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/

Keep Calm and Curry On!

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It was very much within my lifetime that London’s most traditional meal switched from Fish & chips, to Curry & rice. By contrast, New York’s Indian fare is nowhere near the scope and scale of London’s, but the clutter of turmeric-awninged establishments up and down Lexington avenue in Manhattan’s Curry (Murray) Hill are just the preview of the larger story. Thanks to an incredible fellowship of chefs from all across the Indian peninsula, Michelin and the New York Times have been generously honoring Indian restaurants with stars, stripes and other accolades. Here’s how they shake down for me.

Chicken Kati rolls – IndiKitch

Categorizing from fastest to slowest (Curry in a Hurry notwithstanding), IndiKitch is the papadum and samosa version of Taco Bell. Good, clean, tasty and fresh. You build your meal from carbs to cattle with chutneys, sauces and rices on the side.

For in-home delivery I have Dhaba on speed-dial right below 911, thanks to their vast menu of all-time classic favorites, made just the way I like them: Tandoori, Korma, Paneer, Masala, Vindaloo…even a collection of British-inspired curry dishes. If you love Poori like I do (a hot-air filled, angry, blow-fish looking pillow of bread – the size of which remains curiously dependent on the weather) you have arrived!

Pondicheri

One of the newer kids on the block is Pondicheri. What the exposed-ceilinged, cavernous Flatiron space lacks in intimacy, with one teal wall and a massive gray mural with what looks like a couple of giant balls of wool quickly unraveling across another, or the head-scratchingly ominous tangle of cables and wires overhead, it more than makes up for in non-traditional, but authentic pan-regional fare. The Houston import is more of a “community concept” than just a restaurant. With a huge enviro-agenda, cooking classes, pop-up event dinners and a super-busy in-house bakery, where chef Anita Jaisinghani churns out the most extraordinarily yummy Indian interpretations on popular western confections.

Bakery Counter – Pondicheri

Donuts dripping with rose-water honey, Financiers with pistachios and cumin, Rice crispy bars with nuts and curry, coffee cakes, cookies and ginger snaps that populate the breakfast and lunchtime counter. Dinner is a bit smarter. Down goes the lighting, and out comes the wait staff. The best way to navigate the mainly street-food menu, is to go for one of the freshest and tastiest Samosa’s on the island, followed by one of the Thalis platters, that provide a half dozen different dish-lets of kebabs, soups, poultry, ribs, greens and more. I thoroughly enjoyed the one called Earth for its standing-ovation worthy Butter Chicken.

Paowalla

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Tabla on Madison Park, turns out chef Floyd Cardoz is back, but this time he’s converted one of those typical West Village neighborhoodsy corner cafés into his next culinary canvas. Paowalla (named for the bicycle peddlers of traditional breads) offers so much more than just cumin/cardamom/chili delights. The carb-forward menu is a striking introduction to the real world of Roti and Naan, stuffed with cheeses, radishes, bacon and herbs. Cardoz also pulls together a few unexpected pairings, many of which make for happy surprises like Burrata submerged in a delicious puddle of Dal, or the tandoor-fried Black Pepper Shrimp, while others…not so much. The overly-soggy, coconut-laced Baked Crab might have been more comfortable under the protection of its shell, but I adored my first ever Dogfish curry, smothered in flavor, steamed in banana leaves and served with tart mango over brown rice.

Short and Saintly Rib – Tapestry

Going even further along the bridge toward experimentation, Michelin star winner Suvir Saran’s new downtown bistro is appropriately named Tapestry, in my mind suggesting the very fabric of what comprises our city, offering up a menu every bit as diverse as the kitchen staff, the clientele and the planet in general. Saran calls it “comfort food from around the world.” Maybe. I prefer: “The united nations of yum!” It’s where India whimsically intersects with Italy, Morocco, Mexico, Peru, Portugal and Louisiana – otherwise known as the F train.

Roasted Cauliflower – Tapestry

You can’t help smiling as you scan the remarkably affordable menu that has the chutzpah to combine a heavenly Arancini with green curry, or a tangy, sweet and crispy Okra salad with chaat masala. How about an irresistible Cauliflower roasted with hakka spices? Or the only time I can ever remember asking for left-overs to be boxed up: a super-tender Short Rib with cashew-poppy kurma. And the dish that just became my ultimate bribe ever – the utterly sublime Masala Fried Chicken. I still dream and drool about those flavorful sections of spicy, fried chicken tossed in a sticky, sweet and savory chutney, alongside a peanut slaw. And finally, almost triumphantly, a guava and passion fruit, flaming tribute to a baked Alaska called Fire and Ice. We’re not talking fusion here. This is pure kitchen magnificence.

Fire and Ice – Tapestry

That brings us to the northern end of the price/flavor scale. Indian Accent just celebrated its first birthday as one of New Delhi’s finest exports into Manhattan’s midtown maze. The dark, sleek and sexy interiors look, smell and feel nothing like your typical Indian restaurant. Almost formal – if you’re judging by the prix fixe options of 3 or 4-course menus, but casual enough to do without the tablecloths.

Indian Accent

Despite the litany of translations and explanations the poor wait staff have to decode – thanks to the lexicon of unrecognizable and unpronounceable items, there’s no collective sighing or rolling of eyes – yet. The plating is gorgeous. The flavors are remarkable. The cocktails are imaginative. The service is excellent. The prices are high.

Crab Claws – Indian Accent

Standouts (and judging by our neighbors on both sides who imitated us plate-for-plate) are the Potato Sphere chaat, which is a charming miniature birds nest of crispy potato shoelaces spun into a ball over a white pea mash, the utterly finger-lickingly delectable, butter-pepper-garlic baptized Crab Claws, the unsharably wonderful sweet and sour, fall-off-the-bone Pickled Ribs, the scrumptious Chicken Kofta (meatballs), and the magnificently tender Braised lamb with prune korma.

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Pickled Ribs – Indian Accent

Each main is accompanied by a choice of Kulcha (if an enchilada and a calzone had an Indian baby) stuffed with any number of interesting ingredients like hoisin duck or pastrami mustard. Yes folks, we’re a long way from curry in a hurry!

Potato Sphere – Indian Accent

https://www.indikitchtogo.com/store25/restaurant.php

http://www.dhabanyc.com/

http://www.pondichericafe.com/new-york

http://www.tapestryrestaurant.com/

http://www.indianaccent.com/index.html

The Ying and Yang of Hong Kong

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Mott 32

Part of Hong Kong’s charm is the visceral contrast between a modern, vibrant and effervescent world city and its nostalgic heritage as a former British colony with ancient Chinese roots. It’s inescapable. Even as you gaze up at gravity-defying forests of steel and glass on streets named after British lords and ladies, you can’t escape the smell of fresh dumplings and steamed rice. And so to enjoy the total Hong Kong culinary experience, you have to spread your meals around as many influences as you can.

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Crispy Chicken, Fook Lam Moon

On the classic side, restaurants like Ho Lee Fook, Tim Ho Wan (who just opened a branch in New York) and The Chairman deliver the quintessential Chinese experience, but none more so than Fook Lam Moon. This city staple and a favorite among Chinese tycoons for over 75 years is more of an institution than merely a restaurant. Barricaded behind a shiny flotilla of Bentleys, Mercedes’ and Maybachs on a busy, neon-lit Wan Chai street, the nondescript access to a brief elevator ride plops you into a large, bright, windowless room dotted spaciously with square tables. An armada of firm (but friendly) white-aproned staff, whisks guests, wines, teas and trays laden with piping hot dishes around the room as if they were line dancers picking out and replacing partners in a hectic but inaudible ballet.

 

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Double sticks at Fook Lam Moon

Once landing at our white linen 4-top, I was vexed as to the need for the double set of silver handled chopsticks at each place setting. Turns out the white set are for grabbing portions from the strictly sharable dishes onto your plate, whereas the black set are for lifting eat morsel into your mouth. (Clearly taboo to employ the same chopsticks for both functions, which meant an evening of constant chopstick swap-a-roos.)

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Chargrilled Pork Belly, Fook Lam Moon

The first few pages of the elaborate menu proudly include some of the world’s most infamous restaurant no-no’s: Shark fin soup and Birds nest congee. (Oh dear!) Instead we selected a few equally famous – but more GreenPeace-acceptable options that all arrived inside of 9 minutes. Instead of that (often unpleasant) ¼ inch layer of unavoidable fat that normally surrounds any order of pork belly, this Chargrilled crispy pork belly had rendered its fat entirely during the process of becoming the most magically tender cut of crispy-skinned goodness, bathing in a maple syrupy sweet barbecue sauce. On the subject of impossibly crispy skins, no Oktoberfest rotisserie Brathändl could ever rival this deep red Crispy Chicken with eight succulent sections this side of a wish bone. On the blander side our order of Wok fried king prawns desperately needed that welcome side order of wild mushroom stew.

 

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Wok fried King Prawns, Fook Lam Moon

On the more modern restaurant front, my favorites include Yardbird and Duddell’s, but no trip to Hong Kong would be complete without at least trying to get a table at Mott 32. Named for the first ever Chinese convenience store dating back to 1851 at 32 Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown, this deep, dark, glam and impressively modern space is housed three floors beneath the Standard Chartered Bank building in Central Hong Kong.

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Mott 32

As you descend from the ruckus of honking cabs and double-decker trams grinding along rusty tracks, the dark mirrored staircase sets the scene for a very special and decadent experience. It’s as if an exclusive modern nightclub and an opium den produced a child. On one end of the wrought-iron framed clubby lounge, a wall of bright blue windows reveals a glimpse of the fuss, steam and energy inside the frenetic kitchen, while solo spotlights illuminated the black and gold banquettes, booths and a lengthy marble communal table, providing the perfect hideout for the next hour or two.

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King Prawn Har Gow & Crab & Caviar Hot & Sour Iberico Pork soup Dumplings, Mott 32

 

The cocktails are all home made delights and the menu offers a range of contemporary spins on some of the cuisine’s greatest hits, but the a la carte dim sum is what all the fuss is about.  Divided into six sections: Steamed, Siu Mai, Har Gow, Baked, Cheung Fun and Fried, chef Lee Man Sing reaches for ingredients far beyond the Asian peninsula.

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Assorted Dim Sum, Mott 32

 

The dark red Crab & Caviar Hot & Sour Iberico Pork Soup Dumplings are an incredibly delicious mashup of salty umami. And nothing I have ever sampled in Chinatown can rival the taste and crisp texture of the King Prawn Har Gow, nor the wafer-thin fur-covered breadcrumb Chicken, Prawn and Toro Croquette. But I challenge any wonky dim sum wagon that ever rolled passed your table to muster the show-stopping brilliance of their signature item: The Crispy Sugar coated BBQ Iberico Pork bun. Adding a candy shell to an evolved pork ragout, transformed a one note ho-hum bun into a Chinese rock opera.

 

 

http://www.mott32.com/

http://fooklammoon-grp.com/en#home

http://www.thechairmangroup.com/index.php?lang=enus

http://www.duddells.co/home/en/

http://hk.dining.asiatatler.com/restaurants/ho-lee-fook-hong-kong

http://yardbirdrestaurant.com/info/

http://www.timhowan.com/

 

 

Eating my way through Japan

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Bento boxes from Kyoto railway station

The myriad preconceptions about Japan and its culinary reputation are always consistent no matter who you hear them from:

  • It’s just as difficult to secure a reservation as it is to have a bad meal.
  • There’s much more to Japanese food than sushi.
  • Tokyo is home to more Michelin stars than anywhere else in the world.
  • Japanese chefs generally focus on one singular style of cooking before perfecting it.
  • Prepare yourself for a ton of seafood – even for breakfast!
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Steamed Beef buns

All true, but there is a whole lot more to it before you finally snap your hashi (chopsticks) apart. For the average westerner, the Japanese kitchen scores very highly under the following criteria:

Presentation – probably the most attractive and appetizing works of art you will ever see on a plate – from 3-star tasting dishes to pre-packaged bento boxes. It’s always absolutely, reliably, unbelievably Instagram-astic.

Ingredients – Everything you will ever eat in this country will be of the freshest and highest quality in the world. The notion of foodborne issues never crossed my mind – even if I was eating raw eggs. (See below).

The next few, however, are where things start to become a little iffy for the less-adventurous:

Location – It takes a little while to reconcile the notion of climbing down into a small, windowless, sign-less, basement box of a room to enjoy the most excessively expensive (and enjoyable) dinner you’ve ever eaten. Or that one of your more memorable meals might be found in, at – or under – a train station.

Flavor profile – Let me put this as simply as I can: it’s different. Foods that normally carry a bonfire of spice back home, tend to be oddly muted in Japan. Not that that’s bad – it’s just different. Conversely, when you prepare your palette for the subtle flavors of seafood you’re accustomed to, it could feel like you just bit into a 100-year old anchovy from the darkest recesses of the ocean. Again, not bad – just different.

Texture – while Japanese foods tend to run the gamut from “crispy to crunchy”, you’d do well to prepare yourself for “sticky to slimy” as well. (Hey, I’m just puttin’ in out there.)

Surprise – This is where we separate the men from the boys. In a world where English is rarely spoken (particularly by restaurant servers or market stall cooks), what do you do when you have neither the slightest recognition nor comprehension for what it is you are holding between your hashi? Hmmmmm.

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Traditional Japanese Breakfast

All my efforts to research a multitude of websites, blogs, articles, and personal recommendations to hand pick 4 good restaurants out of the 82,000 that Tokyo offers, were largely a waste of time. Those that were truly top of my list were either not bookable by foreigners, required multiple pre-departure phone calls well after midnight, were booked out more than 4 months in advance, or I am still waiting to hear back from them. And so I was left with my 2nd, 3rd and in some instances 4th tier choices. On the other hand, and without exception, every one of the spontaneous snacks and lunches I stood in line for at crowded train stations, noisy food markets or prolific department store food halls were so beyond exceptional, that in retrospect I regret not having taken even more advantage of them. But here are some of highlights (and lowlights) with my own star ratings.

Butagumi (Tokyo) 5-stars

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Tonkatsu, Butagumi

This charming little wooden house with moon-shaped windows and creaky floors, cranks out nothing but Tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets). The menu consists of several pages of an anatomy lesson in all things pig. Not just cuts of pork, but also the different breeds with details of their diet, size, exercise, fat content and heritage. As simple as our choices were, the table was then bedecked with sides, sauces, salads, curries and spices – not forgetting the ubiquitous Japanese pickles and rice. The cutlets themselves were sliced and served on a copper wire stand with an impossibly delicate, cotton-candy fir of crispy panko that literally melted on the tongue as the flavorful, tender and moist meat succumbed with ease. This is a perfect example of a single dish notched up to such a high level that any self-respecting Austrian Wienerschnitzel chef might hang up his apron for good.

Seizan-Mita (Tokyo) 1-star

A Kaiseki meal is a traditional sequence of several formal courses that includes an appetizer, a sashimi, a simmered fish, a grilled dish with rice, a steamed dish, a soup and a dessert. The fundamental problem with Kaiseki is that unless you are in reliably English speaking hands the surprise factor goes off the charts, which is precisely where we found ourselves in a quirky little sub-street-level, angular, disconnected and rather lonely room. Each time one of the servers would deliver us a plate, all he was told to say was something that sounded like: “Tsanchwangdo-ma!” Despite our litany of desperately probing questions, (Is it a river fish? Is it a sea-fish? Is it a fish???!!) all we got was “Tsanchwangdo-ma!” The only dishes that needed no translation (and which turned out to be the most memorable) were the raw shrimp over peanut tofu sauce and the delicate potato fritters stuffed with shiitakes. After the third or fourth nameless slither of fishy fish in an insipid broth, one couldn’t help but wonder when those two well-hidden Michelin stars might finally reveal themselves.

Sushi Tokami (Tokyo) 5-stars

Given that Tokyo is home to the Tsikiji fish market, the largest fresh fish auction and distribution center in the world, if you’re going to eat sushi in Japan, you have to do so in Tokyo. Chef Hiroyuki Sato is a toddler by sushi-celebrity ratings, but he has focused his formal training into a unique Michelin star experience in an intimate 9-seat basement space. After a delectable “welcome” Hand-roll of Tuna tartare, “…from behind the head!”, chef Sato proudly exclaims as he points to the back of his neck, there followed a series of small cooked items like grilled Baracuda, Bonito sashimi with three delicious mustard toppings, a wonderfully tart smoked Sardine and the almost sweet baked Lemon Fish. Then came the sushi. His signature red-vinegar-reduction soaked rice, served at body temperature, accompanies about 15 very different fish, from Kohada to Perch to Toro, Shrimp, Squid, Snapper, Smelt, Roe…to his unique Hot and cold Sea Urchin – yielding a thrilling salty temperature contrast between the left and right of the mouth. He rounds out the meal with what he calls a Japanese omelet, but is in fact a sweet, baked-custardy egg tart.

Craftale (Tokyo) 3-stars

Shinya Otsuchihashi’s formal French training under Joel Rubichon shows through his very detailed set menu dinner. Located on the 2nd floor of a building in the midst of a quaint suburban neighborhood street lined with cherry blossom trees and a small stream, the all-in-one-room restaurant and kitchen churns out a variety of meat and fish dishes, the gimmick being that each one is accompanied by a different type of bread or muffin to mop up the heavenly sauces. I could have done with a 19th helping of the delicious slither of Bonito sashimi with toasted shallots and a ring of black burned onion powder in a ponzu broth. Equally delectable were the slightly scorched Barracuda and the Spanish Mackarel with boiled peanut sauce. The medallion of tender rabbit with shaved freeze-dried foie gras flakes was pleasant enough but perhaps a tad too rich for one dish, and despite admiring the pork knuckle still roasting in its cast iron pot with nothing but straw and peanuts in their shells, it failed to deliver much flavor and was as tough as fresh bamboo.

Ramen Street (Tokyo) 4-stars

Who would have thought that standing in line to order Ramen via a vending machine in a crowded train station, and then waiting for the diners ahead of you to finish slurping theirs down until a seat became available would be such a runaway sensation? The deliciously rich and salty broth with hand-pulled wheat noodles, eggs, pork slices, scallions and croutons just so happens to be that amazing.

Kitchen Street (Tokyo) 3-stars

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Shrimp tempura, Kitchen Street

Also housed within Tokyo’s train station are a few bright and boisterous bistros that serve fresh tempura. Battered and fried in cottonseed oil right in front of you, everything from fish to vegetables to leaves to shrimp are all total home runs. (I can’t help salivating just thinking about it now.)

Abura Soba (Tokyo) 5-stars

Arguably one of the best lunches in all of Tokyo, the only options at this 15-seat noodle bar chain are the portion size and spiciness of their one-and-only fresh soba “oil” noodle dish. Once you manage to get a seat and grab your bowl of broth-less soba with pork and scallions, the instruction card tells you to first squirt three circles of rice vinegar, followed by three circles of chili oil, a spoonful of chopped onions and then thoroughly mix the contents to free up the secret sauce from the bottom of the bowl. The perfect texture of the noodles and the staggeringly rich flavor of the ingredients is beyond yummy and umami, rendering all of us speechless for 15 solid minutes of slurping.

Cafe de L’Ambre (Tokyo) 5-stars

For as much green and Matcha tea they serve in Japan (there is also an obnoxiously large industry that produces Matcha cookies, candles, soaps, chocolates and even soft-serve ice-cream) they sure do love their coffee culture too, and nowhere more so than this little post-war cafe in Ginza that roasts its own vintage beans in-house – some of them dating back two to four decades. Each of their specialty coffees involves careful weighing of beans and sugar (on a real scale with sliding weights), and a variety of other interesting additions, followed by patiently grinding, brewing, stirring and pouring through fabric sieves into non-matching, fine-bone china. The classic Royale is stirred into a cocktail shaker and then hand chilled alongside a large block of ice with a very careful topping of thick cream into a champagne glass, or the Cafe Oefs which involves a raw, beaten egg yolk poured into hot, sweet coffee that has to be drunk quickly before the egg starts to cook. #showstopper

Mikaku (Kyoto) 4-stars

Teppanyaki has always been an entertaining way to have your food theatrically tossed, seared and sliced on a steel griddle right in front of you. It somehow always seems to taste better after watching each ingredient wilt, sizzle and color right before your eyes. But when your chef uses wafer-thin, certified Kobe beef (and we were presented with the official paperwork stating the animal’s ancestry dating back three generations along with his nose print!) the process only takes 20 seconds, but the pleasure of enjoying the most marbled, flavorful, roasted-marshmallow tender steak will stay with me forever.

Iroha Kitamise (Kyoto) 1-star

The process of Sukiyaki is fairly simple: thin slices of Kyoto beef are seared in a heated pot built into the table. Sugar, soy sauce, scallions, sprouts, noodles and chilies get added and once ready, you dip it into a bowl of beaten eggs. I can now say that I have tried it, but the overly sweet glaze, combined with the raw eggs were two stops beyond my realm of personal enjoyment.

Okonomimuro “Ron” (Hiroshima) 3-stars

Hiroshima might be known for where the first A-bomb was dropped in 1945, but it is also home to a really tasty and fun local meal known as Okonomiyaki. Wedged in one corner on the 3rd floor of a 4-story building with nothing but Okonomiyaki grills side by side, “Ron” (with her curiously long eye-lashes) concocts a wide variety of this popular meal. First she pours a thin circular pancake onto the griddle with some fish spices. Then comes a mound of fresh cabbage, bacon, sprouts and scallions, before it all gets flipped over. Simultaneously she warms a portion of cooked Udon noodles alongside, before flipping the pancake on top of them. Next comes a fried egg on top of that before the final flip over and a sprinkling of cheese that gets flame-torched over a dollop or two of a salty brown sauce. Voila – your heavenly Japanese pancake-enchilada is ready.

Owariya (Kyoto) 4-stars

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Cold Soba Platter, Owariya

Owariya is Kyoto’s – and probably Japan’s – oldest restaurant serving the best Soba (buckwheat noodles) in the city for more than 550 years. The dish to order is their Cold Soba Platter with a tower of four individually portioned plates of the nutty, chilled, gray noodles, alongside a plethora of toppings like pickles, tempura vegetables, seaweed and sauce. The tray includes a teapot of some of the treasured Kyoto water that the noodles were cooked in, which has to be drunk as a broth with a little soy sauce “to enjoy for good health.”

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Ice-cream cake, Glaciel

Desserts in general tend to be even less familiar than other dishes, (with the exception of a few specialty dessert houses like Glaciel in Tokyo who have rewritten the book on ice-cream cakes). The most popular flavor or filling for pies, ice-creams, pastries (like the über-prolific, fresh-baked, maple-shaped Momiji Manju cakes) and (believe it or not) Kit-Kat varieties is red bean paste. If this is the ultimate in highly desirable sugary indulgences, then I guess it’s no wonder that no-one in Japan will ever be overweight!

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Momiji Manju cakes, Miyajima Island

http://www.butagumi.com/nishiazabu/about.html

http://sushitokami.3zoku.com/12about.html

http://www.tables.jp.net/craftale/

https://tokyocoffee.org/2016/05/29/cafe-de-lambre/

http://miner8.com/en/5551

http://www.okonomimura.jp/foreign/english.html

https://honke-owariya.co.jp/en/whatisowariya/

Surprisingly sensational summer secrets

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-3-46-48-pmBest-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver penned the phrase: “Cooking is 80% confidence”, but for whatever reason she never got around to divulging the rest of the equation. So if it were me I would add: “… and 20% reading”, i.e. if you can read – you can cook! But there is a distinction between faithfully following a recipe, and creating something entirely new, inspired by your memory, guided by your tongue or compromised by the limitations of your grocery cabinet.

There are two reasons why I seldom (never) post recipes on my blog:

  1. I don’t want rogersdigest to turn into a re-publishing link for recipes that have debuted elsewhere.
  2. If I happen to invent a dish, a large part of me wants it to remain a secret.

What to do?

Well, maybe it’s the weather or maybe I’m just in a curiously generous mood, but I thought I’d share a couple of surprisingly successful – yet simple dishes that have come dangerously close to “hit” status this past summer.

The first comes in the form of a challenge I frequently set for myself – whereby I try (with mixed success) to recreate a dish I’ve recently enjoyed in a restaurant. Using the smattering of ingredients they list on the menu (rarely the whole story) and my ability to decipher the proportions (with varying accuracy) in the hopes that eventually I might get lucky. This creamy, yet ridiculously light and refreshing rendition of a Cucumber Gazpacho is within sipping distance of its original from the Little Beet Table on Park Avenue.

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Cucumber Gazpacho

Cucumber Gazpacho – Serves 4

  • 4 large cucumbers
  • 1/2 cup green, seedless grapes
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened, unflavored almond milk (if you can’t find unsweetened, then leave out the grapes)
  • 1 small clove of garlic
  • 3 – 4 Tblspn white wine vinegar (to taste)
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • ½ cup roasted Marcona almonds for serving (or for snacking while you cook)
  • 1 Tblspn Chili oil (optional but highly recommended) *
  1. Peel, seed and roughly chop the cucumbers. Discard the peel and seeds. (Did I just write that?) Add the first 6 items to a blender (i.e. stop before you get to the salt) and puree thoroughly until smooth. Season with salt and feel free to juggle extra vinegar, salt or grapes to balance the sweet:salt:sour ratio. Don’t stop until you’re happy.
  2. Use a spatula to press through a fine sieve into a large bowl to remove all the solids.
  3. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours until well chilled. (If you don’t have 3 hours don’t add ice cubes. Leave the mixing bowl in the freezer while you’re making the soup.)
  4. Divide into serving dishes and toss in a few Marcona almonds. Dribble a few sparse freckles of chili oil on top and serve immediately.

* You can make your own chili oil by adding 1 Tblspn crushed red pepper flakes to ½ cup olive oil. Simmer over low heat in a small saucepan until fully absorbed for about 20 minutes. Strain and discard the chili flakes and let the oil cool to room temperature before using.
This shamelessly simple, down & dirty but delicious Crunchy Caramel Peaches was the result of a desperate think-outside-the-cereal-box moment when a crowd showed up with an unmistakably “what’s for dessert?” look on their faces. In less than 6 minutes, I whipped up whatever I could find before it became the most frequently requested dessert of the season.

 

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Crunchy Caramel Peaches

Crunchy Caramel Peaches – Serves 4

  • 2 ripe peaches
  • 2 Tblspn butter
  • 1 Tblspn Dulce de Leche *
  • Vanilla Ice-cream
  • Granola (The nuttiest one you can find. i.e. full of nuts – not crazy! See recipe below)
  1. Halve, pit and dice the peaches. Discard the pits. (There I go again.)
  2. In a large skillet at medium-high heat, melt the butter and sauté the peaches until they soften slightly and begin to caramelize, about 5 minutes. (You’ll know you’ve gone too far when they start to disintegrate and you have the makings of peach marmalade in your pan. If so, discard and start over at #1.)
  3. Add the Dulce de Leche and continue to cook, stirring constantly until well blended for about a minute.
  4. Dollop a healthy spoonful of the peach mixture over one or more scoops of Vanilla ice-cream, and top with a handful of granola. Serve right away.

* Don’t use Caramel sauce or the sugar will crystalize. If you can’t find Dulce de Leche, you can either curl up in a corner and weep for 20 minutes, or you can make your own by boiling an sealed tin of condensed milk submerged in a deep pot of water for 2 hours. (Oh, and you might want to remember to top up with extra water as it evaporates from time to time or the tin will explode. Trust me. I’ve done it before. Took nearly 2 months to clean up the mess. And let the tin cool completely before you open it, or you will have 2nd degree burns and stalactites of molten caramel dripping from kitchen ceiling. #notfun, #betterthingstodowithmytime)

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Have you ever noticed on the label how much sugar they add to store bought granola? It’s insane! And not surprisingly, the better they taste -the more sugar/syrup/honey they add. And those that are supposedly “good for you” just have insipidly dry, boringly beige oats. For me, granola has to be choc full of rich, dark, brown, sticky clusters of nuts, so that when you make your way through the crunchy deliciousness, you get a mélange of flavors from hazels and pecans and almonds and pistachios with every bite.

This recipe comes with a strict warning: Keep out of reach of habitual in-between-meal snackers, or you’ll have nothing left for breakfast!

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Sugar-free nutty Granola

Sugar-free nutty Granola – About 12 servings, depending on whether you lock it away or not

  • 3 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup raw coconut flakes (unsweetened)
  • 1 cup pistachio nuts that are roasted, unsalted, shelled and talented
  • ½ cup roasted hazelnuts chopped in half – big pieces, not crumbs
  • ½ cup raw pecans
  • ½ cup raw almonds
  • 1/3 cup raw sunflower seeds
  • 1/3 cup raw pumpkin seeds
  • 2 tspn salt
  • 1/3 cup coconut oil
  • 1/3 cup Blackstrap molasses (see, no sugar/syrup/honey here)
  • ½ cup dried tart cherries
  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
  2. Combine the first 9 ingredients (all the dry stuff except the cherries) in a large bowl.
  3. Warm the oil and molasses in a small saucepan and stir constantly until combined.
  4. Pour the liquid over the dry ingredients and stir well. (Except the cherries. That comes later.)
  5. Spread the mixture evenly onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a latex baking mat.
  6. Place in the center rack of the oven and bake for 15 minutes.
  7. Stir the mixture around and return to the oven for another 15 minutes.
  8. Allow to cool completely. This is where everything becomes nice and sticky so don’t rush this part. Go do something else. Read a book. Binge watch House of Cards. Practice the piano. Vacuum the drapes.
  9. Evenly distribute the tart cherries into the granola as you pour it into an airtight container. #yum.

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https://www.thelittlebeettable.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Russ & Daughters Cafe – review

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Leave your number with the host and WAIT!

There isn’t a single cliché about patience that I can relate to. “Good things come to those who wait.” Nonsense! That’s the lament of a procrastinator. “Patience is a virtue.” No it’s not. It’s a complete misuse of other people’s tolerance. So I guess it’s no surprise that I’ve never been much of a “let’s go fishing” type, as the thought of waiting around for something that might never show up seems like the perfect time trap to me. But perhaps there are some unforeseen rewards that require the temporary suspension of my immediate expectations. One example that regularly tried my endurance was standing in the very cramped Lower East Side smoked-fish success story, Russ & Daughters, clutching a little white slip of paper bearing an irresponsibly high number that seems to stretch well into my next decade, or closing time, or both – just for a few slithers of Appetizing. (Oh trust me, the first time I heard that word I ardently illuminated the glaring error, but have since been schooled to accept it as a widely used tri-state term for a wondrous Smørgasbord of smoked fish).

 

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Russ & Daughters Cafe

And so after a mere 102 years of waiting around patiently, the family run institution felt that the time had come grant the public its first dinette to serve their legendary Lox, Sable and Shmear on little wooden boards at the bright and retro-chique bistro Russ & Daughters Café, appropriately situated in the shade of New York’s nostalgic tenement neighborhood. (A second restaurant and take-out counter has since opened inside the Jewish Museum.)

 

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The bathroom walls are decorated with service tickets

And just when you might have logically assumed the wait to be finally over – the “no reservations/first-come” seating policy plants you back on the sidewalk for a good 40 minutes to contemplate your well being, rethink your shoes, revisit your life’s choices, clear your mental in-box, count your blessings or whatever it is one is supposed to do while waiting. But once seated, things do happen remarkably briskly for an institution so hopelessly reliant on testing your patience. The service is snappy. The kitchen is prompt and the bill materializes in sub 60 seconds. But the bathroom walls are decorated with radiating plumes of service tickets as an almost-adorable testimony to the eons of misspent hours.

 

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Transparent slices of Gaspe Nova Salmon

Don’t be fooled by the simple looking menu printed on a single sheet of fishmonger’s wrap. It confidently runs the gamut from an $8.00 Blintz to a whopping $990.00 serving of Osetra! (Is it just me, or are the people who make you wait seldom shy?)

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Clockwise: Egg Cream Malt, Matzo Ball Soup, The “Classic” Bagel & Lox, Holland Herring

Unlike many of the city’s beloved deli’s, the authenticity of the food doesn’t get in the way of its freshness, flavor and presentation. The flawless Matzo Ball Soup has the ideal salt-to-chicken ratio, and the light, fluffy and moist dumpling is neither too tight to chew, nor too disintegratingly mushy. I was thrilled at not having to share my Holland Herring, which was thankfully whiskerless with a perfectly briny bite and as buttery smooth as an expensive Italian glove, but the Classic Bagel and Lox is the game changer here. A curiously smaller than normal Bagel (perhaps to be more proportionate to the other scant accoutrements) provides the delivery mechanism for 3 or so gossamer-thin slithers of the most impossibly delectable Gaspe Nova Salmon – silky, smooth, barely salty with just a whiff of smoke that melts apart with every bite of tomato, sliced onion, shmear and capers. And what better way to wash it down than my first ever Egg Cream Malt. Dispensed from an authentic soda fountain, the surprisingly mouthwatering combination of chocolate syrup, seltzer and malt felt like something out of a borrowed comic book from the depression era.

And so, (loathed as I am to admit it) perhaps there might be some merit to waiting around for certain things after all. But I can assure you I intend to keep that list incredibly impressive, markedly memorable – and shockingly short.

www.russanddaughterscafe.com

http://russanddaughters.com/jewishmuseum/

www.russanddaughters.com

Crossroads Kitchen, Los Angeles – review

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I suppose it’s not all that surprising that the nations’ leading vegan-chique restaurant should be located in the shadow of the Hollywood hills. And even less surprising given that star chef and best-selling author of “The Conscious Cook”, Tal Ronnen’s long list of adoring A-list fans range from Oprah to Ellen to Arianna (to the Senate, no less). But all of my prior trepidation of stepping into a mortifyingly meatless environment was safely suspended – thanks to a little magic and a lot of effort from Mr. Ronnen and his team.

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Before you even glance at any of the photos below, if you close your eyes and think about the expression: “vegan restaurant,” you wouldn’t be blamed for summoning up images of an unfinished, beige-on-beige room without air conditioning, barely decorated with hyper-recycled materials, reused bamboo utensils, uneven floors, threadbare, cushion-less or yoga-mat seating; a sweaty wait staff who look like they can do with a good bath, a good hour of black-head removal and a good steak; and an über-enviro-concious-Greenpeace-centric menu with frightening words like Seitan and Tofu or other ersatz protein ingredients you might never come across in the natural world.   Am I close?

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It just so happens that Crossroads Kitchen is just as disorienting for omnivores as it must be for vegetarians. The West Hollywood corner bistro is dark, elegant and sexy, with fine linen, glass and silver finishes you would expect from any Michelin-contender. The wait staff is gorgeous and attentive and the menu is cleverly designed to fool (or convert) the unsuspecting critter-eater. But there is a lot more to this than plant-based hocus-pocus, hanky-panky. Chef Ronnen has carefully crafted a selection of sharable plates that feel very reminiscent of traditional Mediterranean fare and (for the most part) are tough to imagine as being created without so much as a single byproduct of the animal world.

For no other reason than the plethora of appetite-competitive options, we skipped over the gazpacho’s, lentil bread, pickles, olives and pizzas and started with a vibrantly refreshing Watercress and Peach Salad made with a wonderfully tart mint vinaigrette, dotted with dark, miniature hazelnuts.

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Artichoke Oysters

The highly beloved and enormously decorative Artichoke Oysters are every bit as wonderful as their kaleidoscopic shape. Five artichoke leaves over a bed of kosher salt yield a dollop of the vegetable’s creamy puree, that hides a surprisingly crunchy oyster mushroom and sprig of briny kelp.

The Squash Blossoms served with a scrumptious marinara are as light and crunchy as the best you’ve ever tasted, and you would never notice that the ricotta stuffing hailed from a handful of almonds.

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Crab Cakes

Even more eye-nose-mouth defying are the Crab Cakes with tartar sauce that have the perfect taste, texture and flavor of your typical high-end cocktail party pass-arounds.

Not surprisingly, there is a good offering of vegetarian pastas, but for my money, the real test was something more protein-forward, such as a Scallopini Milanese. The traditionally shapeless, breaded “cutlet” arrived supporting a garnish of tomato halves and spring lettuce leaves, and for that extra touch of disorientation – a steak knife! Whatever it was I was eating (and, no, I did not ask), convincingly resembled and tasted of a delicious slither of tender veal, perfectly crumbed and shatter-crisp fried.

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Scallopini Milanese

My dinner guest and I debated between a couple of the half-dozen desserts, and in retrospect I probably should have put my foot down for the Coconut Milk Tapioca with blueberry compote. But instead we settled on a New York style Cheesecake. The perfectly ornate presentation included a couple of figs and a heavenly morsel of pine-nut brittle. But the silver dollar sized dollop of chalky nut-cheese fluff had a little trouble standing up to its big apple namesake. I would either recommend a renaming to lower expectations, or perhaps the insertion of a distracting flavor-forward ingredient like a hazelnut or poppy seed puree…

Suffice it to say, the vegetarian yardstick has been substantially advanced, and going forward I might just possibly consider redefining myself as a flexitarian.

http://www.crossroadskitchen.com/The-Restaurant.aspx

http://www.opentable.com/crossroads

 

 

My Top 38 Restaurants in New York City

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After much begging, pleading, mooing and meowing, I finally succumbed to share a list of my personal favorite food haunts in New York City. And because not all meals are created equal – nor are all palates or pockets, I took the liberty of dividing the list into 7 convenient categories to help you retrace my foodie foodsteps. But before you proceed to cut-and-paste, there’s a caveat we need to be clear on:

While none of my restaurant or meal recommendations mentioned here are “one-dish-wonders”, I cannot accept any liability for sub-par experiences due to off-nights, falling standards, menu omissions, inflated hype or chef dismissals. The food was amazing when I ate there! Just sayin’.

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Le Bernadin “Egg”

In the new year, the only thing higher than legend-busting rents (au revoir Union Square Café, Barbuto, Costata etc.), will be the highest minimum wage for restaurant workers in the city’s history. So if someone else is footing the bill, let’s label the first category as EXPENSE ACCOUNT EXCESS.

Daniel $$$+

An immaculate, flawless and unforgettable experience. The service, the presentation, the food itself and (as sincerely as only he can muster) the traditional table-side greeting by Chef Boulud himself.

Eleven Madison Park $$$+

Daniel Humm finds the right balance between shi-shi molecular gastronomy curiosities and one of the best meals in the city today. Not your average cup of tea, so make sure your party can handle Carrot foam and Carrot Tartare.

 Le Bernadin $$$+

Also clutching his 3 Michelin stars, chef Eric Ripert is the consummate host and venerable architect of so many dishes that have inspired the careers of two generations of toques. His legendary “Egg” – while no longer on the menu is a must-have.

 

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Svizzerina (bun-less burger) from Via Carota

The next group of restaurants are literally mood-altering locations, that the mere thought of eating there instantly puts a smile on my face. These are my ALL-TIME FAVORITES

Upland $$

Great space, great vibe and the menu is replete with hit-makers, but the Duck Wings are to die for.

Via Carota $

Very vibey face-brick room decked out with antique shnick-shnack as a typical West Village backdrop for some sensational and affordable dishes like the Svizzerina bun-less burger.

Buvette $

I absolutely adore this little French bistro with Barbie-doll-sized tables, stools and dishes. Jodi Williams cranks out the most astoundingly delicious French mini plates. Great for brunch.

Momofuku Ssam $

Some might say this is David Chang’s ATM, but the guy puts an unbeatable Korean spin on anything he touches. Fun, friendly and flavorful. Great for lunch. Steamed pork buns were pretty much invented here. Spicy Pork Sausage rice cakes are also sensational.

The Musket Room $$

Only in New York can a big, beafy, tattoo-shmeared New Zealander use Kickstarter to open a chef’s favorite haunt with the most delicate and robust flavors. Berkshire Pork done two-ways, Southland Lamb done two-ways and the Passion fruit Pavlova are outstanding. (See earlier review)

Estela $$

There’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said about this unpretentious hit-maker. Even the Obama’s have to stop in every time they’re in town. Beef Tartare with Sunchokes, Mussels escabeche, Burrata with salsa-verde, Lamb ribs and Rib eye. (See earlier review)

Marc Forgione $$

Dark, moody and filled with regulars. The Bell & Evans Chicken under a brick for 2 in this TriBeCa landmark is legendary.

Little Owl $$

With more dishes on anyone’s favorites list than any other kitchen of its size (and too many to mention here), this simple room of 20 or so seats is tough to get into, but well worth the wait.

Narcissa $$

Ask for a table on the kitchen side, so you can see the army of Veg-forward chefs put the final touches on the 5-hour Rotisserie-crisped Beets, or Carrots Wellington or Barley Risotto with Baby Clams. (See earlier review)

 

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Braised Halibut with Pink Peppercorn Sauce from The Clocktower

Creating a unique and unforgettable menu in tough enough, but when the location itself is dripping with drama and atmosphere, you have to be at a place that is COOL, HIP & HAPPENIN’

The Nomad $$$

Daniel Humm does it again. Each of the four lavishly gawdy rooms feels like you’ve just stepped onto the set of “La Traviata.” Don’t miss the incomparable (and pricey) Foie gras, black truffle and brioche stuffed Roast Chicken served two ways.

The Clocktower $$$

Wow! Talk about making a statement! UK native and Michelin winner Jason Atherton has created a deliciously sexy space with a whole host of unstoppable dishes like the Dressed crab with uni and apples or the Hand chopped Steak Tartare au poivre or the Braised Halibut with pink peppercorn sauce as well as a collection of knockout signature cocktails.

Betony $$

The funny thing about Manhattan’s midtown is that even though it is the central focus of business and tourism, you can sometimes count blog-worthy restaurants on one claw. Bryce Shuman however serves up picture perfect dishes in an intricately carved space that feels like you just climbed into a plush picture frame. The chef’s tasting menu is an experience. (See earlier review)

Beauty & Essex $

I love bringing out-of-towners here. It’s impossibly irreverent, ridiculously popular and surprisingly satisfying. The door on the far side of a pawn shop opens into a sumptuous and heady lounge where you can barrage yourself with a litany of tapas plates including the Roasted Bone Marrow on toast, Grilled cheese and Tomato Soup dumplings and the Lobster Tacos.

 Untitled at the Whitney $$

The Whitney Museum’s recently unveiled, clean-lined, glassy architectural new digs is also home to Danny Meyer’s latest jewel in the crown which has become as popular and eye-catching as some of the artworks upstairs. What it lacks in views, it surpluses in modern dishes. Try the Roasted and Fried Chicken and the Lamb Meatballs with peanut sauce.

 

Jerk Chicken WIngs at Ma Peche

Even with 20,000 restaurants to choose from, New York still manages to squeeze out a newcomer every other day. But there are a handful of locales that for years and years have set unwavering standards without compromise, that constantly deliver on being SOLIDLY RELIABLE

Perry Street $

Jean-George protégé (and descendant) Cedric Vongerichten still packs them into this über-modern, airy space right on the Hudson river. The Perry Street Fried Chicken is remarkable.

Locanda Verde $$

The perpetually-popular Anthony Carmelini and Robert De Niro partner shop is one of the best bets in TriBeCa. The Sheep’s Milk Ricotta is one of a kind, not to mention the Duck Arrosto and the all-time favorite Paccheri with Sunday night ragu. (See earlier review)

Ma Peche $$

David Chang’s midtown Korean dim-sum palace looks a bit like an army med-evac tent, but when those little Dim-sum carts come rolling past bearing Jerk Chicken Wings, Roasted rice-cakes or the Habanero Fried Chicken, you remind yourself not to judge a book by its cover. (See earlier review)

Marea $$$+

The epicenter of Michael White’s Altamarea group anchors Central Park at this standout Italian-seafood showpiece. It’s a bit posh, but the food is very real. The Fusilli covered in red wine braised octopus and bone marrow is what it’s all about.

Dell’ Anima $

It’s intimate, packed with regulars and at times rather smokey, thanks to the all-in-one kitchen-dining room. The daily specials are always amazing, but the Bruschettas are legendary.

ABC Kitchen $$

Of all the all-natural locovore palaces in town, this one set the bar early and high. Jean-George’s spacious room continues to draw a crowd for dishes as varied as the days of the week.

Hudson Clearwater $

There are a bunch of cute, atmospheric bistros in the West Village, but few of them are as unpretentious as this one. Small menu, exceptional service, great food. I love the Grilled grass-fed Hanger Steak or the Pan-seared local fish of the day.

Annisa $$

Anita Lo’s little shop that could – always does. Very intricate dishes, brimming with flavor and imagination that span the globe like the Seared Foie Gras with Soup dumplings and Jicama or the Duo of Rabbit.

 

 

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Cosme’s Husk Meringue

In the NYC melting pot, it’s not surprising that chef’s from all over the globe abide by the adage: “If you can make it there, you’ll make it in Singapore, Vegas, London, Shanghai and Beverly Hills” Here are my current favorite authentic INTERNATIONAL KNOCKOUTS

Cosme $$$

It was no surprise that Enrique Olvera’s first foray in the US would be a sell-out hit, but I doubt even he realized just how nuts we would all be over his hyper-authentic, gourmet Mexican cuisine. If you’re feeling generous, splurge on the Duck Carnitas, and the (beyond incredible) smashed Husk Meringue. (See earlier review)

ABC Cucina $

On the north side of the block from ABC Kitchen, Jean-George points his magic compass towards the Iberian coastline for a super-sophisticated tapas bar with much curb appeal. I adore the Chipotle Chicken Tacos and the best Patatas Bravas in town. (See earlier review)

Bar Jamon $$

Just around the corner from Casa Mono, Mario Batali & friends’ incredibly authentic Spanish bistro is one of my favorite (and alas not so secret) mini wine bars in the city. Specializing in a broad range of known (and not so well known) Spanish wines, they also hand-carve a delectable Jamon Iberico along with any number of other traditional favorites.

El quinto Piño $

There are a curious number of adorable little Spanish bistros in Chelsea, that range from tragic to traditional. This is one of my favorite spots that is super simple, but the food is full of flavor without the fuss. Everyone loves the Uni Panini or the Bocadillo de Calamar. (See earlier review)

Babu Ji $

Curiously enough Jesse Singh’s authentic Indian cooking is attributed to his Grandmother who hailed from Bombay, but his business is a replica of his hugely successful curry shop in Melbourne, Australia. It’s nothing more than a jumble of a room in Alphabet City with a “serve yourself” beer fridge in the corner, but the food is beyond inspired. I recommend the Chef’s Tasting Menu which highlights with vegetable filled puff-pastry balls called Pani Puri, a Lamb Raan, Butter Chicken and end off with Kulfi ice-cream bars flavored with cardamom and honey.

Haldi $

Of the forty or so Indian restaurants that comprise “Curry Hill”, Haldi is the reigning champion. The menu boasts just enough traditional Calcutta fare, while leaving room for a plethora of gourmet dishes never before seen on South Lexington Avenue menus. The Chicken Tikka Masala is legendary, while the Creamy Shrimp with carom seeds is stunningly surprising.

Bar Bolonat $

Ainat Admony’s modern Israeli-Arab menu is chock full of mega hits. Whatever you do, bring an appetite for the Jerusalem Bagel that you dip into oil and Za’atar spices and the equally delicious teardrop-shaped Hudson Street Kibbeh or the Shrimp in Yemenite curry, but leave room for the Fried Baklava Ice cream which melts out and mixes in the pistachio syrup. (See earlier review)

Han Dynasty $

Searing hot success story from Philly, the Szechuan peppercorn-heavy menu won’t disappoint. The Dan-Dan Noodles are a must, and if you can stand the heat, you have to try the mouth-numbing Dry Pepper Chicken Wings. (See earlier review)

Tuome $

A micro-bistro with Asian influences from an accountant turned chef. Try the Egg – which is panko fried with pickles, or the Pig which is a checkerboard of delicious pork morsels, or the duck-fat infused Rice. (See earlier review)

Carbone $$

The Torrisi Food group’s masterful red-sauce restaurant is close enough to Little Italy without feeling like a carbon copy of any other Italian restaurant in the city – and there are hundreds! Order the Caesar salad and the Veal Parm or go home. (See earlier review)

Marta $$

If you love thin-crust pizza, then you will adore Marta almost as much as me. Nick Anderer (via Danny Meyer)’s double pizza ovens seem to hold up the roof in the open-plan lobby of the Martha Washington hotel. The pesto flavored Arancini appetizer and the Potate alla Carbonara pizza are my favorite orders. (See earlier review)

Khe-Yo $

Intimate, dark and full of atmosphere. Chef Schwader (Marc Forgione protégé) shows off his Laotian prowess. If you like flavor forward, you’re in for a treat. The Sesame Beef Jerkey, Chili Prawns and Berkshire Pork ribs are a must, and don’t be shy to re-order the Sticky Rice. One helping is just not enough. (See earlier review)

Wallse $$

Kurt Gutenbrunner has a network of Austrian bistros all over town, but the best Wiener Schnitzel in the city has to be had at Wallse. If you want to savor the best in Viennese coffee bars, try his Café Zabarsky inside the Neue Gallerie for a Große Braune and a slice of Sachertorte.

 

 

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Fried Chicken Sandwich with Fu-ket Peanut sauce and slaw by Fuku

My expectations have no relationship to the size of a dish. Even a between-meal munchie or an informal, inexpensive supper needs to be the best there is. Here are some that offer QUICK, CHEAP & CHEERFUL

FukuFried chicken sandwich

Bianca – A cash only, no reservations, super inexpensive treat. Lasagne to end all Lasagnes.

Mile End – Canadian style Smoked Beef Sandwich bar with a delicious Poutine

Smith and Mills – Little plates and cocktails in a former carriage house

Salvation Taco – Gourmet tacos

Umami Burger – (See earlier review)

 

 

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Chef’s menu platter from Babu Ji

And finally because there are only three meals a day, many of which I choose to cook myself, I find myself collecting an ever-growing STILL “TO-TRY” LIST

Batârd

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fair

Contra

Dominic Ansel Kitchen

Little Park

Lupulo

Mission Chinese Food

Oiji

Russ & Daughters Café

Sadelle’s

Sushi Nakazawa

Salvation Burger

Santina

Semilla

Shuko

Hudson Street Kibbeh - Bar Bolonat

Hudson Street Kibbeh from Bar Bolonat

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