Ladybird

Ladybird, located in a space that ironically used to be a meat and cheese fondue locale (The Bourgeois Pig), has managed to impress a gamut of New York City diners with a fully vegan menu. An omnivore myself, I enjoy earth’s bounty of fruit and veg as much, if not more at times, than meat. However, limited animal protein and a focus on plant-based foods is one thing, whereas vegan territory is a different “beast.” Particularly with vegetarian mainstays like cheese and eggs being forbidden by the vegan mantra, chefs truly need to get creative to pique diners’ interest. Below is a sampling of what we tasted, all kind of mysterious, given that there obviously was no cheese or pate at our table.

  • Chardonnay Fondue – served with focaccia & seasonal vegetables
  • Roasted eggplant with tofu ricotta cream
  • Mushroom truffle pate
  • Saganaki – Flaming soy mozzarella, smoked carrot, chive pesto

So deliciousness aside (I was quite impressed!), one qualm I have with Ladybird (and most vegan menu items, really) is the determination to make dishes into something they are not. Instead of listing the cashew and coconut crème ingredients in the “fondue,” the menu feigns normalcy.

On this topic, Alan Sytsma and Adam Platt verbalize my feelings succinctly in Episode 19of the Grub Street Podcast. When speaking of veggie burgers in particular, the two nail it in banter about the transition of highly ritualized foods in an ever evolving food environment:

Alan Sytsma: The thing that I have often thought is, why is there this desire to turn vegetables into a dish that’s only successful because it works with meat? Why not find the thing that vegetables are good for, instead of trying to re-create the experience of eating beef with soybeans?

Adam Platt: Well, the answer is that the chefs are getting more canny and focusing on it. The top chefs didn’t used to worry about this stuff. They worried about getting their perfect engorged foie gras, searing it beautifully with sauces. These guys are taking those techniques, and food science, and applying it to the veggie burger. Whereas before, the people who made veggie burgers were stoned line cooks in San Diego. So these are top, trained chefs. And, like Brooks Headley, they’re food-lab wizards. So the science, if you could call it that, is there now. They figured out how to not just re-create the somewhat-accurate taste of a real burger. Although it’s ultimately not. It’s not really beef, and you don’t have this great umami. But they’ve made it look like a real beef burger, and they’ve made it feel, texturally, like a beef burger, both in your hand and sort of in your mouth. So they’ve created the highly ritualized, satisfying experience of eating a beef burger, but it happens to be vegetable.

The veggie burger is the most conspicuous part of this trend. A top chef now is not just a cook. They’re socially engaged, politically involved … in the ideas of the times. They’re like philosopher kings. The food world is that way now. It’s linked to the environment in ways we never thought about, even 10, 15 years ago. Like Dan Barber and David Chang, they’re preaching the gospel. The veggie burger is one of the easiest ways, and most popular ways to preach this gospel.

So while I do agree that Ladybird is creating an experience far superior to the antiquated tofu chunk or carb-heavy vegan option, and I agree wholeheartedly with the food science involved in re-creating staple food “experiences” for different dining preferences, why not just say what it is? Cashew cream. Mushroom based “béchamel” style sauce. Lemon herb tofu. Those all sound delicious too, so why not own it?

The Birthday Cake Croissant @ Union Fare NYC

Rainbow or cake-flavored anything is a guaranteed win in NYC, but typically at the expense of taste. The Birthday Cake Croissant from Union Fare, however, not only maintains the integrity of its flaky pastry namesake, but launches it to a dessert-like level of richness.

Filled with cake cream – pastry cream lightened with whipped cream (+ sprinkles, of course) –and dusted with pulverized sprinkles, this unique rainbow explosion is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Of note, the cookies ‘n cream, matcha, and crème brulee croissant variations are also worth a try — as is their dinner menu!

DIRTY BLONDIES

In my family chocolate chip cookies and brownies trump all other desserts. And so was born the dirty blondie, offering the best of both worlds!

Cookie Layer (adapted from Pinch of Yum)
1 stick salted butter, room temp.
¾ cup white sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup + 2 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup dark chocolate chips
Brownie Layer

6 tablespoons butter

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

  1. With an electric mixer, cream butter and sugars in a small mixing bowl. Add vanilla and egg; cream again until smooth. Add the flour, baking soda, and salt. Stir gently until incorporated. Stir in chocolate chips. Store in refrigerator until ready to use.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. For the brownie batter, in a saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and chocolate, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and let cool. With a whisk, beat in the vanilla and sugar. Whisk in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
  4. Stir flour, measure into a small bowl, and stir in the baking powder and salt, blending well. With a wooden spoon, stir the flour mixture into the first mixture.
  5. Pour brownie batter into a glass 8×8 or 9×9 baking dish. Scatter pieces of cookie dough over the top of the brownie batter. Press gently on the dough just until it starts to sink down into the batter a little bit.
  6. Bake for 35-40 minutes (35 for gooey, 40 or more for fully baked), covering with foil if you need to keep the cookies from getting too brown on top. Let stand for 15-20 minutes and cut into pieces for serving.

FIKA

Pretty much everything about Sweden enticed me – the cuisine, art, cityscape, and waterfront — but I must say that the tradition of Fika is what won my heart. I suppose it’s comparable to England’s afternoon tea, but there’s a certain coziness to taking a moment for coffee and cake that removes the stuffiness from afternoon snack time, and brings everyone closer to the table.

I was lucky enough to have Fika every day while in Sweden, and each experience was unique and special in its own way. First, after climbing the stunning Norra Berget on a chilly day, we enjoyed the foggy view of the city between two mountains and took refuge in a sweet little café at the summit. There we served our own coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, and placed orders for waffles with whipped cream and cloudberry jam. Sitting by the fire surrounded by local Swedes, we’d fueled up for our journey back down the mountain!

A most traditional Fika was in the home of my dear friend, Johanna. There, her mother prepared coffee for us and I was wide-eyed at the tray of home-baked treats she placed on the table in front of us. In the comfort of their family living room, we all sat enjoying the afternoon respite, getting to know each other over ginger cookies, muffins, and chocolate cake.

In Stockholm, Fika takes its own form. Our city-home for the week, Urban Deli, offered all-day Fika of at your convenience. But in the city Fika seemed more often taken with a book or laptop, a time at which to have a meeting or catch-up. In Stockholm it’s clear that Fika is the true coffee culture of Sweden, be it city or suburb, defining how Swedes converse and decompress in the afternoon. While Fika literally means “to drink coffee,” tea is also a common choice one may enjoy with a sweet snack. A cinnamon bun, cardamom cake, oat cookie, fig square, almond tarte, or chocolate sandwich cookie are just a few options to choose from there and throughout the city locales.

And now, even in New York City we have our very own Fika! The chain, which opened in 2006, embodies the Swedish tradition and appreciation of a coffee-centric lifestyle. Above all, this local iteration is the perfect place to treat yourself with high quality ingredients, and a caffeine and sugar kick to help you take on the day.

 

Havana, CUBA

To guide your wanderings, some Cuba favorites…

La Guarida – Read the story about this famed Havana restaurant in an abandoned apartment building – the rooftop bar is worth a visit while you wait for a table – Reservations required // Find it: Concordia number 418 between Gervasio and Escobar

Le Chansonnier – In a gorgeous old home with modern art on every wall // Find it: Calle J number 257 between 15 and Linea

304 O’Reilly – Reliable food, cozy (tight) seating, and delicious cocktails // Find it: 304 O’Reilly

Café El Dandy – The heart of Havana Vieja – tasty small plates and incredible people watching // Find it: Teniente Rey/Plaza de Cristo (Old Havana)

El Chanchullero – Sit up on the small third floor rooftop here and have rotating daily snacks and a beer in the open air – Open late! // Find it: Right next to El Dandy and Clandestina on the square

303 O’Reilly (EL DEL FRENTE) – Sit on the rooftop here, or at the bar…great food, same owners as O’Reilly 304 // Find it: 304 O’Reilly

O’Reilly Café – Perfect for a quick breakfast and coffee – Have eggs, toast, fruit and coffee all for ~ $3.50

El Submarino Amarillo — Beatles tribute bar, sometimes at night they have live shows // Find it: Calle 17

Fabrica del Arte – Art gallery/bar/restaurant with two different dance floors  // Find it: Calle 26 between 11 and 13

La Torre – At the top of La Focsa, this rooftop bar has great views // Find it: Calle 17 and Calle M

Hotel Nacional – Touristy hotel but worth a visit for the gorgeous patio overlooking Mallecon // Find it: Calle Obispo Esquina A S/N

Vista Mar — Good seafood on the water in Playa // Find it: Avenida 1rs No. 2206

La Bodeguita del Medio- Touristy but good place for drinks (mojitos in particular) early on in the night. // Find it: Empedrado 

Dirt Candy

“Anyone can cook a hamburger, leave the vegetables to the professionals.” 

I made it. Long after hearing of Amanda Cohen’s original 18-seat East Village location, I made it to the bigger, shinier, expanded-menu version of Dirt Candy. Far from vegetarian, I do have distinct respect for anyone who can make an impression on the palate, and leave my tummy satisfyingly full, with nothing but delights from the soil.

The “Snacks & Sides” portion of the menu won our hearts immediately, not to mention the liquor infused green juices served up as cocktails.  But first and foremost, the Korean Fried Broccoli is miraculous — Fluffy and light, but crispy and well-seasoned. In fact, we liked it so much we ordered another serving WITH our dessert. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was General Tso’s Chicken. But better. Yes, really.

The Jalapeño Hush Puppies (served with maple butter) are a generous “snack” portion, but great to split. And the maple butter could be easily consumed with a spoon. That said, when paired with the hush puppies, the maple butter’s smooth sweetness makes a perfect pair to the savory balls of fried goodness.

The Whatever Pickles are kind of a disappointment.

But on to more veggies (obviously). The Mushroom with toast was plated messily but the flavors were very nicely matched. Mushroom in the form of Portobello mousse comes with thin slices of sweet Asian pears and a few dabs of cherry. I preferred the simpler preparations, but the flavors here were worth a shot.

The Tomato dish stood out among the entrees – a tomato cake with smoked feta and tomato leather – it literally tasted like smoked salmon and tomato on a bagel. It was unbelievable. I also really enjoyed the fennel, which came with an indescribable caramelized yogurt, another accompaniment I’d eat on its own without question. But above all else were the Brussel sprout tacos. These are not to be missed. A crispy, steaming mountain of sprout shavings will arrive center table, at which point your company is bound to devour it and all accoutrements.

Save some room for dessert, because this list is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Alongside our second helping of Korean Fried Broccoli, we also indulged (but is it indulging if it’s veggies?) in the Carrot Meringue Pie. Honestly the carrot center, meringue topping, and delightfully tangy sour cream ice cream came together so seamlessly the graham crust seemed almost just for aesthetic appeal. And all of this without the guilt of having consumed a single bite of meat.

In the end, I only respect Amanda Cohen more after having delighted in her impeccable menu of veg. Not only has she perfected the presentation and flavors, but her excitement about it all is just downright awesome. It’s easy to tell from the menu layout and enthusiasm of every staff member that you’ll find something to surprise and delight you here.

Uptown to Amali

Feeling frozen from a day locked in air-conditioning, we were thrilled to snag one of two tiny outdoor tables at Amali to savor the tolerable evening heat. Tucked steps away from Bloomingdales, on the north side of 60th street, Amali brings something special to the UES. A cozy atmosphere, friendly and attentive service, and killer martinis give distinctive credit to the already phenomenal Mediterranean-inspired cuisine. We had a number of delicious plates at Amali, but what stood out most were the Feta and the Kofte. Oh and the martinis – but, of course, the martinis.

Warm Feta with Caramelized Figs, Chili, Arugula, Walnuts

This dish was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. I became hooked on warm and/or flaming cheese when traveling through Greece, but this presentation and flavor fusion was soul-warming. Served in a cast iron skillet, two flat blocks of feta were heated to perfection and topped with perfectly caramelized (and oh so sweet!) halved figs. Arugula, gently tossed in what I assume was a reduction of the fig and balsamic, was placed on top of the hot cheese and smattered with warm walnuts. Every bite lent a different balance to the sheep’s milk base – the perfect sweetness from the fruit, contrasted by the pepper of the arugula and chili.

Lamb Kofte

Also served in a cast iron skillet, these small lamb kofte were perfectly seasoned with cumin, onion and paprika. The sauce in which the meat balls were baked, though, was most delectable. A rather spicy tomato-based sauce sprinkled with chunks of feta and parsley, it was impossible to deny dipping every last bite of pita in the sharply but sweet braising reduction. I would have literally eaten this sauce “off a Turkish towel” as my grandfather might have said.

I can’t finish without noting also the Warm Marinated Olives with Fennel, Rosemary, Chili and Orange Peel. Amali clearly has their olive game down to a science, but I realized at this meal that the presentation of warm olives is a most simple and glorious introduction for the palate.

Lest we forget the martinis…

 

COVINA

Dad was passing through the city for one night only (and we were both exhausted from traveling) so a cozy dinner in Flatiron seemed it might do just the trick. A bustling gem tucked off of Park Avenue, Covina is attached to the Park South Hotel, which has also been a hit this summer for its hotspot rooftop bar.

To start we shared the Wood Grilled Gulf Shrimp with polenta, smoked Oaxacan pasilla chile sauce and cilantro. This appetizer portion was quite hearty, plenty for one person as a light entrée, if you ask me. The polenta was super creamy, but balanced nicely by the chili sauce and spices that coated each shrimp.

I couldn’t resist my intrigue for the Spring Asparagus “Cacio e Pepe,” which was shaved asparagus ribbons carefully positioned with the perfect amount of pepper and Pecorino Romano. An interesting take on the Roman pasta preparation, though I wouldn’t call it a fair comparison. Diet cacio e pepe, if you will.

As we launched into dinner, a bottle of my favorite Sicilian Frappato, Occhipinti Frappato 2013, was definitely in order. A very light variation on this freshly acidic varietal, I have a soft spot for this wine after visiting the wine maker back in 2014. With a great balance and concentration of flavor, this is a red that really goes with just about anything. It’s also great for summer drinking when I rarely want anything to heavy or tannic. Needless to say, having Occhipinti Frappato and Ariana’s SP68 blend on a wine menu makes Covina an instant favorite in my book.

It was hard to decide on just two entrees, but still quite hungry we landed first on the Wood Grilled Lamb Kofte Skewer with charred garlic yogurt, parsley and sumac. The lamb, perfectly seasoned, lay atop a bed of onions, full leaves of parsley and the potent yogurt sauce. A deconstructed pita, of sorts, I think the yogurt could have used a touch less garlic.

The whole daily fish was a Dorade, which just sounded to delicious to dismiss. Served bone-in with white root puree and a celery salsa verde that I could eat on a Turkish towel, the fish was perfectly cooked and fell right off the bone. Speaking of bones, it was so expertly prepared that the bones were a non-issue and hardly got in the way at all. One of my favorite fish to eat, this was beautifully prepared and kept with the char-grilled theme that runs through Covina’s entire menu.

Last but not least, we had to get the Malted Milk Ice Cream with White Chocolate Crunch, Roasted Cherries and Almond Granita. Let’s be honest, every lick of that was most enjoyable.

Cozy booths, a few big round tables, and a long, warmly lit bar, this goes far beyond your typical hotel-affiliated restaurant. The service was markedly friendly, and not overbearing (even when we lingered with our wine much longer than we could have anticipated coming into it…). My only regret is having not tried a pizza! Until next time, Covina…

Serundaaaang

Serundang is an Indonesian spice and coconut mixture, often used as a side dish or garnish to accompany rice. This version is my favorite iteration, using sliced almonds for extra crunch. I use it on salads, with chicken, or eat it plain as a snack.

SERUNDANG
Yield: 15 portions
Ingredients                         Amounts

Butter                                   2 Tbsp.
Coconut                               1 cup
Brown sugar                       2 Tbsp.
Almonds, sliced                1 cup
Garlic, minced                   1 tsp.
Coriander, ground           1 tsp.
Turmeric                              ½ tsp.
Cumin, ground                  1 tsp.
Salt                                        2 tsp.
Cayenne pepper                  ⅓ tsp.

 

Method: Melt the butter and pour over the coconut, almonds, and spices. Bake at 300°F until the coconut is a deep golden brown and the almonds likewise have begun to brown. Stirring this mixture once or twice will facilitate even browning. Cool and store sealed in a clean air tight container.

Recipe c/o The Culinary Institute of America, Greystone (for Almond Board of California)

 

Santina

Nestled between The Standard, Whitney, and The Highline, Santina boasts a rather prime location and some seriously tasty Mediterranean fare. The interior is quite lovely, with a high ceiling boxed over low, cozy tables making for a very bright environment. Think Apple Store meets Park Avenue Spring. And even on a chilly evening, the surprisingly peaceful (at least on a week night!) outdoor patio nearly doubles the size of the restaurant. Wines by the glass are intriguing (you know those Greek ones with too many funky consonants?) but pricey and be weary of over-ordering – portions are very well-sized!

Highlights from Santina:

-          The must have thing to start off the table is the Cecina (chickpea crepes) with Rock Shrimp – or with tuna or avocado or whatever raw thing you prefer. Kind of like a DIY taco, but  with a carrier more like the texture of Ethiopian Injera

-          I could eat the Kale and Sunchoke Salad every single day. A hearty (and huge) bowl stacked high with kale and sliced sunchoke rounds, the dressing was light and crisp and the presentation was gorgeous

-          The famed Spaghetti Blue Crab was honestly a huge disappointment. The waitress really talked this one up, but it lacked complexity and seasoning and boasted a far to fishy crab taste that way overpowered the pasta itself.

Reservations are definitely recommended, but you can cozy up at the bar and watch the magic happen there as well. I will say dedicate some time to this one, as the service isn’t terribly speedy.