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Posts from the ‘east village’ Category

Bento Burger: Where Anime, Americana, and Frat Bar Meet

There’s no way around it – Bento Burger, a new Japanese-American ‘pub’ in the Southern East Village, is a weird place. Part American fratty dive bar and part Japanese-inspired pub, this ‘restaurant’ suffers from multiple personality disorder, is punishingly loud, and appeals to the post-fraternity youth that troll the Lower East Side and East Village. That being said, Bento Burger has a quirky party-hard vibe ideal for setting the mood on a big night out and some seriously great food.

The narrow space on 2nd Street off First Avenue is not easily missed; its presence is announced by neon graffiti and tall brightly-colored banners covered in Japanese characters and anime cartoons. It’s a slice of technicolor Tokyo on an otherwise dark and moody block. Inside, Bento Burger is a futuristic and industrial space, a bit grimy, and unfortunately affected by the frat bar smell of spilled beer. At the front, along one wall, is a scarlet-hued bar with crimson sheets hanging over the bar stools. Along the opposite wall are red leather booths, each with it’s own tray of sauces, chopsticks, and menus (a la Friendly’s, for those who remember) and each surrounded by ‘artful’ graffiti murals. A jukebox is parked in the back, manipulated more often than not by perhaps too-inebriated chicks who just cannot live without Katy Perry for one more minute.

Despite the more bar than restaurant atmosphere, the ‘Japanese roadhouse’ fare is delicious. The menu features classic American bar-fare, dressed up with some fancy ingredients and inspired by Japanese flavors. Think: chicken wings, fried calamari, spring rolls, and an array of scrumptious burgers. The ‘Hambuguu’ burger, a sumptuous blend of beef and sirloin, is rich and flavorful, especially when topped with the spicy wasabi aioli. The Thai Chicken burger is remarkable; the patty is actually ground chicken, not a piece of grilled marinated chicken breast, and is incredibly juicy; the spicy papaya relish piled on top is sweet, spicy, and savory all at once. Perhaps the best food delivered by the kitchen though came in the form of side dishes. The wasabi mashed potatoes are creamy and fluffy with a strong but not overpowering hot wasabi flavor; the sweet potato fries are some of the best I’ve ever had – cut thick, the perfect blend of crispy and soft, and doused in salt, pepper and what had to have been truffle oil. Less successful yet still tasty were the tempura onion rings. While they lacked in that crisp crunch I long for in fried food, the thick onions were soft and sweet and the accompanying wasabi aioli made up for the lack of flavor in the tempura batter.

All in all, Bento Burger is ideal for a raging good time (for example: a big group celebrating the end of final exams) – the food is delicious, just greasy enough, and packed with intense flavors, there is a pretty impressive cocktail selection, and after knocking a few back, I could imagine how difficult it would be to ignore the jukebox’s siren song. If you know what you’re getting yourself into, the low prices and good food ensure that you’ll get a great bang for your buck. Keep in mind though, no matter how you spin it, the slightly grimy/party-hard atmosphere and friendly yet frankly incompetent table service is terrible for intimate gatherings or, god forbid, dates.

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Jane’s Sweet Buns: Buns All Liquored Up

Jane’s Sweet Buns is a new bakery on the Eastern reaches of St. Marks Place. In a city replete with ‘cupcakeries,’ cookie shops and, of course, cheesecake purveyors, it has a unique perspective on baked goods – infusing a Southerner’s love of bourbon and cocktails with classic sweets like sticky buns, cinnamon rolls, and tarts. Jane’s Sweet Buns’ unusual boozy spin on baking certainly has something to do with the influence of owner Ravi DeRossi and his partner Jane Danger, the mixologist at nearby cocktail den Cienfuegos. And the bakery’s distinct quirkiness extends not only to its alcoholic confections but also to its bubblegum pink-mixed-with-gothic-decor interior.

The bakery is reminiscent of an old school sweets shop. Cake stands displaying treats and tarts perch atop glass cases lined with trays of sticky buns; gingham curtains hang in the windows and the walls are painted in bright cotton candy colors of pink, lime green, turquoise and sherbert orange; outside, a hot pink painted metal bench, of the sort found in English country gardens, beckons patrons to sit in clement weather. However, despite all this girly sweet decor, a twisted edge punks up this Southern-inspired spot; moaning and screeching alternative rock blares in the background and the tattooed ‘gal’ that served me was a refreshing mix of sugar and spice; gothic renditions of retro posters, paintings, and portraits hang on the walls; and of course, hidden beneath the sugary glaze of the delicately-displayed bun is the boozy bite of bourbon.

The goods at Jane’s are pretty tasty. They’re not orgasmic or the type of baked good I’d dream of for weeks on end, but they’re perfect for a late-night treat or to tote along to a house-party. My personal favorite is the Strawberry Fix, a sweet bun stuffed with strawberries, lemon and sugar, soaked with Aperol liqueur, and glazed with berry cream cheese frosting – it has got some serious zing and tastes genuinely fruity. Also great is the Rum Runner, a sticky bun with cinnamon, brown sugar, nutmeg and raisins that is positively doused in aged rum – it tastes like Rum Raisin ice cream transformed into a baked good. Unfortunately, the Old-Fashioned, the bourbon-based bun for which I had the highest expectations, was not so successful. Despite the generous topping of candied pecans and hints of vanilla, neither the advertised bourbon nor the angostura bitters came through enough to save this bun from blandness. On the non-alcoholic side of things (and yes, non-alcoholic goodies do exist at Jane’s Sweet Buns for those wishing to abstain), the savory tartlettes are delicious. It’s hard not to love thick slices of bacon and melted cheddar cheese stuffed inside a flaky buttery pastry crust – its the holy trinity of decadence (pork, cheese, bread) altogether. It get’s even better when you add apple butter,  blue cheese and pecans to the bacon.

Jane’s has 3 barstools in the window and a hot pink bench outside – it’s more for take-out or quick bursts of enjoyment than for sitting and leisurely noshing. But that arrangement seems just fine for the neighborhood, where inebriated youths regularly like to congregate after dinner hours. Though empty on a Friday afternoon, I can easily imagine a scenario where Jane’s becomes a late-night mecca for the quirky NYU students sure to stroll St. Marks after too many beers in the East Village.

Perfect For: NYU students, the drunk munchies, a different breakfast treat for the office, being indulgent

Jane's Sweet Buns on Urbanspoon

Hearth: Italian Soul Food Priced for Manhattan’s Socialites

The word hearth evokes images of home, of warmth, of family clustering around the fire, of Grandma’s fantastic cooking. Chef Marco Canora’s East Village restaurant, Hearth, is about as cozy as you can get without making the trek home to your parents’ house and the perfect venue for Canora to showcase his scrumptious Italian-American soul food. Made famous by his recent appearance on the Food Network’s cooking competition show “The Next Iron Chef,” Canora is known for injecting his personal philosophy into his food and his restaurant: offer ‘enlightened hospitality’, cook with care, don’t waste, don’t spoil, save what you can. It all sounds basic for a gourmet restaurant, yet Hearth shows you the differences between ‘service’ and ‘hospitality,’ ‘cooking with care’ and ‘cooking with skill.’

Hearth is on the corner of 12th and 1st Avenue, in the heart of the East Village’s dining nerve center. You’ll find nearby the Momofuku restaurants, cult favorites like Veselka and Artichoke Pizza, foodie havens Motorino, Pomme Frites, and This Little Piggy, and neighborhood joints like Westville East, The Redhead, and Ost Cafe. The corner spot is just plain lovely, a charming blend of Italian rusticity and elegant modern dining. Along one side of the dining room is the requisite exposed brick wall, Canora’s is left unadorned; on the other side, warm burnt orange panels that lend a seductive and flattering amber glow over patrons. The entire dining room is designed with acoustics in mind – clever sound-absorbent ceiling paneling, a smooth floor that mysteriously seems to mute noise, heavy curtains – and because of this, the restaurant has a pleasant buzz that never seems to get out of control.
I cannot get over Hearth’s menu (in a really really good way). It features Canora’s distinctive soulful take on Italian comfort food through a long list of first courses, main courses, a few large portions to share, and a 7-course tasting menu. Although options do change seasonally, it seems like winter’s the best time to go when the flavors are bold and comforting and the food warms you from the inside out. For example, when the wind chill is down to 18 degrees, how can you possibly say no to Canora’s “chicken soup,” which is clearly not your average chicken noodle soup, served with tender chicken dumplings, nutty farro, and a wonderfully savory broth. The red-wine braised octopus is rich and decadent with a fistful of flavors, including an addictive lemon aioli, earthy potato, and black olive. For the more adventurous, there is the sweetbread piccata, silky with potato puree and mushrooms, or the festival of ingredients that accompany the grilled sardines (read: fig, pear, almonds, black radish, and spindles of frisee).

For main courses, just about everything seems to be good. The pastas are dreamy. The pumpkin gemelli is luscious – rich, smooth, and creamy with a classic brown butter sage sauce kicked up with crunchy bitter little bites of amaretti (Italian almond macarons). Equally wonderful is the ‘spaghetti and meatballs,’ made with perfectly-cooked homemade noodles and the most decadent veal and ricotta meatballs ever. They are so delicious that I could eat them every day, for as long as Canora would serve them, or at least until I make myself sick. If you’re in the mood for something more substantial, the roasted lola duck is lovely, juicy and tender with crunchy red quinoa, sweet pomegranate, and smooth earthy turnip confit – a festival of flavors!

Hearth is wonderful sort of place: warm, cozy, and elegant with hearty and delicious food and truly congenial service. It’s expensive and oddly suited for the East Village, yet regardless of its ill-selected neighborhood, Hearth is a restaurant any Italian food lover should try.
Perfect For: well-heeled East Villagers, showing your parents around downtown, special occasions for hip young things, Italian cuisine connoisseurs, impressing a first date, Valentine’s Day romance

Hearth on Urbanspoon

Vandaag: Dutch food is back in New York!

Some of the first food in the early days of New York City was Dutch, prepared by the predominantly Knickerbocker community on Manhattan Island. As New York grew and diversified first through the immigration of the English, Irish, French and German populations from Europe and then through the Chinese movement from the West Coast to the East, the prevalence of Dutch food declined, so significantly that it is virtually extinct in Manhattan. Vandaag, a sleek and ultra-mod restaurant in the East Village, is bringing back the Dutch.

The corner spot on 2nd Avenue and 6th Street sticks out from its neighbors; where brick low-rise buildings with cutesy storefronts reign supreme, Vandaag’s slick charcoal and completely unadorned look with wide picture windows is a chic change of pace. The restaurant inside is remarkably spacious, with high ceilings, slimline furniture, and an appealing neutral color palette. It is contemporary, devoid of trinkets and kitsch, sparse, and casual. Space is everywhere – space between tables, space around the bar, wide central spaces; the effect is a refreshing roominess, infrequently found while dining out downtown.

The food is modern and Dutch, a most likely unfamiliar cuisine to most. Think meat and potatoes, mutton pie, notes of juniper berry, a sweet sauce called sloop; the flavors are predominantly earthy. Even if you aren’t used to eating Dutch, the menu is understandable with recognizable dishes like a romaine salad, beef short ribs, pork chop, gravlax, and various fishes. The mutton pie starter is a nod to the food of Dutchmen past, served in a small single-serving atop a nest of dark green leafy microgreens. The pastry is close to perfect: ultra-flaky, buttery, golden brown, with both soft chewy spots and crispy corners. Inside, the mutton filling is minced and shredded, salty and well-seasoned, utterly satisfying on a frigid winter night. On the lighter side are a variety of salads: romaine served grand in shooting stalks with a bitter and salty herring vinaigrette, kale with sweet onions, arugula with lobster claws. Though ordering a salad to start is not my favorite way to begin a meal, Vandaag’s are unusual and flavorful enough to warrant skipping over other tantalizing appetizers like the traditional bitterballen (an oxtail-stuffed croquet) or a classic preparation of gravlax with dill and watercress.

The entrees are rich and unusual. Beef short ribs, an American classic, are braised for so long they just melt in your mouth, no knife needed; though the quality of the meat speaks for itself, flavors are enhanced with a mellow artichoke puree. The grilled quail is exceptional, cooked such that the charcoal flavor from the grill lingers on the tender meat. Served with crispy wild rice, mint, and mini sweet & sour brussels sprouts, the dish just exploded with different tastes; it was sweet, savory and salty all at once as well as texturally interesting. Without going too far over the top, it was an artfully-created dish. Though dishes change seasonally, expect offerings like Spanich mackerel with grain mustard sauce and both pebble and sweet potatoes, a vegetarian dish featuring the best of the season’s crop, the Vandaag ‘ham’ burger topped with Gouda and a mess of charred onions, or a pork chop with a dousing of mead, slices of pear and toasted barley.

Vandaag is a wonder. It sticks out like a sore thumb, ultra modern and bright yellow, along 2nd Avenue. And yet, despite looking so out of place, Vandaag is right at home in the East Village, where restaurants touting cuisines of all cultures thrive. This Dutch favorite of New York Times critic Sam Sifton isn’t cozy or ‘cute.’ Instead, the focus is on how exciting the food is, the quality of it, the joy of eating something unexpected. And it all goes down even better with one of the slap-you-in-the-face good Genever cocktails or a selection from the extraordinary beer menu, featuring many a Dutch favorite that’ll have you under the table before you can say Sloop!

Perfect For: doing something different, meeting a Scandinavian boytoy, discrete dates, sampling Genever cocktails, foodies or impressing foodies

Vandaag on Urbanspoon

Cacio e Vino: Why I Love Italian Comfort Food

I knew as soon as I walked into Cacio e Vino, just another small restaurant on that strip of 2nd Avenue between 3rd and 6th with back-to-back casual eateries, that I would adore it, even if the food were mediocre. This cozy Italian spot is authentically charming; with a brick pizza oven burning away in one corner of the exposed brick-encased dining room and all sorts of slightly silly kitsch serving as decoration, you can help but feel warm and welcome at Cacio e Vino.

The restaurant is small and intimate. Simple dark wood tables are stuffed into every possible space and the worn brick walls double as a wine-rack, with waiters and waitresses reaching above diners to pick out their requested bottle. Finger-painted lamps shed a soft golden glow over the crowd, a homey cross between neighborhood couples and NYU students that are “in the know.” The vibe is comfortingly homespun, like the old-world kitchen of your Italian grandmother.

Cacio e Vino serves straightforward Italian comfort food. The prices ending in .95 on the menu had me worrying that I’d walked into a scaled-down Olive Garden, but the kitchen ended up preparing hearty and acceptable food that ranged from exactly what everyone one ‘needed’ to rather mediocre. A vast array of thin-crust pizzas are offered as well as typical antipasti, a selection of pastas, and traditional Italian secondi. The Arancini, saffron risotto balls, are reinterpreted from the size of golf balls to that of baby’s head and are stuffed with a savory blend of beef ragu and peas. Essentially, if you like fried things, cheesy things, and meaty things, the Arancini at Cacio e Vino is your nirvana. The grilled octopus was delicate with thin tendrils of meat arranged neatly with a tangy orange and fennel salad. A veal dish, comprised of small lumps of lightly breaded meat on skewers, was a touch too sweet to be enjoyable, yet showed a deft hand in the kitchen by avoiding turning veal breast into an over-breaded mess. The monkfish special was an alluring fish stew with an addictive tomato-based broth and well-cooked fish, a surprisingly refined preparation for such a comfort food-focused establishment. The pasta with wild boar sauce was simple and satisfying, heavy on salt, oil, and marinated boar meat, and exactly the sort of basic comfort food you just need every now and then.

Cacio e Vino is your quintessential neighborhood Italian spot, with exaggerated charm. The wait staff has over-the-top Italian accents that walk the fine line between laughable and intriguing; the dining area is so cozy that you almost want to change into pajamas and nurse a mug of tea; the food is hearty and heavy on the classic aphrodisiacs (cheese, chocolate, red wine, red meat), inducing a comfortable and welcome food coma. Cacio e Vino is a welcome break from the often over-wrought nouvelle cuisine at ‘foodie’ or fancy restaurants, and the ideal backdrop for catching up with old friends, dating, double-dating, and just enjoying good company.

Perfect For: wine-fueled conversations, cheese lovers, the cash-strapped, pizza aficionados, fans of al fresco dining, pregaming the East Village game, inexpensive decadence

Cacio E Vino on Urbanspoon

Xi’an Famous Foods: A Noodle Anyone Can Love

Xi’an Famous Foods is one of many noodle shops in Manhattan, yet because of it’s extraordinary brand of hand-pulled noodles, it has developed a rabid fan-base with notable followers like the New York Times’ restaurant critic Sam Sifton. Now with a storefront on St. Mark’s in the East Village, this Flushing-based mini-chain focuses on serving the unique and self-professed ‘atypical Chinese food’ of Xi’an.

The East Village outpost is tiny with just 2 tables and bar seats for no more than 10. Barely more than a take-out counter, the look is sparse and minimal with uneven metal tables, a smooth wooden eating bar, and mini-flat screen TVs that feature videos of noodle-making in noodle shops in China. One woman handles the cash register, the packing of to-go bags, and the part of the kitchen that churns out phenomenally tasty lamb and pork burgers. In the back is another hand-making noodles, nursing savory sauces, and serving up the famous noodle soups and noodle plates. It’s a small enterprise, yet guaranteed to be packed at all hours of the day, from open to close. Want to beat the line? Call in your order ahead and shoot in front of the masses waiting patiently in a queue.

Ordered from a picture menu tacked to one wall and served on floppy Styrofoam plates, the food is simple and savory. The most popular items offered are what Xi’an Famous Foods has become known for – the hand-pulled noodles. Not the loveliest noodles you’ll ever see, they are served raggedy, torn and clumpy, hot in a slop of salty, oily and spicy sauce with torn bits of tender meat or in a brothy umami-packed soup. In short, though unlike any noodles I’ve had before, Xi’an’s hand-pulled variety are phenomenal. Chewy, hearty, rich, satisfying, and amusingly unwieldy (plan to transform your napkin into a bib), these noodles don’t even need the cumin and chili oil-packed sauces provided – those are just the icing on the cake.

Aside from the hand-pulled noodles, Xi’an Famous Foods also serves up astoundingly good renditions on burgers, served on flattened oily bread and stuffed with sweet marinated pork or spicy cumin lamb, cold ‘skin’ noodles, and unusual soups and salads (lamb offal soup? spicy pig pudding salad with garlic?). Recommended dishes include the top-notch Savory Cumin Lamb Hand-Pulled Noodles, the Stewed Pork Burger, the Pork Zha Jiang Hand-Pulled Noodles, and the Spicy and Tingly Beef Hand-Pulled Soup Noodles.

Xi’an Famous Foods is some of the tastiest cheap food in Manhattan. Just $9 can get you a pork burger, hand-pulled noodles, and a drink – where else can you get so much grub that tastes so delicious for so little money? Skeptics of Xi’an Famous Food’s need only to look to the line that can curl around the block at peak hours – everyone from yuppies to hipsters to greying NYU professors to Wall Street suits dashing just uptown for a taste waits patiently for a little bit of noodle magic.

Perfect For: thin wallets, noodle fanatics, a taste of Flushing without the subway ride, student lunch breaks, super savory takeout

Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

Northern Spy Food Co: A Home Cook’s Dreamhouse

Northern Spy Food Co (yes, it’s a mouthful) is sweet. Not Dude, Where’s My Car? sweet, not saccharin sweet; sweet like your grandmother’s kitchen, like the inside of the perfect apple pie, like the smell of hay bales and freshly cut grass. Named after a New York variety of heirloom apples, Northern Spy Food Co is part-restaurant, part-local food product purveyor. The entire concept for Northern Spy rests on serving and selling the best regional products from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic; in short, it’s a locavore’s nirvana.

The tiny East Village restaurant is a bit off the beaten track, on 12th Street between A and B, yet it has a loyal following, both of locals and those who travel across Manhattan for the fresh market-driven food. The eco-friendly space, developed from as many recycled, reclaimed, and repurposed materials as possible, seats just about 30 between the square front room and back bar area. Even if you were to look closely, you’d be hard-pressed to notice that the dining room tables are taken from bowling alley lanes and the white-washing paneling is merely refurbished lumber yard scraps. Light fixtures hail from Ebay and vintage stores; the wallpaper seems familiar, probably taken straight from my grandmother’s living room; even a chicken coop is re-used, now housing the market’s formidable pickle selection. Perhaps you find this type of give-and-take decor kitschy or raggedy, but at Northern Spy, the final product is purely charming.
In such a homey and comfortable environment, you could expect nothing less than superlative comfort food. And that’s exactly what Northern Spy Food Co provides, with distinction. Based on what you’d find at neighborhood farm stands any given day, the true-to-America food is nostalgic: cool and creamy Chilled Cauliflower Soup, al dente Risotto with zucchini, turnips and marscapone, Roasted Chicken in lemon and natural jus, juicy heritage pork Meatballs in pecorino and marinara, chicken thigh and poached egg sandwich, dressed with sharp chimichurri sauce. The menu changes frequently, according to what is available, and specials abound; yet, the soul and the culture of the food at Northern Spy remains the same: classic, memorable, fresh, simple.
Recommended dishes include a remarkable gnocchi, seeped in creamy tomato sauce, served with crunchy baby peas, and caramelized slightly for a golden crunchy exterior, and the sweet and addictive peach pie, topped with funky homemade burnt caramel ice cream. The Freekeh risotto is for those seeking earthy soulfood – a whole wheat rice grain cooked al dente in clothbound cheddar and silky marscapone and surrounded by sliced zucchini and sweet turnips; it was rich, fulfilling, and the epitome of farm fresh cooking. While, I rarely order salads in restaurants as they infrequently hold true to the personality of the spot, Northern Spy’s varieties wow; they’re not your typical waistline-conscious salads and come loaded with fruits, vegetables, nuts, roots, and various proteins. Come prepared to order one to start – you won’t be disappointed!
Northern Spy Food Co is, in a way, just another farm-to-table neighborhood spot in the East Village, yet it rises above its (growing) competition with beautifully-executed cuisine, a warm and inviting atmosphere without an ounce of pretension, and a lovely diverse menu with something for everyone. It’s not hard to label Northern Spy as something special, for it glows warmly with the cozy nostalgia of American country cooking.
Perfect For: a dinner with friends in the neighbhorhood, cheap & casual date night, homesick Americans, pie lovers, the locavore movement, vegetarians dining with omnivores
Northern Spy Food Co. on Urbanspoon