Adventures of a Gastronome in Training (GIT)

One amateur foodie's quest for culinary enlightenment. Musings on cooking, dining, food products, basically all things edible are fair game.

Monday, August 30, 2004


Balthazar stands triumphant over the crash-and-burn cycle to which many hip spots helplessly concede. The place is as packed as ever. Sure it’s not celebrities filling the tightly spaced tables, but mere mortals (read: mix of tourists and locals) lining up reservations. When it opened in 1997, Balthazar was the hottest ticket in town. A-listers lined the street with limos while paparazzi snapped away - the cuisine was really secondary. After a bit of a learning curve, the bumps were ironed out and Ruth Reichl donned it two stars. More recently, Amanda Hesser reaffirmed the rating asserting that food has remained consistent over the seven year review interval. This considerable accomplishment is mainly attributed to Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, the co-chefs who have been there from the beginning.

The original mirage of an authentic French brasserie straight from the sixth arrondissement has become more authentic with age. From the beginning it was well worn, just not with in-house use (marble had been aged with tea, antique mirrors come from Pennsylvania, light fixtures were left over from a defunct department store). The noise level is still deafening, which keeps the energy level high. I figured they designed the place with high ceilings to keep the then-legal smoking from fogging up the room. Now, they just keep the sound bouncing.

There’s much of the menu that I still need to try – I haven’t even been to what I hear is their best meal, breakfast. However, my lunch of toasted French ham and gruyere on country bread with mixed greens ($13) was spot on. It managed to be savory and filling without being greasy. And the bread basket, yum - stick to the sourdough and be generous with the salted butter. I also greedily sampled some of the text-book fries that came with Marty’s moules frites ($15). I would come here for the fries alone, but they are made even better soaking under a buttery steak. For once, it wasn’t me ordering the steak frites ($24). It was Marty – I made him share. In exchange, I forked over rich, sauce coated chunks of my duck confit with crispy potatoes and wild mushrooms ($21). The appetizers have also pleased. Marty tried out some impressive oysters ($14 for ½ dozen). I enjoyed the contrast of the strong cheese and sweet onions in my goat cheese and caramelized onion tart ($9), but wasn't overwhelmed. The only dessert we’ve tried is the dense, dark chocolate cake with white chocolate ice cream. It’s like a molten chocolate cake, without the lava center. I’ll tell you what, I didn’t miss it.

Beyond breakfast, there is so much more at Balthazar that I want to try – whole roast free-range chicken for two, Dover sole meuniere, even the cheeseburger. Given what I’ve had so far, I doubt I’ll be disappointed.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

5 Ninth

Like a tech stock riding high in the late 90’s market bubble, this neighborhood (NYC's Meatpacking District) just feels like it’s about to crash into bridge, tunnel, and tourist cheesy-ness. In the middle of the mayhem, on a should be quaint cobblestone intersection, sits 5 Ninth. It opened in May, and there has been a decent amount of buzz since. The reviews thus far (Frank Bruni, Adam Platt) have come in positive, but seem to me a bit tentative. The chef Zak Pelaccio gathered a considerable cult following at the now defunct Chickenbone Café in Williamsburg, and is now stepping it up in the big leagues of Manhattan dining.

5 Ninth is housed in a decidedly charming 3-story townhouse built in 1848. Complete with exposed brick and ceiling beams, six fireplaces, and a backyard garden, the place feels warm, comfortable, and miles away from its Spice Market style neighbors. Even the wait staff uniforms of jeans and blue oxfords reflect the clean, yet dressed down atmosphere.

Dining at 5 Ninth required a fair amount of waiting, we waited nearly 20 minutes to get seated for our reservation. After waiting about 20 minutes for our appetizers, we attentively knocked out another 30 minutes waiting for our entrées. Finally, we waited for our waitress to pick up our check long enough to tire and switch our payment method from credit to cash. This may still be opening bumps, but after over three months in operation, you can’t be sure.

I started with the medley of assorted roasted beets and out-of-this world bacon ($12). The bacon nearly over-powered the beets, but a bite of the two together resulted in a nice texture. However, the texture of Marty’s wide noodles in a lobster and coconut milk broth ($15) with galangal flowers (a gingery, peppery spice) was off. The broth was the consistency of alfredo sauce and the noodles were too slick for the dish, but the flavors of the coconut and other spices were pleasantly balanced. I also enjoyed the blend of flavors of my John Dory (fish similar to black bass) with garlic sauce, mustard seeds, mushrooms, and new potatoes ($28) - though it may have been a little over-cooked. Marty’s duck ($27) was perfectly roasted, but sat in a very salty sauce that overpowered anything that came in its path.

5 Ninth, as others have noted, is full of promise. To me, this promise lies in the creative and ambitious chef and the warm atmosphere. It feels like it should be your neighborhood restaurant, but the prices and location preclude it from ever becoming one. I had to wonder if, for example, the John Dory had been $20 instead of $28, would I be singing the praises of this place? I guess affording the high-rent location precludes lower prices, so the only route they can take is to step up the food a little so it really wows. Until then, I'll have to wait on the sidelines hoping to hear it's worth heading back.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Distrito Federal Part 2 - Ligaya, Los Girasoles, Etc.

As promised, I continue to describe the assorted tummy treats experienced in our recent trip to Mexico City. I had done a little restaurant research on Egullet and Chowhound prior to our vacation to supplement the food finds our friends had already uncovered. Based on this, I chose a nouveau-Mexican place called Ligaya in the hip Condesa neighborhood where my friends live. The minimalist designed restaurant was all decked out in white broken up interesting and colorful contemporary art and tropical plants. It was the perfect place to get our friends together and spend our first night in a place where we could talk. I had a solid portobello mushroom appetizer, hongo portobello al horno – sounds so much more exotic in Spanish, and a flavorful arrachera (skirt steak) as an entrée. We threw back three bottles of wine between the six of us and had a blast. We all shared a rich, dense chocolate cake for dessert, which really was the highlight of the meal. Overall, I would say the food was not spectacular, but the company made up for it in spades.

Red Snapper at Los Girasoles

The best meal we had was at Los Girasoles or sunflowers on Tolsa Plaza not too far from the Zocalo (in fact, we took a pedi-cab from there). The restaurant has a nice patio sprawling out onto the plaza. Inside, the sunflower theme is apparent – the flower is featured in the dishes, artwork, and fabrics throughout the interior. I started with the beef tacos that came with tasty little nopales – cooked cactus pads that reminded me of okra. The red snapper topped with fried sweet potato straws was excellent. It was served with a mix of sautéed veggies like onions and peppers. Marty had the arrachera, which was more flavorful and tender than what I had tried at Ligaya.

Beef Tacos at Los Girasoles

Arrachera at Los Girasoles

For our final evening in D.F., we went whole hog - or cow actually - for a meat-eating blowout. The name of the place translates to “follow the cow,” and we did. At about $12 a person, we explored the variety of beef cuts and sausages brought unceremoniously to our table. Sure there were empanadas, French fries, soup, and salad, but those were for suckers. Well to be honest, I’ve recently decided my favorite food is salty fries soaked in steak juice, so I did house nearly a basket along side my beef. Anyhow, it was an exploit in excess. The meats we had were decent, but not nearly as good as what I’ve tried at similar churrascarias in the U.S. like Fogo de Chao in Atlanta. On top of that, the service was very slow. But considering the American experience would set you back nearly $40 a person, the relative value could not be ignored. Basically, think of it as a fun night of ridiculous over-eating.

Assorted Meats at Follow the Cow

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Distrito Federal Part 1 - Huevos

Marty and I just returned from a fantastic visit to D.F. – Distrito Federal or Mexico City as you might know it. Our friends residing in the world’s largest city were invaluable for two non-Spanish speaking tourists trying to navigate the city. We managed to avoid the cliched pitfalls – we didn’t get kidnapped, robbed by our taxi drivers, or pick up any digestive maladies. Instead we were able to experience the Catedral Metropolitana which began construction in 1567 by Cortez and the Spanish missionaries right on the spot of the existing Aztec temple, D.F.’s version of Central Park, Chapultepec Park, complete with native pole dancers hanging from rope a hundred feet in the air, and perhaps most importantly incredible local cuisine.

Huevos with black beans, onions, and chilis

I could spend all day recording our culinary journey, but in light of a decidedly messy house, I figured that I had better divide up our trip into more digestible portions. Maybe because it’s morning now, but the only thing I can think about are huevos. We had them every morning, and now back in New York with an empty refrigerator, I am going through serious withdrawal. It’s inexplicable how something as simple as eggs can be elevated to such an art form, and why do the breakfast eggs that Americans settle for fall so flat in comparison?

Huevos with salsa, beans, and avocados

I hope a picture does in this case say 1,000 words, because my previously mentioned inability to read/speak/understand Spanish somewhat impaired my ability to know exactly what I was consuming. You can get your huevos in myriad combinations - choose from frijoles refritos (refried beans), various cheeses, chorizo (a beef and pork sausage), tomatillo or tomato based salsas, and many more ingredients I could not recognize. Marty had one pleasant mouth tingling experience with a plate of huevos with chilis, onions and black beans. One of my favorite meals was comprised of two eggs sunny-side up placed neatly on a corn tortilla and covered with a thin poblano and cheese sauce. But, probably the most satisfying was the omelet made from an incredible chorizo, tomatoes, queso blanco served with a tomatillo sauce and fresh corn we had for brunch at the Four Seasons (unfortunately I didn’t snap a picture).

Huevos Poblanos

Although huevos were a part of every breakfast, there were a few other memorable morning tastings. I tried out the crepas flor de calabaza which are crepes filled with a savory mix of spinach and squash blossoms topped with a rich cheesy cream sauce. Another consistent treat was the incredibly fresh juices served with each meal. The most interesting I tried was the foamy topped cantaloupe juice which was like biting into a perfectly ripe chunk of melon. We also sampled some extremely rich Mexican hot chocolate, which is not as sweet as the American classic and flavored with cinnamon and vanilla.

Crepas flor de calabaza (squash blossom)

Cantaloupe juice

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Jacques-Imo's Fried Chicken

Recently, Marty and I decided to take advantage of his Central Park tennis plans to try out Jacques-Imo’s on the Upper West Side with Leb and Terry who live near there. I’ve been to the original in New Orleans and loved it, but I knew not to expect the same experience in the New York offshoot. As the reviewers have described, it is a kitschy place with Spanish moss dripping from the ceiling and murals featuring alligators covering the walls. It’s a silly, kind of over the top place, but then again so is the original. Amanda Hesser had given it the harsh “satisfactory” rating sans star, but had many kind words for the fried chicken:

“…Jacques-Imo's immortal dish: the fried chicken plate. There is a choice of white or dark meat. You must have the dark, and with it the corn macque choux and mashed potatoes. And then you will have an exceptional dinner at a restaurant that, quirky and flawed as it is, has something that no other New York restaurant can touch.”

So, we decided to give it a shot with the full intention of just ordering the “immortal dish”, fried chicken with corn macque choux ($14.95). Marty did regretfully supplement his meal with a half dozen awful oysters. When our plates of fried chicken arrived, we all charged in. Silence followed. No one wanted to admit it, but it wasn’t that good. Eventually, Terry said, “Popeye’s is better.” I guess that would sum it up, except I would further note that to me, it had a strange, almost metallic aftertaste. The recommended corn macque choux, a Cajun smothered corn dish that is a favorite of mine, was also disappointingly bland. Actually, the best part of my meal was my Abita Amber, but at $6 a pop, I was quickly reminded that I was about as far from the bayou as I could be.

Hesser wasn’t the only one to praise the fried chicken. The folks on Egullet concurred as well, but they did bring up an interesting point. Why in the world would the New York Times choose Jacques-Imo’s for one of its 52 annual reviews? To me it makes no sense, this is not the kind of place shooting for stars. Why then slap it in the face with a satisfactory? At best, it could have been reviewed in the $25 and under column. Who knows, with a different reviewer, I might have completely steered clear of the place, and enjoyed a nice meal from Popeye’s when the hankering for fried chicken came a-knockin'.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Standing Rib Roast

In case you hadn’t noticed from my blog – steaks at Landmarc and Diner, short ribs at Spice Market, burgers at Shake Shack and Pop Burger - I’m a red meat junkie. My love of beef is not limited to my out of home dining, but is often featured in our kitchen as well. For my hands down favorite, I respectfully pass the chef’s hat to Marty - he makes the BEST standing rib roasts ever.

Our first New York attempt started with a trip to Fairway on the Upper West Side. There are a number of high quality butchers in New York, but to be honest, we haven’t had a chance to try out too many. The Fairway bone-in rib eye strangely enough was shown to be the same price as boneless, although I think this was a mistake. Bone-in is recommended for the added structural integrity and flavor. Making a roast can be pretty expensive ($12-15/pound for bone-in rib eye and about 1.25 pounds per person), but just think of how much more it would have run in a restaurant. Although I have never been at the helm when the roast has been prepared, it sure seems simple enough. The following is my best attempt to capture Marty’s freehanded cooking style. As our recent dinner guest said, “If I could make this at home, I would never go out for steak again.”

Standing Rib Roast

12 cloves garlic
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 t whole black peppercorns
1.5 t kosher salt
1 T olive oil
3.5 lb bone-in rib eye

In a small food processor, pulse the garlic, rosemary, peppercorns, salt, and olive oil until a chunky paste is formed. Using you hands, rub the paste all over the roast, cover, and marinade in the refrigerator for 3 hours.

Roast covered in paste ready to go in the oven

Digital meat thermometer

Preheat the oven to 475°. Place the meat on a rack in a roasting pan fat side up. After 30 minutes, lower the heat to 335° and place the meat thermometer to read the temperature at the center of the roast. Remove the roast from the oven when the interior temperature reaches about 10° shy of where you like it. Depending on your desired doneness and the size of your roast, this should take anywhere from 1 hour and 15 minutes to 2 hours. For example, take it out when the internal temperature read around 115° for medium-rare, the temperature will continue to rise out of the oven to around 125°. Then tent it with foil with the meat thermometer still inserted and allow to rest for 20-30 minutes.

Completed roast ready for slicing

Monday, August 09, 2004


Sitting nearly underneath the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge is Diner (85 Broadway at Berry St.), a reasonably priced American brasserie. Andrew Tarlow and Mark Firth opened Diner in 1999 in a 1927 dining car that has made that corner its home for over 70 years. The warm and classically refurbished interior is styled with worn granite countertops, mirrors with an aged patina, chrome stools, solid wood benches, and a somewhat sloping floor. The result is an uncontrived atmosphere that so many restaurants wish they could pull off. Especially late in the evening, the bar area is filled with local art house and indie rocker types sporting vintage styles and a purposeful unkept look. Even if this isn’t your scene, don’t be discouraged – it’s not a very intimidating crowd.

Chef Caroline Fidanza (formerly of Savoy) has constructed a menu of brasserie favorites – mussels, cheeseburgers, roast chicken, hanger steak. The printed menu is supplemented by an array of often seafood focused daily specials that are charmingly scrawled onto your table as they are described. Both the menu and specials take advantage of seasonal local vegetables. In fact, the owners have recently opened a grocery/café next door, Marlow & Sons, that features locally produced and organic vegetables as well as other high quality provisions.

The starters at Diner are not to be missed. The goat cheese salad ($6.50) combines strong, creamy goat cheese on fresh greens. A recent special, eggplant puree on a sesame seed crostini ($7.50), was delightfully varied in flavor and texture. However, another special, the special cherry tomato salad ($6.50) served on a thick slice of grilled bread, was matched with a disappointingly mild goat cheese. On our last visit, Marty had the blue fish special ($17) with leeks, cherry tomatoes, and other vegetables in a rich, yet subtle cream sauce. I am a big fan of the nicely seasoned rib eye ($22) with rustic, skin-on fries. Although I haven’t tried one yet, the cheeseburgers also have a strong following. I appreciate the ample and hearty portions, but unfortunately they have made me rule out desserts.

The no reservation policy has allowed me to spontaneously journey to Williamsburg for a number of fantastic dining experiences. I’ve even tried out their weekend brunch which was highlighted by an incredible bowl of grits topped with pork slices, cheese, and a fried egg. If this place was in my neighborhood, I could see myself eating here at least once a week, easily more. In a way, I guess, it’s a good thing it’s a borough away…

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Duane Park Patisserie

There are few things in life that I enjoy more than a breakfast pastry and a cup of coffee. Every time I treat myself to this combo, I feel the world slow down to a more comfortable pace. Since moving to New York, I have been indulging my morning cravings at the Duane Park Patisserie (179 Duane Street). This Parisian style bakery has exceeded my expectations. The retail shop is filled with cases of gorgeous cookies, cakes, tarts, and other delights. You can look right into the commercial baking area, and many times staff will be icing cookies at the retail counter. They do a bustling custom cake and cookie business. In the past, I have watched them preparing cookies made to look like labeled Revlon compacts, fall leaves, and breast cancer awareness ribbons. There is always a stack of cake boxes waiting for throws of birthday, graduation, and anniversary parties.

Chef Madeline Lanciani has been in the business for years. She was the first woman cook to be hired by the Plaza Hotel in 1973, and has been running her own patisseries since 1977 - first in Greenwich Village at the Patisserie Lanciana, then in a SoHo branch of the same name (both now closed), and now the Duane Park Patisserie which has been in operation since 1992.

Although the cookies ($18/pound), lemon tarts ($2.50), and chocolate eclairs ($2.50) I’ve tried have all been delicious, my favorites (and incidentally the most economical) are the pastry items they bake daily that sit on baking trays beside the register. The lemon scone ($1.50) is possibly my preferred choice, although the currant scone ($1.50) is very good as well. When I want something a little sweeter, I have a hard time passing up the blueberry muffins ($1.50) with a cinnamon-sugar crumble on top. Beyond all the sinful treats, perhaps the biggest surprises at the Duane Park Patisserie is the excellent coffee, made to order (regular, decaf, or iced) while you wait. I couldn’t ask for anything more…

Monday, August 02, 2004


I love Indian food. North Indian curries to south Indian dosas - I love it all. The only problem is I developed my taste for it in Houston, where the Indian restaurants were not only plentiful but delectable to boot. Since leaving Houston in 2000, I have failed to recreate the low-priced, flexible take-out, delivery, dine-in, and buffet experience to which I had become accustomed. So far in NYC, I haven’t had much luck either. The cheap delivery/dine-in chain Baluchi’s was okay the first time, then ultra greasy and nasty the second. Namaskarr Indian Bistro in SoHo again was reasonable the first time, but really off the second. This leads me to the next pick, recommended by a friend’s Indian boss, Tamarind (22nd St. between Broadway and Park). Unfortunately, Tamarind does not fall into the ultra-cheap column, but it’s not that pricey. However, I was pleasantly surprised by a well-executed, flavorful meal.

Tamarind is an upscale Indian restaurant in with simplistic modern touches, soft lighting, and cozy curtained booths. The kitchen is exposed to the dining room, and when you walk by you can look into the tandoors (clay ovens that look like big clay pots) with gravity defying nans clinging to the sides.

We started with potato and pea samosas ($5.50) and assorted batter fried pakoras (cheese, spinach, potato), basically we had the Indian version of the fried sampler. Each was crisp and grease-less and resulted in a sweet-savory blend when dipped in the accompanying chutney. Although Tamarind does offer a greater variety of dishes you don’t typically see on every Indian restaurant menu (including two lobster dishes and venison chops), we stuck with some of our traditional favorites. The chicken tikka masala ($17) had the mild tomato and cream flavor you expect with tender chucks of chicken grilled in the tandoor. The lamb vindaloo ($18) was especially spicy (too spicy for me) with savory lamb kebabs. I enjoyed the lotus root and homemade cheese dumplings in the nargisi kofta ($14), but the rich saffron and onion sauce fell a little flat. The standout dish of the evening was the saag paneer ($14) – it was awesome. I know we’ve all had this dish a million times and enjoyed it, but Tamarind takes it to new heights. The spinach had a delicate flavor without being salty and the homemade cheese adds the perfect texture. The nan ($3.75) was chewy and fresh, but I found the poori ($4), deep fried puffy bread, too greasy.

Tamarind’s portions are small and the prices a little high, but they do churn out solid Indian cuisine in a comfortable, almost elegant setting. If you’re tired of trying unacceptable Indian restaurants, here’s one that does a decent job. Sure, it’s not an all-around homerun, but it’s worth a try.

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Jennie/Female. Lives in United States/Jennie Auster/New York, speaks English. Eye color is blue.