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.

 

A Quick Visit to Portugal

(By way of Chelsea, that is.)

In looking for a middle ground to meet a visiting friend, and somewhere new and novel to us both, Mac and I landed on Lupulo. Located on the ground floor of the Eventi hotel, and connected to the kitchen at L’Amico, Lupulo boasts a casual, cool and informal scene that feels almost foreign within the confines of Manhattan. Fair enough, now that we learned that the white tiles and much of the décor were brought from Portugal to mock the rustic feel of an authentic Portuguese pub.

Naturally, much of the cuisine is seafood, given the typical fare of Chef Mendes’ homeland of Lisbon. The must-have item that absolutely blew our minds was the Shrimp Porridge. Sounds funny, right? A savory style bread pudding base is mixed with another softly cooked egg and garnished with a few shrimp. The result is a fluffy and delicate appetizer that entices you to savor its richness ever so slowly. Better luck next time – this thing was gone in record time.

To note, the espargos (asparagus) with meyer lemon and sorrel was to die for and the beets dish was equally unique.

Most surprising to me was the Beirao New-Fashioned – a take on our famed favorite but with Chamomile infused Bulleit Bourbon, Aperol and Licor Beirao. Beirao is an herbal liquor that lends a distinct flavor to the drink that is balanced nicely by the sweetness of the aperol.

I will note, this is not a place to go alone – I’d suggest sharing and taking some time to try the plethora of offerings.

P.S. The name itself means “hop” in Portuguese. And the Portuguese word for small plates “Petiscos” is just the cutest lil thing – don’t ya think?

Doyers Delight

Doyers Street is a funny little corner (literally) of this ever-so-intricate city we call home. With all of maybe eight doorways – including a beauty salon, employment agency and Chase Bank — it’s certainly not a street I’d choose to duck down, especially late at night. Or lone. Or ever, really, if it weren’t for the gems within. Nestled among family-run dim sum parlors and Chinese herb stores, Doyers Street boasts some unsuspecting and almost seemingly-accidental greatness.

Doyers is home to three of my favorite locales in all of lower Manhattan, each offering a distinct specialty. First is Apoteke, a botanical-based speakeasy, located at 1 Doyers Street. While the staff may take a hot second to warm up to you, the craft cocktails are fresh, unique and just downright delicious. Once you find your way through the hidden entrance (an old restaurant-front) it’s quite easy to decompress in the prohibition-era setting for at least one cocktail. Also a great place to take a mixology class should that strike your fancy.

Just a few doors down at 13 Doyers is Nom Wah Tea Parlor — a self-proclaimed “Vintage dim sum parlor” dating back to 1920. Nom Wah encapsulates everything I’ve ever wanted from dim sum. A fluffy pork bun, light-as-a-feather shumai, and ice-cold Tiger. They also randomly serve Brooklyn Lager, which is just always appreciated.  Saddle up at the bar without the stress of potentially missing the cart of the one thing you wanted. Heaven.

Lastly, right between the two — at 11 Doyers — is Pulqueria, or as I call it “The Mexican speakeasy in Chinatown.”  Now this place not only serves a mean mezcal-rita, but also hosts some great DJ’s during the week.  A fantastic place to host a party or just have a night out, the queso and mole are forces to be reckoned with and the atmosphere just can’t be beat. Here Taco Tuesday is alive and well.

The Wing Addiction Continues: Lucky Bee

Lucky Bee cracked their doors on the LES just a month and a half ago, and the opening menu is absolutely bangin’. Another incredible example of Asian-inspiration (see Bar Goto post below), these salt and pepper wings are fried to perfection (almost fluffy!) and come with tamarind prik nam pla, a traditional Thai sauce with an acid kick. Our other favorites were the steamed pork and sesame dumplings, which were surprisingly light and fresh and the green papaya salad, which had just the right kick.

Noffs and Bennett (of Fat Radish) are taking a farm-to-table approach to Thai street food and the ambiance is to die-for. There’s a huge bar covered in fresh ingredients – think avocados, peppers of all colors and various fruits — taking up the center of the restaurant and tables are squeezed against the walls on all sides.

To boot, they offer happy hour deals daily until 7:00 p.m. and the spicy margarita is splendid ;)

Okonomi // Yuji Ramen ::: A Ramen Omakase Experience

Tucked away on Ainslie Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is a 12 seat restaurant called Okonomi // Yuji Ramen.  This Japanese breakfast spot transforms on weekend nights into a ramen omakase spot where there is only one seating per night. Here the attention to Japanese culinary philosophy is unmatched, the creativity is thoughtful and detail-oriented, and the ingredients are fresh, seasonal and local whenever possible.

Omakase: A Japanese tasting menu consisting of dishes selected by the chef

Okonomi: “As you like it” – which is funny because they make no exceptions. They also only serve one beer and one type of sake (out of tiny little cups I might add!)

So our 11 course ramen omakase began…with many takes on the ever-so-trendy dish and ingredients. All of the broths are fish based, we learned, plus chicken and pork bones picked up from the nearby Meat Hook.

Some highlights:

-          Almond-Milk Dashi (the team also is one of few restaurants to use almond pulp in some recipes)

-          Miso Risotto

-          A Ceviche served with a Rice Chip and Seasonings

-          Monk Fish Liver Ravioli

-          Crispy Ramen with Sliced Fish

-          Shaved Squid

-          Rice Noodles with Radish Shavings

Last but not least, the restaurant is committed to having the least amount of waste possible and discards only one bag of trash per day!

Bar Goto

Pegu Club is a staple when it comes to New York City cocktail bars. It is and will remain a mixology bar that allows you plenty of space, wondrous concoctions and a setting that suits just about any occasion or company.  It’s no wonder, then, that Kenta Goto’s first solo project, Bar Goto, embodies yet another perfect Manhattan locale.  Similar to Pegu’s format, Bar Goto is first and foremost a place for cocktails. The bar takes up nearly half the space, leaving only a few small tables against the wall. For your first visit, I suggest the Sakura Martini, a sake and gin based concoction that comes with a cherry blossom floating perfectly in the center.

Whatever poison you choose, it is guaranteed to be mixed with the utmost care and served delicately in the most elegant fashion. The bartenders also make a fantastic gin martini.

Should you stay for a bite (which you most definitely should) the Miso Wings are not to be missed. I was pleasantly surprised by the Kobu Celery as well, which is coated in sesame oil, shiso flakes and sesame for the perfect crunch to kick-off a light meal. Goto’s specialty is okonomi-yaki – savory Japanese pancakes made of eggs and cabbage — with unconventional fillings like pork belly, rock shrimp and cheddar cheese. These dishes are a thing of beauty, each served with house-blended Okonomi-sauce, dried bonito flakes and pickled red ginger.

In the end, the décor is clean and minimalist, the food and drink simple enough to appease your every want, and the flavors just flawlessly satisfying.