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Posts from the ‘caffeine jolt’ Category

La Grainne: Contender for Chelsea’s Best Brunch

Brunch is a New York-y thing to do, and finding your neighborhood’s best brunch is almost a right of passage for those new to an area. Lucky for me, I had the inside scoop from a friend already living in Chelsea, and so finding the best brunch nearby was easy as pie. The winner? La Grainne, a no-pretense French cafe with some of the most flavorful food as I’ve had in Manhattan.

Located on the corner of 21st and 9th Avenue, La Grainne is in the heart of Chelsea – and you can tell that most of its clientele are locals that just keep coming back. After treating myself to a few meals here, with friends, family and just by myself, I can certainly see why it’s so loved; La Grainne is a total gem! It doesn’t have a name that pops up in Grubstreet or Eater or the New York Times as a ‘hotspot’ for weekend brunches, and that’s part of the charm. There’s no fuss, no muss here with a staff that is both friendly and wildly efficient, a rustic cobbled-together decor, and a menu of crowd-pleasers.
The small dining room is almost always packed to the gills at lunch hour, both during the week and on weekends. Crowds will mill awkwardly at the door, spilling out onto the small sidewalk patio, until a table opens up. The open kitchen is the beating heart of the restaurant, always bustling, throbbing with energy, and surrounded by soaring lush bouquets of fresh flowers. Bistro-style furniture crowds almost every inch of floor-space, pushing diners elbow-to-elbow at peak hours. The best seats are those in the window, away from the crush at the center of the dining room, swathed in natural lighting, and prime spots for some pretty quality people-watching. The feel is warm, vibrant, relaxed – the perfect neighborhood spot that you can just keep going back to time and time again.
Perhaps the best thing about La Grainne though is the food. It’s hearty and comforting, the sort of un-prissy French food that makes you wish you were in Paris…all the time. And the best part? It’s relatively inexpensive and served in truly massive portions. The menu reads like a laundry list of classic Parisian favorites: gooey and pungent french onion soup, escargots in a traditional garlic butter sauce, quiche lorraine, the largest salad nicoise you’ll have in a Manhattan restaurant, a simple yet delicious bowl of mussels marineres, both sweet and savory crepes, golden roasted chicken with potatoes, and of course decadent desserts like tarte tatin, creme brulee and chocolate mousse. The croque monsieur and croqur madame sandwiches are marvelous, made with thick crusty bread, hearty slices of ham, and gooey gruyere cheese; they’re not too greasy and big enough to feed a small army. For a lighter sandwich option, try the baguette au fromage; simply a toasted baguette with layers of creamy soft brie (or swiss) cheese, this Parisian lunch favorite is easy on the stomach and luscious without over-doing it.
The ratatouille is somewhat of a house specialty at La Grainne, and it’s just about mind-blowingly delicious; a blend of baked tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, and onions, this rendition of a French ‘peasant’ dish is immensely flavorful, aggressively seasoned, and nothing short of perfect with a slice of crusty bread. Similarly mouth-wateringly good is the brunch special ‘oeuf maison,’ a house egg dish featuring a delicate poached egg perched atop a moist potato cake, all surrounded in a pool of the ratatouille. It’s a hangover cure in a dish and not in the least bit prissy.
La Grainne is just wonderful – great for enjoying soul-satisfying meals with friends or for sipping a citron presse over a goat cheese salad with the day’s paper. It’s got an infectious energy, making it quite literally a ‘happy place.’ And the best part? There are no pretensions here – not among the crowd, the staff, or the food. It’s just simple, friendly, delicious. What more could you ask for from the neighborhood hangout?
Perfect For: francophiles, Chelsea locals, weekend brunching, a solo lunch, people-watching on the patio

Le Grainne Cafe on Urbanspoon

Nolita House: A Very Un-New York Brunch Juggernaut

I ask you, how could a cheap boozy brunch set to the crooning and twanging of a live bluegrass band ever go wrong? The answer is that it just can’t. Nolita House, a down-home 2nd floor find on Houston and Mulberry, has created quite a niche for itself in the competitive New York brunch scene with it’s Boozy Bluegrass Brunch. This wondrous innovation consists of exactly three things: 1) delicious and hearty American comfort food, 2) a talented true blue Bluegrass band, and 3) plentiful mimosas and bloody marys. It is fun, unique, casual, and a welcome break from the often monotonous (and beloved) Manhattan brunch tradition.
The restaurant itself walks the line between shabby and comfortable. On the 2nd floor of a building on Houston, Nolita House seems meant to evoke a middle America schoolhouse with everything from slightly askew class pictures to chalkboard walls; however, nothing about this cult favorite is kid-friendly. Worn-in leather boothes line the walls and rickety tables fill in the middle, yet it’s the rectangular (and slightly sticky) bar that sits pretty front and center. Loud speakers blare Southern rock at unhealthy decibels, and the vast majority of patrons seem more focused on the plethora of booze options instead of the grub. Not to mention, Nolita House stays open far past acceptable hours on a school night. Nothing about Nolita House is sleek or elegant; and that’s perfectly OK for a place content on eschewing the uppity fashionista set that Nolita is famous for in favor of a grungier and, perhaps, more fun-loving crowd.
The most surprising thing about Nolita House is that the food is actually very good. It is solid and satisfying American comfort food, served hot and heaping. Brunch is your best bet here, and not only because it comes with a kickass Bluegrass band. Through such decadent options as Eggs, Biscuits & Gravy, New Orleans Shrimp & Grits and Vanilla Brandy-Soaked French Toast, the flavors and aromas the of the great American South come through loud and proud. The biscuits are buttery and flaky masterpieces, paired perfectly with soft and salty eggs, however you like them done; blackened shrimp & cheesy grits come packing bold and intense flavors that leave you craving more; the french toast is cut about 4 inches thick yet is somehow not overcooked or dry – it’s sweet, moist, and buttery with an addictive brown sugar crust. With Green Eggs & Ham, the kitchen turns an American kid-friendly classic into something any adult can crave with boursin cheese scrambled into three eggs, all served atop thick-cut slices of ham. Even the Mediterranean Baked Eggs are good, though obviously just outside the kitchen’s comfort zone – too oily for most yet right on the money flavor-wise, this dish can cure any hangover (and that’s a promise).
Nolita House offers a welcome breath of fresh air in the often cloying and overdone New York brunch scene. It’s unpretentious, inexpensive, and indisputably fun. The food strikes a tasty balance between too greasy diner food and too pricey ‘haute comfort food’, and the drinks come free at first, then easy and cheap. New to New York and the aggressive brunchers in stilettos? Nolita House is a nice and stress-free way to participate in a beloved tradition without harming your self-esteem. A New Yorker needing a break from the insufferable lines and faux-casual vibes at downtown favorites Pastis, Balthazar, Jane and 10 Downing? Nolita House can give you much-needed relief without hopping a jet.
Perfect For: boozy brunch, non-New York vibe in a a prime New York neighborhood, country music and whiskey binges, live music, hangover cures, doing something a little different

Nolita House on Urbanspoon

La Bonbonniere: A Diner, West Village-Style

Hudson Street hides a gem, an amazingly cheap, casual, cash-only gem. La Bonbonniere is the size of my bedroom, a long narrow strip of dressed-down Americana. The name gives it some French penache, but La Bonbonniere is really nothing but an American diner with a fancy zipcode.

One room with floor-to-ceiling windows staring off onto Hudson Street where it becomes 8th Avenue, La Bonbonniere seats no more than 34 inside with a few tables on the sidewalk. The plain beige walls are peppered with newspaper clippings, tacked-on American flags, postcards, hand-written letters, old movie posters, and other such random Refrigerator front knick-knacks. Delivery orders come through the old Verizon pay phone stuck to the far wall. Slowly-circling ceiling fans, blue vinyl bar stools under the off-kilter Formica counter, mis-matched faux-wood tables, and plastic flowers stuck to windows complete the diner dive vibe that makes La Bonbonniere so unique in the otherwise snazzy West Village neighborhood.

Short-order cooks prepare classic American comfort food lightening fast. Scrambled eggs, bacon, and white toast come out in less than 5 minutes, piping hot and well-seasoned; oatmeal is thick, heavy and mealy, served in a salad bowl, loaded with brown sugar; omelets, of which there are many offered, come fluffy and stuffed with whatever you want, from the unusual (potato chips, cottage cheese) to the typical (peppers, sausage, onions, tomatoes); burgers and sausages cook in fat on the sizzling griddle, open for all to see behind the counter. The food at La Bonbonniere is greasy and simple, the ideal comfort food for hungover mornings and guilty TV dinners.

Impossibly cheap, La Bonbonniere is wallet-friendly and gut-busting. It’s comfortable, nostalgic for simpler days. As an attitude and pretention-free haven in a neighborhood known for its haute restaurants, La Bonbonniere attracts not only those looking to save a few bucks but also those hiding from sight, most notably celebrities the likes of Kate Winslet, local Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julia Stiles.

Perfect For: greasy breakfast, cheap eats, quick bites solo at the counter, hangover cures

La Bonbonniere on Urbanspoon

Butter Lane: Cupcake Nirvana

Butter Lane, a cupcakery on E.7th Street in the East Village, has enjoyed a fantastic reputation since it opened – it is cute, cozy, charming, and wildly good at making cupcakes. It is so good at making cupcakes that I would go so far in as to say that the bakers at Butter Lane produce the best cupcakes in Manhattan.
The tiny storefront on E.7th street has some illustrious neighbors: Luke’s Lobster, Desnuda, The Bourgeois Pig, Porchetta, and Caracas Arepas Bar, all of which are suspiciously good at churning out their specialties as well (lobster, ceviche, fondue, pork, and arepas, respectively). Perhaps, there’s something in the water. Upon entering the bright and cozy store, a large blackboard greets you on the right with a tantalizing array of frosting flavors to choose as toppers for your vanilla, chocolate, or banana cupcake. If you’re lucky enough to wander in during off-peak hours, you’ll get served immediately; yet, more often than not, you’ll have to wait and salivate.
Now, on to the important part, the cupcakes. They are divine; they are soft, sweet but not too sweet, and satisfying. The cakes come in three flavors: chocolate, vanilla, and banana; the frostings are available in many flavors, including french vanilla, cream cheese, peanut butter, cinnamon, caramel, maple pecan, grapefruit ginger, blueberry, raspberry, coconut, and, of course, chocolate and plain ole vanilla. Butter Lane pre-makes the most popular combinations, yet will spread any frosting on any cake for you upon request. After trying, 8 different combinations, the banana cake in general is the most moist and the banana cream cheese combo gets 5 gold stars. The chocolate cake with maple-pecan and banana cake with peanut butter are also astonishingly good. Out of all of the variations I sampled, the only even remotely poor option was the coconut frosting, which ended up being a tad too sweet for me. All in all, the diversity of options and general quality of both cake and frosting push Butter Lane above and beyond competitors.
Also, if you can’t get enough of Butter Lane’s cupcakes, they not only hold classes for cupcake-making but they also do weddings and events. Check it at www.butterlane.com!
Perfect For: a cupcake craving, late-night snacks, gifts and goodies, romantic moments

Butter Lane Cupcakes on Urbanspoon

Red Flame: This Diner’s On Fire

New York is perhaps best known for pizza and diners; classic diners pop up on almost every block and vary wildly from truly awful to exactly the type of hearty comfort food you need. How do you begin to distinguish between those that are good and those that are very very bad? (perhaps a good speciality blog idea…?) Unfortunately, until one such blog pops up, it’s going to be trial, error, and word-of-mouth.

Take my advice on this one, the discreet Red Flame Coffee Shop on W.44th and 6th Avenue will not disappoint. I’m not sure whether its the lightening fast and take-no-prisoners service, the consistently delicious grub, the always strong and always hot coffee, or the general diner nostalgia that makes this particular spot in midtown so popular and so good. All of the above allow the Red Flame to rise above the masses of mediocre diners out there and to shine, brightly, in an otherwise moribund dining neighborhood (fancy TGIFridays?).

The look is what you would expect it to be pure – pure Americana with bright red boothes that you can sink yourself into, table after table of rather grungy New Yorkers tearing into fluffy omelettes, stacks of pancakes, and thick breakfast steaks, a dining bar with scarlet swivel seats, and a quick-moving staff of apparent Greek family members (cousins, aunts, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, and so on and so forth) doling out coffee refills and sharp instructions. In a diner, would you really want anything else?

The menu is endless and fully available all day and all night. Omelettes make a grand showing with 28 varieties available on the menu and many more if you just ask; pancakes and french toast also abound with such options as the banana, peach, and strawberry smother Tropical Belgian Waffle, Lumberjack Pancakes, Cinnamon Raisin French Toast, and Chocolate Chip Pancakes; your usual soup and salad suspects make an appearance with everything from a classic Greek salad to a Turkey Salad, Tuna Nicoise, Grilled Steak Salad, and ‘Popeye’ Salad with spinach and bacon bits. What’s a diner without a burger? The Red Flame grills them up good and well with vegetarian options, a bison burger, a pizza burger, and your typical bacon cheeseburger (my favorite!). Lastly, an overwhelming list of Greek specials and hot entrees offers everything from chicken souvlaki, buffalo wings and fried chicken to fish cakes, broiled scrod, fried scallops, and shrimp scampi to moist meatloaf, lamp chop, beef liver with onion, and breaded veal parmigiana.

The big shocker? Most of this stuff is surprisingly good. It’s not haute cuisine, and it’s certainly not culinary artwork; yet, it’s simple and comfortable without frills and frippery. The Red Flame epitomizes the American diner while serving coffee thats not burnt and food that’s fresh and home-made.

Perfect For: a New York diner experience, coffee hit, big morning breakfast, fried food fiesta, cheap and hearty dinner

Red Flame Coffee Shop on Urbanspoon

Zoe: Family Restaurant Spun with Soho Chic

Situated conveniently on the tourist-ridden corner of Prince and Mercer (kitty corner from Mercer Kitchen, J Crew and the Apple Store), Zoe blends the traditional concept of a family restaurant with the ‘chic-ness’ needed to survive in Soho.

Surprisingly, on a Sunday morning, most of the fellow diners were not bewildered tourists seeking refuge from the blustering rain. They were couples and families settling in for a comfortable and uncomplicated meal. Zoe delivers safe and hearty All-American cuisine in a spacious sophisticated setting. The expansive restaurant features tables up against the window for people-watching, comfy booths for larger groups, and a kid’s ‘bar’ up against the open kitchen where children can learn about all of the dishes the chefs’ are cooking. Not particularly innovative in decor or design, Zoe focuses on keeping it simple with a Mediterranean-inspired terra-cotta theme.
The menu features everything from pizza (hand-made and cooked in the wood-burning oven), burgers, sandwiches and salads to pan-seared escolar, sweet pea ravioli, and colorado lamb loin at dinner. My friend Jen and I settled in for a hearty brunch of a burger and the ‘green eggs and ham’ omelette (which was actually bright green.) My burger was delicious – a good temperature, well-seasoned beef, hefty in size and served on a toasted buttery bun with melted stinky blue cheese (heaven!). The salty hand-cut fries served on the side almost eclipsed the burger itself. The omelette was shockingly colorful and stuffed with red peppers, cheese and ham. It was fluffy and exactly what egg-starved Jen seemed to need. The cheddar-potato ‘cake’ on the side looked too dense and doughy to be satisfying. The much-needed coffee? Absurdly good and the perfect intense jolt of caffeine for a Sunday brunch.
Zoe surprised me. I’ve walked by it many times, passing it off as a tourist trap with cheesy decorations and even cheesier food. However, Zoe offers a comfortable middle ground between an Olive Garden (eek!) and some of New York’s pretentious gourmet powerhouses. It is easy, simple, quick, and satisfying – and all to the soundtrack of old school jazz. A laid-back and uncomplicated pick for large groups, Sunday brunch in Soho, or a place to take your parents from out of town, Zoe delivers a well-rounded and inexpensive meal without sacrificing tasty food.

Zoe on Urbanspoon

Financier: Luxe Coffee for the Wall Street Set

Sometimes, when I feel like treating myself to an over-priced iced cappucino and pastry, I pop into Financier, coffee provider to the bankers, traders, and wannabes of Wall St.

The scene is swank (for a coffee shop), French brasserie-style, populated with well-dressed yuppies in Brooks Brothers shirts, pressed slacks, and lace-ups. Bright cool colors, big windows, and outdoor tables almost convince you that if this coffee and pastry shop were to be picked up off its foundation and transplanted to Nice, it would fit in splendidly.

Need a break from the office but don’t have the time to languish over a long lunch? Desperately seeking an effective caffeine jolt? Craving sweet treats with a touch of elegance? Meander over to your local Financier to pick up an iced coffee and madeleine – for those 10 minutes, you’ll escape the frigid sterile office floor and luxuriate in elegant coffee shop splendor.

Financier Patisserie on Urbanspoon