Sunday, April 27, 2008

Madeleine Mae: A Change Of Pace on The UWS

Like It Or Not, I Have An Opinion

This proud southerner has noticed that newcomer Madeleine Mae is causing a stir on the Upper West Side.

Critics have been quick to pan this newly opened restaurant/café, but I am not. That said, I feel the need to fire back, so call this my “rebellious rebuttal” to the over-analyzing food sect.

Attention Bruni lovers and Chowhound faithful: Give it a rest.

First, understand what Madeleine Mae is not. This is not a Creole gem such as New Orleans famous “Dookie Chase”. This is not a Cajun imposter, like the recently closed UWS Jacques-Imo’s. This isn’t really a soul/creole/Cajun place at all. Really.

The feel of Madeleine Mae is that of Carolina breeze. This is home to comfort food with an original, nostalgic twist. An unusual shrimp and grits dish, biscuits and cornbreads, sides of greens, mac and cheese, fish dishes and plates of pork loin. Neatly mixed cocktails and a menu of “Rhum Cures”… (rum that is infused with other flavors such as vanilla, banana, cinnamon, etc). Tempting desserts that are worth saving room for.

All of it slightly overpriced for the UWS (shrimp and grits $15.95 for a small side dish portion), but accessible and often delicious.

I’d encourage you to visit Madeleine Mae just about anytime, but without question, this is a brunch joint. The menu provides an interesting mix at dinner, but the brunch menu is full of real temptation.

I’ll set the table for you.

It’s a gorgeous, lazy Saturday afternoon about 2pm. You and the other have dropped the dog at the “Canine Ranch” for an afternoon of playtime. Needing to unwind from an aggressive week of work tasks you left unfinished (you need a raise, and some of the others in the office to allow you to catch your breath), you wander across the street to Madeleine Mae and to ask for the table tucked inside of the open French doors, facing the sidewalk. You are seated.

You pause and think, “this is all good”.

Instantly, the space smells of yumness. The place isn’t crowded, but there are people. You promptly get a menu, and are asked if a cocktail, beer or Rhum cure is in order. You oblige.

The menu reveals fantastic frittatas, large impressive omelets and thick smoky bacon coked to order. This would be an easy decision if not for the sweet and savory French toast, biscuits and gravy and possibly the best Meyer lemon pancakes in Manhattan. Of course there are fresh fruit options and lighter fare as well. You notice these aren’t “Denny’s” prices, but you also realize that you aren’t at “Denny’s”. For this, you are grateful.

After sipping your last sip of champagne, your brunch arrives… looking and smelling terrific. About that time your Rhum cure arrives, and you begin to slip into your Saturday afternoon in style.

This is the part where you ask to see the dinner menu out of pure curiosity. You note the items that might bring you back, and then dismiss them as you have now named Madeleine Mae “your” brunch spot. The check comes; you finish your last sip of vanilla infused rum, and head for the door. Your companion says, “you see, I told you that you would like this place.”

As you leave, you see a couple… asking for the table tucked inside the French doors, and smile.

So, enough… foodie haters. Take a moment and realize that if the bread isn’t heated to 81 degrees, or if the soup is in a bread bowl instead of a heated cup, the world isn’t going to end. There are many reasons why we can love a space, and for me Madeleine Mae offers me several to choose from.

After all, this is my brunch place.

Madeleine Mae
461 Columbus Ave. (W. 82nd St.)
New York, NY 10024

Note: My friends at Madeleine Mae have their faults. An unfinished website and no menupages listing is a kiss of death. My message: Get your act together on the digital side and sell your business. You’ve earned it.

Photo Credit: Steven Richter

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Happy Birthday Justin

No restaurant review today, just a tip of the hat to a true Louisiana original, Justin Wilson.

Today is the birthday, in 1914, of Justin Wilson, in Roseland, Louisiana.

I first heard of Justin from my Grandmother (my Nonnie) who sometimes spoke of Justin, as she new him as a boy. She was from Amite, Louisiana (just north of Roseland)... and new everyone in the parish. She often laughed when she heard him speak, as she didn't remember the "thick" cajun accent as they grew up.

He was not exactly a Cajun, but that didn't stop him from becoming the world's best-known ambassador of Cajun culture. He picked up most of his style, "speech", and stories while working along Bayou Lafourche as a young man. He first came to public attention with his comedy routines, but soon he started talking about cooking. Wilson's pioneering television cooking shows became among the most popular of their kind. The recipes, it must be said, were less than brilliant. He was not a stickler for using the best ingredients, and never had a problem using canned this or that. But that's quite authentic. Justin Wilson died in 2001, but his TV shows are still in circulation, his many cookbooks still sell well, and his Cajun jokes are still being repeated--I garontee.

Long live the memory of Justin Wilson.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Fork NY Top 10 Under $10

Need Something to Snack On For A Few Bucks?... Here are a few of the best.....

In this city, you can get anything. No, really. Anything. But sometimes, that realization can just be too much. What if you just want fast, yummy and simple?

Enter street food.

I qualify street food as anything you can grab from a small store or deli, foodcart, etc... and consume on the street, upright. While I could have named 10 pizza places as well as 20 hamburger places, I have focused here on joints that do real volume, and care about chatter. The list is a diverse gathering of meals, snacks and sweet treats.

So without further ado, here are Andre's Top 10 Under $10. I'll see you at the counter.

10. Hot Dog, Grays Papaya

This isn’t a copout, but a tip of the hat to the guys who have been the backbone of streetfood in NYC for decades. If you haven’t been as of late, the juice is still cold and the perfect snapskin hot dogs warm and toasty. As inflation goes, still affordable at buck and a quarter.

9. Chicken and Rice, Halal Cart at 53 and 6th
The fun is gone with this once “insiders” 3am dinner stop, but that doesn’t change the fact that their chicken and rice container, heaped with grilled pita and topped with magic white sauce (and a spray of spicy) is pure heaven. By the way, this 4pm to 4am cart still demands lines of a half a block and more.

8. Cheesesteak, 95 Miles to philly

There is something about a really good Philly cheesesteak (other than congestive heart failure) and nobody in NYC delivers better than this shop, on 3rd Ave btw 12th and 13th. The beauty of 99 Miles is that it is the same joint you would find in Philly, with the same taste…. Warm chewy bread, filled with steak, onions and whiz. Love it love it love it.

7. Lamb Pita, Kwik Meal Cart (45th and 6th)

Yes, it’s all that and more. Muhammed Rahman used to be a chef at the Russian Tea Room, and is now proprietor of one of the best street-food carts in NYC. Although you can make very few if any bad choices on this menu, the lamb pita stands out as one of the best sandwich options above 14th Street, and the lines at lunch are a good indication that the locals agree. I also recommend the falafel and chicken and rice plate.

6. Cuban Sandwich, Margon

There are dozens of respectable Cuban dives in the city, but Margon does it without the fanfare and high prices. Tucked away in midtown and a skip from Times Square, this mom and pop serves terrific Cuban food, and what could be one of the best Cuban sandwiches in the city. Word on the street is they are now serving these on egg bread as well…..

5. Creampuffs, Beard Papa’s
OK, I admit it. I have ridden the subway to the West Village to buy a box of these lighter than air creampuffs, and eaten every one of them before I could get them home. Twice. These gems are hard to describe, other than heavenly. Freshly baked puffs filled with light flavored cream, while you wait. Thank god they opened on the Upper West, at least now I have a fighting chance of getting 2 or 3 of them back to the apartment.

4. Caramel Crisp and Cheese Popcorn, Garrett’s Popcorn
I first became an addict years ago while living in Chicago, when the smell of their caramelcrisp popcorn would waft down Michigan Avenue. When they moved to Manhattan recently, I knew the reaction would be incredible, and it was. If you haven’t been, go today…. or send yourself a tin online :)

3. Spicy Hot Chocolate, Jacques Torres
I love drinks you can chew, but this is insane. Imagine a glass of smooth, creamy drinkable hot fudge, add some spice and heavy cream… and there you have it. The best cup of hot chocolate on the planet. Now on the Upper West as well.

2. Nutter Butter Cookie, Bouchon Bakery
There is nothing average with anything that comes out of this kitchen in the Time Warner Center, but the sweets are extraordinary. This cookie is the king of their cookie empire, and the line at the counter is a good example of people who have no reservations about shelling out $5 to get one.

1. Falafel Sandwich with Fries, Maoz
I fell in love with Maoz several years ago in Amsterdam, and when this store moved into NYC, I was there on opening day. NOTE: If you are a falafel fan, there is simply none better in New York. Again, hear me people…this is the best falafel in the city. Add killer Belgian fries and a bar of condiments to make your own sandwich, the way YOU like it, and well…. you’ve made Andre’s “best of” list, haven’t you.

note: Andre steals photos from all over the universe to add to his non-profit food blog. If there is a photo of yours here, please let me know so I can credit you, or ask me to remove and I will :)

Monday, April 14, 2008

10 New York City Dishes You Can't Miss

A 2008 Spring Round-Up of The Best of the Best

Yes, New York is full of terrific spots... but one thing is certain... New Yorkers love to single out their favorite dishes. Let me give you an example.

Friend: "How was your weekend?"
Andre: "Great! We ate at Otto Saturday night."
Friend: "Otto! Well did you have the cheese plate with the truffled honey?"
Andre: "Of course I did, don't be stupid."

Case in point. As good as any one restaurant may be, it's the special dishes themselves that drive traffic.

So below, I give you my early 2008 list of killer dishes.... sit down style. In the coming days, I'll post my "casual" list, but for now here is a checklist for you to work on as you make those reservations!

10. Crispy Tuna Roll, Koi

Made famous in LA, the NY outpost of Koi carries on the tradition with great care. What is it? Well, first you combine fresh minced tuna with fine scallions and mix it in a creamy hot sauce to create a thick tuna mixture you can form into fingers. Next, you take a same-sized finger of sushi rice, and actually “grill” it on an open fire BBQ, giving the rice a crispy, smoky flavor. You place the tuna on top of the rice and finish with a thin slice of jalapeno… and presto… you have the most popular sushi dish on the west coast. I’ll see you there.

9. Plantain Fried Rice with Avocado Salad, Asia De Cuba

Another dish I first tried at The Mondrian in Los Angeles, this terrific side dish can be had in all its glory here in The Morgans Hotel. You’d never think that this combination would work, but the guac piled on top of this heaping bowl of rice is magical.

8. Black Spaghetti with rock shrimp, spicy salami calabrese and green chiles, Babbo

It’s hard to believe that a pasta dish can be one of the best in the city, but when Mario is cooking, look out. This is a dish I had in a pasta sampler a while back, and it knocked me out. If you are interested in eating at Babbo anytime soon, you may find yourself in the bar…. rezo’s are a month at best right now.

7. Texas Pink Grapefruit Soup infused with green cardamon, star anise, and tahitian vanilla, Bouley
Only David Bouley could cook up an idea like this and make it amazing… and yes, this is one amazing dish. So good, it’s part of his award-winning tasting menu. One thing is for sure.. there are few places in the city more special on a chilly Saturday night than settling into Bouley’s “living room” for a killer meal.

6. Roasted Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, Craftsteak

Simply put, this is the best mushroom in the world. When you pan roast it in butter and serve it along side a perfectly cooked filet, you have an OMG moment. It eats like a steak itself… with a flavor that will send you searching gourmet grocers across the city. If only I could find them at retail.

5. Corn Creme Brulee, Quality Meats

I appreciate a good, creative side dish… and this one is just that. Fresh, crisp corn in a creamy base and toasted on top… between this and the buttered edamame, Quality Meats knows their side dishes.

4. Truffle Egg Toast with bottarga, inoteca

This has been on my list for 2 years running now, and how can you leave it off? Inoteca is one of the NY's best wine stops, and with perfect panini and dishes like this, it only seems to get better.

3. Sautéed Shrimp frisée, artichokes & capers, Landmarc

The new kid on the block in the Time Warner Center is turning heads… not only for it’s approachability, but for their great tasting dishes. This salad, perfectly balanced with a warm vinaigrette and fresh sautéed shrimp may be the best salad in the city at the moment.

2. Fried Chicken "Blue Ribbon Style" wasabi & honey, Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar and Grill
Blue Ribbon has always been known for fried chicken, and their best version now lives in Midtown. Crispy and delicate, it’s bizarre location on a killer sushi menu is at first a head-scratcher, until you taste it.

1. Sweet Potato Agnolotti with pecan, craft
I wish I could write something clever here, but words can't sum up just how good this dish is. Yes, this is THE best pasta dish in the city at the moment (sorry Mario) and as an extra bonus, it just happens to be at craft.

COMING SOON: Andre's Top 10 Dishes You Can Eat Standing Up......

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

craft : Is There A Better Night Out?

Now 7 Years Young, A Serious Chef Continues to Prove His Point

As someone who loves food and who has now lived in NYC for several years, I recently asked myself an important question.

How can you have never been to craft?

I’d been to craftbar, craftsteak… hell even ‘wichcraft. But never the jewel, craft.

A few days ago, that all changed.

As a foodie and proud NYC food blogger I am a believer in the skill of Tom Colicchio… and have always believed that one day he too would have his moment in the sun… aside from his sporadic television appearances, that is.

Perhaps I should be careful what I wish for, if in fact this would pull him away from working his magic at his stores, for ‘wich I am truly grateful.

My trip to 19th Street would confirm my irrational fear.

My inagural visit to craft began at 6pm on a Saturday evening. A simple cab ride dropped me at the door, and once inside my dining partner and I were warmly greeted and sat at once.

The menu at craft is a greenmarket approach to dining, and one I love. Truly ala carte in everyway, the menu relies on what’s fresh…. today. Even though the dishes may rotate from time to time, the seasonal approach to this cuisine is refreshing if not highly anticipated.

Even though there is a tempting tasting menu, I went the route of selecting individual courses, which was the right decision. With so many terrific options, I just wanted to “craft” a wider array of dishes, and I did. The service was professional, personal and spot on.

What did we eat?

I started with a pasta dish that literally left me speechless.

The dish was Sweet Potato Agnolotti & Pecan… a plate of delicate pockets of handmade pasta filled with creamy sweet potato and crunchy bits of roasted pecans. Make no mistake folks, this dish was as good or better than ANY pasta dish I have tasted at Babbo…. and if you know me, this is not a statement I make lightly. This was the real deal… and one of the best dishes on any table in the city.

Not to be left out, was the second pasta dish, a Celery Root Ravioli topped with freshly shaved Black Truffles. Unreal… and again, Babbo (or above) quality.

I knew this was going to be good, but I wasn’t ready for an OMG meal.

We added a terrific Friseé and Coppa Salad as well as a plate of beets and fresh tarragon… both terrific but sadly having to follow the pastas which I was still gushing over.

Dinner was a tough choice, but we opted for a Porterhouse for two, which was prepared Lugar style and sliced just right. The steak was on the expensive side, but was tender and flavorful… and accompanied by two roasted bones brimming with rich bone marrow. It just kept getting better.

On the side, we ordered what I would consider a real treat, Hen of the Woods mushrooms… one of the most (if not the most) delicious mushrooms in the world. Pan roasted in butter, the mushroom was crispy and steak-like… and on the money. We added the smaller Velvet Piopini mushrooms (also terrific) with a side of white grits (average) and found ourselves with just about everything we needed. House wines by the glass were spectacular.

So I am guessing by now you are getting the picture… this is amazing stuff. By this time we are 2 ½ hours in, but I am not bailing on dessert. I have come this far, I will not be defeated.

Dessert at craft is special. Sure, you can order Meyer Lemon Beignets, Chocolate Tarts… or Praline Panna Cotta…. but the homemade melt-in-your-mouth donuts along with a sorbet line-up that includes Rhubarb, Tangerine and Blood Orange is the bomb.

But if you want the real show-stopper, pass on all of it, and get a scoop of Brown Butter Ice Cream.

You heard me, Brown Butter Ice Cream. Holy crap.

Now that I have left my own body, it was time to pay the check and float home. Yes, it was a pricy night, but a special one. It’s not every week you get a treat such as this one… and spending 3 hours being pampered and fed like this, well, is just plain worth it.

I can be tough to please at times, but when I have a meal like this one, I feel a profound duty to tell everyone I know.

And now, I’ve told you.

43 E 19th St - Btwn Bway & Park Ave S
New York, NY 10003

212 780-0880

Bring the plastic, you're gonna need it.