Will travel for food

“Will travel for food” might as well be my philosophy for life, because I rarely mind a trek— be it by foot, train, plane or automobile— if there’s a good meal waiting to be had at the end.

When my Lisbon-living friend suggested we take a daytrip to Tomar, a small town about a 2-hour train ride away, to have lunch at a great family run restaurant where you had to tell them what you’d be having when you made the reservation so that the lovely little grandma in the kitchen could start the appropriate preparations, I was sold. (I mean, there was also a visit to a thousand-year-old castle at the top of a hill thrown into the pitch, but really, he had me at lunch.)

Chico Elias, did in fact, involve a hike. No, really. After our two hour train ride, my friend and I had to cut through town and hoof it up a hill, on the side of the road, under the unrelenting August sun to reach our lunchtime destination.

Like showing up at your actual family’s house, the door was locked, and someone, possibly one of the children, answered the door and let us into the cool, still dining room. No menus or English either. My friend confirmed our order in Portuguese and I just smiled and nodded.

The delicious duck at Chico Elias comes hidden under layers of deliciousness.

The delicious duck at Chico Elias comes hidden under layers of deliciousness.

I mean really, will YA LOOK AT THAT?

I mean really, will YA LOOK AT THAT?

First out was the duck, prepared in a way like no other I’d ever had. Served in a heavy casserole type dish, it came out as a mountain of a most delicious mix of stuffing-like cornbread, pine nuts, walnuts, greens, and buried inside like the treasure that it was, tender, juicy, perfect duck. Each heaping spoonful had a little bit of all of the ingredients and all of it was perfection. The blend of textures and flavors including crunchy, sweet, nutty, juicy, soft, meaty and earthy was just everything I needed and wanted, with all of the comfort and warmth of a home cooked meal.

Roasted goat and the most perfect potatoes in Portugal

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If my own home cooking were this good, I’d never leave the house.

Next up, the goat, a rich, meaty dish so good that even after the absolutely filling duck before it, I couldn’t stop shoveling it in until it was done. Served alongside the juiciest, most savory, melt-in-your-mouth potatoes and equally juicy, delicious greens, good enough to convert even the most veggie opposed eater, the outrageously tender, soft roasted goat was one of those foods you can’t eat without at least once closing your eyes and letting out a deep mmmmm.

Just like at home, where your family (or at least certainly mine) never thinks you’ve eaten enough, it’s worth noting that the portions at Chico Elias are massive. Each dish we had could easily have been split between three people, who would’ve all walked away well fed and beyond happy, but between the two of us we had two. So yea, enough food for five to six people.

Faitas de Tomar

Faitas de Tomar… slices of cloud like dessert

But because no truly perfect meal is complete without dessert, we went with local specialty, faitas de Tomar, a moist, spongy cake like sweet made with egg yolks and sugar. It was just the right amount of sweet and light to balance the heavy, savory feast we’d had.

Would I ride the L train from Brooklyn to JFK, fly across the Atlantic to Lisbon, jump on a train to Tomar and haul my butt up that hill to eat at Chico Elias again? Damn right I would.

Good to the bone and straight to The Marrow

Even though I’ll still only be a subway (or two) rides away from the West Village, these are the last few days that I’ll actually be a resident of the neighborhood where I’ve spent the last two eventful years. I’ve had some great times and some not so great times here, everything from career changes to heartbreak, to the many friends who’ve crashed on my couch to getting both locked out and locked in my apartment, to laughing to crying and to everything in between. As a final hurrah and farewell, I decided to have one last big meal out in the neighborhood (though I don’t doubt I’ll be back for more soon enough) at The Marrow, Harold Dieterle’s new restaurant.

Paying homage to both the German and Italian parts of his family, Harold Dieterle has another awesome restaurant on his hands (I’m a big Kin Shop fan) that instead of mixing the two cuisines, features them separately on the menu, like different branches of a family tree. Below, how my friend Stas and I celebrated my move across the East River with one more great meal in the West Village.

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Bone Marrow… c’mon, you know we had to

First out was the restaurant’s namesake, the bone marrow, from the Famiglia Chiarelli branch of the starters section. One giant bone halved and filled with a hearty mix of sea urchin, fried potatoes and meyer lemon aioli, with crunchy toast to spread it all on. The sea urchin was not what I was expecting, with a creamy consistency and sort of neutral flavor.

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Prosciutto wrapped dates

From the meat plates portion of the menu, we picked the dangerously tasty prosciutto wrapped dates with gorgonzola. Plump, tender and crazy flavorful, I could, no lie, throw back a dozen of these. Seriously, these guys could get me in a lot of trouble.

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Duck schnitzel

Moving on to main courses, we first picked from the Familie Dieterle branch and ordered the pan-friend duck schnitzel with a nutty spaetzle of hazelnuts and quark (a dairy product of sorts) with cucumbers and stewed wolfberries, which looked kind of like small red beans but tasted like sweet, cooked raisins. (I love beans and raisins so I was totally on board.)

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Stone Bass “Vitello tonnato”

Then crossing back over to the Italian side of the menu, we chose the sautéed stone bass with fingerling potatoes, cippolini onions, briny olives, a creamy tuna belly sauce and what turned out to be my favorite part of the dish, juicy, fried sweetbreads. Usually I feel just lukewarm about sweetbreads but these were tender and delicious, with a nice breaded coating.

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Chocolate budino

Finally, we were faced with a difficult decision: dessert. Everything sounded great, and while the waiter tried pretty hard to sell us on the ginger stout cake (he said it was far and away the most popular dessert), we were both in a chocolate mood and went with the budino with hazelnut brittle and mascarpone. Chocolate pudding can do no wrong in my eyes and this one, with it’s dense creaminess, was just about perfect. This is in no way a complaint, but the thing to note about this dessert is that it’s a pretty hearty serving of chocolate. The two of us, ardent chocoholics, split this and felt pretty satisfied with the amount we each got. (No fighting necessary.)

Like so many other meals I’ve had in the West Village, I walked out happy and stuffed. Which is basically how I’ll be leaving the West Village in general, happy and stuffed full of memories. Brooklyn, here I come.

A light wallet and a happy stomach

Even though it’s impossible to forget, this city constantly reminds me what a ridiculous place it is. Where else would you pay $45 for two vodka Red Bulls (ahem, The Box, I’m looking at you)? And where else would paying just slightly under $2,000 a month for a STUDIO apartment be considered a good deal? And where, please tell me, would it be reasonable to pay $79 for a roasted chicken?

Sigh. Here in New York. But you know what, I’ll keep paying for all of these outrageous things because there’s no where else I’d rather be. (Well, except London, where I’d relocate at the drop of a dime if possible. No joke. London, call me. We could be so good together.)

I was skeptical right from the get-go of the $79 roasted chicken on the menu at the NoMad Hotel’s restaurant. I mean, really, $79? Do you know how many whole, organic, happy, well-adjusted, all-natural-diet fed, shipped straight-from-some-idyllic-farm-where-they-ran-around-living-in-perfect-poultry-bliss chickens I can buy for $79? Yet everyone raaaaaved about the new restaurant, said how beautiful it was and how amazing the food was and what an incredible job Chef Daniel Humm (previously of Eleven Madison Park…another pricey food mecca in the city) was doing there. So I said fine, like I say fine to the pricey drinks and to the ludicrous rent I pay, and went to see what the fuss was about.

And well, I get it. The restaurant is beautiful, the scene is stylish and cool, the food is delicious, and the chicken? The chicken will make you wonder whether you might possibly ever eat such a ridiculously good, eyes-rolling-in-the-back-of-your-head-in-food-ecstasy, wonderful and oh so succulent bird again.

My humble, fat kid opinion? This place is worth the hype. Yes, it is stupid expensive but it’s gooood. And as I’ve said before, I’m a firm believer in occasionally treating myself to something nice. Not usually to a $79 chicken, but this time yes. Below, my dinner with coworkers at the NoMad Hotel’s restaurant.

Butter-dipped radishes with fleur de sel

Butter-dipped radishes with fleur de sel

From the tapas style “snacks” portion of the menu we started with the butter-dipped radishes and fleur de sel. Like chocolate dipped strawberries, each little radish was coated in a thin butter shell, which really did a lot to make these not feel like rabbit food. Clean, crunchy and bright, I was a fan.

Beef tartare with cornichons and horseradish

Beef tartare with cornichons and horseradish

Also from the “snacks” section, was the recommended beef tartare with cornichons and horseradish. The beef tartare itself was delicious, creamy and flavorful with a subtle tangy hint and the little toasts that came with it were perfect bread specimens if you ask me, toasty and crunchy on the outside but soft and fluffy on the inside.

Bread

Bread to beat all bread baskets

Next our waiter brought out a loaf of some of the craziest looking bread I’ve ever seen. It had a greenish-purplish color to it and looked like it might’ve been picked up off the floor in some enchanted forest, the kind where you could do that and find delicious bread. There were bits of rosemary, thyme and other herbs baked into and on the bread and the consistency itself was soft and doughy.

Whole roasted chicken stuffed with foie gras, black truffles and brioche

Whole roasted chicken stuffed with foie gras, black truffles and brioche

And then, the $79 chicken. Not that it softens the blow much, but I’ll mention that this dish is meant for two. After much deliberation, my coworker and I decided that as much as we hated to pay about $40 for chicken, we really just needed to know what this was about. So here’s how it works: the waiter brings out this beautiful, almost-glowing whole roasted chicken in a pan, with what looks like a whole bouquet of aromatic herbs sticking out of one end. They show you the chicken, you ooh and ahh, and then they take it away for a moment.

Part 1: chicken breast with stuffing, lentils and Brussels sprouts

Part 1: chicken breast with stuffing, lentils and Brussels sprouts

What they do is they take apart the chicken and bring it back served two ways. First, on separate plates, two  large pieces of juicy, tender chicken with the most perfect, just-right crunchy skin, served on a bed of rich, hearty lentils and plump, soft Brussels sprouts. Underneath the chicken breast, warm black truffle laced stuffing of brioche and foie gras. I mean, really, this chicken was fancy. Everything was just… perfect. Delicious, decadent and absolutely perfect.

Part 2: Chicken’s dark meat served with mushrooms and truffles in a creamy, butter sauce

Then, in a smaller, sort of cast-iron dish was the chicken’s dark meat, served in a rich, buttery sauce of mushrooms and truffles.  Again, totally over the top and decadent but so, so, SO good. I could easily have eaten this whole $79 chicken production by myself it was so fantastic.

Carrots

Slow-roasted carrots with cumin, wheatberries and crispy duck skin

To accompany the chicken, the waiter recommended we get a vegetable, so again taking a cue from our pricey poultry, we ordered the $20 carrots. (Pause to freak out and consider the excessive amount of carrots you could buy for this amount at the market. Ok, now stop.) These fancy roasted carrots were long, elegant, stylish things, all glazed and dressed up with cumin and crispy duck skin for a completely new and so much better carrot experience than I’ve ever had.

Milk and Honey

Milk and Honey dessert

And finally for dessert we shared the much lauded milk and honey, a plate of ice cream, brittle and shortbread that won points for color, flavor, texture and consistency in my book. The ice cream was milky and thick, the brittle and shortbread crunchy and buttery in a caramel, toffee way (even though one coworker said she was stabbed in the mouth by a particular shard of brittle) and the dehydrated milk flakes were crisp and airy, like pieces of sugary meringue.

Compliments of the pastry chef

Compliments of the pastry chef

But just when we thought it was all over and we could leave with lighter wallets and heavier, happier stomachs, out came one more thing: an assortment of sweet treats from the pastry chef. There were macarons, fruit gelees  and what turned out to be my favorite, lapsang souchong truffles. They were smokey, rich and chocolatey and if I had a dozen of them in front of me, I’d probably go through all of them.

So yes, like so many other things in this absurd city, dinner was expensive. But you know what? Like this crazy, sucking-my-bank-account-dry city, it was awesome.

The NoMad on Urbanspoon

Always room for more

I had a big lunch yesterday. A really big lunch. An Indian buffet lunch to be exact. And as the coworker who ate with me said, “You can’t just get one plate at a buffet.” So two very large plates were had, and one enormous puppy belly afterward. Back at my desk, all I wanted to do was go into a deep food coma and dream about digestion.

Hijik-ni

When dinnertime came around later that night and Flaneur suggested going out for Indian, I almost cried.

“Please no,” I whimpered, clutching my still-full belly. “I can’t. I just can’t.”

“Well what about that Japanese place up the block?”

Hmm. Japenese eh? I could do something like that, I thought to myself. Something light. A seaweed salad perhaps. Continue reading

Master Fat

I was going through my usual weeknight post-work, post-dinner, pre-bedtime routine of sitting on the couch, TV on, headphone wearing boyfriend next to me, feet propped up on the coffee table, laptop on my lap routine of Facebooking and general online browsing when something I read made me stop cold. My fingers froze over the keys. My eyes shot open and I gasped— a long, over dramatic, hand-to-my-chest gasp.

Recession special

“What is it?” asked Flaneur, looking slightly worried as he pulled off a headphone and paused what he was working on.

I turned the computer toward him, pointing to the screen with Sam Sifton’s latest review.

“The Fatty Crab people opened another restaurant. In Brooklyn. Fatty ‘Cue. ‘Cue as in barbeque. Fatty Crab meets barbeque!”

[Pause]

“We need to go. Soon. Really soon.”

Looking to avoid a long wait (because like Fatty Crab, they don’t take reservations), we went last night, a Wednesday. But because I forgot to write down directions, we stumbled around Williamsburg lost, walking up and down the same street (also, the wrong street) three times before finally realizing that we were a good twelve blocks from where we needed to be. When we finally found it, nestled in between a bunch of ugly buildings on an ugly street, I had worked up a monstrous appetite. Continue reading

Un petit roadtrip

Le Petit Bistro, Rhinebeck, NY

Last Saturday spring finally sprang, and while all of New York headed outside in a celebratory exodus to the parks, streets and any open spaces with a ray of sunlight shining down on them, Flaneur and I decided to leave the city all together.

We had been talking about escaping the city one weekend but because of all the time that goes into planning even just a two-day trip, I kept putting it off. You have to pick a place, figure out how to get there, then find things to do while you’re there, places to eat (always an important part of the research) and where to stay if you’re spending the night.

But then, as if he read my thoughts, someone at work asked if I’d ever been to Rhinebeck, New York in the Hudson Valley. No? Well I should go, he said. And while I’m there I should stay at America’s oldest operating inn, the Beekman Arms, and I absolutely must eat at Le Petit Bistro.

“Ok,” I agreed easily. “I’ll go next weekend.”

And just like that Flaneur and I rented a car, booked a one-night stay and said, “See you later, Manhattan. We’re outta here.”

Rhinebeck is a lovely little town, peaceful and quiet with minimal to do other than just plain ol’ relax, which we did a lot of. But our biggest reason for going, the main attraction of our trip and what sold me on the idea, was the cozy French restaurant my coworker had raved about.

As I do with everything else, I Googled it before going. The website was cheesy and dated and the photos of the interior gave it a boat cabin feel, with all the woodwork it had going on. I trusted my coworker, who swore that the restaurant was much better looking in person and that I really did have to go. And good thing I did because he was definitely right.

Le Petit Bistro was cute and inviting, with a soft glow coming from the small candles on each table. The wood on the walls, angled ceiling and bar was actually really pretty and created a warm, intimate feel very unlike the photos on the site.

We showed up for our 9:30 reservations and were seated at a small table toward the back of the restaurant. A few minutes later, we were told that a table by the window had just opened up and if we wanted to we were welcome to move up. A small gesture but it spoke a lot about the kind of service here. I was impressed.

The menu was short, which Flaneur and I appreciated since too many choices just lead to panic and scrambling at the last minute when the waiter shows up. We got our order in and sat back with glasses of red wine. Ah, now this is the life.

Appetizers came out and I was both nervous and excited. Excited because they looked and smelled delicious, but nervous because what I ordered, in keeping with the French theme, was escargots de Bourgogne, and the last time I ordered escargot, at a small bistro in Paris, I spent the entire next day puking in the streets, on the metro and finally on my plane ride back to Italy. It was not pretty but I didn’t want one little bout with food poisoning to keep me from enjoying this iconic dish.

After pulling the first escargot out of its shell and plopping it my mouth, I completely forgot I’d ever been sick at the hand of one of these tasty little delicacies. Juicy and plump without being chewy or gummy, the delicious butter-garlic-parsley combo made each one a scrumptious mouthful. When they were done, I double-checked all the empty shells to make sure I hadn’t missed any. No such luck.

Escargots de Bourgongne

Flaneur’s appetizer, the grilled sardines, was part of the special’s menu (which was written on a chalkboard and explained to us in mouthwatering detail at our table). When I hear sardines I think of the scrawny guppies that come in a can but the two on Flaneur’s plate were big and meaty. With a squeeze of lemon juice over them, they were tangy and delicious, yet subtle and not overly fishy.

Grilled sardines

Small salads (plain with a pour of olive oil and a sprinkle of pepper) were out next, and then the entrees. I ordered the roasted duck, which came on a creamy mound of mashed potatoes, and was topped with asparagus and round balls of what I think was cooked apple. (Could’ve been pear. I was too involved in the whole dish to analyze the fruit too much.) The duck had a perfectly browned, crisp skin without being too heavy or fatty, as skin tends to get. Inside, the light brown meat was tender and juicy, and came off in thick forkfuls. The mashed potatoes were smooth and buttery and with each bite of duck meat, I tried to scoop up some of the creamy potatoes. The fruit, whatever they were, were soft and sweet, adding just the right amount of sweetness to the savory dish. And finally, even the asparagus were great, cooked to a nice tenderness that made them easy to cut and enjoy, especially with the potatoes. (Although really, I could eat shoelaces if they were mixed in with those mashed potatoes.)

Roasted duck with mashed potatoes

Sticking to seafood, Flaneur ordered another specials item: the grilled sea bass. Served atop a simple but delicious bed of wild rice and paired with the same perfectly cooked asparagus, the bass was the perfect blend of buttery and lemony without being too salty or overpowering. Capers added a little zing of flavor to each bite.

Grilled sea bass

Even though we were stuffed, there was no way I was leaving without dessert, so Flaneur and I decided to split one of  my all-time favorites: the creamy, the classic, the delightfully crisp-on-top icon of French sweets, the crème brulee. And as I suspected based on the rest of our meal, this one did not disappoint. Under a golden brown caramelized crunchy top layer (which always makes me think of the scene from Amelie where she tap, tap, taps the top with a silver spoon) was a cool, thick, butter-colored cream. Absolutely delicious and the ideal ending to a perfect dinner.

Crème brulee

The next day we went back to the city, back to the noise and the crowds and the work routine. But the next time it all gets to be too much, we know where to go, and most importantly we know where to eat.

A “Fatty” good time

When your boyfriend is allergic to shellfish it’s probably not the best idea to go somewhere with “crab” in the name. And I knew that, but after the first time I ate at Fatty Crab (without him) I knew I had to go back and bring him with me. He’s my eating partner in crime and not sharing it with him would’ve made me a terrible person.

Figuring that never in a million years would we be able to snag a table for Valentine’s Day on Sunday, we tried our luck on Saturday and succeeded. The wait at the West Village Fatty Crab was only 30 minutes and knowing what we were about to get into, I was more than happy to wait less than an hour.

Flaneur wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I told him we were having Malaysian but as we were led to our table, sandwiched between two others about an inch apart on each side, I was so giddy I was practically bouncing in my seat.

The waiter came by and gave us the standard schpeel: they serve stuff as it’s done in the kitchen, so no requesting this first and that second. You get it when it’s ready. But most importantly, most things on the menu contain peanut or shellfish products, so heads up to anyone with allergies.

Flaneur shot me a look of terror. We explained our dilemma to the waiter who in turn gave me a look that said “Really, lady? Did you guys not read CRAB in the name?” But I wasn’t going to let a silly allergy stop us, so I scanned the menu, picked a few things that didn’t have shellfish explicitly listed as ingredients and then ran them by the waiter who confirmed that we should be ok with those.

Flaneur still looked worried but we went on anyway.

Neither words nor pictures can do this dish any justice.

First out was our appetizer: the mind-blowing, I-don’t-care-how-many-calories-are-in-this-cause-it’s-so-good-it’s-worth-two-hours-on-the-treadmill pickled watermelon and crispy pork salad. Don’t let the salad part fool you. This was NOT the average lettuce creation. Far from it. Salad here meant thick chunks of juicy, red watermelon topped with crispy-on-the-outside, melt-in-your-mouth soft-on-the-inside pork belly. The salad part of it was probably referring to the bit of greens on top, which to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t even say what they were (lemon grass maybe?) because I was so completely possessed by the watermelon-pork combo. I imagine this is what they must serve in heaven (although I’m sure there’s also a vegetarian option).

Spicy never felt so good.

I could’ve called it a night at that point and happily skipped home, but luckily before we had even finished the “salad,” our next plate was out: a house specialty, the Fatty Duck. A note here: if you like spicy food, this is the thing to get. Chunky strips of soft, juicy duck topped with a small mountain of chopped tangy, fiery peppers, all atop a bed of white tamaki rice. Eating this just makes you feel more exotic, and once all those flavors start dancing around in your mouth and the heat from the peppers starts tingling in your throat and synuses, you could almost swear that you’ve been transported to some lush Malaysian jungle somewhere. It’s one of those dishes that makes you stop after every bite and look in awe at the person you’re eating with and say, “This is SO…damn…good. I can’t believe how good this is.” You go on chomping away, wondering what bit of karma brought you to this wonderful place and this amazing duck.

Flaneur, who’s tolerance for spicyness is on the weak side, danced on the thin line between pleasure and pain. Between  long  gulps of beer and water to soothe what must’ve felt like an actual fire scorching his insides, he managed to get out a few words, “Ohmygodthisisdelicious!” I was afraid he was about to spew fire like some mythical dragon, but thankfully our next dish came soon after, like the fire engine pulling up to the burning house just in time.

Chicken soup for the fatty's soul.

Pushing glasses and plates around like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, we made room for our third and final Fatty specialty: the chicken claypot. As its name suggests, a claypot of ginger, chicken and tofu soup was wedged on to our table along with a bowl heaped with coconut rice. After the intense heat of the duck, which we were still working on when the claypot arrived, the soup was calming and smooth, like good chicken soup should always be. Tender fat pieces of chicken bobbed around with tofu in the zesty broth, and the coconut rice went perfectly either mixed in or by itself. (I tried it both ways, duh.) Just the rice, which you’d think being standard white rice wouldn’t be anything to write home about, was amazing. This  fluffy, sweet coconut rice was good enough to eat whole bowls of.

So even though we had to shy away from Fatty Crab’s famed shellfish plates because of Flaneur’s allergies, everything was so ridiculously good that I’m declaring this one of my favorite places to eat, not just in New York, but overall. And really, with Fatty in the name, we’re pretty much a perfect match.

Fatty Crab in New York