The joys of living in reasonable proximity to one of the most dynamic cities on earth. What can I say, I’m spoiled.
I’ve definitely had a progression in my relationship with New York City. The first time I went was with my family, the summer between Grade 11 and Grade 12. We were there for like one day – we went to Times Square, walked around my awesome lawyer cousin’s neighbourhood near Gramercy Park, went out for dinner to a noodle bar and saw Wicked on Broadway. Yeah, it was cool. Yes, I was enthralled. But to be honest I was more overwhelmed than anything. I think it was Times Square in particular; there’s something ungodly about that place. They don’t say no real new yorkers go there for nothing (try and unpack that string of negations haha).
In any case, when I got into Yale and decided to go to school on the east coast, I was definitely excited to be close to this awesome, fearsome city. I was ready to conquer it – to learn the subway map, to find hidden secrets, to walk for hours, to get lost. I was ready for a serious relationship.
My first few times going into the city for a day or weekend were appropriate baby steps. My aforementioned cool-cat cousin lived in the city (on Irving Place between 18th and 19th, an awesome area I only now fully appreciate the significance of) and let me stay with her whenever I came in. It was great: she took me out to her favourite places, showed me around, started versing me in the subway system, and generally held my hand. I was very grateful for this. Not to say I am particularly timid or incompetent; but it was nonetheless a wonderful thing to be initiated gradually and graciously, with a fun person, especially because I’ve learned I can get overwhelmed in such over-saturated environments.
My cousin and I share the same penchant for health and eating well – perhaps she even more so than I in some ways. She took me to Angelica Kitchen, the classic vegetarian restaurant started in 1976 and still going strong, and introduced me to Pure Food & Wine, one of the first raw vegan haute cuisine restaurants in New York, just down the street from her apartment. She was so enthusiastic about taking me there (a sentiment I obviously shared), but alas her firm transferred her to DC before we could realise our plans. I’ve been dying to go ever since, and I’m hoping to go for my 21st birthday in a few weeks! I’ll definitely report back and share the marvel with you.
A couple weeks ago, I went into the city for the weekend to visit C, whom I hadn’t seen since before winter break. He moved to New York from LA on New Year’s Day, after clinching a job at NBC (!!). He found an awesome apartment between the East Village and the Lower East Side, moved in with a great roommate, and is generally gilt of the awesomeness of life.
We both love sharing and trying lots of different tastes when we go out to eat, so naturally tapas, with its big variety of lots of small plates, is one of our favourites. We’d been wanting to try this great tapas place in the West Village called Alta for a while, and finally we had the chance. We got a late reservation to give him some time to relax after work (plus we both like eating a late supper anyway), and stayed from just after 10 until the place closed at 2. Needless to say it was a luxurious, no-holds-barred adventure.
While perusing the menu (and when I say peruse, I really do mean peruse), it became more and more clear that it was an occasion to favour exoticism, luxury, and that certain I-have-never-had-this-before-and-really-need-to-know-what-it-tastes-like-for-my-personal-edification-and-dare-I-say-spiritual-wholeness sort of feeling that once in a blue moon really takes hold of me and doesn’t let go. So it was to be a fully omnivorous dinner. I should pause here and say that the reasons I am vegetarian are largely about personal health and the environment – which means when it comes to exceptional, singular experiences, like trying a cultural delicacy in some far-flung area of the world, or finally learning what foie gras is really like, though my body has no desire for animal flesh, my gastronomer’s mind is green-lighting like crazy, and I have no trouble bowing to this curiosity and a certain Tennysonian penchant for ‘the lees’ and saying, free of guilt, “yes!” to everything.
That said, here’s what we had (you’re going to wonder how we ever ate all this. Well, we did):
Fried Goat Cheese with lavender infused honey | This is one of their signature dishes and initially what drew us to the place. C loves his goat cheese, and I experimented a lot with lavender in the summer (still have my big jar of it that I use in salads and baking, or chocolate truffles), and we just knew this combination would be a winner. But before we could even order anything, a waiter brings us an oblong plate with four elegant croquettes and gracious swirls of the lavender honey – we still don’t know if it was a “sabisu”, as the Japanese say (“service”, i.e. free), or meant for another table altogether. Either way, it was delicious. The cheese was perfectly cooked, crispy on the outside but not greasy or heavy, and still moist and dense on the inside. The warm lavender honey melded with the creaminess and tanginess of the cheese and its slightly crispy shell to produce a sensation that was ethereal and transcendent. Amazing.
Fluke Sashimi, truffle soy vinaigrette, crisp artichoke, chive oil | I can’t seem to find in myself any latent drive to eat red meats at all. Fowl very very very rarely (like this night). But for raw fish, I can find the inkling of a desire. Perhaps it was my time spent in Japan that inculcated this wonderful taste in me. In any case, when I saw fluke sashimi, I knew we had to get it (whether or not it involved truffles). I love fluke as far as fish go, so since tonight was the night I decided to jump on it. The fish was sliced the perfect thickness – thin enough that it truly melted on your tongue, but still substantial enough that it held up to the bold flavours it was paired with. The truffle soy vinaigrette contrasted in a playful way with the fish, providing a serious earthy and umami punch that would have been hard to out-umami. I had also never had artichoke prepared this way before, as a crisp on top of the sashimi, and it was the perfect textural complement I needed. In other news, C loves chives.
Arugula and Treviso Salad, marinated criminis, celeriac crisps, sundried sweet pepper vinaigrette | Good, but honestly I would expect all the salads on their menu to be great. C loves his arugula like a fiend, so when it caught his eye there was no going back. And I do love celeriac. No complaints here, and it was definitely nice to have a plate of greens on the table amid all the other richer dishes.
Bruschetta of Spinach and Mascarpone, dried Turkish figs, pine nuts, parmesan & balsamic | So many delicious things and such an interesting combination. Loved the vegetal density of the spinach paired with the slightly sweet mascarpone, and the sharp hit of the parmesan and balsamic really rounded the flavour out well. I was missing the figs in the mix, maybe just because I love them so much that I have latent fig taste saturation or something, but overall very good and like no bruschetta, or anything, I’ve ever had.
Broccoli Rabe & Broccolini Fricasée, spiced tomato coulis, Syrian string cheese | I love Fricasée. What can I say. And I love inventive reimaginings of this French classic (especially because the original usually involves meat). C’s not too big on broccoli but loves broccoli rabe, and this was definitely his cup of tea: bold flavours, contrasting textures, and cheese. The broccoli rabe still had its crunch, and the tops were perfect for wiping up the potent tomato sauce (it was much more of a ragu than a coulis – think patatas bravas). With the cheese melting into the whole bit, it was comfort food like no other.
Crispy Brussel Sprouts, Granny Smith apples, crème fraiche, pistachio nuts | By now I’m sure you know all about my love affair with brussel sprouts. If you don’t check out this recipe I posted about recently. I love how if you cook them right (that is, don’t steam them or boil them, it’s a crime) they get all crispy on the outside and soft and luscious on the inside. C feels exactly the same way, and then some. So when we saw the words “crispy” and “brussel sprouts” together (not to mention “crème fraiche”) we knew this dish had made the cut. We both agreed they were some of the best brussels we’ve had – and we’ve had a lot (a by-product of obsession is over-consumption I suppose). All the elements were in perfect balance, both in terms of ratio and flavour profile. The apples were a prime tart and fresh accompaniment to the crispy, savoury sprout leaves, with the pistachios adding that divine fruity, grassy chewiness and the crème fraiche doing what it does best: adding richness and lightness at the same time, giving body and air, and pulling an already outstanding dish into another realm of memorability.
Coca (Catalonian Flatbread), oven roasted mushrooms, fresh ricotta, truffled cheese | One of those things where you can’t go wrong. C and I had some delicious truffled toast at Gjelina when I was visiting him in LA for thanksgiving break, and since then it’s been a fixture of my mind whenever I contemplate the joys of fungi in general (I was lucky enough to get to make it for my family while I was home – it turned out ok but I was still happy to share such a simple revelation!). It was definitely a hands-only food – the flatbread was not wimpy at all, a sturdy and rustic dough, and the deep smoky flavour of the mushrooms was enough to make us swoon even without the ricotta and truffle cheese (to which we would obviously not say no).
Seared Foie Gras, pan toasted brioche, mango ginger chutney, Persian pistachios & bee pollen | Hands down one of my favourite dishes of the night. Or maybe ever, I don’t know. It was my first encounter with foie gras, and I’m so glad it went well. I’ve heard love and horror stories alike, and I wanted my first time to be the most beautiful of them all. I think it was. It was like eating a pillow that the god of umami in all his glory had sewn with his bare, rough-hewn hands, ambrosialised for millennia, then taken gingerly with loving hands from the deepest reaches of his cellar and presented to me, simply for having asked politely. It was (and I know I overuse this word but there really is no other for it) a revelation. The foie gras was expertly seared – the lightness and substance of it was perfectly supported by the toasted brioche, a rich, thick slice of it. And the garnishes were impossible to improve upon. The chutney gave a necessary fruitiness and sweetness, with a hint of ginger kick, subdued by the bitterness of the bee pollen, which was in turn enhanced in its aroma by the warm foie gras and balanced in texture by the pistachio. All in all it was the utmost of successful dishes, and if you’re anywhere in the area you need to try it.
Warm Vegetable Salad, artichokes, haricot vert, asparagus, crème fraiche truffle dressing | Satisfying especially because of its temperature. It was a hearty salad, and C and I both love this (often underused) approach to salads. The roasted vegetables were well cooked and seasoned, and again, who’s going to complain about crème fraiche and truffles? Nothing particularly noteworthy, but nothing to scoff at either.
Salt Baked Sunchokes, black garlic vinaigrette, Lebne, preserved lemon | Wow. I could feel myself in the presence of a brilliant chef. Sunchokes are one of those things that don’t get nearly enough credit for how versatile and downright delicious they are. I love the simultaneous tanginess and earthiness to them – it’s like nothing else. The pairings here too were remarkable for their concept and their execution: the black garlic vinaigrette was in just enough proportion to enhance the earthiness and umami on the one hand, and the tanginess on the other. The Lebne deepened the dish in another direction, adding a light and creamy tanginess, and the preserved lemon giving bite, fruitiness, and something to really marvel over. Without question, the ultimate home fry.
Warm Crab Salad, crispy quinoa, truffle jalapeño emulsion | Ok so maybe they overdo it on the truffle. Haha just kidding. I’m not really a fan of crab (for more or less obvious reasons) but I love quinoa and crispy and emulsion, so overall I was pleased. I let C finish it though. 😉
Sea Urchin Risotto with whipped sea urchin butter, shellfish bouillon, chives | Died and went to Poseidon’s personal afterlife. This was probably our favourite dish of the night. Actually, this was definitely our favourite dish of the night. Where do I even start… we both love uni. It’s one of those things that, when supremely fresh, is to die for, and when not is like eating a curmudgeonly sea cucumber. The idea of making risotto with it – well, to be perfectly honest I think it’s genius. The rice was so sensitively cooked, and so deftly blended with the sea urchin butter, and the few pieces of raw sea urchin on top were some of the freshest I’ve had (which to be honest I was not expecting). This was a dish about mouthfeel. It was like eating divinity concentrate straight from the bottle. I’m sorry, I’m just really at a loss. Resplendence and refinement. You’ll have to trust me.
We also had a selection of six Spanish cheeses, which were all delicious and very reasonably priced too! Spanish cheeses definitely don’t get as much hype as French or Italian, but they have some gems and I’d like to learn more about them. The ones we tried were Roncal, Cabra Romero, Nevat, Leonora, Gallego, and Miti Blue.
But that’s not all. We put a serious dent in their cocktail menu too. We both have a serious fascination with mixology and love a creative, unexpected combinations, so we couldn’t hold back.
Ewa en Provence | House infused lavender aquavit, dry vermouth, cointreau, lime juice, dash of cassis | Fruity, aromatic, sweet, a little punchy – definitely a winner.
The Sicilian | Cynar, Bulldog Gin, muddled grapefruit, mandarine napoleon liqueur | This one was something I insisted on – I’d been wanting to try Cynar (an artichoke liqueur) for a while, and I was pleased. C’s not a big fan of gin at all, but I am rather partial, and this drink, with the bitter citrus notes and the complexity of the artichoke was perfect for me.
Jalapeño Margarita | what it sounds like. It was good but I didn’t think it was anything too special.
Ginger Mojito | ginger infused Barbancourt White Rum, fresh mint and a squeeze of lime | Yes. A winner. C and I experimented with ginger infusions in the summer and they were delicious, we were hooked. Just as good as a traditional mojito, but better because of the ginger.
Red Sangria | probably the only let-down of the night. Just… not good. Tasted like grape juice and grain alcohol. But I give them the benefit of the doubt.
By the end of the meal, we were stuffed, but we felt we needed to consummate the ritual and share a dessert. We’re both chocolate fiends, and C does so love his flourless chocolate cake.
Chocolate Molten cake | chocolate rum sauce, rum raisin gelato, cocoa nib tuile | one of the runniest ‘cakes’ I have ever had, in a good way. It was somewhere in between cake and pudding, and so warm and rich. The rum and raisin flavours really made the dish for me though – I can have chocolate anytime but I love interesting flavour and textural pairings to go with it.
Around 2, we sauntered back towards the train station with bellies full beyond belief. It was an amazing night, both for sheer joy and for having learned more about food and added to my gastronomical experience. If you get the chance, I highly suggest you go. If you’re looking for a venue for a big group or party, get “The Whole Shebang” – $420 for the whole menu. And it’s a big menu.