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Entries in Round-ups & restaurant-hopping (26)


Three unique dining experiences to try NOW!

Afternoon Tea at BG (Bergdorf Goodman) ~ Stare out at Central Park and catch up on gossip as you enjoy this fancy and sophisticated - yet relatively affordable - afternoon snack/late lunch.

For $35/person (or $50, if you opt for a glass of Veuve Clicquot), afternoon tea at BG - Bergdorf Goodman's gorgeous 7th floor restaurant - includes:  your choice of one Dammann Freres teas, freshly-baked scones (fruit preserves & Devonshire cream), a variety of petit fours, and an assortment of tea sandwiches and savory tartlets.

Perfect for:  girlfriends, mothers and daughters, ladies who lunch, tourists in-the-know, homesick Brits, the fashion-forward male

Check out the rest of my pictures from this meal here!


A cozy, eccentric, and boozy brunch at Calyer ~ Make a Saturday or Sunday out of boutique'ing (boutique shopping) in charming Greenpoint, Brooklyn!  And when you've worked up an appetite, head over to Calyer for brunch.

Situated in a cozy space that evokes "apres-ski," take comfort in the restaurant's eclectic food and drink menus.  During brunch, most items on each menu are $10 and under!  What a welcome relief from Manhattan! 

I recommend:  roasted beets salad, hangar steak & eggs w/ tostones, and the wickedly delicious "La Bebida de los Dioses" cocktail:  tequila, lime, maple syrup, chili, and xocolatl mole bitters.

Perfect for:  duos, foodies, small groups, cocktail snobs, quality dining on a budget   

Check out the rest of my pictures from this meal here!


"M & I Mexican Monday's" at Goat Town ~ When I got wind that Julie Farias, Goat Town chef and San Antonio native, was serving up a special "Mexican Monday" menu for homesick Texas expats citywide, I knew I had to get over there ASAP.  So I recruited two of my favorite El Pasoans to come along for the ride.

Is this NOT the best thing you've ever seen??On Monday night's only, Goat Town, a farm-to-table American restaurant, gives diners the option to order from an additional menu, chock-full of Tex-Mex favorites.  Think:  puffy tacos stuffed with spicy braised lengua, American cheese enchiladas smothered with chile con carne and even more cheese, and a barbacoa salad. 

Mmmm...cheese enchiladas!While we enjoyed the savory portion of our Tex-Mex feast, it was the dessert we shared - located on Goat Town's everyday menu, thank god - that was worth writing home about.  Served in an old fashioned malt glass, the "Goat Town Ice Cream Sundae" was a sweet and salty concoction of salted cajeta ice cream, pretzels, caramel cakes, caramel sauce & whipped cream.  It would be fair to say that this is Manhattan's most delicious dessert.  Easily.  It will change your life, folks.  This sundae is capable of mending relationships, creating world peace, and making everything better - if only for the short, but sweet, amount of time that you get to savor it.  And best of all?  It's available EVERY DAY, not just on Monday's. 

This sundae will change your life.Perfect for:  homesick Texans, duos, foodies, small groups, date night

Check out the rest of my pictures from this meal here!


Until we eat again,

The Lunch Belle


Mission (im)possible: taking the "E-W" out of "N-E-W  Y-O-R-K"

Someone once said, "Math is very black or white: you either 'get it' or you don't."  Come to think of it, NYC can be very black or white, as well:

  • You love it: you live here and/or visit NYC as often as you can - if you don't live here, then you fantasize about what your life would be like here
  • You love to hate it: you visit NYC as least often as you can/only in the event of an emergency or because you have family here - if you do live here, then you're trying to get the hell outta' here ASAP

And speaking of folks who find themselves closer to the "you love to hate it" end of the spectrum, my mother was in town this past weekend.  She came for a solo visit sans Dad, because he was dog-sitting my sister's twin pooches (she's currently on her two-week "birthright" trip to Israel).  Nice guy, eh?  Disclaimer: sure, he's a nice guy, but Dad's not much of a NYC fan, either.  He was happy to dog-sit. 

When it comes to seeing my family, 9 times out of 10, I go to them, not vice versa.  Frankly, they think NYC sucks and still assume that the "Bronx is burning" and that they'll get mugged while riding the subway, circa NYC 1985.  They call California, where my sister lives, "The Promised Land."  Go figure. 

So, with Mom's impending arrival, I wanted to make sure that we had some great meals lined up, were able to take in a Broadway show or two, and had plenty of options for daytime activities because, if you know my mother, then you're aware of her undying energy level.  She makes me feel like I have a permanent case of mononucleosis.  Whew!  So, in an effort not to hear Mom say any of her famous Peggy-meets-NYC quotes (..."I didn't bring that bag because I didn't want some hoodlum to cut the shoulder strap off with a pocket knife"..."You can't wear jewelry in the daytime here - you'll get mugged"..."You can't even see the sky here!"), I did my best to create an action packed, fun-filled, and delicious itinerary for the two of us.

Here's a look in to our weekend and in to my personal mission of taking the "e-w" out of "N-e-w Y-o-r-k."  Enjoy!   


Friday, 3/18/11

Lunch: The Plaza (Hotel) Food Hall, by Todd English

  • We met my Aunt Phyllis here for a quick lunch before heading uptown to the NY Botanical Garden.  I had been wanting to check out this upscale "food court" for the longest, and we were all very impressed.  Our sharable meal proved to be the perfect amount of food for three ladies, and the atmosphere was positively chic and fabulous.  Plus, this wasn't the type of "food court" where you walk around aimlessly, trying to decide between Hot Dog On A Stick or Panda Express - no, you are seated at a table, and given a menu with a lengthy melange of the various options within the food hall.  Someone else, a server, does the "running around" for you.  How much do you love that?

The Plaza Food Hall: interior spaceThe Plaza Food Hall: Mom peruses the menuThe Plaza Food Hall: Greek saladThe Plaza Food Hall: vegetable "sushi" rollsThe Plaza Food Hall: "Bronx Bomber" flatbread/pizzaNY Botanical Garden, "The Orchid Show: On Broadway": 3/5 - 4/25/2011

  • Mom, Aunt Phyllis, and I took a Bronx-bound subway to the NY Botanical Garden after our lovely lunch.  For $20/person, we had the pleasure of viewing an elaborate orchid exhibit entitled "The Orchid Show: On Broadway," mimicking famous theaters.   

NY Botanical Garden: America's largest "glasshouse"NY Botanical Garden: from left to right - Aunt Phyllis, Mom, meNY Botanical Garden, "The Orchid Show: On Broadway"NY Botanical Garden, "The Orchid Show: On Broadway"NY Botanical Garden, "The Orchid Show: On Broadway"NY Botanical Garden, "The Orchid Show: On Broadway"NY Botanical Garden, "The Orchid Show: On Broadway" - replica of a famous chandelierNY Botanical Garden, "The Orchid Show: On Broadway"NY Botanical Garden, "The Orchid Show: On Broadway"

Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark

  • Believe it or not, this was an amazing show!  I'm not quite sure who is conducting the reviews for this particular Broadway production - or if there is some conspiracy pertaining to it and/or its investors, directors, etc. - but if you're anything like me and my mom in terms of stimulation and attention span, i.e. if you don't have much of one, then this is the show for you!  From the costumes, set design, music, acrobatics, and even the theater, itself, Spider-man is a winner.

Dinner: Brooklyn Diner

  • A couple of years ago, Mom and I went here on "accident" when we were scrambling for a meal in Times Square.  Well, as it turned out, this was no accident.  Every time we find ourselves in the vicinity, we always hit Brooklyn Diner.  It's the kind of place that serves everything from grilled salmon to grilled cheese sandwiches.  Mom and I usually split a cheeseburger "deluxe," which includes fries and onion rings but, on this particular occasion, I could not take my eyes off of our neighbor's plate of spaghetti topped with a meatball - nearly the size of my head.  The extra-thick spaghetti noodles were cooked perfectly al-dente and the meatball yielded a moist, flavorful interior.  Sorry folks, I forgot my camera that night!      


Saturday, 3/19/11

Brunch: L'Ecole

  • I invited my friend, Emily, to brunch with Mom and I and chose L'Ecole because it just so happens to be one of my top-5 favorite brunch destinations in NYC.  For $23, diners have their choice of an appetizer and entree, and a basket of freshly-baked breads and pastries.  Pretty reasonable, no?  L'Ecole also happens to be The French Culinary Institute's "working classroom," as all of the food is prepared by the prestigious school's student chefs. 

Brunch at L'Ecole: seasonal greens and vegetablesBrunch at L'Ecole: French toast with cream and fresh berriesLater that afternoon, Mom and I took a stroll up 5th Avenue.  As we made our way North, something bright gold in color - almost blinding with glistening twinkles and sunbeams - was making its way South.  "No way!" I gasped, "Mom, now do you feel at home?"  She smiled as the two cholos slowly walked by, parading a gold, low-rider bicycle down 5th Avenue that was, clearly, custom made.  "Sorry, but I have to talk to them - at least get a picture," I yelled back to Mom as I ran to catch up with the fella's.  She made her way over, as well.

"Hey guys.  Guys!" I said.  They both turned around and looked at me as though I had just poured a glass of water on each of their heads for no apparent reason.  "Can I take a picture of your bike?"  Both of the dudes, similarly dressed in long, baggy jean shorts, zip-up hoodies, dark shades, and LA Dodgers ball caps looked at each other, and one responded, "No, it's private."  Really?  Then why in the hell are you walking it down 5th Avenue?  "Are you dudes from Cali?"  I asked.  They told my mom and I that they were from LA - Riverside and Compton - respectively.  She told them that my sister lived outside of LA, as well, and that we originally hailed from El Paso, which gave us some major street cred.  Ultimately, the dudes let us take a picture of the bike that they did, in fact, custom build.  The experience was a little slice of "home."        

How f-ing cool is this low-rider bicycle? I wish I had gotten one of the dude's cards/info.

Pre-dinner cocktails: Gansevoort Park Rooftop

  • In honor of my cousin's, Eric, 25th birthday, I figured that we should begin the evening with a celebratory cocktail somewhere within walking distance of our dinner reservation.  And like any red-blooded, testosterone-filled male, I thought that he would appreciate my suggestion of the rooftop bar at the Gansevoort Park, where all of the cocktail waitresses look like Sports Illustrated swimsuit models.  To sum things up: drinks are overpriced - yes, there is an outdoor area, but I can't really give any feedback about that until the weather changes - service is aloof and saccharine sweet - the atmosphere is modern and trendy, but in many aspects, it seems as though the bar is overcompensating for something - and I can't quite put my finger on it.     

Dinner: a birthday celebration at BLT Prime

  • When I hear the word "man," there are a few things that immediately come to mind: deep voices, armpit hair, Adam's apples, and steak.  So after we whetted our palettes with a cocktail, we made our way towards BLT Prime, a modern-day meat & potatoes shrine that I have wanted to try for the longest.  Mom, Aunt Phyllis, Cousin Eric, and I had one of the most fun, delicious, and memorable meals together.  The food was rich and overly abundant, but the atmosphere was not...in a positive way.  While the decor was nothing short of sophisticated and chic, the tunes playing overhead were a mix of pop, classic rock, and motown - making every diner in the room feel, somehow, more at ease and comfortable.  The scene was hardly uptight and stuffy - something you may expect from a restaurant of that caliber/in this particular neighborhood (ahem, Novita!).

Dinner at BLT Prime: le menuDinner at BLT Prime: chicken liver pate and toast pointsDinner at BLT Prime: salumi assortmentsDinner at BLT Prime: mini grilled cheesesDinner at BLT Prime: pickled vegetablesDinner at BLT Prime: BLT's famous popoversDinner at BLT Prime: a look inside of the popoverDinner at BLT Prime: crabcakeDinner at BLT Prime: tuna tartareDinner at BLT Prime: filet o' beefDinner at BLT Prime: filet mignonDinner at BLT Prime: potato skinsDinner at BLT Prime: creamed spinachDinner at BLT Prime: hey, we tried!Dinner at BLT Prime: Happy 25th, Eric!Dinner at BLT Prime: from left to right - Aunt Phyllis, Cousin Eric, me, Mom~~

Sunday, 3/20/11

Brunch: Beauty & Essex

  • For Mom's last full day in town - and for the fact that she has loved prior meals at B&E's sister restaurant, The Stanton Social - I had assumed that this restaurant would be a sure fire hit.  You can't beat the restaurant's sexy, gothic atmosphere - or it's incredibly head-turning eye candy - but for me, the jury's still out on this one, folks.  Aside from our server and the table attendants, I found most of the employees to be aloof, snooty, and inattentive.  The food was tasty, but definitely nothing that I would run back for.  Maybe it's me - perhaps I'm just getting older and not really enjoying the trendy, see-and-be-scene hot spots as much as I once did. 

Brunch at Beauty & Essex: le menuBrunch at Beauty & Essex: bacon/apple donutsBrunch at Beauty & Essex: Eggs BennieBrunch at Beauty & Essex: cornbread wafflesBrunch at Beauty & Essex: butterscotch pot-de-cremeAfter brunch, Mom and I walked over to Crate and Barrel and directly in to Liev Schreiber.  Literally.  Mom made a face-plant in the guy's chest.  He stepped aside, and didn't so much as wince. 

Dinner: Manzo, the full-service restaurant inside of Eataly

  • Believe it or not, this wasn't our first dinner at Manzo - it was our second, actually.  That's right, Mom and I had such a fun experience on Thursday, the evening that she arrived, we returned on Sunday, her last night in town!  The only difference was, it was on this particular night that I remembered to bring my camera.  What I love about dining within Eataly, no matter where you decide to eat, is that while you're waiting for your table to become available, you have the option to stroll around one of the most incredible Italian gourmet complexes in the world.  Literally.  The hostesses notify you by taking your cell phone number and simply give you a phone call when they're ready to seat your party.  Nine times out of ten, your phone rings/vibrates much earlier than you expect.  On both of the occasions that we ate at Manzo, Mom and I opted to dine at the bar.  This proved to be casual, fun, interactive, action-packed, and great for people-watching.  Just our style!  

Dinner at Manzo: Benvenuti!Dinner at Manzo: le menuDinner at Manzo: our great view from our bar seating, where we were able to watch the all of the cold-prep transpire before our eyesDinner at Manzo: freshly-baked bread basketDinner at Manzo: Italian cheese trio, quince & pear saladDinner at Manzo: gulf shrimp with broccoli rabe, capers & walnut pestoDinner at Manzo: girasoli di mortadella with pistachios & scallionsFunny side note: on Sunday night, our waiter was super creepy and never once looked Mom or me in the eye.  It was kind of like being on a really bad first date.  While we were perusing the "primi" portion of the menu, the "Girasoli di Mortadella" pasta kept catching our eye.  "What is mortadella?"  Mom asked our waiter.  "To be honest, it's like bologna," he replied.  After Mom took her first bite of this pasta, she said, "This filling tastes exactly like deviled ham!  I bet that's what this is, Linds!  It actually looks like it, too!"  She was right.  The "mortadella" had a very pale-pink tinge and tasted identical to Mom's favorite canned protein.  Mom flagged the waiter over and used her index finger to motion him in closer, as if she was going to tell him a secret.  In a loud whisper she said, "The inside of the raviolis taste just like deviled ham."  He smirked.  "Do you know what deviled ham is?"  He shook his head suggesting that he did not.  "When I was younger, my father and I used to get two slices of white bread and spread them with mayonnaise, a layer of deviled ham, and a couple of potato chips.  Talk about a great sandwich!"  Believe it or not, Mom's honest Southern proclamation actually cracked somewhat of a smile on our stoic waiter's face.  "I put peanuts on some of my sandwiches," he said.


Conclusion: did I effectively prove to Mom that I could take the "e-w" out of "N-e-w Y-o-r-k?"  Not quite, but she certainly enjoyed her visit and is "liking" The Big Apple more and more each and every time she visits.

The end.


Until we eat again,

The Lunch Belle 


Read it & eat: four places you've just gotta' try 

Let's be frank here: how many restaurant meals do you find to be truly excellent from start to finish?  I'm serious, think about it.  If you have random/quirky standards that are set to an astronomically high level like I do, then I'm willing to bet that your answer is "not too many restaurant meals are truly excellent from start to finish." 

Now, with that being said, I wanted to share four recent (within the past 2 months) restaurant experiences that I found to be nothing short of fabulous, from start to finish.  So for all of you fellow nit-picky critics out there, take note!

~ ~ ~

A blissful prix-fixe meal paired with Portuguese wines, Macao Trading Co.

*All of the photos from this meal can be viewed on Flickr

In honor of Ceci's birthday - and our, then, upcoming trip to Hong Kong/Macao - I decided that it was only fitting that I treat her to a celebratory dinner at Macao Trading Co.  For those of you who do not know, Macao is a small island - about an hour ferry's ride away from Hong Kong - that was colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century.  In December 1999, the Portuguese Republic transferred sovereignty of Macao to the People's Republic of China. 

Macanese fare is a hearty blend of Cantonese and Portuguese cuisines.

Prior to our dining experience, I had always assumed that MTC (Macao Trading Co.) was just another trendy, ornately-decorated restaurant with mediocre food and a bar scene mobbed with models, wannabe actors, and young investment bankers.  Boy, was I wrong - at least in terms of the food/drink.  The demographic, on the other hand, was spot-on.

Sky-high ceilings, dim lighting and twinkling votive candles, exposed brick walls, ornately carved and etched honey-colored wood, and Macanese souvenirs authentically grace the interior of the restaurant.  The aura evokes sensuality and flirtation.

On the evening that we dined at MTC, a $65/person multi-course prix-fixe menu with Portuguese wine pairings was offered, in addition to the restaurant's daily a-la-carte items.  Ceci and I simply could not pass up this incredible value! 

Please enjoy my chronological photo tour of a meal that, I'm pleased to report, exceeded any and every expectation, from start to finish.  The only negative aspect of our experience at MTC?  The fact that the local Macanese cuisine *in Macao* had nothing on MCT. 

*Descriptions can be found as captions below each picture.

Dinner at Macao Trading Co: prix-fixe menu with Portuguese wine pairings, $65Dinner at Macao Trading Co: table settingDinner at Macao Trading Co: the menu noted the starter dish as "Bacalhau Fresco," which is salt-cured cod fish. Since neither Ceci nor I are fans, we asked our server if the bacalhau could be exchanged for another item. Et voila! Oysters seemed like quite an upgrade, don't you think? These morsels arrived on a bed of ice and were paired with a tangy concoction of rice wine vinegar and cucumber mignonette.Dinner at Macao Trading Co: sauteed diver scallops with Malaysian curry sauce, country ham, and pea shoots.Dinner at Macao Trading Co: grilled Blue Hawaiian prawns with garlic refrito, cashews, and grilled country breadDinner at Macao Trading Co: oxtail ravioli with chanterelle cream sauce and shisoDinner at Macao Trading Co: aged balsamic-braised heritage pork belly with kale & mustard greens, and grapefruit segmentsDinner at Macao Trading Co: although this item wasn't included on the prix-fixe menu, Ceci and I were so taken aback by its description that we ordered it on the side. What you're looking at are heritage pork and lamb meatballs stuffed with tetilla cheese, served in a shallow pool of smoked paprika tomato sauce. Sliced country bread accompanied the meatballs.Dinner at Macao Trading Co: heritage pork and lamb meatball cut in half. Note the gooey tetilla cheese oozing from the center!Dinner at Macao Trading Co: sugared malasadas, Portuguese-style donuts, were accompanied by a side of rum spiked guava sauce. This is a dessert that you'd beg for as one of your last bites on death row! 

~ ~ ~

A taste of the South by way of Brooklyn, Egg

Egg.  Since last December, I swear, anytime I heard that one-syllable word, I no longer visualized an omelette or an egg-salad sandwich - no, I thought of, in Danielle's-and Ceci's-and Dara's words, "the most awesome brunch ever."  

And while it's taken me almost a year to get over to Egg, I'm pleased to report that my cousin, Shelley, and I made the trek to Williamsburg (Brooklyn) to do what was deemed necessary: try "the most awesome brunch ever."

In my opinion, some of my most favorite meals are those that are simple and comforting.  By that, I mean recipes that aren't made with hundreds of ingredients and dishes that are somewhat familiar.  That being said, it's hard to find a restaurant that does "simple" right.  If I'm going to spend my money for brunch at a restaurant, I'll be damned if I can't get a decent plate of scrambled eggs and bacon - there's nothing worse than making the realization that I could probably whip up a better version at home.  Egg, however, successfully executes "simple" with precision.

From the kitchen's use of local, high quality ingredients to its wallet-friendly, cash-only menu, Egg proved to be a delicious and nostalgic taste of home.

Brunch at Egg: table scape. Egg is a casual restaurant with a small front patio for al-fresco dining. The interior space is warm and cozy, with a decorative splash of hipster and shabby chic.Brunch at Egg: le menu (note that breakfast is served ALL day!)Brunch at Egg: clockwise ---> organic Anson Mills stone-ground grits, homemade hashbrown "cake," two perfectly-poached eggs. I ordered the biscuit on the side and, boy, was I glad I did! So dense and moist, yet incredibly light.


~ ~ ~


Homemade pies and garden-fresh salads served with a side of super model, L'asso

At L'asso, it's all about the brick-oven pizzas and really damn good salads - oh, and the delicious eye candy that comes in the form of models and trust fund babies who claim to be "artists."  The atmosphere - while perfectly comfortable and somewhat spacious (by Soho standards) - definitely takes a back seat to the fantastic, reasonably priced fare.

Dinner at L'asso: le menuDinner at L'asso: Hairemy ponders what to orderDinner at L'asso: gratis flat bread topped with olive oil, herbs, and accompanied by kalamata olives. This sure beats a boring sliced baguette!Dinner at L'asso: "passata di carciofi" is a creamy artichoke dip dotted with spicy jalapenos, served with grilled country bread. I found this appetizer to be just "OK," as I felt that it was missing something - salt, perhaps.Dinner at L'asso: arugula salad tossed with pear, pancetta, candied walnuts, ricotta salata, white wine vinegar, and honey. I'd return to L'asso solely for this salad - it was *that* good.Dinner at L'asso: we ordered a large pie with the option of customizing each half. From the top down: homemade meatballs and onions, quattro formaggi (four cheeses: provolone, mozzarella, gorgonzola, parmesan)Dinner at L'asso: a slice - or two - of heaven on a plateDinner at L'asso: are you familiar with the phrase, "stop while you're ahead?" Well, we should have ended our meal on a savory note - not on a sweet one. L'asso's "Smores Pizza" was an overly-sweet over-kill.


~ ~ ~


Baja delivered, Choza Taqueria

This past June, I spent the better part of 1.5 weeks serving as a juror on a criminal trial.  Since the judge gave us more-than-a-leisurely amount of time for lunch everyday, I was able to explore the culinary territory that surrounded the courthouse.  Set amidst the various judicial buildings was an outdoor dining area that included a burger shack, a pizza joint, and a taqueria.  With the latter being my obvious choice of the three, I was disappointed to find that, of the week that I was downtown, Choza Taqueria was not open.  Story of my life!

My luck turned around when I read that Choza had opened a location in to my neck of the woods (27th/28th Streets & Madison Avenue).  While the menu read akin to that of a Q'doba or Chipotle, I was anxious to sample similar food items from a quick-Mex concept that was not a chain.

The verdict: two thumbs up.  Choza doesn't cut corners when it comes to the use of fresh, high-quality, local ingredients (the tortillas come from Tortilleria Nixtamal in Queens!).  This practice results in quick-Mex that is surprisingly healthy and incredibly delicious.  Are you ready for the proverbial "cherry on top?"  Choza's owner hails from Southern California, which means he knows his Mexican food.  Win win.

Dinner delivered, courtesy of Choza Taqueria: handmade salsa rojo de tomateDinner delivered, courtesy of Choza Taqueria: salsa verde con aguacateDinner delivered, courtesy of Choza Taqueria: guacamoleDinner delivered, courtesy of Choza Taqueria: tostadosDinner delivered, courtesy of Choza Taqueria: grilled corn-on-the-cob, Mexican style Dinner delivered, courtesy of Choza Taqueria: Carne asada taco - grilled hangar steak topped with a guajillo salsa & pico de galloDinner delivered, courtesy of Choza Taqueria: Taco de Pollo - marinated chicken breast with roasted chilies & tomatoes, topped with arbol-chili salsa & grilled onionsDinner delivered, courtesy of Choza Taqueria: Carnitas taco - pork simmered with citrus, chilies & seasonings, topped with tomatillo salsa & pickled onions/carrots


~ ~ ~


Two weeks, three dinners, one brunch: keep the North out of the South / Italy by way of the A train

Dear readers,

In reflecting upon the list of recent meals eaten on the town, I've noticed a couple of common threads among all four restaurants:
  • Most are either brand new, or have been open for approximately one-year
  • Each (venue) is relatively trendy and tables are highly coveted
  • Some aspects of each are over-hyped
This leads me to question, "Are my expectations set too high?"  Some of you are probably quick to confirm my inquiry; I can almost hear your high-pitched "You're damn right!" outbursts.  And you know what?  That is completely fair.  Perhaps I am too picky and/or critical about the meals in which I pay for but, come on, I live in the "restaurant capital of the world!" 
I can count, granted only on one hand, a slew of very memorable and perfect NYC dining experiences.  And do you want to know the common thread amongst those "perfect" meals?  Believe it or not, they were all enjoyed at restaurants that could be classified as "under-the-radar," or "not trendy," or down-right "hole-in-the-walls." 
So, without further ado, please enjoy a tour of my most recent "close, but no cigar" dining adventures.
Read it and weep eat,
The Lunch Belle
Southern cuisine takes Gotham by storm
For a while there, I was really getting in to this whole "the South is taking over Gotham" food phenomenon.  That, however, was very shortly lived.  Meal after disappointing meal, I found myself wondering, "Where do these damn Yankee's get off?"  Aside from crappy attempts at making what they consider to be "authentic Southern cuisine," these restaurants are rubbing salt in to the proverbial wound by charging upwards of $5.50 for a single piece of fried chicken!  Don't you dare bark back and tell me that this price inflation for, what has historically been, peasant food is isolated to Manhattan, because the same crap is happening in Brooklyn...and beyond!
Dinner at Peels
*All of my photos from this meal can be found on Flickr
Brought to you by the team behind the Lower East Side's haute comfort-food matriarch, Freemans, comes the very recently-opened Peels.  Set within a large bi-level space, the restaurant is composed of, virtually, two dining rooms - each containing its own bar.  Peels' first floor evokes a more casual atmosphere than its upstairs sister, as the room is comprised of various communal dining tables and is more brightly illuminated.  The second level of the restaurant, albeit more visually refined and sophisticated, seems more crowded and chaotic.  Its near-deafening acoustics don't provide much aid to those looking to enjoy a more tranquil dining experience.  
Dinner at Peels: first floor / communal dining The good
  • Trendy, young crowd
  • Spacious, ample seating in 2nd-floor dining room
  • Affordably priced / varied, appealing food and beverage menus: view *here*
  • Cheeseburger: for a modest $12, you get a burger composed of grass-fed beef cooked to your liking, topped with gooey and pungent cave-aged white cheddar cheese, and caramelized onions - sandwiched between a pillow-soft potato roll.  Thick, crunchy, and perfectly-salted 'fries accompany the burger.  
Dinner at Peels: cheeseburger & fries The bad
  • No bread/butter basket
The ugly
  • Shrimp & Grits: this dish would have been passable/decent had it not been so "oinked out" - swimming in a deep-sea of smoky pig broth, liberally dotted with bite-sized chunks of pure, unadulterated lard that had been fraudulently coined on the menu as "lasso bacon" (whatever the hell that means)
Dinner at Peels: don't let its good looks fool you, this version of "Shrimp & Grits" was a complete let-down


Dinner at Hill Country Chicken

*Many of my photos from this meal can be found on Flickr

I'd been eagerly anticipating the opening of the Hill Country family's second Texas-themed venture, a "fried chicken shack" aptly named, Hill Country Chicken.  The vison behind this concept?  Well, it's simple: introduce and serve Texas-inspired fried chicken and comfort food to hungry New Yorkers.

Located within a bi-level space - just a block from Hill Country BBQ - the self proclaimed "chicken shack" is hardly that: from its peppy-colored linoleum flooring, kitschy cafeteria-style ordering system, spacious atmosphere, and ample seating, Hill Country Chicken is kind of like a small town's homecoming-queen, or that girl whom you went to high school with that drastically outshone the rest of her less attractive, far less interesting "competition."   

*Note: to date, I have both dined-in and taken-away from Hill Country Chicken

The good

  • Spacious setting
  • Kid-friendly
  • Casual and comfortable
  • Since you're basically serving yourself, you don't have to tip anyone
  • Bakery on-site
  • Cowboy Pie: aside from crack, this heavenly rendition of the "magic cookie bar" is laced with chocolate chips, shredded coconut, butterscotch chips, and pecans - bound together by sweetened condensed milk - and enveloped by a buttery, graham-cracker crust.  I'm willing to bet money that this pie will send you in to the most intense, flavor-induced food orgasm that you've ever experienced.  I recommend the $3 individually-portioned "pie cup," as opposed to the pricey $5 "slice."  Go and get your fix today!

Take-out from Hill Country Chicken: "Cowboy Pie

  • Biscuits: dense, buttery, and both crunch and salty in all of the right places - if you're looking for "fluffy," then you're going to hate this version

Take-out from Hill Country Chicken: homemade biscuit

  • Chicken tenders: instead of manning-up and bringing my camera whilst "dining-in," I'm going to have to recount this chicken tender moment from memory.  For $6.50, I received three mammoth-sized chicken breast strips that had been dredged in, what appeared to be, a Saltine cracker-based breading.  The meat was incredibly juicy and moist, without the slightest discoloration or exposed vein.  And, all three of my tenders were cartilage-free, thank god.  To dip, I chose a honey-mustard sauce (first sauce is free), in addition to a side of ranch dressing that came with a price tag.  "This sure ain't Whataburger," I mumbled, while recalling "the good ol' days" back in Texas when chicken-tender dipping sauces were free - even in mass quantities.

The bad

  • Pimento cheese: where I come from, this cheddar cheese + mayonnaise + pimento pepper "dip," if you will, is not only spreadable, but served at a temperature that's closer to "room temp," as opposed to "fresh out the ice box."  Unfortunately, the version at Hill Country Chicken was dense, too chunky, and disturbingly chilly.  I threw that crap out!

Take-out from Hill Country Chicken: fauxmento cheese

  • Strawberry-lemonade: to be fair here, I am NOT complaining about the *taste* of this beverage because, honestly, I enjoyed it.  I applaud a glass of lemonade that seamlessly combines both sweet and sour.  However, I am hard-pressed to believe that the version at Hill Country Chicken is "freshly squeezed," as the menu so claims.  There's a suspicious Country Time-esque lingering aftertaste that I simply cannot explain, other than chalk it up to  Hill Country Chicken being full of crap.  There's not even an ounce of pulp, much less a strawberry seed, floating around!  Something smells fishy to me.
  • There is no butter or honey to accompany the biscuits.
  • Extra dipping sauces come at a price.

The ugly

  • While it's a nice break to not have to tip someone every now and again, that doesn't mean that I'm any less disgusted by the prices that  Hill Country Chicken is charging its suckers customers:
  1. Fried breast of chicken, $5.50
  2. Glass of "freshly squeezed" strawberry-lemonade, $3.25
  3. Slice of pie, $5
  4. Whole pie, $40 (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)




Italy, by way of the A Train

Brunch at Locanda Verde

*All of my photos from this meal can be found on Flickr

Ever since it opened its doors on the corner of Greenwich & N. Moore Streets, I've been very anxious to dine at LV (Locanda Verde).  Set within Robert De Niro's Greenwich Hotel, LV's bustling atmosphere evokes that of an unpretentious apres-ski lodge. 

Brunch at Locanda VerdeSince we had not made a reservation prior, the Le's and I decided that it would be safest to meet at LV for brunch at 11:30am.  "We should have no problem getting a table that early," I confidently-stated in my pre-meal email to Megan, "I mean, who gets up before 11am on a Sunday, anyways?" 

Do you want to know "who gets up before 11am on a Sunday?"  Just about every resident in Tribeca, where LV is located!  Remember, this is stroller-ville, after all, not the East Village.  Luckily, I arrived on the earlier side of our 11:30am meeting time and took the brunt of our quoted "45-minutes to 1-hour" wait for a table.  When Megan and Hung finally showed up, we were seated within ten-minutes.      

I was certain that, having patiently waited for a table for 50-minutes, this would be one of the best brunches of all time.

The good

  • Great interior space and atmosphere, including acoustics
  • Friendly and knowledgeable staff
  • Affordably priced
  • Menu variety: view *here*

Brunch at Locanda Verde: there's something on the menu for everyone!

  • LeeLee Sobieski (+ baby, husband, and mom) was dining next to us!
  • Gratis bread plate, pre-meal: light-as-air, pillowy-soft focaccia slices that effortlessly melt in your mouth

Brunch at Locanda Verde: table bread

  • Sheep's Milk Ricotta: drizzled with truffle-honey, coarsely-ground black pepper, and a dusting of herbs - it's hard to believe that this is the same cheese that is used to make lasagna, for the texture is as light as whipped-cream and the flavor is as rich as marscapone.  Served at room-temperature, the ricotta is accompanied by buttery slices of burnt-orange toast.  This appetizer is, without a doubt, one of the most delicious "bread and cheese" combinations that I've ever had the pleasure of sampling.  Definitely something worth adding to your "death row wish list."

Brunch at Locanda Verde: Sheep's Milk Ricotta (appetizer)

  • Scampi & Grits: though I found the portion on the smaller side, I appreciated the concept behind this Italian version of "shrimp & grits."  Traditional southern grits were substituted with creamy polenta - whole shrimp were replaced with a robust, chunky tomato sauce that was laced with bite-sized morsels of shrimp and coarsely-ground sausage.  Two perfectly-coddled eggs completed the dish.

Brunch at Locanda Verde: "Scampi & Grits," an Italian play on traditional "Shrimp & Grits"

The "not necessarily bad, but definitely annoying"

  • Tre-Stelle: while I loved the combination of fruits in this house-made juice (pomegranate, blood orange, and Valencia orange), I found its $7 price tag incredibly ludicrous.  But with that being said, I'm the fool who consciously ordered and forked over the cash for this beverage!

Brunch at Locanda Verde: Tre-Stelle juice, $7 (only in NY!)

  • Megan ordered the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes and, after I took one taste of the lemon curd, I asked our waitress if it would be possible to send me home with a small helping.  "I know it's a random request, but I am more than happy to pay for it," I told her.  I realized that she had probably never had anyone inquire about lemon curd for take-away, but I figured that, especially since I was willing to pay for it, my question wouldn't have been taken as foreign as it was.  "Let me go and talk to the head chef," she said, with her eyebrows cinched.  Before I could tell her not to get the "head chef's" attention, she vanished.  Moments later, she returned to tell me that "the kitchen staff cannot honor your request, I'm sorry about that."  While I appreciated her efforts, I found it both extremely odd and passive-aggressive that she insisted upon getting both the "head chef" and "kitchen staff" involved.  One thing she did do exceptionally well?  Making me feel like a complete a-hole.            

No "ugly" here!


Dinner at Scarpetta 

*All of my photos from this meal can be found on Flickr

Unless you live in NYC, there's really no way you can explain how unbelievably difficult it is to make plans with your friends.  Take Bryan, for example, whom I met while dining at The Lion...in August!  Since that night, we've been trying to find a spot in the other's calendar.  Due to work obligations and everything in between, it took us nearly two months since that initial balmy August evening at The Lion to get together.  And since neither one of us had been to Scarpetta, I made a 9pm reservation for a very long-overdue dinner date. 

Bryan and I enjoyed a glass of wine at the bar before being seated at our table.  Between sips and stories, we couldn't help but admire Scarpetta's casual, yet incredibly elegant, space.

Scarpetta: a look inside (photo: NY Daily News)The good

  • Gorgeous interior space
  • Friendly, attentive, and knowledgeable staff
  • Free bar snack: homemade herbed potato chips
  • Attractive crowd/clientele
  • Sommelier on-site
  • Gratis bread basket + dipping sauce trio: a bountiful array of freshly-baked, assorted breads was accompanied by a trio of dips: ricotta, caponata, olive oil

Dinner at Scarpetta: one of NYC's best bread basketsDinner at Scarpetta: dip trio for accompanying bread basket

  • Spaghetti: think simple - handmade spaghetti noodles, fresh tomato and basil.  That's it.  Sounds boring and uninspired, right?  Wrong.  Believe me when I say that this is one of the best bowls of pasta that you will have the pleasure of twirling around your fork...this side of Italy.  In some cases, mastering the art of simplicity is harder than mastering that of complexity.  And this bowl of noodles, dear readers, is one damn good example.  Don't be deterred by its $24 price tag - this, I promise you, will likely be one of your most memorable pasta experiences to date.

Dinner at Scarpetta: the infamous spaghettiThe bad: there was no "bad"

The ugly

  • Cauliflower Panna Cotta: if "ugly" had a picture next to it in the dictionary, I'm positive that it may resemble this atrocious appetizer.  "It tastes like the fish department at Kroger!" Bryan squealed.  That was a really bad sign, considering that it was he who chose to try Scarpetta 's newest "starter."  There's just something about chilled, savory panna cotta/pudding/creme brulee that gives me goose bumps - not the good kind, either.  Pair that with an abundance of the "fishiest" fish of the sea - caviar, sea urchin, week-old crab meat - et voila!  You've got me, the ticking "gag reflex" time-bomb on your hands.  The panna cotta was accompanied by two toast points, which I *thought* would aid in mutilating some of the overwhelming flavor.  To no avail, I could not even get past one bite.  Sigh.  I used this near-vomit experience as an excuse/justification to hold the bread basket hostage, proclaiming its contents to be my "appetizer chaser."

Dinner at Scarpetta: Cauliflower Panna Cotta      

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