweet onion puree), a truly masterful display, in which typically chewy squid was transformed into tender, al dente “pasta” served over a mild, nutty-sweet sauce.  Still fawning over the squid, we dove into the albondigas, light and appropriately gamey lamb meatballs nestled in a bowl of savory, just-minty-enough broth (that brought out the best in bread-dunking).  We finished by munching on patatak mentaiko, crispy fries flecked with piment d’espelette and a mildly fishy cod roe mayo.  My companion deemed the fries a “must eat”, fingering them with the delight of a guilty child, a sentiment that reflected the organic, grateful delight that I have experienced with (almost) every bite at Txikito.

If there was one sad moment in this most happy of restaurant reruns, it was the discovery that the pochas (navarran white beans, bouchot mussels, white wine, parsley) were no longer on the menu.  These buttery, melt-in-your-mouth beans, laced with the lingering flavor of shellfish, had evoked a plate-licking urge in me that I had thought long-suppressed.  I can only hope they’ll return next bouchot season.

I cannot go so far as to say that every dish at Txikito is a stunner, (the first time I visited, I distinctly remember that the txitxiki (chorizo hash sandwiches) were good, but underwhelming) but any deviations from excellence are quickly forgiven, when one considers the outstanding whole of chef Alex Raij’s work.  Her cuisine demonstrates a keen intuition for balancing flavors, odors and textures, providing the opportunity for both intello-foodie chatter and analysis-free enjoyment.  If the former will fill Txikito’s seats for the moment, the latter will enlist it as a NYC staple for years to come.

Txikito
240 Ninth Ave, between 24th/25th Streets
212.242.4730
reservations@txikitonyc.com

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eater’s digest : New York City Wine & Food Festival

Let’s get ready to rumble.

On Twitter, the New York City Wine & Food Festival quickly became #nycwff (seemingly to the credit of the Twitter-happy Andrew Zimmern).  Something about this abbreviation immediately made me think of professional wrestling, and – considering the crowds I combated at this Sunday’s Grand Tasting – the comparison is not entirely undue.

If this were a culinary wrestling match, the heavy-hitters were certainly there to show off their signature moves.  I saw Alton Brown saber a champagne bottle and Morimoto massacre a heap of live crabs.  Michael Symon waxed rhapsodic on both pork products and healthy living, while Anthony Bourdain reassured us he really, really doesn’t “give a fuck”.

And somewhere in the midst of these high-stakes culinary games, I entered into the “ring” myself: the Grand Tasting.  This signature NYCWFF event was held at Pier 57 for the first time this year, an ingenious move that offered waterside breezes and easy Highline access to the Tasting’s ambitious attendees.  The Grand Tasting essentially consisted of two rings: (1) an “outer ring” of up-and-coming restaurants and (2) an “inner ring” of major sponsors including Nutella, Buick and Bertolli.  I quickly decided that eating anything from the “inner ring” would increase my risk of over-saturation, so I focused solely on the up-and-comers.

At the risk of not doing justice to wide array of chefs that were present at the event, I have decided to highlight –high school yearbook superlative style – the standouts.  (A full list of Sunday’s restaurants and purveyors can be found HERE).

Best Braised Meat:
Marble Lane at Dream Downtown, Guinness-Braised Kobe Short Rib
This Guinness braised meat had deep, complex flavor that kept evolving with every chew. (5 Ninth’s Oxtail Ragu – like a gourmet philly cheesesteak – was a close second).

Best Soup:

Salinas, Codorban Gazpacho
Crunchy, garlic-y, and spicy – it was as much an elevated Virgin Bloody Mary as a soup.

Best Pasta:

Vai Spuntino Bar, Burrata Ravioli
I love burrata anything, but it was the incredible, ever-so-slightly-undercooked texture of the fresh pasta that blew my mind.

Best Presentation:
The Hurricane Club, Crab & Avocado Corn Cake
Served in a convenient little bamboo boat, this was a surprisingly light and stylish corn cake.

Best Re-Vamp of a Classic:
Millesime, Lobster and Pumpkin Bisque with Tarragon Foam
Lobster Bisque has always been a personal favorite, and the lobster-pumpkin blend with an herbaceous kick was an intelligent (but not over-thought) revision of a classic.

Most Unusual Dish:
Danji, Spicy Whelk with Watercress and Buckwheat Noodle Salad
Simultaneously spicy and refreshing, like a Pan-Asian spin on escargot

Most Surprising Dish:
Spice Market, Shaved Tuna with Chili Tapioca
I’ve never tasted savory – let alone spicy – tapioca, but the translucent reddish pearls married beautifully with the refreshing raw tuna and crunchy bits of near-raw ginger.

Friendliest Service:
Armani Ristorante, Quail Egg Ravioli with Sheep’s Milk Ricotta & Shaved Black Truffle
This unctuous ravioli underscored the never-ending pleasure of a runny egg yolk, and the chefs’ personalities were as pleasing as the food.

Restaurant I’m Dying to Try:
Aureole, Ruby Red Shrimp in Coconut Lemongrass Broth with Asian Pear and Cilantro
In a sea of braised meat, ravioli, and raw fish, the carefully layered flavors of this exquisite dish were more than memorable.

Smartest Dish:
Commerce, Korean Braised Pork Belly with Vidalia Onion Marmalade served on a Pork Rind
I’m “so over” the pork belly craze, but the contrasting textures in this dish were ingenious!

Most Disappointing Dish:
Plein Sud, Boudin Blanc with Carmelized Onion and Apple Mustard on a Baguette
The boudin was a bunch of floating meat particles that were not “set” properly underneath the casing – the texture was greasy and just wrong all around.

Best Single Bite:
Talde, One-Bite Perilla Leaf Salad with Bacon, Tamarind Carmel, Toasted Peanut, Candied Chili and Dried Shrimp
This was a flavor-packed “one-bite”, and despite being my final morsel in more-than-filling afternoon, it still stood out as the most attractive, intriguing and flavorful dish of the day.

We’ve all watched enough TopChef to know that these large-scale, salon-style events are not easy, and I was truly blown away by the majority of the food I tasted.  There was a significant amount of braised meat, raw fish and pasta, and no restaurant that I saw chose to take on dessert.  But apart from the obvious irony of stuffing your face to end hunger (all proceeds from the New York City Wine and Food Festival benefit the Food Bank for New York City & Share Our Strength), the Grand Tasting was a surprisingly successful and worthwhile event.

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