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Posts from the ‘european’ Category

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

Mary Queen of Scots: One Mean Meal

Like tartan? plaid? sexy accents? Scotch? If any (or all) of the above get it done for you, Mary Queen of Scots may just be your new east side hangout. The sister restaurant of West Village favorite Highlands, ‘MQS’ is dark and sultry, a hotspot with gastropub fare and a long whiskey list for the haute hippies trolling around the Lower East Side.

Set in the long and narrow former Allen & Delancy space, MQS has completely revamped the place. Where A & D had a quirky bar up front, MQS puts its dining tables. The prime seats are the tartan-covered booths in the corridor between the back bar and the front room: festive, comfortable, spacious, and perfect for people-watching. The furniture appears to be antique store finds: mismatched chairs, ‘artfully distressed’ wooden furniture, plaid upholstery, burnished metal lamps. Down the corridor to the back is the bar, delightfully festive during the wintertime. Crowds of young and attractive hipster folk, decked out in scene-appropriate plaid shirts and corduroys, chat and laugh over hot toddies, whiskey neat, and vintage cocktails like the French 75. Nostalgic black-and-white photographs, ski lodge kitsch, and plenty of nods of Scottish ‘culture’ cover the wood-paneled walls. All in all, the mood is vivacious, youthful, boozy, and uber hip.

Perhaps the most unexpected thing about Mary Queen of Scots is the remarkable food delivered out of the kitchen. A tongue-in-cheek play on Scottish and French favorites, the menu is elegant and well-curated. Bar snacks are a fun and savory way to start the meal, with offerings ranging from tender veal cheek to oysters on the half shell to a decadent foie and chicken liver torchon. Appetizers are worthy of a gourmet restaurant: buttery boudin noir, rabbit cassoulet, a twist on the famous Waldorf salad. Notably, the seared diver scallops appetizer was mouthwatering: large juicy scallops, cooked perfectly with a beautiful caramelized crust, served simply with a well-seasoned root vegetable puree.

The main dishes are hearty and obviously French-inspired comfort food. Expect a classic roast chicken, moules frites, and a traditional flaky vegetable tart. Almost obligatory for any hot new restaurant, there is of course a burger. The MQS burger is high-flavor Piedmontese beef, blended with cheddar cheese, and served with salty crispy fries. Though not the best burger on the scene (check out Bill’s Burger in the Meatpacking District, the time-tested favorite at Minetta Tavern, or April Bloomfield’s rendition at The Spotted Pig), it’s well-cooked and truly satisfying with a whiskey. The flat iron steak, served thinly sliced with smashed potatoes and horseradish butter, was the star of the night. The quality of the beef was extraordinary; cooked to a tender medium-rare, the meat tasted beefy and juicy without much help from the kitchen. It just goes to show that you can get a fantastic steak in New York without overindulging at one of the city’s classic steakhouses.

Unfortunately, while each of the savory dishes we tried was really exceptional, the dessert fell flat. The options are homey, ranging from apple tart to an acorn-squash cheesecake. The salted espresso ganache, the most interesting-sounding item on the dessert menu with several ingredients, such as Laphroaig ice cream, that were completely foreign to me, was just short of terrible; it was bitter, tough, and poorly executed; the ganache was hard, the ice cream unidentifiable, and the caramel too salty to enjoy. Take my advice and if you’re still hungry after the entree, opt for one of the delectable bar snacks instead of dessert.

Mary Queen of Scots is pretty wonderful, even if you’re not a neighborhood regular or plaid-wearing, book-toting hipster with thick glasses and a nicely-mussed hairdo. It is warm and sultry, boisterous and yet still refined. The food is surprisingly well-prepared and tasty, good enough to please foodies, comforting enough for the gastropub-loving crowd. Though the haughty and disinterested service is a serious shortfall for those easily irritated by less-than-perfect table service, after a whiskey or two from the extensive menu, a slower and uninterrupted meal was a welcome luxury for me. Whether you’re looking for a quirky and fun date spot or a new watering hole for you and your friends, Mary Queen of Scots is a thrilling new addition to the already red hot Lower East Side dining (and boozing) scene.

Perfect For: holiday festivities, whiskey lovers, Scottish imports, people in plaid, hipsters seeking hipsters, a nouveau New York experience, nightcaps

Mary Queen of Scots on Urbanspoon

Smorgas Chef: Certainly Beats Ikea

Ikea first introduced me to Swedish food and more specifically Swedish meatballs. Perhaps this is slightly pathetic, that my pioneer experience with Scandinavian cuisine took place in the scenic big box discount furniture store; however, it got me hooked on the wonder of Swedish meatballs. Smorgas Chef, a Swedish restaurant with locations on Wall Street, in the West Village, and in New York’s Scandinavia House, shows that while Ikea offers incredible value, there is far more to Swedish cooking than meatballs.
The financial district location is on picturesque Stone Street, across from Ulysses, Burger Burger, and an intriguing new Mexican spot. Easily distinguished by its cheery yellow facade, Smorgas Chef is surprisingly charming and intimate, despite its suited-up Wall Street clientele. The interior space is limited yet very cozy, decorated tastefully with kitschy-cute Swedish touches; pendant lamps of aquavit bottles hang over tables for two in the windows; both modern and traditional art by Scandinavian artists line the exposed brick walls; a small bar offers Scandinavian, Dutch, and German beers on tap; the obviously Scandinavian waitstaff almost seem to be part of the scenery. In the summer, Smorgas Chef joins the picnic table melee Stone Street is known for, offering its own set of communal tables on the cobblestones.
The menu sticks to regional traditions with everything from herring with mustard sauce to Norwegian salmon to gravlax platters to, of course, Swedish meatballs. A smorgas board option allows you to sample the area’s greatest hits in one go. Just plain satisfying, the food is simple and delicious with big bold flavors and hearty portions. The meatballs are bite-size, well-seasoned, and so tender on the inside; the lingonberry sauce is sweet and tangy, perfect for sopping up with bread; the salmon, a bright pinky coral color, is incredibly fresh, moist, and well-prepared; while certainly an acquired taste, the herring came prepared three ways and, for those who liked herring at the table, was their favorite dish. To a very diverse group of 9, the classic and accessible food at Smorgas Chef was universally liked.
Smorgas Chef is a welcome change of pace from the pub grub joints that dominate Stone Street. It is warm and welcoming, cozy, intimate, and a great dining option for all kinds of stripes.
Perfect For: business lunches, doing something different, satisfying meatball cravings (without taking the Water Taxi), meeting Scandinavian folk, staying cozy on cold nights, late in the game dates

Smorgas Chef Wall Street on Urbanspoon

Tartine: Brunch Special and Special Brunch in the West Village

Tartine is one of those revered West Village brunch spots with a line of hungry New Yorkers a mile long, rain or shine. It is cherished and raved about, so beloved it could be considered a hotspot despite its simple and shabby look. Located on a picturesque corner off W. 4th, this tiny pastry shop and restaurant is consistently packed to the gills with locals, regulars, curious passers-by, foodies, hipsters, celebrities, and the like.

Stuffed into a cramped and tiny shoebox of a room are about 16 wooden, metal, and marble tables with chairs askew and blocking every possible passage, a pastry case displaying to-die-for pastries, tarts, and croissants, and an array of nautical-inspired tackle box paraphernalia cum decor. The look is shabby chic with mis-matching furniture, paper napkins, diner-like flatware and dishware, bright green flapping kitchen doors, kitschy christmas lights, and cheap wood-paneled walls. Ultra-casual, convivial, and friendly, Tartine manages to attract the celebrity set and local literati without an ounce of pretension.
The food is simple French and Belgian fare. Don’t expect culinary fireworks or delicate presentations here; Europe’s comfort food comes flying out of the kitchen with lots of seasoning, no frippery, and hulking portions. The $15 prix-fixe brunch, Tartine’s most celebrated meal, includes bottomless coffee and OJ and a main course. Options range from a divine croque monsieur to apple pancakes to brioche french toast to eggs benedict, omelettes, and a house gravlax plate. While these are all homey classics, the kitchen transforms them into immensely flavorful and satisfying dishes absolutely worth waiting in the rain for.
After shivering in cold drizzle for 20 minutes, my friend Sarah, my boyfriend John and I all finally tucked into hearty dishes, all served with well-seasoned roasted potatoes in an addictive hollandaise sauce and washed down with fresh-squeezed OJ and a great cup ‘o joe. Ravenously hungry after a long night, I opted for easily the most decadent option, the French Toast. Served on a gigantic plate, this tasty treat of perfectly done brioche with lots of butter, potatoes, and slabs of juicy bacon is absolutely the best french toast I’ve had for brunch yet. Sarah opted for her childhood ‘greedy pleasure,’ the croque monsieur. Probably the best croque monsieur in Manhattan, Tartine’s rendition dazzles with perfectly buttered bread, thick and gooey cheese and juicy ham (no dryness here!). John went for the Grilled Chicken sandwich, a complex combination of grilled chicken, guacamole, portabello mushrooms, arugula, tomato, mozzarella, and chipotle mayo on focaccia bread. Zesty and savory, he lapped this up with much satisfaction.
Don’t be fooled by the ‘hole-in-the-wall” laidback vibe of this sea shack equivalent. The rabid fans patiently waiting in an orderly line outside speak volumes to the talent in the kitchen. Tartine epitomizes the concept of a ‘neighborhood joint’ – the food is simple and very tasty; the service is friendly; the vibe is as casual as can be; the young hipster clientele is chatty and easy-going. Perfect for a filling brunch with friends or a cozy dinner in the ‘hood, Tartine proves that good things can come in small packages.
Note: if you’re one to be bothered by close quarters, at times awkward seating positions, or neighboring conversations, try Tartine in the off hours to avoid the crowds!

Tartine on Urbanspoon

Swizz: More Zzzz Than Za Za Zu

Swiss cuisine is not well-known or easily definable for that matter; however, leave it to Hell’s Kitchen to produce an ‘authentically’ Swiss-devoted restaurant. An ethnic food hotbed with verifiable culinary representation from most every cuisine, Hell’s Kitchen is home to one of the few Swiss restaurants in Manhattan, Swizz.

For cheese-lovers and chocolate fiends, Swizz will not disappoint. True to the Swiss spirit of things, most of the menu revolves around cheese or chocolate in some capacity. The focus and the speciality of the humble eatery is fondue. Cheese options dominate with traditional cheese fondue, a Provencal variety with herbs, and various Cheddar combinations. The fondues can feed as many as you like and come standard with cubed bread (meat, potatoes and vegetables for dipping come at an extra charge). Swizz also offers an all-you-can-eat Raclette, pouring endless plates of scraped cheese with boiled potatoes and toast. For dessert, chocolate fondues abound (a Toblerone version? Holy cow, talk about a guilty pleasure…)

While the food will certainly satisfy guilty cravings, the scene itself is a bit somber, with many speaking in hushed voices, soft and barely audible music, and an eerily quiet main dining room. The waiters themselves speak so quietly that you have to crane your neck to catch the menu explanation. The narrow railroad space is a bit chilly, yet chic in its own way with sparse decorations, exposed brick walls, an open kitchen, and simple wooden tables. The fondue pots are necessary to warm things up.

Swizz is a distinctly Swiss sort of place – rich and heavy food with cheap wine and a quiet reserved environment. Yet, the open dining room is a prime spot for dates where you actually want to hear your invitee speak (not to mention, the interactive fondue heats things up a little romance-wise) or a girls night out with a bottle of red.

Swizz Restaurant & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Resto: True to Reality Casual Belgian

Gramercy/Murray Hill gastro powerhouse and pioneer in the ‘gastro pub’ trend, Resto pulls out all the stops on authentic Belgian cuisine, marrying a tantalizing selection of Belgian beers with downright tasty meat, cheese, and fried potatoes. Hidden amongst townhouses in the culinary wasteland that is Murray Hill, Resto is humble, both in appearance and in personality. The facade is easily missed and the interior is simple with few design flourishes (or foibles). The service is friendly, efficient, and supremely apologetic for even the slightest waits or missteps. However, don’t mistake this potential winner for New York dining’s Miss Congeniality for engaging in any sort of culinary overcompensation. For the most part, the food is straight from comfort food heaven: deliciously fatty, well-seasoned, and executed with precision and care.

The focus is on meat (particularly pork), cheese, and potatoes. So, in essence, everything that’s good and right in the Western world. Chef Christian Pappanicholas brings spirit and flavor to traditional Belgian dishes, turning such delicacies as the boudin noir tart with cheddar cheese crumble and pear caramel into a house specialty sought after by regulars and critics alike. At Resto, french fries or ‘frites’ become exciting, served in a ceramic cone with nine side sauces, each one more delicious than the last. My personal favorite would have to be a three-way-tie between the Sriracha mayo, the yogurt cumin and roasted garlic mayo, and the sweet chili.

Unable to pass up the $35 prix-fixe for New York Restaurant Week, my party of 3 collectively passed over the veal belly and sky-high burger for the more restricted 3-course options. My coworker and I both started with the Bibb Lettuce salad, and let me tell you, that is no ordinary weak sauce salad. Crispy fried onions, a salty sweet mustard vinaigrette and a fresh head of Bibb lettuce all came together to make a savory salad that even junk food lovers would find delicious. A European herself, our guest went straight for the country pate, which she unfortunately found dry and bland – definitely not up to snuff for a billed ‘authentic’ restaurant.

For the main course, I opted for the sea scallops. Impossibly plump and juicy, the scallops were meaty and paired with an addictive leek puree and walnut vinaigrette. My coworker and our guest both devoured happily the crispy lamb shoulder with smoked tomato and Anson Mills polenta. While the lamb dish was terribly presented (what happened to artistry? or even just pleasant presentation?), it satisfied in flavor and texture – crispy, savory, and tender!

For dessert, we tried all three options: the pistachio financier, the liege waffle, and the trio of Belgian chocolates. The pistachio financier was definitely the stand-out. A moist, sweet and tangy cake, it was everything a light and fluffy dessert should be. The liege waffle was good, but not as good as you would expect from a purely Belgian establishment. Fluffly and soft, it lacked a bit in flavor and the accompanying chocolate was too bitter, even for a dark chocolate lover like myself. The trio of Belgian chocolates was just plain boring. The dark chocolate was so hard I thought I had broken a tooth, and the dark chocolate orange bit was just not my cup of tea. Surprisingly, the milk chocolate with nougat was by far the best option – creamy, soft, and sweet.

With an active bar scene, tasty and fresh comfort food, and a truly impressive beer menu, Resto will please those looking for a casual and comfortable place in the ‘hood to enjoy good grub. It’s not fancy, and it’s not complicated; yet, it charms with interesting and flavorful cuisine, almost overly friendly service, and a fresh vivacity that plastered a smile all over my face. Check out this spot for drinks with beer-lovers, a boisterous dinner with friends, or a hearty Sunday brunch meant to cure all hangover ills.

Resto on Urbanspoon

Aldea, Not To Be Cheesy, But I’ll Eat You All Day-a

Finally, a restaurant where the hype is warranted. Under-the-radar chef and owner George Mendes’ precious gem of a restaurant, Aldea, really sent me spinning into the stratosphere with the quality of the food. The Portuguese-American date spot in Flatiron wows with an inventive menu, top-notch ingredients, and well-executed dishes.

The small railroad space on 17th Street is easily missed from the outside. But, open entering, you are greeted by a very friendly hostess and ushered into a tranquil sea-themed oasis. The front bar and bi-level dining room are both muted, sophisticated, and mellow. Soft textural marine hues, very dim lighting, and a sleek contemporary design emphasize the lilting and relaxed vibe. According to the website, Aldea’s interior “tells a story of the inherent beauty of the countryside of the Iberian coast” and includes many reminders of the soothing effects of wispy wind and water. In the back is the coveted 6-seat Chef’s Table and on the second level is a hauntingly illuminated private dining room.

The food is good. In fact, it is just really really really good. Elegant, playful, and creative without sacrificing an ounce of taste or deliciousness, the modern Portuguese-American food blends avant-garde techniques with traditional flavors and concepts. The menu is divided into three parts: Petiscos (small plates), Appetizers, and Entrees. I took a walk on the wild side and sampled the Sea Urchin Toast petisco. Admittedly, I have never had sea urchin before, and it is nothing like I expected. Creamy and almost sweet, this tender dollop wooed me silly, prepared on crispy toast with cauliflower cream, sea lettuce, and lime. Without hesitation, a must-have for all palates if ever visiting Aldea.

My dining companion Stephen and I both opted for seafood appetizers (seafood clearly being the house’s favorite set of proteins), ordering the Lightly-Cured Mackerel and the Shrimp Alhinho respectively. The mackerel was prepared with meyer lemon, almond milk, and hackelback caviar. Light and refreshing, the thin slabs of fish melted in your mouth and were distinctly un-fishy (probably because of the overpowering almond flavor). The shrimp were fat and perfectly cooked in oil and spices. Satisfyingly hot, they reminded me of home and this wonderful spicy shrimp dish my momma cooks.

For entrees, we switched gears, focusing on meats. Stephen ordered the Hanger Steak and Short Ribs with smoked mashed potatoes, pequilo peppers, and golden turnips. The hanger steak was the star, prepared to a beautiful pinkish-red color and very tender. A potato fanatic, I loved how the smooth smoky mashed potatoes added another layer of depth to the dish. Stephen and I disagreed on my Arroz de Pato dish. While he thought it was bland and not very exciting, I loved the thick, hearty, and textured feel of the duck confit and chorizo rice mixture. It warmed me from the inside out, perfect for a blustery January night.

All in all, the food was immensely satisfying, balancing originality with fresh ingredients, classic proteins, and perfect execution. The only grey spot on the meal was the service. Only one word sums its up accurately: slow. Table service is excruciatingly slow (and don’t worry, they know it, acknowledge it, and apologize for it). It took about 20minutes for a ‘small plate’ to get out of the kitchen…on a Monday night. I can only imagine the back-up at peak hours.

Either way, Aldea is a pretty sweet date spot – elegant but with great music, modern with a hip forward-thinking chef, and ridiculously good for the moderate price point. You can get 3 courses and a glass of wine for $60 – not too shabby for a critically-acclaimed spot with a famously-talented chef at the helm. Aldea is also great for treating your parents (or having your parents treat you) to a swanky night on the town without overdoing it on the hipness factor.

Aldea on Urbanspoon