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Posts from the ‘pregame the game’ Category

Toloache: New York Mexican’s Happy Medium

There are a whole bunch of weird things about Toloache (it’s Times Square location and the chintzy neon sign are two), and yet, whether because of the excellent sangria or the crave-worthy guacamole, the laid-back environment or cheap prices, Toloache just works. The sister restaurant to the far more gentile Yerba Buena Perry in the West Village, Toloache is like the black sheep of the family – a little raunchy, a little dirty, flashier and commanding attention.

Just off Times Square, Toloache is a shining neon star in an otherwise epicurean wasteland too popular with T.G.I. Friday’s-seeking tourists. The space is quirky – bi-level, with a crowded bar, and tables crowded into corners, behind the hostess stand, next to the guac-making counter. Design-wise though, the look is spicy and thrilling with warm yellow walls, mustard-colored leather banquettes, traditional blue-and-white tilework embedded into smooth brown adobe bricks, quirky and ornate metal lanterns, and deep red candles flickering on each table. Toloache is elegant yet just raucous enough to entice the young after-work crowd and serious diners alike.

Toloache’s modern Mexican fare is remarkably cheap – especially in comparison to that offered by its sibling Yerba Buena Perry. Mostly everything except for the large entree-size dishes is under $15. And trust me, you can have quite the special meal without spending $27 on a ‘platos principales.’ The trio of guacamole is a must-have to kick off the meal. Each of the three has a completely unique flavor: the ‘mild’ is your guacamole tradicional, served chunky with plenty of thick avocaod, the ‘medium’ is stuffed with pomegranate, mango, peach, apple, and Thai basil and is possibly the most addictive dip ever, and the ‘hot’ is zesty with chipotle peppers and cooling queso fresco. Also wonderful are the tacos – served on perfectly cooked soft tacos and nicely stuffed with filling. The ‘Suadero’ option with Negro Modelo-braised brisket and a tangy horseradish cream is packed with bold and hearty flavors ; the ‘pescado’ with baja tilapia and thick guacamole is a house favorite, recommended by the server, and freshing; the ‘de pastor’ mixes together savory/sweet grilled pineapple (mmm mmm) and juicy pork – just marvelous.

If you’re not in the mood for tacos, the Mexican restaurant’s take on fondue ‘queso fundido’ is decadent and gooey, loaded with all sorts of earthy mushroom bits, and the braised short ribs quesadilla, glued together with creamy Chihuahua cheese, creme fraiche, and a dusting of pico de gallo, is perfect for carnivores looking for a not-too-heavy meal option. Lastly, its no secret that Central and South Americans know how to work with meat – and those in the kitchen at Toloache are no exception. For example, the carne asada skirt steak is tender and cooked to a bright magenta medium rare; served with Toloache’s addictive guacamole and a bonus mole cheese enchilada, it’s flavorful, zesty, and satisfyingly meaty.

Toloache is a breath of fresh air in a neighborhood known for Ruby Tuesday’s, Bubba Gump, and an altogether too large T.G.I. Friday’s. It has the suave and quirky style of a downtown restaurant, the cooking chops to rival the high-end Mexican spots cropping up all over town (it’s certainly better than the inexplicably raved-about Empellon), and the vibrant youthful energy of a tequila bar. Sounds like a winning combination to me!

Perfect For: midtown west after-work drinks, guac and margs, pre- and post- theater dinner

Toloache on Urbanspoon

Mulberry Project: Would You Like Some Food With Your Cocktail?

I will preface this review by saying that considering I had my “End of 1L” celebratory meal at The Mulberry Project, there was very little chance of me not liking this place. That being said, as objectively as possible, this place just kills it. On a Little Italy strip mostly known for it’s red-sauce Italian restaurants, knock-off sunglasses stands, and cannoli vendors, The Mulberry Project hides from sight, behind a recessed red door below street level.

The interior is small – long and narrow with a few choice black leather booths along one wall and bright red metal bar stools at the bar. A cartoon-y set of painted red lips frame the ordering window to the kitchen, and unintelligible scrawls of black graffiti cover the scarlet walls behind the bar. The dim lighting and color scheme almost give the sensation of being in an urban vampire den (read: that club from True Blood without the exotic dancers). Here, however, the focus is clearly on the booze, with “pick your poison” scribbled on the wall above the seating – the variety of specialty liqueurs and artisan liquors stacked and backlit behind the bar is staggering. In the summer, the back graffiti-decorated patio opens with room for 50.

The Mulberry Project is all about cocktails. They’re so about the cocktails that they don’t have an actual menu, and they custom-make ‘bespoke’ cocktails if you give them a few specifications (preferred liquor, any flavors you like, and so forth). The creations are nothing short of magical. A request for bourbon and slightly sweet returned a killer bourbon cocktail with maple and blackberries; when I said I liked pears, the most delicious drink I’ve ever had came back – all sparkly and tart and sweet; an elderflower junkie received a beautifully floral and tangy beverage in a vintage champagne coupe; a vague request for gin and citrus produced a muddled ginger, lemon, thyme and, of course, gin cocktail that was a serious upgrade from the gin & tonic. Drinks took awhile to come around and cost $15 each, but if you’re seriously into boozy beverages that taste fantastic, the bartenders at Mulberry Project know how to please.

Perhaps the most surprising thing though about The Mulberry Project wasn’t how delicious the cocktails were (that was expected), but instead how delicious the food was. Prepared by a former Boqueria chef, the upscale pub food is just plain good. A series of small plates meant for sharing, the menu is divided into “If By Land” and “If By Sea,” with meats dominating in the former and seafood options in the latter. In the “Land” category, the Braised Short-Rib Sliders shine – a soft roll stuffed with juicy and tender marinated beef, crunchy watercress, creamy sheep’s milk cheese, and a spicy chipotle mayo. All these flavors explode, resulting in a dish that is simultaneously savory, spicy, salty, and slightly sweet. The crispy porkbelly is also wonderful – more sophisticated than sliders, the bar food staple. Served with a crispy and bright apple ‘chip’ and fig compote, the porkbelly is succulent and addictive, a fresh, sweet and substantial bite that washes down with a pear cocktail very nicely.

The best “Sea” dish is hands-down the lobster sliders. These things avoid the pressure of being ‘lobster rolls’ by being ‘sliders’ and they’re just wonderful. The roll is soft and dripping in butter; the generous helping of lobster is pure and untainted by mayo or celery; the entire ‘lobster slider’ experience is pretty heavenly. Like any good ‘bar’ that also serves food, The Mulberry Project serves up three varieties of “fries,” all of which are delicious and must-orders. The truffle fries are the best – decadent, crispy, well-seasoned, and just about perfect. The sweet potato fries are also great – packed with flavor and a happy medium between floppy and crunchy. Last are the crispy baby artichokes, an unusual alternative to the true fries; shaped like lollipops and lightly fried, the earthy ‘fries’ are paired with an insanely good and contrasting almond romesco dipping sauce.

Yes, The Mulberry Project is small and the Rock n’ Roll-spinning DJ pumps some seriously loud music into the cramped space, but it’s hard to deny the quality of the cocktails and the tastiness of the food. The entire experience was like what I would expect from a modern-day opium den – dark and warm, the kind of place you could lose yourself in for hours, constantly plied by good food and good drink, the music getting louder as the night moves on. The only rough part of the night is when you finally decide to peel yourself off the black leather booths and to pay the bill, a more often than not staggeringly high price tag for the night.

Perfect For: celebratory drinks, faux hipsters, fat wallets, cocktail connoisseurs, fashionistas

The Mulberry Project on Urbanspoon

Empellon: Mostly Missing Lowbrow Mexican

‘Trendy’ Mexican food seems to be a thing in New York these days, as evidenced by former wd-50 pastry chef Alex Stupak’s new Empellon and its predecessors Cascabel Tacqueria, Toloache, Dos Toros, Hecho en Dumbo and so forth. Whether or not this thing, usually a blend of dressed-up Mexican street food, fancy cocktail menus, and a casually elegant vibe, is successful depends on the restaurant, and unfortunately, Empellon struggles where others have triumphed.

On the suddenly red hot corner of West 4th and West 10th in the West Village, Empellon is pretty much like every other hip ‘neighborhoody’ restaurant in the area. It has fresh white walls, unadorned dark wooden tables, a backlit bar stocked with all sorts of fancy alcohols (mostly artisan tequilas here), rounded leather booths for groups, and the requisite gilt-framed mirror, you know, to make the room look bigger or whatever. Sure, it’s comfortable and charming, but this look is starting to get a little bit redundant (see: 10 Downing, Bistro de la Gare, Casa, Recette, Kingswood, and so on and so forth). I ask myself: why should I come here if there are carbon copies with different menus littered throughout the surrounding blocks?

Perhaps my beef with Empellon rests in that not only was the atmosphere ‘same old same old,’ but the food was wildly inconsistent. Some of what the kitchen produced was truly delicious, while other dishes were just plain bad. The guacamole is wonderful – the type of stuff you could eat every night with one of the bar’s stiff tequila or mezcal-based house cocktails. And its made even better by the two ‘salsas’ its served with – a smoked cashew sauce and a smoky arbol chile variety; both are distinctive and addictive. Yet, the tacos were over-priced at $12 each and almost inedible. The lamb barbacoa tacos, by far the most tasty sounding, were pretty awful – underseasoned lamb meat, a tough tortilla, horrible bits of bitter green olives that overpowered every other meek flavor in there. The chicken variety were better, though not by much; like the lamb barbacoa, the chicken was egregiously under-seasoned, and unfortunately, not even the little nuggets of green chorizo could save this dish.

Other non-taco dishes are better – the octopus marisco with parsnip and a lovely dressing of chipotle, sweet spices, and an unrefined sugar called piloncillo is well-cooked and an unusual spin on an octopus starter. The queso fundido options sound ridiculously good. I mean, how could you not salivate over a bowl of melted cheese served with warm tortillas? However, the execution was not as good as it could have been. I was imagining some sort of decadent Mexican fondue, and yet what I was delivered was a disappointingly small bowl of extremely concentrated pseudo-melted cheese that had hardened a bit too much. Its hard not to like melted cheese, and so, of course, I ate every bit of what was served; yet, at the end of the day, I would rather just go get some fondue at The Bourgeois Pig. The best part of the meal was the end of the meal. The bunuelos, a bowl of churros-like fried doughnut holes, are utterly incredible. Served with two sauces, a warm honey and an absurdly-delicious caramel-ish cajeta, these are like Pringles on steroids (once you pop, you just can’t stop). I could eat them every night, if I didn’t mind risking heart failure.

Empellon is fine; it’s not great and its not dreadful. Mostly, it just makes me miss low-brow Mexican fare from such favorites as Benny’s Burritos and Maryann’s Mexican. Why pay $12 for a crappy taco if you can pay half that for a scrumptious burrito or decadent plate of nachos at a less chi-chi spot? or perhaps a better question is, in a neighborhood as jam-packed with quality restaurants as the West Village, why pay exorbitant prices for mediocre food when those same prices will get you something amazing just down the street? That being said, if you’re only looking for some guac and awesome cocktails with your lady friends, Empellon is undoubtedly your spot.

Perfect For: guacamole and margheritas at the bar, ladies night out, west village locals

Empellon on Urbanspoon

Stone Rose Lounge: Models and Mini-Bites

I will admit that I found myself at Stone Rose Lounge mostly through process of elimination. With tickets to the New York City ballet, I was looking for a swank pre-theater spot that my friends and I could nosh and imbibe at before the show. All my favorite pre-Lincoln Center options (Bar Boulud, A Voce Columbus, and Café Luxembourg) were unable to accommodate a large group last minute. And so, I gave Rande Gerber’s Time Warner Center ‘hotspot,’ Stone Rose, a chance.

The lounge itself is gorgeous, in a New York-Meets-Vegas sort of way. On the fourth floor, ‘the food floor,’ of the Time Warner Center, it has breathtaking views of Columbus Circle and Central Park. The large floor-to-ceiling windows seem to be just above the treetops, and you can almost imagine that the majesty of Central Park is in the palm of your hand. Stone Rose is 100% lounge with soaring ceilings, sleek contemporary couches, low cocktail tables, buttery leather benches and seating cubes. In the back are rounded banquette tables cut out of the wall, and a few traditional dining tables are scattered in the middle of the floor. Everything is slick and shiny, glittery at night, almost like a nightclub but without the DJ beats. If you’re only interested in drinks, a long and larger-than-life bar spans an entire wall – new age-y low lights make the entire thing glow in an almost cheesy sort of way.

In true lounge fashion, the service can best be described as shit. Although the scantily-clad waitresses are friendly, when you can manage to track them down, they regularly either disappear into “the kitchen” or spend a large chunk of time simply milling around the bar. At the end of the night, after waiting for 20 minutes for our waitress to swing by, I finally went up to the bar in hopes of settling my check – our waitress then magically appeared out of nowhere.

The food at Stone Rose Lounge is limited, though generally pretty tasty. All the dishes are eclectic American fusion small plates, with all the usual lounge options: hamburger sliders, beef skewers, artichoke dip, basic sushi rolls, cheese and charcuterie platters, and so forth. There’s nothing ground-breaking or particularly special about what the kitchen serves; however, as a complement to the fancy cocktails, the dishes do just fine. Perhaps the biggest gripe about the food at Stone Rose is how unbelievably over-priced it is for what amounts to little more than average cooking. And with irritating quirks, like how extra ‘naan’ (really, it’s just pita) for the artichoke dip is $3, Stone Rose is certainly not worth visiting if you’re only interested in eating.

The food certainly plays second fiddle to the cocktails. At Stone Rose, the complicated martinis and house specialty cocktails are the main event. Unfortunately, there are much better cocktails in Manhattan (Lambs Club, Little Branch, Yerba Buena Perry, Raine’s Law Room, Pegu Club, to name a few). Stone Rose’s ingredients and combinations are often inspired and unique; however, the execution is frequently off. Rarely can you actually taste the fun and unusual ingredients, for they are so dominated by whatever type of alcohol is included. I’m not paying $14 for a cocktail that tastes like a vodka shot. If I wanted a vodka shot, I’d go to the local dive in Hell’s Kitchen. You can tell that the menu was created by a master mixologist and that it is being executed by your typical bartender – what an error.

Stone Rose is all about atmosphere and glitz, a fact supported by its well-heeled, well-dressed and generally good-looking crowd. Other than the supremely convenient location and wondrous views though, Stone Rose falls to the level of mediocrity unfortunately shared by most of New York’s lounge clubs. The food is average, the cocktails only slightly above so. If you’re not tied to the Columbus Circle area, there are far better options for swank libations.

Perfect For: fashion week libations, blowing cash, expensive after-dinner drinks, large groups, models and bottles

Stone Rose Lounge 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

El Centro: Midtown’s Hidden Mexican Marvel

My lunchtime foray to El Centro was random and unplanned, considering it sits a whopping six blocks (an adventurous distance with a backpack) from campus in Hell’s Kitchen and looks like just another one of those unremarkable ethnic restaurants that line 9th avenue. However, this casual Mexican spot serves unbelievably satisfying and high quality grub with a fresh authentic taste and a refreshing simplicity.

The corner restaurant, sitting on 9th and 54th, is surprisingly small and yet somehow still airy. Large windows line two walls and allow for some pretty fantastic people watching (as we all know Hell’s Kitchen houses a pretty eclectic crowd…). The decor is loud and intentionally kitschy; the booths lining three walls are bright primary colors; an overwhelming collection of chintzy milagros cover one wall, glinting coyly in the sunlight; repurposed Corona bottles make appearances as light fixtures and salt & pepper shakers. The overall effect is cheery and fun, such that El Centro is essentially just begging you to have a margarita or three.

The simple Mexican food smacks of California influence, with bright colors and fresh ingredients. The usual cast of characters is all there: enchiladas, nachos, tacos, empanadas, tamales, quesadillas, fajitas, burritos and so forth. What’s so remarkable about El Centro’s food is that the flavors shine and the technique is spot-on; the salsa is appropriately spicy, no sags or flops, the cheese tastes of real cheese and not over-processed shredded crap out of a bah, the guacamole looks freshly smashed. Nothing is muddled or bland; instead, such ordinary Mexican dishes sing with unexpected freshness. The nachos are particularly good – a few notches above the typical pub food with large pools of gooey melted cheese, crisp tortilla chips, hot ‘n spicy tomato salsa, creamy cones of sour cream, and your choice of succulent medium-rare cuts of steak, thick and hearty rounds of chorizo, or bits of juicy marinated chicken. Also tasty are the enchiladas, specifically when topped with perfectly cooked slices of tender hangar steak; the rounds of tortilla aren’t overly crispy or soggy and they have a definable corn flavor.

El Centro is delightfully kitschy and fun with playful colors, playful staff, and a very playful drinks menu. If you need to unwind, the fruity frozen margaritas will certainly do the trick. Desperately seeking good Mexican food in a city not known for its Mexican? El Centro is your pick. Work driving you so nuts its driven you to alcohol? Boozy lunch is hot here. Hot. (Disclaimer: I do not endorse drinking on the job. Obviously.) No matter what your excuse may be, make sure you get yourself over to Hell’s Kitchen to sample El Centro’s wide array of fantastic and satisfying traditional Mexicali dishes.

Perfect For: munchies & margaritas, boozy brunch, a mexican feliz cumpleanos fiesta!, west coasters on the east coast, mexican food fanatics, cheap eats

El Centro 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