Casa Mono- New York

On a cold wet day in New York City when trench coats become studded with specks of rain and speeding taxis create massive tsunamis that engulf the sidewalks, no place feels more cozy and right than Casa Mono in Gramercy Park, the charming little Spanish restaurant of the Batali/Bastianich empire. Since its opening 7 years ago, Casa Mono has become one of my favorite regular spots, one of those special places where I can feast in the familiar flavors of Spanish comfort food while discovering new ways to savor items like frog legs and cockscombs. Chef Andy Nusser’s hearty fare, influenced by Spanish tapas and served with a unique cosmopolitan style, has been bringing in hoards of city dwellers and out of towners into its neighborhood abode every night. After a 3 year blank in my yearly visits to New York City, I was looking forward to revisiting Casa Mono and enjoying what I had hoped would be yet another spectacular meal.

With only 10 small tables and a handful of bar seats, this little Spanish gem is always crowded, its overflow spilling into the adjacent Bar Jamón where the theme is more true to a traditional tapas bar and the food is decidedly Catalan, with classics like pa amb tomàquet, tuna escabeche, crema catalana, a handful of bocadillos and a glorious hock of jamón ibérico shaved to order. On the day that I went, I brushed off the drops of water from my coat, settled into my favorite seat at Casa Mono at the solitary table in the front corner of the restaurant, and watched the bustle of Manhattan through the large window as we opened a bottle of 2004 Baron de Magaña Navarra. With haloed streetlights and muffled traffic, New York City takes on a special glow and a sentimental character in heavy downpour, creating the perfect backdrop for a Casa Mono evening.

In the pulpo dish, perhaps the best dish at Casa Mono, perfectly charred tender baby octopus is seasoned with garlic and parsley, while fennel is served three ways, slice raw, sautéed and its bright green needle-like leaves sprinkled on top, all tossed with juicy wedges of pink grapefruit for a refreshing entrée.

Foie gras with cinco cebollas features a caramelized wedge of seared foie gras on baguette, its luscious fattiness complemented with 5 types of onions- pickled red pearl onions, ribbons of green onions, translucent leeks, sweet sugary sautéed onions and cipollinis, making for a fun dish where every bite delivers a different type of tanginess.

Razor clams a la plancha with generous heaps of garlic and chopped parsley scream La Boqueria, its juicy meaty flesh transporting me back to the vibrant sounds and smells of one of the most exciting marketplaces in the world. While Casa Mono is technically not a true Spanish tapas bar, they have simple fresh dishes like these that pay tribute to the spirit of delicious Spanish soul food.

The robust flavors of harissa, chickpeas, pickled red onions and mint stand up to the thick cuts of lamb chops that ooze savory fatty juice with each slice of the knife.

One cannot speak of Mario Batali’s food without mentioning pork, and at Casa Mono a whole Hudson Valley pig is broken down into several menu items like albondigas, crispy belly and croquetas, and we opted for the chorizo dish with spring beans and manchego cheese. Yellow wax beans, petit pois, generous shavings of manchego cheese and a dash of mint all brilliantly showcased the succulent piece of grilled chorizo sausage.

Roasted bone marrow with radish, caper and parsley gremolata is served with Casa Mono’s scrumptious version of pa amb tomàquet. While the marrow is delicious, the longitudinal cuts served to us are 80% bone and sparse in marrow content.

One of Casa Mono’s signature dishes is the whole duck egg with mojama, a twist on ham and eggs. A large sunny side up egg, perfectly cooked and bright canary yellow in all its glory, garnished with a slice of black truffle and gently laid over a bed of fingerling potatoes tossed in truffle vinaigrette, oozes golden lava into the valley of salt cured tuna. Mojama is traditionally enjoyed thinly sliced with a drizzle of the finest Spanish olive oil, but its savory meatiness is given an alternative dance partner in this soirée.

Every restaurant has its ups and downs, and the lobster dish with clams, peas, pea shoots, pickled red pepper and crispy jamón fails miserably, demonstrating that one cannot just throw in a bunch of tasty ingredients and expect to make it taste good. The lackluster sauce weighs down the beauty of the jamón and the spongy texture of the lobster spells its doom.

While crema catalana and the Mono Sundae made with plum brandy sound enticing, the pudín de naranja, a creamy bread pudding with red wine poached pears and caramel ice cream, is what we order. A slight burn on the edges of the bread pudding gives a nice crispy texture and smoky aroma, and it all goes down well with a glass of Alvear Solera 1927 Pedro Ximénez, an amazing dessert wine with an intense passionate sweetness and honey viscosity.

The menu at Casa Mono, which is bigger than the tiny restaurant, is comprehensive if not a bit overwhelming, as it is impossible to conquer it all in even 2 consecutive visits. Bacalao croquetas, calamares fritos, baby chopitos, fideos with chorizo, sweetbreads, scallops, mackerel, cod cheeks, skirt steak and rabbit are but a sample of other items that are all undoubtedly amazing. Although local New Yorkers have told me that Casa Mono’s service and food have been inconsistent in the past few years, my revisit proved to be just as magical as I had remembered. Tucked inside of our cozy nook, far away from the clapping thunder and violent downpour on that gray Manhattan evening, my friends and I raised our glasses to another fun and delicious dinner at Casa Mono- still good, after all these years.

Casa Mono & Bar Jamón

125 E 17th St # 1
New York, NY 10003-3447
(212) 253-2773

Random trivia: Did you know that a baby octopus, which grows to about 2-5 inches in length, is the size of a flea when it is first born?

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.

wd~50 – New York

Call him an eclectic pioneer, a nonconformist chemist, a mad scientist or culinary daredevil, but Chef Wylie Dufresne has his feet firmly planted in the culinary world.  This James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef in New York City is somewhat of a celebrity chef now, using the disciplines of molecular gastronomy to entertain diners with food like they’ve never imagined or seen before.  He will liquify, solidify and gassify; he will deconstruct, reinterpret and transfigure.  Some may not like this style of cuisine and others may not even get it, but it will always be a new experience that makes the mind question what is normal.

At Dufresne’s Lower East Side restaurant wd~50, he works with pastry chef Alex Stupak (who worked as pastry chef at Alinea in Chicago) to construct an inspirational menu where what you order will look completely different from what you expect.  Pizza may turn up as pebbles, cocoa nibs may present as socium alginate and calcium chloride caviar pearls, bone marrow as dehydrated discs and shrimp as noodles.  While the concepts and presentations are abstract expressionistic, the execution of these gourmet projects are a precise science.

Contrary to the whimsical menu and reputation of the restaurant as a carnival of molecular delights, the restaurant decor is disappointingly boring, reminiscent of a local pizza parlor still stuck in outdated 90′s decor.  The mismatch takes away from the experience and I find myself feeling uninspired, even unexcited for this experience.  I suddenly feel skeptical about ordering the tasting menu, and opt for à la carte.  Yes, ambiance does matter.

Corned duck with rye crisp, purple mustard, horseradish cream

One of the most popular items on the wd~50 menu since its opening in 2003 is the corned duck, a beautifully constructed cylinder of lean but juicy duck that is gift wrapped around a tower of delicious condiments.  Untangling the ring of thinly sliced smokey bird reveals a nucleus of  tart horseradish cream and slivers of honey pickled garlic, a perfect power play of spicy and sweet.  A smear of dark purple mustard reduced with red wine adds a luscious savor while the bouquet of microgreens adds a fresh kick to the presentation.

Eggs benedict

A must-try dish at wd~50 that represents Dufresne’s philosophy and fantasy, the deconstructed eggs benedict is a colorful surprise of culinary cubism.  Crispy Canadian bacon chips are wedged in dollops of slow poached egg yolks, bright like the summer sun and made with the consistency of liquid just barely becoming solid.  English muffins become minimized as delicate coatings for the warm Hollandaise cubes, its intense richness showing my palate that big flavors can come in small packages. The sprinkles of black Cyprus volcanic sea salt help to cut through some of the heavy buttery flavors while chive spears placed at skewed angles add more geometry to the edible installation.  Fun, edgy and inventive, but good enough to compete against a traditional eggs benedict?  Not for me.

Aerated foie, pickled beet, mashad plum, brioche

The most memorable act of the evening is a plate of aerated foie, fine reticulated columns of savory liver that resemble a loofah at first glance and a microscopic image of bone matrix upon closer inspection.  The foie is light, airy and fragile, collapsing and melting into smooth liquid gold inside my mouth.  The tart sweetness of the plum purée, the acidity of the pickled beet rectangles and the delfino greens that hang over the foie like ivy all elevate the flavors of the foie, but I find myself fascinated with the crispy brioche crisps, sliced so thin that it too takes on the latticed construction of the foie.

Iberico pork neck, endive, buckwheat, clove

Thick cuts of sous vide Iberico pork neck are sweet and succulent, a stellar combination with the apple cider and brown butter sauce, but those are the only good ingredients in this ambitious and busy dish.  Cloved tuille tastes like the first strong puff of a clove cigarette, normally a good thing for post-meal smokes but not what I want on my pork.  Fried endive is an overcooked soggy bitter mess while deep fried buckwheat has the opposite effect- not quite puffed enough that it becomes a gritty grainy nuisance that gets embedded into the sockets of my teeth.

Lemongrass mousse, brown sugar, jack fruit, whole wheat sorbet

Pastry chef Alex Stupak creates an architectural dessert using a serpentine tube of lemongrass mousse accented by flourescent yellow dots and slivers of jackfruit.  Lemongrass foam on both ends of the mousse hold its height while the long rectangular strips of lemongrass ice start to slowly melt over the whole wheat sorbet and brown sugar crisp.  As the ice melts and our spoons diligently work away at the dessert, the configurations of the components begin to change, and a new form of non-static abstract art is revealed with every bite.

The meal ends with chocolate shortbread-covered milk ice cream, cold balls of intensely sweet ice cream that taste like Oreo cookies.

The cocktail menu at wd~50 is interesting in concept, but poor in execution.  The Bourbon Bimbo had to be sent back because it tasted like the bitter white flesh of lemon rinds, and ‘A Saltier Dog’s saltiness was overpowering, killing whatever flavor it was supposed to have.

It is difficult and unfair to rate a restaurant based on one quick visit with just a handful of dishes, and I dare not question whether wd~50 is truly worthy of a Michelin star or a place in S. Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants list.  All I know is that my visit didn’t excite me to return again, at least not until the interior is revamped, the mood lightened and the menu improved.  Wiley Wonka’s laboratory of molecular delights is a fun exhilarating experience, one that will certainly provoke a lot of thought and conversation- but does his passion come through enough in his food, and does it have that punch that will make a diner want to come back the following week, and the week after?

wd-50

50 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002-2401
(212) 477-2900

Random trivia:  Did you know that jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, reaching 80 pounds in weight and up to 36 inches long and 20 inches in diameter?

ABC Kitchen- New York

My last blog post left off with the question of where world renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten will open next.  This famous chef and restaurateur is on a roll, opening restaurants all over the world in big cities like London and Paris, and even remote locations like Bora Bora and Doha.  I was pleasantly surprised to find the answer in his current home turf, New York City.  Jean-Georges’ newest venture, called ABC Kitchen, brings him back to the Big Apple where he keeps a close watch over several successful and award winning restaurants, including his 3 Michelin starred namesake Jean-Georges in the Trump International Hotel and Tower.  As if he’s not busy enough, he opened ABC Kitchen in March of this year, just 2 weeks after opening The Mark Restaurant in the Mark Hotel on the Upper East Side. The theme at ABC Kitchen is farm-to-table with an emphasis on sustainability and conscious sourcing.

Jean Georges partnered with Paulette Cole, CEO of ABC Home, to open ABC Kitchen on the 1st floor of the ABC Carpet & Home Building near Union Square.  The beautiful restaurant and café space looks like an extension of the posh furniture and interior store, decorated in Boho chic with white wooden furniture, antique crystal chandeliers, distressed mirrors and salvaged entry doors that are so beautiful that they could easily sell as ‘as-is’ merchandise. Distressed wooden ceiling beams salvaged from a barn, exposed brick walls painted in pure white and artwork by local artists create a warm and inviting countryside atmosphere that transport you far away from the honking taxis and busy streets just outside.

ABC Kitchen salutes sustainability and local resourcing by constructing their menu around fresh organic and local ingredients that cultivate a harmonious relationship with our environment.  Every produce that is proudly displayed on a table by the semi-open kitchen comes from organic farms that don’t use pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or insecticides, and can be traced to a specific farm.  Meat, fish and dairy are also locally sourced from farms that promote cruelty-free humane animal treatment.  Herbs and microgreens are grown on a rooftop garden while teas, coffees and spices are organically cultivated on fair trade cooperatives.

The gorgeous interior is something to be proud of too.  Reclaimed wooden tables and porcelain dinnerware were handcrafted by local artists, bread baskets were handcrafted by indigenous Mapuche people of Patagonia, and many of their cups and flatware are antique.  Soy candles that come alive for dinner service are free of pesticides, GMO’s and additives.  The menus are printed on FSC certified 100% post-consumer fiber and coasters are made from cardboard shipping boxes.  Front-of-the-house staff uniforms were bought at local thrift stores.  The concept extends even to places that we cannot see- all cleaning products used in the restaurant are organic.  It’s no wonder that the space feels warm, clean and radiant.  From the moment that I stepped through the front door, I felt the refreshing and pure energy of the room.

It was the perfect place to catch up with my friend Steve Plotnicki of Opinionated About Dining over lunch.  Needless to say, as an out-of-towner choosing a restaurant for a New York based gourmand and blogger, I was a bit nervous.  What venue do I choose for a man who not only has dined at practically every restaurant in Manhattan, but has also appeared on No Reservations and can summon the voices of Jay Rayner and Eric Ripert for a food survey?  It was my luck that ABC Kitchen was one of the few restaurants in New York that Steve had not dined at yet.  We were both excited to try Chef Dan Kluger’s (who has previously worked at Gramercy Tavern and Tabla) market-driven cuisine.

We started with the sweet pea soup, a bright and almost fluorescent green broth with mint ribbons, carrot slices and big crunchy croutons.  Whole round green peas added snappy texture to the wonderful vegetable soup that was full of vibrant flavors.

Raw Maine diver scallops sliced into thin carpaccio slices were garnished with horseradish shavings, sea salt and olive oil in a beautiful pearly scallop shell.  The fresh scallops were incredibly tender and soft, melting in my mouth with the ease of warm butter.  What really made the dish was the olive oil, an intense fruity Californian oil with deep nutty aromas.

Pretzel dusted calamari served with marinara and mustard aioli could’ve been more crisp, as this dish is really all about texture.  Perhaps we would have had more success with their other appetizers, such as wood oven roasted asparagus, caprese salad, roasted carrot & avocado salad, or mackerel sashimi with ginger & mint.

Perfectly cooked steamed halibut with shiitake mushrooms, avocado and asparagus juice was a light dish with simple flavors but wonderfully orchestrated to enhance the innate delicious flavors of each vegetable.  I could really taste and appreciate the bounties of the earth in its purest and uncorrupted form.

The restaurant offered a variety of pastas and whole wheat pizzas, from housemade ricotta ravioli and veal meatballs to spinach & goat cheese pizza.  We tried the pizza with morels, parmesan, oregano and farm egg, a dish that has not quite found its perfect state yet and needs a lot of tweaking.  A better preparation of the various fungi to bring out its flavors better, coupled with more parmesan would have made it much more palatable. 

The best dish at ABC Kitchen was the Akaushi cheeseburger with herbed mayo, pickled jalapeños, wild arugula, herbed mayo and grated Cato Corner cheese.   I had never heard of Akaushi before my lunch at ABC Kitchen, and am now left wondering why this incredibly tender and flavorful meat hasn’t become mainstream yet.  Akaushi means ‘red cow’ in Japanese, and it’s a Japanese Wagyu brand of cattle that has the characteristic marbled meat and rich flavors of other Wagyu brands like Kobe beef.  Akaushi originally came from Kumamoto prefecture in Japan, and the small number of Akaushi cows that were imported to the US many years ago are now being raised at Heartbrand Beef in Harwood, Texas.  The perfect spiciness of the jalapeños, the creamy herb mayo, the sharp grated cheese that doesn’t overwhelm, the bitterness of the wild arugula and the soft Eli’s bun, all perfectly balanced the luscious fattiness and flavors of the medium rare Akaushi burger patty to make one of the best burgers that I have ever had in my life.

Salted Caramel-Peanut Ice Cream Sundae: The perfect balance in a sweet-salty dessert with a whipped creme fraiche topping, chocolate sauce, and caramel popcorn crisp.

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ABC Kitchen

35 east 18th street (between broadway & park avenue)
new york ny 10003
phone 212 475 5829

Random trivia:  Did you know that intact horseradish root has hardly any aroma or sharp flavors, but when cut or grated, the enzyme myrosinase released from the damaged cells degrades sinigrin to a mustard oil, giving it its characteristic pungent taste?