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Posts from the ‘dining solo’ Category

Txikito: Basque-ing in Goodness

With Tia Pol, Salinas, El Quinto Pino and Txikito all within a 10 block radius of each other, it seems as though the western reaches of Chelsea are turning into a verifiable Spanish Tapas home-base. A self-described “love letter” to the simple and “unencumbered” cuisine of the Basque region in Spain, Txikito prides itself in its simplicity. And simple it is, a simply wonderful ode to the salty, savory and generally excellent traditional Basque fare.

The restaurant is easily missed, located in a low-rise and nondescript strip mall (also housing Co and the soon to arrive Chelsea outpost of the Sullivan Street Bakery) and totally devoid of any identifying signage. I first noticed it in the summer, when the floor-to-ceiling glass windows were pulled up, exposing the scarlet-topped metal bar stools stored under the white tile and slate-grey marble bar. A hip and young crowd chatted excitedly in the window, spilling out onto the street. Inside, the long and narrow main dining room is covered in faded clapboard, from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. The furniture is sparse and minimalist, consisting entirely of recycled plastic chairs and chintzy metal tables. Only simple lights adorn the rough walls, shedding a soft simple light over the generally disheveled and youthful crowd. The vibe is relaxed, with waiters sauntering around in hipster plaid, and nonchalant – there is no rush here, no stress.

The food is, as touted, classic Basque. The style, tapas. For two people, the recommendation is 4-6 dishes, and with five, my friend Sarah and I felt happily satiated. The cuisine proffered by the kitchen is uniformly delicious and craveable. The kroketas are a wonderful way to start – the size of golf balls, these creamy pork filled croquettes are gooey on the inside, crispy on the outside, and completely addictive. I could go through a basket of these daily if given the opportunity and promised no possibility of egregious weight gain. Also addictive are the salty, oily but not too oily, and spicy blistered peppers – served in a little dish, I think I went through my half of them (and more) a bit more rapidly than I care to admit. On the heartier side are the lamb meatballs, small, savory and served in a wonderful slightly minty broth – as someone with an English passport, the nostalgic reference to lamb and mint was appreciated. For those who love grilled cheese (how can you not, really?), the bocata sandwich is a great option. It’s on the larger side for tapas and undeniably well-made. Thick slices of uncured bacon, a cross between pork belly and Canadian bacon, and Spanish cheese are layered between two slices of grilled sandwich bread – the result? An oozing, meaty and satisfying Spanish twist on an American favorite.

Lastly, even though the standard menu offered is jam-packed with scrumptious options, in the words of our sage waiter, “the specials are where it’s at,” and on any given night, the kitchen at Txikito presents a vast array of specials. The real winner when I visited was a cross between an enchilada and cannelloni – tender pasta sheets were wrapped around a filling of ground pork, beef and veal and the entire package was topped with melted cheese and a Bechamel sauce. It was decadent and soul-satisfying, the type of hot meaty food filled with flavor that you want on cold rainy nights.

Txikito seems content to fly under the radar, attracting passers-by, neighborhood locals, or those actively seeking out tapas/Basque cuisine. And that’s A-OK with me also because it makes Txikito the ideal neighborhood spot – a place you can pretty much always walk into, a place not packed with those who don’t know the difference between Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, a place not crowded with travelers from the surprisingly nearby Penn Station, a place not impacted by trends and thus not interested in catering to trend-setters and trend-followers. In short, it’s a wonderful place where you can settle in with a friend, a bottle of Spanish wine, and some delicious, unusual, and elegant tapas.

Perfect For: after-work bites and wine, Spanish food lovers, girls night out, hipsters on dates, Chelsea locals, quick bites before hitting the town

Txikito on Urbanspoon

A Day in Rockaway

A line item on my summer bucket list was to visit Rockaway Beach, sun myself in the sand, and sample some of the new culinary stands that have set up shop on the Rockaway Boardwalk. Between 86th Street and 108th Street on the very wide and very sunny Boardwalk, there are three new concessions hubs. As it turns out, wandering up and down the Boardwalk and stopping to sip on cool juices and to snack on Thai-inspired burgers, Venezuelan goodies, tacos, and frozen treats is really not such a bad way to spend an afternoon.

the rockaway beach boardwalk at 96th street

Here are some of my favorites:

1. Ode to the Elephant

Thai cuisine isn’t necessarily associated with beach-ready food, but Ode to the Elephant takes concession stand classics like burgers and familiar Thai dishes like summer rolls, satay skewers, and curries and transforms them into easy-to-eat and heat-friendly options. The Bangkok Burger is particularly delicious with bright yellow shards of pickled mango, a creamy Sriracha mayo, and rounds of red onion, all atop a very thick ‘home-made’ beef patty on a sesame bun.

Ode to the Elephant on Urbanspoon

2. Blue Bottle Coffee

What’s better than an iced coffee on a steamy sun-filled day at the beach? Iced coffee prepared “New Orleans Style.” Blue Bottle, one of the concessions near 108th Street, offers up a refreshing twist on the classic iced coffee by adding chicory and whole milk. The result? A richer, smoother and sweeter version of iced coffee that’s perfect to sip while staring out at the big blue Atlantic.

3. Caracas Arepas Bar

Adjacent to Blue Bottle near 108th Street, Caracas Arepas Bar is the perfect beachside stand for a late-in-the day snack. Not only do they serve classic Venezuelan treats like crispy arepas stuffed with tender meat, beans and queso, empanadas, and fried plantains, but they also offer cheap beer, Micheladas, and delicious cool Sangria for those looking to enjoy the perfect happy hour outside as the sun sets.

Caracas, Rockaway on Urbanspoon

4. Motorboat & the Big Banana

Two words: frozen. banana. Sure, Motorboat & the Big Banana is a fish-fry stand at it’s core, serving classic fish sandwiches and fish & chips, but the real reason to come here is for the decadent chocolate-dipped frozen bananas. Better than ice cream and coated in a thick layer of chocolate, these frozen bananas are the ideal frozen treat to nosh on when the sun is beating down just a little too much. My favorite? The peanut and sea salt version

5. Veggie Island

I would come here for the frozen lemonade alone. The stand offers coffee, miscellaneous breakfast items and thirst-quenching fruit smoothies, but the real star is the tart-yet-sweet frozen lemonade. Made with fresh lemons, ice, and a touch of sugar, it’s just about perfect.

Fried Dumpling: Home of the Ideal Grimy $1 Lunch

Sometimes, when mornings are tough or life seems low, the only satisfying cure is a steaming bowl of dumplings. Or, scenario #2, sometimes when living in New York seems to be close to bankrupting you, dollar lunches transform from cheap and perhaps a little grimy to heroic and verifiably wallet-saving. The $1 dumplings at Chinatown’s Fried Dumpling are the ideal antidote to an aching head or an aching wallet.

Fried Dumpling, a tiny storefront on a tiny street in the Southern reaches of Chinatown, doesn’t look like much. The paint outside is chipping; instead of an actual door, there are merely heavy plastic panels hanging in the doorway; seating inside is limited to four or five bar stools facing a crinkled stick-on mirror. Drinks are grabbed from a small refrigerator, and the food is prepared by two women, working in tandem, at a counter and a stove just feet from the door. It’s safe to say that Fried Dumpling is the sort of place you don’t want to examine too closely – I’m sure if I really inspected the interior, dirt would be piled in corners. However, that being said, the food’s good and there’s no reason to stick around.

The menu is short, consisting entirely of quick snacky bites such as dumplings and pork buns. The dumplings, served 5 for $1, are fried or steamed and stuffed with what looks like mystery meat but is most certainly pork and chives (unless you order the vegetable version). Slick and moist on the outside and stuffed with salty savory goodness on the inside, the dumplings are just plain delicious. They’re not over-stuffed, too greasy, or too doughy. If you’re into dough though, the pork buns are a great option at 4 for $1. Not your classic pork bun, they’re more like thicker and doughier fried dumplings stuffed with tender pork. Spherical and as big as golf balls, they’re a satisfying savory snack. If you’re feeling adventurous to venture beyond dumplings, Fried Dumpling also offers vegetable egg rolls, various pancakes, hot & sour soup, and wanton soup.

There is a time and place for the $1 dumplings served at Fried Dumpling in Chinatown; these times and places do not include when you’re dieting, looking for a sit-down lunch, or seeking to impress friends and family; they do however include curing brutal hangovers with grease and pork, vetoing the $12 chopped salad from the deli in favor of a perfectly satisfactory $1 lunch, and justifying taking 15 minutes to sit on a sunny park bench to enjoy your thriftiness. Fried Dumpling is a long shot from gourmet; it’s even far off from your neighborhood deli; however, when it comes to ridiculously cheap dumplings, you can do no better.

Fried Dumpling on Urbanspoon

Manzo at Eataly: Batali’s Italian Temple for Meat

In Italian, manzo means beef, so it’s no great surprise that Manzo is the ‘meats’ restaurant at Batali and Bastianich’s Flatiron Italian emporium Eataly. A part of the now-famous and unique Eataly set-up, where 12 petite restaurants each focus on a specific type of food, such as meat at Manzo, vegetables at Le Verdure, seafood at Il Pesce, and pastries at the Pasticceria, Manzo is the only of the individual eateries that a) has a more typical dining environment and b) takes reservations in advance (on OpenTable!).
Tucked into a corner and protected from milling crowds and photo-snapping tourists by actual walls, Manzo is more like a typical restaurant than the other Eataly ‘restaurants’ that are generally open to the massive marketplace. Here, with a hostess manning the entrance, tourists rarely wander past your table, staring voyeur-esque into your plate of food (a strangely common experience at the other eateries), and there are tablecloths, suited waiters, leather-bound menus, all the trappings of a proper dining establishment. Despite the bright and new market environment outside the half-high walls cordoning off Manzo, the look manages to maintain a sense of civility, lush and old-school with crimson leather, deep red walls, dark wood tables, and a suited-up staff. With so few tables, the bar is the best place to sit – no reservations necessary, comfortable, relatively spacious, and serviced by a competent and friendly staff. If you’re with a group though, be sure to make a reservation in advance, wait times stack up quickly, especially at peak hours.

The food at Manzo is beautiful – a blend of modern and traditional Italian cooking. It’s a refreshing departure from the ‘rustic’ Italian food that, while delicious and perfect for quick neighborhood meals, is colonizing Manhattan. The focus is, unsurprisingly, on meat, and while there are of course pasta dishes, appetizers, desserts and so forth, the kitchen really shines when its preparing meat. The antipasti options are spruced-up renditions of familiar favorites: asparagus and parmesan with earthy chanterelle mushrooms, light and crispy sweetbreads with mushrooms, shrimp with a chunky walnut pesto and broccoli rabe, and of course pillowy mozzarela di bufala, paired with savory strands of prosciutto. The warm calf’s tongue, one of the many offal dishes offered, is meaty in the best of ways, firm, salty, unbelievably rich, and complemented with mellow potatoes and leeks in a deep red Barbaresco sauce. Aside from the ‘traditional’ antipasti, there are a few selections that ‘celebrate’ Piemontese beef, the crowning joy of Manzo. These preparations are generally simple, meant to let the famously high-quality beef shine on it’s own. The carne sala is a particularly artful dish – a carpaccio-style cut of cured beef that’s both sweet and savory, a truly complex flavor unlike anything I’ve had before, served with fiddlehead ferns, which are unusual and herbacious, and tart shavings of apple.

As any good Italian restaurant does, of course Manzo offers ‘primi’ or pasta options – none of which include their beloved beef. The offerings are tantalizing to say the least – spaghetti with lobster, tomato and basil, agnolotti in a brown butter sauce, pappardelle with sausage, and an beautifully-made gnocchi in a spicy tomato sauce that on it’s own is pretty average yet is given a major lift by a generous dollop of fresh ricotta cheese. The ‘secondi’ dishes are where the kitchen really seems to get excited. For carnivores, the options read like poetry: a classic ribeye with potatoes, grilled calf’s liver with sweet onions, roasted pork with rhubarb, sugar snap peas, cabbage and honey vinegar, veal chop that’s been smoked in hay and has a sweet aroma. The list goes on and on, each dish just as succulent as the next. My recommendation? The simple and utterly wonderful tagliata – grilled sliced beef – that’s served a deep pink with fava beans, mushrooms, and a complex bone marrow sauce; it’s well-balanced and tastes like a million bucks.

If you haven’t guessed yet, none of this stuff comes cheap. Manzo is expensive, very expensive – antipasti range from $13-18 each, pastas top out at $29 a plate, and the ‘secondi’ can reach the staggering heights of $45 for a veal chop or a ribeye. Do the math – it adds up quick, especially if you’re in the mood for one of the bar’s killer Negronis. Regardless, if you’re willing to spend the dough freely, Manzo is an experience, blending the magic of meticulously created and prepared Italian cuisine with the unique opportunity of leaving the restaurant, only to shop for the ingredients you just ate. For some people, it’s an unnecessary extravagance, but for those passionate about eating, cooking or both, there’s a certain wonder to it.

Perfect For: wow-ing out-of-towners, Batali groupies, Italian food aficionados, those who like to cook as much as they like to eat, special occasions, the ultimate meat experience, cocktails and dolce, being luxurious

Manzo on Urbanspoon

Rickshaw Dumpling Bar: Excellent Concept, Not So Excellent Execution

Rickshaw Dumpling Bar is probably one of the best concepts ever – a “fast casual” restaurant devoted to DUMPLINGS. I mean, really, who doesn’t love dumplings? From the get-go, Rickshaw was pretty much guaranteed to be a hit. And, in fact, a hit it has been with food truck off-shoots and a line of kitschy-charming t-shirts. However, regardless of how popular this Flatiron dumpling mecca is, there are some problems with execution and the actual quality of the dumplings.

The restaurant is a tall and narrow sort of thing, with soaring ceilings and a stark & modern Japanese look constructed out of what seems to be concrete. The first things you see are the cashiers, smiling all sorts of big goofy smiles. Above them towers a gargantuan menu board, listing every sort of tasty Asian drunk food you could imagine: pork dumplings, szechuan chicken dumplings, shrimp and wasabi dumplings, noodle soups, sesame noodles, pork buns, bubble tea, and so forth. The selection is dizzying, tantalizing, overwhelming for Rickshaw first-timers. So, in classic fashion, my boyfriend and I order enough food to feed the entire military, take our number and wait.
In less than 5 minutes, our order is sitting at the pick-up station – impressive! All in all, the dumplings are mediocre, and some are better than others. The fillings are better than the wrappers, and the addictive dipping sauces are better than the fillings. To maximize dumpling enjoyment, skip the szechuan chicken variety and head straight for the kimchi beef with a sekom sauce (reminiscent of the best sort of creamy spicy mayo) and the shrimp with a sweet jicama, scallion and creamy wasabi dip. These two options beat out the other middling dumpling choices with their smooth flavorful filling and utterly fantastic dipping sauces. Interested in pork dumplings? Rickshaw Dumpling’s rendition are just…OK. Other than the dumplings, Rickshaw’s food is just fine – noodle soups are brothy, salty, and toothsome, and the pork buns are satisfying without being anything amazing.
In sum, Rickshaw’s food is nothing to write home about; however, the ‘restaurant’ is exceedingly accessible for all the yuppies milling around Gramercy, Flatiron, and Chelsea. If you’re on your way home from work, Rickshaw Dumpling is a safe and quick option to consider (though by no means the best) without much thought. Not great, not horrible, just easy.
Perfect For: dumplings on the go, trendy Chinese takeout, being the fat kid

Rickshaw Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon

Tia Pol: Being Neighbors with New York’s ‘Best Tapas’

For a restaurant the size of my living room, Tia Pol has a whole lotta hype to live up to. Recommended by pretty much every food-loving person I know in Manhattan, Tia Pol has been touted as New York’s Best Tapas (nymag), as offering a cerebral meal (nytimes), and as one of Zagat’s favorite Spanish spots in New York. Luckily for me, it’s next door to my new digs.

In what I like to call a hot up-and-coming neighborhood, near the high line, most art galleries worth visiting, and a slew of tasty eateries, Tia Pol is barely a sliver of a space. Long and narrow, it seats just 34 customers, and 9 of those seats are at the itsy-bitsy and bustling bar upfront. What little decor there is consists of weathered exposed brick, dotted with small lanterns glowing dimly, bottles of Spanish wine tucked into nooks and crannies, and a cramped open kitchen offering a peek into the magical world of authentic Basque tapas. The seating is a little torturous (consider it a right of passage before the scrumptious food to come), with high bar-height tables, stools with no backs, and little-to-no room to spread out; however, if you’re willing to put up with mild discomfort, it is 100% worth it once you start eating.

The menu is authentic Spanish tapas, offering traditional dishes from the Basque, Cataluna, Andalucia, and Galicia regions of Spain. There are a myriad of tasty treats to choose from, with a core menu offered all the time and varying options at brunch and lunch. Each dish is moderately priced, depending on size, and big enough for two people to have a few bites. With so many tantalizing plates to choose from, it’s difficult to know where to start, and where to end for that matter. For first-time Tia Pol patrons, don’t skip the txipirones en su tinta, a generous bowl filled with succulent rounds of squid, soaked in a savory ink sauce, and a small tower of aromatic saffron rice; it is well-seasoned, fresh without reeking too much of salty seafood, and remarkably complex. Another favorite is the gambas al ajillo, shrimp in olive oil with chili and garlic. The mini-shrimps are perfectly cooked, served piping hot in a bubbling bath of luscious chili oil, red-hot, spicy, and marvelously garlicky – a guilty pleasure for anyone who loves a lotta bit of heat. The chorizo al jerez is a treat for meat-eaters; obviously of the highest quality, this chorizo is fatty (in the best of ways), steeped in thick smoky flavor, and doused with a hint of slightly sweet sherry sauce. The result? A seemingly simple dish of diced meat turned thrilling.

Tia Pol’s kitchen can even turn something so ordinary as a lamb skewer into pinchos morunos, two tiny bites of perfectly-cooked lamb marinated in moorish spices that pack in all sorts of salty, bitter and funky flavors – talk about efficient eating. Other hits are the crema de higado de pollo, two pieces of flaky and chewy baguette topped with generous dollops of creamy chicken liver mousse and a drizzle of the honey-sweet dessert wine Pedro Ximenez, and the extraordinary bocata de lomo adobado, a warm not-your-average sandwich of thinly-sliced pork loin, roasted piquillo peppers, and gooey melted tetilla cheese between two slices of the perfect crusty baguette.

Tia Pol is a place for people with a passion for food. It is simple spot, devoid of atmospheric distractions, with a marvelous menu of classic Spanish dishes. The kitchen must be populated by magical elves in order to churn out such remarkably flavorful and well-executed plates not only with so little space but also in so little time! Unfortunately, one of the down side’s of such an intimate and popular spot is the impossibility of nabbing a table during peak times without a significant wait. The way around it? Stopping by for lunch or brunch, calling ahead to see if they’ll take a reservation that night, or sacrificing your normal mealtime for something very early or very late! Regardless of how you strategize your visit to Tia Pol, just make sure it happens because it’s worth every minute you wait and every penny you pay.

Perfect For: post-gallery hopping wining and dining, first dates, lunch on your lonesome, Spanish wine aficienados, West Chelsea residents, an intimate and quirky brunch

Tia Pol on Urbanspoon

Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria: Another Mediocre Addition to McNally’s Middling Empire

Given what’s about to be said in this review, it may seem like I have some sort of personal vendetta against Keith McNally, the restauranteur behind Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria, given my vocal irritation with some of his establishments, most notably Schiller’s Liquor Bar. To cut to the chase, Pulino’s is exactly like every other McNally restaurant: mediocre food, crap service, heavily fabricated atmosphere. In fact, it’s so freakishly similar to his other Lower East Side eatery, Schiller’s, that I’m convinced they’re really just one in the same, despite an Italian menu at one and a straightforward American one at the other.

Pulino’s is (depressingly) completely lacking in any originality. It is almost garish, evidenced by the obnoxious oversized red neon sign emblazoned on both exterior sides of the corner spot. The medium-to-large dining room on the corner of Bowery and Houston is merely a reincarnation of Schiller’s: exposed brick, tiled floors, bric-a-brac-y metal furniture, backlit bottles of booze on multiple walls, stacked high to the ceiling. A vast array of untouched international newspapers and magazines are stacked in racks near the door, an additional touch of so-called charm that just strikes me as pretentious. Perhaps the most beautiful element of the restaurant, the large paned industrial-style windows, is the design’s saving grace, distracting diners with lush sunlight during lunch and pretty satisfying people-watching at night. The look of the restaurant is meant to evoke an old Italian pizzeria and yet, instead, it is a case study in the new Manhattan-style ‘chain’ restaurant, developed and executed by professional restaurant creators who’ve lost all their inspiration.

The menu is classic Italian. Expect traditional antipasti: baked ricotta, prosciutto, a variety of cheeses, mozzarella burrata, roasted olives. The baked ricotta is one of the shining stars, served creamy and just salty enough in a rustic crockpot with juicy and sweet roasted grapes and crusty Italian bread. Salads are also on the menu, in both appetizer and entree portions. Expect seasonal ingredients, sometimes Italian and sometimes not: roasted pumpkin and cabbage salad with pecorino and pancetta, roasted broccoli and hen of the woods mushrooms with escarole and parmigiano, seafood salad with roasted peppers, and an Italian rendition of salad nicoise. They are hearty, fragrant, and just about average.

In my opinion, it’s silly to visit a pizzeria without trying the pizza. Pulino’s can’t hold a candle to Motorino or Donatella, but at the heart of it, the pizza has a pretty tasty crust, a victory over the certainly mediocre toppings. Chewy and crusty in all the right places, with a slight char and a few bubbles, the crust is multidimensional and satisfying. The toppings options are dizzying, offering 12 different varieties of pies + a plethora of additional toppings. There’s a traditional Bianca pie, a mozzarella, the quattro formaggi, the classic Margherita, salsiccia, funghi, meatball pie, and a few funkier choices like spinach and egg, black cabbage and salame, or potato and egg. The quattro formaggi is gooey and bland; somehow, with four different and bold cheeses (mozzarella, fontina, gorgonzola, and grana), the flavor falls flat into a muddled mess. The polpettine pie, with beef meatballs and pickled green chilis, is a disaster, despite being the recommended by the server. The meatballs are small and dry, utterly devoid of moisture, and the pickled green chilis are unspeakably wrong on this pizza. Ick, ugh, and meh.

On top of all of this, the service is just plain strange. My party had three servers over the course of lunch, who kept repeating each other. One server made the dastardly mistake of recommending the polpettine pizza and the other gave me a water glass with orange juice pulp floating in it. Furthermore, the kitchen is slow and bad with timing. With 15 minutes elapsed between the delivery of my meal and my friend’s meal, the meal pacing was awkward, to say the least.

In short, Pulino’s is a hot mess. Let me count the ways: 1) unoriginal and charmless decor, 2) chain restaurant feel, 3) bland pizza in the East Coast’s pizza capital, and 4) confused and confusing table service. It’s hard to recommend a place that clearly seems to be surviving only on McNally’s pedigree and unfathomably blogger hype. Just skip it and head a few blocks North to Motorino, or better yet, across town to Donatella.

Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria on Urbanspoon