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!