First, of course, thanks to all the Manhattan hounds who helped make this "trip for the ages" so fun to plan. I was armed with enough info to convince my nightclub/restaurant industry friend I was staying with in Manhattan to allow me to pick the food, and he ended up being extremely happy when he was available for dinner. Went through several revisions of this plan, and last minute changes to what ended up being, to me, a very high-end itinerary (will plan a subsequent "low-end" trip, or "all ethnic" trip to round things out at some point). When it comes to the food I had on this trip maybe Im too easy to please, or I just had the best of luck the whole time. Either way, its good to be low maintenance.
Nothing new here, great reuben and cheesecake. My official start to any NY trip, to the point where it has become my version of having to turn the light switch off and on twelve times before I can relax.
I know this place has been reviewed and discussed to an amazing level of detail, but I want to throw in my two midwestern cents. This restaurant was my first NY night-out-with-great-friend in about three years, and I had the time of my life. My friend is no pushover, not necessarily a chowhound but always seems to either know the sommelier or manager wherever you go, and he loved it. And hey, Cherry Poppin Daddies was cranked up in the dining room, so the place cant be all bad.
Our server Susan was the best. Friendly, engaging, ready for any questions about the menu. She took good care of us and was quick to send Colum the sommelier over, which was appreciated. One thing worth noting is how well he stuck with, or even under, the price ranges we told him when asking for suggestions. None of the old $45 means $60 treatment. I dont have confidence in my job at writing down the names of our wines, but I THINK we ended up with an Oltrepo Pavesse Rosso 1999, and a Fattoria Le Pupille Saffredi 1999 (second bottle was my friends addition to the meal, I was the one needing a sommelier with mercy on my wallet). Both really helped make the meal.
We decided against the tasting menu, and started with the lambs tongue vinaigrette and the grilled octopus. The lambs tongue was very buttery and rich, especially with the egg, but Id have to give the edge to the octopus. Being from BBQ and grill country, the combo of the charred edges and sharpness of the vinegar reminded me of home...except octopus instead of brisket. Next up was the goose liver ravioli and calfs brain francobolli. Hands down, the goose liver ravioli was the winning dish. The francobolli were great, they just didnt make the impression we got from the combo of rich goose liver, tart balsamic, and the toothiness of perfectly done pasta. Then we had the sweetbreads and the barbecued squab as our main dishes. I only got a bite of the squab, so I cant add much, but those sweetbreads were pretty damn good. We spent a lot of time chatting with David (service manager?), and he told me the most accurate review hed heard about the sweetbreads were that they were like the most perfect General Tsos chicken ever. I did see what he meant, because it had the perfect combination of sweetness with the caramelized onions, the tartness of the vinegar, and rich smokiness of the duck bacon and fennel pollen... as well as the crispy and light texture of the crust with the ultimate tenderness of the sweetbreads. Yep, the best General Tsos chicken Ive ever tasted! There was a LOT going on with that dish, I really, really loved it. We ended with coffee and what I think was basically an Italian version of pecan pie that had pine nuts instead of pecans, with honey gelato. Good dessert, but after all that food and two bottles of wine...we were DONE.
Overall, probably the closest thing to MY personal version of the perfect meal from start to finish. For such a popular place, they could get away with pushing harder at turning the tables over more often, but at no time did we feel rushed. We just had great service, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. And cool little things, like David going and grabbing a couple of bottles of olive oil for a mini-tasting when we were discussing the flavors of different oils. We got the kind of service that I get here in KC at Lidia Bastianichs restaurant, but Ive been a fixture there for a while. Im just another tourist at Babbo, but still got that level of service. When discussing seafood in the city and the fact that Im from the landlocked midwest, David offered to call the manager at Esca and get us a table for the next night. I was originally planning on going to Daniel or Le Bernardin, but the treatment we got at Babbo prompted us to change those plans and take him up on the offer. Give me good food, treat me well, and Im a friend for life. I wont go back to NY without going to Babbo. Found out from David that Mario will be opening a place called IL Posto, but he didnt say much about it. Id be curious to hear more.
I pictured it as more of a formal place, but even in the main dining room it was more casual than I thought it would be. I mean that in a good way, because after Babbo we did the town until the sun was almost up, and I needed the mercy of a less formal environment without deviating from my food itinerary. The service was perfect in a Kansas City way. By that I mean its the kind of service I most appreciate back here...friendly, professional but also personable, they know the menu and wine, and have good suggestions...BUT there is no chance whatsoever that they are going to jump in the booth with you to take your order, and their demeanor doesnt scream I dont care if you liked your dessert, I just wanted to sell it to you. I usually dont START lunch with coffee, but I did that day (and finished with a double espresso...DAMN those Bookers Manhattans at Circa Tabac). After realizing I may live afterall, I ordered the seared foie gras with sour cherries and other things I dont recall. I thought it was a pretty generous piece of foie. I had the monkfish with pancetta and red cabbage for my main. It was good, but the red cabbage with caraway seeds stood out more than the monkfish itself. Also, I may not have done the wisest thing by pairing it with a Barbaresco. But I wanted a glass of that Barbaresco, and I wanted the monkfish. Overall, Id probably go back, but not before I did more exploring at similar restaurants.
Two very chowhoundish friends came in from Philly for the evening, and like my friend I was staying with, they allowed me to come to their favorite town and tell THEM where to eat. And it worked out VERY well. I dont think WD-50 is a place that would prompt many it was okay opinions. I see it as a love it or hate it kind of place. The service was smooth, very informal yet professional. Our server was fantastic, more than eager to discuss the courses and pairings with us and get our feedback. I was impressed by the young guy behind the bar. Ive slung a drink or two in a former life, and he was quite the mixologist. I rarely go for house specialty drinks, but we tried some. The Lychee Maitai was something else, as was something that I think was a cross between a Cosmo and a Mimosa. Foreshadowing of the meal to come for sure. We opted for the nine course tasting menu with wine pairings, which was more like a thirteen course menu if you count things like the warm octopus confit (nice and bright with the orange and olive) and chocolate corn nuts that followed the ginger cotton candy.
I wont go into all of the courses, but I will say that the only one I didnt really enjoy was the smoked eel, cucumber, pumpkin seed and lime chips. The flavor and texture just wasnt my thing. As far as the wine pairings, the only one that really stuck out was the dry white sherry (had a great Cotes du Rhone too at some point) paired with the langoustine in toasted rice broth. I thought the sherry would kill the dish, but it worked. And what a great dish it was, that langoustine was perfectly done, very lightly cooked. The broth could have used a little more oomph, but thats where the sherry came into play. People have mentioned how much they like the slow poached egg in parmesan broth, and the comments from our table were along the lines of I wish someone could make this for me every morning of my life. So tasty, soft, with the crunch of chickpea noodles sprinkled on top. The butter poached squab with encrusted golden beets and sweet potato juice was one of my favorite courses, and I think it was what helped solidify my overall personal opinion of the cuisine. The food is way out there on the edge, and gets your brain firing on all cylinders during the journey, BUT the most impressive thing to me was how most of the food reminded me of meals that I had already experienced. The slow poached egg was like a late breakfast on a freezing winter morning where you skip work and lay on the couch all day watching movies, the squab with beets reminded me of Sunday dinner after church at grandmas, where you walk into the house and smell what has been in the crockpot all morning. Grandma never made encrusted golden beets, but as far out and varied as Wylies food seemed, it reminded me of times when the food and the moment cannot be separated. There was a funny moment when my friend took a bite of his rum roasted banana, chocolate ice cream and curry dessert, and said This reminds me of riding The Flume!.
That meal will provide some good memories for a long time. And everyone in the place seemed to be having a blast, chatting it up with the tables next to them, passing cotton candy around, like a room full of happy, well fed kids. One very cool thing was when Wylies dad came over to talk to us for a bit, and after I went into some long, semi-buzzed compliment about how I thought the white sherry/langoustine pairing was more about the texture of each than it was the flavor, he invited us back to the kitchen to take a look. We stood out of the way like statues over in the corner as he pointed out the different stations to us, and we got to meet Wylie. The thing that stuck out to me in that kitchen was how SILENT it was, even though there wasnt an empty seat in the whole place, and everyone was obviously busy.
Taking the advice we got from David at Babbo when he made the reservations for us, we handed our menus back to our server Peter, told him how many courses the three of us were looking to share and an approximate price range, and let him take the wheel from there. What a time! And service very similar to Babbo, down to the merciful sommelier (Howard?). I only remember that one of the bottles was a Tocai, and I needed a little break from the reds (something I never thought Id say). Peter started us off with whole fried baby whitefish French fries of the sea, and then a few plates of crudo. Kingfish, swordfish and weakfish, which I think all had different olive oils but definitely had different compliments like dried capers or orange peel. Incredible stuff, probably could have made a meal of them. Also had courses of monkfish liver and giant grilled squid, and I had to tell Peter he must have been psychic because they were both things I would have ordered first. Monkfish liver truly is the foie gras of the sea. Id never had it before and liked it immediately. The squid was tasty, but for me its more about telling my friends back home I didnt have squid...I had GIANT squid!. Had one pasta course, a chitarra with a sauce that included sea urchin roe and lump crab. Kind of a smokey/creamy texture to the sauce, and the pasta was perfect. Way too rich for one person unless you werent going to eat much else. For the main they brought out a whole salt crust branzino. Some of the mildest and most moist fish Ive eaten, complimented with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Perfect in its simplicity. We shared one dessert, a kind of apple turnover with ice cream, and they included a chocolate velvet cake and glasses of moscato with their compliments. A nice touch. As far as seafood in the Midwest, we probably have more than you would think, although there is not a huge variety. I pretty much stick to McCormick and Schmicks and daily specials at my regular restaurants, so Esca was a huge leap for me. Not intimidating in any way, its just that youd be hard pressed to find more than one (if you could find one) of those menu items back home, and we had them all in a space of three hours.
Got back into town after a 2-day party in Massachusetts (where I was introduced to the wonders of gordina, scungille salad and pickled cherry peppers stuffed with prosciutto wrapped provolone and chilled), and Blue Hill was exactly what I needed. Calm, quiet and friendly with comfort food on another level. Sat alone at the bar, and the bartender (Dan?) did well at taking care of me. I ordered the tasting menu with wine pairings. The asparagus ravioli with herring caviar was a mellow start to the meal. I think I remember the pasta being slightly overcooked, but it may just have gotten lost next to the crunch of the cooked asparagus in the dish. The next dish was by far my favorite. Maine shrimp, clams, squid and broccoli rabe with a spaetzle-like pasta and broth. It was just a little too salty, but not enough to detract from it, and it reminded me of a similar dish I get back home at Lidias that has grilled calamari and escarole. There was so much flavor and texture going on...firmness of the squid, slight bitterness of the broccoli rabe...I could eat that dish OFTEN. The main dish was baby lamb with lettuce, trumpet mushrooms and ramps. The lamb was good, but the produce was great. I think the ramps were slightly braised, which mellowed them out some but still left just enough of that sharp heat. The wine that was paired with it was good enough for me to write down: Calvano Nobile de Montepulciano 1998. I love wine, but lack experience when it comes to expounding on pairings, so I just give them the yay or nay. Unless you are pairing white sherry with langoustine, then apparently you cant shut me up. The rhubarb soup in the first dessert course tasted like the ultimate cranberry sauce, and the second course of chocolate bread pudding was awesome and had a praline base with the most interesting crunchy texture. That meal was like relaxing in a warm bath.
Woke up Monday morning and figured what the hell, I want to see Asiate. And for once I hadnt been out all night so I was actually awake for breakfast. First of all, nice bathrooms. Its like everyone has their own little studio apartment in there. To be honest, the atmosphere in the restaurant was almost intimidating that soon in the day. And by intimidating, I mean one of the servers dropped a glass behind the bar and I think the whole whole staff jumped into damage control mode...Echo Team, this is Hotel Romeo, were gonna need you to circle back through the main room with some more of those green apple smoothies as a diversion. Hotel Romeo out. Dont get me wrong, my breakfast of turkey hash was tasty, the coffee may have been the best of the trip, and what a view. Its just that it was almost so civil and well done that it was like nails on a chalkboard. Call me Jed Clampett, but I would have given anything if one of the tourists who wandered through to see the view suddenly turned to face the main room and yelled something like, SOYLENT GREEN IS MAAADE WITH PEEEOOOPLE!. Then I could turn to the stranger next to me and go, Hes right you know. It IS made with people a la Dave Chappelle. In all, it was cool to have breakfast in a place with the type of people who thought of the experience as just another day and just another breakfast.
Im so glad I picked Oceana as my last lunch before heading back home. To me it was the kind of place where you totally forget the madness of the streets right outside the front door, and not even the slightest discomfort as far as dining alone. Friendly staff that didnt miss a beat, always there for whatever you need at exactly the right time. A wonderful dining room, the oceanliner motif worked much better than I thought it would. I started with the elephant garlic veloute with caramelized onions and a roasted sea scallop. The slightest sharpness/heat to the garlic, complimented by the sweetness of the onions. The most perfect answer to a very dreary, rainy day outside. For my main I had what the server referred to as pastrami on ray. Maine skate stuffed with pastrami, green cabbage, toasted walnuts, mountain huckleberries and a Devonshire mustard emulsion. There was a LOT going on in this dish, maybe even too much for some, but I started my trip with a reuben and ended with a reuben .sort of. Normally, pastrami and cabbage would bury the skate, but the combo worked for me. There was a bit of a crisp char to the fringes of the skate, and the meat was moist and flakey. The thing with the pastrami was that it was more like tender pastrami debris, a pastrami hash if that makes any sense. And it was not overly salty, so between the flavors of it, the cabbage, and the combo of flavors in the skate itself, it was wonderful if not almost TOO rich after having the elephant garlic dish right before it. Had the cinnamon apple donut for dessert. A nice ending to the meal and the trip.
So in conclusion...if youve actually made it through this whole thing I probably owe you a drink the next time Im in town. That was definitely the biggest food trip of my life, Im not sure Id want to pack that much into five days again any time soon. But what an amazing trip, flying pretty close to the sun at times. And stay tuned for my next installment: KC Hound Back In NY on July 5- Zeemanb Turns 35 at Per Se.
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