Llama Inn – review

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Llama Inn

People often ask what’s my favorite food. It’s a very tough question given my proclivity to so many vastly different disciplines and flavors. I guess I’m always expected to gush over iconic Italian, flawless French or amazing Asian, but that’s only half the story. The other half has to be Peruvian. Few people realize how delicious, unique (and yet familiar) Peruvian cooking is. Having adopted tastes and flavors that are decidedly Creole, Spanish, West African, Chinese and Japanese, many of their dishes include garlic, ginger, soy, lime juice, a rainbow of colored chilies and heaps of rice. This little mountain nation has also produced some of the finest toques ever, like Vergilio Martinez – recently named “best chef on the planet” – not to mention getting the health-obsessed hooked on Quinoa, their staple grain.

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Llama Inn

Adding his American twist and a modern “Neuva Latina” take on classic Peruvian cooking, Eleven Madison alum Erik Ramirez’s Llama Inn adds to Brooklyn’s bounty of river-crossing-worthy restaurants in a big way. Despite its curious location sandwiched between the B.Q.E. overpass and Withers street, the striking three-sided glass box sports tables, counter tops, a roof-top lounge to go with the young, hip and decidedly Williamsburg-esque crowd. It’s also easy to get caught up in the electric energy of the kitchen and wait staff, who fall somewhere between a gracious host, a good friend and a lion tamer.

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Flame grilled Anticuchos – Llama Inn

The menu is broken up into plate sizes from bar bites to (large) family portions. Some of which are expected, like a Whole Branzino Patarashca in banana leaves or a Quinoa salad, while others were a bit more surprising like Whole grilled Lobster or Steamed Clams. The same goes for the robust list of Pisco’s and Peruvian Sherries.

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Chicken thigh and Pork Belly Anticuchos – Llama Inn

From our control-tower perch at the “chef’s counter”, it became instantly evident which dishes were the most popular. After watching several dozen Beef Tenderloin stir fry’s (that’s American for Loma Saltado’s) being assembled, and several hundred Anticuchos (Peruvian for kebabs) being fired up, I could quite easily replace any of the line chefs without missing a beat. The Chicken thigh kebabs were doused in a wonderfully flavorful fermented soybean and then spiked with a squiggle of wasabi-green chile, while and the Pork Belly char siu was punctuated with pickled chilis and a nub or two of spicy mayo. (Next time I have to try the single head-on Shrimp rubbed in adobo and lime – yet another crowd pleaser.)

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Tiradito – Llama Inn

I lapped up the Sea Bream Tiradito like a thirsty kitten. It arrives dotted with persimmons to offset the tartness, and a cluster of walnuts for extra crunch. Simple, bracing and utterly refreshing. And once the fish was gone, I almost bent the spoon on the remaining mouthfuls of sauce.

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Beef Tenderloin Stir Fry with scallion tacos – Llama Inn

But candles and cacti had to be relocated elsewhere to make room for the platter and trappings that accompanied the Beef Tenderloin Stir Fry. I’ve made and ordered many a Loma Saltado in my time, but this mound of joy before me was the epitome of loveliness. Large chunks of medium-rare marbled steak adrift in a deep, dark, rich, salty, vinegary Oyster sauce with seared onions and tomatoes, topped with a thatch of crispy fries. You are instructed to eat it taco style on a wafer-thin scallion pancake, with a pinch of pickled peppers, some simple quac’ for color and a dollop of aioli for spice, and you are cleared for takeoff. With both hands engaged, guiding my first messy bite of an avalanche of flavors, I could practically see the Andes before me. And when all I had left was a swampy mess of sauce, a bowl of rice appeared from heaven to soak up every…last…scrumptious…drop! (Here I am just thinking about it, and I’m salivating at the keyboard.)

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Beef Tenderloin Stir Fry – Llama Inn

Not that I had any room or space or reason to quibble at this point, but I was a bit surprised not to see a few other traditional dishes that were on Chef Ramirez’s original menu, such as Skewered Beef Hearts and Braised Goat neck. It must be that sobering boundary somewhere between authentic and ambitious, or just how far Williamsburg palettes will dare to reach into the darkness of the unfamiliar, versus gravitating back to what they recognize. So instead of wolfing down a trio of Picarones (the donut’s Peruvian cousin), I settled on a slightly more American slice of Graham Cracker based Lime Pie with a freshly piped and torched snake of meringue which took the express lane straight to my happy place.

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Graham Cracker Lime Pie – Llama Inn

http://www.llamainnnyc.com/

 

 

 

 

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Benoit – review

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Benoit

I remember trying (unsuccessfully) to explain to my Grandmother how a fax machine worked some 30 years ago. But these days, I seem to expend so much effort struggling to latch on to technology’s slippery tentacles myself – just to remain relevant enough to carry on a conversation with a millennial without sounding like a ripe idiot. But as many new industries seem to emerge out of convenience for the younger end of the population, could the most overlooked business arena be the nostalgia industry for baby boomers? If “experiences” are supposedly more coveted than “things”, then perhaps the biggest growth opportunities might actually be lurking in our rear-view mirrors. Here’s one: being able to enjoy classic Parisian gourmet dishes that taste exactly as they did a century ago. And if you happen to live in New York, you can skip the transatlantic hassle at Alain Ducasse’s import, Benoit, now in its third and most triumphant incarnation in midtown.

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Benoit

Remember those romantic trips to Paris, where unless you spoke flawless French, your waiters invariably rolled their eyes uttering: “Tête de noeud” (knucklehead) under their breaths? Well, your memories have been well preserved. The service team at Benoit have perfected the lost arts of snooty indifference and sheer disinterest for the fact that I might like to see a menu, or might need a little more time deciding between Pork Rillettes or Duck foie gras terrine, or that the fine family of four who followed us in, is paying the check while we’re still wondering if we’ll ever see our aperitifs.

But, as if by thematic apology for a series of Buster Keaton-like false-starts (let me be clear that no verbal apology was offered), a silver vessel filled with warm cheese puffs arrived to quickly shut us up. All it took were two or three of these fluffy little balls of greedy goodness to hit the “restart” button on my first impressions.

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Cheese puffs, Benoit

 

The all-time franco-favorite menu includes century-old hits that will (should) never die, such as Pâte en croute and Escargot. And Ducasse’s newest chef Laëtitia Rouabah, whose vertical resume stretches from the Plaza Athénée Hotel, to Air France’s first class lounge to the very top of the Eiffel Tower, is a stickler for honoring traditional French flavors and preparations while holding back on over-reinvention.

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Onion soup gratinée, Benoit

The much written about Onion soup gratinée is a mic-drop humdinger. Dark, caramelized sweet onion shreds in a rich, salty and umami broth with a decadent layer of so much Gruyere that it manages to keep every spoonful company until the very last drop. Speaking of cleaning the platter, the Tarte Flambée is another exercise in flavorful delight. Thin crusts of flatbread held together by an umbrella of cheese and onions, with just the right amount of bacon nibs to give every mouthful a salty, smoky aroma. Plate after plate left the kitchen with the same fastidious attention to detail, delivering the most tender and magnificent Sweet Spiced Rohan Duck or Bordelaise Skirt steak you’d expect.

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Quenelles de brochet, Benoit

But I swear I could hear the Marseillaise crescendo as I bit into my Quenelles de brochet. Two almond shaped pike dumplings luxuriating in the most staggeringly delicious lobster bisque as they prepared for their disappearing act. With a texture somewhere between an unbaked meringue and an ultra-smooth omelet and a rich, crustacean flavor that ­­­could have ended the French revolution a full month earlier, I’m only now regaining the full complement of my faculties.

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Dessert trolley, Benoit

All I could say about the silver dessert trolley as it glided by to a table with more time on their hands than ours, was: “Aaaaah, next time.” A bientôt Benoit.

https://www.benoitny.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ABCV – review

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Roasted Cauliflower, ABCV

In my mind, there’s a good reason why beige gets such a bad rap. As a color, it’s neither brown, nor cream, nor yellow, nor orange, nor white. It’s refusal to take a stand one way or the other locks it into the nethersphere of indifference. I also find it timid, inconsequential and perhaps even lazy. In fact, the only thing going for beige is its invisibility. After months of trying, I finally landed a spot at Jean Georges Vongerichten’s much-fussed-about 3rd act within the Flatiron district’s ABC Carpet & Home. After the inextinguishable farm-to-table success of ABC Kitchen, followed by his mostly-Iberian bistro ABC Cucina, he then tripled-down with ABCV, a robust commitment to vegetarianism that I can best describe as…beige.

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ABCV

The white-washed techy space is the brightest of his ABC’s with a few vague, non-comital splashes of pale colors here and there: pale pink, pale green and of course – pale beige. Even the wait staff seem to have been hand-picked for their pasty skin tones – which against their faded-pink T-shirts makes them all appear to be headed for a slumber party at the Langone Hospital emergency room at the end of their shift.

 

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Heirloom Tomatoes, ABCV

As expected, aside from a few cocktails and a limited wine selection, the non-alcoholic libations include an array of smoothies and veggie juices with a litany of promises, from a healthy heart to a clean spleen. But what did surprise me was the illustrated vegetable encyclopedia for idiots, which I found both startlingly unnecessary and oddly insulting. (I know what an eggplant is. It’s an emoji metaphor for a man’s endowment!)

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Avocado Lettuce Cups, ABCV

 

After the first few bites of the Avocado Lettuce Cups It became brutally evident why that darling little antique salt-boat containing vegan hot-sauce was waiting patiently in front of me. I figured that if the only discernable flavors were the total sum of the ingredients listed on the menu, I should still be in good shape flavor-wise with the cumin, serrano and lime, but all I got was a mouthful of fresh and crunchy beige.

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Wok Fried Ramen noodles, ABCV

I won’t bore you with repetitions, but suffice it to say that the next few dishes including Heirloom tomatoes with figs, Roasted Cauliflower with turmeric-tahini, Roasted baby Artichokes with green olives, Wok fried Ramen noodles with marinated cucumbers all left the kitchen fervidly vying for “dullest dish of the decade” – and frankly, it was a very close call. I’d happily argue that my vegetarian meal kit delivery service leans into its flavors with more conviction. Heck, even Langone Hospital offers more flavor off their heart-healthy iPad menu. And although I have yet to vouch for them, I’m told that Old Mother Hubbard Classic Country dog-bone shaped treats promises irresistible pumpkin flavor too. Let’ s just hope they’re any color other than…you know…

Tim Ho Wan – review

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Tim Ho Wan

Given my proclivity for impatience, I have always admired the concept of Dim Sum. No sooner have you sat down, than the food starts showing up via a Formula 1 rally of tin carts, dodging and weaving between the tables, where dripping steamer baskets are distributed and score cards are stamped. If you don’t recognize the dish being wheeled past, you might not like (or believe) what you hear under the infernal din and acute language barriers. I once inquired what was inside some odd-looking dumplings, only to be told, “a European!” Never mind, it’s all part of the experience. And if you’re very lucky, all of your small plate preferences might be the first to show up, and you can be napkins down inside of twenty minutes.

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Tim Ho Wan

Thing is, as efficient as the experience might be, just getting seated can feel a lot like day one of boot camp as a military recruit. Lots of high-pitched yelling into walkie-talkies; being shunted into different snaking lines; having one’s name horribly mis-pronounced, or being given a ticket with a number that stretches into the next millennium. Or worse yet, the food itself can show up in dire need of a pit-stop – the oil can do with a change, the driving crew can do with a break and some of the ingredients can do with a major disposal.

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Har Gow, Tim Ho Wan

So to learn that Mak Kwai Pui, one of Hong Kong’s most celebrated dim sum chefs, decided to open a local branch of his mega-successful chain Tim Ho Wan, I had to indulge. Their claim to fame as “the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world” is as bizarrely fascinating as it is annoyingly challenging due to their über-popularity yielding the longest wait times in the city. Curiously there are no actual lines outside the East Village corner establishment. That’s because after putting your name down, the hostess with smile and promise to text you in: “Two hours and forty-five minutes!” Zzzzzzzzz. So I set out for a vexingly early slot on a Monday morning and snagged a table in the middle of the cheerful room. The placemats are the menu, with familiar names, pictures and strictly single-digit price-points. Service is prompt, and before you know it, a steaming feast materializes magically before you.

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Siu Mai pork dumplings, Tim Ho Wan

It didn’t take the double order of Har Gow to realize that we weren’t in Manhattan anymore. Micro-thin rice wrappers bursting with plump, crisp, unexpectedly large prawns with a heavenly Shaoxing wine and ginger flavor. The Siu Mai pork dumplings with shrimp are a close second, but way fresher and meatier than any of their Chinatown cousins. And biting through the crispy, sugar-dusted surface of the Baked BBQ Pork buns revealed a dark, thick, smoky, silky sauce with mushrooms and pork bits within.

 

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Baked BBQ Pork Buns, Tim Ho Wan

Everyone loves Deep Fried Springrolls, but how many times have you bitten into an oil-drippy, doughy envelope of goo and old sprouts? Not these big boys. The wrappers disintegrate into dry, crispy flakes yielding steaming hot vegetables that won’t leave you with an oil-slicked chin.

 

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Deep Fried Springrolls, Tim Ho Wan

We didn’t have room or time to sample some of the other house specialties, like the Steamed Egg Cakes, and Beef Balls with Bean Curd, or the Pan Fried Turnip Cake. Have to wait for another free mid-morning mid-week, or perhaps another hurricane threat when no-one’s around, so we won’t have to be told: “Three days, six hours and eighty-five minutes!”

http://timhowanusa.com/

 

Catching two elusive Dragons

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Mission Chinese Food, New York

It is with the utmost relief to finally indulge in two of New York’s hoopla hotspots that have been stuck on my “to-try” list for an annoying eternity. Pok Pok NY, the (at one time) Michelin-starred northern Thai import from Oregon (of all places), and San Francisco native Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food.

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Pok Pok NY

Pok Pok NY is marooned in one of the most maddeningly inaccessible neighborhoods of Brooklyn requiring a car, a driver, nerves of steel and quite possibly two forms of government ID. When Andy Ricker opened Pok Pok Wings in Manhattan a few years back, I idiotically refused to trek all the way down to the Financial District to sample his über-celebrated chicken wings, only to have to settle for a 2+ hour waiting line instead. And just when I finally overcame my chronic impatience, he went and shut the place down. Karma.

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Thrice Cooked Bacon, Mission Chinese Food

And ever since Mission Chinese Food reopened to a tsunami of public gratitude in its current location (after an unmentionably embarrassing incident involving tenants of the rodent variety), tables have been as scarce as subtlety in Las Vegas. But to make matters worse, Mr. Bowien insisted on listing his Asian-fusion moneymaker on Reserve, the most infuriatingly eye-roll-worthy app of all time (who notoriously forget to remind you of your forgotten passwords!) And furthermore, 411 and Google still offer diners a “mystery” phone number that has yet to be plugged into an actual phone. So, if you have a few millennia to kill, I dare you to call (646) 707-0281 just so you can hear a ring tone that easily lasts longer than Cher’s multi-platinum career.

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Spicy Peanut Noodles, Mission Chinese Food

Despite the fact that Mission Chinese sits on the border of Chinatown’s glut of Asian dried fish stands and hole-in-the-wall noodle shops with inverted red ducks swinging in the windows amid incessant signs offering “Take-Out” (which smell as if they should have been “taken out” ages ago), it feels more like a Quentin Tarantino movie set. Not that a gunfight massacre wouldn’t be appropriate, but more so because of the funky red velvety booths under alien-star lamps with an unstoppable hip-hop soundtrack. You might find a dragon or two punctuating the raw brick walls, but you won’t find any standard fare on the atypically short un-Chinese menu. Most of the items carry one or more “fire” symbols that are by no means decorative. Take heed. These dishes might all be genuinely delicious, but they are certainly not for the faint of palate. We inhaled the Spicy Peanut Noodles with abandon, enjoying the many wonderful layers and flavors beyond the lemon-grass and garlic. Things elevated a notch with the Thrice cooked Bacon, which entirely deserves its own Instagram account. Smoky sections of soft, barbecue-y bacon strips clinging to sticky slivers of tender rice cake medallions, darkened by the most wondrous Szechuan pepper glaze.

 

 

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Mapo Tofu, Mission Chinese Food

I could go on and on, but by the time we drenched the bracingly spectacular Mapo Tofu over a puddle of rice, it was time to summon those brave gentlemen from the 15th fire truck precinct a few doors down. There was a moment when I began to worry about my teeth melting under the searing heat from my tongue, when I realized that “hot in” usually also means “hot out”, giving me something else to look forward to in a few hours time. Turns out that one of the reliable properties of Szechuan peppercorns is their numbing effect which thankfully – I’m delighted to report – lives up to its reputation for the duration of its lifecycle.

 

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Pok Pok NY

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge has always been a daunting challenge for New Yorkers ever since its inauguration in 1883. One leaves the calm orderliness of Manhattan’s grid structure behind, only to be faced by backyards, drivers, hipsters and families with children. Quite literally a war zone. Regardless, once you’re through the worst of it and you finally pull up at Pok Pok NY, it somehow seems a bit more “cafeteria” than you expected. I know looks can be deceiving, but the quirky paper-doyly festooned aluminum bar, and the sensibly laminated Hawaiian-print table cloths with unbreakable prison-ware dishes redefines casual – even for me. But when our disarmingly engaging waitress brought a far-too-small bowl of House-roasted Red Peanuts with chilies and lime leaves, my table manners deserted me. Was I breaking a hunger strike or something? Were these the first peanuts I’d ever eaten? Was I always this ambidextrous? It was all a bit of a scrumptious blur that ended far too quickly.

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House-roasted Red peanuts with chilies and lime leaves, Pok Pok NY

Then things shifted down to a lower gear when the rather unmemorable minced duck and mint salad (Laap Pet Isaan) showed up with a plate of freshly plucked Thai herbs. And my entire dining party unanimous classified the tender chunks of Burmese pork belly curry, (Kaeng Hang Leh) in a nondescript broth as “nothing special”.

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Laap Pet Isaan, Mission Chinese Food

The Kai Yaang Tuua, turned out to be a spectacularly ordinary roast chicken (with both feet attached, and stuffed with an irritatingly thorny lemongrass and garlic stuffing) which were it not for the two dipping sauces, might have been even less popular.

 

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Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, Pok Pok NY

But as expected, Ike’s Vietnamese Wings are still the smash hit that once turned a kitchen into a goldmine. This legendary chorus line of 6 auburn fish-sauce-marinated chicken shoulders, tossed in the most mouthwateringly sugary, smoky, sticky, garlicky, peanutty, peppery caramelized glaze with a subtle heat, came just inches from touching my soul. I’m talking about a finger-licking, mood-altering delight that makes the thought of another risk-to-life-and-limb journey to the far side of the East River entirely repeatable.

https://www.missionchinesefood.com/nyc/

https://pokpokny.com/

 

Ikinari – review

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Ikinari Steak

Nowadays gimmicks seem to come and go in less time than it takes to forget a login password. And no industry has a larger appetite for them than restaurants. And no country gets a bigger kick out of franchising them than Japan. While it might seem obvious for a mediocre chef to make eating more “fun” as a perfect distraction from inferior cooking, Ikinari – Japan’s popular standing steakhouse chain – is quite the opposite. So, what’s a standing steakhouse? An eccentric solution for über-impatient diners who are so obnoxiously busy that they just can’t spare the time to wait for a table, or wait for it to be cleared, or wait for menus, or water, or service… They don’t even have the luxury of time to bend their knees and SIT DOWN, for goodness sake!

 

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The first of 3 stateside Ikinari locations debuted in the East Village to a zoo of media and long lines of gimmick guzzlers. Here’s how it goes: You supervise the butcher who slices your preferred thickness of Japanese style (wet-aged) sirloin, rib-eye or filet mignon. If you can’t decide, you can try the mixed sampler of all 3.

 

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Your steak gets weighed, salted and flame grilled, and arrives at your table roaring, hissing and howling louder than a steam train slamming on the brakes to narrowly avoid hitting a well-fed country cow. While the swirl of roasted garlic butter gently melts over your perfectly seared rare cut, a “must-try” side order of Garlic-pepper rice gets tossed with a generous dollop of wasabi. Everything you need is at arm’s reach: steak knives and forks, mustards, Japanese dressings and sauces. There’s even a little rack to store your stuff and splash bibs to protect your clothing. Just no…um, chairs.

 

IMG_2134But you soon forget you are still standing as the tender meat succumbs easily to the bite, and the signature (warm) steak sauce mingles with a few drips of melted butter, collapsing your palate under a salty and umami sweetness you secretly pray will never end. No wonder there are only 5 or so items on the laminated menu. Quality over variety – in true Japanese fashion.

 

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Garlic-pepper Rice, Ikinari

For a city that emboldens impatience as table stakes, the concept of an 8-minute meal in a seat-free diner would be as obvious as odds that the M train will be delayed, but every gimmick has its Achilles heel. Despite being featured in the humor segment before the first break on practically every morning news show as yet another far-fetched oddity, New York’s first standing-only steakhouse buckled to public pressure and reluctantly snuck in a half-dozen chairs. But if you’re a gimmick devotee like me, try it standing up. It’s better for the digestion anyway.

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http://www.ikinaristeakusa.com/

 

 

Chefs Club – review

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I think the only thing more astonishing about former Ducasse chef Didier Elena’s idea of creating a menu based almost entirely out of career-defining signature dishes from some of the world’s leading chefs – is the fact that no-one else thought of it before. The concept is about as simple as a putting together a mix-tape of all your favorite songs. The hard part must have been trying to convince two dozen celebrated culinary masters to permit strange cooks in a foreign kitchen to loyally, faithfully and reliably deliver their coveted hits without the benefit of regular oversight, approval or rejection.

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In addition, the generously open kitchen at the NoLIta based Chefs Club had to be decked out with every conceivable kitchen appliance and gadget in order to facilitate the fastidious preparation of entirely dissimilar dishes. Whatever. What counts is that they actually pulled it off. But let me state quite categorically that anyone who thinks they can simply order something made famous by the likes of Eric Ripert (Le Bernadin), Daniel Boulud (Restaurant Daniel), Ori Menashe (Bestia), Margarita Manzke (Republique), David Kinch (Manresa), Curtis Stone (Maude) or Marcus Samuelsson (Red Rooster) without having to dine at any of their formidable establishments, is as unacceptable and unforgivable as spending a weekend on the Vegas strip satisfying the need to ever visit the real Paris, Monte Carlo, Venice, Egypt, the Bellagio or even New York for that matter. (Don’t get me started…)

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If you consider for a moment what a humungous asset it would be to open a restaurant knowing you already have 25 award-winning dishes by 25 highly accomplished chefs locked up, the rest should be easy, right? And by all means the gorgeously seductive Rockwell-designed room on the north side of the Puck building with its rustic brick ceilings, moody lighting, monochrome marble tops and a massive salt rock precariously suspended above the dining area, should pretty much seal the deal. I would also suggest that the meticulous crew do a masterful job of delivering on all the chefs’ expectations. How do I know? Only eight crumbs of our appetizers remained after a faster disappearing act than a litter of hungry puppies could have mustered. Can you blame us?

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Charred Octopus (Curtis Stone) – Chefs Club

Was it Curtis Stone’s heavenly saffron aioli that accompanied his tender and succulent Charred Octopus, or Diego Oka’s magnificent Lobster a la Piedra drowning in a scrumptiously spicy leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) that took top honors? And by how much did Alex Stupak’s innocent-enough-looking Vegetable Crudite with the most earth-shatteringly amazing smoked-cashew dip trounce Matthew Aita’s profoundly crispy and glorious Broccoli Pizzetta with just a hint of chili-walnut pesto? You’ll have to find out for yourself.

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Broccoli Pizzetta (Mathew Aita) – Chefs Club

But it’s the final stretch that gets in the way of this being a truly magical success story. I’m not referring to farm-to-table either. I’m talking about the final, final stretch. That last 50 feet: from kitchen-to-table!

As I pointed out several blogs ago, some of my pet restaurant peeves include when a waiter hasn’t yet mastered sufficient command of the English language to articulate and elaborate on the menu clearly enough for a guest’s comprehension – much less understand what it is they are trying to order. Or when a team of efficient bussers proudly delivers only 3 out of 4 entrees, leaving one of your guests with nothing but blank anticipation between knife and fork while everyone else is already harmonizing in a chorus of ooooh’s & aaaah’s.

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Paupiette of Sea Bass (Daniel Boulud) – Chefs Club

Or the biggest disappointment at trying to smile through chef Aita’s delectable Grilled Swordfish with tangy zucchini tapenade, or having to contend with a sublimely succulent and crispy Dry Aged Duck Breast over a lighter-than-air wheat porridge by Gavin Keysen, or enduring chef Boulud’s crispy wafer-thin potato-wrapped Paupiette of Sea Bass surrounded by a standing-ovation-worthy Syrah sauce, or gritting one’s teeth until the last bite of Ruby and Sather Duke’s wonderfully tender Smoked Pork Collar with pickled peaches for sweetness, grainy mustard for fire and toasted nuts for crunch – all regrettably served well below room temperature. And while genuine, heartfelt apologies (and comp’d desserts) are always appreciated in hindsight, one has to wonder what kind of magical talent it takes to make fifty degrees disappear – just like that!

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Blistered Shishito Peppers with Pesto butter – Chefs Club

http://www.chefsclub.com/

 

Unpacking Meal Kits

Now that the meal kit delivery business has sautéed into a $1.5BN industry, with room to rise threefold in the next few years, it’s no surprise that every few weeks another cook enters the already crowded kitchen. The first pioneer was Blue Apron, and then in less time than it takes to slice a hot knife through soft butter, we have Home Chef, Green Chef, Chef’d, Peach Dish, Purple Carrot, Takeout Kit, Terra’s Kitchen, Just Add Cooking, Sun Basket and of course Martha Stewart’s Marley Spoon. They all follow a similar premise: For around $8 – $12 a serving, you’ll receive a weekly kit with step-by-step photographic recipes and all the necessary fresh ingredients, pre-measured and portioned out (except for salt, pepper and oil).

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Budda Bowl – Green Chef

No shopping. No schlepping. No waste (aside from disposing of a deluge of packaging). And for 30+ minutes of deliberate action, virgin cooks have sprouted up all across the country. Some say it’s the choice of a new generation who want to be empowered to cook with confidence. But perhaps these kits are just as appropriate for any knife-skill-deprived newlywed as they are for every empty nester, or for those suffering from terminal recipe rut or incurable ordering-in-fluenza.

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Meatloaf – Blue Apron

In my case, it was the thought of pruning back my Saturday morning chores (planning the week’s menus, compiling a lengthy list, schlepping to two or more grocery stores, making on-the-spot compromises due to inventory issues, standing in endless check-out lines, schlepping everything home, packing it all away…) and my curiosity for how well these services deliver on what I refer to as the EFR: the effort-to-flavor ratio. Did all the chopping, stirring and zesting actually yield a delicious dish, or have I just spent the past half hour trashing my kitchen for a ho-hum prison yard meal?

Blue Apron

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While some of the other services were still being conceived of, Blue Apron cartons were already showing on doorsteps all across the country. Starting from a perfect score, big blue lost points in my book for burying steps within other steps. Just after I’d doused the entire contents of a perfectly darling little bottle of white vinegar onto the salad I was assembling, did I read further to notice that I needed to save half of it for step 8. Really? They lost another point when the spinach I was sautéeing shrank and shrank until I was left with a portion scarcely big enough for a Barbie picnic. And I found it more than irritating that my end-product didn’t come close to resembling the mouthwatering photograph on the recipe card. Two more points gone after taking well over 45 minutes to complete a 30 minute recipe, and the near-divorce inducing cleanup for requiring a pot, a frying pan, 2 chopping boards, a zester, a grater, a strainer and a handful of mixing bowls. (Not surprisingly, Blue Apron quickly put up a kitchen appliance microsite as an added revenue source. Duh.) The final straw was due to my own boredom with the über-reliance on lemons as the main (and sometimes only) flavor ingredient for meals 1 through 8.

EFR (Effort-to-flavor ratio): 8:3. Moving on.

Plated

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Responding to a promo coupon in the mail, I tried the more flexible alternative to Blue Apron. Plated permits more of a say in terms of what you prefer to cook and how many meals you might need per week. We also enjoyed the superior quality of the proteins, but once the newness (and the initial promo offers) wore off, reinforcements were sent in, in the form of an armada of carbs to crowd the plate, fill the stomach and grow the bottom line. Still way too many steps, with not much more than a limp handshake of a flavor profile.

EFR: 8:4. Next!

Hello Fresh

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So the big attraction with Hello Fresh was that Jamie Oliver was supposedly behind this service. Turns out, only some of his recipes materialized – nearly none of the time. But the upside was a larger variety of menu options with a 3-point sliding scale of difficulty, (i.e. mess, more mess and most mess!) Good news on the packaging though, these guys inserted all the ingredients required for each recipe into a single carton, reducing some of the environmental threat. But the only adjective I can call to mind that best describes the taste would be “unmemorable”.

EFR: 7:5 B’Bye!

Green Chef

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Although many of the other services claim to deliver pesticide (friendly), hormone (lite), (virtually) free-range and (scarcely) GMO produce – only Green Chef offers a guarantee that every single ingredient is USDA certified Organic. Here the meal options are for Ominvores, Carnivores, Vegevores, Paleo’s, Vegans or Gluten-freebies. Most of the packaging (and there is still a monsoon of it) is either compostable, reusable, recyclable or chewable. I was initially intimidated by the sheer number of ingredients I kept unpacking from the box, but when I started reading the labels, I realized that Santa’s little green helpers had taken care of a ton of the prep work for me already. Sauces, dressings, infusions, drizzles, toppings and dips arrive ready to cook. The various grains, flours and breadcrumbs all have secret spices included. The edamame are already steamed. So is the corn. The sweet potato turns up mysteriously diced, and the cabbage and carrots have already been shredded and wedded together. With less than 5 minutes of chopping, and a brilliant utensil re-use strategy, the entire ordeal is well under 25 minutes to dinner. We decided to start with the vegetarian meals, and will probably stick with them due to the incomparable dimensions of flavor, inventiveness and originality, (and to give my cardiologist a better night’s sleep). I had no idea how little I’d miss lamb after tasting a Portabella Souvlaki, or a Meatball made entirely from beets and bulgur wheat. The only downsides are the variety of fritters that require deep-frying, and the fact that none of the recipes reveal the actual measurements of each ingredient – keeping the recipes shrouded in unrepeatable secrecy.

EFR: 4:10 Now we’re talking.

Vegan-Alfredo

Vegan Alfredo – Green Chef

Not sure what my next step will be after this, but if I was pressed to pick an Act 5, it would probably be Martha’s Marley Spoon. After that…I’ll probably resort to the old school of sweating over a hot phone until I get my hands on that prime-time four-top at Le Coucou.

http://www.blueapron.com

http://www.hellofresh.com

http://www.plated.com

http://www.greenchef.com

http://www.sunbasket.com

http://www.terraskitchen.com

https://www.purplecarrot.com

 

 

 

 

American Flagship Dining – an aviation first

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American Airlines Flagship Lounge – JFK Airport

Is it just me who finds it rather bizarre that even though the Wright brothers pioneered flight on these very shores, or that the world’s first commercial airline began operations in this country, why then are US carriers so embarrassingly dominated and overshadowed by their international counterparts? Whether it’s the aircraft livery design, crew uniforms, cabin interiors and comfort, or service in the air and on the ground, United/Delta/American seem stuck in a decade-long taxiway before finally pulling up to match that ever-rising standard. There’s hardly a passenger who would disagree that the worst part of air travel starts and ends at the airport: You can miss at least one birthday standing in the bounty of lines. There’s nowhere to sit. None of the phone chargers work. Vintage dust abounds. There’s never anything to do when your flight is delayed. And who can tolerate those dysentery-inducing food-chain options?

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American Airlines Flagship Lounge – JFK airport

Well, there certainly is a better way to get through it all. For those flying first class on American Airlines transcontinental or international routes out of JFK, the airline unveiled their new Flagship Lounge today, which will elevate the nations’ largest carrier to share similar airspace with the popular British Airways Concorde Lounge at Heathrow, or Cathay Pacific’s The Wing at Hong Kong International.

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Semi-private pods – American Airlines Flagship Lounge

The Flagship Lounge is replete with the expected comforts and conveniences, like a separate check-in facility, charging stations never more than an elbow away, the latest in electronic barista stations, a self-service bar, a perpetually refreshed buffet with 5 hot and more than a dozen cold dishes, a quiet room, a fancy cocktail station and a wide variety of seating from loungers to diners to booths and even a row of adorable, semi-private beehive pods. But unlike some international lounges, you’re not going to find a private cabana, a shoe-shine, a haircut, a massage (or any other indulgent services of a personal nature).

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Showers – American Airlines Flagship Lounge

Despite the fact that the décor is almost entirely color and warmth deprived (would it have killed someone to shlepp in a palm or a vessel of succulents, or anything green other than that bottle of Chartreuse between the Campari and the Bourbon?), it certainly makes up for in space and light. The generous, but highly considered variety of textures and finishes from leather to mosaics, bright woods to shiny pressed metals are all offset by the pervasive plethora of durable fabrics (in what seem to be limitless shades of gray, fawn and brown), built to withstand the impending avalanche of traveler abuse. And while the 8 bookable showers are spotlessly modern, I challenge the design team to find somewhere to spread their belongings out, while washing away a virtual thrombosis after 13+ hours of mid-Atlantic turbulence.

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Flagship First Dining – JFK airport

But none of that should overshadow the real moment of truth in what is without doubt another aviation first: American Airlines has dared to install the first ever, fully functioning restaurant kitchen inside an airport terminal. In a nutshell, there is no better meal to be had in any of the 8 terminals surrounding JFK airport than Flagship First Dining. With (mostly) locally sourced ingredients and a menu that extolls the virtues of regional flavors with some international destination-inspired dishes, chef Scott Keats has created the first gourmet airline dining experience before you even leave the ground.
There has been endless dialogue about the state of our taste buds at 35,000 feet, prompting airline catering programs to introduce highly sophisticated flavor profiles that continue to push the envelope within the limitations of what can be re-heated in the galley of a 777. But let’s say your flight is delayed until the storm passes and you are stuck at the airport for another 3 hours. You snag one of the 10 single seat window-facing tables or a 4-person booth and sit down to real cotton linens and regular sized flatware as you peruse the menu of a dozen options – all complimentary, of course!

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Smoked Duck Breast – Flagship First Dining

It only takes one bite of the perfectly tender Smoked Duck Breast with a deep, rich, woodsy flavor, wonderfully accented by the fruity-jammy au jus and punctuated by the chef’s take on a colorful succotash to realize that this dish wasn’t cooked last month, flash-frozen and trucked in from Minneapolis. The roasted tomato coulis anchoring three Arancini is delectable, but the “rice balls” (as the waiter referred to them) could do with a sprinkle of seasoning.

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Arancini – Flagship First Dining

Chef Keats makes a passionate argument about environmental impacts and sustainable farming, but then the other shoe drops when the magnificent Loch Duarte Salmon gets flown in daily from Scotland! He presents it medium-rare with a splash of broth along a soft pudding he calls “cauliflower risotto”, which is nice and rich and indulgently cheese-laden, but probably requires more of a spoon than a fork to reach the mouth with any dignity.

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Lentil Cake – Flagship First Dining

While there is only one vegetarian entree, it’s a damn good one. I used the last remnants of what was one of four bread roll options (that were offered without name or description) to mop up the delicious ginger sauce surrounding the Lentil cake covered with sautéed mushrooms and baby corns.

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Flagship Burger – Flagship First Dining

And probably the most traditional of all entrees – the one that’s impossible to serve at altitude – will become the signature dish on all future Flagship First Dining menus in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas and London – the Flagship Burger. “I really wanted it to be…unctuous,” Keats proudly declares of his moist, 1.5” thick sirloin patty, cave aged cheddar melt and immaculately sweet-and-spicy maple bacon marmalade.

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Flagship First Dining – JFK airport

Despite the unavoidable first day service jitters with wait staff who have yet to find their hands, feet, eyes and ears: when to refill a glass (before it’s empty), when to serve the condiments (before the dish has been consumed), or when to remove the silverware (not moments before they are about to be needed), this first foray into gate-side dining is bound to catch on at supersonic speed. I also predict some edits to the menu based on popularity and demand. (Did I hear someone ask for a pasta…?)

http://www.aa.com

https://www.aa.com/i18n/travel-info/experience/dining/flagship-first-dining.jsp

 

Does Philadelphia food ring a bell?

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Termini Bros. Bakery

You’re probably not alone thinking that Philadelphia and food have about as much in common as a rattlesnake and a baby. And if you asked anyone to name a famous dish that hails from the site of the declaration of Independence, you’ll probably hear about Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews – famously used as a World War I ration, or more likely the Philly Cheesesteak.

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Legend has it that South Philadelphia street food vendor Pat Olivieri got bored with selling hot dogs from his Italian market stall in the 1930’s, and started serving sliced beefsteak a and grilled onions with melted cheese in a soft roll instead. Instant success. And Pat’s is still around today, dolling out those ever-popular, clumsy, drippy, chewy, salty soberizers right around the clock, but more about them later.

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Pat’s Philly Cheesesteak

It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the resident Irish made way for the influx of Italian immigrants clutching their culture, Catholicism and cooking skills. So, to really understand the largest chunk of Philadelphia’s longest surviving food influences, you really have to venture into the root neighborhood where it all began – Soufilly (South Philly). The local tribe has a uniquely extraordinary way of pronouncing things, like galamad (calamari), managad (manicotti) or prozhood (prosciutto), so I will throw in a few phonetics here and there for an extra helping of authenticity.

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Daily specials – Mr. Joe’s Cafe

Right in the midst of a sunny street of typical row houses – boasting highly competitive window decorations that include bent candles, ornate vases, faded plastic flowers, vintage tinsel, motionless cats, photographic dishware or gaudy crucifixes – is a lunch-only, mom and pop shop called Mr. Joe’s Cafe. The laminated menu might read like everyone else’s, but the daily special show-stoppers are worth swimming across the Delaware river for.

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Scripelle Soup – Mr. Joe’s Cafe

Hailing from the town of Teramo, Scrippelle soup is a clear and delicious hen’s broth with parmesan-filled, wafer-thin crepes rolled into short cigars, which release delightful little bubbles as you munch your way through them.

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Braciole with Gnocchi – Mr. Joe’s Cafe

While the house-made gnocchi are a mandatory staple, you are empowered and encouraged to swap and change pastas, sauces and meats to your heart’s content. I added them to a dish of Bra-zhôl (Baciole), which arrives with an ice-cream dish of fluffy, grated parmesan cheese – just begging to be scattered all over the world. The tender roulade of veal, flavored with garlic, basil and (more) parmesan is weighted down by a more-than-generous ladleful of what the locals call “gravy”. We medagones (non-Italians) would refer to it as “sauce”, but who gives a damn what anyone calls it, this masterpiece marinara is worth bottling, as are many of the other options including the crab and the meatballs.

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Termini Bros. Bakery

Conveniently located right across the street sits the Termini Bros. Bakery – still family-run and still baking Italian treats for 96 years. As you peruse the buffet of Biscotti’s, Canoli’s, Terroni’s, cakes and cookies, you are escorted by servers who compile your order on steel trays before packaging them up into little white boxes with string.

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Chocolate and Ricotta Cream Canoli’s – Termini Bros. Bakery

The Pignoli’s are legendarily soft with a marzipan-like Amaretto rush that underscores the thorny forest of toasted pine nuts on top. After taking a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour by one of the Termini granddaughters, I had to try a Canoli shell filled with rigûd (ricotta), and of course a bite of the rigûd-filled Sfoya-deel (Sfogliatelle), which is a ruffled pastry bundle of joy that crunches and crumbles into a million toasty flakes.

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Sfogliatelle – Termini Bros. Bakery

But the real heart of the immigrant neighborhood comprises a handful of blocks along 9th Street, designated as the Italian market. Here competing butchers, bakers, grocers, cheese & fishmongers offer local and imported produce from Sarasota to Sicily.

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Italian Market

And deep in the heart of all the action, the Rim Café, serves the most decadent cream-based Hot Chocolate ever poured. Using a litany of freshly shaved artisanal bars of varying cacao concentration and origin on a revolving platform, the process is as much a delight as the taste.

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Hot Chocolate – Rim Cafe

The neighborhood comes to a head-on collision at a cross-roads where the two competing Philly Cheesesteak vendors face one another: Pat’s and Gino’s Steaks. Both have equally impressive lines. Both have the identical menu. Both are open 24/7, and somehow both seem to survive. Regardless of which you choose, the most traditional cheesesteak to try is referred to as: “Whiz wit’-out”, which means you’ll have a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz® (an artificial, yellow epoxy goo dispensed from a spray can), without the grilled onions. Grab a large handful of napkins as you dive headfirst into a speechlessly sloppy adventure of ridiculous yumminess.

You’ve probably never used the expression Water Ice in the same way most Philadelphians do. It refers to a very popular summertime treat, and a close second cousin to the Slushy. But many local vendor’s like Pop’s Ice go one step further by adding a dollop of soft-serve or hard-scooped ice-cream right into the middle of it, creating Gelati. The real adventure is the bombardment of combining different flavors of water-ice and ice-cream together. Ginger Ale & Butter Pecan, vs. Cherry & Mint-Chocolate Chip. (When the humidity rises above 80%, I doubt it really matters.)

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Cherry Water Ice with Vanilla Soft-serve – Pop’s Ice

And finally, one of the last remaining stalwarts of the city’s culinary history is Dante and Luigi’s. Founded in 1899, the multi-roomed converted townhouse originally welcomed immigrants who couldn’t speak English, and arrived with the restaurant’s name pinned to their clothing. They were offered lodging and employment until they were able to support themselves.

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Dante & Luigi’s

The menu is a lexicon of ultra-classic Italian fare starting with Antipastos, Pastas and traditional Flesh and Fowl. Standouts are the incredibly tender and flavorful Chicken Cacciatore deluged in “gravy”, the simple Pork Milanese topped with a crisp salad, and a special drum-roll for the signature Perciatelli Genovese – hollow pasta tubes you can whistle through, smothered in the most scrumptiously, creamy, white veal bolognaise – that will most certainly put a massive crack in anyone’s bell.

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Chicken Cacciatore – Dante & Luigi’s

http://www.termini.com/

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g60795-d2365817-Reviews-Mr_Joe_s_Cafe-Philadelphia_Pennsylvania.html

http://rimcafe.com/

http://www.genosteaks.com/

http://patskingofsteaks.com/

www.popsice.com

http://danteandluigis.com/