Friday, March 29, 2013

The Mondrian Hotel, SoHo, New York

As I've previously mentioned, I spent some time last week on a press trip in New York City.  I will be talking more about what I was concentrating on while there, but before I turned my attention to that, I wanted to rave about our beautiful accommodations.  We were lucky enough to stay in the Mondrian hotel, a boutique hotel in the heart of SoHo.
The Mondrian is owned by The Morgans Group and promises its patrons a romantic and provocative surrounding in the midst of downtown New York, with incredible views.  It boasts a restaurant, bar, a fitness center and borders both Chinatown and Little Italy. 

It was clear from the moment I pulled up to the front door of the Mondrian that this was no ordinary New York hotel.  The entrance was set back from the road and a canopy of greens and perky white lights led a path to the welcoming front door.  Each step away from the busy streets of new York made me feel as though I was nearing an oasis, and that relaxation would soon be mine.  Once at the front door, I was warmly welcomed inside by incredibly friendly gentlemen, their smiles and easy attitudes immediately comforted this weary traveller.  Assistance continued as I was directed to the front desk and easily checked into my room.

The room was exactly what I wanted.  Bedecked in calming blue hues, the

bright white fluffy comforter looked incredibly inviting, and I had to use every ounce of will power to not flop immediately onto its pillowy softness and drift off.  The rest of the room, while small, was not lacking in luxurious touches that made me feel pampered from the get go, including gorgeous floor to ceiling windows that afforded me a view of both the Freedom Tower and the Empire State Building.  Not too shabby...

The sink sat proudly in a corner of the room, removed from the rest of the in room bath amenities, which was different than most hotels, but allowed the room to maintain an airy feel.  Perched on the side of the sink were what could have been standard water glasses, but instead sat crystal tumblers and wine glasses instead.

The bath itself provided the function needed in its purpose but not without certain design touches that kept it chic and modern.  The doorless glass shower was beautiful to look at, and included a shower head with the most delightful water pressure I've enjoyed in ages.

Other in room amenities included a flat screen tv, a safe, and a very fully stocked mini bar- just saying.

Attention to detail wasnt lacking in the  rest of the hotel either.  The lower level included a gym which surpassed my expectations for a hotel gym offering a, albeit small, selection of cardio equipment, each stocked with its own tv, a series of free weights, and weight machines.  Though it was a windowless cavern, I was able to get in a full workout both mornings of my stay allowing me to face the day ready for anything.

The rest of the public space included a restaurant and two bars-all of which provided a welcoming, yet gorgeous persona creating comfort and decadence all in one.

The Mondrian was a perfect spot to stay in New York.  It truly provided an oasis from the hustle and bustle the city is known for and made this guest feel pampered at every turn.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ssam Bar, East Village, New York

New York City is often regarded as one of the most influential food cities in the world with some of the top chefs from our country and beyond keeping the city as their home base.  My list of places to dine in New York is unbelievably long, so when I was invited down to the city for a press trip- I capitalized on any free time by crossing off one of my top spots.  Momofuko has been a household name in my place for years.  A conglomerate of Asian inspired restaurants in New York and Sydney, founder and executive chef David Chang is widely regarded as a genius in the kitchen.  I polled my food experts when I knew I had some time on my hands and the resounding response was to go to Ssam Bar.

Located on the crossing of 2nd and East 13th in the East Village, Ssam Bar capitalizes on big flavors in every dish, though in this casual eatery Chang refuses to hold fast and steady to one particular ethnic influence.  His dishes have notes reminiscent of flavors worldwide, but each is woven in an intricate pattern worthy of the highest praise.  I lucked out on my visit- as I entered the spot hungry and ready to chow down, and had the delightful experience of getting to witness David Chang in the flesh being interviewed.  My food crazy world was made.

 I selected to try the steamed buns, a staple for anyone who knows their weight in a Chinese kitchen.  Chang offers several varieties of this dish, from the classic pork to the playful twist of pulled duck.  I went with the pulled duck.  Here Chang pairs this rich meat with a tzatziki sauce, a bit of that spicy harissa, a little mint and a couple of cucumbers for good measure.  The combination of flavors from just the accompaniments brought the flavors normally paired with lamb to the forefront, and then when combined with the beautiful, gamey duck it was a surprise to my taste buds.  The encasing steamed bun was delightfully doughy with the clean, non over powering flavors of simple ingredients of yeast, flour, water…those true, staple ingredients.  Combined together, each component was able to shine on its own- the crisp cucumber, the creamy yogurt, the fresh mint, a small kick from the harissa…every bite got the title of “the perfect bite”.

Now before I headed off on a jet plane down to NY I did a little research, I asked around for what was good and the resounding response from my fellow food obsessed friends was the Rotisserie Duck Bowl.  Duck breast, cooked to succulent perfection over a rotisserie, served atop a mountain of rice and watercress on the side.  I opted for a side of lettuce leaves with it so I could make little wraps, and I was given traditional accompaniments of Hoison Sauce, Siracha and fried shallots.  It was impossible not to dig in immediately.  Craddling a lettuce leaf in my hand, I spooned in rice, a little siracha sauce, watercress, and then piled on a piece of duck and a sprinkle of the shallots.  I piled that bite into my mouth as fast as I could and found heaven in food.  The duck was rich and powerful in its decadence.  The natural flavor of the duck shone forth in its glory, not overly seasoned by anything else, and stood perfectly on its own, like that resilient teenager who refuses to succumb to peer pressure in the face of that spicy sauce, the peppery watercress or the crisp shallots.  These were simply gestures
on the side, little flavor offerings boosting the star of the dish.  Chang had a little surprise though, creating almost a whole second dish, under each slice of duck was what I can only assume were the droppings from the duck, those small pieces drenched in the flavors of the rotisserie – predominately ginger.  I made a second lettuce wrap immediately using only these and the flavor palette became immediately brighter, with the kick and delight of spicy ginger leading the way.  I realized immediately what all the fuss over David Chang was about…
I cleaned my bowl, ravenously shoveling bite after incredible bite even long after I was stuffed.  There was no way I’d let even a grain of rice go to waste.  I experimented with the different accompaniments- leaving some off, adding in others…every combination was tried and every combination worked. 

Ssam Bar isn’t to be missed whether you live in NY or in LA.  It’s a must go…now.   

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

80 Thoreau, Concord MA

When you live in a city like Boston, you don't often find need to leave it.  With beaches, hiking trails, museums, music venues and restaurants all a stones throw away, one can easily occupy months of time without leaving the city limits.  Of course, that doesn't mean that one shouldn't.  Last week I jumped aboard the commuter rail (thank you MBTA) and took a quick and painless 40 minute jaunt out to one of my all time favorite 'burbs-Concord, MA.

I had the great fortune of growing up near this gorgeous town, and I took every opportunity to steep myself in its beauty and it's culture.  Nearly every corner you turn within the town leads to historic site after historic site, and the feats of our forefathers are on display for all to revere.  For history buffs-Concord is the motherland.  What you might not anticipate finding among these preserved landmarks is a stellar restaurant with a Food & Wine 2013 Fan Favorite Chef nominee at the helm.

80 Thoreau sits atop the old train depot  (read: literally on the commuter rail

tracks-hello convenience!) and is bringing cuisine normally reserved for urban locales to the people of Concord.  Chef Carolyn Johnson has teamed up with young entrepreneurs Ian Calhoun and Vincent Vela to create a menu featuring fresh, inventive new American dishes in a clean, airy, beautiful establishment.  Opened just about two years ago, it has been earning a name for itself as one of the places to hit outside the city since, but isn't resting on its laurels just yet.  They have recently installed a brand new chefs table to their seating, giving four lucky souls the chance to dine on a specially designed menu with a birds eye view of the kitchen.  I had the opportunity to dine at this special spot last week and was blow away by the experience -start to finish.

Imagine for a moment, stepping off the train and being greeted at the front door of the restaurant by a handsome fellow bearing a glass of sparkling wine on a silver tray to kick off your evening.  This is the stuff of luxury service legends.  Once inside they will lead you up to the restaurant and seat you in one of four seats over looking the small but incredibly efficient kitchen.  From these seats you will have the best view as the chefs whip together your meal, and the meals for the rest of the restaurant.

Our evening started with a tuna crudo, softly resting on a crisp slice of spicy radish.  The tuna had been mixed lightly with a little mayonnaise based dressing brightened with fresh herbs and topped with a little fried shallot.  This was a perfect first bite fully of flavor to awaken the palate and the different textures.

The first course was presented as a house made venison terrine served with pickled carrots, parsnip
and onions, sliced juniper berries and a house made mustard.  I loved the use of venison here.  Often these types of dishes are made with cuts that are incredibly fatty, but venison is a lean protein -thereby making a heavy dish much lighter.  The terrine was still full of the anticipated rich flavors one would normally associate with the decadent dish, but when paired with the pickled vegetables, this richness of the dish was perfectly cut and a gentle harmony was found.

Second course was presented as a work of art, a decadent shucked lobster claw piled out of a small mountain of salsify drizzled with a cream sauce.  The beauty here was in the light herbs that permeated the sauce bringing a delicate feel to what would normally have been a heavy dish.  The lobster was well cooked, tender and full of natural sweetness. Combining a taste of the lobster, with the rich cream sauce, a hint of tarragon and an earthy root vegetable salsify was a luscious bite.

Our next course featured Pork shank ravioli enhanced with touches of cabbage,
beer and mustard.  I was dining there just before St Patricks day and I loved the play on sophisticated Irish flavors.  The ravioli were lovely, a nice combination of stuffing and pasta.  The flavors were tight, perhaps a little safe, but nice for what was being portrayed.

Our final savory course included rabbit stuffed with
fennel fronds and pan roasted, sliced into beautiful medallions and served with a delicate frisee salad and a tart cherry compote served atop a purée of celeriac.   As lovely as the rabbit was, and it was moist and perfectly flavored, the star here were the cherries whose deep contrast between sweet and tart beautifully offset the robust flavors of the meat.  The frisée, which could so easily have been disregarded, had been topped with chopped macadamia nuts, finished the dish with a tinge of bitter flavor, and a contrasting punch of texture.  I truly appreciated the attention to detail here and the roundness that it lent.

As we settled back into our chairs, digesting the beauty of the food presented, I was presented with a neat glass of Johnnie Walker.  A chilled shot that made me immediately wonder what was to come.  First, of course, was the pallet cleanser.  A simple spoon of honey enhanced ice cream, paired with a single section of a blood orange was placed jauntily in front of me.  A small helping of
a beautifully sweet starter with just enough punch of citrus to banish any savory remnants and make way for the dessert.  The honey in the ice cream was just subtle enough to be intriguing but strong enough to be comforting.  This was a little piece of heaven.

Of course, the palate cleanser was simply paving the way for our dessert to be served.  A decadent chocolate stout cake, topped with a malt ice cream, a cookie crumble and candied kumquat.  This was an incredibly well balanced dessert.  The cake was lightly flavored, which allowed for all of the other components to shine forth.

80 Thoreau isn't great food if you happen to be out of the city, it is quite simply-great food worthy of a trip from wherever you happen to be.  Their attention to detail, though obviously paramount in the kitchen, is felt to every corner of the restaurant, from the owners to the servers, and if you happen to snag a seat at the kitchen, you'll find a truly happy group of chefs who somehow don't even appear too busy to crack a quick joke or explain a method as they prep your dinner.  The team at 80 Thoreau is going above and beyond to usher their patrons into a truly decadent and pampered evening, start to finish.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

75 Liberty Wharf, Fort Point Channel, Boston

We've talked about the great expansion of the Fort Point Channel of Boston- the hottest area for restaurants to popup lately.  We've talked about my extreme love for a little restaurant in Beacon Hill called 75 Chestnut- now how about we talk about them together?  Last fall the good folks over at 75 Chestnut expanded their operation and opened another cozy spot on the harbor in the heart of Fort Point Channel.

Last week I was invited in to check out the new space - a small structure comprised mainly of windows capitalizing on the amazing views of Boston Harbor.  Though the building itself has a more modern vibe than its Beacon Hill sister, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the inside has maintained the same cozy feel and even better, is sharing some of the incredible staff found at the original location.  There is something about the wonderful quaintness of finding a spot where you're remembered in the heart of a busy city.  

Once seated in the corner of the space with views of the water and the rest of the restaurant, Jason and I set out to choose our meals.  Now, here's the great tip of both 75's- they have a massive display of cheese and crackers for noshing while you peruse.  Free of any charge, there is a table that is consistently loaded down with cubes of a variety of cheese and crisp crackers to satiate in a unique twist to the traditional bread and butter.  

We opted for the Shrimp Cocktail for our appetizer. Six large, plump, chilled shrimp were served to us poised over a martini glass filled with a tequila lime cocktail sauce.  Now I can rarely find anything wrong with delicious shrimp, I can't lie, and here was no exception, but the star here was the cocktail sauce.  Long after we had finished the shrimp we were stealing tastes of the sauce with our forks.  Subtle spice of horseradish, freshness of lime and a little zing from tequila was a perfect change up from the traditional cocktail sauces and made me want to cover every bit of my sweet shrimp with it.  

I chose an entree from their Green menu, a selection of dishes made entirely with renewable and sustainable ingredients.  Though I was tempted by several choices there, as well as my stand bys on their regular menu (read a porterhouse pork chop or their bibb lettuce salad topped with succulent steak tips) I chose instead their lamb dish, topped with a minted apple sauce and served with sweet potatoes and spinach.  I loved the idea of combining the traditional flavors of pork and apple with lamb and mint into a single dish.  The lamb itself was perfectly cooked to a beautiful medium rare.  The only unfortunate part of the dish entered in however with the sauce.  They had elected to serve it covering the lamb entirely, which made it difficult to find the bone line that was included and any other pieces that one may wish to avoid.  However, the flavor components were delicious, and each item was cooked to perfection.

Jason had elected to have their Peppered Tenderloin, a tender cut of tender loin crusted in cracked black pepper, and served with a cream sauce, fingerling potatoes and fresh vegetables.  His steak, of which I stole multiple bites as perfect.  Spicy with the pepper, tender and juicy from proper cooking and a hint of sweetness from the sauce.  It was delicious.

We also chose to split the peanut butter cheesecake for dessert.  Now, I'm not a huge cheesecake fan, but have been lulled into the sweeter variations that so many places are serving now and was anticipating a full peanut butter assault.  Not 75 though!  They are serving true to form cheesecake, tangy and just a tad crumbly- exactly like cheesecake should taste.  This variation had just a subtle hint of peanut butter.  

75 Chestnut has long been an incredibly dependable favorite for me.  A spot for friends, with loved ones, with always delivers a casual, friendly environment with delicious, traditional food.  75 on Liberty Wharf is holding the reputation with gorgeous views of the harbor-something tells me Ill be there a lot this summer to enjoy their patio. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Maine Diner, Wells, Maine

It has been an extremely hectic and busy last few weeks, and judging by my upcoming schedule- it doesn't look like its going to calm down any time soon.  So, for my own mental sake and those of the persons around me day in and day out, I decided to escape for a day and road trip up to Ogunquit, Maine.  As you may recall, Ogunquit was my childhood beach.  It's full of happy memories of sandcastles, and sandy feet, and saltwater hair.  It is an absolutely gorgeous beach with miles of clear sand for watching, and when the tide is high, there are perfect vantage points to watch the sea roll in and out, and take all those troubles right along with it.

I realized recently that I have never, in all my years of heading up the coast to Ogunquit, visited The Maine Diner.  It has gained attention from all of the Food Network type shows and with my love of diner food (come on breakfast all day?  What can be wrong with that!) I figured it was high time to check it out.

The Maine Diner was opened in 1953 as a spot for locals to go during the off season.  Over the years though the diner has expanded its service, and is open all year long, of course booming during the summer months.  I was there on a Friday morning in early March, and the restaurant was well populated, but full of locals, some out to breakfast with family, some on business meetings, guys coming off of an overnight shift and sucking down coffees before heading home.  The waitstaff seemed to know their clientele well, and I felt that I had entered into the realm of the "regulars".
I settled, very quickly, on blueberry pancakes- since I was in Maine for goodness sake, and a very large cup of coffee to sip.  A few moments after I ordered my pancakes arrived, a stack of three large blueberry spotted cakes just waiting to be drizzled with maple syrup.  I was a bit disappointed however to see that as opposed to a pitcher of syrup being available, prepackaged little cartons of syrup were just balanced on the side.  The pancakes however, were delightful.  Each bite was chock full of berries and the cakes themselves were thin, yet light and perfect to sop up butter and syrup.  

I enjoyed The Maine Diner, however I felt rather disappointed that there wasn't any allusion of local syrup or that homey vibe.  However, the attitude of the establishment- warm and welcoming, with an extra dash of "hon", was exactly what I was hoping for.  

Monday, March 4, 2013

Papagayo, South Boston

A couple of years ago it seemed that every restaurant that opened throughout Boston was opening in the Mexican genre.  In a city that readily admitted its lack of Mexican food (even more so its lack of GOOD Mexican food) we were suddenly inundated with options.  I kept up for a while, hitting the new spots as they popped up, eating more than my fair share of guacamole, and then I grew a little tired of the trend and turned my attention back to other cuisines.  That is, until this past Saturday night.  I was craving spice- I wanted some heat , and I thought that without overdoing Pho, maybe it was time to return to the Mexican influx.  So, with Jason nicely obliging my craving, we settled on checking out Papagayo located in the Fort Point Channel of South Boston.
Papagayo opened early in the fray, and won quite a few accolades for their culinary prowess.  It was at the top of my list for Mexican places to check out.  It sits on Summer Street, a location just over the bridge into Southie making it convenient to the Financial District patrons, and keeping it away from hub bub that has become the Fort Point Channel water front hot spot.  It is a massively large restaurant for downtown Boston.  However, even still, at 6:30 on a wet, cold Saturday evening we were received to a 45 minute wait.  This place has maintained its street cred, and the crowds are still flocking.

Luckily, Papagayo is prepared for their long waits offering a variety of spots for patrons to wait, enjoy a drink (or two….or three) and nosh on a little appetizer.  We opted for their freshly made guacamole, and out wheeled a cart with a gentleman ready to mix it there in front of us.  He inquired about our level of desired spice and then set to work combining the traditional ingredients for guacamole.  The finished product was a delightful mix of avocado, not too much lime juice, tomatoes, onion, and a healthy does of chopped jalapenos.  The accompanying chips were fresh, crisp and salty making them a wonderful vehicle for the dip.  I enjoyed the specified heat level to this guacamole, and the ability to see it made to order.  The acid level was correct and simply enhanced the dense, rich fruit.  Over all, a pretty good guac.

Once we were seated at our long awaited table, we were able to peruse the full menu.  Having had a pretty healthy portion of chips and guacamole my appetite had lessened and I settled on their Fish Tacos.  Served simply, three soft shell tacos were set in front of me with large pieces of pan cooked Tilapia, set atop a cabbage slaw and topped with a healthy dose of tomatillo salsa.  I learned from our server that apparently the salsa was a response to my request (because Im nuts) for the tacos to be made extra spicy.  The kitchen wasn’t shy to comply and piled on the spicy salsa.  I was incredibly grateful, the salsa was perfectly acidic with a great heat that actually numbed the back of my throat after a few bites.  It was exactly what I wanted.  The fish was well cooked with a slight crispness to its outer most sides and a nice, natural flavor.  The cabbage had been tossed lightly in a mayo based dressing and lent both texture and creaminess to the dish.  These were filling, yet light tacos that perfectly hit the spot for what I wanted that night.

I was pleasantly surprised with Papagayo.  Despite the fact that it is very much a “scene” and was hosting numerous large parties that evening, they were able to award all of their patrons- even that little two top in the corner, great service, accommodating custom requests and keeping it all up beat and friendly.  Their fare was    

Restaurant Reviews: A dead art?

Last December I declared 2023 the year I would return to food writing.  It was a bold statement (even now as I look at my last published dat...