Thursday, 18 August 2011

Two New Restaurants in NYC

ABC Kitchen, the latest in the Vongerichten empire, is a terrific new American restaurant; and Robata ya, on a street in the East Village lined with Japanese restaurants, is an authentic Robata (grill) unlike any I have seen outside of Japan.

I can always rely on my foodie cousin, Jenny, for the best recommendations in NYC. She seems to be the first one in every new and interesting restaurant as soon as it opens. Her suggestion that we try ABC Kitchen on our last outing met with my great enthusiasm.

Unlike his other fancy French or authentic Asian restaurants, Jean Georges Vongerichten has opened a quintessential American which is supplied by local organic farmers. The menu is a simple but attractive list of the daily offerings and on its back are the names of all the different producers from where he gets his ingredients. A varied à la carte menu is easy to navigate and one can order a number of small tasty appetizers to share for a lovely lunch, or move on to the main course dishes which are more substantial. The list of wines is also representative of different regions in the USA.

Jenny and I had a delicious lunch of five appetizers and two rich all-American desserts. The stunning crab toasts with lemon aioli were spectacular. Jenny had had these at another meal and I was happy that she was up for trying them once again. We also had a dish of raw diver scallops with sea beans, serrano chile, lime and a salty succulent seaweed that I know in France: salicorne. roasted beets with home made yogurt could not have been more attractive or more delicious. Two more salads followed: Roasted carrot and avocado with crunchy seeds, sour cream and citrus (this one was a bit too sour for me), and a phenomenal sugar snap pea salad with parmesan dressing and fines herbes.

With this meal, I had a glass of a Handley Cellars Chardonnay 2009, from Anderson Valley, California.

We had been so "good" with our salads, that I suggested we splurge on desserts. I was not sorry. The all-American carrot cake with cream cheese butter cream was sensational, as was the rhubarb almond crumble tart with rhubarb whipped cream. It is no wonder that Jenny enjoys going back to this place again and again.

Several days later, I met another cousin, Becca at Robata-ya. As I am interested in all things Japanese, I was intrigued when I read that on 9th Street in the East Village, a Japanese restaurateur had opened several new places. I chose Robata-ya because I love the robata grills and they are few and far between outside of Japan.

When I reserved, I knew that it would be important to sit at the counter. So often in Japanese restaurants, sitting at tables is much less interesting and exciting than at the counter, where one can see the preparation of the food.

At Robata-ya, all the ingredients are arranged around the customer-side of the counter, and of course, the chefs are behind it. when you order, it is not unusual to see a chef jump on to the counter to reach the fish or the vegetables you have chosen. The food is then grilled, and the chef "hands" it to you when ready on a large paddle with a long handle (see photos). With our meal we had boxes of cold sake, and frankly, could not have had a more fun and delicious time.

To start, our neighbors at the counter recommended that we try the goma kanpachi which is sashimi of yellowtail (my favorite) dusted with sesame seeds. After that, we chose kaki karaage served in a lovely cool broth. This is a dish of succulent fried oysters and they are truly excellent. I suggested grilled corn on the cob, and a variety of grilled Japanese mushrooms. We had grilled el hire--dried stingray that you dip in mayonnaise. Our pièce de resistance was a whole grilled rainbow trout which was wonderful.

Ordering is made easier both because all the ingredients are in front of you and also because there are many photos in the menu itself. Informative as well as the recommendations from the other people at the counter.

As with all Japanese food, the meal was simple, beautifully prepared and practically fat free. So there was definitely room to order a light dessert: green tea ice cream with malt powder.

Robata ya is a wonderful place to go for a great meal and an amusing show. It makes dining out a lot of fun. I could have sat and watched the chefs jumping on the counter and serving the food for hours.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Boston: An Old Favorite and Two new Middle Eastern Gems

The Daily Catch, a staple in the life of two old friends; Oleana and Sofra--two popular places in Cambridge, MA.

When Carol came to visit me in Paris, she told me about her favorite seafood place in Brookline, MA where for very little money, one can get perfectly cooked fish and shellfish. It is a casual hole in the wall and lots of fun. I knew it from my many years living in Boston before I moved abroad, and was eager to try it again. My next trip to Boston provided the perfect occasion.

We were all old friends that evening at the Daily Catch, and had to wait until a table large enough for all of us was liberated. (This is a "no reservations" restaurant.) Definitely "no frills", many of the dishes are made and served in the blackened bent frying pan in which they are cooked and this adds to the fun atmosphere of the place. Calamari is a specialty and we tried a cold squid salad to start. Ed and I ordered one of the specialties of the evening, written on the blackboard. This was braised monkfish with littlenecks, mussels and calamari in a spicy tomato Fra Diavolo sauce. It was served over black pasta. Susan and Carol both chose the sensational fluke which was sautéed with mushroom, fennel, sundried tomato picata and served over linquine. Eric ordered the signature calamari sautéed in a white wine, herb and garlic sauce and served in the fry pan. The wine was a simple white from Sicily and everything was very good.

There are three Daily Catch restaurants in Boston and this attests to the popularity and success of the place.

Oleana has been a big Cambridge fave for years. Middle Eastern food is served in mezze-sized portions and it is fun to order several so as to be able to taste many. Everything is fresh, beautifully presented and flavorful. The combinations are quite creative and interesting as well.

I also went to Oleana with my old friend, Richard, his daughter Sophie and a friend of theirs, Gemma. I was game to order many things, and as we were four, we were able to taste a variety of dishes from the menu. I satisfied my creative gastronomic yearning with round flat bread (lamejun) with pink crushed red pepper, grilled peaches, cubes of roasted Haloumi cheese and a beautiful green salad to start, followed by spinach felafel with tahini, yogurt, beets and crinkled watercress. Gemma and Sophie sprung for skewers of octopus and olive served with a smoked wheat salad and skordato (a garlic sauce). Richard had a dish of beautiful summer vegetable crudités and a warm Tuscan olive oil with green herbs and garlic. This was followed by spicy fideos (crushed toasted vermicelli) and chick peas with green chard and orange aioli. As the menu reads, it is truly inventive with a utilization of so many different ingredients that are not usually seen on Middle Eastern menus. We were seated in the atmospheric outdoor courtyard and had a thoroughly delicious and pleasant evening.

An off-shoot of Oleana is Sofra which recently opened next to Richard's wine store (Violette) in Cambridge. Sofra is a bakery, take-out, eat-in place where one can get a terrific lunch or afternoon coffee with pastries. The mezze there all follow suit from Oleana and there are a variety of daily offerings. The cakes and cookies are sinful and delicious.

The old friends I went with were two women I have known since I was a baby. That's the perfect definition of old friends. Janet ordered several plates of small things so that we (Carol, Janet and I) could all try everything. The seeded bread was wonderful. We had beet tzatziki (a mixture that is delicious and of a gorgeous purple color), pepper and spring onion salad; smoked eggplant with pine nuts; whipped feta with sweet and hot peppers and zucchini pancakes with yogurt. I had to have some espresso-hazelnut coffee cake (it was my vacation after all), and also an Earthquake: a chocolatey cookie with chocolate chips dipped in powdered sugar. The day this place opened, it took off. Despite the fact that there are very few tables and a small outdoor porch with a few seats, we had a very comfortable lunch.

Oya--a wonderous restaurant in downtown Boston

In 2008, Frank Bruni, the then culinary critic at the New York Times, named Oya the best new restaurant in America. It has kept up its reputation. Below is my review.

Frank Bruni (the New York Times' restaurant critic) said that Tim and Nancy Cushman, the couple who conceived of and run Oya, play two important roles. Tim dazzles and Nancy comforts. This description is correct. Here are two Americans who have nailed the preparation of creative "American style" Japanese food and who have created a lovely welcoming space in which to experience it.

(I say "American style" because it is only in America that you find such creative combinations for sushi and sashimi. The Japanese are 100% purists.)

For the comforting aspect, Nancy and her staff are available and reassuring to clients, going out of their way to make for a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. I won't go into the ups and downs of the complicated pilgrimage that I experienced getting to Oya. Just to say that I endured flight cancellations from NY to downtown Boston on a day when thunder was predicted on the east coast. Throughout the ordeal, the staff was attentive and helpful when I called (several times) to tell them my progress at the airport. It was unclear as to whether I would leave NY at all and I have to say that I was most upset about missing my reservation. So, when I did walk into the restaurant with my friends John and Phil, I had to pinch myself to make sure I was really there. And there was Nancy with the sake menu and her offer for us to choose our apéritif which would be on the house.

Nancy is the sake maven which is quite a title for an American woman. She has developed an extensive and beautiful list and we were able to try two excellent sakes with our apéritif and later with our meal.

Tim dazzles: there is no other way to describe it. Although there are hot dishes, this chef's menu is concentrated on the on sushi and sashimi offerings, which are totally unique and delectable creations. Each exquisitely fresh piece of fish is garnished with something miraculous. Tim conceives of the combinations, and the Japanese sushi chefs are in charge of the execution.

We were immediately served a wonderful sashimi of Kumamoto oyster with watermelon pearls and a cucumber mignonette. This was another house offering. After that, we were on our own to order to our hearts' content. Everything sounds so wonderful that we were relieved when our waiter offered to guide us to what he thought were representative and delicious choices.

We had a sushi of scarlet sea scallops with white yuzu sauce and yuzu tobiko. Tobiko are flying fish eggs and yuzu is a Japanese lemon and so its marriage with the seafood was lovely. Next came Kindai bluefin maguro (tuna) with soy braised garlic and micro greens. Another Kumamoto oyster came, this time in a tempura with yuzu aioli and squid ink bubbles. Needless to say these bubbles taste of the essence of the food they represent. Hamachi(yellowtail)-spicy banana mousse followed. Other choices were wild ivory king salmon with a spicy lemongrass curry sauce, toasted garlic and sesame; a lovely warm eel dish with exotic flavorings, and hamachi with ginger and a verjus (a special French wine) sauce and spiced chile oil. At the end, our waiter wanted us to taste the diver scallop with sage tempura, olive oil bubbles and Meyer lemon so he ordered it for us and it too was offered by the restaurant.

The Oya tasting menu is both extensive and expensive. We preferred and thoroughly enjoyed exploring the menu in depth and ordering many things with our helpful waiter.

This was a memorable meal. One would not find these dishes anywhere else--they come from Tim's heart and soul. I have been to American translation of Japanese restaurants many times, but this one WAS truly dazzling and one dish after another was surprising and wonderful.