Wandering Traveler

Waldorf salad prepared tableside via cart with vintage apple peeler/dicer

Waldorf salad prepared tableside on a cart with vintage apple slicer (see details below under the Waldorf cookbook photo)

ELEVEN MADISON PARK: One of the World’s Great Restaurants

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Enter Eleven Madison Park

Enter Eleven Madison Park, facing idyllic Madison Square Park

Three Michelin stars, # 4 on Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (the highest in the US), a 28 rating for food, service and decor in Zagat, the accolades for Eleven Madison Park go on and on. Then there’s the impressive tome, I Love NY, a book released last year by Chef Daniel Humm and EMP’s General Manager Will Guidara.

When in NY, I must have Finger Lakes Riesling

When in NY, I must have Finger Lakes Riesling

While I’m was not near as enthralled with Humm’s nearby restaurant The NoMad, EMP, on the other hand, is among the great meals of my life. Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, Chez Wong in Lima, Peru, Baume in Palo Alto, and other unforgettable meals made perfect with all the right elements and people… EMP is among that group. A short list given the 600+ plus restaurants and eateries I visit every year.

EMP is first and foremost about service. We chatted, engaged, connected with our servers, the sommelier, the floor manager. The harmony and flow of the staff (nearly 70 staff to 80 diners) is a finely tuned clock, just like the clock that looks like a giant Swiss watch in the kitchen, where we were invited for a liquid nitrogen cocktail while we watched the symphony that is EMP’s orderly kitchen.

We sit down to a letter opener and a card with our choice of four flavor profiles:

We sit down to a letter opener and a card with our choice of four flavor profiles: fennel, apple, maple, cranberry (we chose the former two)

Our own private tableside liquid nitrogen Penicillin cocktail in the kitchen of EMP (see photos below)

Our own private tableside liquid nitrogen Penicillin cocktail in the kitchen (see photos below)

Pickles & Rye sounded just my speed (rye whiskey, aged aquavit, white vermouth, amontillado sherry, honey, lemon, velvet falernum, orange bitters), but was a bit too sweet & muted in flavors despite the long list of ingredients; but I loved

Pickles & Rye sounded just my speed (rye whiskey, aged aquavit, white vermouth, amontillado sherry, honey, lemon, velvet falernum, orange bitters), but was a bit too sweet & muted in flavors with too long a list of ingredients; I was much happier with the focused, savory, layered notes of Celery Situation: Nicaraguan rum, aquavit, celery, grapefruit, lime

There are too many highlights. Dining here is four hour theater full of edible thrills, yet never feels flashy. The current incarnation of the tasting menu has just been around since Humm and Guidara changed the concept last year. I recalled the week in 2012 where Chicago’s Alinea (another 3 Michelin star restaurant) and EMP traded staff and kitchens for one week. I truly respect Chef Grant Achatz and see how his culinary innovation would experience synergy with Humm and EMP. While the food is impressive at both restaurants, I prefer EMP for warmer service and setting.

Here are some of the unforgettable dishes and moments from my April meal via photos:

Dessert is a Baked Alaska flambeed with rum tableside, then sliced up & brought out; it's a molasses rum raisin caramel cake filled with vanilla ice cream then served in fennel or apple sauces we chose at the beginning of the meal as flavor profiles via punch card

Dessert is a Baked Alaska flambeed with rum tableside, then sliced up & brought out; it’s a molasses rum raisin caramel cake filled with vanilla ice cream served in fennel or apple sauces we chose at the beginning of the meal as flavor profiles on the punch card


One of my favorite courses: the NY pastrami sandwich reinterpreted & paired with soda (see photo just below to the left): here, rye bread is dotted with garlic, mustard and dill sauces, accompanied by pickled cucumber and endive sauerkraut

Pastrami arrives steaming, tender & fatty w/ sodas infused with flavor we chose via the cards we received at the beginning of the meal, modeled after classic Dr. Brown Cel Ray (celery) soda created in Brooklyn in 1869

Pastrami arrives steaming, tender & fatty paired with sodas infused with flavor we chose via punch cards received at the beginning of the meal; sodas are modeled after classic Dr. Brown Cel Ray (celery) soda created in Brooklyn in 1869


Fascinating 2005 Chateau Musar from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a white blend of Obaideh & Merwah varietals, indigenous to the mountains, akin to Chasselas, Chardonnay & Semillon; Obaidah grapes grown in stony, chalky soils; Merwah vines grown in gravel on the seaward side















The cheese course arrives as a picnic in Central Park, with blue & white checked tablecloth spread across the table & picnic basket complete with ceramic plates slightly crumpled & looking like paper plates

The cheese course arrives as a Picnic in Central Park on a blue & white checked tablecloth spread across the table & picnic basket complete with crumpled ceramic plates, made to look like paper plates

The picnic basket box holds creamy Greensward cheese from Vermont, pretzel rolls, onion marmalade & a bottle of brown ale/beer brewed just for EMP

The picnic basket box holds creamy Greensward cheese from Vermont, pretzel rolls, onion marmalade & a bottle of brown ale/beer brewed locally just for EMP

The first bite: soft, savory black & white cheese-apple cookies arrive in a box tied by striped string; the meal ends with a similar box & identical cookies but sweet with cinnamon

The first bite: soft, savory black & white cheese-apple cookies arrive in a box tied by striped string; the meal ends with a similar box & identical cookies, sweet with cinnamon

Creek oysters from Eliot, Maine, in vichyssoise & caviar

Creek oysters from Eliot, Maine, in vichyssoise & caviar

Eleven Madison Park's iconic, lofty dining room

Eleven Madison Park’s iconic, lofty dining room

Bone marrow is filled with cream, beef tartare &  Petrossian's sturgeon caviar

Bone marrow is filled with cream, beef tartare & Petrossian’s sturgeon caviar

Bread course is another showstopper:

Bread course maintains excellence: rolls are made from Cayuga Pure Organic Flour with butter from Trickling Spring’s Creamery in PA, duck butter dotted with duck cracklings, and sea salt from the Hamptons

One of two dreamy Hudson Valley foie gras courses: this one seared with sunchokes, hazelnut crumble, solera vinegar; the second cured with sunchokes & fermented mustard seeds/greens

One of two dreamy Hudson Valley foie gras courses: this one seared with sunchokes, hazelnut crumble, solera vinegar; the second cured with sunchokes & fermented mustard seeds/greens

An 1896 Waldorf cookbook is a brought out & the Waldorf Salad recipe turned to before being prepared tableside before you from a Waldorf salad cart mixing Granny Smith apples, celery, pickled cranberries, walnuts, lemon mayo, Middlebury Blue cheese from Vermont... then a second course is served of apple over celery yogurt & house granola

An 1896 Waldorf cookbook is a brought out, the Waldorf Salad recipe turned to before being prepared tableside from a cart, combining Granny Smith apples, celery, pickled cranberries, walnuts, lemon mayo, Middlebury Blue cheese from Vermont… a second course is then served of apple over celery yogurt & house granola

Razor clam with kale puree, lobster, sea urchin tongue in pear gelee

Lobster, part one: with razor clam & kale puree, sea urchin tongue in pear gelee

Lobster, part two: butter-poached with razor clams & kale leaves, foamy sea urchin beurre manié ("kneaded butter" or a thicker flour butter)

Lobster, part two: butter-poached with razor clams & kale leaves, foamy sea urchin beurre manié (“kneaded butter” or a thicker flour butter)

Chef Humm's legendary dish: Normandy duck coated in whipped honey, crusted in lavender, cumin, coriander, and Sichuan peppercorns for a beautifully crusted skin, stuffed with a bouquet of lavender

Chef Humm’s legendary dish: Normandy duck coated in whipped honey, crusted in lavender, cumin, coriander, and Sichuan peppercorns resulting in a beautifully crusted skin, stuffed with a bouquet of lavender

Accompanying the sliced duck, a side of rich duck consomme to sip, accented with a rye crisp/cracker topped with duck sausage under melted Gruyere cheese

Accompanying the sliced duck, a cup of rich duck consomme to sip, accented with a rye crisp/cracker topped with duck sausage under melted Gruyere cheese

Our own private table set up in the EMP kitchen

View from our two person table set up in the EMP kitchen

Misting liquid nitrogen Penicillin cocktails with peaty Laphroaig 10 year Scotch (the modern classic cocktail created by Sam Ross in the original Milk & Honey days is a combination of peaty Scotch - here in sorbet form, ginger - here in syrup form, lemon - here as a frozen dome)

Misting liquid nitrogen Penicillin cocktails with peaty Laphroaig 10 year Scotch (the modern classic cocktail created by Sam Ross in the original Milk & Honey days) is a combination of peaty Scotch – in sorbet form, ginger – in syrup form, lemon – as a frozen dome

Eleven Madison Park's own bottling/house cask of Laird's Applejack (American apple brandy distilled in New Jersey) to finish

To finish: Eleven Madison Park’s own bottling/house cask of Laird’s Applejack, American apple brandy distilled in New Jersey



The Dead Rabbit - cocktails in tea cups

The Dead Rabbit -  punch in teacups

COCKTAIL-ing in Manhattan

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Naren Young's cocktails at Saxon + Parole

Naren Young’s cocktails at Saxon

Back in my beloved New York, home of my teenage years. Until just a few years ago, it was the place I’d come home to for the holidays when my parents still lived in New Jersey.

Despite only a couple lovely days out of a ten-day visit in late May through early June (the rest were either pouring rain or sweltering hot and suffocating), my last research trip visiting friends and family, involved dozens of restaurants and cocktail bars, plays and treks through Eataly for espresso and rooftop beers.

Here’s a list of drink standouts – and the overrated – from this trip (highlights in food and dining here):

The Best

At the now-closed Beagle: series of twists on Old Fashioneds with changing bases from navy strength gin to Calvados with marriage/divorce-themed names like Remember the Alimony

At the now-closed Beagle: series of twists on Old Fashioneds with changing bases from navy strength gin to Calvados with marriage/divorce-themed names like Remember the Alimony

Two of my best bar experiences all year were in New York City at bars with now-changed circumstances: one is The Beagle, which sadly just closed, where Tom Richter churned out of some of the great understated drinks in all of NYC in a relaxed setting tinged with Old World elegance. Richter also happens to be a genius with the often forgettable category of beer cocktails, crafting winners like the Hop Over, mixing a hoppy IPA,  lemon, Bols Genever, orange flower water, and house Velvet Falernum, or Smog Cutter, combining mezcal, Negro Modelo, ginger, tonic and lime, garnished with a cucumber. I miss the Beagle.

Young's gorgeous cocktails at Saxon+Parole

Young’s gorgeous cocktails at Saxon+Parole

The second is Saxon + Parole under Naren Young. Young recently came on board at Empellon, no doubt even better under his watch. When he was in charge of the menu at Saxon (along with The Daily and other bars), each drink, like a Celery Gimlet, sounded straightforward. But Young’s cocktails are among the finest examples of nuance and balance that I have tasted anywhere. They exhibit complexity and robust flavor in plainclothes. As a master of balance, I’d drink at whichever bar Young is crafting cocktails.

AMOR Y AMARGO, East Village

Amor y Amargo

Amor y Amargo

Amor y Amargo is what I’d want out of an amaro bar. A beautifully bitter respite in the former Carteles sandwich shop that was once the entrance to neighboring bar Cienfuegos, the space is tiny, intimate, welcoming. With a broad selection of amari, bitters and bitter liqueurs, there’s a range of cocktail possibilities, and a wealth of”bitter knowledge from former chef, now Beverage Director at Amor, Sother Teague.


The Daily

The Daily

The Daily, managed by Naren Young when I last visited (who now runs the bar at Empellon, see below), is an urban respite with a straightforward, daily changing cocktail menu and welcoming, skilled bartenders. There’s one cocktail to choose in each category like bottled, up, “on the rock” and frothy. Start with the likes of a bag of house chili “cracker jack” and an Orchard Sidecar lush with Poire Williams (pear liqueur), Calvados, fresh apple and lemon.

THE DEAD RABBIT, Financial District

Dead Rabbit's glowing space

Dead Rabbit’s glowing space

The Dead Rabbit is as special as you’ve heard. Though the raves and accolades in this, its first year, have been excessive, there really is no bar like it, with a cocktail geek’s attention to detail and history. Reading through the book that is the cocktail menu is an event in itself – and how I wish for a copy on my bookshelf. Recipes from as far back as the 1600 and 1700′s come with stories, history and artwork, best perused over classic punches served in teacups.

The atmosphere of the intimate, upstairs bar is the second high point besides the menu: low ceilings, candelight and hurricane lamps, an upright piano played soothingly in the background by a local pianist, a bronzed eagle atop the bar and paintings of figures in colonial history lining the walls.

Dead Rabbit cocktails

Dead Rabbit cocktails

Cocktails can be uneven (like the candied medicine taste of a Kilrain mixing Rhum J.M., Rabarbaro Zucca, raspberry cordial, Dead Rabbit Orinoco bitters, rhubarb root tincture and mint, topped with berries), particularly given the extensive drink selection, but there are thoughtful high points like an Evening Daisy of nettle tea-infused Jameson Black Barrel Irish Whiskey, Chase elderflower liqueur, lime, fennel syrup, dashes of Pernod absinthe and cucumber soda. It’s both refreshing and nuanced.


Looking across Evelyn's bar into second room

Looking across Evelyn’s bar into second room

An East Village gem, Evelyn: A Drinkery is all about punches ($7 small – love this option; $11 large), phosphates charged with Co2 (same pricing), and egg creams ($9), both with and without booze. The two-room, candelit space invites lingering while bright, rosy concoctions like Neverland Ranch, a phosphate combining Bombay Sapphire gin, crème de cacao, house beet shrub, orange and lemon, go down all to easy.

Boozy egg creams

Boozy egg creams

In addition, there’s cocktails, “Twisted Classics”, long drinks ($12 each), and stirred and boozy cocktails ($14), making it one of the more playful, fun menus in Manhattan, exemplified in their “Drinking Language” terminology (e.g. “If the bartender doesn’t say ‘hello’, ‘hey’, ‘how’s it going’, or offer some sort of greeting, call him/her out on it.”)

Intriguing cocktails include Daisy Ferrigno (Oxley gin, Green Chartreuse, pineapple, jalapeno syrup, lime, cilantro, served up), Improved Hit By A Car Number 2 (Fidencio Classico Mezcal, Tequila Ocho Plata, Green Chartreuse, Aperol, chipotle agave, lime, grapefruit bitters, served up), and my favorite, the savory, vibrant Mo F*#King Way (El Jimador Blanco Tequila, Benedictine, chipotle agave, Memphis BBQ bitters, passion fruit, lemon, Perrier, cayenne).

PDT, East Village

PDT flips

PDT flips

In a few short years, PDT is legend in the cocktail world, thanks to Jim Meehan. But for those of us who spend every day in restaurants and bars around the world, fighting through people pushing into a phone booth in a hot dog shop, Crif Dogs, trying to get into this famed “speakeasy” is far more work than we have time for to get a drink. However, if you happen to find yourself in the intimate bar, as I did upon my first return visit in years, I’d encourage you to go off-menu and ask for a flip (meaning it includes a whole egg) or a beer cocktail. While menu cocktails didn’t quite enchant, those two categories did.


PDT cocktail using the yet-to-be-released-in-the-US Nardini Bitter liqueur

Head Bartender Jeff Bell crafted a beauty when I asked for something using house-infused Four Roses bourbon, smoky with Benton’s incomparable Tennessee ham, which they use in their popular house Old Fashioned. Wittily named Nose to Cock-tail, he mixed the bourbon with lemon, orange, demerara syrup, and whole egg to decadent perfection. Ditto with a Black Flip using Brooklyn Brewery chocolate stout as a base with whole egg. Another beer cocktail highlight? Beer Cassis combining Ommegang Witte beer, the bitter-sweet of Byrrh Quinquina, and Caledonia elderberry cordial.


Sadly, my photos did not turn out from my visit to Pouring Ribbons but it is one of NYC’s great bar newcomers since fall 2012. Once you deal with yet another speakeasy-doorman scenario, head upstairs to a chill, roomy space where the cocktail menu is famously charted by taste profiles: refreshing to spirituous, comforting to adventurous.

PDT's friendly bar bear

PDT’s friendly bear

Cocktails please with approachable but not-too-simplistic combinations - like Gentleman’s Agreement ($14), mixing Beefeater gin, lime, like Spanish citrus-vanilla Licor 43 and cinnamon bitters with a five-spice salt rim.  The unique feature of the bar, however, is the extensive Chartreuse selection, some of it dating back to the 1940′s. My Chartreuse flight, thoughtfully selected by bartender Otis Steven Florence, included a 15 year old V.E.P. Liqueur Fabrique Par Les Peres Chartreux (green 54%, yellow 42%) and the now-defunct Sussex Green Chartreuse with fascinating notes of ginseng, heavy chamomile and fresh-cut grass.

THE RUM HOUSE, Times Square

In love with the Rum House

In love with the Rum House

The best thing to happen to Times Square in ages? The Rum House. This classic bar was revamped by the crew behind Ward III back in 2011, entirely to its benefit. While maintaining a dim, “lived in”, Old World feel, the spirits – particularly the rum – selection is stellar and the cocktails vastly improved. A heavenly respite from the madness of Times Square and the tourist throngs outside, its a true cocktail haven that feels like stepping onto an old movie set. Here, over a luxurious Negroni Leoni ($16), mixing Santa Teresa 1796 Solera rum, Ilegal Mezcal, sweet vermouth and Campari, I feel as if I’m in the Manhattan of old, comfortable in my vintage dresses, open to intriguing conversations with strangers at the bar, soon to become friends.

The Rest


Beautiful city views from Eataly's rooftop

Beautiful city views from Eataly’s rooftop

No, this isn’t about cocktails. It’s all about a stunning rooftop bar in view of the Flatiron building and the Manhattan skyline, idyllic on a warm day. Cask-conditioned beers ($10 a pint) and wines (like Bastianich wines on tap, $12-18) are the drinks on offer.

Best of all, beers are brewed rooftop in glistening gold tanks (“made 30 feet from where you sit”), are unfiltered and unpasteurized, naturally carbonated, and served at traditional cellar temps of 50-55 F. I enjoyed Wanda (chestnut mild ale), Giuseppina (Italian-American IPA), and Patrizia (American dry stout brewed with Wellfleet oysters from Matthew Shellfish Co.)

BOOKER & DAX, East Village

The glow of Booker & Dax

The glow of Booker & Dax

Despite the molecular raves (I ever long for the experimental side of cooking and cocktails to be prevalent in the mix next to classic and straightforward) and though I loved Dave Arnold‘s cocktails at national events, I was a bit disappointed in my experience at Booker and Dax. Much like my visit a few years ago to its already legendary parent restaurant Momofuku Ssam next door, things sounded better than tasted.

Booker & Dax cocktails

Booker & Dax cocktails

In the case of a Lechuga ($14), a mix of gin, lemon, and bibb lettuce freeze-dried then muddled into powder,  the end result is little flavor. I guess I should have expected that with bibb lettuce, but I was hoping for vegetal notes in a fresh, clean cocktail. It tasted like icy water with a backbone of gin. Likewise, a BDX Marg, sounded delightful, combining mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, Cointreau, and lime served over shave ice (a nod to Hawaii and Japan), but tasted more icy than nuanced. The cocktail that worked for me was surprisingly the sweetest and best as dessert, a Banana Justino. Merely two ingredients – Zacapa 23 rum and bananas – are run through a centrifuge, yielding a thick elixir, sweet and bracing.

CASA MEZCAL, LES (Lower East Side)

Casa Mezcal

Casa Mezcal

Charming, funky Oaxacan decor (Day of the Dead paraphernalia, colorful lights and artwork) and friendly service goes a long way in making Casa Mezcal a worthwhile stop, though I haven’t eaten here so can’t vouch for the food. Mezcal cocktails aren’t exactly noteworthy, especially given the average $14 and up price tag. But they are good and the mezcal selection strong (menu grouped by agave plant varietal). Over mid-afternoon cocktails with grasshopper salt, it feels as if I’m right back in Oaxaca.

EMPELLON, East Village

Empellon cocktails

Empellon cocktails

With one of my two best bar experiences of my 20+ bars this visit being Saxon + Parole under Naren Young (see above), I am eager to return to Empellon Cocina, no doubt even better under his watch. That being said, there were already some players on the menu, particularly a rosy, beet and reposado tequila cocktail, tinged with mezcal smoke, alive with ginger, vanilla, lemon.

ELSA, East Village

Elsa's classic book bill holders

Elsa’s check holders

Settling in to my East Village apartment rental directly above Elsa, I was pleased to have a charming, intimate bar downstairs, replete with vintage touches (like old books used as check holders and Victoriana-style menus). I was less thrilled, however, with only big brand liquor behind the bar – given their “craft” style, there was a nary a smaller brand to be found – and solid but not memorable cocktails. Black Book ($12) sounded lovely, mixing bourbon, rhubarb rose water reduction, cucumber, Aperol, and lime rhubarb bitter. But as with all the cocktails I tried here, the more vegetal, herbal I hoped would shine, were barely discernible.

MILK & HONEY, LES (Lower East Side)

Milk & Honey

Milk & Honey

As essentially the speakeasy that launched the speakeasy trend of the past decade plus way back in 2000 (if you’re not counting Angel’s Share, a favorite haunt of mine in the ’90′s with hidden cocktail bar upstairs through an Asian restaurant), I will always have a soft spot for the original Milk and Honey through a dingy door on a sketchy, Lower East Side block. That’s all gone now as LES is plenty gentrified, while the original, dim, dive-y space is now Attaboy, a similar bar from the same owners.

The new Milk & Honey reminds me a bit of Dutch Kills in Queens or The Varnish in LA or any other derivative spot across the country, with elegant, understated, Prohibition-era decor. That is to say, I don’t find it particularly original or memorable – but when in the Flatiron District, the swank location of M&H is a solid stop for well-made cocktails and doo-wop over the sound system, as was the case on my last visit.

PRESERVE 24, LES (Lower East Side)

Preserve 24's downstairs bar

Preserve 24′s downstairs bar

Having just opened when I rented a nearby apartment, Preserve 24 is most notable for its Jules Verne-esque, old world look. Circa 1800′s underwater diving equipment, beer taps made from piano pedals, an eclectic mishmash of woods and antiques in a two-floor, multi-room space are delightful.

I haven’t tried the food, but the cocktails are lovely in concept and solid, if not as balanced/nuanced as I would hope for, like a Compass Rose ($13) mixing pisco, bourbon, Green Chartreuse, house strawberry rhubarb preserves and Peychaud’s bitters, or a smoky-soft El Hecho combining mezcal, velvet falernum, lime and parsley honey.

THE WAYLAND, East Village

The Wayland's

The Wayland’s Garden Variety Margarita

Though it can be a bit too noisy to talk, the glow over over rustic wood floors, vintage ceramics and glassware is all-encompassing at The Wayland. Their famed Garden Variety Margarita ($11) is really is all that, laden with blanco tequila, ginger, lime, agave nectar, smoked sea salt and beautiful use of kale. Not merely trendy, I could happily do more kale cocktails. Another winning mix? Indian Summer ($11), combining Ford’s Gin, lime, curry, cilantro and chili salt. Hail to refreshing, savory cocktails!

WHITEHALL, West Village

Whitehall cocktails

Whitehall cocktails

Impressive as Whitehall’s gin collection is, the understated cocktails don’t quite showcase the beautiful botanical spirit.

They are simple, understated, yes, but also forgettable, even soft and muddled in terms of flavor. Too bad, as the cool, white ceramic walls and relaxed bar staff make it an inviting place to pop in while in the West Village.


Wandering Traveler

Ever magical from my girlhood and now... the view from Empire State Building on a clear May night

Ever magical since my girlhood: the view from Empire State Building on a clear night

NEW YORK: Edible in the Big Apple

Photos & Article by Virginia Miller

Empire State of Mind

Empire State of Mind

Back in my beloved New York, home of my teenage years. Until just a few years ago, it was the place I’d come home to for the holidays when my parents still lived in New Jersey. I miss the more constant visits of my past even as I still return to visit my lifelong best friend, dear friends and colleagues.

Despite only a couple lovely days out of a ten-day visit in late May through early June (the rest were either pouring rain and sweltering hot and suffocating), my recent “research” trip visiting friends and family, involved dozens of restaurants and cocktail bars, plays and treks through Eataly for espresso and rooftop beers.

Here’s a list of standouts from this trip – and the overrated, which always happens in New York, still a place of extremes – the best and the worst (e.g., even as NY Times’ 10 Best Restaurant Openings were just announced, I found two of them, Hanjan and Alder, below, disappointing). Best in cocktails and bars in my next newsletter:

East Village & LES (Lower East Side)

ALDER, East Village

Best dish in my early visit

Best dish in my early visit

Excitement for pioneering molecular Chef Wylie Dufresne’s latest aside, eating at Alder merely seven weeks after opening was a real disappointment in terms of flavor and even “ordinary” combinations. As much as I’ve long admired Dufresne for his pioneering molecular experimentation, I found little to thrill after trying multiple dishes here. Surprisingly, the best dish? Ubiquitous beets, perfected with fluffy coconut ricotta and aromatic Thai basil.


Barrio Chino mole

Barrio Chino mole

Coming from a “spoiled” Californian (and regular traveler to Mexico), the tacos at Barrio Chino are just ok, but it’s the mole negro (“mama’s recipe”) that sold me, transporting me right back to Oaxaca. The languid, open-air casualness of lunch on a warm day is idyllic over Mexican food and solid margaritas.


Nearly a decade ago, my sister & I were charmed by hole-in-the-wall Doughnut Plant when it was just a little counter offering a handful of doughnuts. Now it’s an expansive, tightly-run shop of all varieties of doughnuts – from filled to yeast to cake doughnuts – and better than ever.

Salsa tasting at Empellon

Salsa tasting at Empellon

EMPELLON, East Village

Pastrami tacos

Pastrami tacos

Empellon Cocina was smart to recently sign on Naren Young to run their bar program. The refined balance he brought to bars like Saxon + Parole and The Daily is now Empellon’s gain. This summer, just before Young came on board, Empellon’s cocktails were already solid, particularly a rosy, beet and reposado tequila cocktail, tinged with mezcal smoke, alive with ginger, vanilla, lemon. I’m eager to see how Young further improves the cocktail, tequila and mezcal program at Empellon Cocina and Taqueria.

Crab & mango

Crab & mango

As for food, Empellon is among the more ambitious Mexican restaurants to come along in NYC, a city I’ve long struggled to find an honest-to-goodness Mexican meal in. Back east (really, in most of the US), Mexican food is shadow of the quality commonplace in California and Mexico, and far from as fresh in terms of produce.

Empellon cocktails

Empellon cocktails

Amid a few misses, there are moments of brilliance on the Cocina menu, not the least of which is their array of salsas. A tasting of all seven ($3) is the part of the meal that stands out, even months later. Perfecting salsas is no easy task, yet here it’s a vivid journey of textures and flavors, from a salsa de arbol made of arbol chilies, cider vinegar, sesame and pumpkin seeds, to a thick smoked cashew salsa laden with chipotle.

While classic tacos ($8-24) like carnitas are a bland disappointment, shortrib pastrami tacos sing, feeling appropriately New York dotted with pickled cabbage and mustard seed salsa. Likewise, Chef Alex Stupak’s creative vision shines in seafood starters like raw, paper thin shrimp ($14) punctuated with sea urchin mousse, or thinly sliced mounds of mango dotted with arbol chile, lime and a peekytoe crab salad. It’s all pricey, served in a dim, understated dining room, but there peak moments that reach beyond many other Manhattan hotspots.


Il Laboratorio

Il Laboratorio

Il Laboratorio del Gelato is one of my NYC loves for nearly a decade when it was a tiny shop serving only a few flavors a day.

Now it’s a large, pristine ice cream laboratory crafting some of the best ice cream/gelato in the US on par with the great, true gelatos in Italy. Just try to resist bracing Guinness, chocolate Thai chili, or lime fresh mint.


Lobster Joint

Lobster Joint

Just blocks from my East Village/Alphabet City apartment, Lobster Joint, a casual, spanking white restaurant, was ideal for Dark & Stormys, buttery Connecticut or herb mayo New England lobster rolls, and hearty lobster shepherd’s pie. This trip also included return to visits to my all-time favorite lobster roll outpost (and favorite NY seafood restaurant), Pearl’s Oyster Bar, and to my second favorite, Mary’s Fish Camp. When in the Lower East Side, Lobster Joint is a solid lobster roll stop.

LUZZO’S, East Village

Luzzo's ceiling

Luzzo’s ceiling

There are better pizzas in New York, but being NY, Luzzo’s Neapolitan-style pizza is still quite good, cooked in a 100 year old coal oven.

The beloved locals restaurant exudes a dated, bustling charm in dingy browns, with furniture dramatically upside down on the ceiling, and the place packed with festive friends drinking cheap Chianti over rounds of pies and pasta.

MACARON PARLOUR, East Village/Alphabet City

Macaron Parlour

Macaron Parlour

Macaron Parlour creates not only some of the best macarons in New York but in the whole country.

Though many macaron-makers across the US get classic macaron texture right, often flavor is weak and diminutive compared to divine Parisian macarons. Not so at the Parlour where vibrant peanut butter and banana or maple cream cheese studded with hunks of candied bacon are as alive with flavor yet elegant as Paris macarons.

MARK, East Village



A humble, funky little dive of a slider bar, Mark serves solid mini-burgers from cheese to bacon.

But the best edible surprise is a meaty-sweet, thick candied bacon milkshake ($7), a decadent thrill accompanied by fries. Feel free to dip them in the shake for the height of salty-sweet pleasure.

PYLOS, East Village

Pylos ceiling

Pylos ceiling

When in NY, do yourself a favor and head to Astoria, Queens, if you want some of the best Greek food outside of Greece. But for Manhattan, Pylos is the best I’ve had over the past 25 years of living near or visiting NY.

The warm, bustling, intimate space has a lovely Greek wine list, creamy moussaka, perfectly-grilled octopus, savory lamb, piping hot pita to dip in lush spreads, and lovely fish entrees like pistachio-crusted bass.


Pastrami or dill lox

Pastrami or dill lox

Along with everyone who knows anything about proper bagels or lox, I’ve raved about Russ and Daughters for years. It is the quintessential, classic NY Jewish deli and bagel heaven (they also do right by a Brooklyn Egg Cream).

Order cuts of their pastrami or dill-cured lox (salmon) on its own or on a bagel and try not to sigh with happiness. Menu bagel sandwiches like Pastrami Russ ($10.75) are well worth your time, too, where pastrami-cured salmon, sauerkraut and mustard oozes from dense-yet-light bagels. When renting a nearby apartment, you can bet a selling point was its three block proximity to R & D.




Tache Artisan Chocolate is a top-notch gourmet chocolatier in the ‘hood serving boozy tequila dark chocolate truffles, mango toffee or Japanese chili bonbons, and ridiculously good toffee, chocolate and beef jerky.




Though I want to heartily recommend the uber-spicy, cheap ($15 for three dishes is the norm) food of literal hole-in-the-wall and beloved NYC Chinese chain, Xi’an Famous Foods, I have two words for you from my meal at the East Village location: food poisoning.

Given my global travels and the fact that I eat everything from animal organs to bugs, I’ve certainly had my share of food poisoning. But it’s been awhile since I’ve had it in the States and it sadly put a damper on otherwise fond memories of fiery hot cold buckwheat noodles, Qi pork hand-ripped noodles and that tasty lamb burger.

Murray's Cheese Bar

Murray’s Cheese Bar

West Village & Greenwich Village


Naked Flock cider

Naked Flock cider

Murray’s Cheese Bar has become one of my favorite NY haunts. The famed cheese shop has been around since 1940 (and ships!), while the West Village Cheese Bar just opened in the summer of 2012. It’s a casual restaurant offering the likes of creamy cheddar grits with Tickler cheddar skin ($6) alongside a kale Cesar in lemon dressing ($12). Pair with a fine selection of wines, beers and ciders, like a dry Naked Flock Hard Cider from Warwick, NY, the town I went apple picking every fall with my family, not far from our Jersey home.

The pinnacle of Murray’s menu is – not surprisingly – cheese flights (from $10-36, or $6 a la carte) grouped in themes like Week in Review, the cheesemonger’s three favorites of the week from the cellar below, matched with house jams, butters and the like. For example, a dreamy upstate NY sheep’s milk cheese is crusted in chamomile, lavender, lemon and thyme, served with tea rose petal jam. Neil’s Yard Welsh cheese is sharp and grassy paired with apple butter, while raw Caveman Blue from the Rogue River region of Oregon is luxurious with toasted nuts and peanut-butter-esque chunky sesame caramel.

RED FARM, West Village

Red Farm booths

Red Farm booths

Unusual dim sum, communal seating, cheerful service and charming upscale farmhouse feel with red and white-checked pillows and cloth napkins warm up darling Red Farm. Food and the cocktails ($12) are hit-and-miss during brunch, although the hits are strong.

Pastrami egg rolls!

Pastrami egg rolls

A Yuzu Caipirnha of Leblon cachaca, lime, agave, yuzu syrup is at least blessedly bright, but ever-wonderful Yamazaki 12 year whisky gets lost in a Suntory Old Fashioned, watered down by improper mixing/too much ice, while the listed nori essence  was indiscernible and could have elevated the tasteless drink. In terms of food, however, Katz pastrami egg rolls dipped in mustard sauce ($7.50) are killer, properly evoking NY and Chinese dim sum simultaneously.

Avocado mango summer rolls ($12) are fresh and crisp, even if pork-crab Shanghai-style soup dumplings (4 for $12) or crunchy vegetable peanut dumplings (4 for $10) are sadly lackluster in flavor and texture.

Seafood tower at NoMad

Seafood tower at NoMad


HANJAN, Flatiron

Hanjan fried rice

Hanjan fried rice

Couple a rude host with average food in the creative-modern Korean bent and I couldn’t help but leave Hanjan recalling superior (and far more interesting) meals at Korean “fusion” places like Namu in San Francisco or far more satisfying hole-in-the-wall Korean meals in LA and Queens, NY. Galbi skewers, salmon sashimi, scallion squid pancake, fried chicken, fried rice… it was all solid (if somewhat one note in flavor – typically salt), but not noteworthy.

NoMad, Flatiron

Elegant corner tables in The NoMad

Elegant corner tables

The ever-hyped NoMad is as gorgeous and sexy as you’ve heard, from a black and gold, 1920′s-esque lobby of the hotel housing the restaurant, to a luxurious red room lined with velvet booths and curtains. Blessedly feeling like a real night on the town, NoMad gets service and atmosphere right alongside their continuously-lauded chicken for two ($79), lush with foie gras and black truffle (reminiscent of the chicken for two that Monterey’s Restaurant 1833 started serving in 2011 with truffle butter injected under the skin).

NoMad Cocktails

NoMad Cocktails

When it comes to the expensive menu, however, it’s hit-and-miss. Beef tartare ($16) with cornichons and horseradish is gratifying but no different than at dozens of other restaurants, while a spring garlic veloute (soup) is far from worth $17 despite welcome inflections of fresh ricotta and ham. I couldn’t even finish a lukewarm, dry suckling pig ($35) contrasted by dried plums, onions and wild greens.

On the “hits” side, a tower of Fruits de Mer “Le Grand Plateau” ($24 per person) is a decadent pleasure of seasonal seafood delicacies, including lobster and caviar. An asparagus bread salad ($24) was surprisingly my favorite dish. Again, it’s costly for a vegetable dish but beautifully executed accented by smoked potato, black truffle and a bright douse of lemon.

Upper East Side



Staying on the Upper East Side means excellent bagels and lox. My two favorite classics, are historic dives serving bagels and creamy schmear (cream cheese spreads): Sable’s and H&H Midtown Bagels, the latter of which conveniently also offers mini-bagels, toasted and schmeared.

Le Churro

Le Churro

In addition to these traditional joys, when staying at my best friend’s lovely Upper East Side apartment, I toted home warm bags of mini, filled churros from Le Churro, like the childhood-evocative peanut butter and jelly (3 for $4.25). I satisfied my coffee snob leanings with a daily coffee run to Oslo Coffee Roasters.

A vegetarian, healthful break was appreciated at one of NYC’s longtime (since the 1990′s) vegan favorites: Candle 79. Though pricey, the mellow space was a relaxing respite from the intense heat that had already hit at the beginning of June.

Vegan sushi at Candle 79

Vegan sushi at Candle 79

Upper West Side

L’ARTE DEL GELATO, Upper West Side

NYC L'arte - Virginia MillerClassically old school Italian gelato, L’arte del Gelato, gets the lush factor right whether in nutty, creamy flavors like peanut, bright/fresh flavors like mint, or a tart fruitt di bosco.

Herring platter at Aamann's Copenhagen

Herring platter at Aamann’s Copenhagen





With my draw to the clean lines of Scandinavian cuisine, I had to check out Aamanns-Copenhagen, a sunny, white cafe with dramatically high ceilings on a wide, TriBeCa street.

Open-faced smørrebrød sandwiches are a draw for lunch (a deal compared to pricey dinners), but their beautiful trio of herring was the real standout. Though infused aquavits and other dishes were lackluster, there are worthwhile moments at Aamans, even if one would do better to head to Aquavit Bistro.


SALVATION TACO at the POD 39 HOTEL, Midtown East

Chef April Bloomfield’s Salvation Taco was brand new when I was in NY this May-June. The immediate impression of the food? Mediocre.

Salvation Taco/lobby of Pod 39 Hotel

Salvation Taco/lobby of Pod 39 Hotel

Upscale (read: pricey) tacos and Mexican snacks won’t satisfy a Californian or true Mexican food lover. But it’s the funky-cool, hipster Mexican decor in spacious lobbies and Salvation’s restaurant space at the Pod 39 Hotel that make a notable backdrop for chips and guac with a margarita. Really, the destination is the 17th floor rooftop bar. Go early on a weekday to avoid a wait and crowds but brick and pillars outline a dramatic Manhattan view, romantic and striking enough to make one (almost) forget lackluster cocktails.

17th floor rooftop bar at Pod 39 Hotel

17th floor rooftop bar at Pod 39 Hotel

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Wandering Traveler

Imbiber in NEW YORK CITY


Though my May New York adventures brought me to some of the city’s newer treasures (see June 15 issue), I also made sure I hit up some of the greats of the past decade for a sip of what they’ve been serving lately:

Milk & Honey classics (L: Paper Plane; R: Penicillin)

Milk & Honey, Lower East Side - Through its dodgy, unmarked door into a musty yet romantic (?) interior, Milk & Honey remains one of the best bars in all of NY, father of the speakeasy renaissance (opened in 2000), even if cocktails are a whopping $15 or $16 each. Ice is of highest, hand-chipped quality, and the Penicillin, created here, is always the go-to drink for the uninitiated. But my recent visit held the beauties of a boozy Paper Plane (Amaro Nino, Aperol, bourbon), and a brilliant variation of a Corpse Reviver, along with the company of lovely regulars we chatted with for ages at the bar.

Death & Co's Southern Exposure & Pearls Before Swine

Death & Co., East Village – In the early days, this bar was mellow, sophisticated, with impeccable cocktails. That still holds true, while required table seating thankfully attempts to keep the mellow part in check, but it is a scene now and doesn’t always feel like a bar filled with cocktail lovers. This is apparent from the (kindly) bouncer, the long waits to get in, etc… Fabulous, new Cienfuegos is on the same block so if the wait is too long, head there instead. But Death & Co. creates some of the best cocktails in New York, evidenced by their double win last week (it was exciting to be at the Spirited Awards in New Orleans – more next Perfect Spot) at Tales of the Cocktail for Best American Cocktail Bar and World’s Best. Not sure I’d call it either, but it remains a wonderfully fine bar.

My last visit showed range and contrast between the spicy, vibrant Southern Exposure (jalapeno-infused Chinaco Blanco, Sombra Mezcal, lime, petit cane syrup, fresh red pepper puree, kosher salt) and a lightly creamy, intriguing Pearls Before Swine (Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength Gin, lemon, orgeat, greek yogurt, lemon curd, rose water). The latter was a delicious stand-out. I respect (when well done) this kind of experimentation in cocktails.

The spread at Flatiron Lounge

Flatiron Lounge, Flatiron - Though I don’t think Flatiron Lounge has held up in the cocktail renaissance compared to some newer, better bars (I’d rather go a block or two away to Raines Law Room), Julie Reiner (who went on to help launch Pegu Club and Clover Club) opened this place ahead of the resurgence, back in 2003. It has historic touches like an original 1927 mahogany bar from The Ballroom that Sinatra and other celebrities frequented. These touches make it special, even if the space is a little lacking in warmth or transporting mood. Cocktails (mostly $13) are solid, if not revelatory, from a refreshing King Rose: gin, basil, strawberries, lime; Vincente’s Antidote: silver tequila, Green Chartreuse, elderflower liqueur, lemon, grapefruit bitters; to Ship to Shore: cognac, dark rum, earl grey tea, figs, lemon, sherry.

Little Branch, West Village - Little Branch, from the unstoppable Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey, is (similar to M&H) a musty bar that comes off a little like a bowling alley bar tucked in a basement during Prohibition. The menu is short, sweet, sticking to classics. But what these bartenders make best is off menu. It is pretty much about spirituous classics here and I go with bartender’s choice, knowing they’ll always satisfy my thirst with well-crafted libations.

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Wandering Traveler


The glow of the Chrysler by Grand Central Station

My beloved New York. The city that awakened me, at the sensitive age of 14, to cities… and the world. I put my hand over my heart upon first glimpse of the radiance of Manhattan at night from Jersey’s banks, where I lived during high school (and my family lived for years beyond).

There’s always dear friends, family, and such an ease and familiarity with city, it’s like second nature roaming its neighborhoods via the metro, wandering “the villages”, Flatiron or Lower East Side, endlessly hunting for a proper coffee (I finally found some on my last visit – see Imbiber). I always feel at home (my second home, it is), with a lifetime of memories all over Manhattan and the other four boroughs.

As I come close to wrapping up my recent NY series, here are my other NY articles.


Coconut Chicken

Double Crown, Noho - One of the better dinner deals I’ve seen in New York is at Double Crown, an airy, open space with modern Asian decor, an intriguing basement, sidewalk patio and cooking influenced by various regions of Asia (see their intelligent, visually gorgeous blog cataloging the owners’ Asian travels, gathering culinary influences for their menu).

Coconut Laksa

Nonya Nights happen Sundays, inspired by family-style dining of Singapore and Malaysia with Chinese and Southeast Asian influences, and are $35 per person for eight courses. Friends, for NY, this is a steal and though portions are small, they are not minuscule – you will be quite full by the end of eight dishes.

Yellowtail Sashimi

Though every dish is not a stand-out, the whole forms a pleasing meal, from Coconut Laksa soup with crab, rice noodles and bean sprouts, to Yellowtail Sashimi with cucumber, hijiki and citrus-truffle dressing. I savored lobster chunks in Lobster Lo Mein Noodles with mussels, scallions and cilantro, as well as Crispy Brussels Sprouts in chili caramel.

Sweet & Sour Eggplant

Over a long dinner with dear friends, it’s a fine communal meal, while the candlelit glow of the dining room inspires conversation, with friendly but unobtrusive service.

Finish with Chocolate Thai Iced Coffee Cake, satisfied by the thoughtfully created feast you’ve devoured for a mere $35. Don’t forget to head next door to their gin bar, Madam Geneva for preserve and jam gin cocktails after or pre-dinner.

CHEAP EATS: East Village duo

Caracas in the East Village

Caracas Arepas Bar, East VillageCaracas Arepa Bar is a cheap, utterly satisfying NY meal: Venezuelan homemade arepas stuffed with all kinds of goodness. The tiny, charming East Village spot became so popular, there’s a to-go side and now a second Brooklyn location. Everything is under $7.50 and waits are long unless you arrive early, but you can order Camburada ($4.75 – banana cinnamon milkshake) and Guasacaca & Chips ($6.25 – Venezuelan-style guacamole with plaintain and sweet potato chips) while you wait. I love the La de Pernil Arepa ($7) stuffed with tender pork shoulder, tomato and spicy mango sauce. But I was equally pleased with the vegetarian La Mulata Arepa ($6.25) filled with white cheese, jalapenos, sauteed red peppers, fried sweet plantains and black beans.

Luke's delightful Lobster Rolls

Luke’s, East VillageHead right next door from Caracas and you’ll find Luke’s Lobster Shack, a humble hole-in-the-wall with a couple stools, take-out Maine seafood and a second location on the Upper East Side. Operating on principles of sustainability and New England authenticity, the prices are “cheap” for NY and for lobster rolls: get a whole Lobster Roll for $14 or an ideal “snack size” for $8. Loaded with buttery lobster from Maine and a light coating of mayo, it may not be my beloved Pearl’s in the Village, but it’s up there and a steal. For an extra $2, get the roll with Maine Root Soda, Miss Vickie’s chips and a pickle.

GOING UPSCALE… at the right price

Aquavit Bistro, East 50′s -I’ve been trying to get to Aquavit for years, certainly having long heard about the mark chef Marcus Samuelsson left on modern Scandinavian cooking via this restaurant. It’s also sadly difficult to find Scandinavian cuisine. I adore the region’s focus on fresh fish, salmon, caviar, herring and, of course, the namesake spirit, aquavit.

Aquavits are a highlight at Aquavit

Again looking for deals, I dined in the spare, upscale IKEA bistro versus the more stuffy, pricey dining room (though I love the chairs in the bar area of the dining room). Quality does not suffer in the bistro, while service is gracious and well-orchestrated.

Despite a thoughtfully chosen drink menu, I had to go for a $17 flight of three (or $7 each) of the house-infused aquavits, though narrowing down flavors was problematic. I suspect I’d love most of these since the three I chose were all lovely, from a crisp cucumber, to hot mango/lime/chili, to my favorite: horseradish. There could not have been a better accompaniment to the food.

Artful Matjes Herring

Each dish delighted and portions were generous – The Renaissance Man and I left positively (emphasis on the positive) stuffed. Gravlax ($11) is heaping slices of bright, cured salmon in hovmastar (a mustard/white vinegar based sauce) with dill and lemon. I equally fell for Matjes Herring ($10): thin slices of herring with finely diced yellow beets, red onions and sour cream. Chilled Green Tomato Soup ($11) was almost tart with green tomato skins and pulpy juice, given finesse with apple, horseradish and crunchy croutons.

Swedish Meatballs

Swedish Meatballs ($19) were the best I’ve ever had, redolent with cinnamon and gentle spicing in the meat. The massive mountain of meatballs and mound of whipped potato puree contrasted nicely with pickled cucumbers, sweet lingonberries, and  addictive cream sauce.

I longed to try dessert (Stuffed Swedish Pancake with goat cheese cream?), but had not an inch of space to spare in my stomach, though it was happy with me for feeding it ultra-fresh fish. This is now a New York favorite and I’m more than a little sad not to have a place like it here in SF.

Sho Shaun Hergatt, Wall Street/Financial District - Sho Shaun Hergatt is a newer fine dining kid-on-the-block getting rave reviews for it’s “Asian-accented French cuisine” from chef Shaun Hergatt.

Sho Shaun Hergatt's Lobster Bisque

I was pleased to enjoy this expensive destination at lunch for a $30 Prix Fixe. Normally, lunch prix fixe menus offer throwaway menu items but as our waiter explained, theirs features some of Hergatt’s most popular dishes. The Renaissance Man and I ordered one prix fixe plus a la carte dishes for a fine cross section of dishes also on the dinner menu (note: prices reflect lunch menu costs). For lunch, it’s a Zen-like atmosphere with Asian-influenced decor, white linens and refined service, while convivial diners and staff glow in the expansive room.

Japanese Escolar

With wine, lunch ended up being around $100 for two, but would have cost double at dinner. A deal for fine dining in NY. Wines reflected a welcome range of locals, like an ’07 Rkatsiteli from Dr. Konstantin Frank in Finger Lakes, NY ($11 a glass), or far-reaching, like a Spanish ’09 Albarino, Lagar de Costa from Rias Baixas ($14).

For my Prix Fixe ($30), I ordered a delicate Chilled Lobster Bisque with peach and basil, succulent Seared Soft Shell Crab with cilantro and Florence fennel, and for dessert, Banana Millefeuille, elegantly bright with passion fruit, lime mousse, coconut milk ice cream. Each dish flowed into the next with grace.

Surprising Frog Legs presentation

Possibly my favorite dish was Florida Frog Legs ($22) with spring garlic puree and silky onion espuma under a pasta blanket… a confident, unusual presentation, tender and full of flavor. I also loved Thai basil froth and basil seeds dotting the artful Japanese Escolar dish ($30) with Hon Shemiji (edible mushrooms).

I’m not sure I would have been happy paying dinner prices, but for lunch, Sho Shaun Hergatt is an unpretentious fine dining addition to Manhattan.


Cured Hamachi ($16) w/ horseradish edamame beans, pea leaves

Momofuku Ssam, East VillageWho continues to remain hotter than hot in NY? David Chang, that’s who. I started to pray I wouldn’t hear any more about him as the constant Momofuku raves were getting tiresome all the way from this coast. Sure, I always meant to go to one of his restaurants, and even after his ignorant but truly no-big-deal SF comment and his fun and funky cookbook, I was going more because I finally should rather than because I was excited to.

Kimchi Bloody Mary

I decided on Ssam as his mid-range venture between fine dining and noodle bar, but also one with consistently high accolades. I can’t say I was blown away. But I had a festive meal with The Renaissance Man and my dear NY cousin, one where tripe and pork belly happily played prominent.

Spicy Rice Cakes, my top dish

We started off right with the Bloody Mary special, given a unique slant with kimchi. Hell, yes. We had to chow down on those now ubiquitous Steamed Pork Belly Buns ($9) which were certainly good, but I’ve had versions at least as good elsewhere, though granted, they were copying his. Kudos to Chang for taking pork buns the gourmet pork belly route. Spicy Honeycomb Tripe ($13) may not be the best tripe dish I’ve tasted (Oakland’s Oliveto is in the running for that one), but it was palatable for those who fear the stomach lining, with ginger, scallion, celery, pickled tomatoes.

Those oft-copied Pork Belly Buns

There’s nice platters of country hams, Corned Beef Terrine and the like, but my top dish may have been chewy, dense cubes of Spicy Rice Cakes ($18), accented by pork sausage, Chinese broccoli and crispy shallots. The dish managed just the right balance of heat in it’s red, chili-soaked rice bites, but it is, first and foremost, Asian comfort food.

Dessert was a refreshing, tart Grapefruit Cream Pie. It’s one fault was being a little too frozen, but the taste profile was just what you wanted to end this sort of meal with.

Momofuku Ssam is worth a visit, even if I couldn’t see putting it on my favorites list.

Momofuku Milk Bar's soft serve ice cream

Momofuku Milk Bar, East Village Next door to Ssam is Milk Bar, a charming little storefront serving flavored milks, pastries, cookies and ice cream. While none of it is the best I’ve ever had, it’s a playful shop (with a Midtown location as well) offering fun soft serve flavors ($4.15) like Carrot Cake or Cereal Milk, or Compost Cookies ($1.85) loaded with pretzels, coffee, potato chips, chocolate chips, butterscotch and oats. Or how about a Kimchi & Blue Cheese Croissant ($6)? They also serve Stumptown coffee so you can’t steer too wrong.

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Wandering Traveler


It’s always like coming home to my lifelong best friend in Queens, and now that my dear cousin lives in Brooklyn, I was able to take in some of the affordable eats in these boroughs in my couple days stay after a full week in Manhattan (see my other NY articles)… all excellent. Queens really does have some of the best dining deals in NY.

Addictive house bread & yogurt cucumber dip

TAVERNA KYCLADES, Astoria, Queens – I’ve long wanted to dine on Greek food in Astoria, ground zero for all things Greek. Taverna Kyclades was the perfect choice: with old friends, eating family-style in a humble, convivial space; one half an indoor dining room, the other an enclosed glass patio. It feels like a casual seafood/fish house, which in fact, it is, in the form of platters of Greek food shared by Greek families packing the place out.

Excellent Peasant Salad

House bread arrives piping hot, addictive with olive oil or one of their house dips, like Yogurt/Garlic/ Cucumber Dip ($5.50). Peasant Salad ($7.50 small; $10.95 large) is plenty large, even as a small. Plump, red tomatoes, heaping amounts of onions and olives, and a big slab of  fresh feta cheese… a beautiful salad.

Memorable Grilled Octopus

Mythos Beer washed down Grilled Sardines ($14.95) and lemon potatoes (which you can also order as a side), tasting vividly lemony but in an almost unnatural yellow hue.  Filet of Sole stuffed with Crab Meat (19.75) was the one ok dish: old school, not the freshest crab, reminding me of the 1950′s style of seafood entrees you find at SF’s Tadich Grill.

Kyclades' grilled sardines & lemon potatoes

The piece de resistance is Grilled Octopus ($11.95), a succulent spread of plump invertebrates, envigorated by a squeeze of lemon. Opa!

SPICY & TASTY, Flushing, Queens - Frank Bruni once reviewed Spicy & Tasty, placing it firmly on NY’s culinary map. I wanted to see if years of raves were true, and staying literally a mile away, I couldn’t pass up the chance. The simple dining room looks like plenty of other Chinese eateries, as does the menu. But there is a freshness level that is cut above, exemplified in veggie dishes, such as lightly crisp Green Beans or a Seaweed Salad. Though there was a language barrier with the servers, they did their best to help when I asked for recommendations.

A Spicy & Tasty spread

Famous Dan Dan Noodles ($5) with minced pork are basic white noodles in a sauce that at first tastes like unchallenging soy sauce fare, but unfolds with complex nuances that come from chili oil and sesame. Szechuan-style Chicken ($8.95) is quite moist with a mild burn that grows the more you ingest.

Peanut Butter Sweet Sticky Rice Balls

I became ecstatic upon biting into Peanut Butter Sweet Sticky Rice Ball ($2.95), listed under Szechuan Delicacies“. Everyone else at my table thought it sounded wholly unappealing but I was intrigued, and at that price, figured I couldn’t lose.  It was the highlight of my meal. Four sticky rice balls they were, with a savory peanut sauce drizzled over the top and a surprising, warm interior of black sesame. It tasted of smoky campfire and oozing peanut butter in mochi-like wraps.  How could I not tingle with discovery?

Spicy & Tasty Dan Dan Noodles

HAN JOO CHICK Korean BBQ, Flushing, QueensHere’s the sad part: I’m not going to be able to give you a lot of details on this one. My best friend’s husband (and dear friend of ours) is Korean so he knew where to go. The staff only speak Korean, there is no website, and there are few if any reviews I can find on the place other than a couple Yelp comments.

But let’s just say the crowds of local Koreans frequenting this place are in the know about Han Joo Chick’s BBQ, beyond the greasy fare you find at many a Korean BBQ joint. Yes, you’ll see the same sides and dishes you might have elsewhere, but flavor is ratcheted up a few notches. The meat is fatty mounds of pork belly sizzling as excess juice runs down the slanted grill, flavoring veggies at the bottom. There’s a dense spread of bowls full of pickled delights, various styles of kimchi, and Pajeon extravagantly loaded with seafood. I would eat here again and again… and wish I could.

Dutch Kills' cocktails

DUTCH KILLS, LIC, Queens - I want to love Dutch Kills, Queens first honest-to-goodness, Manhattan-style speakeasy in a god-forsaken stretch of Long Island City. If you’re in the area (and if you are, you must drive to the LIC waterfront for a moonlit walk with Manhattan laid out before you!), I’d recommend it for a nightcap. Bar seating is limited since the bar is all by itself in a back room, away from view of cozy wood booths up front. The setting feels blue collar Prohibition-era, which suits me just fine.

Entering Dutch Kills

But somehow, despite direct association with the unstoppable Milk & Honey crew, and its breath-of-fresh-air-compared-to-Manhattan prices at $10 a cocktail, I was mildly disappointed.

Our drinks were classic concoctions, all solid, but not as perfectly balanced as at Milk & Honey, nor as interesting. When asked for bartender’s choice and giving parameters (spirituous, never sweet, scotch or bourbon-based), I first got The Penicillin, which I adore but have had many times over at Milk & Honey (where it was created and rose to fame), and LA’s The Varnish (prepared more adeptly at both those establishments, I might add). A fine choice for a novice but should they have asked me a few more questions? Giving it another chance with a second round, our server brought me a drink she described as “perfectly balanced, not sweet at all”…  it was not the first, and certainly was the latter. Nonetheless, I enjoyed myself in this dim, warm Queens bar but couldn’t help but wonder: did we get an ‘off’ bartender that night or is Queens still miles behind Manhattan in the quality of its cocktails?


Roberta's fabulous pizzas

ROBERTA’S, Bushwick, BrooklynRoberta’s reflects the spirit of both Brooklyn (by way of California, i.e. farm fresh) and classic Neopolitan in its pizzas, the likes of which we’ve seen to the point of overkill in SF. In fact, I felt I was right back home in the Bay Area hanging out at the funky Roberta’s.

Mustard Greens

At Roberta’s, every aspect of the place dares you not to be crazy about it: a sketchy, off-the-beaten-path Brooklyn locale reveals a warm dining room with wood-fired pizza oven and rustic, eclectic garage-sale in a 1970′s mountain cabin decor.

Eat at picnic tables indoors or head out back to the tiki bar (alas, no cocktails, but wine and quality beers on draft, like NY’s Ommegang), where there are more picnic tables, thatched roofs, expansive garden and a greenhouse upstairs over the patio, growing herbs found in your meal.

Roberta's greenhouse

The menu offers charcuterie (La Quercia meats but also a divine Biellese Finocchiona made locally in NY), cheeses, Veal Sweetbreads ($13 – playful with lemon, parsley, mayo infused with Benton’s ham), cuttle fish, tripe. My kind of menu… the sort that has been popular in the Bay Area for years.

Salads are simple, gourmet, with greens from the greenhouse. Mustard Greens ($9) perked up with bits of pickled rhubarb, basil and guanciale. Bosc Pears ($12) travels the creamy route tossed in honey and runny burrata cheese, with Benton’s fabulous bacon and black pepper.

Hold on, it's the spicy, cool Cortes!

The pizzas rock: blistered, thin but thick enough. With dear family and friends, I sampled three, delighted with each, like the Millennium Falco ($14): pork sausage, tomato, Parmigiano, garlic, onions, bread crumbs and basil. California creative flair was stamped all over Cortes ($16): tomato, Hatch Red Chili pork sausage, lime, pickled onion, shaved radish, jalapeno, cilantro and crema fresca drizzled on the top. Felt like attending a fiesta. But the straightforward Lupo ($16) may have been my favorite: pesto, mozzarella, prosciutto cotto, smoked ricotta and spring garlic. Lovely.

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Wandering Traveler

The Latest in Cocktails in NEW YORK CITY

My May New York adventures brought me to some of the city’s newer treasures I’ve been desiring to partake in… a couple of them literally just opened weeks before, others open about a year.

Brand new

Cienfuegos' Havana-meets-Alice-in-Wonderland interior

CIENFUEGOS (upstairs through Carteles sandwich shop), East Village – Open barely a month when I visited, this intriguing new rum bar is through a Cuban sandwich shop just a couple doors down from Death & Co. (and same owners).

A rum-centric bar with punch bowls, varying sizes of cocktails and rum shots, what immediately converts here, after a walk through the humble sandwich shop and up a set of stairs, is the magical wonderland interior. I’m not a pink girl, in fact it is my most loathed color, only palatable when paired with something to give it heft, like black or brown. But here, pink entices, teases, even charms. There’s yellows, soft greens, white, a pastel profile I would normally hate, but here becomes a glowing explosion of color.

Cienfuegos rum drinks: Rosa Verde (L), Vesperone (R)

It plays like old world Havana meets Alice in Wonderland. You have fallen down a candyland rabbit hole and awaiting you are vibrantly fresh cocktails and bowls of rum punch, served in both the restaurant (will have to try next time) and bar area.

I adore their little cardboard-bound menu with old-fashioned drawings and a mix of classics, punches and modern creations. Initial intrigues? The Vesperone ($15) wowed by mixing Zacapa rum with rye whiskey, Green Chartreuse, agave nectar, blackberries and sage leaves. Musky and bright. Rosa Verde ($14) is a salad in a cocktail. I slurped down arugula leaves from a bright, pink glass of Flor de Cana rum, watermelon juice, celery bitters, lime, arugula-infused simple syrup and pink peppercorn.

LA BIBLIOTECA, East 40′s/Midtown East - Again, this just opened a couple weeks before I arrived in the basement of a new restaurant, Zengo. I’d go to Mayahuel (below) for the best tequila cocktails in NY and a hip, festive atmosphere, but La Bibilioteca offers tastings of over 400 tequilas, NY’s biggest selection yet, in an expansive underground lair.

La Biblioteca - Manhattan's tequila library

La Bibilioteca is a tequila storage library (similar to, but larger than, SF’s Taverna Aventine) in a subterranean lounge where you are leisurely educated with tequila flights or your server’s suggested tastings. The night I visited, a tequila brand ambassador was giving a tasting, offering further opportunities to educate New Yorkers, who, it was apparent, have barely scratched the surface of the tequila world.

Tequila tastings & shots of sangrita

Thankfully, this place is attempting to narrow that gap. Servers are still in the process of beginning to try all they offer, so you may  want to do some research ahead of time and go ready to ask for tequilas you would like to taste (for example, I noticed the Del Maguey line sitting in one cabinet – a fine place to start for mezcals).

Inside the enchanting world of East Village's Cienfuegos

But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Their servers are friendly and willing to offer guidance, while the menu offers flights with varying themes. I appreciate the Barrel Aging Tasting ($16) theme, three tequilas aged in different barrels: Don Julio Reposado, the best of the three and one I’m already a fan of (bourbon barrel), Riazul Anejo, with vanilla and caramel notes (cognac barrel), and the interesting, but not necessarily winning, Asombroso Reposado (wine barrel). There’s Anejo flights (mine had Don Julio, Casa Noble, Patron), brand flights where you try reposados through extra anjeos of one particular brand, and so on.

I sipped palate-cleansing shots of their bright tomato sangrita, and best of all, their house Horchata Blanco using Jose Cuervo traditional. Creamy and lush.

Sink back into black couches lining the large room (with touches of red), order guacamole and chips, and get schooled on tequila, New York.

2009 Openings

Raines' brick walls & leather chairs

RAINES LAW ROOM, Flatiron – Opened in early 2009, there is a whiff of pretension when one locates  an unmarked door and hipster doorman (a new guy on his first day). But there is no pretension within. In fact, this is now one of my favorite bars in NY.

The bartenders and staff are relaxed, knowledgeable, willing to explain stories and ingredients behind their recipes. Linger in the brick-walled, elegant main room, on black leather couches, cozy chairs next to the fireplace, pulling little wall buzzers  signaling you are ready to order. This is an elegant, Prohibition-era den evoking a wealthy but approachable friend’s living room.

Alice's Evidence (L); Harold & Maude (R)

Head back to The Kitchen where, under pressed tin ceiling and atop a marble butcher block countertop, mixologists concoct drinks as you interact with them.

Most enchanting is the back garden, where herbs used in their drinks are grown. On a warm May evening, candles flickered in Moroccan lamps, lounge chairs inviting me to recline and take in the night air. The garden was refreshingly empty on an early weekend night. An idyllic respite.

The menu runs the gamut from classics (Negronis, Old Cubans), to seasonal (utilizing herbs and produce), to signature house drinks (all $13). There’s even a “Fancy Cocktail” section with elaborate drinks from $16-23.

Raines' soothing secret garden

My visit included a boozy but smooth special of the day, Alice’s Evidence with Asyla scotch, lemon, lime, simple syrup with absinthe rinse, and a signature Harold & Maude: Johnnie Walker Black, Zacapa 23, lemon, rose & lavender syrup, aromatic bitters, shaken and served down. Beauties, all.

Their former doorman is a chocolatier and after expressing interest in his chocolates (listed in the menu; available by the box), our server brought us a couple to sample. Chocolate Meurens are creamy, Belgian-style truffles in flavors like Aztec (cinnamon, cloves, cayenne, anise, orange flower water) and Early Century (absinthe and Grand Marnier).

MAYAHUEL, East Village – Tequila doesn’t flow on the East Coast like it does in California. In fact, our bartender at Mayahuel talked about the difficulty accessing tequilas we are easily able to procure in Cali. But that’s where Mayahuel, from the crew behind Death & Co., steps in.

Mayahuel's tequila cocktails

I’d been eager to visit since I first heard about it’s opening last Spring. The tequila selection is comprehensive with the likes of Del Maguey and Fortaleza stocking the shelves.  The mezcal selection is excellent, bartenders are informed and passionate about spreading the tequila gospel, and the space is a charming, half-underground Mexican bordello with shiny tiles, wrought iron, snug booths, and loads of citrus and herbs lining the bar. If this was in my ‘hood, I’d be a regular.

It made me reflect on the tequila bars we have at home, and though there is no tequila selection to match Tommy’s, I wish we also had a spot like this: tequila in an subterranean, cozy, hip space with top notch cocktails (SF’s Cantina has a superb tequila and South American spirits cocktail menu but the decor is not Mexican, which, gimmicky or not, I love about Mayahuel).

I didn’t eat here, but they have a fun menu of good-looking food. If you’re not sampling straight tequila, there are a slew of fine tequila cocktails. I particularly liked the balanced heat in Herb Alpert ($14 – love the musician’s moniker): El Jimador Blanco infused with jalapeno, mezcal, fresh oregano, lime, and enjoyed a layered Slynx ($13): reposado, bonded applejack, pear & whiskey barrel bitters with a mezcal rinse.


Wandering Traveler


My beloved New York. The city that awakened me, at the sensitive age of 14, to cities… and the world. I put my hand over my heart upon first glimpse of the radiance of Manhattan at night from Jersey’s banks, where I lived during high school (and my family lived for years beyond).

Tabla's striking mosaic

When I travel to NY, there’s always dear friends, family, and such an ease and familiarity with city, it’s like second nature roaming the neighborhoods via the metro, spending a lot of time in “the villages”, Flatiron and Lower East Side, endlessly hunting for a proper coffee (thankfully, this is the trip where I finally found some – see this issue’s Imbiber). I always feel at home (my second home, it is), with an ever-growing lifetime of memories all over Manhattan and the other four boroughs.

I’m barely scratching the surface here, so I will write a multi-part series on the one and only Big Apple, as my trip last week for the Manhattan Cocktail Classic was also an eight day extravaganza of food and drink from Tribeca to Flushing. Here are my past NY entries.


Classic NY exemplified in Russ & Daughters

RUSS & DAUGHTERS, LES - The bagel hunt in SF is a struggle, but in bagel mecca, it’s one fattening pleasure after another. Of course, in Manhattan, a bagel & lox will run you $10-12. But, no matter, when it’s perfection, like Russ & Daughters (fourth generation, family-owned for over a century), a Lower East Side Jewish deli that is  quintessential New York. The place is bright, crisply clean, the staff is amicably crusty, and the salmon is cut fresh and succulent before you. Put it on an “everything” bagel with horseradish cream cheese and you have happiness. There’s an array of joys here, such as pickled herring, caviar, and a lovely whitefish salad. While you’re wandering Houston Street, it doesn’t hurt to pick up an Egg Cream Soda ($3.50 – milk, chocolate soda, seltzer) to-go at Katz for a full, classic NY experience.


ESS-A-BAGEL, Gramercy- Where Russ & Daughters’ bagel & lox is fresh and crisp, Ess-A-Bagel is hefty and delicious. I like the 70′s wood-paneling with chandeliers and sweet, no-nonsense staff at the out-of-the-way Gramercy location. There I ordered an “everything” bagel with lox again (piled high and generous, by the way), but as most of their cream cheeses were of the sweeter, cinnamon kind, I chose vegetable cream cheese. I pretty much fell in love with this bagel. Seriously. I’ll have another.


Messy Burger Joint goodness

I’ve always found decent burgers in NY… certainly Shake Shack is an easy, cheap favorite, though the lines can kill it. I walked by the original Madison Square Park location a couple times last week and lines were worse than they were years ago when I still waited over 20 minutes for a small burger. There are now five locations so may be less of a wait elsewhere, though who can beat sipping your shake under the idyllic, leafy green of Madison Square?

Comfortably graffiti-ed wall at Burger Joint

BURGER JOINT, West 50′s - On the theme of popular NY burgers with long lines, I’m partial to Burger Joint in the Le Parker Meridian. Though I hate the long waits, I’d rather spend my time there, inching behind the mysterious curtain with neon burger sign in the Meridian hotel lobby, finally reaching the dingy, convivial space where killer burgers fly off the grill all day long. It’s simple: burger, cheeseburger, fries. And you wouldn’t want it any other way.

Zeitzaff's bar

ZAITZEFF, East Village – I was disappointed in my Zaitzeff mishap, as I fell in love with the new East Village storefront (original location in Financial District) of this family-run, gourmet burger restaurant. Billie Holiday sang on a lazy weekday lunch hour in a space reminiscent of a Parisian neighborhood cafe (but serving Kobe burgers). With a dramatic 28 rating for food from Zagat posted on their door, I figured we couldn’t lose. But when asking for my 1/4 lb. Kobe Burger ($10.75) topped with Blue Cheese ($2.75) to come medium rare, I, instead got it well. Cooked to death, the blue cheese was strong and funky, shrouding the meat’s quality. I sent the burger back since there was such a gross difference between what was requested. It came out better, but still overwhelmed by the blue and not remotely worth $15. Go to Burger Joint instead!


Long Island Fluke Tartare

Tabla, Flatiron – Granted, over the years, I have not eaten a lot of Indian in NY, though it is a favored cuisine of mine. I hardly think anyone would call Tabla authentic Indian, but it is creative, “fusion” Indian, which we don’t see enough of in SF. I’ve tried to visit in years past but it always got pushed down my list.

In a cavernous but glowing, modern space right off Madison Square Park, Tabla has $54 per person tasting menus for family style eating. I went a la carte, trying dishes from each section of the menu. Stand-outs include their fluffy, warm Tandoori Breads ($4 or $10-12 stuffed). The naan-like bread comes in a hefty slab; the Rosemary version was particularly aromatic and satisfying.

Crab Cake on Goan Guacamole in Papadum

Unexciting as a Crab Cake sounds, Tabla’s ($16) benefits from Indian spicing, tamarind chutney and tasty Goan guacamole. Long Island Fluke Tartare ($12) was bright with fluke, pineapple, pasilla chilies and toasted shrimp flakes. More interesting is Crispy Artichoke Bhel Puri ($14). Different than other Bhel Puri dishes I’ve had, with their puffed rice crispness, this version is mixed with artichoke, green mango, peanuts, tamarind and mint chutneys. Say “yes” to the crunch and sweet meat of Tapioca-crusted Soft Shell Crabs ($30), served with spring onions and green mango, spiced up by roasted chili curry. Dessert was a delightful Mango Ice Cream Sundae ($9) with brown butter crumble and spiced caramel sauce. Delectable.


THE BRESLIN, Flatiron – In the Ace Hotel, I’d recommend going for Stumptown Coffee off the funky, cool lobby of the Ace and peeking into the awesome British-pub-meets-Victorian-era-parlor in this hot spot from Spotted Pig chef, April Bloomfield, a place I’ve liked in years past but find over-hyped (see my 2007 review).

The Breslin's Fried PB & Banana Sandwich

Breakfast was greasy and after a few bites of both dishes, I’d had enough of buttery fried sandwiches with no accompaniments… especially at such high prices.

A Fried Peanut Butter & Banana Sandwich ($11) has occasional hints of vanilla and bourbon, on a crusty (bordering on hard), bagel-sized roll stuffed with melting, warm PB & banana. Their popular Oven-Baked Three Cheese Sandwich ($16) with house-smoked ham (and another $2 with egg) is tasty but doesn’t compare to a Tartine Bakery sandwich at a few dollars less. Better in my estimation to skip this one, though I sure adore that dining room.

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