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Welcome to The Lunch Belle, a NYC based food and travel website that views various dining scenes and destinations through the lens - and belly - of a highly opinionated thirty-something.

xoxo, 

Lindsay

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  • 10/25-10/28: El Paso
  • 11/1-11/4: Aruba
  • 11/21-11/25: Houston
  • 12/24-12/30: Miami
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Saturday
Nov172007

Brunch at Morandi, 11/17/07

While I do love chowhound.com almost as much as a close relative, there is one thing that truly aggravates me about some of my fellow "hounds" (hounds are what the members of chowhound.com are often referred to). A lot of times, if one hound praises a trendy Manhattan restaurant (i.e. The Stanton Social or Rosa Mexicano), they are chastised by other 'hounds for not "thinking outside of the restaurant box" or being conformists to mass appeal. The best way I can describe this to you readers from outside of NYC would be an instance when: You choose to dine at P.F. Chang's instead of your city's local Chinese restaurant.

Why is it that one should feel embarrassed or ashamed about genuinely enjoying what many refer to as a "theme park" restaurant? (A "theme park" restaurant could be defined by some as an establishment where the first priority is the design/atmosphere/bringing in the beautiful people, and the second priority is the food.) In my humble opinion, there are only a couple of these "theme park" restaurants that don't measure up. Most that I've been to have been fantastic (i.e. Buddakan
, Rosa Mexicano, The Stanton Social) and frankly, what's wrong with wanting to enjoy your meal amidst a gorgeous atmosphere every now and then?
I was elated when my friend Marc, the restaurateur, scheduled brunch reservations for us at Morandi
on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. Having never been to this restaurant, I knew that if Marc was a fan, it had to be good. The reviews for Morandi were mixed on both chowhound.com and menupages.com, but I didn't want that to steer me in the wrong direction. I've learned that it's best to keep an open mind when it comes to your first dining experience at a restaurant. In my experience, if too much emphasis is put on what has been said/reviewed/who the chef is, etc. chances are, I end up disappointed by my high expectations.

Saturday in the city was cold, windy and dreary, but once I entered Morandi
, I was transported to what looked like the inside of a rustic Italian log cabin. Everything about the restaurant was warm and intimate and though it was a new space to me, it felt very familiar in the most comforting way. Morandi is quite spacious, comprising of a lively bar with a separate waiting area and a large main dining room.
I found Marc sitting on a stool at the bar, sipping a Bloody Mary and seriously engaged in the latest issue of "The Economist." After we greeted each other, the pleasantly charming hostess led us to our two-top table in the back corner of the dining room. What a wonderful surprise to not be seated an inch away from my fellow diner; to have lots of elbow room and extra storage behind my booth seat in which to stow my over-sized purse! Amen! Did a woman design this space? There's no way that a man would think of such ingenious non-negotiables such as elbow room and extra storage to fit this seasons oversized purses trend!

After Marc and I were handed the menus, he pointed out some of his brunch favorites to help me make an educated entree decision. The waiter returned to our table and took our order which consisted of: the braised baby artichoke appetizer special, ricotta fritters, Fritatta Con Ostriche for Marc and the Fagottini Con Prosciutto for myself.
Crusty sliced Italian bread and a small bowl of olive oil arrived first, followed by the braised baby artichokes. The plate was laden with a roux and topped with three baby stemmed artichokes; both sauce and chokes were of the same lovely dull-green color. As the first piece of the artichoke touched my tongue, I was surprised that this dish was prepared cold. However, once I bit in to the perfectly cooked flesh, every bite was more delicious. What really made this work was the salty and delicate sauce (with small chunks of artichoke and sausage and thickened with what appeared to be butter and flour) that sensually enveloped the vegetable.

Next, a small plate the size of a saucer arrived with five golden donut-hole-shaped fritters sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. The external crust was buttery and slightly crisp and the interior of the fritter was sweet and moist (from the ricotta cheese) and delicately laced with pignoli nuts and currants. This is one of the most decadent treats I've ever tasted!

About twenty-minutes after we received our ricotta fritters, our entrees arrived. Marc's Fritatta Con Ostriche, or omelette with oysters and capers, was a glistening white pancake of eggs with various positioned "spoonfuls" of chopped oysters and capers. A thick wedge of grilled country bread and simple greens accompanied the frittata. My Fagottini Con Prosciutto, or baked crepes with ham and fontina, was two perfectly plated and positioned triangularly-folded works of culinary art. The crepes were oozing with butter and oven-baked heat. After cutting in to what would be my first bite, I noticed that the interior looked similar to a mille fleur cake, comprising of various layers of ingredients (crepe, cheese, ham). There were so many wonderful flavors going on at one time that it was hard to contain myself! The slightly crunchy exterior was buttery and delicate giving way to an interior comprised of salty prosciutto ham and sharp melting fontina cheese. What a glorious combination!

The atmosphere, service and food at Morandi were excellent. I look forward to trying their dinner offering and hope that it will be just as fantastic as their brunch. For all who've given this restaurant negative reviews, I must disagree with you (as far as brunch goes); but to be fair, I will reiterate the phrase "to each his own."
I highly recommend Morandi
and will name it as NYC's best brunch.

Thursday
Nov012007

"D" Day 2007

It's a sad day in the life of The Lunch Belle, as this first morning of November has officially become "D" Day 2007. What in the world is "D" Day, you ask? Tragically, the letter "D" stands for...(Gasp)...diet!

For all of you dedicated readers out there, I know that I contradict myself in another post ('Rationale for being a foodie...') by proclaiming that "I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world...even the pounds gained from it all." But I think that once five to ten pounds is gained, one seriously needs to go back to the drawing boards and apply the brakes a bit.

Since The Lunch Belle is leaving for a tropical vacation in less than two months, I decided to put the petal to the metal and get in shape. There are so many diets out there and I feel like I've tried them all. Instead of restricting my carb intake to just thirty grams per day or counting every calorie to a "t," I've decided that I'm just going to start eating healthier and increase my jogs.

Now that I had my diet plan figured out, my next step was to decipher how this would affect my website. I write about my dining experiences for God's sake! Would this mean having to go on sabbatical until January 2008? The conclusion I came to is: Instead of not going out to eat or drink for the next two months, I will just choose healthier menu options. Sounds easy, right?

The more I thought about having to order the steamed veggie plate instead of the steak frites plate, I got depressed. Then out of nowhere, my frown turned upside down when a light bulb went off in my head! Wouldn't the ultimate test of a restaurant's worth be in how good they could execute a healthy dish? Absolutely!
Stay tuned, folks! I think these next two months will be really enlightening and exciting!

Saturday
Oct202007

Dinner at Buddakan, 10/20/07

Where do you take an old friend who's in town visiting to dinner on a Saturday night? The non-negotiable's: a place that's over-the-top, trendy, and sceney...but with good food. Is there such a place in Manhattan? Is all of this too much to ask?

The tourist in question is a friend of mine from Texas who has spent the past two years living in Amarillo, Texas. She's a woman of style and pizazz; a woman who gets star-struck at celeb sightings and follows Hollywood gossip to a "t"; a woman who would appreciate dining at one of NYC's ginormous cougar infested, "B&T" laden, velvet-rope mega-restaurants. With so many of these restaurants to choose from (i.e. Morimoto, Del Posto, Buddakan) how do you narrow your search down to one?After going back and forth, I finally decided to take my buddy to Buddakan. Having never been and not knowing what to expect, I played it safe and made a reservation for Saturday at 9 p.m. On our cab ride over to Buddakan, I was mentally preparing myself for the inevitable...a large crowd, 20-minute-long waits-in-line for a drink at the bar, lots of heavy cologne and bad perfume, etc. Once we arrived and checked in with the hostesses, my visitor and I went to the bar to wait for our other guest, who was stuck in traffic (incomplete parties are NEVER seated). We waited in line for cocktails for quite a while, but finally received our $13 drinks and found a place to sit (total shock). The interior of Buddakan is stunning and astronomically huge, especially by New York standards. The atmosphere is modern and chic with Asian accents (but a little too dimly lit for my taste). The acoustics of the restaurant were done very well, as I didn't find myself screaming to have a conversation amongst the sea of people. The crowd...oh, the crowd! The room was filled with everything from your typical cougar twosome, to your gold-chain-wearing pretty boy with too much hair gel and fake-baked orange skin...all the way to pre-teen birthday gatherings and girls-nights-out.

Our other diner arrived, making the party complete and "seatable" by restaurant standards. Despite this, we still had to wait an additional twenty-thirty minutes to be seated at our table (even with reservations). Though I wasn't surprised one bit, I was still miffed. Finally, we were whisked away to our table; one that I wasn't satisfied with, as I'd requested to be seated in the main downstairs dining room. Rather than bring this up to the hostesses and cause another delay in being seated, I bit my tongue and let the situation be.

All of the drinks at Buddakan have names like, "Jealousy," etc. As heinously cheesy as that sounds, all of the cocktails we had were unanimously enjoyed by the table and very tasty. Our waiter was great and recommended an array of wonderful dishes. We started with: scallion pancakes topped with braised short rib, lobster egg rolls and shrimp dumplings. The scallion pancakes came three to an order and were about 2" x 2" in size, which I thought was a pretty generous portion. Each chewy rectangle was lathered with sweetly braised short rib; the combination of the delicate meat with the salty pancake was delicious and unique. I believe that this preparation of incorporating beef atop the pancake is of Korean origin.Having had doughy, too-much-filler-and-not-enough-shrimp shrimp dumplings in the past, I wasn't expecting too much from Buddakan's version...but my guests insisted on ordering them. When the dumplings arrived, I was impressed that the dough surrounding the shrimp was thin enough to see the interior of the dumpling. After one bite, I knew that this was the best dumpling I've tasted. I was shocked to find that there was absolutely no filler inside of the dumpling...that the contents were whole chunks of shrimp and nothing else! What a treat this was!

The lobster egg rolls were light, crisp, filled with fresh veggies and chunks of luscious lobster meat. A sweet sesame dipping sauce accompanied the egg rolls. I must say that this was my favorite of the appetizers.

The waiter returned to our table and took our entree orders. The three of us decided to split the crispy jumbo shrimp, the house fried rice and ANOTHER order of the lobster spring rolls. The presentation of the food at Buddakan is lovely and artisticly plated. I was particularly impressed by the crispy jumbo shrimp. Five enormous shrimp arrived with a lightly crunchy exterior and a perfectly ocean-fresh, meaty interior. Each shrimp sat under a small salad of what appeared to be cucumber cut like spaghetti noodles.

The house fried rice was phenomenal and chuck-full of scallops, lobster and shrimp. I could have eaten ten more servings of this amazing dish. When the bowl arrived, there was a golden crust that almost "shattered" when the serving spoon was inserted into the underlying moist rice.

Overall, my experience at Buddakan was great. I enjoyed the decor, the fantastic drinks and the high-quality food. The scene was a bit over-the-top, but I suppose that when you add "new restaurant" plus "Meatpacking District" together, this is what you get. I hope to return to Buddakan soon, though unfortunately, it won't be in the near future...this gal can't do $100/person meals that often!

Sunday
Oct072007

Baby steps to SoHo & Brunch at The Mercer Kitchen, 10/7/07

There are some neighborhoods in this fantastic city that are "uber chic, uber trendy and uber cool"...so much so, that I feel uberly-awkward and "not uberly cool enough" each and every time I pass through them. The best way I can describe this feeling is something along the lines of walking by the "cool kids" lunch table in junior high, when you're clearly not one of those "cool kids." In my case, I just wanted to pass by as fast as I could, and go about my business. For me, one of these parts of town would be SoHo, which is short for "South of Houston Street." (To learn more about this nabe, check this out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SoHo) SoHo is famous for its abundance of high-end boutiques, numerous celebrity sightings (ahem, Lindsay Lohan pre-rehab!), and artist's lofts. Just the fact that the name "South of Houston Street" was shortened from twenty letters to four (SoHo) intimidates me!

I was flattered when I was asked to join my sister's fiance's mother and sister for brunch. We agreed that Sunday would be best and decided to meet at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's The Mercer Kitchen at noon. Having never eaten at The Mercer Kitchen, I immediately checked it out on menupages.com and learned that it was located in the infamous Mercer Hotel in SoHo (where Russell Crowe threw a telephone at the front desk clerk). I couldn't wait to be in the same space where all of this dramatic A-list excitement had occurred!Sunday came quicker than I'd hoped. It's my least favorite day of the week besides Monday; as I know that the next morning I will be awakened by my screaming alarm clock at 5:15 a.m. Just one more reminder that it's the beginning of yet another (sigh) work week. I arrived at The Mercer Hotel about twenty minutes before noon, and decided to people-watch in the lobby. The atmosphere tries its hardest (and succeeds) to make one feel "at home" with plush sofas, over sized ottomans and chairs, coffee tables and fully stocked floor-to-ceiling book shelves. It's a very urban-chic, yet warm and intimate environment. Finally, about five minutes to noon, I walked down an open-air wooden staircase to The Mercer Kitchen to meet my group. The restaurant was gorgeous. There are no windows, as it's located below street level; but with the use of various mirrors, the space does not seem claustrophobic or dungeon-like in any way and was comfortably bright. The kitchen is open to the dining room, which I always appreciate in two aspects: knowing that the chefs can't as-easily pull any "fast" moves with my food; and for the shear pleasure of watching the cooking theatrics take center stage right before my eyes.

Susan and Elissa arrived downstairs within a minute or two of myself, and we were promptly seated. After some much-needed catching-up, we perused the food menu and made entree decisions rather quickly. Susan ordered the bagel & lox, Elissa chose the Gruyere omelette and I went with the shrimp & avocado salad...with the dressing on the side. My order? Boring, I know. I'd be a liar if I said that shrimp salad was my ideal meal of choice at brunch; God knows I really wanted to order the French toast or pancakes drenched in 100% pure maple syrup, or the Benedict with a bowl of extra hollandaise sauce...but I've been a bad girl for a long time, and now it's time to watch my sugar and grease intake. After ordering, we were each served a roll, which really hit-the-spot (I was famished). It was almost like they could read my mind and know just how damn hungry I was. About twenty minutes later, the entrees arrived. My salad was piled to the edges of my plate with emerald-colored greens, tomato salata, perfectly ripe chunks of avocado, thinly sliced mushrooms and butterflied shrimp. It tasted as gorgeous as it looked. It's hard enough eating a damn salad at brunch when everyone else in the restaurant is chowing down on their hollandaise-laden egg dish, but it's even harder if the salad sucks. Thankfully, this was not the case with my shrimp salad and I did not feel deprived in the least. My dining partners thoroughly enjoyed their meals, as well.

Service at the restaurant was great; not too rushed, but not too slow with absolutely no arrogance or aloofness. Will I return to The Mercer Kitchen? Most definitely and most likely for dinner and drinks. Many of the juices and colas are made from scratch on the premises!I loved the vibe and atmosphere of The Mercer Kitchen and came to the realization that maybe, just maybe I was more "uber cool" than I thought. I'm going to take baby steps and more of an open mind toward discovering SoHo and some of the other nabes that I feel are just too over-the-top-cool. After today's experience, this creature of habit and familiarity has been pleasantly surprised and is ready for her next adventure.