Bites & Pieces

El Quinto Pino

A little self indulgence these days is not such a bad thing. Whole lot going on. And churros with a fabulous dulce con leche may just be at the top of the don’t-fuck-with-me-I’m-going-all-out heap. Brunch here is so good anyway. These just make it ridiculously so.

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El Quinto Pino

401 West 24th Street

212.206.6900

Open daily: Monday – Friday dinner only / Saturday – Sunday for brunch & dinner

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Lalito

Lalito

Unless you’re looking for a late nite bail bond storefront or the defunct cult karaoke bar Winnie’s, little would lead you to this rather desolate street in Chinatown, just a stone’s throw away from windows alive with dead ducks and souvenir kiosks galore. But lo and very much behold – an entrance with old signage indicating food and fun appears with the address you’re seeking. It seems closed. But then you open the door.

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It’s a kind of cool 70’s vibe with a pop soundtrack to match. An arty, quasi romantic space with a very welcoming staff. Mustard colored banquettes hug the walls in curves around the room, formica tabletops offer a modern diner appeal and neon lights frame a seated bar – I like to think Jetsons. It’s got spunk. Until recently the restaurant was called Lalo but because of a conflict with an existing Cafe Lalo, it morphed into Lalito. Helmed by Chef Gerardo Gonzalez who was THE man at El Rey Luncheonette, specializing in a SoCal, healthful, Mexican ethos that caused a mini uproar on the lower east side when it first came to attention. Now we’ve arrived at his new Mexicali with-a-dollop-of-global+mediterranean tinged casual chic eatery. A few favorite dishes accompanied him but have been twisted and turned along the way with his Alice in Wonderland kind of hand.

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There’s a full bar complete with Mexican inspired designer cocktails. I tasted several belonging to dining companions and found them a bit on the sweet side. That can always be altered and the play on healthy but funky ingredients is worth exploration. I went with a French 75 before we moved on to an interesting wine list featuring a mix from California to European including natural wines. They’ve got bubbles and beer, a lovely pitcher of tequila sangria and for the non-alcoholic choices, many a flavorful agua fresca.

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Oh doubtfully shake your head if you must. Everyone will understand. But you’d be missing out on this incredibly good dish of Vegan Chicharrones with hot sauce, vinegar and yuh huh-spirulina. Kind of a subtle homage to Bugles. The table loved it and there were serious doubters. A soupçon of chagrin and then all were reaching for seconds…Puffed wheat dusted with chili powder and pepper, served with ready to squeeze pieces of lime over a piquant dipping sauce of pickled fruit that brought the whole dish and a cadre of new fans together.

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The Black Bean Squid Ink Dip is a mischevious take on classic black bean dip, but under the Mad Hatter’s watchful eyes, the kitchen uses cannellini beans colored with squid ink, tosses on pickled red onions, banana peppers, black garlic and cotija cheese resulting in a lively balance of flavors. It’s vibrant, fresh and fun.

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Shishito peppers are a favorite of mine. Usually a little char, a sprinkle of salt and we’re golden. But Lalito has their own plan and it’s a good one. Stuffed poblanos are officially on hiatus. The Shishitos En Nogada intertwine shaved walnuts in a pomegranate reduction with a generous splash of the arils and the result is buttery, tart, light, and zesty.

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Creamy with coconut milk – Coconut Rice

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Papas Bravas  were a crowd favorite, a nice edge of spice, creamy on the inside, crispy on the outside and practically preening with it’s shards of green herbs, dots of red paprika and a drizzle of crema. These were fabulous.

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The Brown Goddess Cucumber Salad was the only dish that had the ingredients to soar but just didn’t quite cut it for us. English cucumbers, mint, and candied pepitas in a brown mole vinaigrette were earthy but erratic. Maybe the narrative is just too complicated for one small bowl.

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I loved the Seared Sea Bass. Beautifully cooked and combined with curried masa, tomato powder, nigella, sumac yogurt, and chick peas. Sublime. But I have to add a big sigh, a kind of general complaint which extends to a few other plates – portions can be skimpy. The bass is so tasty but vanishes in a few small bites.

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Roasted half chicken demands it’s own table time swaddled in a shimmering spicy hot green pineapple sauce, rich with garlic and cilantro. A Pollo Asada that is uh…finger lickin’ bueno.

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Eggplant a la Plancha just might please your commonplace eggplant hater. Smattered with tahini and adorned with gomasio, a Japanese seasoning of roasted sesame seeds ground with sea salt plus the sweet, mild flavor of cubanelle, a Cuban frying pepper and an impeccable balance of lemon. Hits all the tastebuds.

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House-made, warm, fresh, wish-I-had-more tortillas are the best part of the Pork Carnitas. But followed by a close second on the meat. Offered as a single serving or for “lovers”. The tortillas may become your new paramour after this so I’d go whole hog. So to speak. Smoked, salted, stewed in pineapple juice and beer – tender, savory pork is festooned with rings of pickled red onions, red rimmed radishes, green herbs and lime. A swathe of crema and it’s another venture into wonderland.

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No tuxedo clad waiter with a cart full of anchovies here, this is the – we’re giving you big time umami but with a spirulina, capers, cashews, dulse bread crumbs and nutritional yeast version of a Vegan Caesar Salad. Not what you would have expected from a fantastic Caesar but definitely one you do not want to skip.

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A dip into the luscious rosy broth surrounding the Lamb Barbacoa is necessary. It’s an ingeniously soulful combination of flavors with velvet drops of masa gnocchi and flakes of cumin flavored meat that induces swooning but just ever so slightly.

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Goat Milk Flan with Pomelo, Tarragon and Olive Oil – and a birthday candle. Tangy creaminess with a hint of bittersweet and citrus. The right compliment to all that had come before. On the table and in life!

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The kitchen is an impressive alchemy of craft melding with screwball. Quirky combinations of fanciful ingredients and flavors give depth to Chef Gonzalez’s sly, smart, inventive menu. He takes the familiar, and then veers sharply into unexpected, keeping a diner on their toes. It’s fun, sometimes a little wicked and always oddly comforting.

Lalito

104 Bayard Street between Baxter/Mulberry St

646.998.3408

Open daily 11am-4pm and 6pm-midnight

Whose beki? Uzbeki

Taste of Samarkand

It’s packed at 830pm on a cold almost spring night in Queens. And it’s a Sunday. Kosher-Uzbeki food. Who would have guessed? Inside is a leafy trellised ceiling adorned with bunches of plastic grapes and draped colored sheers framing the crowd below. Two waitresses took turns approaching us in the entry way, each shaking their head sadly and glancing back to the very convivial room and brightly clad tables as if to say – what were you thinking? The buzz of camaraderie, clinking glasses and mouthwatering aromas were preparing to send us back to the black crusted snowbanks outside. We just stood there. We persisted. The waitresses had disappeared to handle fast moving plates and requests from the lucky groups seated and sated. A few moments later, a lovely woman, wearing seniority and not the traditional vibrantly colored caps, kuilak (tunic) and lozim (pants) like the others, came over and asked softly – would you wait 20 minutes? We’d wait longer. I really wanted in.

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Luckily an extended family celebrating their patriarch’s birthday gathered their coats spread over several seats and motioned for us to join them while we waited for a proper table. Immediately they sliced two large pieces of birthday cake for the four of us, which thankfully we elected to save for after our meal. Because we ordered a lot. There were toddlers, adult children and Poppa, the birthday boy. I was on the verge of getting over-excited. It was like being in another country, in another time and the menu – fabulous. Big Poppa pushed an almost full bottle of vodka towards us. We demurred, said we couldn’t but he insisted saying…I have plenty of vodka at home and look at the name on the bottle, I can’t bring that into my house.

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It’s BYO here and name not withstanding, it was especially kind of him.

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Great spout.

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The menu is written in Cyrillic, Latin and happily in English – sometimes with a poetic slant.

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They have three breads and we didn’t skimp. The Noni Toki is thin and crispy, baked similarly to a matzoh, billowy and blackened. It’s 14 inches in diameter and curled just so by baking it on the underside of a traditional bowl-shaped Uzbeki frying pan on top of the oven until it crisps. Sometimes it’s referred to as hubcap matzoh.

Lepyoshka is puffy bread with a chewy glossy crust and an open air crumb. There was enough bread for leftovers at home the next day.

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Their signature bread is Fatir, gratifying layers of buttery pastry dough. Beautiful. I tried to count them like the rings of a tree and hit 25 before I abandoned the plan so I could just eat it.

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Detail of a single layer.

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A splendid version of babaganoush – rich, smokey and creamy. It became a repetitive motion, bread-dip-bread-dip. The hummus was equally good. Had we realized how much food we’d actually ordered, we might have censored the dip-eat motion earlier. Oh well.

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Koreans immigrated to eastern Russia in the 1860’s but in wartime almost 200,000 were banished by Stalin to what is now Kazakhastan and Uzbekistan. What remained of their culture became a significant influence on their food, their heritage merging with their newly adopted land creating a meld of ingredients. There are several Uzbek restaurants around town that focus on Korean/Russian inspired dishes but at Taste of Samarkand, this is the only one. Korean Carrot Salad á la the Silk Road looks so fresh but deceptively unsurprising. Marinated in traditional korean spices, honey, garlic, cayenne, coriander seeds and vinegar, the sweetness and acidity lent itself well to our cavalcade of meat dishes plus it turned out to be one of the best choices of the night.

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A bracing Tashkent Salad is described as a perfect blend of boiled beef tongue, radishes, and greens but is further enhanced with crunchy green bits and crispy onion rings, all dressed with mayonnaise. They looove mayonnaise here.

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Ochor, marinated mini eggplants stuffed with herbs and scallions. The eggplant was a little too cold as well as too al dente to fully enjoy but a lovely combination of flavors.

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Sheepskins depicting hand painted landscapes of The Silk Road are rustically framed with sticks and decorate the walls.

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Maybe my favorite description of any dish on any menu ever. Read the Nakhot Garmack. It’s poetry. And then there’s Jiz-biz…just saying.

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Here’s the Jiz-biz with lamb chops and the kitchen’s very favorite add-in, house made potato chips. They turn up in many a surprising dish.

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Juicy, seared, tender.

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Ahhh, the Veal tail with its leached soul. That menu line from above.

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My second favorite description with the dish below. Twelve hours for ten bucks.

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The hardest working man in Uzbeki show business it seems. Flashy production numbers on the muted televisions and very hard working staff in the kitchen and dining room.

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Georgian Lemonade which seems to be naturally flavored soda and unrelated to lemons. The pear was a bit less sweet than the atomic green tarragon flavor but both were actually good, even for all the tarragon’s nuclear possibilities. Not pictured is the tasty kool-aid looking fruit punch which is made from a mix of real fruits and listed on the menu as fruit compote. Our server graciously left a full pitcher on our table when one person ordered a glass. She said in case we’d all like to try it.

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In contention for the most popular dish at our table of a zillion plates, Samsa  (the Uzbek samosa) is a layered pastie wrapped around finely chopped veal, lamb, onion and spices…coriander, cumin, black and a little red hot pepper. Then they’re baked to a flaky floaty puff topped with sesame.

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Samsa innards…

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Herring with boiled potatoes, onions and lemons. Refreshing and just what you’d expect it to be. Combined with the Lepyoshka bread mentioned earlier, made for a perfect breakfast the next morning.

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Uzbek Manti. Juicy dumplings. More finely chopped veal, lamb, onions and spices delicately wrapped in a fine pliant dough and steamed.

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Smokey charred kebabs were salty and satisfying but I bet the meat skewers are where they shine. Beware the blades. You could duel for a kingdom with these.

Vegetable -Kebab

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Wild Salmon-Kebab

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The plates are beautiful, and the extremely kind staff seems to take pride in how everything looks. Our table must have been quite a challenge for them as our expanded order just kept coming.

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Georgian tea completes everyone’s dinner and green tea is the custom choice. It’s fruity with a distinct apricot aroma.

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Accompanying tea were these lovely bits of candied pineapple, sugared chickpeas and peanuts gilded with sesame and honey.

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We missed out on the baklava as we had the aforementioned birthday cake so kindly shared by the family that let us sit with them. Vodka and cake. We scored. The chocolate was delicious.

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From the outfits to decor and most importantly the food, Taste of Samarkand offers a glimpse and a taste of the ancient influences of the Silk Road from Uzbekistan to Persia, China and India. I was surprised that it wasn’t particularly spicy but no matter, flavors are very distinctive and the food just beautifully prepared.

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This area of Queens serves a large population of Bukharan Jews and Uzbek immigrants. As noted in the New York Times, “Rasul Hoshimov, an Uzbek Muslim from Samarkand, runs the restaurant with David Abramov, a Bukharan Jew from Dushanbe in neighboring Tajikistan. The chefs — Mahmud Shokirov, who handles the meats, and Cholpon Turganbaeva, in charge of everything else — keep the kitchen kosher…” The restaurant is a perfect example in how to get along and a good idea for our present world to follow. Plus a wonderful spot for the rest of us to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

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Taste of Samarkand

62-16 Woodhaven Boulevard

Border of Middle Village and Rego Park, Queens

718.672.2121

Open Sunday through Friday for lunch and dinner but only for dinner on Saturday

Special note: BYO

 

 

 

 

 

n’eat-ness counts

n’eat (neat + eatery)

Cuisine word of the day is…drumroll…you got it. Huzzah! It’s Nordic. The northern European culture of food and ephemera has firmly entrenched itself in New York City. It’s hi end at Agern and Aska, lower end at the Northern Food Hall in Grand Central Station and now Goldilocks, we have the bowl of porridge that’s just right, a choice that is smack in the middle. n’eat in the East Village. The intention is to have it be a neighborhood spot albeit with a dash of destination thrown in. The new Nordic, intriguing Danish food but the rustic chic version. Less fancy, less pricey, same substance. Inventive, inspiring and a very good time.

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A Swede and a Dane walked into a bar and we got lucky. Chef Gabriel Hedlund, yet another Noma survivor and veteran of several European restaurants joined forces with restauranteur Mathias Kaer, owner of a few spots in Copenhagen. Together they focused on creating a cool casual restaurant of the Scandinavian kind, making use of local ingredients while staying true to their roots. They pickle, they brine, they smoke, they ferment, importing just a few necessities like moss, seaweed and Danish cheeses. The food is fresh, zesty, flinty, you grasp the terroir.

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It’s fun here. The vibe is on point for the neighborhood and these times. Ambience: check, well crafted wine/beer list: check, excellent service: check, food: check check and major check. And the actual check? Not scary.

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The chef is creating just behind the counter so you can happily grab a stool and be privy to the magic.

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A picnic table just outside the entrance sets the relaxed tone. The front dining section seats about thirty people, there’s the counter seating with that view of the open kitchen, plus a few more tables further back placed before a lovely private room that seats about 20 people and is anchored by a glass walled wine room. The restaurant feels spacious but homey.

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Friendly servers are quick to answer questions and make you feel comfortable while sporting aprons that pay at least a little homage to vintage viking.

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Modern. Spare. Cultivated. Earth tones, light woods, whitewashed walls.

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Blackware instead of silverware. Lightweight, distinctive, stylish.

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The menu has 15 dishes that will adapt with the seasons as well as available ingredients. They’re all $16, just a couple augment a surcharge and we were advised to consider 3 – 5 plates per person. Dishes are definitely not tiny so depending on how many wooden slabs of the fabulous bread you order, you can do 2 – 3 plates and be fine. But…you’ll likely want to keep foraging, it’s that good.

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On offer are five seafood, five vegetarian and five meat dishes so you can design your own meal or avoid an argument about preferences if sharing.

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A little Pet Nat to help with the post election night blues. A highly enjoyable storytelling bottle from the Veneto, akin to prosecco but better. You can taste its whispers of must and tradition as you grab at a little bit of sanity. I’m sure it’s as great any night not following a decimating election.

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The most seductive sourdough bread. Salty crust, a hint of sweetness to the center celebrated by it’s cohort – fermented butter with a sweet velvety tang you might actually cry over. Happy tears.

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A stoneware bowl accentuates the lovely raw mackerel, nasturtium, and horseradish in a chilled green tomato broth. It’s vibrant, acidic with buttery flavorful fish.

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Fried fluke, cauliflower, tarragon with whey is a delight. The fish is more like a pan seared filet, nicely cooked and the cauliflower is rendered into yet another new dimension for cauliflower. I didn’t think there were any left. Lovely dish.

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The lamb tartare with chives and capers had a pleasantly surprising mouth feel, soft and smooth with bursts of buckwheat crunch. Perfectly seasoned so that it elevated the lamb rather than overpower its delicacy.

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This dish is barely there, heavenly and light, but full of flavor and adds up to one of the best on the menu and one of my favorite dishes in recent dining. Delicately cured thin slices of scallops with slivers of radish in a weightless but snappy buttermilk dressing and then the craziest part – frozen mussel snow. A granita really, flavored by the lushness of the mussels and their liqueur. It’s floaty, but the combined depth of flavors make it feel substantial.

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Rehydrated beets, thinly sliced beets, pickled beets with big, juicy luscious blackberries and pine. One bite encompassing each loamy, warmly sweet, slightly tart ingredient is a pleasure.

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Wild mushrooms, Blanquette and Roasted sourdough. We were instructed to take a bite of the gorgeous mushroom toast and then a sip of the sauce following. Mushroom stock, yolks, cream and I don’t know what else but holy all that’s earthy – this was the path. It’s lusty, warm and consoling, especially welcomed this night.

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A lovely $40 bottle makes this the neighborhood place you can afford to be. The wine list developed by sommelier Pernille Folkersen is well priced with an emphasis on natural & organic, but also includes a few bottles of distinction. Plus there’s sake, bubbly, and cider  too, all joyfully complementing the food.

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Dessert list is small but its offerings are exquisite.

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The gossamer walnut parfait companioned by pear granite and hay oil. Of course. Hay. Melts in your mouth.

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This kinds of beats all. Icelandic yogurt, white chocolate, sprays of dill and surprise surprise surprise…

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icy cucumber balls that reveal themselves as if they were the most unimaginable treat in the world. Enchanting. And it’s cukes! This is stellar.

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The art will be jars of pickled things. Edible art.

My only complaint is that the soundtrack does little for the atmosphere or the food. The night I was there the music included My Way and Hopelessly Devoted To You. I wouldn’t allow either on an AM car radio much less backing a beautiful dinner. When I asked about it, I was told it was to inspire memories. Maybe in Denmark these are the songs of good times but perhaps something more unique or interesting would be more motivational for those sublime memories that will surely come after you dine here.

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You can frame your dining experience any way you’d prefer. Go full tasting with all the dishes and make it a luxe evening with friends, dine alone at the bar for a plate or two and a glass of wine, or just pop in to share a few menu items, a few glasses and a pal. It’s the kind of place where anything goes so don’t wait for the right night, just go and let it become the night that it’s supposed to be.

n’eat

58 Second Avenue between 3rd/4th Streets

917.892.6350

Open Sun – Thurs 6pm-11pm  Fri – Sat 6pm-12am

Soul Taming fromThe Wild Son

The Wild Son

Wild Son. Dun dun dun dun dun. You make my heart sing. Dun dun dun dun dun. You make everything…groovy. These are the early days of The Wild Son, just breakfast and lunch for the moment, dinner will be on deck by and by, along with some very cool cocktails. But these two meals will do for now and do quite nicely.

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Little in the way of restaurant world makes me happier than that rarity, a perfect neighborhood spot that’s gonna be a destination place as well. In case it’s not in my neighborhood. The pedigree here is strong. Owners aka the chef and the barkeep also own the fabulous and kinda under the radar Goodnight Sonny as well as The Wayland (with live music), two insanely worthy destinations in the east village. Now they’ve ventured west with a new idea. It’s wholesome food but edging the line of decadence. A philosophy of nutritionally dense debauchery.

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Though inventive cocktails have long been Jason Mendenhall’s bent, he’s using his wild imagination to concentrate on crafting a kind of revolutionary non-alcoholic drinks menu. An epic juice list, and a nitro cold brew coffee that he says leaves him up all night after tasting all afternoon. Note to self – when in need, get thee to The Wild Son.

My very refreshing carbonated watermelon fresca

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Followed by an Iced Coconut Latte that was deep.

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Crowd pleaser and all around fab dish, The Grain and Egg Bowl. I’d be hard pressed to not just return and order this again. Crispy fried grains with that crunch and pop lend more than just fiber to your bowl. It’s tiny bites of surprise, addictive and fun to eat. Add in the sunny side egg, greens warmed slightly from snuggling with their bowl mates, chopped seasonal vegetables and a spicy green sauce. You feel your strength coming back, your body making itself whole and it tastes heavenly.

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The Pernil Romero, slow cooked pork in garlic, fennel and rosemary with the crustiest of breads. And wrapped in paper. Like being in some Umbrian piazza by the porchetta truck.

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Divided into sandwiches, salads and plates, time of day matters not. Breakfast til 4pm or lunch at 10am. All good. Check out the Green Tartine description, they’re a humorous clan.

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Whimsy defines the interior. A beach cottage with a wry urban wit.

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So far what I’ve tasted has been beautifully spiced, the right balance for flavor and intrigue and clearly primo ingredients.

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It’s not a scene, but it will have its own cult I’m sure. They’re not trying to be cool casual, they’re just relaxed, curious, imaginative and having fun. And it’s catching.

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Plants, books, albums, art…and they do play really good music.

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Robert Ceraso and Jason Mendenhall. There’s a third partner that I never said hello to but will add his name later. I’m sure he’s wonderful too. Kindest people. Keenly interested in the diner’s happiness.

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I was there on day 2 and look forward to returning asap for their already infamous doughnuts. Baked not fried! Plus I want the buckwheat pancakes (gluten free fwiw), the new morning sandwich (sooo much), and the Mango & Turmeric Sparkling Shrub. Then I’ll work my way down the wish list.

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It’s everything you need to start your morning or end your afternoon.

Wild Son, I think I love you.

 

The Wild Son

53 Little West 12th Street between Tenth Avenue/West Street

212.727.7900

Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-4pm for now

Ba Ba Ba Ba Babbalucci

Babbalucci

Okay, so the name makes me want to sing the Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann. I just couldn’t help the blog title. Forgive me for that but then thank me for making you go have pizza and the like in Harlem. It…is frigging good.

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Stopped in for a quick bite on my way downtown after a visit to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx (one fabulous cemetery). I’d been meaning to get there since it opened in June and my expectations were high. But how often are those met anyway? Well, hellooo! A fetching, relaxed, vibrant ambience, lovely staff and exemplary pizza…plus a host of Italian delectables all primarily cooked in fire.

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The chef/owner, Andrew LoPresto has long worked in restaurant world and hails from a paternal lineage of professional bread bakers. He’s also worked in several NY styled pizzerias owned by his father, including Luzzo, a NYC downtown favorite. How sublime that he’s now doing it for himself. And for all of us. LoPresto’s process is akin to the slow food movement, everything is made á casa, the bread and pizza dough apparently use a slow-fermentation process to create a refined, simple crust that’s further perfected in that luscious wood fired oven. He said in the Village Voice, “The product you get is much better, earthier, warmer”. Yup.

Started with a delightful bowl of fried artichokes tossed in herbs and lemon on a bed of arugula.
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Add it to the small list of favorite dishes I would have every day if someone would just bring it to me. But now the tippy top of that list belongs to the ‘Pleasant Avenue’ named pizza. Be still my heart.

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Sicilian tuna with pops of hot cherry peppers, plus onion, tomato, arugula and generous shavings of parmesan on top. The fabulously charred thin crust floats right from the wood burning oven into your mouth and the layers of flavors undulate from brine to hot to sweet onion. Ambrosial. I am not exaggerating.

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And even though this was a late lunch and dinner loomed in the near future, I had to try the Spaghetti with Mixed Mushrooms and Crispy Artichokes.
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Flavored simply, it’s lush, savory and that perceptible and heavenly edge of smokiness clung to my tastebuds.

Also sampled but not pictured (difficult dining companion!) are the very pleasing Grilled Romaine Insalata that too arrives fresh off the fire, just like the pizza, topped with pancetta, parmesan, and croutons – all slicked in a gorgeous anchovy dressing.

The Polpettine, finespun, succulent balls of spinach & beef on a bed of cheese infused polenta are lightly sauced with a nimbly spiced marinara. This dish is turning heads on the internet. And at my table.

There’s a nice wine list and an inventive cocktail menu designed by mixologist
Enzo Cangemi. It’s worldly but happily has a substantial Italian focus with Grappa and Amaro based cocktails and heady ingredients like rosemary and lavender. Their apertivo (happy hour) incorporates bite highlights from the main menu that complement the sophisticated libations. Worth putting in some time on the barstool.

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Lots more to explore on the menu though I’ll be hard pressed to not press repeat when I return. And we didn’t get to the much lauded ‘Babbalucci’ pizza but word is – do it. Snails, uh-huh I said snails…which happens to be what babbalucci translates to in Sicilian dialect. It’s topped with tomato, garlic, parsley and gorgonzola. So, I mean…yeah. That’s why there’s a next time.

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Babbalucci
331 Lenox Avenue between 126/127th street
646.918.6572
Open daily from 11am-midnight

La Contenta. And Yes I Am.

La Contenta

We’ve all heard the east vs west coast argument for decades. Sigh. LA claims best Mexican food north of the border and cites NYC as a re-fried bean wasteland. New Yorkers have long declared that our Mexican restaurants are getting better all the time. Really. Swear. Then everyone huffs and puffs, and slide chips into their guacamole in stony silence. But the sulky years are behind us! As it happens, New York City has crept up the ranks and is now sitting pretty on a few posher Mexican spots as well as more elevated neighborhood places. Maybe all the marauding criminals that Donald Trump eschews are actually cooks! Ha.

Gourmet focused restaurants like Empellon Cocina, Cosme, and Mission Cantina have changed the landscape for good. And of course Empellon also has the more casual Taqueria and Al Pastor, Black Ant is doing innovative fusion, Fonda is a good neighborhood destination, El Presidente/Tacombi have the low key well covered and Zaragoza has the always fab taco take-out counter. Of course I’m leaving out dozens of great choices, but my focus here is about one delightful lower east side coup de grace to the Mexican dining scene…La Contenta.

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Definitely cozy, originally the home of my all time favorite seafood restaurant Tides, it seats around 16 people at tables plus a few stools along the bar. The spirit of the place somehow makes it feel convivial not cramped.

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Luis Arce Mota, chef/owner and his partner, Alex Valencia, an artist of the cocktail world, have done a spin on classic Mexican highlighted by French techniques. And that’s evident. Poached lobster in a chile morita butter sauce, Confit of chicken legs in mole sauce, a Queso Fundido with goat cheese, black olive tapenade, chilies and a guacamole with pomegranate & pumpkin seeds. The drinks are infused with various chilies and the list includes off the path agaves that are just finding their way onto menus around town with favorites like the nutty tasting Sotol, and the lovely to sip smokey Bacanora. There’s a healthy list of mezcals/tequilas and creative twists on standbys like the Prietoni, his take on the Negroni made with raicilla, campari & sweet vermouth – fantastic. Or my very tasty hibiscus margarita. And custom made cocktails are always on offer.

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This isn’t the standard Puebla fare that infuses most mainstream joints around the city. Mota comes from Mazatlan and started his career here as a dishwasher at Carmines. He cooked under the tutelage of some top chefs at various NY restaurants like Bouley and then went to study at Le Cordon Bleu. Love that. He opened Cafe Condesa, then Ofrenda to success before selling his stake in both. Now he has the charmed and supremely good La Contenta. Alex Valencia holds an impressive mixology pedigree from a few cool places in town like Little Branch and also managed and designed the cocktails for both Yerba Buena’s, oh I had some truly inspired drinks there.

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Delicate but crispy Fish Tacos in a very spicy and oh so good chipotle aioli.

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Braised Short Ribs in a cascabel and chipotle BBQ sauce with mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts and crispy tortilla chips slid right off the bone. Juicy and fragrant.

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Tostade de Cangrejo, a fresh, light, spicy version of crab tostadas. Blue Crab meat with a celery root puree and of course, chilies.

No photo of the Shrimp Veracruz Enchiladas in poblano sauce but a definite highlight and a must order.

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Nachos with pickled vegetables, loaded with cheeses, crunchy, perfectly spiced plus gorgeously arranged chips, the sunflower of nachos.

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I really like it here. The food is on point, the staff is thoughtful and engaging and the baked chips are among the best I’ve ever eaten. Bad news for me as I can’t stop but good news for chip lovers. They’ve done a lovely job in the space of making it all fit. Like an oversized jigsaw puzzle surrounded by the faintest imitation of a Keith Haring mural.

Ended the evening with a shot of an extraordinary tequila that our very dear waiter thought I would love. I did love it. But damn if I can remember what it was. I’ll be sure to write it down next time. There will so be a next time.

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La Contenta
102 Norfolk Street between Irvington / Delancey
212.432.4180
Monday-Wednesday 5pm-12, Thursday-Saturday 5pm-2am, Sunday 5pm-11pm
Happy Hour daily 4pm-7pm