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Posts from the ‘european transplant’ Category

Salinas: Great Tapas, Just The Right Amount of Euro

Although Chelsea isn’t necessarily my ‘new’ neighborhood anymore (hard to imagine it’s been 6 months!), I still thoroughly enjoy exploring all the surprisingly good dining options in the area. Since its opening this summer, neighborhood newbie Salinas has peaked my interest, mostly because of its gorgeous-looking back garden. As it turns out, this back garden is indeed lovely and Salinas as a whole is a quite pleasant restaurant.

The sleek space on 9th Avenue has a sheen to it – everything seems shiny and new, crisp and clean. Both the dining room and the back garden are dominated by soothing sultry shades of deep blue; luxe fabrics and Brazilian woods abound; mirrors glint on the rough limestone walls; exotic lanterns shed soft light over the remarkably attractive international crowd. The main dining room opens seamlessly to the enchanting garden patio where the inky velvet chairs mirror the inky night sky and the glint of flame from a stone fireplace reflects the white lights of satellites, airplanes and perhaps even stars passing overhead; lush potted plants are crowded into corners, sit prettily on the fireplace’s mantle, and curl around the tops of lanterns. Salinas is warm, in a sultry sort of way. If you let the lilting cacophony of Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese waft over you and picture that the grimy New York apartment building peeking through the retractable roof is actually a palm grove, you could just imagine that you’re no longer in Manhattan, but instead on the Mediterranean coast, in Monaco or Juan les Pins.

The kitchen prepares Spanish tapas inspired by the boisterous communities lining the Mediterranean coast from Spain to Italy. Unlike what is typically offered at trendy “Euro” eateries from the Upper East Side to Tribeca, the food at Salinas is mostly marvelous. Like tapas should be, the dishes are bold and flavorful bites – assertively salty and savory, sweet at times, bitter when advertised. Culled from a long menu of delicious-sounding plates, my favorites include the simply prepared shishito peppers, lightly fried and dusted with crystalline grains of sea salt; the crispy quails, delicate yet pink and meaty, wrapped in high-quality bacon; the ‘crujiente mahones,’ an airy and crispy flatbread rubbed with honey, thyme and sea salt and topped with perfect nubs of salty dry aged Mahon cheese; the sinful bite-size veal cheek croquetas paired with sweet roasted apples. The food comes out quick and adds up quicker; sometimes, the food is so tasty that it’s hard to stop ordering more plates for the table – I found myself asking for just one more order of the croquetas, for the road …

Salinas is lovely addition to a stretch of Ninth Avenue on a restaurant and nightlife hot streak. Nearby are the new Tippler, Top Chef alum Hung’s new restaurant Catch, speakeasy wannabe Bathtub Gin, and Southern favorite Tipsy Parson. The setting is hard not to like, especially if you’re lucky enough to sit in the garden; it’s luxurious in a quiet way and always buzzing, even when it’s half-full. The noise can get overwhelming if you’re with a larger group or near one, but a glass of sangria quickly sets the nerves at ease. If the setting isn’t your cup of tea, the food most likely will be – the flavors and ingredients are familiar, approachable, and expertly manipulated into traditional Spanish tapas.

Perfect For: first dates, a cheaper trip to the Mediterranean, your “Euro” buddies, a glass of wine and light bites, al fresco dining, Chelsea natives

Salinas on Urbanspoon

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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

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

Il Buco: New York to the Bone

On a recent Thursday night, my good friend Danielle and I came to the conclusion that places like Noho’s Il Buco sum up succinctly what is so special about New York. It’s one of those restaurants that I get nervous writing about, perenially unsure of whether I’ll do it justice.

The antique store cum restaurant encapsulates the throbbing energy and trend-defying style that New York is known for. Thebrainchild of film-maker Donna Leonard and her boyfriend Alberto Avalle, Il Buco has managed to be ‘on-trend’ for almost two decades now without pretention or any apparent effort. Il Buco was and remains to be a trend-setter, opening in now uber-chic Noho 16 years ago when there was no cute neighborhood name and Lafayette needed some serious cleaning up.

The much-heralded restaurant is known for its bucolic yet sexy look and top-notch ingredient-driven cuisine. The main dining room is dimly lit with a soft golden glow that mercifully pours over everyone; rustic wooden furniture painted green and red yet since faded with age, shoots of fresh flowers, pottery-laden shelves, scattered wine bottles, copper pots hanging from hooks or stuffed in corners, and eclectic wall art transform a rather cramped room with low ceilings into a magical country kitchen straight out of Peter Rabbit or The Secret Garden. A small sidewalk patio is surprisingly lush with potted plants and window boxes, green garden furniture, and twinkling candles – you’d be hard-pressed to find somewhere more idyllic in the middle of downtown Manhattan.

Il Buco defies the odds by not only being a downtown Manhattan hotspot but also by offering truly wonderful eclectic European cuisine that feels neither tired and passe nor overdone. The menu is inspired by seasonal ingredients, by whatever the chef can find in the market that day; and thus, expect an enormous variety in menu items as weeks pass and seasons change. Menu items draw flavors and techniques from Italy, Spain, France, and other parts of the Mediterranean. Expect tapas plates ranging from buttery bison carpaccio to a citrus-infused wild sea bass crudo to a radicchio pizzetta and inventive pan-fried Hawaiian king prawns. With 12 to 15 mouth-watering options, you could just stay on the small plates-style appetizers menu all night long.

The main entrees menu operates like a set of specials, rotating daily to feature that morning’s bounty. This too makes choice near impossible with 4-5 pastas, 4-5 hot dishes, and a few teaser ‘starters.’ The asparagus risotto was creamy, salty, savory, and large enough to feed an army. So addictively delicious, I lapped it up, wiping my plate clean despite the gargantuan portion provided. The ‘pollo’, a half roast chicken, was tender and juicy, albeit difficult to get at with all the bones. On a bed of diverse vegetables, nuts and dried fruit, it offered a little bit of everything for those seeking a soul-satisfying and simple meal. The highlight of the meal though was by far the most petite dish, the wild sea bass crudo, served sashimi-style with bright and crisp medallions of tangerine, agrumato and a light zingy horseradish sauce; it was beautiful, complex, challenging, and just so smooth.

Il Buco’s got mojo; it’s slinky and seductive while still maintaining a charming accessibility; the food is impossibly fresh and executed with skill and sophistication. In short, Il Buco is the full package, perfect for date night, ladies night out, after-work drinks, and family gatherings alike.

Il Buco on Urbanspoon

Belcourt: Failstamp.

Belcourt’s got all the goods and none of the delivery. This charming-looking bistro on the corner of E.4th and 2nd Avenue features a tempting menu, beautiful breezy open-air decor, expansive sidewalk patio space, a casual cool clientele, and a small bar perfect for lunch-time lounging. And yet, the food at Belcourt can be described as nothing short of awful.
If the totally unpretentious yet uber-stylish Parisian vibe doesn’t pull you in, the casual wraparound sidewalk patio right on 2nd Avenue in the East Village is sure to. You can’t get a more ideal location for a pre night-out dinner during the warmer months than Belcourt. The vintage look is done perfectly without seeming over done – slightly scraped wooden tables, antique mirrors, rich cherry red leather bar stools, and Deco light fixtures that shed a pale white glow over hipster-chic diners evoke brasseries along Rue St. Germain.
And yet, none of this style could possibly make up for the terrible food. The menu features seemingly inventive twists on traditional French brasserie cuisine – though the offerings change seasonally, expect such options as a rotating cheese, charcuterie and oysters bar, stuffed ravioli based on market available ingredients, grilled hanger steak, roast chicken, and a burger. Everything from the meager bone marrow tacos to the out-of-a-can roast cauliflower soup to the too-fatty-to-eat lamb and stingy grilled octopus starter ranged from disappointing to inedible. The bone marrow tacos were impossible to eat with very little actual marrow to work with, and the grilled octopus was chewy, undersalted, and just too small; the roast cauliflower soup was more of a thick puree with unappetizing pools of oil on top; the lamb was so fatty that my friend Teddy couldn’t find enough meat to eat, and the Persian spice-rubbed roast chicken lacked any true flavor. The beef burger was easily the only highlight of the night (how hard is it to really screw up a burger) with a generous topping of melty blue cheese and well-seasoned fries.
Perhaps bad food would have been forgiven in tandem with the charming atmosphere and some good cocktails, but unfortunately each of the 4 or 5 house drinks we tried were equally as awful as the food. The Manhattan cocktail might as well have been cheap bottom-shelf whisky on the rocks – the sweet vermouth must have been forgotten; the Sangria was acceptable yet gave me such horrific stomach pains that my boyfriend had to run across the street to the 24hr deli for Pepto; the Moscow Mule tasted decent, if you have a personal fetish for ginger, and the Vin d’Orange just failed on the flavor combination front (grappa, white wine, lemon, and orange aren’t great partners).
Belcourt’s got a great premise and an even better location, yet take my word for it, you don’t want to be stuck eating here; your $35-40 can be put to much better use at neighborhood restaurants such as Dirt Candy, Graffiti, Motorino, Luke’s Lobster, or even The Smith.
Perfect For: wine drinking on the patio, cheese & oysters, outdoor boozing, people-watching, hobnobbing with hipsters
Belcourt on Urbanspoon

Bistro de la Gare: Take a Ride to this Bistro

Bistro de la Gare holds an unassuming spot on Hudson St at the corner of Jane, tucked next to another new restaurant, Mole. The space is clean and almost plain with few adornments, white table-clothed tables, a slow circulating ceiling fan, bright red banquettes, bright lighting, and a small espresso bar to be turned real bar once the liquor license comes through. No muss, no fuss, Bistro de la Gare is downright easy-going.

The real attraction in this otherwise simple restaurant is the tantalizing and carefully constructed Mediterranean menu. Chefs (and friends) Maryann Terillo and Elisa Sarno pull from traditional French and Italian recipes (think: lasagna, cassoulet, and chicken cacciatore) to create their inspired and locally-sourced comfort food. Simple yet elegant presentations and plenty of seasonings dominate menu highlights such as crispy rabbit cooked in buttermilk-sage and grilled baby octopus with cannellini beans and a potato cake (my two personal favorite dishes of the evening). Well-portioned side dishes like roasted Yukon potatoes with caramelized onions and broccoli rabe add an extra tasty kick to the otherwise beautifully-balanced dishes.

The dessert menu is worth a gander, jam-packed with fresh and indulgent options. Classics like affogato with vanilla gelato and a chocolate budino with rosemary-goat cheese gelato evoke the perfect Italian nightcap, while more contemporary options like the olive oil cake with winter fruits and roasted pears with red wine glaze peaked my curiosity. With little room to sample all the choices, I’ll have to return for each and every tempting sweet treat.

Bistro de la Gare brings top-notch home cookin’ to an already saturated West Village dining market. Recette opened a mere 3 blocks away; Cafe Cluny and Tartine, both neighborhood favorites, are both just around the corner; hot hipster hubs such as the New French, the little owl, and Joseph Leonard draw crowds in the ‘hood, and Italian institutions old and new dell’anima, corsino, Sant Ambroeus, and L’Artusi linger nearby. Without expounding too far, the competition facing Bistro de la Gare is clear (and fierce).

However, I can say with confidence that this lovely new spot is sure to become a local favorite. The service is friendly and congenial, with the chef often coming out to help out and to greet guests. The food marries elegant and sophisticated cooking with simple homey savory flavors. Seasonings are used abundantly and the heavy European bistro fare takes it all immensely well – bring on that salt! Perfect for dinner with family, a long languid wine-infused meal with friends, or a cozy date with a loved one, Bistro de la Gare makes all feel at home.

NOTE: a BYOB until a liquor license is obtained, be sure to bring your own bottle of wine or to pick one up around the corner at my favorite wine stop Manley’s!

SIDENOTE: The new owners have brilliantly set-up a blog outlining the construction of the restaurant, their experiences running a restaurant, and changes to the menu! Follow it here: http://www.bistrodelagarenyc.com/blog/

Bisto De La Gare on Urbanspoon

Tea & Sympathy: Jolly Good

I made the most remarkable discovery today: Tea & Sympathy. Now, I realize that this marvelous English joint is neither new nor newly-discovered, but I had never taken the time to scope out the scene before today. Let me tell you, as a lover of all things British and a possessor of a UK passport myself, I was overjoyed to find a food & goods spot entirely devoted to the often over-looked and easily criticized cuisine of England.

The menu reads like a verifiable laundry list of English classics: bangers & mash, baked beans on toast, afternoon tea with scones and clotted cream, cucumber & cream cheese finger sandwiches, shepherd’s pie, scotch egg, steak & guinness pie, and, for Sunday dinner, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. The line outside on weekends and the quality of the food itself speaks volumes to the sheer variety of scrumptious dishes ‘fresh off the boat.’ Loaded with butter and cream, each dish defines delicious decadence and evokes extreme nostalgia for tea on the Thames and potted pies at supper time.
The restaurant mimics a frilly English marm’s kitchen with delicate floral details and just as delicate tea sets. Hot and cramped, call ahead to scope out the scene or show up early to nab a window-front table. The staff is entirely chipper Brits with charming accents and equally charming attitudes.
The adjoining store (where you also pick up take-out orders) was the most magical part of it all. Modeled after an old country store, the heavy wooden shelves are fully stocked with imported English goodies: Jelly Babies, Heinz beans, mushy peas, Walker’s shortbreads, Sarson’s malt vinegar, Branston pickle, and other hard-to-find-States side victuals. They also sell charming tea sets, English knick knacks, and Union Jack-themed items.
Tea & Sympathy offers something different from anything else in the Village – it steers clear of popular French bistro fare, of New York deli/diner offerings, of sushi. It is as authentic as you can get on this side of the Atlantic, and it’s mightily refreshing. Check out the restaurant for a tea excursion or the shop for unique holiday gifts!

Tea & Sympathy on Urbanspoon