Friday, December 14, 2007

Mi-chelle Bern-stein!

So, as I was saying about those timely posts...

What gets me most is that when I look back to consider what I'd like to say about the places I've eaten only to realize just how much time has passed. The days sort of feed into one another and what I remember as being about a week or two has actually been closer to seven--which is actually the case with my trip to Michy's, amongst others. It was six or seven weeks ago that I, after eight months of work, received my first Friday night off without having requested it, which obviously meant I needed to spend it wisely. And what better way to spend a Friday night than a night out wining and dining with the one you love most.

The decision to actually go to Michy's rather than simply returning to my favorite Michael's Genuine was a little more difficult than you might imagine. It was Friday afternoon at almost two o'clock and I hadn't yet made a reservation. I had heard that Michy's was some sort of high end Latin fusion all the way down on Miracle Mile. Mixed reviews left me wondering if the trip would actually be worth another Latin meal when my neighborhood was teeming with the equivalent of Central American Applebee's.

My first reservation was actually with the Food Gang, thinking it might be fun to go and see Howie Kleinberg's (the argumentative, sweaty bald guy from Top Chef 3) food in real life, but the reviews there were even more mixed. Flipping through a magazine I had received highlighting restaurants in Broward and Dade counties, I finally gave in and called Michy's, delightfully surprised to find out that not only is it North Miami Beach, much closer to my house, but also that the food is actually quite appealing, and not just another take on old Latin favorites.

What excited me most about Michy's was the subtle vibrance of everything. First of all, the place is very quietly located on US1, next to a Starbuck's, a gas station and a residential street. If you didn't know what you were looking for, you wouldn't find it. Then when you enter (as we did, mistakenly through the front door which is actually the back door), you are hit with blue. Blue envelops the room and gives a sense of boundary. It isn't until you look around and realize that the banquette along the far wall is bright orange and the chairs bright white that the room really comes alive, enough to match the clamor of the guests all enjoying themselves. As far as first impressions go, this was a pretty good one.

So we finally sat down, I in the orange banquette, Doris in one of the many white mismatched chairs that fill most of the room. To our right was the dining room, full of well-dressed adults, a family with their kids, smiles on everyone's faces as they took bites of the delicious food. To our left, the wall of wine, the bar and the bargoers out not to eat, but to have a good time. Michy's, I realized, isn't just a place to go and have great food--it's a place to go and have a great time.

Be forewarned--I was easily sold into two $18 glasses of champagne that, admittedly, tasted damn good, but were a little pricier than I had expected. Regardless, they made a great start to a fantastic meal and quickly heightened the romance that only Michy's quirky elegance could create. With the champagne we enjoyed oysters with the apple horseradish mignonette, and the silky, heavenly white gazpacho with almonds, grapes and cucumber. Smoother and less acidic than most any other gazpacho I've ever had, this was like eating a smile and swallowing perfection. Second was the bibb lettuce salad, topped in crispy shallots (which I made at work the next day they tasted so good) and a jalapeno ranch dressing just spicy enough to excite the lettuce, but not so cloying that I kept reaching for my water.

Before I go any further I must talk about ham and cheese. While traveling through the Southern half of Argentina last year at this time, we spent well over fifty hours on busses owned by companies that believed ham and cheese sandwiches were the best option for quick meals. In all fairness, ham and cheese are some of the cheapest and most ubiquitous ingredients to be had in all of South America, but when you are sitting on a bus, stopped-over for two hours in the middle of Argentina only to be fed a trio (yes a TRIO!) of ham and cheese sandwiches with cookies, carbs and more carbs, all in the middle of a 36-hour bus ride, your disdain for the two ingredients quickly rises and you basically never want to see them again. However, when we saw the ham and cheese croquetas on the menu, they sounded too good to pass up, and served as a nice interlude between salad and entree.

Finally, it was the churrasco Steak Frites, served with a Bearnaise and an Au Poivre dipping sauce. For me, it was the least exciting element of the evening, perhaps becuase I've been working a grill station for over five months and therefore am a bit tired of steak and heavy sauces. Then, inevitably, it was the red velvet cupcake and shot of milk served in a mason jar for dessert that we had seen upon entering. There was honestly no room left to stuff a cupcake, but if you could the presentation alone of the cream cheese icing and glass of milk, you'll find a place.

The cool thing about Michy's is that the menu is divided into half and full portions, so you can turn four courses into a tasting for two simply by sharing, just like we did. The bill for everything, including the champagne, coffee and gratuity was $160, not bad considering we left feeling satisfied. Once I've completed more of my tour of South Florida cuisine, I'll definitely go back, though perhaps not for the Steak Frites. It is an environment unto itself, unpretentious and bursting with energy--worth the travel and worth the money.

6927 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, Fl; (305)-759-2001

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Le Best

For the first time in the short history of this food blog, I'm going to go ahead and do a timely review, rather than one that comes one, two, even three weeks after the fact. I plan to change this style and do everything in a more timely fashion once I'm out of school and only have work to fill up my days, but for now, c'est la vie, and I'll continue doing my part whenever possible. With that, you're probably wondering (or at least I hope) what has me so eager to get to writing, rather than my usual procrastinating. The answer--Le Tub.

If you're like me, adventure is a part of your regular vocabulary and is graciously applied to any situation where narrow passages, winding through trees, field trips, or anything MacGyver-esque happens. I look for adventure because it makes even the most mundane of days seem a little more fulfilling, and I also like to think it keeps me young. So, upon entering the wooden deck maze of picnic style seating along the water, only to find that our friends were seated in the furthest booth located up some stairs, around a corner, through some trees and past the tiki torches, adventure was the first thing that came to my mind. It didn't matter that Oprah's travel expert and GQ magazine had already voted the burgers as some of the best in the U.S. or that my Floridian friends had raved about the food for some time--I was sold before I ever had a bite. Moreover, we had coincidentally already tried to enter Le Tub's jungle more than six months prior while on a Sunday afternoon trip to the Hollywood organic market, only to find the parking lot packed and wait too long for our grumbling stomachs. Needless to say, this dinner was destined to be great.

Once we finally sat down, the conversation quickly turned to Oprah, or the whole reason we were here in the first place. Oprah and the menu, that is. Sitting right on the water, there were, of course, seafood options on the menu, but none of us were interested. It was the burgers we had come for, the burgers we had heard so much about, and for perhaps the first time in my life everyone at the table ordered the same thing--a burger and fries.

I must digress for a second and talk a little about burgers, because they are near and dear to my heart. Growing up in the Midwest, in the land of meat and potatoes, I was exposed to burgers of all sorts. Frozen patties, my mom's fresh meat cooked to a dry, yet somehow delicious, well-done, burgers in restaurants of all types and, of course, the barbecue burger on lazy summer afternoons. As I look back, it was an education in flavor that could only be enjoyed by a chubby kid that learned to love food while sitting in front of the television for most of his adolescent life. For a while, I even tossed around the idea of driving around the country doing a burger tour, deciding for myself who had the best burger. Having now experienced what has been regarded as the best, I think a tour of this sort might still be worthwhile because, although the burger I had last night was good enough to silence our table for a solid ten minutes, I'm still not convinced that it's "the best." Booche's in Columbia, MO might have something to say otherwise, as well as a few other establishments across this great nation in which I've enjoyed some tasty beef patties.

Moving on, it may, in fact, be the sirloin and the sheer size of the 13 oz. patty that has people raving about Le Tub's burger, because in today's fast-food economy, finding a burger of that girth made out of a superior cut of beef is nearly impossible. Plain and simple, it's a fantastic burger. Upon first bite, the classic ketchup, mustard, onion, lettuce, tomato, bun and burger combo came together in a bite so savory and succulent that it brought back memories of the burger I had my sophomore year of high school after the Sadie Hawkins dance. It set my mind racing to remember all those other burgers I'd had because I hadn't had a burger in quite some time, at least not one this good, of this caliber. And in the end, it was only the burger in front of me, the water off to my right, the steak fries so hot and tender inside, and the ice-cold Corona that matched everything so perfectly that grabbed my attention. At that point, the other burgers didn't really matter much simply because this one was so damn good. Furthermore, I knew that no amount of classical French training in a highly regarded, expensive culinary school could make this burger. No, it was and is truly American, and although I'd never refer to myself patriotic or even proud, it was pretty nice to know that this was entirely ours and that you wouldn't find anything else quite like it anywhere else in the world.

And that was pretty much it. By the end of the meal we were all yawning, exhausted from having consumed so much meat. We finished up our conversation, passed on dessert and headed back through the maze, back to the buzz (albeit low) of Hollywood at night. I look forward to going back again, not simply for the burger, but for the ambience as well. It was, I have to say, a truly unique and utterly perfect burger experience, one that most assuredly slip in with all the others, just another branch of my education in American cuisine.

Le Tub (
1100 N. Ocean Drive, Hollywood, Fl; 954-921-9425

Friday, November 30, 2007

What's Better?

Gramercy Tavern

Daniel Boulud

By now, you've probably noticed the running motif with the Gramercy Tavern, the great meal I had there, my opportunity to work there, etc. I don't forsee this motif losing steam any time soon. Through doing more research, I've found that working for the Gramercy folks would not only put me deep within the boundaries of a ring of fantastic restaurants in New York, but it would also give way to a long string of connections to restaurants such as Blue Hill which, through even further research, I've discovered are right in line with my current mentality towards food. All in all, it's a pretty fantastic opportunity. However, thanks to the generosity of Terri Wallman, my ace in the hole Director of Career Services here at the school, the chance to possibly work at one of Daniel Boulud's spots has become available as well. Therein lay the problem or, rather, the dilemma.

Is putting time in with a wildly successful French chef worth more than going to a restaurant I already feel connected to, or can I get an equally valid and worthwhile education in a setting that's far more appealing to me?

My experience says, go with your gut. Gramercy feels better so go with it.

What's better? Comments welcomed and encouraged.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Birki's Clogs

White Clogs. Need I say more?
I'm a 43 in case anyone is looking to get me a Christmas gift.
Phenomenally comfortable and kinda cool to look at, they are some of the best money I've ever spent.

Sunday, November 11, 2007 can make it anywhere

Unfortunately, what's good isn't always what's up to date or even what's new. While my ambitions for being a chef/food writer/small-time restaurateur are a driving force in my life at this point, my schedule as a cook/student/human being allows me just enough time to pass out around 12:30 every night with half a beer in my hand before I'm forced to once again wake up at 6:00 in the morning and start all over again. It's a schedule that, at times, has found me weary, cranky and ready to quit everything and once again go searching for a nameless job in a sea of nameless jobs only to realize that what I'm doing is quite a good fit.

As with most jobs, even those not quite as demanding as kitchen work, it's good to take a break every so often and allow the brain to get a clearer perspective of the larger picture which, for me, means recognizing that the time I've spent in kitchens for the past nine months has not only enriched and broadened my knowledge of food, but has also brought me to a position where the only clear path I can see is upward. This isn't to say that I'll be made Sous Chef or Chef de Cuisine of a respectable restaurant in the upcoming months, nor would I want to--I still have quite a bit to learn--but having pushed myself to gain as much knowledge in as short of a time as possible has certainly given me a clearer path towards culinary success.

How I go about attaining that success, though, is entirely up to me, and it means constantly being aware of that larger picture, which is why three weeks ago I requested four days off and flew to New York. My goal was to visit with my brother over long meals in fabulous restaurants, to make contacts for my upcoming externship and to reassure myself that I knew exactly what I was doing spending so much time in a kitchen because even in a city like New York, where the cuisine is world-class and the work daunting at best, I felt right at home. What follows is an itinerary and critique of my seven major stops in three days, the food and ambience contained within, and how being back in New York with a definitive purpose opened my eyes.

It goes a little something like this:

Thursday, October 18th
Bocca Lupo, Brooklyn
391 Henry St., at Warren St., Cobble Hill, Brooklyn; 718-243-2522

Originally, my brother had asked if I might lavish him with some of my newly attained culinary talent and cook up a little something once I arrived in New York. The idea sounded great and I intended to make a couple of simple but tasty pizzas with fresh vegetables and fresh mozzarella, the perfect accompaniment to a couple of reunion beers and catch-up conversation. However, by the time I finally arrived in Brooklyn Heights after a nearly two-hour trip from JFK by subway, my desire to sauce dough and julienne peppers was gone. We were hungry and not all that willing to wait for pizzas or even walk to the store for the ingredients, so down the street it was to what has become one of my brother's and now perhaps even my favorite spots.

Bocca Lupo is a simple but sophisticated, hip but not trying too hard mostly Italian eatery designed with flavor in mind. Located in Cobble Hill just around the corner from Red Hook, they cater to families, couples, hipsters and general passersby alike. In looking for the restaurant's exact address for my review I came upon some rather mixed reviews regarding the restaurant, mostly due to its location and that fact that a hot little Italian spot is located in a relatively quiet neighborhood. Staying open until two in the morning on weekends doesn't sit too well with locals, but for those looking for good food at a great price, the hours seem just fine. And after all, the food is what we're here to talk about.

Coincidentally, my brother's first question when we got the menu was, "What is Risotto?" This question came when I had just finished a class in which my teacher tried to convince us that his runny risotto was "genuinely Italian" and my coworkers were trying to come up with a new flavor pairing for their risotto. As it turns out, my brother's risotto was exquisitely cooked, seasoned well and simply plated. Paired with a small pizza topped with fresh ingredients, he seemed quite happy. I steered clear of the risotto and first had us explore the antipasto plate with five different cured meats, all flavorful, some better than others. I feel like I can't go into detail about an antipasto plate because it's basically old hat at this point and not worth detailing. (I also had the privilege of enjoying a cured meat spread in southern Argentina last year accompanied with a sampling of micro-beers in a small mountain town, so other cured meat plates are going to have to try very hard for me to take note.) It was good, though.

For my entree, I ordered a salad of warm farro and shiitake mushrooms in a balsamic dressing, accompanied by veal and porcini meatballs in a tangy tomato sauce. I ordered these dishes not because they sounded good to me (which they did), but because I wanted to taste their preparation of these ingredients--and I was pleasantly surprised. The farro wasn't at all rubbery nor undercooked and the balsamic was the perfect pairing with the shiitakes. The veal meatballs were fantastically tender and the tomato sauce was perfect, something that I'll rarely say about tomato sauce, having worked in several "Italian" pizzerias and tasted some truly delicious tomato sauce.

Beyond our meals, the rest of the menu looked great. The paninis sounded plentiful and pastas sounded like pasta, but with enough heart to make them fabulous. Nothing that we had was under seasoned or poorly cooked and the flavors were outstanding. The wine list was entirely Italian and quite extensive. Service was friendly, expedient and seemingly eager to please. Overall, it was a great first meal back in New York at a friendly little Italian place, so much that we even went back for brunch on Sunday morning. I would not only recommend it but even offer to take anyone there who I happen to be in Brooklyn with in the future.

Friday, October 19th
The Grey Dog's Cafe (
33 Carmine St., New York, New York; 212-462-0041

It wasn't until my senior year of college that I realized how crucial coffee was to long nights of drinking, studying and generally living. I avoided the black juice at all costs perhaps because my first few introductions were had at places like Denny's where a couple of bucks gets you the deepest cup of coffee you'll ever find, even though you're essentially paying for swill. When I finally found a cute barista worth trying coffee for, though, my dependence on the caffeine, the buzz and the culture was immediate. I quickly became a coffee drinker in love with seedy coffee shops, the ability to stay awake and do more and, quite often, the cute girls that served it up.

When I moved to New York soon after college, it didn't take long before I was introduced to the Grey Dog's Cafe, the coffee shop around the corner from work famous for its dog-friendly attitude, its award-winning coffee, the homestyle comfort food for lunch and dinner and, of course, the hottest baristas in the city. For those of us at the ad agency where I interned, it became an almost daily routine, getting coffee and cookies in the late afternoon so we could rough out the last few hours of the work day and still be able to go out at night. When I eventually quit that job and moved out of the city, I still thought of that coffee every time I had a cup that was less than adequate. Then I moved out of the region entirely and didn't really know when I'd set foot in that cramped, delicious, one-of-a-kind locale again. Needless to say, when I booked my flight to New York this time, I had one cup of coffee in mind.

Almost three years in the making, that cup of coffee was perfect. Hungover from a few bottles of wine and catching up the night before, it got me excited to be in New York again, to be wandering around the city looking for knives, excited about food, high on caffeine and ready for more. I hadn't found the Chinese chopping knife I was looking for that morning nor were the baristas as hot as I'd remembered, but it didn't matter. The coffee was superb and the cookies in all their face-sized glory were soft and thick. Dammit, I want that coffee again.

It was oddly just like old times, too. Outside the weather was wet and overcast and inside humid and deafening with lunchtime chatter. I spent maybe five minutes getting that coffee and cookie, but what an utterly fulfilling five minutes it was. I spent nearly the whole day nibbling on the huge chunks of chocolate in the cookie and the coffee got me to a lunch that I might have otherwise avoided because of my hangover. The Grey Dog's for me is a true New York landmark, worth not only going out of your way but perhaps even a trip to the Big Apple.

Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 Second Ave., New York, New York; 212-254-3500

The great thing about working for a chef that travels and eats is that you'll rarely be at a loss for places to go and try. The bad thing is that he gets irked if you don't listen to him when you give him a suggestion. When I saw a review of David Chang's Momofuku spots as I read Gourmet magazine on the plane, though, I knew that it had to be.

My biggest regret about going to Momofuku is that I was nauseated by my hangover, so the menu's real highlights didn't sound appealing. In Gourmet, they raved about the pork buns which, when I didn't order them and later saw the woman next to me devouring them, I knew were what I should have ordered. Instead, I opted for the chicken ssam box #2, with noodles and a Dr. Pepper. On any other day with a clear pallet and an open-mind, the spicy kim-chee and tangy pickles would have been great. It was grease I had on my mind, though, so the very healthy, tasty meal in front of me just didn't do it. What I can say, though, is that the ssam, essentially a burrito, seemed overly saucy, to the point that I almost couldn't taste the chicken or it's accompanying veggies, designed to be tangy and flavorful themselves.

Would I go back? Most certainly--I have to try those pork buns. As expected, too, it was a cool spot in a great location. The squared-off, all-wood interior fit right in in its East Village neighborhood. It seemed to me a great meeting spot or a healthy, delicious alternative to late-night partying food. The music was great and the employees friendly, not to mention the cost for what was on the menu surprisingly cheap.

Industria Argentina (
329 Greenwich St., between Duane and Jay, New York, New York; 212-965-8560

The idea behind the culinary school externship is to essentially sum up your coursework with applicable fieldwork in which the skills you've attained are put to use. For many, this means staying close to home, finding a decent restaurant that pays and learning, perhaps, when they get busy for the first time, that maybe they shouldn't have enrolled in school in the first place. For me, though, this means much more than staying with the fantastic job I already have or even staying close to home. It means finding the best, most interesting and exciting place I can to learn even more about food and to basically jumpstart my career as a culinary professional. When I thought of that place or that restaurant, essentially that setting, I immediately came to Buenos Aires, a city I have sworn my love for in a country teeming with culinary possibilities.

Almost immediately, I started doing research on the finest Argentine chefs to work for and, almost immediately, I stumbled upon Fernando Trocca, one of the country's finest young talents, though he's not even in the country all that often. Co-creator/owner of two spots in Buenos Aires, a new one in Mexico and the restaurant that drew me to New York, Trocca pops up in articles from Tokyo to Chi-town, pleasing pallets and gaining notoriety. It's no wonder, then, that having lived in South America for a year and a half, I would want to return to my Chilean neighbor and study food with one of the southern hemisphere's finest. Before making the leap, though, I wanted to catch a little bit of his vibe, nosh on the Patagonian lamb and soak in some American Argentina as only New York could offer.

In an Argentine steakhouse, the portions lean towards the enormous size and cost about a third of what they might in the States. At Industria Argentina, however, where the decor is rustically elegant and the location just enough off the beaten path to be enticingly cool, the food is first-rate and the prices, well, worth it. Upon entering, my brother was immediately mesmerized by the tall beauty that was our hostess--I couldn't wait for the meat. I'd read reviews that said the service was lacking or just plain slow, but we were attended to rather quickly, and so our meal began.

Surprisingly, my brother opted for the marinated tuna, served with a layer of avocado, cilantro and boniato chips. Nothing short of exquisite, the plate was beautifully flat and seasoned to perfection. The layer of avocado on top of the sashimi-thin tuna brought out not only the meat's flavor, but it's beautiful pink color as well. For me, it was the roasted pumpkin and watercress salad in a basil dressing. I don't know if I just expected the pumpkin to be chilled, but the first warm bite of tender pumpkin nearly knocked me out of my seat. Combined with the crisp watercress, the flakes of reggianito cheese and the tangy dressing, I was almost ready to forgo the entree and order another salad. Needless to say, we were ready for the entrees.

Again, with the veal. This time it was ossobucco for my brother, rack of Patagonian lamb for myself. If I were forced to decide which meat was softer, I don't know if I could do it. The veal fell from the bone at the mere touch of a fork and was only made softer by the jus reduction. The roasted vegetables were a nice accompaniment and, thank goodness, were not overdone. Since making the reservations more than three weeks in advance, I had been waiting to try the lamb that was set in front of me, deep in a bowl filled with polenta, tomatoes and an Argentine Malbec reduction. The lamb, in its cool, smoky marinade of paprika and rosemary was cooked, without my asking, to a perfect medium rare, without the slightest hint of gaminess. Every bite was better than the next, again made better by the wine reduction and grilled tomatoes. I can still taste it now. The only disappointing part of my entree was the crispy polenta, which just seemed too greasy, or salty, or just off. It was a nice crisp to contrast the tenderness of the meat, but the flavor didn't hit for me. Regardless, I would order the dish again without hesitation.

Dessert was great, as expected after such a fantastic meal--perfect flan for myself and bread pudding for my brother. They weren't breaking any boundaries, really, but then again, we weren't eating at El Bully or any other such restaurant. The menu was entirely rustic, Patagonian, traditionally Argentine. The flavors seemed modern and full-bodied, everything I would expect from an upper-scale Argentine place in New York. And, as to be expected, the wine list was entirely Argentine which, because I lived and drank in as much of southern South America as I could, was like a return to old favorites.

So, in short, I can say nothing bad about Industria Argentina or, at least, nothing scathing that would deter me from ever going back. It is a unique spot quietly doing its thing in western TriBeCa, serving food from a place that is truly magical. At this point, I don't think I'll be going to Argentina to do my externship, but that's not because they're food isn't interesting, challenging or because I don't wish to return to South America. It's that my meal the following evening changed my perspective on restaurants in general and how I'd like to look at food. Keep reading and find out why.

Saturday, October 20th
Los Dados
73 Gansevoort St. at Washington St., New York, New York; 646-810-7290

Interestingly enough, there is a run-down Mexican grocer / taco stand in East Norwalk, Connecticut, hidden far enough from any sort of beaten path for anyone except locals and explorers to know about. The employees speak enough English to get a gringo their tacos, but otherwise speak their own language when taking orders for tongue tacos and other truly Mexican flavors. I had the coincidental privilege of living in Norwalk for a brief time, and to get to know real Mexican flavors, to gorge on huevos rancheros and to eat tacos not smothered in cheese, spices and general heaviness. I cannot remember the name of this spot, but if you take I-95 north to exit 16 in Connecticut, make a right off the highway and then one more right just before the train tracks, you'll find what looks like an old house two blocks up on the right. That's the place. Go there, please.

Unfortunately, I am convinced that Chef Sue Torres, who runs Los Dados, has not eaten at this spot in Connecticut, much to her detriment. Admittedly, the fault for randomly choosing breakfast can only be placed upon my brother and I, for we were the ones that got up late and met with long lines at the Meat-Packing district's finest bruncheries. Regardless, my brother had already mentioned the Latin-inspired brunch menu at one of his new favorites in lower Manhattan, so when we found ourselves hungry a little further uptown, I jumped at the first Mexican inspired menu I found. With little more than the staff around and they not at all eager to seat or even serve us, we should have known better. We sat down, though, and ordered some food.

Honestly, it wasn't that the food was really that bad--it was simply forgettable. We waited close to an hour for our meal, all the while munching on chips with namless green and orange salsas. By the time we had downed a couple of Americanos and half a basket of chips, I don't think either of us was all that hungry for the chicken quesadilla or chipotle eggs benedict that were put in front of us. We ate what we could and quickly paid our check, or paid as quickly as the molasses-slow service would allow. We walked away full and another couple had even arrived as we finished. I've since read that Chef Torres' other establishments in the city offer fantastic, authentic Mexican fare that leaves visitors feeling satisfied. With such a strong scene developing in the area, though, and a brunch crowd that seems all too content with their regular spots, I have to wonder what fate holds in the cards for Los Dados. Vaya con dios, I suppose.

Ceci-Cela (
55 Spring Street, New York, New York; 212-274-9179

When I lived in Norwalk, Connecticut, I held four jobs in three months. I worked a day for Wild Oats and quit out of boredom. I worked for the Fat Cat Pie Co. and quit because I moved back to Missouri. I worked at a crossword company and quit for the same reason. In between, though, I worked for a little Italian cafe in South Norwalk called Pane e Panini, for a first-generation Italian with a taste for some of New York's finest breads. When I look back, my time there was a jumbled mess of being broke, drinking a lot of coffee, stress and trips to the city. I took away little, save the ability to fill a canoli, make coffee and a couple names of phenomenal bakeries in New York. Pino, Pane's owner, happened to be friends with one of the managers at Ceci-Cela, so he was aware of the quality French pastries they were putting out. My girlfriend at the time and I dined on the Linzer tarts and almond brioche without paying attention to the countless calories we were consuming simply because they were too good to care. When we had to go to the city and pick them up, though, we were pretty certain we had found a small piece of heaven, right there in New York city.

The beautiful thing about Ceci-Cela is that it's so subtle, you'd almost never know it's there. I guess that's what makes so many places in New York great, though--that ability to develop almost a cult following with little more than a tiny storefront and an outstanding product. And that's what Ceci-Cela is--perfect pastries, great coffee and a cozy atmosphere. I popped in for an afternoon pick-me-up and a reminder of how good the pastries are. The coffee was as good at the Grey Dog's and the Linzer tart spread its powdered sugar goodness all over my face. Perhaps the only drawback is that it is so small you either have to sit down or leave to be able to enjoy your purchases. I did the latter and popped across the street to marvel at this utterly French destination, ideally located between shops, clubs and restaurants.

I think I will always opt for the Grey Dog's as my favorite coffee spot, but having worked with a French chef making French pastries at school, I know what Ceci-Cela is doing, and how well they're doing it. The food is the star and the restaurant so utterly anti-modern it's right at home in New York. Pastries, coffee and comfort--it doesn't get much better.

Gramercy Tavern (
42 East 20th St., New York, New York; 212-477-0777

My original plan was to take four days off from work and go to visit my friend Sam and his girlfriend at their cabin in the woods of western North Carolina. We were going to drink and eat in the glory of perfect fall weather, share stories and catch up--sounds familiar, doesn't it? When I found a list of pre-approved externship sites at school, though, with Gramercy Tavern nestled quietly in the middle, I knew immediately that I had to go to New York and eat. It was disappointing to tell Sam that I wouldn't be coming, especially since his company, his dog and his cabin are nothing but comforting, but the prospect of a meal and three months of hard work at what has become one of New York's hottest dining spots had eclipsed any other plans I had.

I contacted them and made a reservation. I told them about my status as a student and my desire to work for them and they gave me the chef's voicemail. I received a call a few days later from one of the managers asking for a return email. Stupidly, I never made time to send an email or return the call, but figured I had the reservation and could talk to them once I was there. When I arrived, though, neither the chef nor his manager were there. However, even my inability to return a short email wasn't enough to ruin what turned out to be the single best dining experience I've ever had. In short, my visit to the Gramercy Tavern dispelled any doubt I might have had about being in culinary school or going in debt for the love of food.

"Hi, I have a reservation for two at 10:30." "
"Oh, yes, Patrick. How are you? What school is it you go to again?"
"Le Cordon Bleu in Miami."
"Right. And you'll be joining us in February, is that correct." I pulled my jaw up off the floor and simply said, "I hope so."

And that's how my meal began. My brother knew it as well as I--we were in the midst of true, undeniable class. They remembered every detail I had given them and were wooing me, the culinary student, into their establishment for a meal, an experience, I'd never forget. We were quickly sat in the heart of the restaurant, in full view of 20th street just outside the bay window, just across from the kitchen which they had gladly told me I could visit after my meal. Colin, our sommelier and host for the evening came by and informed us that the chef or, Joey the Sous Chef, had been waiting for us and was wondering if we wouldn't mind him tinkering with the tasting menu a bit just for us. Again, jaw on the floor. And the wine, same thing. Colin promised creative but appropriate pairings, the perfect accompaniments to an exquisite meal.

First, the amuse bouche. Baby eggplant with walnut pesto that just melted in your mouth. I could barely sit still I was so excited. My brother enjoyed the champagne and waited for what came next.

Second, a salad of calamari with tobikko, pine nuts and a Meyer lemon vinaigrette. Succulent and smooth, it was better than the ceviche I had on a deserted beach in the Dominican Republic a few years back. That fish had literally been pulled from the sea just moments before being cut up by our cook in her little hut. This was even better.

Third, the first of two fish courses. Codfish with zucchini, white wine. Think cod-flavored silk. Think I wish I had never eaten at a church fish-fry as a child because even that beautifully fried catfish pales in comparison to this perfectly cooked cod. Think I cannot believe they remembered me at the door and seem to be waiting for me to work here. Wow.

Fourth, my favorite course, the trout. Seared trout with pickled cippolini, celery root puree and a cippolini red wine reduction, rose. Colin comes over and says he has a surprise pairing for the next course. It doesn't matter because the meal could end now and I would walk away happy. Wow wow.

Fifth, the quail. Au jus with corn, bacon and lamb's quarter (a spinach derivative). I'm from the Midwest, from meat and potatoes. The trout was my favorite but, really, bacon, corn and quail? And then he paired it with beer. Scottish micro beer. Ben and I were almost laughing the food was so good. The pairing truly surprising and the combo unbeatable. That bacon was incredible.

Sixth, veal! Veal, veal veal! Buttery-soft veal with sun gold tomatoes. If you haven't found the veal motif yet, go back and read again. Buy a ticket to New York and make a reservation at the Gramercy Tavern. Go and eat this tasting menu. The money will be well-spent. The veal alone is worth it.

Seventh, dessert number one. Tapioca in a cilantro sauce with passion fruit sorbet. I cannot believe, at this point, that I'm sitting in this restaurant, eating this food, on a Saturday night. In a little while I get to see the kitchen and in a few months I might be working here. Damn.

Eighth, finally, dessert number two, or desserts. For me, the chocolate bread pudding with chocolate chip ice cream, so moist with chocolate it could barely hold its shape. For Ben, the apple tart tatin with sour cream ice cream. Please, just go eat there. You'll thank yourself.

And then we're invited into the kitchen to meet Joey, the 24-year old Sous Chef who previously worked with/at Alain Ducasse. The kitchen was fantastic. They're giving me business cards and telling me to stay in touch with the chef. The kitchen was beautiful. The service beyond impeccable. We saw a table of six come in and order the tasting menu, which was missing half of what we had received on our plates. We had a different waiter deliver every single course and everyone that passed by could tell you what was in front of you. They said goodbye and that they hoped to see me soon.

Excellence does not go unnoticed because it is nearly impossible to achieve. A reputation like that which the Gramercy Tavern possesses is only maintained by consistently delivering excellence. While I would, in later life, jump at the chance to go live and work in Argentina with the South American flavors I have come to love, I know that being a member of the Gramercy Tavern's reputation will set a bar for my career that will only push me to constantly be the best. I hope I have the chance, while there, to cook for you, one of my readers, so you will be able to share in my delight.

Sunday, October 21st
Bocca Lupo, Brooklyn
391 Henry St., at Warren St., Cobble Hill, Brooklyn; 718-243-2522

This time, brunch. It remains my favorite meal to eat because it sets a tone for perfect weekend days. They gave me baked eggs and a perfect Americano. I long to live and eat in New York again like an actor would wish to be in Hollywood. Brunch is still my favorite, thanks to Bocca Lupo.

It was four days of drinking, catching up and eating that this blog can only begin to highlight. The places I ate at were special for me in ways that I would hope others could enjoy. The great thing about New York is that the possibilities are truly endless. Even the most established places will always find ways to reinvent themselves and to keep doing what they're doing, only better. I can see, too, that reviewing for me isn't simply about how the food was or whether I enjoyed, but about the experience itself. That's why I'm going to culinary school in the first place--it's constantly evolving. As of this post, it seems quite likely that I'll be heading to the Gramercy Tavern for my externship thanks, in large part, to the career services staff at my school. They're as excited for me to as I am about going, simply because as the saying goes, if you can make it New York, you can make it anywhere. The four days I spent there were eye-opening because they made me want to try harder. I saw food at its best and actually, in writing this, surprised myself with how much of the city's culinary map I had seen when I lived there. The great thing is, there's so much more to see.

Monday, November 5, 2007


For those of you who've been checking back, thanks.
Coming soon: my four days of food in New York, reviews of Azul and Michy's, and my trip to the clam farm!
Check back this week!


Monday, October 22, 2007

Cuts Like a Knife

What many people may not consider when they dig into a steak or a creamy bowl of soup is that somewhere along the line of that food's production, a small or a significant amount of knife work took place in order to make it look like it ultimately does. Dice, chop and mince are just a few of the more common words used in kitchens across the world, words that, when used classically, can be understood by anyone in any country because they represent a standard that all of us as industry professionals abide by. Given the importance of these cuts, then, from the most basic chop to the precise measurements of a chiffonade or a brunoise, it's important that we all have sharp, precise cutting tools while in the kitchen. Unfortunately, sharp and quality aren't always the norm even in the nicest of establishments, and a dull knife can only lead to delays, frustration and less-than-perfect dishes that would have otherwise been flawless. So, while in New York this weekend (story to come), dining, walking, drinking and generally enjoying the filling landscape of the Big Apple below midtown, I took it upon myself to find a perfect cutting machine designed with finesse in mind--and, boy, did I find it.

Not quite a chef's knife designed for hacking through anything or an Asian square-head vegetable knife capable of hacking any vegetable into small pieces, this cook's knife embodies the painfully thin blade of a sashimi knife with the agility of an all-purpose chef's knife. I held knives for close to an hour, ultimately deciding on the Global (a knife I normally turn away from because of it's handle) because it felt right in my hand. I knew, too, that cutting beef for tasters and other vegetables for presentation required the clean precision that only a super-thin blade can provide. What I found most interesting in looking for the right knife, though, was the multitude of shapes and sizes they come in, particularly the Japanese blades, and all their different intended uses.
Having researched a little more, knowing that my experiences in different places with different cuisines will be varied, I know that I'll purchase more knives over the years. However, it's good to remember that it's not merely the knife that's going to make the cut fantastic. It's knowing how and when to use the right knife at the right time, with the utmost respect for a piece of equipment that could quickly take your skin off, that makes the biggest difference.

What Makes a Restaurant...Good?

As I start to align my interests and bring my current culinary studies to the doorstep of my literary, English language background with this, my "food blog," it's precisely that question--what makes a good restaurant good and why?--that I hope to answer. Along with the company and assistance of both friends and family, I've taken it upon myself to visit and enjoy as many restaurants as possible, though in no way limiting myself to "fine dining." With so little time to actually stop and cook a meal for myself, especially after spending close to 15 hours a day in a kitchen, I've found it much easier to go and savor the fruits of others' labor as I try to hone my own interests and attain more focus on my own future. Some of my forays into edible exploration have been less than satisfying (some even downright nauseating), while others have excited me beyond the mere plate as though I were a child again trying chocolate chip ice cream for the first time. Regardless, I keep going back for more, searching for new places, spending more of my truly hard-earned cash in an attempt to find out what really does make a good restaurant good. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed, I haven't yet discovered a concrete answer, basically for two simple reasons.
First, I don't believe that there is a formula to define or create a good restaurant. Chef Dean Max, who I currently work for at 3030 Ocean, recently went and ate at Michael's Genuine Food and Drink in Miami's Design District, per my plentiful and raving reviews. When he came to work and saw me afterwards, his first and most important word was, "Dude," said with a tone that meant, "You were right, that food is amazing." The point he brought up was that Michael Schwartz makes food that people want to eat, which, in the restaurant and general food business seems like all too easy of a goal or accomplishment. Considering the amount of restaurants that go belly-up every year for whatever reason, though, making food that people want to eat begins to seem less obvious and like more of a chore. Plus, there's the fact that food and taste is rather subjective and trends play such a role in what we consume that what people want to eat today may be the cause for a new diet tomorrow. So, when looking at what makes a place like Michael's so good, simply saying that he makes good food doesn't really give us an answer.
My second reason for having yet to discover the secret to a good restaurant is that I haven't eaten at enough yet, in enough places, to find an answer. Until about eight months ago when I started culinary school and really began focusing on food and flavor, I didn't put much thought into what I was eating beyond whether or not I was paying a fair price for food that tasted good. Coincidentally, it was before I returned to the United States and started culinary school that I lived and traveled through various countries in Europe and South America, all the while eating in places that I still remember to this day as being good. Certain places stick out in my mind as places I would and will return to in the future to enjoy another delicious meal, while others are nothing more than a distant memory of an establishment offering something food-related to fill my stomach. So I don't necessarily believe that the credentials of being a certified culinarian or professional foodie will help me answer my question, because I could have told you back then that I did or didn't like something and why. Even if I were given an unlimited budget and a year to eat my way across the planet, trying everything from neighborhood favorites to world-renowned cuisine, I would still probably fall short of a clear definition of a good restaurant.
Basically, I need to just keep eating. I need to keep talking with others, exploring flavors, getting opnions and developing my own before I can say what makes a good restaurant good. And that's the point of this blog, my mounting credit card debt, my attendance at culinary school (even though I learn a great deal more at work)--I want to know. I'm setting myself up for a life's work of cooking my own food, eating others', travelling, exploring and discovering. Essentially, I'm looking for what's good.

Patrick Hieger