Maialino at Gramercy Park Hotel- New York

One of the hottest restaurants in New York City and the winner of 2011 Zagat Survey’s Best New Restaurant in New York is Maialino, a Roman-style trattoria in the exclusive Gramercy Park area.   This quaint Italian restaurant is the newest addition to restaurateur Danny Meyer’s empire which includes the Shake Shack chain, Eleven Madison Park, Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern (voted 2011 Zagat Survey New York’s most popular restaurant for the 6th time in 10 years).   With dinner reservations being booked for months ahead since its opening last fall and the walk-in bar perennially overflowing with patrons, breakfast or lunch is an easier alternative to trying Maialino.  In fact, lunch may be one of the best times to dine there, when the bright warm sun shines through the large bay windows that look out onto Gramercy Park- but even for lunch, you’ll have to make a reservation weeks in advance. 

Located off of Gramercy Park Hotel’s main lobby, Maialino’s interior creates a warm and inviting atmosphere that naturally encourages mingling, conversation and feasting.  Next to the large open bar are the charcuterie, cheese, pastry and bread counters that are lined with mouthwatering delicacies that emanate enticing aromas.  Walk past the counters to arrive at the rear dining room where the blue checkered tablecloths and antique framed photos of Italy will transport you to a rustic Roman trattoria.  The Italian menu comes courtesy of Executive Chef Nick Anderer, who got his first big start at Babbo, then spent a year working in Milan after which he returned to New York City to cook at Gramercy Tavern.  The menu draws its inspirations from classic Roman dishes using locally grown seasonal produce. 

When Danny Meyers used to work in Rome, locals affectionately called him Meyerlino, which means ‘little Meyer’.  Eventually that name morphed into Maialino, which means ‘little pig’, hence the name of the restaurant and the theme of the menu which is slow-roasted crispy-skinned suckling pig.  Trotters, guanciale and different cuts of suckling pig find its way throughout the menu. 

Trippa alla Trastaverina is a beautiful plate of tender strips of tripe stewed in a tomato based sauce, coated with generous sprinklings of pecorino and mint.  Pile the tripe onto their freshly baked bread, wait for a few seconds for the tomato sauce to soak through the top layer and devour it whole.  The tripe melts like butter and tastes like heaven. 

Other enticing antipastis include chicken liver and aged balsamic crostone di fegato, and fried artichokes in anchovy bread sauce (carciofini fritti).  A plate of assorted charcuterie featuring prosciutto di Parma from Emilia-Romagna and soppressata picante from Long Island with buffalo mozzarella will make lunch even more perfect.

Insalata Misticanza is a simple salad made with seasonal greens, lemon and olive oil, and even this is fantastic, as all produce are from the Greenmarket farmers market. 

One of their signature dishes is the Malfatti al Maialino, a buttery suckling-pig ragù that clings onto folded sheets of hand torn malfatti pasta.  Generous chunks of tender pork are magnificent, its fattiness cut by bitter arugula.  The dish is perfect, but I can’t help but wonder how the pasta would taste with a few bits of crispy maialino pork skin thrown in.  

Other primi pasta dishes stick to Roman classics, like bucatini all’Amatriciana, fettuccine alla Carbonara (both with guanciale) and tonnarelli cacio e pepe. Paninis for brunch and lunch feature a porchetta sandwich with slow roasted suckling pig and egg.

Secondis offer a wide variety of proteins, like hanger steak bistecca di bue, pollo milanese, suckling pig terrine and suckling pig’s foot, but our server insists that we get the swordfish.  How can swordfish be the best thing on the menu?  It’s always overcooked, tough, tasteless and boring.  I push through my skepticism and follow his orders.  He is right.

Pesce Spada is a simple no-fuss dish with grilled swordfish, eryngii king trumpet mushrooms and sprinkles of fennel fronds, but so perfect in execution that it becomes sensational.  The swordfish is tender, buttery, rich and delicious. 

Desserts offer a classic lineup of Italian sweets, like gianduja budino, torta della nonna, affogato and a variety of gelato.  Torta di Olio d’Oliva, an olive oil cake with vanilla bean mascarpone, pleases with a rich nutty flavor inside a soft moist batter. 

Other sections of the Gramercy Park Hotel, newly renovated by Ian Schrager, are worth a visit.  The majestic lobby lined with crimson red carpet and tall wooden ceilings are awe inspiring, and every nook and cranny shows a diffferent combination of design form.   Some flaunt eerie goth embellishments like shark tooth sword lamps, while others transport you to the hotel in ‘The Shining’.

Large chandeliers and dramatic red velvet curtains set the stage for contemporary paintings by Warhol, Basquiat and Haring, but once you step into the exclusive bar that branches off of the lobby, you will see an expression of 21st century bohemia.   Whichever section of the hotel you decide to browse, it will be a magical escape far away from the sights and sounds of the concrete jungle outside. 

The Private Roof Club and Garden upstairs is another gorgeous Ian Schrager space, with tables and a bar situated underneath a retractable roof 16 stories above the city.  The ceiling of the indoor lounge features an incredible mass of hanging light bulbs, perhaps numbering in the 300′s, that add to the drama of the intimate space. 

The outdoor section evokes an urban oasis, a tropical greenhouse in the middle of the city,  with wicker chairs strewn along a corridor of hanging ivy and potted green plants. 

Most likely you’re not one of the privileged few who reside in and have a key to the private Gramercy Park, but the rooftop club will do for now.  Gaze out onto the park and the rest of Manhattan while you sip on martinis on your private little bench in the corner.  All yours, at least for a couple of hours until you close your bill.   

Maialino at Gramercy Park Hotel

2 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10010
(212) 777-2410

Random trivia:  Did you know that the swordfish has the widest temperature tolerance of any billfish,  with the ability to swim the surface and dive to depths of 2,100 feet (650 m) or greater, where the water temperature may be just above freezing?  They have a ‘brain and eye heater’, a special bundle of tissue that insulates and warms these organs.  This helps to prevent rapid cooling and damage to the brain, and increases visual acuity in cold deep waters.

Salt Tasting Room- Vancouver, BC Canada

A cured meats restaurant in Gastown district with a street address named Blood Alley sounds suspicious, if not a bit scary, doesn’t it?  The hunt for Salt Tasting room, a charcuterie, cheese and wine restaurant in downtown Vancouver was in fact a tad hairy.  The 19th century architecture and heritage buildings that line the cobblestone streets of Gastown have a retained historic charm and old world spirit, but one step into a back alley or a dark street corner and you can experience skid row as Vancouverites saw it during the Depression.  Salt Tasting Kitchen, which opened in the summer of 2006, is located in an unmarked alley between Water Street and Cordova Street.  At first we circled round and around the area on bicycle, asking locals if they knew of Blood Alley, only to get a confused ‘no’.  As we walked our bicycles down the alley, winding through homeless people and drug addicts, we saw the majestic grey flag with a salt shaker motif hanging over the front door.  We had finally found it- but before entering the restaurant, we had to go back out the alley to find a safer place to park our rental bikes.

This haunting street, full of haunted street residents, used to be lined with butcher shops, hence the name Blood Alley for the bloody mess that would ensue after a day of animal butchering.  In addition, Blood Alley was a location for public executions in the late 19th century.  A most interesting place to serve sliced salami, trimmed beef tongue and shaved prosciutto; yet the discretely located Salt Tasting Room successfully creates a safe haven for foodies to congregate.

Salt Tasting Room specializes in artisanal cheeses, small-batch cured meats and a vast selection of wines, sherries, ports, beers and spirits which go through a constant rotation.  They offer wines from Europe, Australia, Argentina and the US, but most of their line up celebrates local harvests from British Columbia, like Okanagan Falls and Similkameen Valley.  Any of their liquids can be enjoyed by the glass or bottle, and one can also sample a wider variety through their 2 ounce tasters and tasting flights.

The entire menu consists of cheeses, charcuterie and condiments that are written on the large chalkboard wall in the rear of the restaurant.  The decor is simple, just a few tables and chairs aside from the large communal wooden table by the entrance in a brick exposed wall space, as the emphasis is on food and wine.  Diners assemble a Tasting Plate by choosing cheeses, meats and condiments, which are supplemented by crackers and bread.  It’s a simple and straightforward way of dining, which is actually refreshing in this day and age of complex menu items that come with encyclopedic descriptions.

Many of the charcuterie items come from local producers with whom Salt Tasting Room has a close relationship, and cheeses come through select cheesemongers all over the world.  On the day that we visited, the 10 cheeses included a Red Leicester from the UK, a French Comte and a local BC cheese called Happy Days.  The cured meats ranged from a fennel salami from Moccia’s, Sec Maison from Oyama Sausage Co., and hot capicollo from JN & Z.  Needless to say, with such a wide selection of delicacies, we chose our cheese and cured meats and entrusted our server to pair them with the appropriate condiments.

Our Tyrolean speck, a salt-cured and cold smoked pork charcuterie, tasted like refined and slightly more fatty prosciutto.  I loved that it was sliced paper thin, which gave off more smokey perfumes to aerate my nasal passages.  It was paired with a nutty and sweet Spanish fig & walnut bread.

Cured beef tongue from Oyama Sausage Co. was just what the doctor ordered.  With a hint of smokiness in the background, these luscious cuts of fatty and tender tongue practically melted in my tongue, complemented with a hit of locally produced grainy Guinness mustard.

A classic and most flavorful Italian Toscano salami with fig from Moccia’s was paired with briny meaty Basque olives, a perfect companion to enjoy with my glass of Alvear’s CB brand of Fino Jerez sherry from Spain.

We wanted to try a local British Columbian cheese, and our server gushed about the Ash Camembert.  It was paired beautifully with the honey-like fruity sweetness of Spanish quince paste.

Customizing your own Tasting Platter and pairing it with wines is the general rule at Salt Tasting Kitchen, but diners who may feel incomplete without a little more grub can order salads, soups, grilled sandwiches (for lunchtime only) and desserts.  Chef Lee Humphries of The Irish Heather, a local gastropub, also provides handmade terrines and pâtés.

Salt Tasting Room has a large room in their basement called The Salt Cellar which houses a long communal table that opens to the public on Friday and Saturday nights.  Otherwise, it’s used for private functions, parties and wine tastings sponsored by local wine producers.  We got to take a quick tour of The Salt Cellar, a beautiful industrial space that also houses their meat curing room, encased by clear glass on all 4 sides to entice hungry and tipsy diners.  What a perfect space to gather friends for a dinner party, drinking wine and sampling cheeses while enjoying an unobstructed view of hanging salamis and pork legs.

Salt Tasting Room is open every day from noon till midnight, and an ideal place for quick nibbles, mid afternoon booze or late night eats.  With cheeses and charcuterie that change daily, you will never have the same plate of food here, and every experience will be a new journey into gourmet heaven.  Dare to take the adventurous and shady walk down Blood Alley to find this gorgeous restaurant where they’ll reserve your space with a name tag and a not-so-bloody piggy bank to welcome your arrival.

Salt Tasting Room

45 Blood Alley Square
Vancouver, BC V6B 0C4, Canada
(604) 633-1912

Open daily noon till midnight

Random trivia: Did you know that ancient texts and historians suggest that Eve’s fruit of temptation in the Garden of Eden may have been a quince, rather than an apple?

Les Halles – Lyon, France

Lyon

Lyon

The next stop after Burgundy on my recent Europe trip was Lyon, known as the French capital of gastronomy.  Our culinary partner-in-crime Gregory gave us a quick introductory tour of Lyon, through the cobblestone streets of old town vieux Lyon and across the bridges over the Rhône and Saône rivers.  With the beautiful Notre Dame de Fourvière standing magestically above the mountains, and cafes and bouchons lining the riverside, Lyon was quite a sight to take in.

IMG_6970All that walking got us hungry- when can we start eating some food?  After all, we were in Lyon.  With only 2 hours to go until our dinner reservations, we couldn’t help but indulge in some quick but good eats.  Gregory knew just the place to satiate our needs, and took us straight to the marketplace Les Halles.

Les Halles is an amazing place stocked full of the best foods in the world.  Row after row of food stalls, seafood bars and restaurants throw temptation in your face from all angles.  The vegetables stalls have the freshest vegetables bursting with flavor and juice, and the charcuterie stalls with infinite selections of hanging saucissons and hams.  The fromageries boasted an assortment of cheeses that I’ve never encountered before in my life, and a macaroon shop offered about 30 different flavors (even white truffle, olive oil and foie gras flavors! ).  There was a pastry shop dedicated solely to pralines, and about 4 different oyster bars. In fact, this Les Halles in Lyon is named after famed French chef Paul Bocuse.  I wish we had a marketplace like this in Los Angeles.  If such a place existed, I would probably be there every day.

Seafood stall

Seafood stall

Macaroon stall

Macaroon stall

Praline store

Praline store

Patisserie

Patisserie

Vegetable stall

Vegetable stall

Fromagerie

Fromagerie

Charcuterie

Charcuterie

We decided to eat some oysters, and sat down at a table by the oyster bar at the Ecailler Cellerier.  Gregory had just been there earlier that day for oysters, so the patron recognized him right away.  The kind patron gave us a warm welcome, and joined us for some conversation and a white wine toast.

Sharing a toast with the patron of Ecailler

Sharing a toast with the patron of Ecailler Cellerier

We tried 4 types of oysters: Marennes Fine de Claire, Isigny de Normandie, Speciales Gillardeau Number 3 and Speciales Gillardeau Number 4.  My favorite was the Gillardeau Number 3, a 3rd grade oyster harboured in the Marennes region of France from the legendary family-run oyster farm Gillardeau.  They were plump, rich, luxurious and divine, and truly some of the best oysters that I’ve ever tasted in my life.  So this is the famous Gillardeau oyster…now I see what all the fuss is about!  Some claim that these oysters are the best in the world, and many 3 Michelin star restaurants in France serve them.

Speciales Gillardeau N3 oysters

Speciales Gillardeau N3 oysters

Speciales Gillardeau N4 oysters

Speciales Gillardeau N4 oysters

Master oyster shucker

Master oyster shucker

Plate of oysters....so yummy

The most delicious and precious plate of oysters

Within the first 2 hours of arriving in Lyon, we were already at Les Halles having some of the best oysters in the world.  Les Halles here in Lyon is not a place to be missed.

Ah, Lyon, I love you already.  More exciting gastronomic adventures to come!

Random trivia:  Did you know that a baby oyster (larvae) is called a ‘spat’?