Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Restaurant: Calle Ocho

Trips to the upper west side are not a common occurrences for me, particularly just to eat dinner. The menu, however, and a gift certificate burning a whole in my wallet convinced me to head to Calle Ocho to try the unusual twists on recognizable Latin flavors and dishes. The restaurant has a cozy and chic interior by the bar, where many people simply sat around sipping brightly colored drinks and checking out if anyone was checking them out. Once led into the main dining room, you walk out into a huge cavernous space with loud conversations and waiters running all around. You get the feeling like you walked into a slightly off fine dining restaurant that could be in Latin America, but could also be in California or Miami. This odd effect wears off quickly as soon as you get a chance to study the long drink and food menus.

My dining companion and I wanted to try as much food as possible, and both had 3 different drinks each. Of the 3, none really hit the spot for me like the classic Mojito. Every other drink I tried was just way too sweet and girly, with some even rimmed with sugar. Luckily the food distracted me from the drinks enough to forget how sweet they were. We started with a carnitas and pineapple soft taco platter and a combo of four ceviches. The carnitas were sweet and savory, which would be a common theme throughout the meal. The meat was completely shredded, moist and flavorful. Served with different salsas, pickled onions, radish and cilantro, each taco could be made the way the individual liked it and gobbled up in about two or three bites. The ceviche sampler was a mixed bag. Not all the ceviches we wanted could be a part of the sample (the oysters specifically), and another was mysteriously not available (despite it being early in the night). We ended up ordering the Mariscos, Tropical, and Hondureno. We ordered a fourth, but they mistakenly brought two Mariscos. The Hondureno was far and away the best, combining tuna, coconut milk and pickled jalapenos. The Mariscos, which had lobster, shrimp, lemon and lime were amazing, although as expected, you never get enough lobster in the order. Although the ingredients of the Tropical should have wowed me, the combo of shrimp, roast tomato, mango and other citrus was just overwhelming and instead of the tastes melding together, they just all fought each other.

For main courses we shared the Paella and the Corvina. The Paella was huge, and had no shortage of lobster, scallops or shrimp. In fact, it actually came with 1/2 a lobster sitting right on top. You can't really argue with any Paella that starts with 1/2 a lobster, and has just the right combo of spice and savory flavor to warm your stomach. The Corvina was basically a large piece of chilean seabass, mixed vegetables and a delightfully seasoned broth that was surprisingly flavorful. After just one or two bites I couldn't get enough the perfectly cooked fish and vegetables gently mingling in a sauce that to the average observer looked bland and unassuming. I couldn't pinpoint the flavors of the sauce given its Spanish background (and my lack of knowledge about the cuisine), but I definitely plan on returning for further investigation. A nice side addition was the sweet and green plantains. This sweet and savory combo caused fights over who got the last of each, and should always be at the table when dining at Calle Ocho.

Last but not least, we shared a beautifully prepared and tasting dessert of toasted coconut ice cream, placed within a thin chocolate shell and surrounded by a deep red and almost too sweet raspberry sauce. Although decadent, how can anyone not enjoy the combo of coconut, chocolate and raspberry? It made for a great end to a delicious meal of fancy Latin food that might make a trip back uptown worth it.

A reason to go to the Upper West Side

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Restaurant: Grand Central Oyster Bar

Every year around the beginning of June my father and I make plans to head to the Grand Central Oyster Bar because the fresh herring fleet shipment comes in all the way from the Netherlands. The Oyster Bar is a hidden treasure nestled in the revamped subterranean depths of Grand Central and has that unique combination of old New York and modern New York. We always skip the fancier bar and dining room and opt for the regular restaurant. In the past I used to drop in after work for a quick bite at one of the counters, but this was always in the non-herring season.

The excellent chowders and raw oysters are always a draw for me, and up until about 10 years ago would have started my meal. Since that breakthrough day I always get what my dad gets, 2 fresh Dutch herring with the trimmings. At the Oyster Bar this means two boned fillets with finely chopped onion, chives and hard boiled egg. This simple combination of extremely fresh flavorful fish with a little of each trimming makes for something that really is hard to describe. The fish is silky and buttery, almost melting in your mouth with each bite. And, despite the strong flavor of onion, chive and egg, the herring bursts through with a strong distinct flavor that is far from "fishy". Paired with a pint of Heineken, it's the ideal Dutch snack, in the heart of Manhattan. Almost always those first two herring are gone, and we are quickly ordering a third and, sometimes even a fourth. Needless to say it is quite a tradition, and is not something I would recommend eating prior to being in any sort of social situation where someone will be close enough to smell your breath.

Main courses are what you would expect at an old school seafood restaurant. The fish is extremely fresh, perfectly cooked, and the star of any plate, not the accent. Almost every fish, crab, lobster, oyster and clam can be ordered any way you want it from blackened to grilled or fried. Sometimes the simplest preparation is the best way to enjoy fish, and the Oyster Bar does this better than anyone. Usually the only question you need to answer is which type of fish do I want, Mahi Mahi or Dorade to name just a few, and do I want it Cajun or broiled with a spritz of lemon? Either way you can't go wrong. My traditional main course, however, is always fried oysters and french fries. The freshness of the oysters, and the light crispy batter they are fried in make for bite size morsels that taste more like oysters and less like a fried food. The standard thin cut crispy fries are nothing to rave about, but always manage to get finished despite themselves. Simply put, squeeze some lemon on the oysters and skip the ketchup or tartar sauce and just enjoy a basic pleasure in life that everyone should indulge in at least once a year.

I probably shouldn't be telling you this part, but if you ever do make it to the Oyster Bar no meal is complete without exploring a strange oddity of architecture outside the restaurant. Due to the high arches, and marble interior, if you stand in the corners diagonally across from each other and speak into the wall you can talk with the other person like they are whispering in your ear. Despite the distance, you feel like you are having a conversation with them right next to you. Of course there is also the fun of other people not in the know looking at you oddly like you might be crazy or in need of a bathroom.

Real herring, not something in a cream sauce