Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Best

The best cookie you'll ever eat will not be one I write about. It won't be from a bakery you read about, or hear about from friends.

The best foods you'll ever taste are surprises.

Two summers ago I was working at Michael's Genuine in Miami. I was leaving one day, around five pm, and passed by the pastry station on my way to the door. The pastry chef had just pulled a tray of cookies from the oven and offered one, "For the drive home!" she said.

I hadn't been working there long, maybe two or three weeks, and wasn't versed in the dessert items. I started walking to the parking lot and took a bite. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I stopped in my tracks.

The cookie was small, maybe the size of two or three quarters. I would later learn it was a Chocolate Chunk Cookie. I call them crack cookies. They are nothing more then a hunk of Scharffen Berger dark chocolate encased in just enough cookie dough to be deemed a cookie, and not simply melted chocolate. Before hitting the oven, the cookies are sprinkled with sea salt.

Fresh out of the oven, the chocolate is gooey, the cookie, tender, and the twang from the salt unbelievably decadent.

I have had Hedy's chocolate chunk cookies many times since then, but none measure up to the first. It was the fact that I didn't know what I was eating that made its deliciousness so much greater.

I have come to enjoy food writing less and less. I'm torn between the pleasure and reward of walking into a random restaurant and discovering its greatness and the way Eater or Grubstreet can tell me where to get the best dim sum in Chinatown. In the end, there's just no way I can wander in to all those restaurants in Chinatown. But something significant is lost when you go somewhere knowing the food will be good. It is good. And you're glad you went. But it is never as fulfilling as if you happened upon the location by chance.

Best Cookie:
The chocolate chip walnut cookies at Levain Bakery on the upper west side are, in my opinion, the most perfect chocolate chip cookies you can get. On the planet. They are six ounces (roughly the size of a hockey puck). They are amazing. The center is purposefully under-baked, so you get a normal chocolate chip cookie near the edges, and a semi-doughy center (for anyone who enjoys eating raw cookie dough, this is the cookie for you).

I mention this cookie because I don't think you would ever happen upon Levain. Unless you are looking for it. It's literally a hole in the ground, tucked under an apartment building. So please, try this cookie. It won't be the best cookie you'll ever have, and I'm glad that it wont. But it is still really, really good.

Best Doughnut:
The square peanut butter doughnut with blackberry jelly from Doughnut Plant is the perfect doughnut. The yeast dough: a ten. The filling: made in house, amazing. The peanut butter glaze (with chunks of peanut): otherworldly.

Again, I write about this because Doughnut Plant is in an area on the Lower East Side that no one would "happen across." So, again, go, please, and try. The best doughnut you'll ever eat will probably be from some mom-n-pop place on the side of the road that you go to stop at while driving cross-country. It will probably be fresh from the fryer, just glazed. You'll probably never eat there again. And that is beautiful.

But, while you're not driving across the country, go to Doughnut Plant.

Levain Bakery
167 W 74 St

Doughnut Plant
379 Grand St


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dessert at Locanda Verde

I admire dozens of chefs, each for radically different reasons.

Johnny Iuzinni is brilliant in his ability to improve existing pastries using innovative ingredients (agar agar, maltodextrin, etc). I look up to Alex Stupak because he is one of a handful of people that are reinventing pastry techniques with science (brand new ways of making ice cream, of creating fluid gels). Michael Laiskonis is a baller, and his refined flavor combinations like pistachio and caramelized white chocolate, or dark chocolate, chicory, and burnt orange are amazing. I love Hedy Goldsmith and her knack for transforming childhood treats into restaurant desserts.

Tonight I had the chance to sample Karen DeMasco's desserts, whose cooking I was told would, "rock my world." I've read about DeMasco for a while, always seeing the same thing: she does simple food, and she does it better than anyone else.

She does make simple food. And she does do it better than anyone else. And it will rock your world.

The first dessert I tried, a sweet corn budino, was spectacular. Budino, by the way, is the italian word for pudding, and is simply a baked custard set with egg yolks. DeMasco's literally exploded with sweet corn flavor and was perfectly complemented by blueberry sauce, fresh blueberries, and an ultra smooth blueberry sorbetto. And for a bit of salt and crunch? Some caramel popcorn dropped around the plate.

The second dessert, a lemon tart, was equally impressive. The tart had a great crust (i.e. super flaky) and was unabashedly lemony (i.e. super tart). The tartness was balanced by buttermilk gelato, and a fun temperature contrast was added with a spoonful of limoncello granita (a lemon liqueur that is frozen and then shaved--think wonderfully flavorful shaved ice). Hiding underneath the granita were sweet, syrupy slices of preserved lemon.

DeMasco's desserts are admirable because they're so damn simple. Lemon and buttermilk. Two flavors. It's almost stupid how good that dish is. Similarly, corn (sweet and popped) and blueberries. Wow.

I didn't have the caloric allowance or stomach capacity to taste the toasted almond semifreddo with bing cherries and cherry sorbetto, or the peach + blackberry crostada with peach swirl gelato OR the chocolate-pistachio tart with raspberries. But I saw all of them pass by the bar as they were headed for their table, and they all looked ridiculously good.

I also didn't even taste anything on the savory side of the menu, but from the desserts and the vibe alone, I'd recommend Locanda Verde as a place to meet up for drinks, for a quick meal at the bar, for a multi-course gustatory expedition, for a great brunch (hello lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberries and meyer lemon curd!) or for a sweet fix. It would also make a fantastic place for a date (come on, what girl would turn down the peach and blackberry crostada?).

Locanda Verde
377 Greenwich Street

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que

There are going to be a lot of restaurants I eat at while I'm here at Columbia. I'd like to write about most of them. However, for the vast majority, I will not be dining with a party of four or five. Which means that I will probably only be sampling a small portion of the menu. For those restaurants (like Dinosaur Bar-B-Que), I don't intend for the post to be a review of the restaurant (like the previous post on Maialino). Instead, it will simply be an account of my impression of the restaurant and a brief commentary on the food (as well as a general thumbs up/down).

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que has several locations in New York. I recently ate with a friend at their restaurant in Harlem, just 15 blocks north of Columbia. It's a great spot, nestled underneath the Riverside Drive bridge, with all of the hokey pig statues, mounted deer, and blues posters one expects from a barbecue joint.

There is live music nightly. The musicians were excellent, but the concrete floors, low ceiling, and larger-than-necessary amps made conversation difficult.

The food, though, was almost flawless. It's exactly what you want from a place named Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: juicy pulled pork, fork-tender brisket, flavorful mac-n-cheese, and soulful baked beans. The only misstep, the cornbread, was boring and mediocre, and when placed next to that pulled pork, a real let down.

Oddly enough, the standout item was the jumbo barbecued chicken wings. We opted for the "hot" version, which are dry rubbed, smoked, and finished on the grill. The Maytag blue cheese dressing was velvety and perfectly cut the wing's heat. At $7 for six wings, though, they are slightly overpriced.

The total came to about $16 each (that includes tip).

Monday, September 6, 2010


Today concludes the New Student Orientation Program (NSOP) at Columbia. Because I transferred here I was required to go to only a few meetings and events, which left me with a ton of free time to go explore New York City. I set a limit of two Metro Card swipes a day (one to go downtown, one to return to Columbia), which often led to walking a hundred or more blocks a day. Oh, and I learned that walking from Sunset Park, Brooklyn to Williamsburg, Brooklyn is a lot farther than it looks on an iPhone map. I also tried to keep every food purchase under $5. I ate very few real meals this week, but was able taste food from many places I'd read about. A recap is below.

Kumquat Cupcakery: mini cupcakes sold for $1 at the Brooklyn Flea (I tried the Coffee Caramel Bourbon cupcake, which was moist, flavorful, and had a perfect cake/icing ratio).

People's Pops: homemade popsicles also sold at the Brooklyn Flea for $3 (the Peach Camomile popsicle was great and had giant chunks of fresh peaches).

The Good Batch: one of the few purveyors of stroopwafels (Dutch spiced waffle cookies with a caramel filling) in New York City (I didn't fall in love with this cookie, but for it's large size and $1.50 price tag it's hard to complain).

Momofuku Milk Bar Cake Truffles: a vanilla cake crumbled, mixed with frosting and Funfett, shaped into truffles, dipped in white chocolate, and rolled in cake crumbs (surprisingly, they weren't too sweet, and they are a pretty good deal at 3 for $3).

Mast Brothers Chocolate: supposedly some of the best small batch bean to bar chocolate making in the county (I tried the 72% Madagascar dark chocolate bar with almonds, sea salt and olive oil, which was crazy good).

Nunu Chocolates: I bought a box of four assorted chocolate caramels (the chocolate covered caramel sprinkled with Fleur de Sel was amazing, the dark chocolate caramel with peanut ganache was the best interpretation of a Reese's I've ever had, but both the cashew caramel and soft caramel butterfly were "eh").

Liddabit Sweets: I tried The King, a candy bar homage to Elvis that layers a brown sugar/brown butter cookie, peanut butter nougat, and banana ganache, all dipped in milk chocolate (you'll never want to go back to conventional candy bars again).

Early Bird Granola: small batch, homemade granola (I bought a bag of the 'jubilee' blend, which combines oats, pepitas, coconut, pistachios, maple syrup, dried sour cherries, brown sugar, olive oil and salt, which is the best granola I've ever had, period).

Shake Shack: I had to try a shack burger, since I'd heard that the burgers in NYC are better than those made at the Miami outpost (I don't know if it was any better or worse than Miami, but it was still a damn good burger, and at $4.75, a great deal).

Eataly: Mario Batali's 50,000 square foot Italian food emporium (I tried the stracciatella and banana gelato, which was flavorful and not too sweet, but way too icy/grainy).

I ingested a ridiculous amount of sugar this week, but the copious amounts of walking, frequent visits to Columbia's gym, and limited intake of actual food made this extended binge entirely possible without any weight gain.

Now, I'm off to go running.

Then, some Early Bird Granola for breakfast :-)

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Danny Meyer’s newest restaurant, Maialino, is a Roman-style trattoria located in the Gramercy Park Hotel. You enter the restaurant through the hotel lobby, a warm room with double-vaulted ceilings, reclaimed mahogany furniture and tile floors. Once at the hostess stand, it is immediately apparent that Meyer has again expertly staffed his restaurant. Every employee radiates genuine charm. It’s that comforting, Union Square Hospitality Group style where everyone seems to hail from the Mid-West but is entirely adept at whisking you out of Manhattan and straight to Rome.

The kitchen is run by Nick Anderer, a former student of Mario Batali at Babbo and Tom Collichio at Gramercy Tavern. Prior to working in restaurants, Anderer earned a BA in Art History from Columbia University. His love for Italian cooking began while studying abroad during his junior year at Trinity College’s Rome campus.

After the hostess (whose smile seems impossibly friendly), the restaurants next striking feature is the bar. Extremely long and made of walnut, it was designed by David Rockwell (the man behind Bobby Flay’s restaurants, the Nobu restaurants, and Gordon Ramsay’s Maze in London). The rest of the restaurant, though, kind of looks like it was furnished with several trips to Crate and Barrel and Williams Sonoma. That’s not to say it isn’t homey and fun to eat in, but it does feel contrived.

There are two stations flanking your entrance into the dining room, one for bread and dessert, the other for cheese and cured meats. As soon as you sit down—at a cozy table where a white tablecloth is layered over a blue-checkered one—a bread basket is brought. Skip the county loaf and head straight for the pizza bianca, a thin, pizza-like crust sprinkled with herbs, sea salt, and olive oil. Yum.

Recommended appetizers are the Prosciutto e Melone (delicious, fatty Parma ham and summer melon), Carciofini Fritti (crunchy fried artichokes served with an acidic anchovy bread sauce), and Crostini with ricotta, figs, and honey. The Trippa alla Trasteverina (tripe with pecorino and mint) is interesting, but forgettable.

The pastas at Maialino will blow you away. Definitely try the Raviolo al Uovo (a single large ravioli filled with ricotta, brown butter, and an egg yolk). Cutting into the raviolo mixes the runny yolk and brown butter, creating a thick sauce that is lick-off-the-plate good. The Agnolotti (sweet corn ravioli) will make you smile. They are the perfect summer pasta dish. Finally, the Spaghetti alla Carbonara, while a bit heavy for this time of year, is a well-done classic. The spaghetti is refreshingly al dente and the guanciale (like bacon, but cured pigs jowl instead of belly) has a great peppery kick.

When in Rome, go all out. If you’re dining with a party of four or more, get the Maialino al Forno as an entree. This is the restaurants central dish: whole roasted pork loin, belly, ribs, and shoulder. The skin is crackly, the meat tender, and the rosemary potatoes that lie underneath are surprisingly good. If you are in a lighter mood, the Spigola (sea bass with squash and summer bean salad) is expertly cooked, and the beans are more flavorful than one could ever expect from such a humble accompaniment. Side dishes like summer beans with lemon and garlic (all straight from the Union Square Greenmarket) are delicious, but overpriced (between $9 and $11) for what they are.

End the meal simply with pastry chef Jennifer Shelbo’s homemade gelato. The cinnamon toast flavor is a fun choice, and the dark chocolate is rich, pleasantly bitter, and rounded out with a subtle hint of spice.

Maialino isn’t cheap, but it isn't out-of-reach expensive either. The pasta dishes especially, which run around $16, are worth every penny.

This restaurant brings together everything I look for in a great place to eat out: genuinely friendly service, a fun vibe, a comfortable design, and delicious, simple food.