Friday, February 27, 2009

Italian at Aliseo

Lucky me! I was taken to dinner at the wonderful Aliseo (665 Vanderbilt Avenue, between Prospect Place & Park Place, 718-783-3400), an amazing and romantic Italian restaurant in Prospect Heights where the food is top notch. It's a tiny sliver of a place, with barely a sign, but once you walk in you know it's going to be good. Ornate decorations abound with huge vases and cornucopias in the corners busting with shafts of wheat. The lighting is low, so it's perfect for a special night out for two, but they also accommodated us, a big party of seven.

The owner is frequently there and is a gregarious, friendly man who is happy to talk food and wine with you. He'll make recommendations, pairings, and will let you know where to find a bottle of your favorite vino. The menu is extensive with more creative combinations than your average pasta & sauce spot. We started with a bunch of appetizers. My absolute favorite was the Crispy Octopus with Potatoes. It was meaty, almost like sausage, with an incredible flavor. Unlike anything I've ever had really. I would come back just for this.

There was an order of Sardines which came in a clean lemony sauce with thin slices of crisp cucumber beautifully coiled around a pile of the fish. This was great too, clean and bright tasting, almost refreshing.

The Mixed Greens Salad with shaved Parmesan was good but basic, with large slices of sharp cheese to offset the greens, although the dressing was minimal, maybe even totally forgotten!

The Mini-Meatballs covered in sesame seeds were delicious. Little, delicate morsels, tasty and slightly juicy and a bit nutty from the sesame seeds, in a lemon arugula pesto. Wonderful.

We ordered a variety of entrees as well. The fennel and rosemary infused suckling pig with Brussel sprouts and potatoes was incredible. Three HUGE cuts of pork were served with delicious Brussel sprouts and crispy on the outside but soft on the inside potatoes. The flavor of the pork was mild, but it was delicious. Slightly sweet, but earthy too, I ended up taking half home because the portion was so large.

The Bronzini was served with fennel as well (it is in season) and was tender with subtle flavors. It was beautifully presented on a colorful platter, simple yet elegant in look and taste.

The Roasted Squash with a walnut puree was interesting and the vegetarians at the table loved it. The warm, earthy flavors are definitely good for winter, and the squash had a hint of sweetness to it which offset the nuttiness nicely.

The Honey & Thyme Pappardelle was a bit of a miss for me. It was too sweet for my brain to make sense of it as pasta while at the same time was kind of plain. A one-note dish that was not eaten.

The Ravioli stuffed with Chestnut was lovely though. On the sweet side too, but the deep and full flavor of the chestnut cut through that so there was more complexity to this dish than the other pasta. With crispy leaves of buttered sage on top.

There are daily specials that depend on what's fresh and in season. I highly recommend Aliseo for anything from romantic nights out to big family dinners as the food is high quality and lovingly prepared in a lovely and comfortable space. Closed Mondays.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Middle Eastern at Zaytoon's

The other night I went with a friend to Zaytoon's, (283 Smith St., at Sackett St., 718-875-1880), a most reliable restaurant for Middle Eastern food. It's great, and I never have a bad experience going there. It's small and cozy, the staff is friendly and the kitchen is amazingly efficient. There's hardly a wait for your food, which is delicious, and sometimes amazing.

I usually get the Combination Platter (any five of the appetizers and salads), and try to mix it up a bit, but I have my favorites. The Babaganouj is smoky and thick and the Hummus is creamy with a definite zip; both are a must have. On this trip I also ordered the Tabouleh (which is well balanced with parsley, tomato & cracked wheat and tart with lemon), the Cucumber Yoghurt (which is SO good; tangy and slightly sweet, with lots of slices of fresh cucumber - it's refreshing and delicious sopped up with fresh, hot pita bread), and the Lentil and Rice Salad (which is good, but a little on the dry side).

My friend and I shared that as well as an order of the Kafta Kabob Platter. This comes with charcoal grilled ground beef and chunks of lamb with onion, parsley & spices. I have never ordered this dish before, and it was good, but the meat was just the other side of too well done for my taste. I wished the pieces of meat were juicier. They were nicely flavored and slightly charred from the grill, and drizzled with tahini, with more hummus on the side as well as a serving of rice and salad. It was very tasty, but I'm not sure if I'd order it again.

Their other standard fare is great - like the falafel sandwiches, which come rolled up in pita instead of messily assembled in the pita's pocket. Their "pitza" is also delicious - the one with Fenugreek is amazing, as is their Goat Cheese Pitza with beef bacon which has got to be one of the tastiest meats out there.

Even though I was ever so slightly disappointed with the Kabob dish, I do love this place and would recommend it for a casual night out or for delivery. If you do go, remember that it's BYOB. With locations in Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights as well.

Zaytoons on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 23, 2009

Meat & Cheese at Sample

I really like Sample, it's one of my favorite bars on Smith St. (152 Smith St., between Bergen St. and Wyckoff St., 718-643-6622). Not only do they have a wide variety of interesting cocktails and beer, but they have the tastiest little snacks including meats, cheeses, fish and pickled veggies. I went with a friend recently and the following is what we ate.

We ordered the Bresaola, aged dried beef that comes in big slices. It's chewy, like beef fruit leather, and it's marvelous. A bit salty, and earthy and really really good.

We also got come Piave Vecchio, a hard cow's milk cheese that's light and tangy and a dish of the marinated mushrooms, which were fresh, definitely not from a can, and perfectly pickled.

A few slices of apples and crusty bread are included to make for a delicious meal. It's my favorite way to eat actually - with a little bit of everything. Everything is of such good quality and like I said, the cocktails are great. I got the Latin Manhattan which is a twist on the classic drink. Instead of sweet vermouth and bitters it's Bourbon with Tamarind and Lime and it's absolutely delicious and unique. I whole heartedly recommend this place. AND, while we were there, the woman next to us was telling the bartender about an underground dinner party she had recently attended, so food fans of all stripes go there!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Brunch at the River Cafe

I have celebrated a few major milestone birthdays (16, 21, my Mom's 50th) at the River Cafe (1 Water Street, at Old Fulton St., 718-522-5200) and have always had a lovely time. It's a perfect spot for special occasions or just for a treat. I hear they had record numbers on Valentine's Day for dinner (so much for doom and gloom restaurant reports) and while I've eaten dinner there a number of times, I was lucky enough to be taken this past weekend for Brunch for the first time.

You first enter their long cobble-stoned driveway, at the end of which you're greeted by valets, if arriving by car. Once you step through the door, it's as if you've arrived at a flower shop. HUGE bouquets of sweet-smelling flowers are everywhere, including palm fronds and more tropical looking plants. Framed maps and old newspapers line the dark wood wall where you're asked for your coat before you're directed through another set of doors into the main dining room to be seated. It's then that you take in that view. The skyline of lower Manhattan is framed by the big windows along the far wall. The Brooklyn Bridge extends out over the water in it's colossal beauty and the water is alive with boats of all shape and size.

We were seated along the wall side by side, facing the dining room and the water. The dining room is not very large, so it feels intimate, and there's not a bad seat in the house. You can see the water from every spot. The menu listed about 15 options of appetizers and main courses and is Prix Fixe ($55 for Brunch). We were also presented with an Amuse Bouche course of banana & walnut with homemade granola and a drizzle of cream from Ronnybrook Farm. Warm and delicious, interestingly served in an egg shell.

To start, I ordered the Pear Salad with Cider Vinaigrette, Walnuts, Maple Bacon and Goat Cheese Fondue. The half pear was warm and subtly sweet, the goat cheese fondue was decadent in its creaminess and the bits of bacon and walnut added an earthiness to the dish. Yum!

My boyfriend chose the Smoked Rainbow Trout with a Horseradish Crust, Quail Egg & Caviar Sauce. The portion of wonderfully smoked trout was substantial and the sauce was perfectly light and salty. The quail egg was served on the cutest mini-bagel ever. Lovely.

As my main course I got the Farm Egg and Lobster Tail Omelette with Black Truffle Cheese & Herbed Butter & Biscuit. This was incredible. The lobster tail was succulent, the omelette was rich and stuffed with the perfect amount of cheese. The biscuit was good too! Loved it.

The best dish of the day was what my boyfriend got as his main, the Amish Chicken Pancetta with Cornbread and Confit Giblet Stuffing & Caramelized Onions in a Sweet Pea Sauce. Again, the serving was quite substantial with four big pieces of chicken which was marvelous. The chicken was juicy and tender and had the most amazing flavor. Everything was perfect about this dish, and it was beautifully presented.

There is a dessert menu but we were both too stuffed to eat any more. It was a lovely way to start the day and enjoy the specialness of Brooklyn dining.

River Café on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Brunch at Cafe Luluc

I love Brunch. Mixing savory and sweet, all the options for easy sharing - it's the best. So we headed to Cafe LuLuc on a recent Sunday (214 Smith St., between Butler St. & Baltic St., 718-625-3815) because they have a good brunch menu and the best pancakes in the neighborhood. It's a bustling, crowded spot on the weekends, so get there early (they're also one of few places that open at 10 instead of 11) or prepare to wait. There is a small bar you can sit at if there's room, to sip a cappuccino with perfect foam while you wait for a table. They usually have various pastries and baked goods you can order while you wait, although the croissant we got was huge and really chewy.

We didn't have to wait long until we were seated and once we ordered our food came out pretty quickly. I got those pancakes I was talking about, which are similar to the ones at the Greenpoint Coffee House; kinda crusty on the outside and wonderfully moist and fluffy inside, but these are within walking distance! They're amazing, and are topped with slices of strawberry and banana. YUM! I was in heaven!

My boyfriend got the Eggs Florentine, two poached eggs on top of English Muffins and spinach and topped with hollandaise sauce. They were perfectly poached, no runny bits at all, and the spinach was fresh and delicious, but the hollandaise sauce was disappointing. It had almost no taste and just ended up being a coagulated skin on top of the yummy eggs. No thanks. The fries are also some of the best around, thin sticks perfectly salted, and the salad is a nice accompaniment to the rich flavors but next time, I think it'll be an omelette, or something sans hollandaise sauce!

We also got a side of bacon. This was on the disappointing side too. It was a bit too greasy and very fatty, not thick cut or smoky like the bacon at many of the other brunch places in the neighborhood. I ate it though, cuz it wasn't awful, it was just less than it COULD be.

I do love it here, and think the brunch is a good deal, particularly if you're in the mood for pancakes. The spinach and goat cheese omelette is great too.

Café Luluc on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 16, 2009

Soup from Nectar

Everybody is sick these days, and really, one of the best things to do is get yourself some chicken soup. Being that I was sick, I wasn't about to make anything from scratch, but neither did I want to open a can of something that was sure to have too much salt and dry, chewy pieces of chicken. So I dragged myself over to Nectar (198 Court St., at Wyckoff St., 718-855-6166) for their Chicken with Pasta soup. Boy, was I happy I did.

As you can see it's loaded down with big chunks of tasty white meat, lots of pasta shells, pieces of tomato and slices of carrots and celery. The broth is hearty, soothing and fresh; homemade from the best ingredients. I felt better immediately.

They also toss in half a loaf of a sourdoughy white bread that's really good; I like to dip it in the hot broth to get it soft - so comforting when you're feeling under the weather. Or just cold from the bitter wind and chill.

Nectar also has a large selection of fresh vegetable and fruit juices made to order, as well as sandwiches and wraps and smoothies, always made from fresh ingredients. The space is teeny though, so it's best for take-out.

Nectar on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 13, 2009

Pizza from Sam's Restaurant

Such a strange place Sam's Restaurant is (238 Court St., at Baltic St., 718-596-3458). A group of my friends decided they wanted to try it, as I was the only one who had ever been and they wanted to see for themselves what it was all about. The old, original signage on the windows beckons, and you have to take a few steps down in order to enter into a place caught in a time warp. It feels like nothing has been changed in decades, from the red and white checkered plastic tablecloths, to the ancient photos on the wall (one was an 8 1/2 x 11 of a cat?). The dining area is one big space that feels like an old rec room, a place where church functions were held and you ran around as a kid with your friends, high on sugar while the adults drank and smoked and laughed three feet above your heads. The lighting is weird - both too bright and a bit dark, but the radio is tuned to the best of the 60's, 70's, 80's AND 90's and surely something will come on that makes you happy (Journey anyone?).

There's a back room that never seems to be used, and a huge upstairs space that isn't open either (although you have to go up there to use the ladies room). It seems like it'd be a cool spot to host a party or a reception, although I don't think it's available for that. There is a full bar though and lots of old classic cocktails listed on the menu. But let's get on to the food, shall we?

We started out with a salad - the Combination Salad to be precise. Iceberg lettuce, a few pink wedges of tomato, plus marinated mushrooms, roasted red pepper and a couple of olives from the can. Delicious. Well, not the olives, but everything else. Two bottles of red wine vinegar and oil are placed on the table for dressing. Beautiful simplicity. Nothing beats the crisp crunch of iceberg lettuce with the tangy tartness of red wine vinegar.

A friend ordered a Gin Lime Rickey, something to order again if only for it's pink frothiness.

But the highlights of our trip were the pizzas. They were excellent. Covered in cheese and sauce and whatever extra toppings you choose, the crust is thin, yet substantial; it holds its own and doesn't get soggy in the center. I hate that. The sauce is savory, not sweet, and the ingredients taste fresh.

We got one with Ricotta & Sausage which had slices of decent Italian sausage and loads of creamy ricotta. It was decadent and delicious and every bit was eaten - even the lost bits of ricotta were wiped up with scraps of crust.

We also ordered a pie with Pepperoni & Garlic. This was my favorite of the two. Mounds of fresh crushed garlic nestled in with abundant slices of slightly spicy pepperoni. SO GOOD!

There were six of us and this was just the right amount of food. Nothing was left over and everyone was happy. No slices though, and if you order a pie by phone, you can't eat it in the restaurant (although, I don't think that's so weird). They also sell Rock Salt for your icy sidewalks!

Sam's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sandwiches from Caputo's Fine Foods

Today is a milestone to celebrate - it's my 101st post! It's been an amazing journey so far, with lots of good food and much appreciated & enjoyed comments from readers. I feel excited by the seemingly endless supply of places to visit, eat at and write about!

If you want good sandwiches, you need to take yourself to Caputo's Fine Foods, Inc. (460 Court St., between 3rd & 4th Place, 718-855-8852). It's an amazing place with so many delicious Italian foods for sale. There are freezers full of pastas and ravioli, the deli counter is loaded down with meats and cheeses and the olive bar has assorted preserved and pickled goods to choose from. They also make a mean sandwich.

I listened to my craving recently and ordered a Sweet Soppresata salami sandwich on Caputo's small Ciabatta bread with pickled roasted red peppers, lettuce and mustard and the thinnest slices of strong Provolone cheese you'll ever see. The bread is perfect - nicely crusty on the outside, dense and chewy on the inside, yet fluffy and airy.

My boyfriend ordered a sandwich with Prosciutto & Smoked Gouda, lettuce, tomato & mustard on the same Ciabatta bread. Again, it was delicious. The thinly sliced cheese adds a hint of flavor, the meat was fresh (also sliced thinner than paper) and everything is perfectly proportioned and goes so well together. These sandwiches aren't loaded down with a ton of ingredients; they make more sense than that, which enables you to enjoy them.

Go here soon, get a sandwich and some ravioli and sauce for dinner later. Yum!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Pastries from Provence En Boite

It's been recommended to me on a number of occasions that I try the croissants at Provence En Boite (263 Smith Street at DeGraw Street, 718-797-0707) (thanks Mimi!). I was even at a potluck Brunch in Western Massachusetts recently when someone, upon learning I lived in Brooklyn, enthusiastically came over to me to encourage me to seek out this little pastry. So this past weekend I decided it was time. I picked up a few of their baked goods and went home for the taste test.

I started with the plain croissant. It looked like a little crab to me; it was the size of the palm of my hand, with two sharp curled-in points that looked like claws. It was crusty on the outside, super flaky and slightly sweet and very rich and buttery. Pretty much the perfection I had heard about.

The Chocolate Croissant was on the smallish side as well, which is probably a good thing, since these little treats are so rich with tons of butter. This was made with two" logs" of hard chocolate which is not my preference. I'd much rather have softer, richer chocolate spread evenly throughout the middle. The dough was flaky, and everything tasted good though - fresh, not fake.

The Almond Croissant was really good. The almond paste was subtle, and not overpowering, in a thin layer inside the soft & dense yet flaky shell. Powdered sugar coated the top along with lots of slivers of almonds. I think this was my favorite out of the three.

I haven't been here for a full meal yet, although I've heard mixed reviews. Your thoughts?

Provence En Boite on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 6, 2009

Burger at Peter Luger

Man on Wire: What's Beef

The following is the first in what I hope to be many contributions from Man on Wire featuring "Recession Specials" in Brooklyn. Looking for a good deal on a tasty meal? Man on Wire will track 'em down for you. Happy Eating!

Something anyone with a Scottrade account has learned by now is the concept of real value. In these difficult times, it’s up to you, the trader, to gauge the real value of a bank or pharmaceutical company and determine whether its current position is a new reality or a momentary aberration in a confidence starved market. Your insight could be your salvation, and the point is that in an economic downturn such as the one we’re currently facing, the world is filled with opportunity for those with their eyes open. As a broke yet inquisitive eater, my challenge has been to find ways to gauge real value and eat well on a budget, and now with the blessing of our gracious web hostess these are experiences I’ll occasionally be passing on to you, the presumably hungry and broke Brooklynite.

The first lesson in eating well through a recession is leave no stone unturned. For instance, when Cheap Eats are the question the first words that come to mind probably aren’t Peter Luger’s, (178 Broadway, at Driggs Avenue, 718-387-7400), and yet if you should be in the vicinity of the Marcy stop off the JMZ in Williamsburg around lunch time any weekday you can find an amazing deal, not to mention what is arguably the best burger in Brooklyn. Yes, the dripping, marinated Dumont burger will score points with the laymen, but for true carnivores demanding truth and purity in their burger you’ll have difficulty measuring up to Peter Luger’s little known, ancient lunchtime special (served daily till 3 PM). Using a combination of trimmings from its famed aged Porterhouse and Prime Chuck Roll, the 8-10 ounce $9 burger served on a sesame seed bun with a slice of raw onion is is a seminar on texture, but more on that in a bit.

I’d been to Peter Luger’s for a proper dinner once before, and I can’t say I was blown away. The space is folksy enough to stand in for a proper steak house but its run on antiquated, elitist charm. Everyone’s dressed in old school black and whites. The suave, aging host has his hair slicked back and wears a tailored Italian suit. They’re pushing the formal pretentiousness that no longer exists in New York, for good reason. (It makes me feel like a privileged white man eating in an antebellum country club.) One of the best things about the dining experience is the wonderful basket of assorted breads and Peter Luger’s steak sauce presented before the meal, both lunch and dinner.

So, the burger. Ordering this correctly is more science than art, as the busy and impatient attendant has no time for subtleties. I suppose he can’t be blamed. On this particular afternoon a friend and I were sat behind MGMT having a business lunch with their record label. Meat, sides, beer and impossibly dessert afterwards lined the table. The lunch crowd in general is mostly composed of Wall Street survivors and their expense accounts. My piddling burger and tap water can hardly expect priority. I ordered Medium Rare and pretty much got what I ordered. I’m a bit of a meat perfectionist and found this to be slightly over, but there’s not much you can do.

If I seem OCD about this burger it’s because the temp is crucial to the quality. To do the Luger burger properly, accoutrements are superfluous. They’re doing their best to pump your check and not giving much in return. The side of fries, for instance, is $2. The one time I ordered it, I literally was charged $.50 per dried out fry. Then there’s the cheese. For me the hamburger occupies the same space as yellow mustard and mild hot sauce. I have struggled with seeing the point in its existence (unless you're lactose intolerant) when the simple addition of a slice of Gruyere or Raclette can elevate the conversation in terms of texture and flavor. This is the rare occasion in which I’d say hold the cheese; for two reasons. The first is the offering - for $1.50 the kitchen throws a cheap, shitty slice of bland (presumably) Muenster on your burger at the last moment so it comes out barely melted. The second is, once again, the all-important texture of the Luger burger, which cheese only muddles. Medium Rare is the perfect expression of the meat because it’s only at that temp that you skirt between Rare’s mushy blob and Medium’s chewy lump. The loose grind comes apart in your mouth in all its juicy, greasy glory and I promise you will come away with a new understanding of the burger itself. To be fair, I ordered the $3 side of bacon on this occasion and it’s fucking great. It’s a prehistoric wedge of Canadian bacon grilled to an extra crisp. In three words: porky, salty, pornography. Don’t bother putting it on your burger, just polish it off before digging in.

To finish your economic masterpiece, politely request the check. Sure, Luger offers a famed sundae with house made whipped cream, but McDonald's sells dollar cones of soft serve down the street for a buck.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Italian at Il Passatore Trattoria

What a surprise the little sliver of a restaurant Il Passatore Trattoria (14 Bushwick Avenue at Metropolitan Avenue, 718-963-3100) turned out to be! Some friends who live in the area recently discovered it and were nice enough to share their treasure with us. I immediately liked it as soon as I walked in. The light was low, the hostess/waitress was welcoming & friendly and the exposed brick walls were homey and inviting.

I started with the Spinach Salad which comes with apples, walnuts and Gorgonzola in a balsamic dressing. It was so good, with sweet spinach leaves, tart slices of apples and big chunks of the strong cheese. It was perfect.

Our friends got an order of the Bacon Wrapped Scallops which were amazing. I mean, everything is better with bacon, but these were tender, smoky and salty bites of goodness, cooked just until the outside got a little crispy.

The Tagliatelle with a Bolognese Ragu with Peas was the best dish of the night. All the pasta is homemade daily, so it's fresh, which really makes a difference. The Tagliatelle is long strips of pasta which provided a perfect surface for the hearty, meaty ragu which was delicious.

The Pappardelle, wide strips of pasta, was also good, and it came with a Wild Boar Ragu. The sauce was incredible and also hearty. The meat was plentiful and delicious with it's subtle gamey flavor.

I got the Strozzapretti with Smoked Salmon in a Cream Sauce. This was good too, with tons of pieces of delicious smoked salmon (a little of the salty side), but the cream sauce was fairly heavy and made it nearly impossible to finish the dish in one sitting. Half came home with me for lunch!

Il Passatorre is such a great little place, with dishes made from fresh ingredients, thoughtfully prepared and nicely presented. Definitely will be back!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Pork & Meat Vietnamese Sandwiches from Hanco's

Craving Hanco's sandwiches (85 Bergen St., between Smith & Hoyt Streets, 718-858-6818) but wanting something different from what I ALWAYS get, I decided to branch out and try a new flavor as it were. I chose the Classic, thinking it would be better than my usual tofu. It consists of roasted ground pork, Vietnamese ham, pate, mayo, butter, cucumber, pickled carrots & daikon radish and cilantro on a toasted french baguette. Lots going on here, and I found it to be too much. The ham was tasty, but the pate was weird, heavy and salty and the ground pork was questionable. I'm really having a hard time these days eating meat that I don't know the origin of. It just doesn't sit right with me, and therefore, interferes with my enjoyment of the meal.

We also ordered a Pork Chop sandwich, which is grilled pork chop, mayo, butter, cucumber, picked carrots & daikon radish and cilantro on a toasted french baguette. This was disappointing too. The pork had tons of gristley bits, was greasy and was overall kind of gross. Everything else is fresh and tasty and the bread is flaky and soft and perfectly sized. The meat is just not quality enough.

I'm totally going to stick with the Tofu and Sardine sandwiches next time, since they are beyond good and don't make me feel guilty about eating them!