Monthly Archives: February 2015

Keste and Don Antonio by Starita

For the millionth time, if I were to eat pizza from only one place for the rest of my life, I would want that one place to be Roberta’s. I’m sure it will come up again, so apologies. The chewiness of the crust plus the inherent flavour of the crust plus the quality of and distribution of the toppings has never been off in all the times I’ve had it. I’ve had Roberta’s pizza a lot. But I want pizza more than I’m able to get out to Bushwick, and I am always up for eating pizza, so I’ve tried a number of the notable Neapolitan pizza places to find a substitute. I qualify Neapolitan because it is most in line with how I like to eat, especially when I’m by myself: sitting down at a proper table, with portions perfect for one, and the ability to have alcohol. New York may be more truly a slice town, but if I’m treating myself to dinner out, I want more than flourescent lighting and reheating. I also just prefer the chewy, lightly charred crust of Neapolitan style, or if we’re going to get nerdy, neo-Neapolitan style.

Anyway, there was a period when I was going to lots of movies at the IFC Center or Film Forum in the West Village, and Keste was both highly praised and convenient to a post-flick pizza. I fell hard. The crust has some heft so it’s not too soupy or soft in the middle, it’s got great chew and flavour, and while the toppings are less creative than Roberta’s as they are largely based on traditional Italian ingredients, the quality is good and the combinations work nicely. And thus it’s become my comfy, reliable runner up.

My go-to pizza is the del Rel, a white pie with mozzarella, post-oven prosciutto, basil, mushrooms, and truffle paste. I know, I know, truffle paste can be totally gross and phoney tasting, but trust me, it’s not here. There’s just a slight fungus funk, no science lab perfume. The pizza is slightly rich and mellow, but then the salty prosciutto wakes everything up. I don’t deviate often, but when I do, it’s with a red pie much simpler, like sausage or soppressata. Although on a recent visit, my friend and I went whole hog with the $25 burrata special. Upping the moisture content and dairy fat made for a much wetter pizza, which I’m undecided about, but a fun way nonetheless to indulge in Friday night free calories. I think the burrata was also housemade.

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Burrata special at Keste with burrata cheese, prosciutto, basil, and cherry tomatoes

Keste is a small restaurant, but the bustle of attentive servers and pizza that takes mere minutes to cook means that turnover is quick. I’ve never waited more than maybe 30 minutes at a peak weekend dinner time. There is very little atmosphere, but the Italian accents of most of the staff and conversations around you produce enough to make it a non-issue. Wine is always serviceable, and splitting a salad (high points for the simplicity of the arugula) can actually be a really nice way to start a meal with a companion. In addition to the pizza, it is one of my favourite solo dining spots for ease of getting in, getting a proper table, and for easily escaping into a magazine with pizza and wine.

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Salsiccia pizza at Keste

When I moved from Carroll Gardens to the Upper West Side, getting to Keste was just as easy, but the move uptown meant that I was now very close to Keste’s sister restaurant, Don Antonio by Starita. So close that I can walk for my second favourite pizza. And sit at a bar. If I had a gun to my head, I’d choose Keste over Don Antonio, but the difference is so slight that I treat them practically like the same restaurant.

I don’t know if Don Antonio is officially in Hell’s Kitchen, but it skirts the Theater District and gets a good deal of business from the associated crowds. Thus, it’s a considerably bigger restaurant, or at least feels that way because of the bar. While I do prefer sitting at a table, choosing to sit at an open spot at the bar always makes things easier.  The menu is nearly identical to Keste with the exception that Don Antonio has the capability to make deep-fried Montanara-style pizzas (dough that is fried then topped and baked) and related fried appetizers. If you’ve never tried such pizza, I highly recommend you go for it at least once, even just for the novelty that Italians came up with deep-fried pizza and not Americans. When it’s done right, it’s not greasy but there is an undeniable pleasure in eating fried dough. Like at Keste, the staff at Don Antonio is still largely Italian, the atmosphere lively, the wines totally fine, and the pizzas consistent. Would I take a date there or to Keste? Never. Friends, absolutely. Because they already know how I like to shovel my pizza in and have my lips glisten with olive oil.

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Pizza del Re at Don Antonio with mozzarella, prosciutto, mushrooms, basil, and truffle paste

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Chikalicious Dessert Bar and Dessert Club

I cannot only eat one thing at a meal. No matter the portion size, my appetite will never be sated with only a plate of pasta, a bowl of cereal, or a sandwich. I like to eat multiple things at mealtimes, almost exclusively as courses. I can be happy with a giant table of mezes or platters of Thai food, but if I had my choice, I would like to eat one (maybe two) things at a time before the next dish arrives. Part of it would be the need for my palate to experience many flavours, part of it would be that I like to eat hot temperature food hot and dislike when it starts to cool, and the biggest part of it would be to extend meal times. I love eating and want the moment to last as long as possible (or for dinner at home, at least as long as a 47-minute television drama episode). I lurve tasting menus that take three hours. I’ll always push for the prix fixe.

When dining at home, I eat one thing at a time. For example, as I’ve said before, toast and an omelette is on my weekly roster. But I do not eat a plate with an omelette and two slices of toast. I eat the eggs, and then I prepare and eat each slice of toast individually. Then I have some fruit. Then I have yogurt. I have the privilege of time in my life, and I take full advantage. (This meal, by the way, is perfect for those 47 minutes). Loving courses and requiring variety means I always want some sort of dessert. Finding some is not a difficult a task in this city, especially given my love of ice cream and the numerous spots across the island and boroughs where it’s on offer. Sourcing something akin to a plated dessert without going to a regular restaurant can be harder, but not impossible. I wish that there were more proper places just to go for pie and tea (diners don’t count), but I’m happily making do without.

Especially if I’m close to Chikalicious, which is a mini-chain that consists of the Dessert Bar and two Dessert Clubs. The Dessert Bar is a small sit-down dessert-only restaurant in the East Village where you visit for a $16, three-course tasting. I’ve only been once, but I’d return for the sugar splurge. The tasting includes an amuse bouche and petit fours to end, and the main course is a choice from a short list of desserts. When I visited, I chose the fromage blanc cheesecake. My preferences were all present: cold, creamy, and heavy on the dairy. Much lighter than a traditional cheesecake, this island was more like a mousse. But it was rich enough to remind you of its namesake dish. The island floated in a sauce that might have been simply heavy cream. Divine. I went with the optional dessert wine pairing and loved how the vin santo worked with the creamy dish.

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Fromage Blanc Island “Cheese Cake” at the Dessert Bar

Across the street from the Dessert Bar is one of the Dessert Clubs (the other is in the West Village). This is an even smaller space, just a few tables and a counter, where you’re likely to hear hip hop blasting and be crammed in line with NYU students. It’s super casual and upon first glance, you might not notice the creativity of Chef Chika Tillman—creativity that I think might play out stronger here than at the Dessert Bar. For she takes your standard casual treats like cookies, cupcakes, sundaes and the like, and infuses whimsy and the clear skill of an experienced pastry chef. There is also shave ice, cronut knockoffs, and a number of plated desserts that veer way more comfy and easy than something you would see at the Dessert Bar.

Despite not being someone all that into cake, I love tres leches. Perhaps because after the soak in all its dairy (three milks), it pretty much turns to pudding. Chef Chika takes the basic concept of tres leches and elevates it with a denser cake, a bruleed top, what tasted like a whipped cream marshmallow, and a proper (Morello?) cherry. I love me the maraschino that I get with my tres leches cake from little Mexican places, but I won’t deny the improvement here. The bruleed top gave a textural contrast that is absent in traditional tres leches without fundamentally altering the heart of the dessert.

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Tres Leches Brûlée at the Dessert Club

The vanilla bean soft serve is killer. Really creamy with a good smack of proper vanilla flavour. While I do prefer eating ice cream in cones, her eclair cones aren’t my favourite as they can get very messy. There are a number of sundaes, and the one that I gravitate toward is the banana custard pie. Cold creme anglaise, bananas, cookie crumbs, and mini (!) biscuits. So much fun. Giving the biscuits some time to sit in the custard was like eating cookies dunked in milk. It was a traditional banana pudding reimagined as an ice cream confection without resorting to just pudding and nilla wafers. It was beyond.

The only thing that keeps me away is the crowd. And I guess the consideration of my waistline. The slush puddles of winter are also a factor. Do you hear that Mother Nature? You’re wreaking havoc with my ability to support small sugar-based businesses!

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Banana custard pie at the Dessert Club

Upland

Spanish lesson Tuesdays have placed me in a bit of a hotbed of new and buzzy NYC restaurants. In addition to Cosme, Upland opened late last year with all eyes upon it, as the chef was partnering up with mega restaurateur Stephen Starr (e.g., Morimoto) and leaving his post at the much beloved Il Buco Alimentari. When Pete Wells at The New York Times gave it a very good review a few weeks ago, I immediately looked for a post-Spanish reservation and was a bit gobsmacked that I got one. Given the crowds that can occur post-NYT review, I didn’t want to risk trying to get a seat at the bar. And well, Cosme has turned me off trying for such seats at new places for a while.

If you had told me that I was visiting on Saturday at eight o’clock, I would have believed you. It was wall-to-wall people in the bar, the dining room was full, and there were many people hovering in the large entranceway when I visited last week. This was significant to me because Upland isn’t a tiny 50-seat downtown place where you knock elbows with the table next to you. Upland is a seriously large Starr endeavor where there is ample room for everything, the crowd visually cueing that this is a place you’re supposed to want to visit. How nice that there was room for my coat AND bag on the banquette. I might have even been able to lay down without touching my neighbours. My neighbours were a mix of what you might expect to find in the Flatiron on a Tuesday night or at a recently reviewed restaurant: after work suited types, after work casual types, the young and beautiful, clearly moneyed young and old. And heaps who look like they don’t use Open Table like plebes like me do.

I ordered with no sense of adventure by going with dishes that were highlighted as standouts in numerous reviews I had read. Eating alone was not ideal, as I would have loved to have shared a bunch of appetizers and then gotten my own main or pasta.  There are a number of vegetable dishes that sound good, but I wasn’t sure if I would like a whole plate of just one vegetable for myself. So, I went with the Caesar salad. And it might be a new favourite. I love the romaine salad at Roberta’s for being a Caesar/not officially a Caesar, but this one might top it for its assertive anchovy dressing. Definitely not for those who don’t like those little fishes. The range of lettuces was nice, but I will complain that the kale seemed a bit wilted. Or was it just over-massaged? It easily or should have been shared by two people, but I had no problem finishing it by myself.

To make up for that, I didn’t embarrass myself by eating the whole loaf of house bread with cultured butter. The couple next to me didn’t touch theirs’, so I thought eating only two-thirds of it would nicely hide my addiction.

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Five lettuce “Caesar” salad with Bordeaux radish and garlic anchovy vinaigrette

Given Chef Justin Smillie had come from Il Buco Alimentari, where the pastas are terrific, I knew that I wanted to have a pasta as my main. They all were enticing, but given my newfound love of chicken livers and the endless praise for this dish, I went with the estrella. It’s a star-shaped tubular pasta that is about the length of one-and-a-half penne shapes. It was nice and chewy and the ridges picked up the chicken liver sauce well. There was nothing liver-y about the sauce. It was just like one of the best Bologneses you’ve ever tasted. It had a meaty richness that was enhanced by fragrant herbs. The livers themselves were so finely minced that you could tell a child (or someone like me) that it was some other ground meat, and we’d not bat a lash as we dug in. The length of the tubes was slightly awkward though. I had to use my fork (no knife provided, but a spoon was, oddly) to cut them in half to be able to eat the dish with some decorum. This reminded me of how my mom eats a plate of spaghetti. Working from the bottom of her plate to the top, she works her way through by cutting the noodles into bite-size portions with her fork, which she then scoops up. This annoys me as much as American cutlery usage bothers my Continental-style (#forever) European-bred friends. Nails on a chalkboard. I could have asked for a knife, but not providing me one suggests that I was not to use one. Maybe I’m just clueless in pasta etiquette. Maybe my mouth is just too little for the tubes. The portion leaned more towards a proper primi size, but as I ate all the salad and a good chunk of the bread, it sufficed. Had I not, perhaps too small as a standalone order. But who eats like that anymore?

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Estrella pasta with with chicken liver, sherry, rosemary, and sage

No dessert interested me, and by that time, I was a little bit tired of eavesdropping on the two (male) boobs sitting to my left and avoiding the view of the couple canoodling on my right. As a solo female diner, I rarely get outstanding service, so I can only say that they were friendly and timely. I would happily go back, but only if I knew I could secure a table. The location and crowd aren’t inviting enough for me to want to wait endlessly for a table. But I did get some supreme whiffs from the ‘ndjua pizza on the boobs’ table, and I’ve kind of been dreaming about trying it ever since.

Yakitori Totto

A few months ago when I was heavy into listening to audio books on my walks, I was able to borrow Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw from the library. Much less lauded than Kitchen Confidential, it was still a titillating listen, with Bourdain tearing a strip into many well-known chefs and their restaurants. Part of the book relays an enjoyable dinner that Bourdain had with Momofuku chef David Chang at Yakitori Totto. I’ve never been to Japan, and at the time of listening, had never been to a yakitori restaurant, so Bourdain’s excitement about the parade of skewers had me thinking about how and when I might make it to Totto.  I knew that Torishin is often considered the better place for yakitori, but its location on the East side is often considered no man’s land in my world. Totto is a negligible subway ride away.

The same negligible subway ride away is theater district/Times Square hell.  A ticket to see one of my 90s boyfriends, Ewan MacGregor, on Broadway was the easy excuse to try Totto. The location made it very easy to walk to the play afterward. It also made it possible for me to make a reservation, as they only take ones for early diners and that would be required of me to make curtain call. Tight, small, and up a flight of stairs, the atmosphere was provided more by the bustle of people than anything else I can remember about decor. As a solo diner, I got to sit at the bar, and it afforded me a view of the men minding the requisite grills.

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Seasoned vegetables in light broth

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Onigiri skewer

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Chicken liver

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Chicken oyster and thigh

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Shishito peppers

Although the menu is filled with many non-yakitori items, my main interest for being there was the grilled skewers. From what I’ve learned, yakitori is traditionally predominated by chicken and its various parts. My only deviations were a starter that consisted of the most perfectly steamed vegetables in a light broth and a forgettable chicken bun. The rest of my meal was composed of 10 skewers, some of which were doubles of things I liked best from the first round of ordering: the rice/onigiri, the chicken liver, and the chicken meatball/tsukune. The chicken oyster appears on the list for hot commodity items. These items sell out quickly each night, and it’s likely that you can only order one at a time because of limited numbers. The oyster is a small piece of delicious dark meat. But there are only two oysters per chicken, so my skewer of three highlights the rarity of the item. The liver was rich and as always to me, tasted like the true essence of dark meat. The onigiri had a bit of a crisped exterior with a soft, sticky center. The miso sauce on top was the right salty hit. The shishito peppers were a bit of a letdown. Next time (I have a date with Larry David on Broadway next month), I will instead try the shishitos stuffed with the meatball mix. I tried a bacon-wrapped mochi skewer, and it just tasted like chewy salt. In a boring way. Beer was a worthy accompaniment. Based on observation, I don’t think I made any de-skewering faux pas. It was relatively easy to remove items from the skewers with chopsticks, and when in doubt, a little lollipop action was not inappropriate.

Oh and no, I didn’t go for any of the adventurous chicken parts like the tail, neck, or knee bone. I’m wary of their textures. When I think of such parts, I think of cartilage. And when I think of cartilage I think of a human ear or nose. I’m not so into what might be a long mastication of crunchy-chewy. A sound choice in the end, though. I couldn’t risk chewing too long when Ewan was waiting for me.

Totto Ramen

I remember being somewhere around seven years old when ramen became a thing in my world. My mom and aunt would buy it for quick meals. Always the Sapporo Ichiban brand. Always the chicken flavour in the green package. By this age, I had decided that I did not like soup, so I really have no idea what it tasted like. But I can tell you that I loved eating the plain dry noodles, carb fiend that I am. Kids at school would even bring ramen packages for lunch to eat dry with the seasoning sprinkled over top—the era when the only cup noodles were from Lipton. And my mother can’t be the only one who had a go-to entertaining salad that consisted of crushed dry ramen, iceberg lettuce, shredded chicken, and an “Asian” dressing. I miss the 80s.

My avoidance of true ramen continued well into my 30s and well into living in the great ramen city of Vancouver. To be blamed on fear of dirty water broth and of the unknown. I gained confidence on a trip to DC and a visit to Daikaya. Again, like with pho, maybe I needed to be on my own, away from all things known, to get my feet wet. Whatever the case, experiencing the chew of fresh ramen noodles helped me get to the other side, and I definitely chastised myself for going without for so long. Salty broth also helped. If there is one thing that defines my aging, it is definitely my switch from having a sweet tooth to having a salty one. I always have room for dessert, but it is my use of salt on everything that defines my palate right now. So salty ramen broth is right up my alley.

The first place I had ramen in New York was Totto. It remains my favourite for a consistent, flavourful bowl at a good price. I also like that it’s paitan ramen, which is made with a rich chicken broth. Although I do like the milky tonkotsu pork broth of popular Ippudo, I’m generally shy of super fatty pork broths and the common fatty char siu pork topping. I’m a girl who orders her bacon extra crispy and isn’t all over creamy pork belly because the visual ribbon of fat and subsequent chew are just too rich for me. So thus I also like that I can substitute char siu chicken for the pork at Totto. The chicken is tender enough, but giving it time to soak up some broth while you slurp up the noodles is a good idea. I always get the spicy version, and while I might touch my nose a few times with a tissue, it’s not a level of heat to fear. I find that it just amplifies the restorative power of a big bowl of hot broth.

There are now three Totto Ramen locations in the city. The original is the most fun, as the tight basement quarters, loud music, and proximity to the open kitchen makes you imagine that you could be in Japan. But the wait can be horrendous. Walking less than five minutes to the much more spacious, but admittedly less charming, second location on the West side has never failed to reward me with a much shorter or no wait. I could always stay home and doctor up packaged noodles to remove any possibility of a wait, but I don’t miss the 80s that much.

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Spicy ramen with char siu chicken and seasoned egg