Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Penne with rapini, anchovies, and bread crumbs

I was working late at the library tonight. Usually I would just get a burrito for dinner, but I had one for lunch and didn't feel like having a second one for dinner. I didn't have too much at home, but I figured I could, at the very least, whip up some sort of pasta dish. After a bit of foraging, I settled on rapini, a stale baguette, and anchovies as the main components for the dish.

Start by heating up a pot of water for the pasta, rinse the rapini and trim off the stems, mince two cloves of garlic, and chop up a few anchovies. To make bread crumbs, smash the stale bread into smaller pieces and transfer to a food processor to finish it off. Toast the bread crumbs in a pan with some olive oil and about 1/2 of the garlic.
When the water is boiling, salt the water and then drop the penne. Set a timer for 8 to 9 minutes. In a separate pan, cook the remaining garlic with the anchovies and some red pepper flakes in some olive oil.
Once the garlic gets to a golden brown color, add the rapini and toss. Add a splash of white wine to this mixture.
When the pasta is done, toss it in with the rapini mixture along with half of the bread crumbs and a grating of Parmessan or Pecorino.
Plate and top with more cheese, the remaining bread crumbs, a drizzle of high quality balsamic vinegar and olive oil (preferably Tuscan), and pepper. This all should take about 20 minutes max.

Fettucine with Corn, Crab, and Shrimp

When Abby and I went to Esca, we had this great dish of soft scrambled eggs with crab and corn. I really liked this combination, so I decided to see how it would work with pasta. It turns out that his combination works quite well, and it takes no time at all to make. Start by boiling water for the pasta. Add the corn to the boiling water and cook for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, make a cream sauce in a separate pan with about 4-5 Tbsp butter, and equal amount of heavy cream, and about 1/4 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Keep this warm over low heat, stirring occasionally. When the corn is done, cut the kernels off of the cob and add to a pan with a tablespoon of butter. If you have some pancetta on hand, cut about 4 or 5 slices into thin strips and add this as well. After about a minute, add a handful of shrimp -I think I had about 8 shrimp - and then after another minute or two add about 1/4 cup of crab meat and season with salt and pepper. When you add the crab meat, drop the pasta (use about 3/4 lbs of fresh pasta here) and let it cook for one or two minutes, then add to the pan with the corn/shrimp crab mixture. Toss this with the cream sauce and then finish it off with lemon zest.

Grilled pork chops with vinegared peppers and onions

I didn't get a good photo of this dish, but it tasted a lot better than it looks. I was able to get some pretty thick pork chops from Savenors, and Andre grilled these while I put together the peppers and onion and saffron risotto. For the peppers and onions, just cut a red and yellow bell pepper and an onion into long strips and cook over moderate heat until soft. Add a dash of balsamic vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Add a little bit of vinegar at a time until you get the desired taste. Since this is sort of a condiment for the pork chops, you want these to be pretty tart. If the vinegar reduces too much and starts sticking to the pan, just add a few tablespoon of water to loosen things up. For the risotto, dice up about half and onion and a couple cloves of garlic. Cook until soft an add about a cup of arborio rice. Add warm broth a ladle full at a time and stir constantly. The rice will absorb the broth, so keep adding more broth to maintain a sort of runny consistency. Add a pinch of saffron midway through cooking. The risotto will be done when there is just a little bit of bite left to the grains of rice, but all of the chalkiness is gone. Just keep tasting it until it gets to the consistency you like. Season with salt and pepper and finish the risotto with a tablespoon of butter and a generous grating of Parmesan cheese. The risotto can actually be cooked until almost done ahead of time and then reheated and finished off at the last minute.

Stewed chickpeas

The stewed chickpeas in this dish make a nice meal on their own and provide a nice alternative to rice, pasta, or potatoes if you insist on having some sort of carb as a base of your meals. Start with a finely diced mirepoix for a base - onions, carrots, and celery - with a couple cloves of garlic. Add a drained can of chickpeas, a bit of vegetable broth, and a bay leaf and let simmer. If you have any basic tomato sauce lying around, add a bit of this for some color, then season with salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and cumin. If you can get your hands on some smoked paprika, add this as well. If not, just use regular paprika. I served this with garlic sauted kale. The chicken was butterflied, pounded thin, seasoned with salt, pepper and ras al hanout, rolled up into cylinders, wrapped in plastic wrap gently steamed. When steamed through, brown the chicken in a saute pan and slice across to serve.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Chicken under a brick

This is a really fun way to grill chicken, and for some reason, using the bricks makes the skin perfectly crispy. It comes out a little charred, but it tastes great.

I started by cutting out the spine and flattening the carcass. To do this, you may need to crack the breast bone. Trim off the wing tips and excess fat. Fat from the chicken will render during cooking, and too much fat dripping off of the chicken and cause flare ups. Next, I mixed together a paste of chopped garlic, thyme, lemon zest, salt, pepper, and olive oil and spread this both over the surface of the chicken and in between the skin and the flesh of the chicken breast. Its good to get this step done pretty far in advance to let the flavors penetrate the meat.

To set up the grill, spread out coals over about half of the grill. This way you can move the chicken to the cooler side in case it starts to char too much. Make sure the grates are clean and well oiled, and preheat a brick wrapped in foil (use an oven mitt to move the brick around). Place the chicken skin side down and put the brick on top of the chicken. Grill for about 10 minutes over indirect heat, flip and cook for another 15 minutes skin side up, still with the brick on top. Finally, cook skin side down for 5 minutes over the coals to make sure the skin is nice and crispy. When I cooked it, I started the chicken out over the coals, but I thought the skin got a little too charred. I think shifting to indirect heat should solve that problem. Let the chicken rest for about 5 to 10 minutes before carving it up and serving.

I also made grilled potatoes and scallions to accompany the chicken.

Monday, July 7, 2008


Esca was the one Batali-Bastianich restaurant that Abby and I had not eaten at yet. After a weekend of heavy eating, we were both in the mood for something a little lighter, so it was the perfect time to try out this Hell's Kitchen seafood restaurant. It was awesome. Esca is famous for popularizing crudo - basically, Italian-style sashimi - in the United States. In fact, the claim is that one of the restaurant's investors, Joe Bastianich, coined the term crudo for these raw fish preparations when he, Mario Batali, and Chef Dave Pasternak were traveling around Italy doing research before opening Esca. If you go here, you absolutely have to order the crudo tasting.

The crudo tasting comes in two flights of three. Each flight is served in a tri-sectioned plate on a bed of crushed ice. This keeps everything cool and makes for a great presentation. The first flight we received had a distinct Pacific Northwest feel, which, of course, I really liked. Going from top to bottom, we had an oyster - I don't know the origin, but it would make sense if it was from somewhere in the Puget Sound/Olympic Peninsula region - followed by geoduck with cherries, and wild salmon with pink peppercorns. These were all very good, but I liked the geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck, also referred to as giant clam) the most. Geoducks are native to Western Washington, and you'll see people digging them up almost anytime you go to a beach around the Puget sound. Cherries are another local fruit, and the combination evokes summer in the Pacific Northwest, which is about as good as it gets.

The next flight of crudo included seared yellowtail tuna
Kingfish with caviar (This was also awesome. I'm not sure which one I liked more, this or the geoduck), and razor clam with some hot chiles.
After the crudo, we ordered an appetizer that was lightly scrambled eggs loaded with sweet corn and lump crab meat. This is something that I'll have to make at home. The sweetness of the corn and crab are ideal complements, and the still runny scrambled egg perfectly tied them together.

Next, we split an order of hand cut spaghetti with crab and sea urchin roe. Sea urchin in pasta is something I never would have thought of, but it worked really well. This was a very unique and surprisingly good dish.
Finally, we had pan roasted red snapper with arugula, olives and hearts of palm. The snapper was perfectly cooked. A great dish.
After trying all the Batali-Bastianich restaurants, this one ranks right near the top. Esca lacks the fame and formality of Babbo and Del Posto, but I think I actually enjoyed the food here more. More than anything, this probably has more to do with the fact that they were serving seafood than any other factor. With seafood, you can really tell when someone uses high quality ingredients and treats it just right. This clearly comes through at Esca. It was worth every penny.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Mary's Fish Camp

Mary's Fish Camp is located on a quiet corner in Greenwich village, but it might was well be in a small town on the Cape. The restaurant is small, without being overly crowded, and a large metal counter sweeps through the center of the room, dividing the small dining area from the kitchen. The two walls facing the street are almost entirely glass, letting in a lot of light and lending to the coastal feel of the place. Vases with reeds sit on the window sills. These sort of remind me of the coastal vegetation you would see in a place like the Outer Banks. The interior walls were adorned with a painting of a sad looking fish and a chalkboard with the day's menu.

This restaurant is known for its unfussy preparation of really fresh ingredients. Its the kind of place where you can get a whole fish grilled with a little salt and pepper and a spritz of lemon juice. We ordered cockles with white beans and garlic for an appetizer, I had a spicy fried sardine sandwich, and Abby ordered the oyster po' boy. We both loved the appetizer. I thought my sandwich was great, but Abby was not impressed by the po' boy. It was good, but didn't measure up to our current standard, the Barking Carb in Boston. Even so, I would recommend this place. Prices were decent, the food was good, and the atmosphere is nice.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Mesa Grill

Bobby Flay might just be my favorite TV celebrity chef. Years ago, I bought one of his grilling cookbooks, and it remains one of my favorites. Not having a grill - or a yard, for that matter - I haven't used it much since I moved to Boston, but back when I lived in DC I would make something directly from this cookbook or directly inspired by something in the cookbook on a fairly regular basis. All of the recipes have been consistently good. Naturally, I couldn't spend a summer eating in New York and not try one of Flay's restaurants.

I can't really compare this place to many of the other restaurants I have been to recently for a couple of reasons. First, we sat at the bar, and, second, we weren't that hungry, so we just ordered a bunch of appetizers.

We started out with a flight of three different ceviches: sea scallop with tomatillo and orange, shrimp with pickled hot and sweet peppers, and lobster and octopus with yellow pepper and smoke paprika. I thought that these were all really good, but I liked the lobster and octopus ceviche the most. (As an aside, the best ceviche I have ever had was at this sushi place that Abby and I went to when she was living in Santiago, Chile. I can't remember the name, but it was in Plaza Nunoa. If you are ever in that city, check it out.)

After the ceviche, we tried the dishes pictured below.

Barbecued country ribs with mango habanero glaze and green onion peanut relish. These were really tender and the peanuts created a nice textural contrast. The sauce was awesome. That's something I could say about all of his dishes. I think bold, interesting sauces are sort of a Flay signature. Tequila cured salmon and cripy squash blossom salad with roasted lime vinaigrette. This was my least favorite dish, but it was still pretty good.
Shrimp and roasted garlic corn tamale with fresh corn and cilantro sauce. I didn't actually try this one, but it got rave reviews at our table. It looks great.
Barbecued pork and Oaxaca cheesee quesadilla with hot and sweet cabbage relish. This one was sort of mundane, but it was still tasty. I just wouldn't have paid $13 for it.
Blue corn pancake with barbecued duck and habanero chile-star anise sauce. This was my favorite appetizer. It is one of the restaurants most popular appetizers with good reason.
Vanilla, Sevilla orange and creme fraiche flan with blueberry salad and orange sage caramel. I thought this was a really good flan. It had the perfect level of citrus accent, which made the flavor really bright, for lack of a better word. The blueberries mixed with the orange sauce and some candied orange zest were great.
Chocolate and dulce de leche layer cake. I only had a bite of this one. It was very rich, but very good. If you like chocolate, this is your kind of dessert.
In total, I thought that this was pretty good food, but I thought you were definitely paying for some combination of the location (right near Union Square) and the celebrity brand. Most of the appetizers were around $15 and most of the entrees were over $30. At those prices, I would expect something much more formal than the dining experience offered at the Mesa Grill. So, it was good food, but overpriced.

The Spotted Pig

I forgot my camera, so I don't have any pictures for this review, which is too bad. We ate lunch here, and we probably could have snapped some decent photos since we actually had some honest to goodness sunlight - not the dim lighting of your typically evening dinning room. Anyway, on with the review.

I had heard a lot about the Pig. The head chef, April Bloomfield recently had a strong showing on Iron Chef and made a cameo on Top Chef last season; Anthony Bourdain listed this as one of his favorite places on a recent episode of No Reservations; and this Greenwich Village gastro-pub has received glowing reviews from just about every critic that walked through the door. It has one Michelin star and is a "Top Pick" of the New York Times. Friends I talked to said that they tried to eat there twice, and both times were rebuffed by the three hour wait times (reservations not accepted at this place). In short, this place is scorching hot right now. It may be one of the trendiest restaurants to be seen at this season. Given all the hype, I expected to love the place. It was good. I love food and would be hard pressed to find a meal that I don't like, so "good" is a bit of a lukewarm review. I'll include the caveat that I ate lunch here, so the menu was limited, but the full dinner menu didn't include a ton of additional options. On the website, I saw pictures of servers maneuvering through crowds with plates bearing half of a pigs head or pieces of roasted marrow. That's the sort of food I was hoping for, and was disappointed to not find it on the menu.

When we walked in, we didn't have to wait too long to get a seat at the bar, where I quickly ordered a Bloody Mary - they are supposed to be amazing. It was nice and thick with a decent amount of horseradish and garnished with a pickled green bean. It was...here's that word again...good.

It only took about 15 minutes to get seated at a nice table upstairs. The upstairs dining room has an additional bar and is significantly more spacious than the first floor. Like the first floor, every inch of the walls are covered with some sort of kitschy decoration. Most of the decorations have a pig theme, but there are several illustrations of vegetables and other bucolic subjects. A couple of large mirrors with menus and beer-lists scrawled across their surfaces adorn two of the walls upstairs and help open the space up a bit. I loved the decor. Very cool.

Once seated, we ordered the deviled eggs and chicken liver toast. Both of these were good, simple dishes. The egg tasted like it had a bit of vinegar in it, giving it a bit more of a kick than your typical deviled egg. I'm not sure why I keep ordering chicken liver dishes. I don't really like chicken liver, but I feel like I should, as a non-vegetarian foodie. Anyway, I actually thought this was pretty good for a chicken liver dish. The liver was seasoned and blended into a fairly loose spread and served on grilled toasts. Charred bits of bread really complemented the liver flavor well.

For our main courses, Abby and I orderd the gnudi (a ricotta dumpling served with brown butter and crispy sage) and the ricotta and prosciutto tart with marjoram. The gnudi were good, but they seemed a little out of place on an the menu for an English gastro pub. I guess they are a popular dish, though. So, give the customers what they want, right? The tart seemed like a more fitting menu option, and the crispy pastry shell, the saltiness of the prosciutto, and the sour taste of the ricotta all went together quite well. These were good dishes, but would I wait three hours for them? Not a chance.

The atmosphere alone probably makes this place worth going to, but I don't think its worth a long wait (I MIGHT wait for an hour to eat here). You also have to pay quite a bit for what you get. One diner sitting next to me looked shocked when he was served the bib lettuce salad ($14). It was a plate of lettuce, lightly dressed with a light vinaigrette (probably oil and lemon) and a light sprinkling of herbs. I think a problem was in the presentation. It looked like a naked plate of lettuce. Hardly the kind of thing you want to pay more than a couple bucks for, even if it is some damn good lettuce.

My recommendation would be to go here during lunch when the wait is more reasonable or wait a few months and see if the hype dies down and the crowds get more manageable. Even though I wasn't totally impressed by my first trip, I would definitely go back. There are several other menu options that I would like to try out before going against the conventional wisdom and saying that this place is overrated. Again, I really want to love this place and hope that future visits will change my mind.