The downtown chef scientist strikes again!

After an amazing holiday dinner at Wylie Dufresne’s wd~50 a couple of years ago, I was really excited to recently hear that the mad scientist chef had a new, more casual restaurant named Alder in the works.  Even though it’s been open in the East Village for a few months now, I just this last weekend got around to checking  it out.

It had lots of the cool kitchen tricks and fun twists on things you think you know along with a relaxed but buzzy vibe, fun music and servers with cool striped aprons. Wins all around! Wylie’s done it again.

Pub cheese

Pub cheese

First out, was Alder’s take on pub cheese, that kitschy spreadable cheese you smear on crackers or bread. Mixed with sherry to give it a purplish hue, and jazzed up with a pistachio and white fig crunchy brittle, this particular pub cheese came with “chips” made from Martin’s potato rolls that had been smushed down and run through a pasta machine before being baked to a crisp. Am I alone in thinking this is really fun and cool? Doubt it.

Fried squash blossoms

Fried squash blossoms

Next out was perhaps my favorite dish, the fried squash blossoms. When I lived in Florence, these were some of my favorite, but here I rarely see them (though Da Silvano has delicious ones!)  so I had to get Alder’s… and man, did they come through! Plump and creamy with smoked shrimp and dill, these summer squash blossoms were fried just enough that they were golden and crispy yet still soft on the inside. Eating a couple of plates of these would have been no big thing.
Pigs in a blanket

Pigs in a blanket

After, came another playful spin on a casual food, “Pigs in a Blanket,” except instead of crescent roll wrapped mini hot dogs, Alder’s were little chunks of Chinese sausage, smokey and dense, wrapped in a crunchy shell and served with polka dot-like plops of horseradishy japenese mustard and sweet chili sauce. It would be dangerously easy to throw back a dozen or so of these.
Chicken liver toast

Chicken liver toast

For the next dish I was glad to be out with one of my more adventurous eater friends because we decided on the chicken liver toast. Looking more like a wedge of pie than a piece of toast, this dish was made up of a thick smear of bright and tangy grapefruit marmalade on which sat a layer of cornbread topped with chunky, chopped chicken liver. Plopped ontop was the decorative and tasty garnish of chicken skin. Yes, chicken skin. The best part of fried chicken.
Beef tongue

Beef tongue

In keeping with the things-my-other-friends-wouldnt order theme, we went with the beef tongue as our last savory dish. Unlike the thick, chewy tongue my mom used to cook (and torture us with) this tongue was thinly sliced into ribbom-like pieces that were meaty and flavorful and served on what we first thought was potato but turned out to be smoked yucca, another recurring food staple of my childhood. Pickled cippolini and a bit of chimichurri and cilantro, gave everything a bright, colorful flavor. Sorry mom, your beef tongue wold never stand a chance against this one.
Root beer pudding

Root beer pudding

As a lover of root beer and pudding, Alder’s root beer pudding was the obvious dessert choice. Silky smooth and creamy, with a just-right taste of root beer that wasn’t cloying or overpowering, this was a light, sweet way to wrap up a great dinner. Crunchy, crushed smoked cashews peppered things up with a different texture.

Wylie Dufresne can do no wrong in my eyes and this new restaurant of his only reinforces that idea.

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Yucca, ceviche and caipirinhas, oh my!

I was on the phone with my mom recently when she asked me if they sold yucca in New York City supermarkets. I told her that with the amount of Hispanic people in New York, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and every other nationality south of the border, I was sure they did. I had never seen it myself but that’s just because I never looked for it.

Yucca, a starchy vegetable which is actually the thick, gnarled root of the plant it’s part of, was just as commonplace in our kitchen, if not more so, than your standard potato in a regular American household. My mom cut off the thick, ugly brown exterior to reveal the white, fibrous inside, which she then either boiled, mixed in soup, mashed, or fried.

Fried yucca

“Ok, well I think I’m going to mail you some,” she announced.

“NO!” I blurted out. “Please, do not mail me any yucca. Please.”

I imagined myself opening a box at work, where she usually sends my packages, and pulling out the large, ugly, almost turd-like yucca roots. What would I even do with that? My flimsy set of butter knives and the one fruit paring knife I own wouldn’t know what to do either when attempting to get through the yucca’s tough outer layer.

Thankfully, I was able to talk her out of it. Continue reading

January: out with a bang!

January can be a rough month to get through in New York. Christmas lights are gone, parties are over, the next extended vacation is God knows when, and winter seems to only be getting meaner. All-around unpleasantness permeates the air.

Ok, so I’m exaggerating a bit. It’s not that bad.  But it is cold. And the lights and parties really are no more. And my next day off really isn’t till May (not kidding).  But thankfully, there’s something to help end the month on a good note: NYC Restaurant Week.

Eating this almost makes you forget you're not on vacation somewhere warm and exotic.

This twice-yearly event, held in summer and winter, invites recreational gluttons like me to food hotspots around the city with prix-fixe lunch and dinner menus.

Flaneur and I went through the list of participating restaurants, read the reviews, looked up the menus, and finally decided to brave the cold and venture out in search of our chosen RW pick, Rayuela in the Lower East Side.

Almost anywhere would’ve been fine, as long as it meant getting out of the cold, but Rayuela (Latin, though not specific to any particular country) was especially nice to step into. Deliciously warm and softly lit, it had a trendy, relaxed vibe throughout its two levels, without trying too hard to be cool. A Spanish olive tree planted on the ground floor and reaching up through the second added a nice, organic touch. But it was something I wasn’t expecting, though, that really won me over: the seats. Instead of the standard type, each was a super comfortable, couch-like chair.

And luckily the food matched the seating in terms of enjoyability.

Before we got our appetizers, a waiter came by with some of the most delicious bread I’ve ever had, and that says a lot because I’ve eaten some amazing bread in my day (I’ll save my praise for the breads of Italy for some other day, but know that I could go on for-ev-er). Each roll was almost perfectly round and about the size of a doughnut hole. Ripping them open let out a gush of steam from the warm, soft middle. As if that weren’t enough, they came with a special butter mix, made with chunks of both manzanilla and kalamata olives.

De-friggin'-licious.

If the roll had been the size of a watermelon instead, I would’ve been the happiest girl in the world… but then also maybe the most disgusting.

Wonder buns were quickly followed by appetizers, mine a ceviche-like tiradito de merluzo. Made from sliced hake (the so-called ugly fish) served in a martini glass of avocado, onion and tangy citrus juices, I don’t care what this fish looked like when he swam the seas, he was taaaasty.

Next up was carne a la parrilla, which is Spanish for awesome hunk of meat. I don’t usually order big slabs of red meat but the menu mentioned yucca and I was sold. (Note: yucca, a potato-like root big in Central and South America, is one of the few things my mom made all the time growing up that I actually love.) The meat itself was great, soft and juicy, cooked to a perfect medium rare, and served with yucca chunks in a crushed-pistachio sprinkled, creamy sage-poblano sauce.

My favorite part of the meal: the sweet stuff.

My favorite part of a meal is usually the dessert, so I had high hopes for this one, and I’m happy to report: Rayuela came through. The pera de caramelo I went with, was a warm, caramelized sliced pear on top of a cinnamon wafer served with a scoop of pecan ice cream.  A great finish to a great dinner.

Once back outside in the blustery night, we hailed a cab, having come to the mutual decision of “screw this, it’s freezing, let’s take a cab home.” No more than a minute after I crawled in and the cab sped off, I was already asleep. Warm, happy and well-fed, like a fat, little puppy.