good shmeats

one food-loving vegetarian taking New York City's restaurants one plate at a time.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Artisanal Bistro - Gramercy

Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro
32nd Street between Park and Madison

A good meal takes time. This fundamental law of culinary physics is regularly broken in our frantic, fast-paced city. All too often, the food we eat serves as a brief waystation between activities and not the celebration we might like it to be. Fortunately, the creative forces behind Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro understand the importance of time; time to create beautiful, fully-realized cheeses, and time granted to customers to fully-enjoy their craftsmanship.

Walking into Artisanal's spacious bistro, I was hit with an intoxicating waft of sharp cheese. This smell lures some customers directly to Artisanal's fromagerie counter, where one can sample and purchase sturdy hunks (or melting slabs) of earthy Italian pecorinos, fudgy blues from France, and buttery Vermont cheddars. The cheese staff (which includes a college friend of mine, Charles) effortlessly shares the stories, methods, and quirks that make each of Artisanal's 200-plus cheeses distinctive. Artisanal also offers a series of classes, events, and internships for cheese die-hards at their Artisanal Premium Cheese Center on 37th street and 10th Avenue.

Those who stay and dine at Artisanal Bistro are invited in by elegant red walls, gleaming brass furnishings, high ceilings, and immaculately crisp tablecloths. The space has a polished air that is reminiscent of the high-society 1930's era. If smoking was still allowed in New York City's restaurants, monogrammed silver cigarette cases would be on every table, and long-stemmed holders would rest between every pair of red lips. The wait staff at Artisanal glides between tables like polished professionals who are serving a dining experience as well as plates of food. As someone who only occasionally inhabits the explicitly upscale scenes of New York, dining at Artisanal felt a little like playing dress up.

The three-hour dinner my friend Cat and I shared started with bite-sized Parmesanan puffs (which I compared to airy macaroons) and a crab salad that was topped with a spray of shredded greens. The crab dish was served with compliments from the kitchen for being a friend of a staff member. I was somewhat embarrassed to send back such a generous gift, but I did devour the tasting-plate of gnocchi which arrived, also unannounced, shortly after. The gnocchi was billowy, crispy and lightly bathed in brown butter. The savory nuggets paired beautifully with the bottle of peppery Cotes du Rhone that Cat instinctively selected from the extensive wine list (and which our attentive sommelier confirmed was a worthy choice).

I followed the gnocchi appetizer with a dish of Pumpkin and Mushroom Risotto. The short-grained rice was delicately dressed in an aromatic sauce. Nibbles of pumpkin and mushroom thickened each bite, and the whole dish was dotted with toasted pumpkin seeds. Delicious as it was, I was pleased that the portion was modest - allowing me room for another course, another glass of wine, another hour of savored dining.

Midway through our Cotes du Rhone, Charles brought out a gorgeous plate of six cheeses, which he compiled from some of his own favorites. As he explained the selection, he revealed that Artisanal serves all cheese plates with the mildest cheese placed in front of the lady. (My gut reaction is to disapprove of this outdated practice, but since I was playing fantasy dress-up for the evening, I let it go). With two women at the table, Charles diplomatically placed the most delicate cheese halfway between myself and Cat.

Our cheese plate included, from mildest to most piquant: A Chabichou du Poitou from France (delicate and slightly acidic), a Robiola La Rossa from Italy (cherry-essence and soft), an Abbey de Bellocq from France (burnt caramel flavor), a Pecorino Walnut from Italy (nutty and firm), a Roomano from Holland (caramelized and sturdy), and a Rogue River Blue from Oregon (tangy and crumbly). Cat and I both favored the Robiola La Rossa. When allowed to linger on the tongue, the flavors of this cheese complexified and deepened several times over. Never a fan of blue cheeses, I sampled but mostly avoided the Rogue River Blue.

We finished our dinner with a Bouchon Chocolat with Orange Ice Cream, which we found out translates to a "cork" of chocolate. Indeed, this rich cake was both the shape and size of a wine cork propped upside-down on the plate. A scoop of velvety orange-flavored ice cream melted wonderfully into the porous cork cake. With Bacchalian delight and sincere reverence, we toasted the end of our meal and drank the last drops of wine from our glasses.

Leaving Artisanal, I thought that Slow Food - an organization devoted to the enjoyment of lengthy, well-crafted meals - would have been proud of our meal at Artisanal. Certainly after a long week of deadlines, running around the city, and abbreviated meals, our evening at Artisanal was a perfect fantasy.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Dancing to Debbie Friedman

This has nothing to do with food - but good times should be shared.

Dancing to Debbie

(the file might take a minute or two to load)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Freemans - Lower East Side

End of Freeman Alley, off Rivington between Bowery and Chrystie st.

To enter Freemans (a cozy, English-inspired American restaurant on the Lower East Side), one has to venture down a dimly-lit and seemingly forgotten alley. Luckily, this activity is not as anxiety-inducing as it once was. The effect, however, is still considerable – like breaking down on the side of a deserted road at night, and noticing a solitary cabin glowing safely in the horizon.

The walls inside Freemans are decorated – no covered – with animal busts: the standard deer heads are mounted alongside ox, wild boar, and even a goose, eternally suspended in mid-flight. There are six of them in all crowding the walls, not including various displays of horn and antlers and a human pygmy skull resting above the bar on a faded mantle. Despite my initial shock at so many dead animals (not to mention my solid commitment to vegetarianism), I actually found the critters contextually pleasant against the deep brown wood tables, purposefully peeling-paint, soft lighting, and exposed brick – they would fit in perfectly (if a little creepily) in my little cabin.

Even more pleasant was the glass of wine I ordered while waiting for my friend. Described as having "a bouquet of blackfruits and hints of white pepper," this French wine - Coistieres de Nimes, Les Galets Rouge ($8), was sturdy and warming. It set the mood perfectly for the triumphant meal I was about to eat.

Our waiter, a handsome flirt in a deconstructed t-shirt, graciously answered our questions, including my only half-joking inquiry if Devils on Horseback ($6) were bulls' testicles. Some free-associating memory synapse fired in my brain, which prompted the embarassing question. Hey, with that many dead animals on the walls... (For the curious, they're actually stuffed prunes wrapped in bacon - which I find an equally strange culinary creation).

My friend and I began our meal with a Winter Salad of fennel, clementines, pecans and celery root in sherry-truffle oil. I expected the overly-sweet and overly-dressed salad that trendy restaurants often make the mistake of serving. What we received was a crisp salad with a delightfully subtle blend of flavors and textures. It was equally refreshing and sophisticated.

For dinner, my friend considered ordering a Venison Stew with Roasted Butternut Squash and Creme Fraiche ($20), but decided instead on Trout with Lemon and Thyme ($16). Although I didn't taste it, I was impressed by the trout's deeply hued skin, which encased tender white flesh and a several full sprigs of thyme.

I ordered macaroni and cheese ($10) - the only vegetarian entree - and, at our waiter's suggestion, a side of buttered brussel sprouts. This meal defied my usual, "don't order what you can cook at home" rule, but I was nonetheless fully-satisfied. The brussel sprouts were boiled al dente and sauteed in copious pats of butter. I have been roasting brussel sprouts at home lately, so the boiled softness was a welcome change.

The macaroni and cheese is among best I have eaten. The delicate crunch of the breadcrumb crust gave way to an underbelly of chewy noodles coated in rich cheese sauce. Hints of nutmeg and translucent bites of onion complexified the sauce. Blissed out and satiated, I happily shared tastes of my meal with my friend. As he cleared our plates, our waiter revealed that he eats this same mac and cheese and brussel sprouts combination nearly every day when his shift ends. Swoon.

Full but hesitant to refuse dessert after such a sublime meal, my friend and I split a Vanilla Custard with Blueberry Compote. The silky custard, which came in a mason jar, was light but disappointingly noncommittal in flavor. It was accompanied by a dish of sauced blueberries, which my friend astutely observed were likely frozen. Overall the dessert was not a hightlight of the meal, but I did appreciate sipping the glass of soft, almond-scented sherry that my friend ordered alongside it.

With its back-alley location and embrace of taxidermy, Freemans is one of the quirkier restaurants I have visited in New York. But the food, ambiance (and handsome waitstaff!) make dining at Freemans well-worth the venture down the alley.

A tip for Freemans: Despite being slightly out-of-the-way, Freemans is popular amongst the Lower East Side's trendy crowd and fills up quickly. Arrive well before 7pm to ensure quick seating and before 7:15pm to avoid a significant wait.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Cold night, warm fruit

Tonight I got home from a four-day conference to find a bowl of neglected, overripe fruit sitting on my counter. I haven't been craving fresh fruit much this winter, aside from the tart Spanish clemintines that peak this time of year.

So, I decided to dehydrate - a friend of mine recently tipped me off to the ease of drying fresh fruit. No multi-tiered plastic dehydrating contraption is necessary - all one needs is a cooling rack, a low-temperature oven, and time. Slice the fruit into even discs (I had a honeycrisp apple and a bosc pair) and let it sit in a 100 degree oven for about 3 hours, or until the plumpness is replaced by wrinkles. Feel free to do laundry or go out for coffee and forget about the fruit as it dries. My friend told me she once accidentally left apple slices in the oven overnight and woke up to crispy, but still edible fruit.

Warm, sweet, and chewy- the dried fruit was perfect snack for a winter night (no, I'm lying - I made chocolate chip cookies too).

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Tenement - Lower East Side

well, not quite.

157 Ludlow Street (between Stanton and Rivington)

My trip to Tenement - a Lower East Side restaurant and lounge - began when my friend Tyler said, “I’ll take you out to dinner - my treat if you review it.” (Thanks Tyler, and may that be inspiration to anyone who reads this blog.)

The Lower East Side is no longer the overstuffed but vibrant immigrant stomping ground it once was. The kosher butchers, clotheslines, and barefoot children crowding on fire escapes (not to mention the sweatshops) are gone. Avenue B may still be crowded, but these days its all hipsters with side parts and hangovers. And aside from the relic-turned-trendy-latenight-hotspot, Katz’s Deli (which opened in 1888), the possibility of purchasing an egg cream has dropped significantly.

I'm not overly nostalgic for a Lower East Side I never knew. Aside from reading A Bintel Brief in college, I have little personal connection to this patch of urban island history. Still, I hoped that Tenement might take the opportunity to capture some essence of the old-world Lower East Side that its namesake evokes. But except for some wrought iron and two framed photos of immigrant shop keepers, Tenement looked like any other lovely Lower East Side eating establishment, circa 2006.

Tenement's menu did attempt a few appetizers that payed homage to the Lower East Side's immigrant mix: Potato and Cheese Pierogis with Caramelized Onion, Vegetable Spring Rolls, and Fresh Mozarella and Pesto with Balsamic/Port Reduction. Tyler and I sampled the Potato Pancakes (he dared me to ask for latkes, but I demured). We heaped tart apple/pineapple sauce and chived sour cream on top of the crispy brown circles, allowing the flavors of childhood to adjust to these more sophisticated relishes. Unlike the latkes I grew up on each Chanukah - which seemed to flow miraculously from the frying pan - we had to stop with one each.

The Baked Brie Salad I had for dinner was outstanding, though hardly reminiscent of the impoverished immigrant experience. Four thick medallions of brie encased a fragrant compote of apricot and raisins. The brie sandwiches rested on a bed of pristine mesclun greens dressed in a sweet vinaigrette. Chilled butter on the cornbread muffins that came with our meal rounded out this ambrosial salad.

I talked Tyler into splitting a Banana's Foster for dessert, promising a mix of flame softened rum and caramalized sugar. Tenement paired the dish with vanilla ice cream, but we noted cinnamon ice cream written further down on the menu, and requested a swap. The cold, brown-flecked mound melted sumptuously between the delicate layers of banana. I was jealous of every bite Tyler took.

Muckracking journalist and 20th century photo-journalist of the Lower East Side Jacob Riis would not have recognized "Tenement," where Tyler and I dined - nor the surrounding neighborhood. But perhaps - like many New Yorkers who have witnessed endless neighborhood transformations - he would not be surprised either. Before leaving, I asked our waitress if the building had once been an actual tenement building. She smiled and said, "Oh, it's been lots of things."

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Long Tan - Park Slope

Long Tan
196 5th Avenue (between Union and Berkley)
Brooklyn, NY

I adore living in Park Slope - it is friendly, familiar, and manages to maintain a counter culture edge, despite the plethora of strollers wheeling around Seventh Avenue. But until recently, I did not take dining in Park Slope seriously. There seemed to be a few acceptable places to take visiting parents, but I rarely invited friends to my neighborhood to eat dinner, unless I was cooking for them. Recently, however (over the last five years and especially in the last two), an influx of new restaurants has left Fifth Avenue glittering with culinary jewels.

Long Tan on Fifth and Union Street is certainly among these new treasures.

Long Tan doubles as a Thai restaurant and a hipster-friendly bar. Stepping inside, guests are visually greeted with warm reds, browns, and golds (which felt especially welcome on a cold, slushy night.) The decor is polished, but not oppressively glossy or sleek. Modern, angular design is softened by natural touches like billowy paper lanterns and oversized cherry branches resting in vases around the room. I had felt hesitant to leave my apartment the day after New Year's Eve with a scratchy throat and encroaching stuffy nose. But I soon realized that Long Tan felt as comfortable as my living room - and quite a bit classier.

Hoping to warm ourselves quickly, my friend and I scanned the lengthy drink list. A quick discussion concluded that it probably isn't wise to order a mojito from a bar linked to a Thai (and not a Cuban) restaurant. She decided on a ginger kamikaze (ginger vodka, triple sec, and lime for $7). I sipped an uninspired glass of Australian shiraz ($6), growing a bit envious of my dinner mates slightly flushed cheeks.

Fortunately, our food came too quickly for me to dwell on my careless drink choice. My friend ordered a Beef Satay appetizer with Spicy Peanut Sauce ($6) and a Chicken Coconut Galangal Soup ($5). Galangal, our menu informed us, is a less spicy, more citrusy cousin of ginger.

I tried the Wok Seared Udon Noodles with Tofu and Asian Greens ($10). What arrived was an uncomplicated, steaming bowl of comfort food - oh, how did they know that was exactly what I needed? With my chopsticks, I hunted through the dish for the silky tofu chunks. The tofu was tender and giving and played a perfect foil to the chewy, shoe-string licorice noodles. The subtly spicy greens were accompanied by carrots and sauteed red onions. They were all wrapped in an accomplished sauce, layered with garlic, soy sauce and a shy hint of sweetness.

"How is everything?" our waitress asked. Good enough to stay for desert, we decided.

I completed my meal with a Pot de Creme ($6), which came in a ceramic brulee pot and topped - somewhat superfluously - with whipped cream. The fudgy chocolate cream stuck indecently to my spoon. I scooped out measured bites, acutely aware that each spoonful took me closer the inevitable end.

My friend and I talked, digested, and avoided leaving. When it became apparent that we were closing the place down (like most dual bar/restaurants, Long Tan's bar stays open later than the restaurant), we left and walked briskly down Fifth Avenue, huddled against the chill, headed home. Despite the cold and with Long Tan's glowing warmth still in mind, I peeked excitedly into other new restaurant windows along Fifth avenue, looking forward to the year to come.