Restaurant Week 2.0: Lunch at Nobu

As promised, it’s August 1st and we’re back up and running. It’s been more than 90 degrees for the past week with no relief, and all I want to eat is gazpacho and sushi.

It’s Restaurant Week again in NYC, and this time I’m a modicum smarter when I comes to picking restaurants. Here are a few tips that will help make Restaurant Week (which is really four weeks) much more delicious and enjoyable, and help to avoid those restaurants that slap anything on the menu, whether they made it in-house or not.

1.) If your schedule allows, go for lunch. It’s only $25 for three courses versus the $38 for dinner, which usually are the same three dishes. This time around my lunch schedule is more flexible, and my wallet and I are relieved.

2.) Pick either a restaurant you already know and love or a renowned, five-star kind of place. If it’s already in your restaurant roundup (like Bar Primi is for me – they have a nice little menu going right now that I enjoyed last week), it’s likely they’ll have some tasty dishes lined up. Otherwise, go for a restaurant that has a stellar reputation. Even though you’re getting a cheap meal, an upscale restaurant still has a great deal of pride in anything they turn out.

3.) Skip the wine. Yes, you heard me – in fact skip all alcohol (you are going out to lunch, not dinner after all) unless the restaurant also has special Restaurant Week deals on cocktails, like Nobu does. Don’t let them pressure you – a good restaurant shouldn’t, anyway – or your thrifty meal suddenly skyrockets. Don’t forget there’s still tax and tip to contend with.

4.) Since you’re going to a popular restaurant, make reservations early, because slots fill up fast. If not, go anyway and sit at the bar. I may be in the minority, but I usually have a better time seated at the bar than a table. It’s more casual, so waiters are less likely to try to up-sell items to you, bartenders love talking to people, and at a place like Nobu, it’s free entertainment to watch all the sushi chefs lined up in a row with their starched white uniforms working in unison to make world-class sushi.

5.) Don’t get the chicken. It’s an entrée on almost all the menus because it’s cheap, but you’re better than that. Get something you wouldn’t make at home.

I followed all these rules and had a great experience at Nobu, a place which I normally would drool over the menu online but not actually be motivated enough to spend that kind of dough.

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Lunch started off with this little salad with tart and tangy Matsuhisa dressing and two melt-in-your mouth slices of sashimi.

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I was a little shocked when this board of sushi came next – I mean, a much lower quality version can be had at Whole Foods for $15, and the three courses altogether were only $25. Buttery white fishes, rich salmon, meaty tuna, fresh wasabi… so good. One of the sushi chefs caught me watching him work, and gave me a wide, toothy grin.

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Another perk was that the woman next to me eschewed the third course, dessert (what a weirdo). I had chosen the coconut lychee panna cotta; exotic, cool, and refreshing, complemented by crunchy pistachios and raspberry sauce. The waiter also brought the other choice, the Earl Grey crème brûlée, saying since the other woman didn’t want it I could try it. It could have been a little colder and baked slightly more (better than overcooked, though), but it was decadently creamy and rich with a gentle tea flavor.

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After an hour in the cool recesses of Nobu, you could almost forget about the heat wave outside.

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Written in Chocolate Takes a Summer Break

I’m currently in an intensive training program and master’s program, which leaves me little no time to write about delicious foods, although I’ve still been eating them! I’ll be back in August with some new foodie adventures.

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The Great Bread Quest

Ever since I visited California recently, I can’t stop thinking about the bread I had that was sold out of a neighborhood garage.

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It was so, so good — the kind that has crust that crackles, and the aroma that transforms the notions of “warm” and “clean” into scent. Baking bread is my No. 1 favorite scent, and it’s always held a certain fascination that the humble ingredients of flour, water, salt, and time (yes, time is an ingredient) can create something so radically different and vastly more incredible than its parts.

I decided to tackle sourdough bread. Sourdough begins with the wild yeasts floating around in the air settling onto your “starter” of flour and water and beginning to feed. Once you have a live culture going, you have to remember to “feed” it periodically with more flour and water.

Since it’s kind of like having to feed a pet, people often name their starters. Mine is called Clive, and some portion of it has been alive and kicking for a great deal of time. I got it from my mother-in-law-for-all-intensive-purposes, and she wrote “it was known to be alive and well in Petersburg, Alaska for at least 100 years with provenance of San Francisco, via steam ship most likely.”

She called hers Pete. When I worked as a pastry chef in New Zealand, one of my many tasks was to regularly feed Leroy, a huge starter located in a bucket that occupied a large portion of my counter space. You see the pattern.

Since there are so few ingredients, the flavor and texture of the bread come down to skill and finesse. I’ve never really made great bread – at least not up to my idolized standards. I’ve churned out some decent focaccia, can make good pizza crust and can whip up some beer bread dough in one minute flat, but the simple elegance of the common white loaf has eluded me. (This includes my short stint working at a country club, where I had to get up at the crack of dawn to mix massive batches of dough – the salt portion alone was one pound. The batches were so big that we didn’t have a mixer large enough to accommodate the dough once it began to rise, and so periodically great, doughy arms began to reach out of the bowl down to the floor, and I’d have to sprint over from whatever else I was doing to punch it back down. But I digress.)

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I began by fetching Clive from the fridge and revitalizing it with enough flour and lukewarm water until I had the consistency of gravy, and let him out at room temperature for three days covered loosely with a tea towel until it had reached a very bubbly consistency.

Then I poured off some of the resulting alcohol (a by-product of the yeast feeding), put half a cup of Clive back in the fridge (you always have to keep some, you see) and added more flour and water until it became paste-like. That sat on the counter for another night, and the next day I divided my “starter” in half.

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One portion got wheat flour and regular bread flour; the other got just bread flour until they had a dough-like consistency. Both received about a tablespoon each of sugar and olive oil, and about a teaspoon of salt. Then I mixed them each for 10 minutes with the dough hook attachment until the gluten had fully developed and became stretchy.

Again the dough sat overnight, and on the eve of the actual bread-baking, I began thinking about the Christian version of how the world began. You know, “On the first day, God created the heavens and the Earth, and it was good. On the second day, God said let there be light, and he saw that it was good … on the last day, God rested.” On the seventh day, in my house, I created bread.

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Time to shape — the white got molded into a football shape, and the wheat plain round. Then I let them rise for about an hour on top of a hot oven, until they doubled in size, and then made slashes for appearance’s sake.

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Then it was time to bake. The first 10 minutes the loaves got a blast of steam created by throwing some ice cubes on a hot tray in the bottom of the oven at 450 degrees. This is to assist in crisp crust formation. Then I turned the oven down to 400 and let them bake for another 50 minutes or so, until the loaves sounded hollowed when I tapped the bottom.

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The result? Well, the plain white loaf needs some work. It had a pleasant sourdough flavor, but the crumb was dense and the crust too crunchy — and the appearance was a little strange with all those bubble formations on the crust, and it lacked an even, rich golden color.

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The wheat fared much better, which perplexes me, since they essentially got the same treatment. It looked better, had a softer crumb, and an appropriately crunchy crust.

So now it’s back to the drawing board to perfect technique — I’m sure using an actual recipe might help rather than just winging it; but do any bread makers out there have any tips concerning method?

The great bread quest continues.

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California Living

I love New York. I really do. I’m lucky to live here. But I might love California more. Spring and autumn are when New York really shines, but as soon as it starts to get slushy or muggy I’m a total turncoat. Even though it was cooler there than in NYC on a recent trip, I drank up every moment of sunshine, ocean views, and great food.

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There was tandem biking across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and this incredible dim sum at Ton Kiang, which was as good as my first visit six or seven years ago, back when I thought all Chinese food came in a greasy white take-out box.

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Spiky fried shrimp balls; wafer-thin crunchiness giving way to dense, meaty interiors.

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Crab-stuffed mushroom caps, piping hot and drizzled with sweet and sour sauce.

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Sunny custard tartlets, encased in a crust so light it dissolves on your tongue.

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“Eating local” in Santa Barbara often means whatever can be harvested from the backyard or the neighbor’s place. I ate the most wonderful bread, fresh from the oven with a soft crumb and crisp crust baked by my cousins’ next-door neighbor. His “shop” is only open for one hour a week on Saturdays, and word has spread. Cars line up on the street for this bread.

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We ate it with his hand-made goat cheese, procured from the goats in the backyard and honey from the beehives on the property. Pure bliss.

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Need eggs for baking? Just gather them from the coop out back – although you might need to quadruple the amount in a recipe.

Whenever I’m at a grocery store in New York, I buy lemons. I can’t seem to remember whether I’ve used up the latest stash in the fridge, and so I’m constantly picking up a few more “just in case,” for that extra bit of brightness they lend to almost any dish.

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I’d rather head to the tree than the store.

Some more noteworthy bites in a memorable west coast food tour:

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The perfect Mother’s Day picnic: roast beef sandwiches with local cheddar cheese, horseradish sauce, lettuce and tomato; spring peas that pop with sweetness tossed in olive oil with radishes and mint; arugula, goat cheese, strawberry and balsamic salad.

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Asparagus and pickled rhubarb salad with creamy dill dressing in San Francisco.

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Spring vegetable soup at a Santa Barbara popup restaurant. Fresh, sweet, and crisp, floating in a bacon-based broth with notes of smokiness bursting in the background.

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Sunshine, fish tacos, and $3 draft IPA.

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This view.

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‘Nuff said.

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California Dreamin’

I’m escaping NYC for awhile and spending some time in sunny California — updates when I get back!

In the meantime, take a look at some recent quick bites around the city:

Sweet treats from Prohibition Bakery: lemony flavored Bees Knees and White Russians. And yes, you really can taste the alcohol!

Sweet treats from Prohibition Bakery: lemony flavored Bees Knees and White Russians. And yes, you really can taste the alcohol!

Fried pickles at Sweetwater Social

Fried pickles at Sweetwater Social

A dim sum teaser at Hakkasan -- going back for a full round soon!

A dim sum teaser at Hakkasan — going back for a full round soon!

An oyster slider so tall it had to be turned on its side in order to get a good bite at Sweetwater Social

An oyster slider so tall it had to be turned on its side in order to get a good bite at Sweetwater Social

 

 

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The Upland Ups the Ante in the NYC Dining Scene

The Upland is the latest in the Starr Restaurant brat pack – the others of course being Morimoto, Buddakan, and El Vez.

More homey than the glitzy, nightclub feel of some of the others, The Upland is a place you can sit back and relax rather than crane your neck to take in all the cirque du soleil-like ambiance.  The restaurant style is deemed “Californian,” and the backlit preserved lemons in jars lining the shelves do indeed create a lemony glow; the one bright spot in the gray, slushy landscape that was Manhattan when we visited.

Pete Wells, the critic for the New York Times said earlier this year that “Go to the Upland” is his go-to answer for folks looking for a good new restaurant to try.  Pete, you haven’t failed me yet.

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Blistered shisito peppers are tender and mild, speckled with bottarga, a salty, exotic substance made from dried fish roe.  Pretty good, but were I to return I’d be turning my attention to the slow roasted celeriac with truffle butter.

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Don’t even get me started on the brioche. We had one okay, two loaves. Don’t judge. They were petite.

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The hamachi crudo was bracingly fresh, with an icy-silky broth of blended jicama, green apple and olive oil setting the stage for chunks of mild, meaty fish. A haphazard scatter of razor-thin radishes and fennel add the needed level of crunch and texture.

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Then there was this audacious dish with its firm, springy coils of house-made pasta coated in a semi- liquid chicken liver pate, which managed to be simultaneously decadent and original without being too heavy. Theres a round, sweet note of sherry. A crisp crack of fried sage, and rosemary lurking in the background. Curls of parmesan only add to perfection. This is worth going back for.

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Slow-cooked lamb neck was insanely good, generous enough already to yield leftovers, but with a pot of creamy, delicious polenta on the side to boot. The meat is falling-apart tender, akin to lamb shanks that have spent many lazy hours in the oven getting coaxed to meltingly tender at a low temperature. Aleppo peppers, espresso, and dates make unlikely bedfellows, but cooked down into a thick, coating sauce they elevate the dish to the next level.

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Maybe I judge dessert too harshly, but whatever, Pete agrees with me. The chocolate cake was sweet and rich, and certainly pretty with its slick, glossy sheen, but it didn’t have the level of sophistication the savory dishes brought to the table with their unusual ingredients and  impeccable flavor combinations. The menu said “orange chocolate” but I thought it more gingery with its snappy graham cracker base.

I’ll be back when I need a little west-coast respite from dear old NYC.

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Easter Brunch at Cookshop

I just found my new favorite brunch place. This is saying something in the oversaturated, overindulgent market in New York. Just ask the New York Times.

While I won’t go as far as to say Brunch is for Jerks, like that particular jaded columnist, sometimes I get annoyed waiting with the masses for Saturday night’s leftover protein du jour smothered in hollandaise and some bastardized version of a Bloody Mary.   I do not like my Mary tainted with tequila or smothered by a cheeseburger garnish. Puh-lease.

Cookshop  is a breath of fresh air. Located in west Chelsea opposite the Highline, with outdoor seating, you can’t ask for a better location, and around this time everyone is out in their springtime pastels deliriously giddy at the prospect of a +55 degree morning.

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Holidays are no time for restraint in my book, so we started with an “appetizer” of apple ricotta beignets, so light and fluffy it was like eating spiced clouds. I’m pretty sure they should jar and sell their homemade applesauce so I can eat it with a spoon whenever I want.

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The “Pickled Mary” is everything a Bloody Mary purist with a penchant for pickles could ask for: spicy, concentrated tomato flavor, lemony bright finish, a faint brininess and appropriate garnishes. Hallelujah. (You can, however get a BLT Mary or a Mexican spiced variety if you’re so inclined, but I will judge you.)

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Our waiter was so genuinely friendly that I forgive him for lying and saying the poached eggs would be too small a dish to share. It’s fairly substantial, but delicious. Earthy roasted oyster mushrooms and wilted spinach make a fine bed for perfectly poached eggs and a smattering of gremolata that perk up your taste buds.  Up until now my relationship status with grits has been “it’s complicated.” Always so satisfying in the moment; always sits like a brick in the stomach later. These cheesy grits are somehow creamy and rich while remaining almost as light as the beignets. Thank you, Cookshop wizards.

I’m already counting down to when I can return and try the cornmeal-jalapeno griddle cakes with tangerine curd and maple pecans.  Who’s with me?

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