Sunday, May 17, 2009

Beyond this borough, and on a budget

A couple of weeks ago, my girlfriends and I decided it was time for another semi-monthly "girls night out" dinner, as we've been so busy. Getting the four of us together is a task!

We set a date for Sunday night. Amy and Meredith were free, but sadly Susan was away that weekend. What were we up for? We had been talking about margaritas, as we typically do mid-week when we're stressed. Mer mentioned Hecho en Dumbo, a mexican place by night (and a general store/housewares shop by day), might be just the thing: good food, reasonable prices, and a mean margarita. I had heard about the spot before - and recalled it used organic, locally-sourced, free-range and antibiotic free ingredients! Yum! Plus, the website says that it is an "Authentic Mexican Restaurant," as certified by The Mexican Ministry of Agriculture and Sabores Autenticos de Mexico. It was unanimous that it would be the spot!

Sunday came, and it was a cool, drizzly day. Blah. All day long, I was looking forward to meeting the girls for dinner! The plan was to meet at 6pm at Hecho. I hopped on a downtown C train around 5:15 and read the whole way down to High Street. I got off the train and climbed up to street level. Though it was gray and wet outside, I was quickly reminded how much I love DUMBO and the Brooklyn waterfront!!! The hill, the quiet, the old quirky streets and restored lofts. Sigh. I will have to move here some time...

Thank goodness Mer had warned me that Hecho didn't have a sign, but a simple "Bar" sign outside. I walked in to what I thought was the restaurant. Hmm. A rustic space, couple of tables, a great bar, housewares in back. Check. But, didn't seem like a "general store" in my mind. Plus, the menus on the wall featured paninis and salads...nothing mexican. But, I was impressed with the space. I could see myself sitting here for a couple of hours, in fact, cappuccino and book in hand I walked back out, doubting my choice in venue, to await the arrival of one of my friends. I walked down the block, peering into an interesting gourmet market on the eastern end of the block. I could live here, I thought!

Mer soon arrived and confirmed for me that the space I was in earlier was indeed Hecho. Yay! I surveyed the scene as we sat down at a table by the door to await Amy. Young friends, families made up many dining that evening, but don't fear - it wasn't overrun with loud kids. In fact, the low lighting was soothing, and there was audio equipment set up for a live musician later on!

It wasn't five minutes before Amy arrived, and the waiter promptly came over to see what we wanted. After looking at the menu with the variety of Micheladas and tequila drinks, I quickly decided that I'd be going with tried and true - and so were Mer and Amy - margaritas with salt all around.

We caught up quickly as we waited for the drinks, which didn't take long at all. When the drinks arrived, so too did some delicious chips and salsa. Quickly hit the spot for me - I was quite hungry having not had anything since oatmeal for brunch. Sipping and nibbling, we perused the menu. Guacamole, sopes, queso, chorizo - oh my! So many options, and all looked delicious, but guacamole and "molletes" quickly jumped out at us. More thick cut homemade chips, with a creamy fresh avocado guac sounded delicious, while the molletes - warm ciabatta with black bean puree, melted mozzarella, with pico de gallo - sounded divine. Most of the dishes are small, perfect for sharing and and splitting among friends. But what else to get? We decided that the sample platter would suffice: we could taste the molletes, sample each taco, sopes, and burritas, and then still have room to order one last dish!

The molletes were better than we had ever imagined. Soft ciabatta, gently warmed and spread with black beans, and the melted mozzarella and pico de gallo on top. Heavenly! Next, I sampled the steak tacos. I didn't care much for the corn tortillas, but the steak! SO good! I then tried the cactus burritas. Wasn't sure what to expect - CACTUS? It was surprisingly good. The cactus was roasted until tender, kind of like a perfectly roasted green pepper. It was mixed with a chile cream sauce (but it wasn't creamy...) and then served in a small flour tortilla. A delicious combination of flavors...but I wanted more meat.

My favorite dish was definitely the sopes de pollo: slow cooked local and organic chicken in a chile sauce, served in a handmade, stone ground corn masa medallion that is coated with black bean puree, crema fresca, crisp lettuce, and cojita cheese. The medallions were so tender, and warm - reminded me of the tortilla making set up that was offered at meal time on morning when my family travelled to Costa Rica last year.

Having finished the first round of drinks, and our guacamole and sample platter, we still had room for one more dish - and another round of drinks. What to get? The sopes de pollo!!

Satisfied and not full, yet completely "full" from the fresh flavors and ingredients, I was so happy with our decision to dine at Hecho en Dumbo. I definitely want to go back - to sample the chorizo, the picaditas de jiaba (crab!!), and the ensalada rosaura. And, of course, the pastel tres leches cake, a classic cake with lime creme fraiche frosting, served with a dollop of mexican caramel ice cream...

Hecho en Dumbo is a real treat - the way food should be prepared: clean, fresh flavors, modest portions (and prices), and attention paid to source on the highest quality ingredients. Now, I just have to take my Texan friend there...I hope she loves it, too!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Spring In New York

So, this past Wednesday, a co-worker and I left the office a little early to visit her friend's emporium of treasure troves. Kid you not - anything you ever dreamed of - antique-wise - may be here. My co-worker had some pieces she wanted to sell. Me? I've been lusting after simple yet elegant rings since last summer. My hope was to find one there.

Ilene's "store" was incredible!!!! It reminded me of the office of a former co-worker at Martha Stewart Living. All sorts of collectibles, objets d'art, and random "junk." I was warned that I wouldn't want to head in the room, as there was hardly room to move, but I was completely mesmerized by everything there. I kept thinking "What do I need? What do I want?"

Antiques, in a way, are as meaningful as locally sourced products - there is a story to be told and shared, and often these pieces are unique, made carefully and by hand. My two rings I purchased? Definitely. They remind me of the "Celebration" rings at a major jewelery vendor here in the city, but have a story (and are probably a quarter of the price!). My white gold and sapphire beauties didn't look that great in the poor florescent lights of the lobby, but when I stepped out onto the street...oh my...I was SO happy!!!!

Oh yeah - back to why I was posting. It was Wednesday. We were near Union Square. What does that mean? FARMER'S MARKET!!! I really don't know where this spring went. I used to visit every weekend, to check out the produce and see what delicious deals I could find (the bacon? Hawthorne Valley yogurt? The jam lady?). Thankfully, spring has sprung, so there was a plethora of spring produce: rhubarb, asparagus, morels, fiddleheads, lettuces...and of course, those hardy fruits and veggies like apples and potatoes that weather so well in the root cellar over the winter.

Though I didn't buy anything on Wednesday (um, cleaning out cupboards and had to attend a "meeting" at Dorrian's on the UES (oxymoronic much, huh?!), I was relieved when I saw Thursday that the farmer's market was back in my neighborhood on the UWS. Some spinach for dinner Friday with the last of my black bean salad, and a savory treat for a weekend meal.

Even when I don't purchase food, "shopping" for the "eye candy" at NYC's farmer's markets are one of my favorite things to do. Even just challenging myself to find some obscure vegetable and to "create" a dish in my head is entertaining. Spring in New York may be one of my favorite times to stroll these stalls...the vibrant colors, petite vegetables and delicate greens, and the excitement that this is just the beginning - there is so much more to come...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Springing for a Picnic in the Park

I'm so excited that New York Restoration Project's Spring Picnic is only a week away!

It's NYRP's Eighth Annual "gala," this year to be held up in Fort Tryon Park, with cocktails at New Leaf Restaurant & Bar first! Bette hosts the event, and this year she will be joined by 50 Cent, well-known author and gardener Amy Goldman, Tim Gunn, Bruce Wilpon, Andre Leon Talley, Judy Gold, Dolly Parton, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

As a foodie and one who tries to live a "greenly," this event excites me because it combines good food, with smart eco-friendly elements. The decor, I hear, will be planted in NYRP's gardens after the event is over. Instead of paper cups, glass mason jars will be used, and instead of beer bottles, beer will flow from kegs. Waste will be minimized, while fun and flavor maximized.

Speaking of flavor, Bette knows what people want: comfort food. Cocktails will feature an array of brochettes and dipping sauces served from stations on New Leaf's terrace, as well as duck confit tacos, and New Leaf's signature veggie spring rolls. There will also be a signature cocktail, with possibly handmade herb infused liquors, in addition to wine and beer.

Dinner will be prepared and served under a tent nearby. Danny Meyer's Blue Smoke! Rumor has it there is applewood smoked chicken, pulled pork, ribs, cornbread, mac and cheese, peas and carrots...oh my! And, the Good Humor man is bringing dessert. Chocolate Eclair and Toasted Almond, anyone?

An evening not to be missed - will I see you there?

Girls Night - Midweek Mexican

It's only Tuesday, but I was desperately in need of a drink by noon on Tuesday. NOT a good sign. Luckily, I had plans to meet one of my best childhood friends for dinner. Where, might you ask might two lovely ladies decide to go on a real spring evening? Why mexican, of course!

Spicy foods dind't always appeal to me. I remember when I first tried wasabi...well, should I say tried? More like tried to try. Didn't happen. Now, however, I crave spice! Spice up my life! This girl is not afraid of a jalapeno or two. Teaspoon of wasabi? Bring it on. So, when my Texan friend raved about a place with super spicy mexican, my ears immediately perked up. Where? Los Dos Molinos, she said. I decided I've gotta go!

Los Dos Molinos is a small place located along 18th Street, between Park and Irving. Of course, the day today was utterly springlike, so I left my office a little early to buy me time to walk along Gramercy Park on my way down to dinner. Between the cherry blossom fragrances, and the lush greenery all around, I was quite relaxed and happy by the time I arrived.

Sarah and I sat down to dinner, and were immediately greeted by the waitress bearing chips and salsa - yay! Now, too many chips can sometimes leave my tummy upset (um, hellooo fried foods I hardly eat you!), but there was something about these chips that was so good and easy on the tummy. Unless it was that darn red salsa that came along with them? It's funny - when I think of salsa, I think of the chunky Tostitos stuff, or even chunky tomato salsas. Los Dos', however, was a real spicy chili sauce. Not chunky, but - whoa - there was some smoke in there. The chips also came with a green salsa. Not sure what the difference in ingredients were here, but while the red was lighter in texture and smokier in flavor, the green was more sprightly, tangy in taste.

Nibbling on chips, we soon decided on what kind of margarita we wanted. Ever since I went to Cilantro on the Upper East Side last year, I've kind of been hooked on frozen margaritas. Usually, I'm a "Up, with Salt" girl. However, there are some pretty good frozen margaritas in NYC. Just a couple of weeks ago, a co-worker and I had a blast at Zocalo in Grand Central drinking blood orange frozen margaritas, and polishing off a basket of chips. Nutritious? No. Good for the soul? Oh yeah.

By the time our "large" (Kid you not!) margaritas arrived, we had decided on what to get: some guacamole and chips, and then a Chicken Enchilada for Sarah, and a Carne Adovada Burro for me. We'd seen how large the dishes were here, and figured with our petite appetites, and the guac, this would be just right.

Our guacamole came out, and it looked oh so good. I dug in to the creamy, green goodess. It was colder and creamier than most guacamoles I've had. Analyzing what was in my mouth, I decided there was little additional seasoning (adulturants?): no onion, no lime, no garlic. A bit of salt. Thank goodness our entrees were speedy coming out, because I needed to stop inhaling the guacamole. Clearly, simple can be better!

And, for the record? The single enchiladas/burros/tacos make the PERFECT sized weeknight meal! It was actually BIG! I can't imagine what the actual dinners looked like. Sarah loved her enchilada - spicy, but not lacking sauce at all. A good thing. My burro came with a bit of salad, and some melted cheese on top. The pork was SO good. Simple, no additional veggies. But flavorful. And for spice? What was everyone talking about? Only the red salsa was hot to me...there was no heat in my dinner. Hmm.

Overall, good food, and good spice. I'd come back again...but maybe for the margs and chips only. Or to split the enchilada dinner with the fried egg...I'm kind of curious what that is like. When I eat mexican, I like to have smaller portions, a little more innovative, and maybe some more veggies in my dish - like Hecho en Dumbo. I ate there with friends a week ago and pleasantly surprised!!

Canned Creativity

Mondays. The beginning of the week, an opportunity to start the week off right. It's true! But these days, I'm so darn busy that Monday blurs into Tuesday, then to Thursday, then Friday (and in my case, to Saturday and still working hard). Sigh.

I've been working these past weeks to "clean" out my cabinets of food, as I'm moving out of the city back home to start on a new adventure in food. So far, so good! But, I've had a major surplus of canned tomatoes and am definitely sick of tomatoes - tomato sauce, tomato soup, more tomato sauce. Luckily, there was some other "random stuff" in there - lentils, brown rice, a can of black beans...wait! Eureka! Spacing out on the subway home, I had an idea!

My friend The Lunchbelle had brought some cilantro to my place Saturday when I made dinner. I still had some left over, and was craving a "fresh" spin on dinner, and I thought up just the combination: canned whole tomatoes, chopped up, mixed with my can of black beans (no salt), and a lot of cilantro. The perfect topping? An avocado, so I stopped off at the market on my way home to grab one.

The prep was easy - open cans, smush with a spoon, season liberally with salt to taste (I'm a huge fan of Maldon salt - there is no comparison!). I was utterly famished, so I served my black bean and avocado salad with some cold leftover mac and cheese from Saturday's dinner - a quick and complete dinner in a bowl.

I still have a pint of this salad left over - maybe for lunch later this week? A late dinner? Whenever it's eaten, I hope it's even better than before now that flavors have had time to blend.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dinner with mom on her day

After I sent my mom a little Mother's Day card this morning (she was away at a conference), I got a surprise email saying that she was taking a friend to JFK, and would I like to have dinner in the city!

What an unexpected treat! The rest of our family was up at our place in Rhode Island, so I was excited that mom was actually going to be in town. Now, the question was - where to have dinner?

My mom suggested downtown/Tribeca, and I quickly agreed as it is one of my favorite places I'd like to live in the City. I've been to Bubby's, Upstairs at Bouley, Chanterelle would have been impossible. The Harrison's menu didn't quite jive with me. What about Marc Forgione? I've heard good things about him and his father, a well known restauranteur (An American Place). Plus, I heard that he was a part of the original locavore movement in the city. I love fresh, locally sourced organic foods, so I was excited to try Marc's place (formerly Forge).

We arrived at 6:45pm, and I noted the sign out front with the selection of spring produce that was fresh in house that day: morels, asparagus, chives, and...mole? Hmm. Once checked in, we were quickly directed to the back of the restaurant, near the entrance to the kitchen. Rule #1 - not a good thing if they give you the worst seat in the house. Was it the fact my mom was wearing sneakers? Who knows - there was a couple quite overly dressed, though, in the back corner. Compared with them, we fit right in. After a moment's debating, we were sat up towards the front at a two top. Just perfect!

Once we were seated, our waitress came over and offered us water quickly. She then left us to peruse the menus. We waited. And waited. She appeared back, expressionless, to share the specials. Noticing there were few options on the menu, maybe she'd offer us alternative entree selections. Alas, there were only two specials, both appetizers. My mom was definitely disappointed.

While debating our selections, another waitstaff brought us the most delicious warm brioche, brushed with possibly butter or olive oil and a pinch of fleur de sel. Starving, I immediately jumped in and slathered a bit of the spring onion butter on my piece of bread. The sweetness of the bread, with the savory butter was perfect - the warmth of the bread melting the already soft butter just so. I secretly hoped this was indicative of the rest of our meal!

After a bit too long of time, the waitress finally returned to take our order. We both ordered the spring green salad with shaved asparagus and gougeres, followed by the curry braised lamb, and a "Pink Cadillac," a rhubarb margarita of sorts to drink. Hopefully we made the right decisions. My mom had debated between the lamb - braised, not her favorite, but the acoutrements of peas and carrots sounded delicious - and the veal milanese, served with whipped potatoes and fiddleheads, two sides she didn't care for. I certainly make my meal choices based on what comes with the dish, and I felt that Marc Forgione didn't offer a selection of market fresh combinations, like other "locavore" restaurants do.

Next arrived an amuse from the kitchen - my mom, a salmon or tuna tartare of sorts on cucumber, and me, fresh peas with proscuitto. I was a bit confused as to why my mom got something different than I did. The peas could have been cooked a bit more, but they were fresh and good. The salmon? Didn't look appealing to me.

Soon came our drinks, pink lowballs of a delicious combination of fresh rhubarb, tequila, cointreau, and Grand Marnier, and our salads, bowls of richly colored greens with shaved raw asparagus, adorned with three cheese gougeres. Still very hungry, I dove right in. The gougeres, although not warm, were quite tasty, the cheesiness offering a perfect compliment to the vinaigrette dressing the salad. The greens were fresh from the market - and certainly a wonderful assortment of all kinds. The dressing, however, was a bit overpowering. Too much acid - a vinegar? Certainly heavily dressed. The drinks? Amazing! Overall, not bad.

Soon arrived our main dishes, shanks of lamb braised til fork tender, resting on large castiron dishes. Mine was sizzling hot, and it forced me to wait quite a few minutes for the meat to cool so I could actually taste a piece of it without scorching my mouth - not good - at least my mom's was not has hot! The shanks sat on a carrot puree, adorned with two baby carrots, a "crispy" snap pea or two, with a "curry" sauce to finish. The meat looked delicious to me, while the carrot puree was fresh and...carroty! I was a bit disappointed with my snap peas - they weren't crunchy - and the "curry" sauce wasn't that curry at all. Overall, there were few vegetables, and something seemed off, like I was mislead.

Regardless, the meal did hit the spot for me, the meat cooked just perfectly so it fell right off the bone, and dipped in the sauce on the plate, it was a match made in heaven.

As we were quite full from the meal, we didn't have room for dessert. When presented with the check, our waitress brought us out two little peanut butter truffles. YUM! Taking a bite, I wondered how it would compare to other homemade peanut butter cups, and Magnolia's peanut butter patty. Colder in temperature, a bit crunchy. But quite good. Not sure if it is good as my old favorite dark chocolate peanut butter cup from Long Grove confectioner's, but it was quite good.

Overall, the meal was good. Disappointing in the selection of menu options, sparse vegetable servings, and slow service, but I was impressed with the simple, comforting, and rustically decorated space. A perfect spot for a late afternoon aperitif on the porch, or wine late at night under the candlelit lanterns lighting the room. But for a Mother's Day dinner? There is room for improvement.

Entertaining on a dime, and in a kitchen that isn't mine...

As I'm moving out of NYC at the end of May, I have been subletting an apartment on the Upper West Side, near Lincoln Center. The apartment itself is amazing - a large layout with a new kitchen in a great full-service building. The location, too, is perfect - 15 minutes to my office, right near a huge Food Emporium, a block from one of my favorite wine bars (Barcibo Enoteca), and of course the UWS Magnolia Bakery (I've never been!). The best part? I'm on the 23rd floor, so the views over the West Side, Central Park, all the way to Roosevelt Island are amazing!!!
All this talk of mine had my friend, The LunchBelle, craving to come uptown for a girls night on the Upper West Side. Given the economy, and the fact I'm about to leave my salary

behind, we are two girls looking to save a penny or two here and there. So, instead of dining out, we were going to dine in! I was saving my bottle of Chandon Brut Classic from my California trip last November, and this was the perfect celebratory dinner to pop the cork! Having worked a lot in the past couple of weeks, I was also in need of some comforting indulgence - but, watching my waistline for an upcoming gala, I knew that I couldn't go over the top. Creaminess without the heft, nutrition, flavor and texture maximized, and the calories minimized.

I decided to make my favorite mac and cheese from my college days, when a trip to the cheese shop wasn't in my budget. Add to the fact that my sublet's kitchen is NOT like my kitchen - no baking dishes, no graters. So, I had to improvise. I really don't like boxed pastas, but given I now had to create my cheesy masterpiece on the stove, not oven, I knew the preparation from my college days would be the trick. I love whole wheat pasta, so I decided on whole wheat shells, combined with a bit of plain elbow pasta. While the pasta is cooking, I mix together two cheese packets (I like one white, one regular cheddar - good contrast later in the dish) with a cup of 2% milk - this is like my bechamel, the glue of the dish that brings things together - til smooth. To the fully cooked pasta, I toss in two tablespoons of good butter (European-style: Plugra is a favorite) and let it melt. I then pour in my sauce and stir. I then add about a cup of 1/3" cubed part-skim mozzarella to the pasta and stir. I let it sit covered over very low heat till the sauce thickens, and the mozzarella begins to melt. Then the most important addition - a drizzle of white truffle oil! I turn the heat off after about 5-10 minutes (it varies) and let it sit for about 10-15, so the cheese really melts.

I had been up early that morning for work, and wasn't going to make it out late that night, so we knew this would be a relaxing girls dinner. Lindsay arrived around 6:45pm, with a bottle of her favorite Moscato D'Asti in hand (Neirano Pitule) and our dessert - Haagen Daaz's Fleur de Sel Caramel bars (we're both in love with salted caramel and chocolate!) - plus a special surprise! Fresh and perfectly ripe avocadoes and cilantro! I popped open the Chandon, and we toasted to dinner, the UWS, and my upcoming job changes. While our pasta was...melting (??), Lindsay and I caught up and I prepared a simple avocado salad tostart the meal - sliced avocadoes, sprinkled with fleur de sel and fresh cilantro.

Once ready, Lindsay refreshed our glasses of bubbly while I served the mac and cheese. The lightly golden cheese sauce contrasted slightly with the white cheesiness of the mozzarella, and with a drizzle of truffle oil again on top, the meal-in-a bowl was complete! I first dove into the avocadoes, having already been mesmerized by its ripeness. The crunchy salt was the perfect compliment to the creamy avocado, and the cilantro added the perfect mexican touch. It also went divinely with the mac and cheese. I took a bite of the pasta - perfect. A rich flavor, thanks to the truffle oil, and a lot of cheesiness, thanks to the mozzarella. All without the heft of a lot of cheese or fat!

Plus, the whole wheat pasta rounded out the dish, adding the perfect nuttiness.

Once dinner was finished, we then popped open the cork of Lindsay's moscato for our dessert! I do love sweet wines, recently becoming obsessed with Chateau St. Michelle's riesling - not too sweet, but just perfect when you're craving a little sweetness without eating dessert. The moscato was just what I like - light bubbles, light sweetness, and easy to drink. My only complaint was that the flavor could have been a bit bigger for me (I love full bodied wines, oaky chardonnays, etc), but I was quite happy. Talking about travel and life, we opened up our ice cream bars and enjoyed the last part of our meal. What a treat! The salty caramel combined with the sweet chocolate shell, and the creamy caramel ice cream was just perfect. It was like a more sophisticated and refined version of one of my Ben & Jerry's favorites, Chubby Hubby. I will definitely have to take Lindsay's word and purchase a pint of this ice cream, where there is even more saltiness and caramel.

Our bottles empty, dishes cleared, and night fallen, the evening was coming to an end. Lindsay and I took a walk around the neighborhood before she got in a cab. Of course, we followed our noses to Magnolia Bakery. Unlike the one downtown, I swear this one never has lines (I walk past it daily!). Already warm outside, we walk in to what I likened to an oven with cupcakes baking - it was hot in there, with all the baking treats! Lindsay had to pick up a little gift for a friend, so I accompanied her down the line, thinking about what I was going to purchase later in the week as my sweet treat. Vanilla frosted chocolate? Chocolate frosted vanilla? Or a slice of coconut cake? I spotted a slice of my favorite - carrot cake - and paused. My old favorite from the Good Food Store in Darien, CT had recently been replaced by the amazing version of my current favorite at Two Little Red Hens. Could this be better?

As I write this, I'm enjoying the little surprise thank you Lindsay got me at Magnolia - one of their peanut butter patties. Anyone who knows me knows I LOVE peanut butter! This hits the spot: graham crumbs combined with peanut butter (freshly ground, I think!) and covered in a dark chocolate shell. A definite home run! As for that carrot cake, stay tuned, as I'll be sampling a slice in the coming weeks.

California dreaming, part IV

Eight wineries down, and the afternoon is waning away. Of course, a trip to CA wouldn't be complete without celebrating with Flynne and Tyler at Domaine Chandon. I love bubbly - it's a go-to for me - so, naturally, I didn't need any convincing to go!

After we parked the car, and strolled around with Layla, we progressed up the hill to the tasting room. Looking around, this was no little deal, but a rather large retail complex/tasting "restaurant." I could probably have spent the whole day here, first walking the grounds, then tasting the wines, lunching late in the dining room, followed by shopping in the gift store, and finally a late afternoon/cocktail-hour aperitif at the bar. Hmm...

Needless to say, that isn't what we were looking for, but we did grab seats at a table outside on the patio, under an umbrella. Layla romped in the grass, chasing squirrels, and Tyler and I ordered three tasting flights - brut white, sweet white, and pink champagnes!

The relaxing atmosphere, the fun people watching, and of course, the beautiful bubbly sips are a must for visitors to the Napa area. Tyler and I visited the gift shop on the way out - he to buy a surpris
e for his and Flynne's anniversary, and I to bring a bottle back to NYC for a career change celebration (more on this in a later post). We both chose the classic, timeless favorite -the Brut Classic. Next time, when I come back, I will definitely have to check out Mumm for a comparison!

To finish the day, we chose Artesa winery. Quite the architectural masterpiece, it is set into the side of the hill, with strong geometric lines, and a lot of cement. Walking in, you pass a beautful reflecting pool, before entering what felt like a earthen vault.

I don't remember much about the wines - two I really disliked, almost acidic and too tannic. It might have been the sheer amount of wine I had had that day, but I don't know. What I can tell you is that I loved the location, looking out over the lower Napa Valley before it flattens towards the Bay. Looking around, with nearly a 180 degree view from the entrance, I really fell in love with the landscape. The colors, the hills, the valleys, and the expanse. Do I have to go back to NYC?

We concluded the day, exhausted and half asleep, at 5:30pm with dinner at The Boon Fly Cafe at The Carneros Inn. Situated right along the Sonoma Highway, I wasn't sure how the proximity to the road would affect our dining experience (it actually didn't at all, thanks probably to the big fences along the road), but I knew that the bright red exterior was a good indicator of a clean, simple - yet modern and rustic meal, with an emphasis on the fresh agricultural bounty of the area.

I was so right on. We started the meal off with drinks - obsessed with St. Germain, I of course treated myself to one of their St. Germain cocktails, with bubbly and lime - and freshly baked bread. Refreshing, indeed!

I was starving, and the menu had my tastebuds salivating - from the salads, to comfort foods like mac and cheese or short ribs, to fresh fish and innovative flatbreads, there was something for everyone. I love spinach salads, so the Warm Baby Spinach Salad with roasted apples, frisee, shallots, bacon, blue cheese, spicy pecans, tossed lightly in a mustard-sherry vinaigrette was soo down my alley! For my main meal, I can never pass over a good burger - for me, it's like a complete meal on a plate! The Boon-Fly's Kobe Beef Burger was no exception - a nicely sized (read: thick and red in the middle - no flat, gray wimpy patties here) burger on a slightly sweet brioche bun (good to sop up juices!) with a choice of cheese - swiss for me - with bacon and avocado, with a side salad in lieu of fries.

The meal was a hit - the warm dressing combined with the sweetness of the apples, the crunch and spice of the nuts, with the creamy cheese and salty bacon was like a symphony in my mouth! Quite full already from the salad, I could only manage to eat half of my burger, but I slowly savored each bite, juices running down my fingers, but of course sopped up by the fresh brioche roll. Luckily, the next day I had to drive to San Francisco, so I knew that my doggie-bagged dinner from the night before would be a perfect treat for the trip down.

Driving back to Santa Rosa, we of course stopped off at Starbucks - soy lattes, a latte for the driver, and of course my Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate for me. It was the perfect sweet end to a long, yet completely fulfilling and incredible day. As I dozed off in the back seat, I looked out the window at the darkening expanse of my surroundings, and the emerging stars. This is certainly a place that will always have a place in my heart.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Lunch at GUCCI?!

So, this past Thursday I had the luck and pleasure of dining at lunchtime at the GUCCI flagship store on Fifth Avenue. Dining in a retail store you ask? Yes!

The reason? We were hosting an event for work for our donors - lunch, a sneak peek at the Fall/Winter 2009-2010 collections, and a portion of proceeds going to support our work cleaning and greening NYC at work.

Olivier Cheng catered the lunch - AMAZING! We started with Bedell (a local wine - yay!) chardonnay and blanc de blancs. Once seated, the staff served us an asparagus soup with thyme and crisped onions. I was struck at how gracious and swift the wait staff was! Certainly well coordinated! Once I sampled the deep green soup, I was immediately smitten. Not a touch of cream, but a truly smooth and asparagus-y taste that worked perfectly with the thyme oil and onion garnish. Could I lick the bowl - no, sadly - but it was that good!

Next came a Lobster Salad with frisee and sunchokes. I'm relatively new to shellfish, having a couple of years ago "cracked" my first lobster, and just last summer become a fan of certain crab preparations. However, it's still relatively "unchartered waters" to me. The salad itself was wonderfully assembled, the pinkish-red lobster the perfect complement to the green lettuce and the cream/yellow sunchokes. I had chosen a raisin-pecan roll (I'm guessing Eli's - Baked right next door to my old apartment!) to nibble at with my lunch. Taking my first taste, the flavors of the lobster with the light mustard dijon dressing melded perfectly in my mouth. YUM. Being new to the shellfish thing, I forgot that the claw is the most delectable. Not that the tail wasn't good - the claw was out of this world!!!

Lunch was followed by the most delicious dessert - a spiced rhubarb hazelnut tart. A spiced hazelnut crust was filled with tenderly cooked rhubarb cubes, finished with a lattice top and then a scoop of slightly sweet, and delightfully creamy, mascarpone gelato on top. Works do not express the symphony that commenced with my first bite of this treat. Of course, the indulgences didn't stop there, as the wait staff then brought out little dishes of petits fours, including rich chocolate truffles, gingerbread linzer cookies (omg yum!), macarons, mini black and white cookies...sigh. After running around coordinating the event all morning, of course I indulged! Do the employees at the flagship store dine like this every day? Mon dieu!

Walking back to the train with my co-workers, slowly and giggly, I breathed a sigh. Event over, extremely happy guests, and satisfied bellies. A successful day, and no regrets!

Sad, but true

Okay, I can't believe I'm saying this - but my friends turned me onto Houston's. Well, maybe I should say Hillstone now (they finally changed the menu on 27th Street!!!). Yes, it's a steakhouse, but that is so NOT why we go there everytime we get together for dinner!!!

At first, I was simply surprised with how simple and good the food was. Now, I crave the wine, crave the food, and miss one specific server! I admit - I'm a convert.

So what is this food that I am raving about? No - not no fancy stuff. Simply fresh and spinach-laden spinach dip (with chips and bread - your choice - I prefer the toasted ciabatta). And then there is the Grilled Chicken Salad. I like mine chopped, with LOTS of extra peanut sauce (if you know me, you know I love peanut butter and peanut sauce). Most important, the Mudhouse Sauvignon Blanc. We get the same thing everytime, and it is just so good. Comfort food at it's best. I recommend you go there - just not when I go (it's a busy place!)!

CA, Part Three

Quite happy from some successful stops, my wino-friends and I stopped off at a couple other places as we drove south towards Napa:

1. Franciscan - okay wines, not blown away. Discouraged by the commercial feeling. Cool vestigate poplars. Okay back courtyard. Loved the Bremner wafers (blast from the past). Even better? Organic Whole Foods Nilla wafers - it was snacktime!

2. Grgich Hills - have heard great things about their chardonnays, but was really unimpressed with their wines. The dark and windowless tasting room didn't do much for me either. Hmmm.

3. Next up? Elizabeth Spencer wines in Rutherford. Fun, cute tasting room, good reds. I think I was tired by this point, and definitely didn't like the AC!

4. We then decided to bite the bullet - Opus One. These are amazing wines, complex, rich, and so delightful in the mouth (not on the pocketbook). We didn't think we'd get in without a reservation, but clearly we were just the people they were hoping to see, as they whisked us right in. We got our first pour - mind you, it was quite a generous one - and climbed the stairs to the top of the structure to look out over the vines and fields. With a gentle breeze coming up the valley to cool us off from the blazing 90 degree temps and sun, it was the perfect resting place for us. Couple of pictures, and another pour later, we had come back to earth (and for me, forgotten about all the work and cold I left behind in Manhattan). Wines, just as good as I remembered. The structure itself reminded me of a placial marble and stone palace. HUGE scale, and simple landscaping. Didn't do much for me, but a definite must-see in the Napa Valley.

5. Next up was going to be a trip to Silver Oak. We drive in, and there are all sorts of chauffered cars, convertibles, limos - even a stretch Excursion for a Bachelorette party crew of ladies. Hmm. This was already starting to feel a little "scene-y" for me. We got inside the main tasting room - definitely cool. I loved the dark tone woods. But the people! Luckily, Layla wasn't allowed on the premises, so we walked directly back to the car to re-examine our plan.

6. Just the remedy I needed - some snacks - and a trip to Paraduxx Winery. This time, Layla was MORE than welcome (and even made friends with other tasters there!) Same family as Duckhorn (a reliable go-to for me), I was so utterly delighted to step out of the car in what felt like a mix of home/a farmyard. Wonderful wildflowers, and tables scattered around back for a wine/food pairing tasting! All four of us sat down (Layla was psyched to have a chance to nibble, too!) for our flight of six wines and pairing snacks. I still remember the short ribs. Oh my... It was a perfect hour there, with the sun starting to do down. Ahh...

California, Part Two

Ah yes, California. I had never been til November of 2008, but people have always told me I'm perfectly suited for the Bay Area...and boy were they right.

Day two of my wine country trip with my friend Flynne and her boyfriend Tyler began early. We had a big day ahead of us hitting up wineries and vineyards in Napa. Once showered and ready, we three, and Layla piled into the car for the trip.

Stop one - requisite Starbucks stop for the morning cappucchino and muffin. Gotta start the day off right.

Stop two - Pride Mountain. What a view! We drove over to the Napa Valley from Sonoma, and this is on the way over. I was first captivated by the spanish moss and pine forests on my right, then the mediterranean chaparral on my left...then we got to the top of the hill at Pride, and I was smitten by the views! Perfect way to start the day...oh, and their chardonnay definitely helped! 

Stop three - Now in the Napa Valley, we had many options in front of us. First up - Hall Vineyards. They had just opened a new visitor's center, so we had to check it out! I enjoyed learning all about the new construction going on, and their plans for their storage and wine-making  facilities out back. Moreover, I loved their Cabernet! 

Stop four - across 128 to a wine I've had before - Heitz. This may have been my favorite of the day, from the adorable stone structure that was the tasting room, to the pergola and wisteria covered patio overlooking the vineyards out back, to the lone California Poppy (a favorite!) that greeted me. Smitten before I even tasted their wine. Inside, big leather overstuffed chairs greeted us, and we perused the offerings at the monstrous tasting table. Definitely tastefully done - it felt more like a home than a retail outlet. I've had Heitz's reds before, but never their chards. I'm a huge CA chard fan, the oakier and butterscotchier the better. The Heitz chard was a definite hit. I also tasted their port - and was pleasantly surprised! Sweet, but not too heavy or sweet, this was a perfect dessert wine to serve with a hazelnut crusted tart, or even simply shortbread with berries and cream. I bought a bottle to take home to save for a special occasion - yay!

It's been a while...thinking back to CA, Part One

It's been a while since I've posted last, and I've been to many places, found new restaurants, tried new things, and made exciting decisions!!!

Last fall, I made my first trip to California, to visit my dear friend Flynne in Mountain View, CA and to check out Stanford/Palo Alto, CA. To say I immediately fell in love with the Bay Area is an understatement. It was the weekend before Thanksgiving, I was exhausted from work and happy to leave the gray and snow in NYC. I arrive in CA to cloudless skies and 90 degree weather. Incredible!

Friday, after work, Flynne and I trekked up to Santa Rosa with her boyfriend, Tyler for a weekend in wine country! Craving pizza, we had dinner at The Red Grape in Sonoma. To start the weekend off right, I enjoyed a glass of Viansa merlot - it is definitely a new favorite, but I'm having a hard time finding it on the East Coast. I then enjoyed a crisp and flavorful Cashew Steak Salad, with napa cabbage, romaine, carrot, red pepper, and - my favorite - cilantro - tossed in a sesame peanut dressing, and topped with the most tender and flavorful flank steak, and, of course, cashews! Everything about the dinner was perfect - something quick, simple, and easy, as we were tired, but the food was delicious and the service prompt and courteous!

Before retiring for the evening, we stopped off at the local Starbucks on the way home. I know, Starbucks when you're in Sonoma, but we needed a pre-sleep steamed milk fix. I'm quite happy we went, as it was my first time trying their special Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate. I love chocolate and salted caramel (Barack Obama does too!!!), so when salted caramel and whipped cream are added to uber-chocolate-y european-style hot chocolate, I'm sold. My tall drink didn't last long, nor was it the last time I had that! I'm already looking forward to next holiday season when it hopefully returns to the menu!!!