Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New York: Ribot

We finished wrapping up our show late this evening and in somewhat poor spirits. Instead of seeking out good eats with my co-worker, we went our separate ways and I was ready for a good meal and new find. My concierge suggested a visit to nearby Ribot.

The decor was tasteful and chic. I had been expecting greek / mediterranean food and it wasn't exactly in that niche, but the menu's selections were winsome and innovative. Making up my mind about what to order turned out to be quite a challenge. In the end, I started my meal with the organic beet salad, baked goat cheese and mache. The beets were sliced thinly and tasted as if they had been marinated in an aged balsamic vinaigrette. The texture of the goat cheese reminded me of fried green tomatoes and the mache rounded out the tanginess of the chevre and the sweetness of the beets with a slight savory peppered note.

I struggled between choosing the black pepper pappardelle with lamb ragu, mint and lemon, or the pumpkin risotto with mascarpone, house-cured pancetta, cinnamon, and nutmeg. In the end, I settled on the risotto, glad that the rice had been cooked long enough, since a risotto dish I'd had earlier this week in Las Vegas found the arborio rice to be crunchy beyond al dente. The pumpkin risotto had a great depth of flavor to it with the spices lending an interesting note to the pancetta, which completed the dish through its crunchy outside and soft inside, the needed saltiness. Creamier than most, the mascarpone lended an edge to the risotto making it sing.

I ended the meal with the Vahlrona warm chocolate cake and caramelized bananas. Why is it that volcano cakes or warm chocolate cakes are so hard to perfect? They're either not warm enough and so the expected ooze from the center never materializes or their flavor lacks depth, which is what happened here. It sounded good; it looked amazing but in the end, the cake was merely okay. I am becoming skeptical about desserts when the savory selections turn out to be fantastic.

The service is a totally different matter. I waited at the door for a little while, not knowing who was the host. The restaurant had a few tables sat, so that wasn't the reason for the absence. The host ended up taking my order and I never quite knew who my waiter was. The water attendent was attentive and I kept thinking I wish I could leave him the tip. Once my risotto was taken away, I waited an interminable amount of time, expecting someone to ask if I wanted to view the dessert menu. One host was schmoozing at a seventop and the other had been chatting with a two-top close by. I kept wondering if this had anything to do with the fact that I was dining alone. When the server finally came by, after attempts at indirect communication that I was ready, he asked, "You don't want coffee, tea or dessert do you?" I was somewhat stunned- how presumptuous!

After I finished my dessert, he did not clue in that I was ready for the bill until the water attendant, upon filling up my glass was informed to relay the message to the server. He tried too late in the meal to actually serve my needs. I rarely leave 10% but tonight I wanted to prove a point. Excellent food; biased service.

* PRICE: $$$-$$$$
* SERVICE: Mixed up
* GROUP FRIENDLY: Great for groups or one-on-ones

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Baltimore- The Helmand

After a bone-wearying day of smelling sesame oil fuse with soy product and squabbling colleagues I decided to go out to a reggae concert, by members of the band, who stopped by twice and urged. My usual protocol on business trips does not involve barhopping or salsa dancing late into the wee hours. But tonight with a start time of 10 p.m. in the know i set off to begin my evening. After a dismal meal of Maryland style crabcakes a few nights before, I had heard the name of The Helmand uttered twice in the short three day span that I had been in Baltimore:

"It's one of the best Afghan restaurants in town."
"The owner is brothers with President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai."

Worth a peek and sure to take my mind off of the day's woes, I set out for the Mount Vernon neighborhood in which it resides. Along the way the cabbie pointed out the architectural detailing visible in the night, gargoyles, interesting doorknockers. There was such a sense of history and place in this city that I hadn't expected, unfortunately connoting it with high crime and the Orioles previously.

We rolled up to The Helmand which from the outside doesn't look like much, but this was where my evening's adventures would begin. Since I hadn't made a reservation and the wait list was an hour and a half long, I happily sauntered over to the bar, where a woman, also working the same food show during the daytime made some recommendations of notable menu items. I took her lead.

I decided upon two appetizers and a salad, in place of a large entree, so I could try more dishes. The salata featured mixed greens, tomatoes and red onions in a perfect balance of tart and sweet in their pomegranate vinaigrette. After a long day of noshes and not much else, this was a great way to whet the palate. Next came the main foci of my attention. Instead of ordering it vegetarian style, the bartender brought out the Aushak in the traditional way. Filled with leeks, this ravioli is topped with a meat sauce and dabbed with a minted yogurt concoction, that altogether combined the crisp notes of peppermint with the cooling of yogurt as balancing elements in the otherwise spicy, savory dish. In place of dessert, my second appetizer filled the role well. Kaddo Borawni consisted of a plate of baby pumpkin that is at the same time both sweetened with a little sugar and then topped with a yogurt and garlic sauce. With every bite, I tried to discern if the savory was more pronounced or the sweet, until I noticed my plate was empty. Never a bad sign.

The Helmand labels itself as "fine Afghan cuisine" and I would second that, knowing if I lived in Baltimore, this could quickly become a favorite haunt, since one stomach could not engage in all the enticements noted on their varied menu. I left with a full belly and a renewed sense of vigor, deciding to walk the 12 blocks to the reggae concert with verve of youth in tow.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

NY- Candle 79

What started out as a simple meet and greet reception became one of the best vegetarian experiences I've experienced yet.

The reception was hosted by the company that plans and organizes the Natural Products shows on both the West Coast and East Coast, so of course a restaurant with a focus on premium vegetarian and healthy fare was a must. Candle 79 is by far the most chic vegetarian restaurant I have encountered. The bar boasts organic wines, juices, tonics, smooth sippers and sake specialties. I ordered an elderberry elixir with a slightly tart profile, sweetened with agave nectar.

Servers walked around with platters of bite-sized morsels such as spoons of wild mushrooms, nori rolls with brown rice and a tofu sour cream, mini black bean burgers and fried purses with mushrooms inside. My favorite by far had to be the seitan skewer with a citrus chimichurri sauce. The chocolate cake was too dry but the "cheezcake" bite was lemony and bright.

We enjoyed our noshes in the front room. I had a great conversation with the founder of YaYa's RawRah and a woman who does professional demo'ing of Sahale nut mixes among other products. A great meal of bites accompanied by a great conversation of likeminded food-businesspeople. I snatched up a cookbook for future inspired meals.

  • PRICE: $$-$$$
  • SERVICE: Great
  • GROUP FRIENDLY: Great for groups or one-on-ones
  • COOL QUOTIENT: Absolutely THE chic spot for vegetarian cuisine.

Monday, July 10, 2006

NY- Django

Part spectacle, part magic, Django puts on a great performance in the way of the great restaurants. I walked by and the simple sway of font used in the restaurant's placard outside wooed me inside. I surveyed the menu and made a mental note that come hell or high water I would come back to Django before my stay in New York came to an end.

And so it was that we made our way back to Django this evening. The dimly lit foyer invites you to step out of the noise of the everyday and into a new world, a mysterious world. We scaled our way upstairs and were seated along the wall- one long window. We had entered a realm where the servers are cognizant of your every need but a whisper's presence. I felt my voice dropping in pitch, taking on an air of quiet confidence. We skipped the appetizer course and moved straight to the main course. I ordered the angus beef "toro" tajine that had so enticed me from the menu the evening before and it did not disappoint.

Adding to the quiet spectacle atmosphere, they brought out my tajine with a white circus top cover, rimmed with a brick red edge. With flourish, the server removed the lid, almost eliciting the response of "ooh" from my mouth. Lemongrass scented basmati rice formed a column in the middle of the stew, crowned with preserved lemon and a mound of mango chutney atop. The stew was rich with spice and flavor including toasted almond pieces, sultanas, sweet pearl onions and chickpeas.

At the end of the meal, there was silence- the silence that comes when all your senses are sated. Dessert was ho hum, but the tajine, service and atmosphere more than made up for it. Django did not disappoint.

  • NOISE LEVEL: Quiet
  • PRICE: $$-$$$
  • SERVICE: Great
  • GROUP FRIENDLY: Great for groups or one-on-ones
  • COOL QUOTIENT: A fabulous place for a special occasion.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

NY- Landmarc

A $10,000 chandelier hangs above the bar. The bartender's training hails from the "cocktail" movie school of bartending, not that he practices any of his tricks here.

Landmarc is simple in its decoration because it focuses all its emphasis in the food it serves. unpretentious dishes abound with interesting flavor combinations. On this evening, i selected and ate a marvelous chimichurri steak salad, perfect for a warm New York evening. The wine is well-priced here and the Riesling was a perfect choice with its sweet, crisp peach notes. The tuna was also tasty and we capped the meal with a smorgasbord of desserts such as a delectable chocolate mousse, a creamy milk chocolate ice cream cone and a warmed blueberry crisp.

Service on the other hand was difficult. Our server was annoyingly visible often at our table and when our order came out it was incomplete because of a snafu, which meant that one of our party sat and waited while giving his okay for us to commence without him. The server then passed us off to another server, disappearing with us wondering if he was gone for the night. Landmarc's food shines in a way that would make me come back but ask for a different server.

  • PRICE: $-$$
  • SERVICE: Not Great
  • GROUP FRIENDLY: Great for small groups or one-on-ones
  • COOL QUOTIENT: in the fabulous Tribeca district

Saturday, June 03, 2006

SF- Ferry Building Farmers' Market

I am always surprised at the joy of seeing so many ripe fruits and vegetables underneath the large white umbrellas that wait as a beacon at the farmer's market saluting me with seasonal abundance. Today was no different except I've not found the time to come and pay homage for many months- too long I found.

We were overwrought by organic cherries, strawberries and blueberries. A vendor sold handmade yogurt in small clay jars with flavors like Meyer Lemon and Honey. A slice of sweet, fresh orange collapsed in my mouth as if ushering in summer through its sweet citric juices. White mulberries and organic ollalieberries enticed, but I settled upon some hearty beefsteak tomatoes that did not disappoint later in the evening. Something holistic like purchasing fruit and vegetables from the farmers who are tending the land makes you feel like you are giving back to your community and the earth upon which you tread in gratitude and appreciation- not out of a greed for production through genetically modified foods.

There is something so captivating with the discovery of new food finds- as if Vasco da Gama is dwelling deep within my palate, so with childlike glee, we became acquainted with two new goodies: candy cap mushrooms and sea beans.

We stumbled upon a small vegan foodcart, hidden underneath the shade of a column of the ferry building for a restaurant called Alive and began our rather insightful tasting excursion. I appreciate and adore great vegan food and all of their offerings were tastefully presented. We tried the flaxseed cracker with zucchini and carrot, and the blueberry pecan chip. But the enticement which induced both my friend Michelle and I to make a purchase was the cheesecake made of Candy cap mushrooms. Silky and smooth the cheesecake, which is totally dairy-free and vegan had a sweet maple-like tone with a blueberry compote and pecan nut crust.

"Candy caps are available fresh in the fall and are used by various restaurants to be incorporated into sweet combinations. There's a store just inside where you can see what they look like."

No sooner had the Alive restaurant proprietor sold us our new delicacies for the evening than we swiftly sought out the fungus shop to continue our foray into the world of the sweet mushroom. I was beaming from ear to ear and felt like a child with a new toy. The employee at the fungus shop pulled down a glass jar and before he removed the metal lid asked us, "Are you ready?"

With abated breath, he unstopped the jar and I inhaled a sweet pungent maple aroma emanating from the jar. Twice, the words "incredible" escaped my mouth. I am eagerly awaiting the fall when the experiments for twists on desserts will abound.

As I am in my candy cap reverie, Michelle beckons me over to try a sea bean. I look at her quizzically, after looking down at these sectional green bean look-alikes. But I pop one in my mouth and they recall an al dente haricot vert with a wash of sea salt exploding from the middle. They're fabulous! We each pop another and decide to split a basket between the two of us. (My farmer's market salad is really taking shape now...)

And thus I am reminded of the joy of being alive from a slender bean of the sea and a sweet fungus of the earth.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Chicago- Vong's Thai Kitchen

I have a hankering for thai food. There's something about the pleasing combination of sour, sweet and spicy that makes my tastebuds delighted. And when in Chicago, I make a point of having a meal at Vong's Thai Kitchen, or VTK, which is one of the many gems of celebrated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Last year I dined here one evening during the Restaurant Show and listened as my server recommended their Panang Curry. I listened politely of course, but internally did not think they could beat all the great thai eateries of my hometown San Francisco. At the time, I was living above a thai food restaurant that still today is the source of comfort and the best thai food in the city. So, thai curry in Chicago? Thanks but no thanks. Let's just say the server was rather persistent. And it was one of the best thai curries I have ever experienced. In fact, I have been thinking about their panang curry since I left Chicago last year. Before I wax poetic on the dish, let me say a few words about VTK.

There are so many things that this restaurant does right: the decor is unique and intimate, giving an air of being in Southeast Asia, as if eating is the pastime until the monsoon blows over. They have distinctive alcoholic drinks but the star is their non-alcoholic mocktails list as well as a great selection of hot teas. Far too many restaurants underestimate the power of having viable and well thought out alcohol-free alternatives. I drink on occasion, but find I sleep poorly when I do, so am rarely imbibing when on the road for work. Their "mocktails list" included a refreshing pomegranate lemongrass soda that paired excellently with the food.

My colleague C and I had been on our feet for the past 14 hours, gabbing with countless people and working. We were beyond exhausted but I was tenacious insisting that instead of room service, we needed to go to VTK. I'm glad he humored me. By the end of the meal, he was practically cooing. We started with an amuse bouche of daikon and carrot salad that opened up our appetites and woke us up to dinner at 9:45 p.m. For appetizers we tried the Crispy Curry Potstickers filled with a spicy red curry chicken and water chestnuts with a yogurt lime dip that cut the sharp tang of spiciness into a mellowed tone. This was followed by their Warm Asparagus salad with avocado red bell pepper strips and a chili hollandaise, with each bite captivating us, keeping us transfixed. C and I then partook of the infamous Panang Curry and he became silent, which is no small feat.

What makes the Panang Curry exquisite, you ask? For starters the presentation is impressive. A hill of jasmine rice appears to be floating in a sea of red curry sauce flecked with peanut morsels and bright green peas swimming in a red ocean along with shredded chicken. The aroma is pleasing and draws the diner in. But the clincher for me is the texture of the dish- the vegetables are rather al dente, providing a satisfactory crunchiness atypical to most curries without having to load up on a superfluous amount of peanuts used.

For dessert, C ordered the warm passion fruit souffle with passion fruit ice cream at the suggestion of our server, who like my previous experience, had been flawless in his service and suggestions. C drank a cup of Chamomile Citrus tea with his souffle, which paired well rounding out the tang of the dessert with citrus. His souffle was incredible. I originally thought it might be an overload on passion fruit, but it quickly was devoured. I ordered the Chocolate Beignets with Coconut Cream and a cup of Orchid coconut oolong tea. The beignets arrived hot and upon my first bite puncture, dark mildly sweet chocolate oozed out of the middle. The tea's meditative tone drew out the richness of the dessert and I enjoyed the co-mingling of both flavors.

We left full and happy. And at the end of a long day, what better way to say goodnight but in thai?

  • PRICE: $-$$
  • SERVICE: Great
  • GROUP FRIENDLY: Great for groups or one-on-ones
  • COOL QUOTIENT: Absolutely THE chic spot for thai fare.