Friday, April 2, 2010

Still here... and still eating!

It's been almost a month since my last restaurant post.  To be honest, my better half and I have steered clear of fine dining ever since we made our highly anticipated reservation at Per Se (coming up in May).  We currently set a spending budget each month and since we know Per Se is going to usurp a large allocation of next month's budget, we've been spending on other things lately.  

For one, we took our very first cooking class in March!  And what a blast it was.  We took the "Weeknight Dinners" class at Camaje in the West Village on a Sunday evening from 5:30-9pm, which cost $175 for 2 people.  There were about 16 people in the class, and we were split into 4 teams of 4 people.  Each team put together 4 recipes, and the intent was to combine all our dishes at the end of the class and have a dinner buffet spread of 16 different dishes that are tasty, healthy, and easy to throw together on a weeknight!

Hubby-to-be and I were in a group with another couple.  They were very nice and Brooklyn hipster-esque, which was cool since we don't encounter many of those types in our everyday corporate Manhattan lives!  The 4 dishes we put together as a team were: kung pao tofu (I was very excited about this dish!), pork chops, celery root apple soup, and chicken with apricot sauce.  There was a lot of chopping involved - onions, garlic, apples, celery root, tofu, etc.  Those onions sure made me cry!  We also learned about and passed around various spices and sauces, like curry, sriracha sauce, fish sauce, and so on.

Now, Camaje is an actual restaurant/cafe, so fortunately no one was dining in the restaurant that Sunday because our entire class took up the entire place.  We did all our preparation, chopping and mixing in the restaurant, and then took turns moving to the kitchen to cook our food.  The kitchen was very small, hence the reason behind taking turns.  It was a lot of fun though and definitely a great couples bonding activity!  People in my family know that I once literally fainted (back when I was 19 or so) during one of my first experiences cooking.  Fortunately I was at home, so I fainted in the middle of the kitchen floor and my grandfather had to lift my legs up to let the blood flow back into my brain!  The reason for the fainting was lack of ventilation.  I am a delicate flower.  :P  I didn't faint at Camaje though, so I think that is a sign I have truly grown up!

Anyway, at the end of the class, everyone combined their dishes and we had a buffet line of several different types of salads, chicken breasts, pork chops, beef, soup consommes, curries, and so on.  We ended the night eating our meals at the very spot in which we prepared what we cooked.  (The waiters cleaned up the tables and tablecloths, of course.)  Although the class was stated to end at 9, we were there until almost 10!  It was a great time and a fun way to get to know other New Yorkers.  Not to be biased, but my favorite dishes were the kung pao tofu and the celery root apple soup!  (It's too bad they didn't give us rice to accompany the tofu!)  We added a small scoop of sour cream into the soup and it really added a nice tangy touch.  :)

Unfortunately, we haven't pulled out any of the recipes ever since the class!  The recipes were fairly easy to prepare, but a lot of the ingredients were bought at farmers markets and we hardly encounter those in our daily lives.  Also, it's tough to feel motivated to cook when your kitchen is literally 6' x 6'... smaller than my cubicle at work!!  

Besides our fabulous cooking class, I've been busy wedding planning.  We are now under 90 days away from our wedding and there's still a bit to do!  In fact, we are heading to buy our wedding bands after work today.  Ah, I love wedding planning!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Dinner reservations at Per Se in May.  :D  *jumps up and down*

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Valentine's Celebration at Gilt

(51st Street and Madison Avenue)

Hubby-to-be (H2B) and I recently enjoyed a delayed Valentine's Day celebration at Gilt.  Gilt is a proud recipient of 2 Michelin stars, which only 5 other restaurants in the city have equal rights to brag about.  It is also located in New York's Palace Hotel, which is one of the ritziest and most finely-decorated hotels I've seen in this town.  Needless to say, the Michelin star rating and overall classiness of the hotel set the bar high for this fine dining experience!

Taken on my iPhone from the outside of Gilt, looking down onto the lobby of the hotel

 Love the chandelier and grand pillars

We had a reservation for 7pm on a Saturday night.  In order to get to Gilt, one walks through the hotel bar... a very interestingly decorated bar, to be exact.  It's hard to describe the theme but it has a spiky igloo apparatus sticking out from it.  A large wooden door separated the outside bar from Gilt, and we walked through it and were seated promptly.  The ambience was striking and reminded me of being in a castle tower!  Dark wood panelings covered all the walls, and a dark red light cast a glow over the restaurant.  I felt like a queen, and H2B was my king!  A very austere-looking medieval painting adorned the main wall.  I was definitely impressed by the ambience and decor of this restaurant, particularly the way the dark wood and red glow came together.  It was slightly eerie but also incredibly romantic.  It definitely gave me a feeling that no other restaurant has evoked before, so I am giving the decor/ambience rating a 5 out of 5!

 Taken from Gilt's website

H2B and I went with the 5 course tasting menu for $110 per person.  I had a glass of Malbec (my new favorite wine alongside Pinot Noir!) and my manly man had a Manhattan.  Service was only so-so for a high-end restaurant.  The waiters weren't as attentive as they should have been and one in particular was too grouchy-looking.  Patronage was overall older, but actually young compared to the other fine dining establishments I've eaten at.  We saw 2 other couples that were also in their twenties/thirties, and I'd say overall most people were in their forties and fifties.  Sidenote: I prefer to dine at restaurants with older people... the older, the better.  People in their sixties and beyond are quieter, better dressed, extremely refined, and know where all the good food is!  When I'm surrounded by older people, I know I've found a gem of a restaurant.  What can I say, I'm 24 going on 42!

So back to the story.  Our 5 course tasting menu began with an amuse bouche... can't remember what on earth it was (something involving a blueberry?), but it was AWFUL.  The worst amuse bouche I've ever eaten.  Blech.  This set the tone of the meal rather awfully, but fortunately it got much better from there.  By the way, another criterion of mine in determining a good Western restaurant is the selection and quality of bread.  Is bread served warm?  If so, the restaurant earns major points with me.  Do they serve at least three to five unique varieties of bread?  If so, wonderful!!!  Butter over olive oil?  Perfecto!  There's not really much in life I enjoy more than a warm sourdough roll slathered in top-of-the-line French butter.  :)  Gilt had a wonderful array of breads, including sourdough, whole grain, lemon tart, and apple cinnamon.  My favorite part was when the waiter asked me what bread I wanted and after I chose sourdough, he said "And?"  I don't think any waiter has ever asked me that before.  Nothing makes me happier than ordering 2 pieces of bread from the get go!  I loved the sourdough roll.  The lemon bread was tasty as well but I just didn't want to be eating something sweet with dinner.  By the way, the best bread rolls belong to Daniel.  I remember the waiter there carried around a tray of approximately 8 types of bread!  Amazing.

The remainder of our meal consisted of - 

First course: Spot prawns (avocado, coconut, pomelo, and aji amarillo).  Very delicious, but each "prawn" was more like a circle of one-inch in diameter.  TINY. 
Second course: Some sort of bass TASTY.  I don't know what sauce they put on the fish but it was extremely delicious.  Again, a small portion.
Third course: Veal sweetbreadsWOW.  This was my first time ever eating sweetbreads, and let me tell you, it's not anything to do with breads.  Rather, sweetbreads are... wait for it... the thymus (throat) of a baby cow.  It sounds gross, but was actually really yummy!  They are served in little bite sized circular morsels, and funnily enough, they actually tasted sweet.  Who knew?  In this case, I was appreciative of the smaller portions.  I don't know how much sweetbreads I could have eaten (they are rather rich).
Fourth course: RibeyeWith a name like "Ribeye," I was expecting a slab of steak to be served to us.  I was hoping for the sake of my pride (I did pick out the restaurant) that ONE dish out of the entire tasting menu would be served in a normal size portion to keep my fiance full.  But that was not to be.  The "ribeye" was served to us in 4 inch long by 1 inch wide sliver of beef.  It was cooked nicely (medium), but left much to be desired.  This was the most unoriginal course of the meal for me.
Intermezzo: Palate cleanser consisting of dipping dot style ice cream in Asian flavors. 
Five course: Chocolate panna cotta. Another blah dish.  I don't go to fancy restaurants to be served with panna cotta for dessert!  :(  I would have rathered something more creative that would show off the chef's skills a bit more.

The meal ended with a platter of 5 different types of bite-sized petit fours and mini chocolates, as well as chocolate and gold-covered almonds.  

Overall, I would say the gothic ambience and decor was one of the best of any restaurant I've been to.  It was certainly the most memorable and emotive.  Service was nothing to write home about.  Half of the dishes were very good, but the other half were only so-so.  Portions were teeny tiny for the price - not so worth it.  I was full at the end of the night but probably mostly due to all the water/wine/tea I imbibed as well as the 3.5 sourdough rolls I consumed!

Fun fact: Before Gilt was housed in the Palace Hotel, Le Cirque actually occupied that exact space.  How coincidental, as we just had dinner at the new Le Cirque 2 weeks ago!

Decor/ambience: 5 out of 5!  Stunning.
Food: 3 out of 5 (some dishes were excellent, others only slightly above average; portions were laughably small)
Service: 2.5 out of 5 (not as impressive as one might expect from a 2 Michelin star restaurant)
Value: 3 out of 5 (even as a staunch believer in quality over quantity, I was a bit shocked by the tiny portions... thank heavens for the bread rolls)
"It" factor: 3.5 out of 5 (loved the ambience, but one visit was enough for us)
M&M's overall satisfaction: 3 out of 5
Bottom-line: Gilt is a great place to go if you want to be moved by its overall atmosphere, and if you prefer above-average quality over quantity.  One visit was enough for us, and at least now we can say we've been to Chuck Bass' (Gossip Girls) home!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Restaurant Week at Le Cirque

Hello readers!!!  I am back after an almost 2 week hiatus.  Work has been busy and this month has been craaaaaaaawling by at a snail's pace.  Apparently February is the shortest month of the year but it sure as heck doesn't feel like it!!

Now, although I've been busy at work during the week, that doesn't mean I haven't found the time and opportunity to eat!  I've mentioned several times already that I LOVE living in Midtown East.  Not only is my apartment ultra-close to 3 subway lines, but it's also within walking distance to so many wonderful haute French restaurants.  French food is without a doubt one of my top three favorite cuisines (my other two favorites being Japanese and Chinese [and all its variations], since I can't live without rice!) - there simply isn't a better combination than the top quality food and top notch service inherently found at most classy French restaurants.  La Grenouille (53rd between Madison and 5th) and Daniel (65th between Park and Madison) are located in our neighborhood, and a recent discovery, Le Cirque (58th between 3rd and Lexington), is a stone's throw away as well!

My fiance and I headed up to Le Cirque last Friday evening for dinner.  They had extended the duration of their Restaurant Week menu, so we were lucky enough to be able to experience it.  I've tried a few restaurants during Restaurant Week (ie. Butter, Brasserie, Dos Caminos...) and although it's a wonderful concept for us middle-class folk, the food usually doesn't deliver.  Choices are minimal and unoriginal and the quality is not so good, to say the least.  In my almost 5 years of living in NYC, I can only recall 2 excellent Restaurant Week experiences I've had, and they were at One if by Land, Two if by Sea, and now Le Cirque.

Le Cirque

(58th Street between 3rd and Lexington Avenues)

The only negative thing I have to say about Le Cirque is that upon walking into the lobby, the receptionist directs you to a coat check section before bringing you to your seat.  Rather than wait in line to check my coat (which reminds me too much of going to a nightclub), I think it'd be much classier if they had someone at the receptionist counter take our coats for us and check them in on our behalf.  

Le Cirque is on the ground floor of a section of the Bloomberg building.  The Bloomberg building is a very unique, circular construction, and as such, the restaurant is built in the shape of a semi-circle.  The interior feels like a warm and high-class French restaurant, me likey.  :)  I can't remember what I had for an appetizer (something shrimp-based) but my fiance enjoyed his lamb shank terrine.  You can always tell when my fiance is in fine-dining mode when he starts eating reaaaaaally.... slooooooowly... in bite-sized morsels.  Usually my eating pace is half as slow as his is (eating family-style with the 3 men of his family is always a harried experience! lol) but when we are eating out at fancy joints, a mysterious sense of calm comes over him and then I'm the one who looks like Miss Piggy.  No joke.

My favorite course at Le Cirque was the entree: Berkshire pork belly.  I believe this was the second time in my whole life I'd ever had pork belly (the first time being at Casa Mono) and it was PERFECT.  Just the right amount of fat crunchiness on top, followed by braised soft texture beneath.  I know "pork belly" doesn't exactly sound the most appealing, but I guarantee you will find it has the most delectable combination of softness and crunchiness all in one.  Not in the least bit overwhelming.  Double credit goes to Le Cirque for offering something as unique as pork belly on their Restaurant Week menu.  They could have so easily followed all the other restaurants and had your standard fish and beef prime rib available.

Dessert was also a delight!  It was called "milk chocolate milles feuilles" which consisted of soft and delicious milk chocolate sandwiched between two lovely wafers, I think.  It was complemented with salted caramel ice cream and was very, VERY good.  Sweet, but not rich, which is good for me!  Hubby-to-be chose the tiramisu but he definitely preferred mine!  So what else is new?  :) 


Decor/ambience: 4.5 out of 5 (lovely red and gold undertones made for a warm and classy dining experience... minimalist decor is so overrated these days!)
Food: 4.5 out of 5 (10/10 on the entree and dessert, but their bread rolls could have been better...)
Service: 4 out of 5 (not in the 5 star league of Jean Georges and La Grenouille)
Value: 5 out of 5 (GREAT quality 3-course meal for only $35!)
"It" factor: 4.5 out of 5
M&M's overall satisfaction: 4.5 out of 5

Bottom-line: We were HUGELY satisfied and very impressed with this meal.  Will definitely be back when I'm next in the mood for pork belly!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hubby Corner: Primehouse

(27th Street and Park Avenue)
Hello A Manhattan Food Story readers. I am the “hubby-to-be” and part-time blog correspondent for this exceptional website. We thought it would be a good idea to add a man’s perspective every once in awhile, especially when we visit a restaurant that serves lots of beef!

My first dispatch comes from the steakhouse hot-spot known as Primehouse on 27th and Park Avenue. We paid a visit to Primehouse with another couple during the summer of 2009 and I have been plotting my return ever since. It turns out due to a reservation snafu at another restaurant (Gilt - which we will be dining at later this month), my fiancée and I were making a mad scramble to find a destination for Saturday evening. Luckily, we both decided Primehouse would be a perfect place for an upscale evening and we were not disappointed.


We arrived promptly at 7:30pm and were seated immediately. The restaurant décor is very trendy with high ceilings, a black-and-white color scheme, and slate walls which add a nice touch. The restaurant was mostly full with an upscale crowd of all ages. The general attire was casual, no need for anything more than jeans and a dress shirt. Now onto the best part, the food:

I have to admit we cheated and viewed the menu before we left our apartment. We had our eye on the chateaubriand for two, which also came with two sides. After briefly glancing over the menu at the restaurant, we put in our order as planned. We were pleasantly surprised by the bread which soon followed, especially my fiancée. The bread reminded me of a bagel, but sweeter. Throw in some whipped butter and you are good to go! I also ordered a beer. The wine selection was obviously much more expansive than the beer selection, which although moderately priced was rather narrow in scope. While my fiancée and I engaged in pleasant conversation, our chateaubriand was cooking to perfection. A few minutes later our main dish arrived. The meat (cooked to medium) was a beautiful sight. The pinkness in the middle made my jaw drop (I am being a little dramatic) and the combination of the smell and the sheer size of the portion made me smile. The waiter’s assistant cut the meat tableside in fine cuts, and also dropped off our two sides, steamed asparagus and truffle asiago fries.  A quick note on the sides: The asparagus was huge. I have no idea where they grow these vegetables but they were big and covered in butter. The asiago fries are highly recommended. They are big steak fries with cheese on top. We soon dived into our meal and I couldn’t have been happier. The beef was mouth-watering good, a must have for any meat enthusiast. The sides were a nice addition and complemented the beefiness of our meal. We finished strong with a bananas foster sundae, which in true steakhouse fashion was humongous. By the end of the meal I must have consumed an unspeakable amount of calories, with my fiancée not far behind. 

Decor/ambience: 4 out of 5. Décor is excellent, location is relatively trendy, and the crowd is a mix of young wall street types paired with older no doubt well to do New Yorkers.
Food: 4.5 out of 5. The beef is simply outstanding. I have been to a fair share of steakhouses in the city and Primehouse’s steaks can compete with any of them.
Service: 4 out of 5. Certainly no La Grenouille, but our waiter was prompt and courteous. No complaints in this department.
Value: 4 out of 5. The Valentine's Day menu was a fairly good deal ($78 for the chateaubriand for 2 people), but otherwise, be prepared to pay anywhere from $35-50 for a steak.
"It" factor: 4.5 out of 5. Primehouse is a great destination for a date, a dinner meeting, or taking out-of-town guests out for a New York City night.
M&M's overall satisfaction: 4.5 out of 5. A wonderful night of meat eating at a great restaurant. I withhold 0.5 stars only for the lack of 5 star service. But overall I cannot recommend this place more!

CNY Take #2 at Chiam

(48th Street between 3rd and Lexington Avenues)

Since 2009, it's been a tradition for my fiance, sister, her friend (let's refer to this friend as "Emma Bella") and I to get together for Chinese New Year dinner.  Last year, we went to Peking Duck House (which I just reviewed) and this year we wanted to try something new.  Emma Bella had suggested Chiam, a rather high-class establishment in Midtown East, for peking duck and overall Chinese food.  I guess he (yes, Emma Bella is a boy) had been there previously and thought it was close to nirvana for peking duck fans around the world.

Of course, being a peking duck fan, I was very keen and signed up for the dinner right away!  Between the four of us, we ordered one peking duck, one kung pao chicken, one dry sauteed string beans, and one grand marnier prawns.  According to several people on yelp and menupages, the grand marnier prawns are a must-try, so that was definitely on my radar.

The waiter brought out the roasted peking duck for our approval, and then went away to slice it up for us and roll them into pancakes.  There was no tableside carving, but that didn't bother me too much.  We each got 2 peking duck rolls... the pancakes themselves looked off.  They didn't look like normal peking duck pancakes, but more like burrito tortillas!  (I give my fiance credit on that one this time.)  They were charred and not soft like normal.  The duck inside was no better - where was the skin/fat/thinly sliced duck?  It was more like duck chunks inside.  The texture was yucky.  Plus, they had the spring onions in there which I really don't like.  I would've rathered they let us pack and roll our own peking duck.  Anyway, that was a definite bust... by far the worst peking duck I've ever tasted.  No offense, Emma Bella!!  This in no way affected my opinion of you as a friend... Haha!!

The other 3 dishes were served to us rather strangely by Chinese standards, and by that I mean not family style.  They actually divvied up the 3 entrees into 4 separate plates so we each had our own plate to eat from.  The remainder of the food was okay, but definitely not anything to write home about. 
The grand marnier prawns were cooked with mayonnaise, which I've had before... but it wasn't review-worthy by any stretch of the imagination.  I was not impressed with anything regarding the meal, aside from Emma Bella's stealthy arm.  He was amazing at re-filling our tea cups from across the table without anyone noticing!  :)


Decor/ambience: 3 out of 5 (the decor looks relatively classy, and there are private rooms near the entrance)
Food: 1 out of 5 (I don't know how this really counts as Chinese food...)
Service: 2.5 out of 5 (there were a few waiters who barely understood English)
Value: 1 out of 5 (the $40 peking duck was downright awful)
"It" factor: 0 out of 5
M&M's overall satisfaction: 1 out of 5

Bottom-line: It was really fun hanging out with friends and the overall conversation and joviality fortunately distracted from the fact that the food was terrible.  You couldn't pay me to come back here!

A mirror in the middle of the restaurant makes the hall look doubly long

Friday, February 12, 2010

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Happy Chinese New Year!!!  May you all have a happy and prosperous year of the tiger!

I'm sure Chinese New Year means a lot of different things to different people.  Growing up in Taiwan, I had the luxury of experiencing an authentic CNY experience for 13 years.  When my sister and I were young, our dad would buy a myriad of fireworks/firecrackers/sparklers and set them off in our backyard.  It was loud, dangerous and awesome all at the same time.  CNY also always meant angpows (red envelopes with money) would be coming our way!  That was definitely a highlight for my sister and me, and we'd often stay awake until midnight so that we could collect our angpows.  My dad would always host a CNY party at our house for his work colleagues, and every year we would cater a different kind of food.  Sometimes we did Mongolian BBQ (with the big grill and all!) and I remember one year we had Indian food (don't ask me how that makes sense...).  My dad and his buddies would always be sitting around the table playing poker and gin rummy, while the ladies would be chatting with us and our mom.  Those were fun times.  :)  As we got older, fireworks/firecrackers became illegal for purchase... but the fun didn't stop there.  Instead of obliging by the law, our driver would take us to hardware shops and after some schmoozing, the storekeepers would lead us down to their basement where whaddya know, they had a large contraband stash of firecrackers that they were happy to sell to us!  Oh, what great times we had in Taiwan.

In New York, celebrating Chinese New Year is a little bit tougher, especially if you're someone like me who doesn't fancy being swallowed by the crowds in Chinatown.  This is where Peking Duck House comes in.  A few friends wanted to get together for a triple-date last weekend and the only somewhat-classy Chinese restaurant I knew of stands right across the street from my apartment! 
Peking Duck House
(53rd Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues)

I am highly biased to Peking Duck House because 1) I looooove peking duck - there is nothing better than stuffing roasted duck skin, cucumbers and sauce (hold the spring onions) into a delicious Chinese pancake (or as my fiance calls it, tortilla... *smacks forehead*) and 2) with "Peking Duck" as part of its name, this restaurant I assume has got to be one of the best in town for peking duck, right? 

Mmm... I can taste the skin and fat already...
ARGGHHHH!!!!  I just googled 'peking duck' images and this popped up on my screen!!!


Apparently this is what live peking ducks look like, just wandering the farms of China!  How adorable????  I had no idea real peking ducks were so... cute... I mean, this duck is smiling, for crying out loud, and doesn't have the slightest inkling about what is to hit him!  He's so white and clean... almost like a little swan or goose.  AWWW... I am feeling quite a bit guilty at the moment, I must admit. 
Anyway, Peking Duck House was great.  We ordered the set menu which is basically around $30 per person and you get appetizers, soup, one peking duck for the entire party, plus 4 entrees and rice.  Really quite a good deal!  The peking duck was sooo good... too bad we only got 2 rolls each though, since we had 6 people.  (I recommend going with a small party so that you get to eat more!)  Haha.


Decor/ambience: 3 out of 5 (classier than anything you'd ever find in Chinatown)
Food: 4 out of 5 (peking duck is to die for... although the accompanying entrees are only so-so on average, depending on what you order.  Must admit that the non-Asian people in our group wanted to order the General Tso's chicken and orange beef - these ended up being better than the 'authentic' Chinese dishes, believe it or not!)
Service: 3 out of 5
Value: 3 out of 5
"It" factor: 3.5 out of 5 (the peking duck is the "it" factor!)
M&M's overall satisfaction: 3 out of 5

Bottom-line: The peking duck is spectacular for NY standards, and the $30 set meal comes with all the bells and whistles.  We will be back next Chinese New Year!

After dinner, we all went our separate ways and my fiance and I ended up at Bill's Gay Nineties pub, on East 54th Street.  I am a huge fan of live music (especially of the Frank Sinatra/jazz variety) and I was thrilled to find that there was a bar with live music a few blocks away from our apartment.  Sidenote: I looooooove living in Midtown East!!!!  Best neighborhood ever.  I will never leave until we move out of NYC.  :)

We had a great time.  We were only two of maybe six patrons, so the pianist/singer wasn't playing all that much music at the beginning.  Everyone was scared off by the upcoming snowstorm, we think.  Once he did start to play though, he was incredible.  He performed "Your Song" by Elton John, and several songs by Frank Sinatra ("Mack the Knife," "The Way You Look Tonight," etc.).  I always admire anyone who can play the piano.  I used to play the organ but it's extremely difficult buying organs nowadays.  Parents don't seem to make their children play instruments or cultivate any classical talents anymore... but I'll leave that to a separate post.  I'd like to learn the piano someday.  :)