Monday, February 28, 2011

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Cupcakes

For some reason this weekend, I was in the mood to bake. Maybe it's because since school ended, I'm only work two days a week and that urge to cook and bake just isn't being satisfied like it was when I was in the kitchen 7 hours a day, 5 days a week. Maybe it's because I had baked brownies the day before with my cousin, and they just hadn't turned out quite like I would have liked. Whatever it was, I turned to my roommate Shaun and said, "What do you want?"

He quickly directed me to (think porn for foodies) and gasped at the sight of what appeared to be chocolate chip cupcakes. Frankly, I've never really gotten into sites like foodgawker. I prefer trusted blogs that I've followed for months and months, where I'm familiar with the person who is testing the recipe. But, as luck would have it, when I followed the link for the picture, it led me to a blog, which actually linked to the recipe on a blog I DO follow, Annie's Eats. Oh the blogosphere, so big, and yet so small.

I reviewed the recipe and decided it looked pretty promising and I only needed 6 items from the store (well, four really since I actually had enough vanilla extract and powdered sugar, but I didn't know that at the time). Bonus! So I made my shopping list and called it a night.

The next morning I got up, made a quick trip to the small market just across the street, and Shaun queued up Sex and the City. There are three elements that go into making these cupcakes, which may sound daunting and time consuming, but from start to finish, the whole process only took about 2 hours.

First up was making the batter and baking the cupcakes. Here's the recipe (which I halved) for just the cake portion, adapted from Annie's Eats:

Yield: 24 cupcakes
3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature (or softened in the microwave for just 15 seconds)
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar, packed
4 eggs
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup whole milk
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pans with liners (24 total).
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and brown sugar. Beat together on medium-high speed until light and fluffy.
3. Add the eggs, one at a time, incorporating each completely before adding the next, and scraping down the bowls as needed.
4. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
5. With the mixer on low, alternated the dry and wet ingredients, beginning with a third of the dry ingredients, followed by half the milk, mixing until almost completely incorporated. Add half of the remaining dry ingredients and the rest of the milk. Finish with the remaining 1/3 of the dry ingredients, but stop the mixer before completely incorporated.
6. Fold in the chocolate chips by hand, finishing the incorporation of the dry ingredients.
7. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared muffin cups. It will fill the cups almost completely. Place in preheated oven and bake 20-21 minutes, until the cake springs back to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pan 5-10 minutes, and then transfer to a rack to cool completely.

Tasting just the batter (think of it as research for my craft), I was satisfied with the chocolate chip cookie flavor. Over the years, I've found that the key to a good chocolate chip cookie is brown sugar. And butter. So the use of solely brown sugar instead of granulated in this recipe was a good sign. The batter tasted very similarly to chocolate chip cookie dough, but a little thinner of course, and not quite as molasses-y (which is the "brown" in brown sugar).

Upon filling my cupcake tin, I was a little concerned that the cups were too full. I was halving the recipe, but I felt like I had enough batter for 18 cupcakes instead of 12. I thought about throwing away what seemed to be excess or baking 12 and then baking 6 more, but instead I decided to trust the recipe and just filled the cups almost to the top. I figured it was better to have conehead cupcakes than sad little flat ones. And I was glad I followed the recipe. They all came out the perfect size and shape.

Halfway through baking

As the cupcakes baked and cooled, I worked on the cookie dough filling. Here's that recipe:

4 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 Tbsp light brown sugar, packed
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
7 oz sweetened condensed milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup mini semisweet chocolate chips

1. Cream together the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy.
2. Add the flour and salt, and mix on low until partially incorporated.
3. Add sweetened condensed milk and vanilla extract. Mix until almost completely incorporated.
4. Fold in chocolate chips by hand, incorporating all remaining ingredients. The dough will be dense, so this may be easiest to do by hand.
5. Wrap dough well and chill until firm, about 1 hour.

I have to confess, although I halved the batter and frosting, I made the full amount of cookie dough filling. Since there are no eggs in the recipe, it's safe to eat without cooking, and who doesn't want salmonella-free cookie dough just hanging out in their fridge? I also added a good pinch of salt to the recipe, which wasn't originally included because I think chocolate chip cookies desperately need a little nugget of salt in each one. Please, I beg of you, don't forget the salt. But when I tasted the filling before putting it in the fridge, I was a little disappointed. It was too sweet and the flavor of the condensed milk was too strong. There was a subtle chocolate chip cookie dough flavor, and the texture was right, but I wasn't wowed.

The last thing to make was the icing. In the original picture of these on foodgawker, the cupcakes were topped with chocolate icing. At first this seemed like a good idea, but Shaun and I agreed that the original icing for this recipe sounded better. Plus, it included flour as one of the ingredients which was intriguing. Only in one other frosting recipe have I seen flour listed, and that was in a roux-based frosting, another anomaly I had never heard of. But since a roux is basically just a thickening agent, I could imagine it working in a frosting recipe where a lot of sugar is added and the roux is beaten until light and fluffy. In this recipe however, the flour is simply added raw, and I was a little concerned it would impart that raw flour flavor that isn't exactly pleasant. Here's the recipe. I'll leave you hanging about the results (for now).

3 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
3 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp salt
3 Tbsp milk
2 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until nice and fluffy (3 minutes). Add the brown sugar and continue to beat for another minute.
2. Mix in the confectioner's sugar until smooth.
3. Beat in the flour and salt.
4. Slowly add the milk and vanilla extract.
5. Continue to beat on medium-high speed until very light and fluffy (5 minutes or more).

Again, you'll notice the inclusion of brown sugar in the frosting in addition to the confectioner's sugar. I can't stress this enough, but the brown sugar flavor is essential to getting that chocolate chip cookie taste. Tasting the frosting on its own, I had a similar impression as I did with the filling: close, but not exactly cookie dough. But thankfully, the flour was nicely camouflaged.

By now, the cupcakes were cool so I needed to hollow them out to make room for the filling. I did this using a #5 star tip, hollowing them out from the top. But I found that if I pushed the star tip in too far, the whole cupcake would start to split, so it was butter to push it in a little and sort of slowly dig out a valley for the filling to go into. Be sure to save the cupcake scraps to munch on! And there's no need to worry about the hole in the top of the cupcake since it will just be covered up with the frosting.

Once all the cupcakes were hollowed out, it was time to re-fill them! I got the filling from the fridge which had firmed up slightly but was still nice and workable. I tried another little sample and was pleasantly surprised that it tasted much more authentic after chilling for an hour. Perhaps it gave all the flavors an opportunity to meld a little bit more. I pinched off a portion of the filling, molded it slightly with my fingers, and pushed it into the channel in the cupcakes, making sure to fill each one up to the very top. I packed in the filling pretty tightly with no real fear it would burst through the bottom of the cupcake since the liner was there for added structure, and they all held up perfectly well.

Using a #7 star tip, I topped off each cupcake with the frosting (of which I had just enough!) and then sprinkled on more mini chocolate chips. And voila!

After a photo shoot with Shaun's spiffy camera and homemade light box, it was time for the taste test.
Shaun tasted first and declared them delicious. I asked if they tasted like chocolate chip cookie dough, and with his mouth full, he confirmed that they did.

Next, it was my turn. For me, the dough filling was a little overkill, but that is what really makes these chocolate chip cookie dough cupcakes. I actually preferred just the icing (which upon tasting a second time, I actually really enjoyed) and cake, which together tasted just like a chocolate chip cookie, thanks mostly to the icing, not to be confused with a chocolate chip cupcake which is just a vanilla cupcake with chocolate chips inside. Very confusing and technical, I know. But after tasting the cake with the frosting, I was really happy I hadn't substituted with chocolate frosting instead since this frosting really has the flavor of chocolate chip cookies. I would suggest, if you like the idea of a chocolate chip cookie cupcake but don't want to go through all the steps, just make the cupcakes and frosting and call it a day. You'll be more than satisfied.

Now I just have to figure out what I'm going to do with all that leftover sweetened condensed milk. Any ideas?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ma Peche & Momofuku Milk Bar

Ma Peche was one of those places I really wanted to experience with someone else. Although Chelsea is my usual lunch buddy, I was lucky enough to have my wonderful boyfriend Dan in town visiting me this weekend. Thankfully, he indulges me, and shares in (although at a lesser intensity), my obsession with cooking, eating, and talking about food, so I always try to take him somewhere special when he visits.

Ma Peche, or My Peach, is a member of David Chang's Momofuku empire, which includes Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ko, and Momofuku Ssam Bar. A departure from his typical downtown location, Ma Peche is located in Midtown in the Chambers Hotel, and features a menu filled with a fusion of Vietnamese and French food.

Typical of many of Chang's restaurants, Ma Peche is mostly filled with walk-ins rather than reservations, but only open for a short, two-hour window for lunch, I was anxious to get there earlier rather than later. Luckily, Dan's flight arrived before noon on Friday, and by 1:15 we were walking into the Chambers Hotel. The hostess informed us that the restaurant, including the bar where smaller parties typically sit, was full and the wait was 25-45 minutes. We agreed to wait and settled ourselves into the hotel lobby. By 1:45 my stomach was growling and we were still waiting. We decided to check how much longer it would be, and also to give the hostess a little reminder since we were way out of her line of vision. Thankfully we were seated immediately, although I have the sneaking suspicion that she had forgotten about us. When we asked her about an available table, she went downstairs to check the main dining room and then checked around the corner at the bar. She offered us a seat at one of the communal tables downstairs, or a cozy booth upstairs. Dan and I looked at each other, quickly agreed on the booth, and were seated.

"Was that even a choice?" Dan asked, as we sat down.
"Only if by communal table she meant I could sample everyone else's food," I said, laughing a little.

Now, I've dined out a fair bit since I've been in New York, sometimes at casual spots and occasionally at fancier fine dining restaurants, and across the board I have found a universal truth about service in New York: it's either the best (Eleven Madison Park) or the worst (Butter). Sadly, Ma Peche was the latter. Sitting at our cozy booth, we had a view of the (full) bar, which it seemed overlooked the lower dining room. The light was low and amber and the room was void of windows. This made for a nice, warm atmosphere that we had the pleasure to enjoy while we waited to be greeted by a server, handed menus, and poured water. We were waiting for at least 10 minutes. Finally, after glancing at the only bartender a few times, she came over and abruptly slapped two menus down on our table before walking away. No hello, no nothing. Ok, fine. I was too happy that Dan was here to get annoyed.

Dan went with the pre fixe menu, which of course included an appetizer, entree, and dessert (a Momofuku milk bar cookie, but we'll get to that later). The entree I really wanted to try sadly wasn't on the pre fixe menu, so I went a la carte. We both got appetizers; Dan chose a venison and pork terrine, and I chose the pork summer rolls. By the time we ordered, we had thankfully been poured ice water although still had no napkins or silverware. Once we ordered, I realized that the sole bartender was also the only server on our level, taking orders from all 5 tables plus the full bar. This was really unfortunate, both for her and us, but at a place with such a notorious reputation, I expected better service. And although I felt bad that she had such a heavy load, the restaurant's inadequate staffing isn't my problem. If one person can't handle the whole dining area herself, she or her management need to figure something else out instead of making their patrons endure poor service.

Thus endeth my rant. Dan's terrine came out first, very quickly in fact. Served with two slices of bread, a sweet (mungbean?) sauce, and some pistachio and mushroom garnishes, the terrine was certainly interesting. Dan likened the texture to that of a sausage, but as opposed to a sausage which is put into a casing, a terrine is built in a rectangular pan and then thickly sliced. I wasn't a fan of the texture which was sort of spongy, and the temperature (cold) was a bit unpleasant for me. We were both also underwhelmed by the flavor of the meat which was pretty subtle, but really liked slathering the sauce on the bread. By the time my summer rolls emerged, Dan was already more than halfway through his appetizer. Not great timing, but since we were happily sharing everything, we didn't really mind. The lack of silverware and napkins on the other hand... It was at this point that I got up, went to the bar, and helped myself to a stack of napkins and two sets of chopsticks, the only flatware I could readily get my hands on.

My choices for summer rolls were pork, shrimp, or tofu. I immediately ruled the second option out since I don't eat shrimp, and, trying to be a little adventurous, I went with the pork. In hindsight, this was, I think, a mistake. Also filled with fresh and crunchy lettuce, carrots, and cabbage, the pork portion of the rolls had the same temperature and texture as the terrine: sort of spongy and very cold. Although it did add a nice smokiness to the entire thing, I was just as happy removing it from the roll and enjoying a vegetarian version. Probably the highlight of the whole dish is the spicy peanut sauce that accompanies it, which was FAN-TASTIC. Could have spread it on toast and been a happy girl.

For our second courses (which arrived while we were still polishing off my summer rolls and still with no silverware), Dan ordered Lemon Sole and I ordered Pork Ribs, an unorthodox choice for me since I rarely ever eat pork or ribs, and they had a whole list of sandwiches on the menu! But given the chef's reputation, and a review I read which specifically mentioned these delectable caramel pork ribs, I just couldn't resist. The Lemon Sole was accompanied by golden raisins, and was a little fishy for my wussy palette, but Dan enjoyed it pretty well. My pork ribs were every bit as delicious as I hoped they would be (and fingerfood so my lack of silverware was overlooked. Dan made do, quite well I might add, with his chopsticks).

The ribs, which were served as a generous portion, were so tender and flavorful. After my first bite, I was in love. Which was sort of awkward since Dan was sitting right. there. I felt like I was cheating on my boyfriend with my lunch. They were sticky and sweet, with traces of thai basil and lemongrass, and just a hint of spice. The sauce in the bottom of the plate was so incredibly delicious I could have eaten it with a spoon (if I'd had one!). For the most part, eating meat right off the bone was perfectly enjoyable. A few squishy bites of cartilage left me feeling a bit uneasy, but the delectable-ness of the rest of the meat was too enjoyable to be overpowered by some unfortunate texture. Being the good girlfriend I am, I lovingly shared a rib and a half with Dan, who wholeheartedly agreed with my tasty assessment.

Dan's pre fixe menu came with a cookie from Momofuku Milk Bar, which we shared. He had his choice between a chocolate or corn cookie, and after taking stock of who he was with (Me), he wisely chose chocolate.

We were not disappointed. It was chewy and intensely chocolatey, but not in a bitter way, which I really dislike. It was big enough for us to share, or to satisfy a serious cookie craving for just one. The true chocolate flavor made it one of the best chocolate cookies I've had (besides the ones I make myself). I had every intention of raiding Milk Bar's whole stock of goodies before we left, but since we were so stuffed, we decided to return after our visit to MoMA, just a few blocks away.

A couple of hours and six floors of Modern art later, we returned for a chance for me to satisfy my sweet tooth and curiosity. Milk Bar is famous for a few things: the Compost Cookie, Crack Pie, and Cereal Milk. While the restaurants in Chang's empire have a decidedly Asian influence, Milk Bar serves up American treats, but in unique manifestations. I've been dying to visit ever since I started hearing more and more about it. Call it research, if you will. This time, we entered through a door next to the Chambers Hotel to discover Milk Bar up front, and Ma Peche in the back (you can see the amber light in the left of this photo).

Trying to contain myself, I quickly filled a paper bag with five different pre-packaged cookies: Corn, Compost, Cornflake-Chocolate chip-Marshmallow, Peanut Butter, and Blueberry Cream. At the counter, I asked for a taste of their Cereal Milk frozen yogurt, since I was curious about the flavor but was still full from lunch. Dan and I each had a little spoonful and were intrigued and surprised by the flavor. Up until then I hadn't really understood what was meant by "Cereal Milk" but after just this small taste, I got it. You know when you finish with your cereal, there's that little pool of sweet milk left at the bottom of the bowl? That's exactly what this tasted like. Although I was impressed with the uncanny similarity, Dan and I both agreed that it wasn't exactly appealing. It sort of felt like we were finishing off someone else's leftovers from breakfast.

To round out my loot, I also snapped up a slice of their famous Crack Pie (packaged in a neat little cardboard container) and a slice of Candy Bar pie. Happy as a little clam pastry chef, we returned home with all our goodies.

Frankly, I could devote an entire post just to the products from Milk Bar, and maybe I will eventually, but for now, I'll give you the highlights.

Let's start with the Crack Pie.

From what I've heard (and from the ingredients), this was mostly just a lot of sugar. After taking a few bites, I could see where it gets its name though, as it was a bit addicting. Of course incredibly sweet, it still had layers of flavor and a nice, soft texture. The crust was nice and tender, not too crunchy against the very soft filling.

Next up, the Candy Bar Pie.

This pie was a layer of chocolate crust, gooey caramel, peanut butter nougat, and chocolate glaze, garnished with pretzels (although contrary to this (borrowed) picture, my slice only had one). With the gooey caramel and peanut nougat, this pie was certainly reminiscent of a candy bar, but was actually too sweet for my palette. I really loved the texture and flavor of the peanut nougat and the chocolate crust was also great, but the caramel was way too sweet and overpowering. Perhaps had there been more salty pretzels to add some dimension to the bites, I could have polished off the whole thing, but as it was, my pretzel was a bit soggy, and I ended up scraping off about half the caramel layer.

As for the cookies, I already told you about the chocolate one, so here's the cliff's notes about the other five, which all have the perfect soft, chewy texture and beautiful flat circular shape:

Compost Cookie: Delicious. There are coffee grounds in the mix which adds so much dimension to the cookie without being overwhelming. Like a true "trash" cookie, there are also ground pretzels and potato chips. It's sweet, chocolatey, and wonderful.

Corn Cookie: Like the best, sweetest corn muffin you've ever had, all packed into a neat little cookie.

Blueberry and Cream: This one was a little weird. It basically had the flavor of a blueberry muffin but the white chocolate that added the "cream" to the cookie was too sweet for me.

Cornflake-Chocolate Chip-Marshmallow: This one had the worst texture out of the bunch in that it was a little sticky and tough, sort of similar to toffee. I suspect the baked marshmallows are to blame. I was a little let down by this one since it sounds so unique and I was looking forward to some crunch from the cornflakes, but the flavor was still good.

Peanut Butter: There seemed to be little pockets of peanut butter throughout this cookie, although the peanut flavor was a little muted for my taste, and a little too sugary. It was also a little greasy, no doubt from the oil in the peanut butter.


So you want my verdict? Go to the Chambers hotel, but skip dinner (or lunch) and go straight to dessert. Momofuku Milk Bar's confections are so worth it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Meatball Shop

Originally, for Valentine's Day, I was going to treat myself to lunch at Ma Peche, but laying in bed the night before watching Unique Eats on the Cooking Channel, I was suddenly inspired to go somewhere else. Namely, The Meatball Shop.

Located on the Lower East Side, the Meatball Shop has quickly become the place to go for the ultimate meatball experience. As such, it's also become quite crowded, to the point that you can call ahead to see what the current wait time is. I planned to go for a late lunch, at 2:00, and since I was going alone, I didn't think being seated would be much of an issue. And although the place was nearly full when I arrived, I was still able to immediately get a seat at the bar.

The space is small but really comfortable and cozy. With a long communal table in the middle, antique fixtures and pictures everywhere, and great classic rock songs playing over the speakers, the vibe was hip but relaxed.

With a such a niche product, co-owners Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow needed to come up with a unique concept, which they have. Sick of menus dictating the dishes, Holzman and Chernow let their customers do the picking. So once I was comfortably seated at the bar, I was given a laminated menu and a dry erase marker. The bartender explained all of my options briefly. Basically first you pick what medium you want for your meatballs. You can have them "naked" with just sauce and a piece of focaccia bread. You can have them as sliders or in a hero or crushed up like a sloppy joe. Or you can have them over the chef's selection of greenmarket veggies and salad. So once you've picked your medium, you pick your meat. Always on the menu is beef, spicy pork, chicken, vegetable, and a special which changes daily. Their special Mediterranean lamb meatball with mint, raisins, and walnuts is supposedly exceptional. Once you've picked your meatballs, you pick sauce: classic tomato, spicy meat, mushroom gravy, parmesan cream, or pesto. If you choose "naked" balls you also have choices of sides, which you can get on the side or served under your meatballs, such as pasta, mashed potatoes, beans, or risotto.

My book was my lunch date. And there's the menu on the right.

I ordered a glass of red sangria (which was good but a little heavy on the lime) and quickly made my decisions. Since I'm such a sandwich girl, especially at lunch time, I went with the meatball hero. I chose classic beef meatballs with spicy meat sauce, and since I was getting a hero, I also got to choose my cheese (provolone) and sub roll (white). Served alongside the hero was a small green salad, and although I really wanted to try the special side of the day, collard greens with garlic, I resisted knowing that would be way too much food. And in no time at all, my lunch arrived.

I started with a bite of the salad, which was delicious and simple. Just arugula and apple slices dressed with apple cider vinaigrette, although it could have used a little salt and pepper. I quickly dug into my sandwich and immediately wished I had more than one napkin. And with a sandwich with tomato sauce, that's always a good sign.

The bread was nice and soft, although it got just a little soggy in some places where there was more sauce than meatball. But I always think a soft bread is better than a bread that's so crusty it makes the roof of your mouth raw. Obviously all the meatballs are not made to order, so it was even more impressive that they were still nice and tender and moist, not at all dried out. They were flavorful on their own, but were especially delicious covered in their "spicy meat sauce." Everything blended and was balanced so well together that it was hard to discern individual flavors, although I didn't find the sauce particularly spicy or meaty, which was OK with me since it was still delicious. The provolone was nice and light and had melted right into the bread. On the one hand, it wasn't overpowering, but on the other, I almost couldn't even tell it was there.

I really wanted to eat every bite of this sandwich, but halfway through I was already feeling full. Please don't think that stopped me from diving right into the second half though, which I made it about halfway through, sort of deconstructing it as I went. Finally I was nearing defeat. But not before dessert: your choice of homemade ice cream put between two cookies or served as a float with cream soda or rootbeer. I thought about doing a chocolate ice cream sandwich with 1 chocolate chip cookie and 1 peanut butter, but the special ice cream of the day was too tempting. So I ordered a chocolate chip ice cream sandwich with their special, brown sugar ice cream.

You may not be able to tell from the picture, but this sandwich was really big, which I was surprisingly disappointed by. I was sort of looking forward to picking this up and eating it like a true ice cream sandwich, but it was way too big and I had already made enough of a mess eating my sandwich. Instead, I took bites of the cookie and spoonfuls of ice cream together and separately. The cookie was OK, but very chewy and since the cookies were a little on the thinner side, this made them a little tough, not the good chewy kind that are soft and thick. There also didn't seem to be a lot of chocolate in them. The ice cream, on the other hand, was the perfect temperature and texture, and had a distinct brown sugar flavor, but was a little too sweet for me, which is saying something. I think a little salt would have gone a long way for both the cookie and the ice cream.

This is a place I would definitely return to. It would be tough to go with more than one or two other people since space is limited, but I can see why a wait would be worth it. Plus, I'd have to bring someone else so we could order a bunch of sliders in different meat and sauce combinations and I could sample them all!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


You may remember that after feasting on lunch at Craftbar I spied a 'Wichcraft down the street and for a split second, considered going in for seconds. Thankfully, I restrained myself and instead went with Shaun last week on his lunch hour.

With locations all over the city, as well as in Las Vegas and San Francisco, Tom Colicchio and partners have attempted to take the average sandwich shop to the next level. Still situated in a very casual environment, 'Wichcraft offers unique hot and cold sandwich options, as well as breakfast sandwiches, soups, and salads. Although it's something of a franchise (although still privately owned), 'Wichcraft boasts to make everything from scratch daily, in-house, with the finest, hand selected ingredients. With a description like this, I had pretty high expectations.

Now, I really love sandwiches, so trying to pick just one was a challenge. (I am, after all, the girl who made her gluten-intolerant friend accompany her on a walking tour of the 5 best sandwiches in Hell's Kitchen). In each category (cold sandwiches, warm sandwiches, and pressed sandwiches), there are about five options. I was torn between the warm Roasted Turkey sandwich with avocado, bacon, onion relish, and aioli on a ciabatta roll; the pressed Gruyere sandwich with caramelized onions on rye; or the warm Slow-Roasted Berkshire pork with red cabbage, jalepeno, and mustard on a ciabatta roll. Although the turkey sounded good (even though I don't love avocado), I ultimately went with the pork.

Let's deconstruct this from the top down. First, the bread. It was fresh, soft, and chewy, just like a ciabatta roll should be. It also made for a good-sized sandwich, big enough that I couldn't quite finish every bite, and small enough that I could also enjoy a little bag of chips. The spicy mustard was a nice touch, especially in combination with the pork, and the cabbage added a little moisture and crunch. The jalepenos were not very spicy, which was fine as I think they may have been overwhelming with the mustard. The pork itself was a little disappointing. It was a little dry and tough, like it had been cooked too long. And unlike most slow-roasted pork sandwiches I'm used to eating, this pork had no additional sauce mixed in to add flavor or moisture.

Shaun made the wise choice of ordering the pressed Blackened Flank Steak sandwich with grilled scallions, romesco, and cheddar on country bread. While my sandwich was served just slightly warm, his was almost hot and very juicy. I only tried one bite, but I really loved the grilled scallions, and the meat was nice and thinly sliced. Honestly, I may have enjoyed his just a little more than I enjoyed mine.

But perhaps my assessment is slightly flawed given that the second half of my sandwich was less enjoyable than the first. For some reason, when I bit into my second half, my sinuses were overwhelmed with horseradish from the mustard. I thought maybe it was just that bite, but my next bite proved to be just as unpleasant. The horseradish was so strong, my sinuses actually started to sting. I don't know if there was just more mustard on the second half or what, but as much as I wanted to finish the whole thing, I just couldn't.

Not that I didn't enjoy the overall experience, but I probably wouldn't go out of my way to visit again. However, if I was out and looking for a lunch place, and there was one not too far away, I'd probably stop in again and give the Roasted Turkey a shot. Or maybe the Meatloaf.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

David Burke Townhouse

Apparently, Chelsea and I are now Ladies who Lunch.

This week we met in my neighborhood at David Burke Townhouse. An upscale, modern, American restaurant, Townhouse is set in a quaint little house, with a bar at the front and an open dining room in the back.

With whimsical touches everywhere (even on the menu in the form of adorable David Burke eggs indicating pre fixe options), the setting is playful but also elegant, much like the food. The nice thing about Townhouse is they offer a pre fixe lunch menu year-round, so even though restaurant week has been extended through the end of the month, you can go get a great affordable lunch anytime (and be only a block or so away from both Barneys and Bloomingdales).
There are actually two pre fixe options available for lunch; one menu, which is $24.07, with numerous additional options for $37 (a la carte is available too). Their menu is available online, so I had of course studied it carefully before we arrived, as well as noticed that their website includes some links to recipes for their dishes, which is a nice touch. Once we were seated, I immediately perked up when I saw a man with a giant basket of humongous popovers coming toward us. (My sister, Alex, would have been so excited. Popovers are her absolute favorite.) He placed one on my bread plate along with butter for the table. But this was not just any butter...

It was served on a tiny salt block. And look at the little spiral! I was excited. The only flaw I found with this little setup was all the salt. The popover was a little salty, which I learned later, was because it was made with Parmesan cheese, and the butter had the added salt from the salt block as well as some salt flakes that had been sprinkled over it. My popover, while pretty delicious and nice and crispy, was actually still a little gummy inside, but I was so pleased with the presentation (and size!) that I didn't mind.

Chelsea made the wise choice to start with Tomato Soup, served with a small square of gouda and mushroom grilled cheese, garnished with a sunny-side-up quail egg.

Which all looked yummy (minus the egg. And mushrooms). I ordered an Endive and Prosciutto salad with thinly sliced apples and blue cheese.

I loved the combination of the crunchy endive, salty prosciutto and blue cheese, and sweet and tart apple slices; it was sort of like an upscale play on your typical wedge salad with iceberg, bacon, and blue cheese. But buried under the prosciutto was a pile of frisee lettuce which I avoided at all costs since I think it feels like eating plastic, and some of the edges of my endive leaves were a little brown.

For our main course, Chelsea ordered salmon with celery root, mushrooms, artichokes, and red pepper froth. It was simply and elegantly presented, and she enjoyed every bite. I resisted ordering the burger with garlic-lemon fries, and instead went with a Chicken BLT (minus the T). Although I was expecting your average sandwich, I was not disappointed to see a giant pile of food set in front of me. The sandwich was constructed sort of open-faced, but was clearly meant to be a knife-and-fork sandwich based on its size. A toasted slice of thick Brioche was topped with bib lettuce, grilled chicken, bacon, onion, more chicken, grilled apple slices, and avocado. Drizzled on the plate was a yummy aioli, which I suspect was the "chipotle" described on the menu, although it was not spicy at all. Although a little challenging to eat, it was worth the effort.

Finally, there was dessert. I was a little disappointed with the pre fixe dessert options (no chocolate!), but what Townhouse is really known for is their Cheesecake Lollipop Tree, available for a $10 supplement to the pre fixe menu or to share in place of two separate desserts. Small balls of different flavored cheesecake are chilled before they are dipped in tempered chocolate and allowed to set. They are then served on a literal tree. See?

 Why yes, I did stealthily take this picture of a table next to us with my 
phone while pretending to text. Why do you ask?

Instead of the cheesecake tree, Chelsea ordered a trio of sorbets and I chose what was described as a Hot Strawberry Shortcake sundae with spiced pound cake, honey roasted almonds, and torrone ice cream. I sampled Chelsea's sorbets in an attempt to discern what flavors they were since they weren't listed on the menu. We came up with peach, cassis (or black currant), and chocolate. The chocolate was easy to identify and yet I still found my spoon taking a little taste. Imagine that. They were all a nice texture and temperature, and had bright, intense flavors.

As you can see, my dessert was served in a martini glass, which I guess could be considered elegant, but I think it's a little outdated. I was all set to dig into it when it was put on the table, and had just removed the small piece of strawberry caramel on top, when our server reappeared with a glass tea kettle filled with a red liquid. He explained it was strawberry chamomile tea as he poured it into my glass. A presentation like that is always fun, although it really should have been done as soon as the dish was set on the table since I was practically already digging in. I found my dessert pleasant enough but not exceptional. The pound cake was fine although I didn't really taste any spice, and as it sat in the tea it got quite mushy. The strawberries were delicious, which was especially nice given the time of year, and the ice cream was fine but didn't have a strong enough flavor. So, sadly, dessert was a bit of a let down, but it was a nice overall experience anyway.

After lunch, we thought it would be nice to take a little walk. You know, to benefit our digestion. Hmm, where could we go that would be nice and warm...?

Thursday, February 10, 2011


The last place I visited during restaurant week was Alex Guarnaschelli's Butter. The menu highlights seasonal American cuisine, prepared using classic French techniques. The restaurant space is likewise very unique, blending elements of nature with a very downtown, lounge-like vibe. Upon entering, you are invited down a long narrow room, outfitted with lounge chairs and cocktail tables on one side, with a small, rectangular window into the kitchen on the other.

 Photo courtesy

Although we arrived 5 minutes late for our 8:30 reservation, it was in this little area that Shaun and I had to wait (along with several other parties) for our table. For an additional 15 minutes. Now, keep in mind it was a weeknight (Thursday) and our reservation was already on the later side, so forgive me for saying, but I was less than pleased. I don't think it's too much to ask to be seated at the time I specifically selected ahead of time, is it? I am usually completely tolerant of waiting a few minutes (up to ten I think is tolerable) even though I've gone to the trouble of making a reservation specifically to avoid this problem, but come on. Twenty minutes? At 8:30 on a Thursday?


My intolerance was of course exacerbated due to my growing hunger, as my dinner time got later and later. Not to mention my unhappiness with the hostesses (yes, there were two) that no apologies were made for the delay. Finally, at 8:50, we were led to our table.

But rather than head straight into this beautiful dining room...

 Photo courtesy

we followed the hostess down to a lower level known as the "Birch Room"

Photo courtesy
Covered floor to ceiling in a birch motif, the room glowed amber. To accommodate the number of diners this night, the center of the room was filled with a long row of two-top tables, all uncomfortably close to one another. It was at one of these that Shaun and I were seated. Also filling the room was a bar, another small seating area with a gaudy electric fire place, and an empty DJ booth, although based on the noise level, you would have guessed otherwise. It was exceedingly loud. In such a crowded space with underground acoustics, I had to strain to hear our server describe the day's soup over the loud music also filling the room. But at last, we were seated. And famished. 
Thanks to my unhealthy obsession with menus, I had already perused Butter's online and was fairly certain I knew what I wanted to order before we even sat down. Shaun and I hungrily eyed the diners' food around us, which was unavoidable given they were only about 6 inches away. Shaun and I quickly made our decisions and relayed them to our server. We waited expectantly, trying not to drool, as the table next to ours received a basket of bread. The minutes passed and so did our waiter, empty handed. Finally, I see a server walking toward us with full basket of warm, starchy, satisfying bread. 
My hopes rose, until suddenly, he turned and placed it on the table next to ours, replacing their now empty bread basket! After a few half-hearted attempts at getting our servers attention, we finally nabbed him and put in our request for carbs. He quickly obliged and Shaun and I gobbled down hunks of cornbread and slices of a loaf similar to a rye or thinly sliced sourdough. Along with the bread were served two types of butter, one classic, and one herbed. Both were delicious. The cornbread had a nice dense texture, a little on the drier side and not too sweet. And the rye-like loaf was also perfectly satisfying.

Once we were no longer blinded by hunger, we relaxed somewhat, yelled at each other over the noise, and before we knew it, our first courses had arrived. For his appetizer, Shaun selected a Winter Greens salad with goat cheese, pine nuts, and a Sherry Vinaigrette. After hearing my options for soup, and nixing the cream of mushroom, I chose their Butternut Squash. Imagine my surprise when my soup arrived with this accoutrement:

Popcorn! I was shocked but delighted, as was the woman dining to my right, who felt the need to address me directly to express her excitement. Please keep in mind, it was well after 9:00, the bread had not satisfied my hunger, and this woman, sitting entirely too close to me, had already started to annoy me with her loud attempts at flirting with and attempting to impress her dinner date.
"Oh my gosh! Is that popcorn?!"
(Giggling) "Wow, I've never seen that before!"
(Not amused) "Uh huh. Me neither." *Scowl*

Turning back to my own table, I quickly gobbled a few pieces of perfectly lightly buttered popcorn before dipping my spoon into the bowl of velvety orange soup. The thing about creamy soups like butternut squash is that because they're so thick, they don't really give off any wisps of steam when hot. This is unfortunate since my soup was so hot, I singed my tongue. This was a hugely disappointing oversight on the part of the kitchen. True, nobody likes cold food, but unless you've ordered hot tea or coffee, your food should never be so hot that it might actually burn you.

Nevertheless, I pressed on, happily munching on my popcorn and taking care to blow on my spoonfuls of soup. Temperature aside, the soup was lovely. It was rich and flavorful, with a refreshing orange note. It was the perfect texture, creamy and not at all grainy. The popcorn was served in its own small bowl on the side, and I chose not to put it directly into my soup; I wanted it to retain its crunch and I didn't think it would really add anything to the overall dish. Contrary to the picture above (which is not an actual picture of my soup), there was no garnish atop the soup. No swirl or dollop of cream or sprinkling of chive. This was fine, although I do think a small aroma of onion would have been a nice little touch. Shaun also enjoyed his salad, which was largely portioned (as was my soup. I ate way more of it than I should have and still left a fair amount in the bowl), and looked appetizing and refreshing.

Before our first courses arrived, I noticed the table to our right had been served their entrees almost immediately once their appetizer plates had been cleared. I was a little worried about this quick pace, so I gobbled up my soup and looked around expectantly. Our plates were cleared and the minutes ticked by. It became apparent my worries were clearly unwarranted as we continued to wait and wait. I should say that I appreciate a nice pause between courses. It always makes me uncomfortable when your entree arrives but you haven't quite finished your salad But twenty to twenty-five minutes between courses is way too long. And I know I keep reiterating this point, but by now, it was about 9:45 and I was just sick of waiting.

Shaun and I both chose Braised Short Ribs as our entree, and when they (finally) arrived at our table, we were very thankful we had. For me, it was an easy choice as the fish of the day was Salmon and one of the other entree choices was a seared pork loin, which isn't something I would order (although the sides sounded yummy. Hello skillet potatoes and roasted garlic, mmm). My other option was a vegetarian flatbread with homemade ricotta, parmesan, and Jerusalem artichokes, which sounded delicious, but not quite like a fulfilling entree. So when a double helping of this arrived at our table

we were stoked. The meat had been braised until it was incredibly tender and full of rich flavor. It sat in an equally delicious broth and was accompanied by wilted dark greens (I think Kale. It wasn't listed on the menu) and hominy. Although the menu described an olive garnish, I found none, which I for one, was very pleased about. Aside from the delectable meat, the braised greens were out of this world. They had just the right kick of vinegar to balance the richness of the meat, and had been cooked to the perfect tender texture. Supposedly the hominy was served "crispy" but mine was bloated and a little gummy. Although not unpleasant, and I appreciated the use of a starch other than potatoes, I found that after my appetizer of popcorn, the hominy was just a little much. Shaun and I also ordered an additional (and completely unnecessary) side of mashed potatoes to share, which were soft, creamy, and excellently seasoned. My only regret is that I didn't have enough room in my stomach to enjoy more of them.
When we had finally eaten every morsel we could handle, our plates were cleared and we waited for dessert. 

We waited. And waited. And waited. 
Is anyone else sensing a pattern here? In my opinion, a solid pause between an appetizer and entree is completely acceptable. But short of ordering an a la minute dessert that must be fully baked when ordered, such as a souffle, it is completely unreasonable to wait more than about twelve minutes for dessert (I know I sound anal with my "twelve minutes" but ten seemed too short and fifteen seemed too long). We were waiting for at least twenty. 

For me, dessert wasn't a tough choice. Although I generally go for chocolate, a Dark Chocolate Torte didn't sound all that appealing to me. Dark chocolate can be a little too bitter for my taste, so I was perfectly happy when Shaun ordered it since it meant I could still try a little bite. That left me with Mango Sorbet garnished with candied hazelnuts and kumquat marmalade or an Apple Crisp with Bourbon Pecan ice cream. I really love apple desserts in the fall (and ice cream all year round), and never order tropical desserts, so the latter was an obvious choice despite my distaste for pecans and love of mango.

When our desserts arrived, Shaun's face fell a little as he saw my ramekin full of apple goodness and realized he had made the wrong choice.


(although neither look that great thanks to the poor lighting 
and my refusal to actually use a camera to photograph food in public)

Sadly, dessert was the most disappointing course. Shaun's torte was dry with not much chocolate flavor. It was served with a whipped sour cream, which was inventive, but not particularly great. My apple crisp was fine, with a nice crunchy, sweet top and a generous amount of nicely cooked apples. The ice cream was also good (despite the pecans), but sadly the whole thing was smothered in a bourbon caramel sauce that was so overpowering I felt like I needed a chaser after every bite. And since it practically covered the entire dessert, it was hard to avoid. I had to leave most of the ice cream uneaten, and dig under it just for the crisp. And yes, I gladly shared with Shaun. 
So here's my overall assessment of Butter: Great food, beautifully decorated, but noisy, with mediocre service. If someone invited me, I would probably return, but I'm happy I can cross it off my list.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


This week, my lunch date and I stopped by Tom Colicchio's Craftbar. The more casual relative of Craft, Crafbar offers the same high-quality, seasonal food in a less formal setting. Located in the Flatiron District, and just down the street from Eleven Madison Park, Chelsea and I met to take advantage of Craftbar's Restaurant Week lunch menu.

The Flatiron Building

The space is open, with a long, dark wood bar down one side, and a balcony that leads to what looks like wine storage. Although there were cozy booths lining one side of the room, we were seated at a small two-top sort of in the middle. I feared this would mean there would be a lot of foot traffic around us, but the restaurant was only moderately crowded, and I felt comfortable where we were. Upon sitting, we were brought rosemary and herb breadsticks in a small silver bucket which while seasoned liberally, were a little hard on my teeth. I had to use a considerable amount of force to break one in half and crunched on it without much grace. The casual and somewhat nostalgic vibe of the restaurant was reinforced when my requested Diet Coke was served in an adorable glass Coke bottle and poured over ice, tableside.

Photo courtesy of

Unlike DBGB, Craftbar was only offering their Restaurant Week menu rather than their full lunch menu, but their pre fixe menu provided plenty of choices, many more than other restaurants'. Typically on a pre fixe menu, especially those during restaurant week, restaurants offer three courses, with three choices for each; however, Craftbar boasted ten choices for their first course, nine for their second, and four for dessert, including one cheese selection (why does dessert always get the shaft?).
With so many options, it was tough to choose just one for each course. I previewed the menu online ahead of time, so I had already narrowed my options. During restaurant week, I tend to try to take advantage of the deal I'm getting, so I order more food than I normally would. For example, I knew I wanted to try one of their irresistible-sounding paninis as my main course (it was lunch, after all), so typically I would have ordered a salad to start. But frankly, ordering a salad wouldn't have gotten me my money's worth, and although I've had some really delicious salads lately, there's always a risk that they'll be sort of boring or flat, and not really worth the space they take up in my stomach. After some relatively swift deliberation, Chelsea and I both decided on the Pecorino-Stuffed Risotto Balls for our first course.

Photo courtesy of Flickr
In no time at all, a generous portion of three golf-ball sized Risotto Balls were set in front of me. Garnished with freshly grated Parmesan and flat-leaf parsley, and settled atop a small pool of marinara sauce, the risotto balls looked and smelled inviting. I took a big bite, learning that a) they were very hot, but b) my slightly singed tongue was not in vain. The risotto was cooked perfectly so it was not too soft, and the outside fried breading was crisp, but thin. The pecorino appeared as a small lump in the middle of the ball, but it was easy enough to get a little bit of cheese in every bite, not to mention that the risotto was creamy enough on it's own. The portion was very large (I didn't finish all 3), and the accompanying sauce was, in my opinion, disproportionate. It added the essential acidic note to cut through the richness of the dish, and by ball #2, I was pretty much out.

 Another beautiful building in the Flatiron District. And the bottom floor's for rent!

For the second course, the menu was stacked with comfort food classics; Braised Chicken and potato puree, Spaghetti and Veal Meatballs, Linguine with Mussels, Braised Pork Belly, just to name a few. Chelsea's mostly vegetarian, and though she toyed with the idea of being adventurous and ordering the skate wing, she ultimately went with the Polenta with Wild Mushroom Ragout. I had a tough choice to make too. I love sandwiches. I think they are the perfect lunch and when I packed lunch for myself, that's what I brought everyday. So Craftbar made it really hard on me by offering three enticing paninis. The first was a vegetarian option: Mozarella, Piquillo Pepper, and Sweet onions. Nice, but I wasn't sold. The second was a Chicken Milanese panini with cheddar, roasted tomato, and arugula. Tempting, but I would have nixed the roasted tomato, and when I'm dining out, I try not to order chicken since that's mostly what I eat at home. And then there was the third option: Corned Beef with Choucroute (similar to sauerkraut), and French Raclette (cheese!). On second thought, maybe it wasn't such a hard decision.

As you can see, I had a hard time resisting a few bites before I could take a picture

This sandwich was...I'm not even sure there is a word. The bread was perfect; crusty on the outside but nice and soft on the inside so as not to tear at the roof of my mouth. The corned beef was so tender that even though there was a generous amount on the sandwich, I had no problem getting my teeth through it. It was flavorful but not overpowering, simply delicious. The choucroute was nice and crunchy, although I could have done with just a tad more, and the cheese, although creamy and relatively mild, was a bit detracting. I did enjoy it, but I would have been just as happy without it. A small pot of Russian Dressing was served on the side, which I generously slathered onto the sandwich as well for just a little bit of tartness. The small salad on the side was composed of pickle slices, radishes, and some peppers. I only sampled the pickles, which I suspect are prepared in-house, but I enjoyed them so much more than I thought I would. They were a little sweet but garlicky, which I loved, and typically I really hate sweet pickles. 

Although I desperately wanted to finish every last bite of this sandwich, my appetizer had been pretty filling, and I knew I still had dessert to conquer. So as much as it pained me, I left a few morsels on the plate, which I'm still regretting now. I also regret not getting a picture of Chelsea's polenta, which she raved about, which would have been unnecessary had you simply seen her spotlessly clean plate when she was finished. I did notice that she finished her dish much faster than I finished mine, so I suspect that her portion might have been a little small. Either that, or I was enjoying my sandwich so much I didn't realize just how much I was taking my time savoring it.

What your view would be from the Flatiron Building. Not fair.

Last, but never least, was dessert. Another classic selection of tried and true favorites: Flourless Chocolate Cake, Butterscotch Pot de Creme, and Brown Sugar Cake. Can you guess which one I chose?

If you thought the chocolate cake, you'd be wrong; that was Chelsea's (another good reason to go out to eat with someone else: they order your second choice so you can have a bite!). I ordered the Brown Sugar Cake, since Flourless Chocolate Cake can sometimes be a bit bitter and dense for my sweet tooth. Let's start with the chocolate cake, since you know I took a bite. First, as you can see, the portion was very generous. With such a densely rich dessert, this would be hard to finish by yourself. Also, the proportion of mousse (not ice cream) to cake is a little small. The cake was garnished with caramelized hazelnuts, cocoa nibs, and a little salt, and was very dense and very dark. One bite was plenty for me.

One the other hand, I couldn't get enough of my brown sugar cake. It was just the right size for me, with a sweet crispy crust on the outside, possibly from a sugared cake mold. The cake was sweet with a nice tight, moist crumb, topped off with a thin layer of melted brown sugar (which I suspect was put into the cake mold before it was filled with cake batter). The Vanilla ice cream was fine, although as someone who doesn't love nuts, I was a little disappointed to learn it was anchored by them instead of more cake crumbs, and the poached pear was too hard and a little flavorless, I suspect because it was neither ripe enough nor poached long enough. Although the cake was certainly delicious enough to stand on its own I do wish these other two elements would have been just a little better so they could have highlighted the dessert instead of detracting from it.

As we were leaving to take a quick salivating tour around ABC Home, I noticed a 'Wichcraft just around the corner. Is it wrong that I immediately wanted to go and order a sandwich? Don't worry, it's on the list! As is ABC Kitchen, hopefully for Brunch. How do I say no to Glazed Doughnuts with housemade jam and Cinnamon-raisin scones with apple butter??
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