Monday, October 29, 2007

Del Frisco's: Closing The Gap to #1

Don't look now, but Del Frisco's is quietly kicking some steak ass in Midtown.

You can’t slam a joint for not being from New York.

As much as I’d love to throw rocks at Del Frisco’s, the massive, gleaming 6th Avenue meat factory, I can’t. The fact is… expensive as it may be, the food is downright terrific.

Case in point: a recent lunch at Del Frisco’s.

First, the setting is ridiculous. This place doesn’t have one or two floors… it has three. With three bars. And an escalator. A first floor that resembles an airport hanger dressed in mahogany, an beautiful upstairs with view of 6th Avenue… and a quieter underground with cozy tables where you can close that all important business deal.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. I like a place where you can blow $100 on lunch, as well as get a burger for $13. This is that place. And believe me, the fantastic $13 Prime Beef Burger with skillet potatoes is as filling as a steak, or anything else you might get… so don’t feel guilty. I’ve been preaching about the filet tips and mashed potatoes on the bar menu for 2 years now (yes, they are still there for $10), but the burgers are worth the trip.

That said, the steaks are superb. I found the 10oz ribeye with chateau potatoes tender and perfectly cooked ($27) as well as the Filet Mignon tips (melt in your mouth) with pasta ($19).

There are decent seafood options here in tuna, scampi, salmon and scallops… but the steaks are front and center and deservedly so. The sides are large enough to split between 2 or 3, and on a recent trip I enjoyed a platter of steak cut, hand dipped onion rings… as well as buttery mushrooms.

If you don’t feel like fretting over the menu, there is a business lunch special for $29 that includes a salad and choice of filet mignon or salmon. The hot, crispy loaf of sesame bread comes free of charge.

Dinner prices are a bit steeper, but the quality doesn’t disappoint. On this menu you’ll see the nighttime debut of a bone-in veal chop ($39), porterhouse for two ($99) and prime lamb ($39). A delicious Osso buco also makes an appearance, with fresh lobsters and various seafood offerings. Any of these sparkle with a side of creamy Maque Choux Corn, a recipe more often found in South Louisiana than midtown Manhattan.

Generally, all of the side dishes are terrific, and the wine list is above average in quality and value.

So, why isn’t Del Frisco’s at the top of every list?

Several reasons.

First, the service can be uneven. They often try and oversell here, and they don’t need too. It’s easy enough to run up a hefty tab here without feeling guilty for missing dessert, so back off.

Next, this is not a New York dining experience, as the place seats about 500 people. It is big, loud and noisy… and tourists and businessmen on expense accounts call this place home.

Lastly, it’s not a native New York steak joint. Sounds crazy, but this town is loyal to its steak-shrines. Let’s get over this and enjoy some good eats, shall we?

Del Frisco’s. Now you know. There’s good meat on 6th Avenue and for once, it isn’t coming from a food cart.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Telepan: Is This The Best Of The Upper West?

Lacking Attention to Detail Can Turn a Good Thing Bad

I think I know why the Upper West Side gets a bad wrap.

The fancy schmancy food isn’t very good.

Actually, let me correct that. The food can be OK. There can be good value here. There is tradition.

But more often than not, food and service on the Upper West falls short.

I don’t want to generalize this realization, as I know some UWS spots are headed in the right direction. But after a visit to one of the “best” UWS spots, I was left disheartened.

The Story Begins

My visit to Telepan was greatly anticipated. I know of the reputation, have read the reviews, yada yada. All that is fine and dandy, until I get my chance to kick the tires. That’s when I know the real score.

Well, the visit to Telepan, nice and full on a fairly busy Wednesday evening… started fine. I waited for my colleague at the bar with a nice glass of champagne, and marveled at the well appointed dining room. If “Design Within Reach” was in the restaurant business, this would be their place… trendy green paint, box lights and all. It was comfy and cozy, if not a bit bright (turn down the lights a touch?).

From there, the evening started to drift downhill, as once seated getting someone, anyone, to serve us a drink or take our order was getting to be a problem.

I’ll leave my service gripes for a moment and talk about the food.

Both my colleague and I… lovers of trying as much and many as we can, both opted for the tasting menu. This decision was a fairly high priced one for the UWS, especially with wine.. but what the hell. This is supposed to be one of the best spots in… well, in NYC. So, I’ll fork over the cash.

Here We Go.

The amuse bouche was nice, but seemingly out of whack. The mini three-taste presentation included a crispy pancake-like bread (very good), carrot soup (ok, bland) and salmon tartar (fishy and average). Hmmm.

Our apps fared better, but not by much. My fried Blue Prawns should have been reworded “Blue Prawn”… a single medium fried shrimp on a plate over a basic bean salad. Being from Louisiana, this was an average fried shrimp… the variety I would tuck into a shrimp poboy and devour for lunch. The other dish, their famed “Egg In A Hole” was better, but still lacked an oh my god moment. The brioche was delicious, the mushrooms ok.. but overall just OK.

The mid-courses looked amazing, and we had a hard time choosing. Unfortunately, both choices were bad, as both dishes disappointed. The “Cauliflower with Black Pepper Noodles” was lacking distinction… meaning the dish had no center. No buttery finish or creamy sensations… just a cream based pasta dish with very bland cauliflower. The noodles packed no punch.

The other dish, a promising lobster Bolognese also fell short. Nicely presented, it also lacked flavor and richness in a tasteless broth. I understand wholeheartedly that the chef is going for subtle and fresh here… it just didn’t get there.

Lastly, the entrees were hit and miss. The Heritage Pork plate, complete with a loin, belly, shoulder and bacon piece was tasty… alone. The collards that accompanied were a good idea, but again the dish fell out of balance as I searched for something a bit more acidic on the plate. Perhaps a bottle of pepper vinegar for the collards would have done the trick. That aside, I like this dish…

The other dish, the organic lamb, was just plain overcooked. When asked if a rare piece (uh, maybe a juicy cut that is also tender?) could be found, the answer was just… “no”. Not exactly the answer you are looking for when you spend good money on food you believe will be expertly prepared.

And You Are Who?.....

Which brings me back to the service on this evening. It was nonexistent. The dishes we never presented by the server, but rather the busboys, who really knew nothing about the dishes. Our waiter stopped by on occasion if we flagged him down, otherwise we were on our own. There was no “how are things?” or “can I get you something”… it was gone with the plates and here comes the next course.

As far as the wine is concerned, going with the tasting was a mistake. Our sommelier seemed very knowledgeable… which is good, unless he is making two fairly informed wine connoisseurs feel like kindergarteners. Even when presented with wines we weren’t particularly fond of, we were told why they were great, and he poured. Shame shame.

Note to Telepan patron: We could have done a much better job from the list, and actually enjoyed what we drank.

And last?

Dessert was dessert.

I hate writing this blog, as I love living and eating on the Upper West Side. I love my corned beef from Artie’s, I love the steak frites at Nice Matin, I love my flat sesame bagels from Tal. There are good eats in our neighborhood… and a few institutions that can present terrific meals.

But on this evening, Telepan wasn’t one of them. Was is good for the UWS? I guess so. Can it compete on the level of food and service with a joint down in the village. Uh, no.

But I guess that’s I don’t want to give this area a bad wrap.

I mean, this is the Upper West Side.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Find My Egg Rolls: Win $50

An Addiction to Frozen Eggs Rolls Leaves A Blogger Desperate

Someone once said that you could find anything in New York... and if you couldn't, it wasn't worth having.

I beg to differ.

I am addict. I'll admit it. My addiction is anything wrapped up in a pillow of dough or wrapper... and steamed, baked or pan fried. The dumpling, pot sticker, ravioli, pierogie and egg roll.

But what makes this addiction hard to deal with is the difficulty in obtaining the goods. Sure I can find a box of frozen egg rolls in the grocery store, but as those who share my addiction will attest, there are very few brands worth putting in your cart.

The king of egg rolls? Easy.

The brand is Michelina. The man is Jeno Paulucci. The magic?

Yu-Sing brand, Chicken Egg Rolls.

Those junkies out there that know egg rolls, may know Jeno. He is one of the most famous frozen food entrepreneurs alive. The son of Italian immigrants, Jeno began his incomparable career as a fruit stand barker in the 1940s, paving the way for him to begin his improbable Chinese foods company Chun King. He would go on to create Wilderness pie fillings and Jeno's Pizza. Yes, Jeno's pizza rolls! He would later open Michelina's, a tribute to his mother... and by far, his best venture.

But make no bones about it, the Yu-Sing brand Egg Roll is the best egg roll on the market today (this is coming from yours truly, a frozen egg roll connoisseur). If this was vodka, we'd be talking the Ketel One of Egg Rolls (compared to the current Chung King variety, which I would liken to a bottle of Popov).

If you hadn't had these gems, I would liken them to crack cocaine. Why?

They're perfect. The wrappers are super crunchy and never greasy. The fillings are great, and not full of some nasty paste made of cabbage and mystery meat. They are large in size and not tiny like the inferior and generally disgusting egg rolls on the market.

I first got addicted to these about 6 years ago. Living in Southern California, I had a terrible time finding them in LA (Albertsons would carry them on occasion, but rarely). Having a cabin up in the mountains, I would make the trek to Lake Arrowhead several times a month... and always stop at the terrific gourmet grocery store "Jensen's" to pick up my wares for the weekend.

Low and behold, they carried the egg rolls.

I bought so many boxes, the manager made sure he reordered in time for my next visit.

Imagine a shopping cart with fresh pasta, breads, San Marzano tomatoes, asparagus, peppered brie, ground veal, cornichons and 10 boxes of frozen egg rolls.

So here is your challenge. Find these egg rolls. Win money. I need my Yu-Sing.

Here are the rules:

1. First person to email me ( with the location of the egg rolls wins. Egg rolls must be in stock at the store when I arrive. Price doesn't matter, I'll pay anything.

2. The brand must be Michelina's YU-SING Chicken or Shrimp Egg Rolls. No others will qualify, period.

3. The egg rolls must be located in Manhattan. NO EXCEPTIONS!

Can you find them? No doubt, some Mom and Pop grocer carries them in NYC, so off you go. I know you could use the $50.... hell, thats an appetizer at Per Se!

Get Your Pierogie On

Moving to NYC, I was thrilled to learn that a thriving polish community would allow me to feed my pierogie fetish. Growing up eating cajun/polish food, I fell in love with pierogie at a young age, but almost never ate them.. as my polish grammy lived in New Hampshire.

Over the years I have learned how to make them myself... a rewarding but long process, that leaves you with a sore back. 8 hours in the kitchen can do that.

A few years ago, I did find an alternative.... mail order. And as much as it pains me to say it, these little babies are as good as any I can pick up in the East Village. If you don't believe me, order a few dozen and see for yourself!

Pierogies Plus

Online, from their little shop in Pennsylvania

One word. Helen. She's been making pierogie for 50 years. And these guys make them by hand. This is the real deal.

I've never been a potato pierogie guy... my variety is sauerkraut and mushroom. She also makes a terrific sauerkraut and kielbasa. I understand the hot sausage is quite good as well!

Order online and wait. They come fresh, to your door. Then, get out your non-stick skillet and heat it up. Add a chunk of your favorite butter, and place them in. Fry the pierogie in the butter, turning them until they are crunchy golden brown on both sides. Salt and pepper, a dollop of sour cream and Katie bar the door.

Fall Is Here, And You Need Your Gumbo

Yes, fall is finally arrived in the big apple, and it's soup time.

Well, at my house, that means gumbo and a hunk of crusty bread. For those of you who have no idea how to make a pot of real gumbo, I am re-publishing the recipe for you here. Remember, this recipe may look big, but having a quart of the stuff in your freezer on an icy day is a good thing.

Andre’s Gumbo Like I Like It

(Shrimp and Okra Version)

4- 5 Quarts Chicken Stock
4 pounds frozen okra
1 lrg can of diced tomatoes
1 regular can of diced tomatoes
2 large white onions, diced fine
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/⁄2 teaspoon chopped garlic, fine
1⁄/2 teaspoon salt
1/⁄2 teaspoon black pepper
3/⁄4 cup all purpose flour
3⁄/4 cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoon of lea and perrin’s
2 tablespoons crystal hot sauce (or frank’s)
1 1⁄/2 tablespoons of creole seasoning (Emerils or Tony’s or your own)
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon oregano
1⁄/2 teaspoon thyme
2-3 tablespoons Kitchen Bouquet
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chopped parsley, fine
4 pounds peeled medium shrimp
Chopped green onions

In a separate pot, heat 3 tbl vegetable oil, and sauté white onions. Add garlic, frozen okra and tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and cook over medium low heat until tender (at least an hour, if not longer). Okra should be very tender and want to break up. In a large stockpot, heat oil (3/4 cup) and add flour to make roux. Stir constantly over medium heat, making sure not to burn. Bring to desired color… peanut butter color is recommended for best flavor. Once desired color is reached, whisk in chicken stock, 4 qts first and save the rest if needed (chicken base dissolved in water can also be used , but NOT bullion). Add seasonings (wet and dry) and kitchen bouquet for desired color (a rich, dark brown is perfect). Add okra mixture and bring to boil. Reduce to low simmer, and cook for 1 1/⁄2 hours. Last half hour, add shrimp and parsley and simmer and very low temp, not to overcook shrimp. Serve in bowls, topped with a scoop of cooked long grain rice and top with sprinkle of green onion.

Gumbo is best if cooked day before. Make sure to cool completely before storing in fridge.... if not, the mixture will bubble and MUST be thrown out, as the onions will certainly turn.

*** Tips on Making a Roux

More than anything else, it's the roux that gives gumbo its particular character. Making roux is something of an art. It may take some practice to get good results. If dark specks appear, or if you smell something burning, you'll need to throw out the roux and start over. Don't try to base your gumbo on a burnt roux!

That said, let's make a medium colored Cajun roux, peanut butter in color. A Cajun roux is just flour cooked in fat until it acquires a darker color and a rich, complex, somewhat smoky flavor with nut-like overtones. Some folks have claimed that one can make a roux in the oven or even in the microwave, omitting the fat, but the one true way is to cook the roux on the stove top in a deep, heavy skillet or Dutch oven. The catch is that it will take plenty of time to cook the roux at the proper temperature so that it doesn't burn, and that you will need to stir constantly, working pretty hard the whole time. Some use a large whisk or a large spatula to keep the roux moving, but I find that a large, long-handled wooden spoon works best for me.

The choice of fat does affect the taste of the gumbo. Lard and bacon fat are the traditional choices (sometimes blended together), but other animal fats, or even vegetable oil or shortening, may be used. I prefer using a good vegetable oil. The choice of fat may be influenced by the kind of gumbo you are going to make -- duck fat for a duck and sausage gumbo, for example. You may decide to use vegetable fats for a seafood-only gumbo, and animal fats for your other gumbos.

Regular bleached all-purpose flour is fine for a roux. The proportions of flour to fat vary depending on how thick you want the roux to be. Approximately two parts flour to one part fat works well for me. If I need about a cup of roux, I use a cup of flour and about half a cup of oil, perhaps increasing the quantity of fat by a tablespoon or two depending on the result I'm looking for that day.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Toloache: Can Good Lead to Great?

There is promise, but little time for this midtown newcomer

First things first. New York is short on good Mexican restaurants. Period.

This is not an observation, but unfortunately a fact. While there is many a place slinging messy burritos, there are few places in the city that can give you a memorable dining experience in this genre. You know it to be true (and don’t be bringing your Rosa Mexicano all up in this).

Alas! Toloache enters the fray.

When I first heard of Toloache I reacted like most…. hmmm, a mexican place in midtown, and worse, in the theatre district. Here comes Chi-Chi’s.

But after a good deal of research, I learned that this effort was honest, and that a great deal of attention had been given to this launch... from design to menu. There is hope!

And then, I went.

Where Toloache actually falls is kinda in the middle of what I had hoped for…. either a killer baja taco joint, or an exquisite regional Mexican restaurant (think of Frontera Grill or Topolobampo in Chicago).

Let’s look at the good and the bad.

First the good.

There is genuine effort here, and it shows. The menu is eclectic, the dishes well made and the space functional.

The bad?

It is waaaaay overpriced, even for midtown… and there is little subtlety in the creation of dishes that could very easily go from OK to amazing. There is very little balance here.

The real question facing the owners and kitchen is will Toloache make the small, detailed changes that flips good restaurants into great ones.

The menu itself is more sexy at first look until the dishes are explained. It’s then you learn that the taco plates (priced from $9 - $14) are actually two small, 2-bite baja-sized tacos. Even as an appetizer portion, ouch.

I love love love the idea of a fresh guac bar, but at $20 for 3 small bowls, don’t come hungry. The guacamole is well made and inventive, but the scarcity of the guac itself is a shocker when sharing with a party of 4. They need to rethink this one.

In my opinion, the main course dishes are somewhat out of balance… taste wise. My highly recommended and wonderfully tender Carne Asada, a grilled grass-fed skirt steak with and inedible potato gratin, bland guacamole and incredibly overbearing mole cheese enchilada was a dish gone wrong. I find it hard to imagine screwing up a dish when you start with such a great cut of meat… but the sides on this plate were so out of whack, I literally ate the steak and left the others. A fresh mixture of citrus-based sides with a well seasoned starch would have been just fine with a great cut of beef… what I got was a mole so strong I could smell it when it left the kitchen.

The Enchiladas De Pollo, with dried fig mancha manteles salsa, green apple salad and various mexican cheeses seemed to have a better basic recipe, but still lacked the wow factor I was looking for. It looked to be a large, filling choice… but if you are looking for a value plate of Mexican stuff, you should locate the Chevy’s a few blocks away.

The “Carnitas De Lechon” brick oven roasted suckling pig with habanero-sour orange salsa, cactus avocado and chicharron salad was thought to be the most exciting prospect of the evening, but again fell short. The dish was aggressive in gamey pork flavor, an aspect the other ingredients couldn’t overcompensate for.

Again, the intentions here were good… the preparation not so good.

I don’t want to discount what Toloache is doing here, because some of it is cool. Although the room itself (downstairs and up) is cramped and tight, this would be a great after work meeting place for a margarita and a few small plates… including the avocado or cactus fries. The guac bar is a cool addition. The open kitchen is full of energy. The design is hip and appropriate.

That said, the bar has it’s failures (a $10 frozen margarita is tasty but expensive for what looked like a lime slurpee in a cocktail glass… and a tequila shot came in a wine flute) but can be fine for an app and cold beer.

The verdict?

Refine. Look at the dishes. Adapt. Attention to detail… including taste and textures. The food is coming through this kitchen at such high speed that there is no way anyone is doing any type of quality control. Tweaks to the basic menu as well as an upgrade in service will in me over.

Until then, I’m still looking for a decent baja taco joint.

251 W 50th St- Btwn Bway & 8th Ave
New York, NY 10019

212 581-1818

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Shendy's Halal Cart: Chicken and Rice is Oh So Nice.

The demise of the NYC hot dog rears its delicious head

It happens every time.

I'm walking down 6th Avenue... running and errand, meeting a friend at McCormick and Schmick’s for their fantastic happy hour special... cutting across midtown... and it hits me.

The smell.

Sure, NYC food carts emit smells (and some emit odors)... but this smell is special. It's the intoxicating smell of marinated chicken, onions and peppers with some crazy-ass magic juice splashed on top.

I stop, stare at the cart, and contemplate.

Can I eat this? Is there time to eat this? Have I eaten already? Do I have dinner reservations in an hour? Is there a bathroom nearby? Crap that smells fantastic.

Then, I slowly walk up, pretending that I was going to eat there the entire time, and place my order.

"I'll have a chicken and rice, with a pita. White sauce and hot sauce."

Then the magic begins. The dude uses his samurai spatula and drags a pile of simmering chicken over to the hot side of the griddle. He pauses to grab the grill scraper, scrapes the griddle clean...(purposely long) and continues to cook and chop my chicken.

Meanwhile, he grabs a white container with some lettuce already aboard, and scoops 2 or 3 generous spoons of a yellowish rice pilaf thing in to the bottom. Here we go.

At left, a photo of a typical chicken and rice container in Midtown Manhattan

Soon, he chops the remainder of the chicken, gives it one last squirt of magic juice, and transfers the chicken to the rice container. He slices my grilled pita into 8 wedges, covers the chicken in a white "tahini-yogurty" type sauce, gives a squirt of hot sauce (almost like a Chinese chili sauce) and transfers the prized 3-pound box of food to my waiting arms.

"That's 4 bucks."

I am thinking, this is the deal of the century.

So if you think you know which Halal Cart I am referring to, you should pause a moment... it's not the famed cart across from the Hilton on 53rd and 6th.... it's actually Shendy's Halal on 52nd and 6th.

Sure, the cart on 53rd is amazing, but who has that kinda time? I mean, I compared the two, and really couldn't tell the difference… well, maybe the white sauce, but again….

Now, the other carts that serve halal-style chicken and rice up and down 6th Avenue... should be avoided. For instance, the halal carts in front of my building on 50th and 6th are just bad. The flavor is lacking, they can be largely messy, and to top it off, the chickens still come with some joint bones, etc... which makes for a crappy meal.

Shendy's does more than chicken and rice, but doesn't pretend that chicken and rice isn't their best dish. The lunchtime demand reinforces this daily.

What the hell is halal?

Well if you look it up, it basically says "In Arabic-speaking countries, the term is used to describe anything permissible under Islamic law".

This is directed at diet in this instance, meaning that everything in that cart was A-O-K... well, if you come from and Arabic-speaking country.

So what are you waiting for? Go get ya a chicken and rice from Shendy’s. The line will stink, it will take 10 minutes and the container will burn you hands.

But it will be worth it. Take it from me.