Sunday, December 30, 2007

Restaurant: Quality Meats

While I have said before that my taste in steak houses is far from perfect, I have been growing more and more fond of this unique dining experience. Recently a friend and myslef headed to a relatively new and different steak house called Quality Meats. Owned by the same group as Smith & Wollensky, it had a really nice hip and homey vibe to it, with a lot of mirrors, exposed brick and wood. Steak houses usually seem to be two types, extremely lavish and high end, or more casual all about the meat type of places. Quality Meats from d├ęcor alone seemed to try to fit in the middle of these two. Heck, even the waiters were dressed like butchers, which I thought was a nice touch, if not a little over the top. My friend considers himself a steak house connoisseur, often attending the top places regularly. Before we go any further, be warned, the wine list is incredibly expensive, even for a steak house. The cheapest bottle (a Merlot, of course) was $42, and most wines were around the $85-$100 range. So of course we went with the beer. The Quality Meats ale, while not terrible is nothing worth spending more than a sentence on here.

The “bread course” as our waiter described it was delicious. Piping hot bread, covered with parmesan, rosemary and oil was served in a single bun, which you broke into 4 squares with a spoon and was quickly replaced once it was devoured. Our appetizers soon followed, my friend getting a nice sized house salad and myself being served a tuna sashimi with julienned papaya. The fish was fresh, the papaya salad very refreshing, but the vinaigrette served with the fish seemed like it needed just a little more lemon and the oil made you lose the texture of the fish. Then again, who judges fish at a steak house?

The steaks and sides came out together and my friend got the three fillets, which ended up being a much bigger portion than expect. Each fillet had a different sauce, one a creamy beschamel, one a spicy BBQ, and one a mushroom sauce (which he had them leave off due to a mushroom “allergy"). From what I tasted the steaks were moist and the sauces very good without overpowering the fillet. My steak, a bone in sirloin, was a bit under cooked, closer to medium rare rather than medium, but after a bite I decided the accident did not affect the taste. One great thing that Quality Meats does is they make fresh a steak sauce in a mortar and pestal. The sauce was chock full of ingredients, and just a few we picked up were orange, thyme, vinegar and molasses. By the end of the meal, I declared it the best steak sauce I’d ever had. Sides were generously sized, suprising and delighting my steakhouse veteran friend. The sauteed spinach, while a little over garlicky was tasty, as was the mashed potatoes. Neither were anything special and could be served in dozens of restaurants in the city. The cheesy gnocchi however surprised us both for it’s size, and how tasty and oozing with cheese it was when served.

I forced us to get dessert despite statements of being ready to explode from so much food. My friend got a blueberry tart which was good, but nothing unusual. Same to be said for my banana cream pie, although the homemade graham cracker crust and cool refreshing taste of bananas and whip cream did help with the overload of meat and carbs.

All in all this was yet again another great steak experience, and my friend was very impressed, vowing to take clients there so he could expense it…

Meat of Good Quality

Restaurant: Caffe Cielo

I think the easiest way to start writing about this restaurant is simply by saying two words - Theater District. I can't think of anyone I know that actually eats or goes out in this neighborhood unless they are a tourist, going to a Broadway show, or actually live in the area. Even most people that live in the area venture further west because the food is better, and it's not catering to Midwest tourists. Caffe Cielo is an average Italian restaurant, that on a Saturday night at 8:30 was barely crowded, never a good sign for any place. Wines were about average, both in price and selection, and the prices as a whole were about what you would expect from a touristy area, a few dollars more for everything, and just not worth the price. The price is even worse once you actually start eating. If you like standard Italian food, with big portions, and the price to match, this is the right place.

By no means is this actually "Northern Italian" like the restaurant claims, and my starter of Insalata Graziosa, was quite bland. A nice combo salad on paper with arugula, sun dried tomatoes and mozzarella, the salad needed more dressing and bite than a sprinkle of lemon juice and olive oil. Not to mention the fact that the sun dried tomato totally overpowered any other flavor in the dish because there was too much of it. Others at the table didn't even finish their salads, and the plate of "fresh" mozzarella tomatoes and basil was disappointing. The tomatoes tasted like something from Met Food and the mozzarella was very watery and crumbly.

For a main course I had a grilled swordfish with capers, olives, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and oregano. The swordfish tasted like they forgot to salt and pepper it before grilling, and was a bit over cooked and tough. The sauce was actually quite tasty, but again needed some salt and tended to overpower the normally strong flavor of the swordfish. The other dishes around the table looked nice, but not surprisingly no one finished their meals. While service was nice, the food was very average, and might impress someone visiting New York who only knows Italian food from pizza places and Olive Garden.

Caffe Cielo (why the extra F in Cafe?)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Dish: Italian Hero

Just the mention of an Italian hero, hoagie, saaaaandwich, grinder or whatever else you want to call it will make most men drool. It is one of those classics that is always popular because of the combination of different Italian meats and cheeses, great bread, and toppings ranging from hot peppers to just simply oil and vinegar. Heck, next to the meatball, the Italian Combo is probably one of the more popular choices at Subway and can almost always be found at any deli or sandwich shop. While I still occasionally dream of the Italian special at the "cheese shop" (R.I.P) near my high school, the best hero of recent memory was at Mama's of Corona Queens. Mama's is actually sold at Shea Stadium in the lower levels, but once you've had it from the source there is no going back. Mama's is also known as "Leo's Latticini"and it has three components, an old world Italian deli, a bakery (where they make their hero rolls) and a pasta shop.

I was lucky enough to take a little trip out to Corona for lunch on a cold Friday afternoon and must admit I was a bit intimidated by the store. Usually there is a board, or some listing of what you can order, but Mama's simply has rows of meats and cheeses and lots of people speaking Italian. I decided to do as the two Italian men in front of me did, and just order the special, which on this day happened to be just what I wanted. Besides the perfectly crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside hero roll, the hero came with thick cut fresh homemade mozzarella. The meat was a nice combo of salami and a peppered ham (I could be wrong, I don't speak Italian). After this the required oil and vinegar, plus the option to add roasted red peppers and marinated mushrooms, which I of course said yes to, combined to make for the types of bites of a hero that make your mouth tingle and your stomach happy. The subs are huge, packed with meat, and with a 20 ounce soda were only $8.50. Plus, they let you take your food next door to the bakery and cafe and sit and eat without having to order anything.

Sometimes Italian heroes have 4 types of meats, 3 cheeses, and a million different toppings, but Mama's proves sometimes less is more. Is Mama's the best in NY? I like to think it's up there, but sadly I don't know too many old Italian places (of which I know there are many) in the city. Hopefully I will find more soon.

Get to know your Mama

Monday, December 3, 2007

Restaurant: French Roast

French Roast, while technically a chain, is actually an above average French place simply because it does simple, popular French food in almost a diner like atmosphere. Similar to the other restaurants owned by this group, like L'Express, the restaurant is crowded, not too expensive, and serves up a wide variety of french, and French American fare. My recent trip to the west village location was for a very late brunch (is there any other kind?). I started with my usual Bloody Mary and a cup of coffee. Having had this maybe a thousand times, it takes a lot for me to actually notice something special. The bloody mary was exceptionally good, with just the right amount of tomato juice, pepper, vodka and horseradish. I even got a slice of cucumber with it, practically a healthy drink. The coffee was distinct for a simple reason, it lived up to it's name. The coffee actually tasted like the beans had been roasted thoroughly, and had that rich flavor that is lacking in 90% of the coffee out there now.

For the actual meal (there's only so many bloody mary's you can drink before you eat something) I got a croque poulet, or in English a grilled chicken sandwich. Similar to a croque monsieur, it was made with gruyere and grilled so that it was crispy and cheesy. It came topped with avocado slices, and a small side salad with a vinaigrette. The bread and cheese were amazingly rich, and the chicken nicely flavored with some herbs. Ultimately it was a great change of pace from a burger, eggs, pancakes, waffles or other standard brunch fare. Heck it looked so good (and big) that the large woman next to me kept staring at me and my plate as I ate it. Slightly uncomfortable, but flattering for ordering right. The only thing I would have changed was having the avocado actually in the sandwich instead of on top, and it wasn't exactly ripe, but it's also not the season.

Overall I would go back to French Roast, I have no idea what it would be like for dinner, but for brunch, it gives some great options besides the standards, with a french spin of course.

Laugh like the French, Eat Like the French