Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hatfield's: A LA Birthday

Dad was going to celebrate his 57th in LA so I wanted to go somewhere special. Like, REALLY special. My first instinct was to call up The Bazaar but, no dice – after that four star article in the LA Times, everyone and their mother decided to pay Jose Andres' LA joint a visit and they were booked up all the way until May.

For a while, I played with the idea of Michael Mina’s XIV but they changed the menu for spring and upped the tasting menu prices so I volleyed instead between Grace and Hatfield’s. It was a tough decision but LA Magazine awarded the latter one more shining star than Neal Fraser’s restaurant so Hatfield’s it was for April 16th.


Hatfield’s was a solid experience. My first impression of the place was that it was exactly the kind of restaurant I love – understatedly elegant; laid-back but refined. There was none of that pretentious your-waiter-is-going-to-have-a-‘tude-because-you’re-not-in-louboutins situation (I can’t stand that shit). And of top of the fantastic atmosphere, this place is a STEAL. No joke. Their Spring Special prix-fixe is $49.00 for a top-notch three-course menu – no skimping whatsoever. Good stuff. And as if that wasn’t enough of a steal, every dining party gets to enjoy Quinn Hatfield’s amuse bouche of deviled quail eggs with cream of celeriac. Presentation was so beautiful – eggs served in a tiny silver spoon and the soup was put into a shot glass. This was definitely a welcome opener to our starved stomachs.

(Fatty Foie Gras)

Hatfield’s was off to a great start. The menu is so decadent. For my appetizer, I was eying the pan roasted diver scallops, marinated artichokes purée, saffron vanilla emulsion but mom and dad both had their hearts set on that so, instead, I opted for the roasted Bobo farm foie gras, pain d’epice crust, beluga lentils, apple rosemary purée. Our appetizers appeared before us in their generous portions and art-work-worthy presentation. Personally, I’m not a big fan of foie gras ALONE but foie gras with the perfect accompaniment is a piece o’ heaven and Hatfield’s nailed it. The sharpness of the pain d’epice crust worked amazingly with the creamy texture of the foie gras. I was a very happy camper.


(Duck Breast)

And onto the entrees. Mom went for the garlic and parsley crusted Alaskan halibut, zucchini coulis, roasted sunchokes, sautéed squash blossoms; dad went for the branzino filet, roasted haricot vert, red onion soubise, dried apricot, crispy almonds and caper crunch and for myself, I decided to have a poultry related fiesta so I went with the pan roasted duck breast, quinoa and maitako mushrooms, butternut squash, whiskey prune smear. Again, portions were huge and presentation was right on the spot. The duck was cooked to perfection – juicy and tender with a layer of moist fat and plump duck skin. Nothing to complain about but I guess because I’m really not that big of a poultry person after all, I wasn’t wowed away by the dish. I enjoyed it A LOT but wasn’t blown away. Plus, the dish may have been a little TOO decadent for my Asian palate – I ate the skin off the first piece but it became too much and I had to skin the rest off. Mom and dad both enjoyed their fish dish (HA – RHYME! I guess my English major wasn’t a complete waste) but also said that they’ve had better. I guess I get where they’re coming from – Hatfield’s is perfect execution but it’s not something I would crave.


But even if I wasn’t WOWED by the food, like I said before, I was definitely wowed by the value of the meal. The dessert menu kept with the theme of non-skimpy decadence. I happily sold my soul to the ‘fuck-calorie-counting’ club the second I saw the words “chocolate and peanut butter truffle cake” on the menu. This turned out to be a chocolate cake with a molten lava PB center…mmmmmmmm. It was NEAR perfect – texture was right on BUT it was a tad too sweet and a tad under-salty for me…oh well, it was good anyways. But what WAS perfect was the accompanying salted caramel ice cream with roasted peanut butter peanut toffee. Mmmmm…so good. They should make that a dessert in itself.

(A beautiful concept: PB Truffle Cake)

My only real complaint is their breadbasket system. Instead of having a basket at the table, they have a waitstaff come around before each course to place a roll on your bread plate. That fancy-schmancyness is a little out of place from the “laid-back” atmosphere I was lauding just a few paragraphs earlier. Plus, their bread roll was a little bit too greasy for our Asian tastes. But, not to end this review on a sore note, service in general is great. Awesome even. And, even better, the bill is served with a small plate of mini brownies. So sweet (literally and figuratively). And these brownies sum up what Hatfield’s is all about – small details, unpretentious pampering and a restaurant who wants their patrons to leave with a smile on their faces.

FOOD: 4/5

Hatfield's ($$$)
7458 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 935-2977

The Griddle Cafe: Discovering Coconut


Why the F did it take me THIS LONG to order the scotch on the rocks flapjacks ($10.95)? Coconut, pecans, oats, butterscotch chips --> flapjacks. ‘Tis perfect. The flapjacks were the perfect sweetness and were oh-so-fluffy. It tasted like coconut ice cream almost. Amazing. Speechlessly amazing. And, of course, I never do the Griddle without their dark roast French pressed coffee ($3.35). Just a pot of that makes me a happy, functional person. Yes, their coffee makes me want to contribute to society.

But while I was living la vida loca with my flapjacks, I could tell mom wasn’t really blown away by the turkey and cranberry sandwich. Take my advice, stick to the griddle-cooked stuff or the eggs. Come on, I didn’t even KNOW they served sandwiches. Mom’s sandwich looked pretty I-can-make-that-at-home (ICMTAH) – the bread wasn’t even toasted (non-toasted bread pisses me off).

FOOD: 5/5
SERVICE: hit-or-miss

The Griddle Cafe ($$)
7916 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90046

Friday, April 24, 2009

Mandarin Garden: Test Your Tastebuds

Theresa took us to the Korean-Chinese place she’d been raving about so we could try K-style ja-jeung-mien. If there’s one thing that puts a giant smile on my face, it’s when ethnic cuisines fuse together because the lovechild is, more often than not, a thing of pure flavor beauty.

Like 98% of all the other restaurants in Korea Town, Mandarin Garden Restaurant is located in a seedy looking strip mall (think minimal parking and Asian massage store on upper floor) and has an even seedier looking interior. We didn’t really bother perusing through the menu since our hearts were already set on the house special noodle ($8.65). We chomped away on the two measly banchans (OK, I let that slide. After all, the restaurant is only half Korean) for a while before our noodles were brought to our table in a giant white bowl, divided into two halves – one half filled with noodles covered in a dark, thick gloop sprinkled with bits of meat and onions while the other half housed a bright orange soup chock full of seafood and onions.

(Two 'rights' make an AWESOME)

I started with the spicy seafood soup noodles and I absolutely loved it. The spiciness is unassumingly mild at first but builds up after a while. Yes, that’s how they get you hooked on it – it’s seriously addictive and I was slurping up the noodles and the soup even after I was way past disgustingly full. While I preferred the orange side, I wonder if it was a mistake to start on that – the flavor was pretty strong and by the time I got round to trying the ja-jeung mien side, I couldn’t really taste the sauce. That side tasted almost bland to me. Debs and Theresa, however, both started on the ja-jeung mien side and they both said that they liked that more than the soupy side. So I guess it all depends on which version of the noodle you decide to numb your tastebuds on first.

FOOD: 3.5/5

1001 S Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90006
(213) 380-0075

Amandine: Last Goodbye

Leaving LA meant leaving a lot of good friends and I spent the last few weeks trying to jam in as much “meeting-up” time as possible with people. On this particular day, I met up for the last time with two very important friends of mine – my food and HK film Buddy, B and my Japanese baked goods lover, Amandine.

Being nostalgic, I ordered the same thing from my first day at Amandine – the caramel banana tart ($4.35). The tart was as good – if not better – than the first time I had it. The crumbly cookie crust encased a smooth and light cream filling; the sweet pastry cream and the ripe, sliced bananas complimented the slight bitter twinge of the caramel cream topping. In other words, the tart is a perfect balance of textures and flavors and is both satisfying yet not overly heavy. This perfection paired with a large coffee and good company and conversation – yes, there are some things in LA I’ll miss.

FOOD: 4.5/5
SERVICE: 4.5/5


Amandine Patisserie ($)

12225 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025

(310) 979-3211

Paulette: A Sweet Final Week

(From top left: coconut, jasmine tea, caramel, pistachio, vanilla)

Like many other bakers, I jumped on the French macaron bandwagon a few years back and it has become di rigueur for me to order these tiny meringue sandwiches whenever saw them sold. In terms of LA, I’ve managed to hit up most of the macaron places – from Jin’s to the Little Next Door. But weeks away from my last day in LA and I still hadn’t visited the no-longer-so-new macaron “boutique” – Paulette – in Beverly Hills.

Well, thank God I have great friends who know me :D The beautiful Sunny called me down from the apartment and surprised me with a small baggie of Paulette’s macaroons. I LURVE her. And of course, she knew my flavor preferences so the bag included my staple macaron trio of (Madagascar) vanilla, (Sicilian) pistachio and caramel. On top of that, the Sun got me the coconut (my favorite favorite dessert flavor) and jasmine tea.

(Innards of the pistachio)

The Paulette macarons were almost too pretty to eat. I took a million photos of those babies from every angle imaginable. I probably have more photos of the macarons than I will of my future children. When I finally got over their prettiness, I took my first Paulette bite. Mmmm…sweeeeet sweet goodness. Unlike the dry, crunchy “biscuit” I had at Little Next Door, the meringue shells at Paulette were chewy and light, though not as well made as Jin’s or Bouchon’s. Paulette did really well, however, with bringing out the flavors of the macarons. The jasmine tea was mild but fragrant and smelled like flowers. They used actual caramel instead of caramel ganache in the caramel macaron which gave it an interesting flavor. It doubled the chewiness of the sandwich and personally, I quite liked that. The pistachio had a very strong nutty flavor. Awesome. But my absolute favorite was the coconut macaron. It was sooooo effin’ good. It was a bite of pure, satisfying coconut-ness. If I could, I would go back and order a box only in that flavor.

FOOD: 4/5
SERVICE: n/a (didn’t go myself but Sunny said the service wasn’t pleasant and the macaron samples were dry)
ATMOSPHERE: n/a (but I’ve seen photos and it looks tres cute <3!)

9466 Charleville Blvd at Beverly Drive.
Los Angeles, CA 90210
(310) 275-0023

Monday, April 6, 2009

Joan's On Third: I.N.D.U.L.G.E (Part 2)

(A box of happiness)

In my mind, Joan’s on Third was about the closest you could get to Dean and Deluca and so, unsurprisingly, it’s been on my “to-go” list even before I moved to LA. Well, since we were in the neighborhood anyways after a super indulgent brunch at Little Next Door, I decided to pop into Joan’s and grab a little something (i.e. a little anything) from their baked goods counter.

I was stuffed from brunch so I was planning on getting just a cookie but, when I got to the counter and saw the little cupcakes, my heart wavered a bit. I asked the cashier if I should get the cookie or the cupcake and even before I finished my complete sentence, she blurted out “the cupcake. Go with the cupcake.” I was sold. Given the size (about half the size of a Crumbs cupcake), the cupcakes are a little on the pricey side at Joan’s ($3.00/each) but, hey, today was going to be super-indulgent day so I whipped out my debit card and got the cashier lady to box up a coconut cupcake, a peanut butter cupcake (peanut butter craving? Check!) and the raspberry filled vanilla cupcake. They all smelt soooooo good.

(Give me a P. Give me a B. But most of all, give me a cupcake!)

Usually, I’d head straight for the coconut but, like I said, I’ve been craving peanut butter like no tomorrow and since they ran out of the peanut butter cake when I went to Susina yesterday, I headed straight for the PB cupcake. OHMYGOSH, the cupcake was stellar stellar stuff. The crumb is so moist and the cake itself was sweet and light. For some reason, the fragrant smell reminded me of a really well-made donut. The ganache topping wasn’t overly sweet either – it was just prefect. The cupcake had a PB cream filling which was absolutely fantastic. The whole cake just exuded peanut-butteriness and I found myself licking up every last crumb. It was a good cupcake. A VERY good cupcake.

FOOD: 4.5/5

8346 W Third St.
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 655-2285

Little Next Door: I.N.D.U.L.G.E (Part 1)

I’ve been having massive eggs benedict and peanut butter cravings lately (yes, INDEPENDENTLY of one another). It’s weird, I never really had a big thing for either…I guess personal tastes change when one ages…

Well, to satisfy le eggs benedict craving, we hit up Little Next Door for Sunday brunch. This place is so cute – just sitting there makes me feel as if I’m on vacation. Something about their outdoor patio makes me feel so relaxed; quite literally, I was pretty much lounging in my chair by the end of the meal.

In terms of the food, everything on the menu sounded really appetizing but I was determined to get my benedict fix so it took less than a heartbeat for me to decide on the smoked salmon eggs benedict ($14.00). Debs got the omelet du jour while the Sun ordered the Omelet Lardons ($11.00). The bread basket at Little Next Door is also pretty great. Their French bread is crusty on the outside and soft and pillowy on the inside. Mmmm…I always appreciate a good bread basket.

(Omelet du Jour)

(Omelet Ladorns)

Though seemingly unassuming at first, the food portions at Little Next Door are pretty damn big. And thank God they are because the food is pretty dayam kick-ass. My eggs benedict was soooo effin’ awesome. It came with a side salad which was a perfect balancer to the cholestral + carbs side of the dish. Instead of an English muffin, the poached eggs came on top of two slices of thick toast and the toast and eggs sandwiched a VERY generous heap of smoked salmon. The salmon was cured to perfection (not too salty, a la Katz deli but also, not bland at all) and it was absolutely amazing paired with the eggs. The first poached egg was a little too runny for my personal taste (it literally flowed like a river) but it was good to soak with the toast. The second egg I had was cooked to perfection – not so runny that it spills all over the plate. It was, in simple terms, quite gorgeous.

(Mmmmmm-ness: Salmon eggs benedict)

(When runniness = good times)

And to cap off a perfect brunch, I ordered my usual suspect combination of macarons ($1.75) – pistachio, vanilla and dulce de leche (ok, I usually get caramel but this was the closet thing they had on offer). I started with the pistachio which was…SO GROSS. Yes, I was bitterly disappointed. The shell was dry and crunchy. WTF? I’ve NEVER had a crunchy macaroon before. And the filling to shell ratio was way off – half of the macaron was glopping with pistachio ganache while the other half was completely void of any filling. Ech. Disappointed, I moved on to the dulce de leche which, thank God, was a redeemer. The shell was the perfect balance of soft and chewy and the sweetness of the caramel filling balanced the mildness of the shell. Good stuff – I guess the pistachio was just from a bad batch. The last one was the vanilla which was definitely not as good as the dulce but also, definitely not as bad as the pistachio. The shell was a little too delicate – it shattered even before I finished biting into it. So I guess consistency is a little bit of an issue in terms of desserts at the Little Next Door.

(Flourless chocolate cake)

(Panna Cotta)

(The good, the bad and the ugly: Dulce de leche, vanilla, pistachio)

Service is fantastic. The waitstaff are all all-smiles and friendly. Our serving waitress kept thanking us for enjoying our food. Awwww…I love friendly service. The food is pretty pricey though and although I enjoyed every part of Little Next Door (save the pistachio macaron), I think I’ll keep it as a indulgence, lazy afternoon brunch place rather than an “everyday eatery.”

FOOD: 4/5

Little Next Door ($$)
8142 W Third St.
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 951-1010

Susina: Peanut Butter Recall

(Berry Blossom Cake)

For some reason, I’ve been having Peanut Butter cravings like no tomorrow. I swore off “crinkly-wrapper” foods about half a year ago so I haven’t been able to satisfy my PB cravings with a Reese’s cup or something.

So I was devastated when Susina ran out of their chocolate peanut butter mousse cake. DEVASTATED. I had to settle for their berry blossom cake ($6.50) which, although is great, I’ve had before. The cake was still stellar – unlike a lot of American bakeries, Susina keeps their cakes on the light side and the whipped cream is not overly heavy like the caked on frosting at places like Sweet Lady Jane. So yes, maybe I didn’t manage to satisfy the PB cravings that day but at least I still had a pretty kickass slice o’ cake. Ah, Susina, you’ve never failed me ever.

(Strawberry Shortcake)

FOOD: 5/5

7122 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 934-7900

Amandine: Standards have Changed

(Too soupy: Omelette Ratatouille)

Now that I’m a graduate (I will never tire of saying that), I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands. I mean, just in this past week alone, I’ve been to the cinema three times! And what better way to spend all the free time than to grab brunch and the New York magazine crossword puzzle?

So, on Tuesday, I headed out to Amandine with NY mag tucked under my arm. I ordered the Omelette Ratatouille ($8.95) which came with a side of fresh fruits, two slices of toast and potato gratin. The fruit side was a little random – five chunks of banana, honeydew melon and cantaloupe? Very Asian indeed. The potato gratin was pretty good but I would have preferred it warm/hot instead of cold. And the omelette? It was only ok. The eggs weren’t light and fluffy enough and the ratoutille made the omelette a little too “soupy.” Flavor was good though but I probably wouldn’t dole out close to $9.00 again for that.

On top of the omelette, I ordered two cinnamon croissants ($2.25/each) to go. Right now, I’m on a “trying to find a croissant in LA that can match Bouchon’s” and I heard that Amandine is supposed to have a pretty good almond croissant. They were all out by the time I got there though which is absolutely ridiculous since I got there at 10am. What the hell? Anyways, the cinnamon croissant was only ok. Flaky? Yes. Melt-in-mouth like Bouchon’s? No. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to keep searching.

So yes, now that I’ve tried Amandine’s savory stuff, I guess it’s safe to say that I’m keeping this little favorite café of mine as a sweet-stuff-only location.

FOOD: 4.5/5
SERVICE: 4.5/5


Amandine Patisserie ($)

12225 Wilshire Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90025

(310) 979-3211

Friday, April 3, 2009

Homemade Marshmallows: How to Say "I Love You"

Spring puts me in the candy-making mood and since I have a bunch of ingredients I need to use up before I leave, I decided to make a (large) batch of marshmallows. These fluffy concoctions are insanely easy to make, albeit a little messy. Whip up a batch for yourself, dunk them in melted chocolate and box them up for the ones you love. Because sometimes, nothing says “I love you” more than a carton of fluffy sweetness

(makes approx. 4 dozen bite-size squares)

Non-stick spray
¼ cup icing sugar
¼ cup cornstarch

3 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1 cup cold water
1 ½ cup granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt

Combine icing sugar and cornstarch. Spray a 9 x 9 baking pan with non-stick spray. Sift about a quarter of the sugar and cornstarch mixture over the pan. Shake the tray so that the mixture coats the pan evenly. Shake off any excess and set aside.

Combine the gelatin and ½ cup of the cold water in a large bowl. Set aside. Combine the remaining water with the sugar, salt and corn syrup in a saucepan. Cover and cook over medium heat for about 4 minutes. Remove lid and continue to cook until the mixture reaches approximately 240°F then remove from heat immediately.

Pour heated mixture slowly into the gelatin mixture. Whisk the mixture with an electrical mixer on low speed. Slowly increase the mixer speed to high and whisk for roughly 12 to 15 minutes until the mixture triples in volume and becomes really thick. Add the vanilla near the end of whisking.

Pour the thickened mixture into the prepared pan and spread it out evenly with a spatula. Dust the top of the mixture with some of the leftover sugar-cornstarch mixture. Leave the mixture to set in the pan for at least 4 hours or overnight.

When the mixture has set completely, cut into small squares with a well-oiled knife or cut into desired shapes with an oiled cutter.

Dust marshmallows with more of the sugar-cornstarch mixture. OR, if you want to do what I did, melt and temper some chocolate (I used milk chocolate) and when the chocolate is relatively cool, dip the marshmallows into it and coat evenly. Leave to set. Dunked in milk chocolate, the marshmallows taste like little bites of hot cocoa :)

(A rushed wrapping job :p )

Finally, box them up real nice and give to the ones you love! Happy spring to everyone!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Animal: Dude Food

Animal has been on my “to-go” list since it opened in June last year. I finally ventured out to the Fairfax resto tonight with poor, jetlagged Theresa in tow (sorry hun!) Being a Wednesday night, I didn’t think we’d need to make reservations. Wrong assumption – Animal was packed and the only available seats were at the bar.

Neither of us were starving so we skipped the appetizers and hopped right to the entrée selection. The restaurant name is right – this menu is definitely NOT for vegetarians or salad people. Thank God I re-entered the meat-eater’s world. Theresa decided to take a stab at the quail fry, grits, slab bacon, chard and maple jus ($26) while I decided to spoil myself with the foie gras loco moco with quail egg, spam, hamburger and gold rice ($35). Yes, I felt robbed of my foie gras after that disappointing beef Wellington episode at the Stanton Social and I felt the need to be compensated.

Our (substantially-portioned) food arrived after a little bit of catching up. The presentation of the food seemed to spell out exactly what the restaurant was about – Animal doesn’t care about the Jean Georges-esque delicate precision. What it DOES care about is infusing top quality ingredients into stripped-down, casual dishes that don’t look too aesthetically intimidating to eat. This is the epitome of “Dude Food” – nothing looks overly pretty and the food doesn’t make you feel like you should turn off the football game and catch an opera show instead. In fact, Theresa’s quail fry looked nothing fancier than a plate of KFC chicken.

(Disappointing Quail :[ )

Sad to say though, Theresa’s quail fry also tasted nothing fancier than a plate of KFC chicken. The quail meat was practically tasteless (a little marinade would be useful) and the only ounce of flavor was in the fried, flour coating. It was a disappointing dish and a waste of a good quail. On the flip side, however, my foie gras loco moco was absolutely awesome. A perfectly cooked medium-rare hamburger patty was topped with a slice of spam and a pretty generous slab of foie. This pillar of deliciousness was capped off with a fried quail egg with a semi-running yolk. It was indulgent alright. I wonder how many arteries I clogged tonight. The surrounding gold rice was doused in a lovely sweet and sour type sauce – I almost wanted to lick the plate clean. The burger was somewhat bland by itself but had a fantastic charred, smoky flavor. And its mild flavor complimented the jolting savory taste of the spam – combining both meats in one bite created the perfect flavor balance. The rich taste of the runny yolk and the smooth, creamy foie gras elevated the simple loco moco dish to a whole new unbelievable level. But the most ingenius part of it all was the sprinkling of chopped green onions. It’s such a humble ingredient but its raw, slightly electrifying taste balanced the heaviness of all the cooked, meaty components and brought out the full flavor potential of all the other components. What I loved most about the food was its simplicity. Sure, maybe foie gras doesn’t really fit into the idea of “simplicity” but what Animal does is it brings luxury ingredients down to earth. At Animal, foie gras is on the same level as spam and burger patties and it’s wonderfully refreshing to find a place that reminds you to eat food for its actual flavor and texture rather than for its luxury connotations.

(Keeping the Foie Real: Foie Gras Loco Moco)

Service is awesome and has the same no-frills attitude as the food. Tattoos are almost di rigueur among the staff and with John Shook and Vinny Dotolo as the owners/head chefs, I’m not at all surprised – all I could see through the little window into the main kitchen were Vinny Dotolo’s full-sleeve tattooed arm working over the stove. Also, unlike other Hollywood places, the 20-somethings at Animal aren’t aspiring actors/actresses and they actually like working around food and know something about it. They’re friendly and approachable and, most of all, you get the feeling that they really want you to have a kickass time with the food.

Well, mission accomplished. I totally had a kickass time!

FOOD: 4/5 (based on my loco moco and not the quail fry)

ANIMAL ($$/$$$)
435 N. Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 782-9225

Monday, March 30, 2009

[NYC '09: Dessert, day 5] Dessert Club Chikalicous: Cute Desserts in a Not-So-Cute Place

After dinner at the Stanton Social, we hailed a cab to try Chikalicious, the dessert place endorsed by New York magazine's Adam Platt. We were still too full from brunch so we nipped into the Dessert Club for individual dessert portions instead of the prixe-fixe three course dessert bar across the street. I have to say, the place was totally different from what I had expected. For a place praised for its dainty Japanese-styled desserts, I had imagined a bright, cutely decorated place only to find that the space was the size of a shoebox, had minimal decorations and had two bulking Mexican guys working the counter.

Oh well, at least the desserts are still pretty damn good. Their take on the New York cheesecake (4.95) is served in a small plastic cup. The balance between sweet and zesty tartness is spot-on and the cheesecake manages to be satisfying without being overly heavy. I got the banana custard ($4.95) which was served in similar cup as the cheesecake. The custard had a strong banana flavor which made me all-smiles and the texture was wonderfully smooth and creamy. The pudding tasted best when eaten in a bite mixed with the crushed graham cookies. The mix of textures was wonderful. The desserts at Chikalicous are decent – great, even – but definitely not something to rave about. I heard they were famous for the bread pudding but they were all out by the time we got there. Oh well, maybe next time…

FOOD: 3.75/5

204 E 10th St.
New York, NY 10003
(212) 475-0929

[NYC '09: Dinner, day 5] The Stanton Social: Only for the PYT

(A promising opener: Amuse Bouche)

To celebrate our final night in Manhattan, we made a reservation at The Stanton Social for dinner. This place was exactly as I had expected – loud, dark, young and pretty. To be honest, places like this make me nervous. But oh well, I like looking at pretty things and eating good food and, most importantly, I was with good company.

Stanton Social operates on a shared small plates/tapas dining style. Small plates have been all the rage in the last couple of years and it still seems to be going strong. The waitress (who reminded me of a pre-thievery Winona Ryder) recommended about 2-3 plates per person but, being that we were still stuffed from a heavy brunch, we decided to just start out with 5 plates first.

An amuse bouche of ricotta and tomatoes on toasted bread was brought to our table. The flavors and textures complimented each other perfectly – the salt-seasoned tomatoes cut through the mildness of the ricotta and the smooth creamy cheese played off the crunchiness of the bread. It was definitely a promising opener.

(Can't-taste-the-tuna tuna tartare rolls)

Next up were the nori spiced tuna tartare rolls ($12). This was something I suggested and, sad to say, I was pretty disappointed. I couldn’t taste the tuna at all – the fish was completely overpowered by the spices and the sauce. Also, with the mouthnumbing effect of the sauce, it was difficult to tell how fresh the tuna was but it was definitely not sushi grade. Oh well, I guess this dish just confirmed for me that I will never like tuna tartare no matter how hard I try.

(Good texture: Mushroom Risotto Cakes)

The second dish was the wild mushroom risotto cakes with parmagiano and mushroom chips ($12). I liked the texture – it was dense and interestingly moist and grainy but not coarse. But it was just a little too sour for my personal taste. Not bad but nothing special either. This was getting dangerous – Stanton Social was batting a zero so far in the food zone. So Thank God that the next dish to come up was the butternut squash and sweet potato ravioli ($14). This was hands down the best dish of the night. It was lightly doused in a vanilla brown butter sauce and sprinkled with candied pecans – a perfect blend of sugariness with a slight tinge of saltiness to really bring out the sweet creaminess of the filling. It tasted almost like a sweet potato pie! Great stuff. I wish they would turn that dish into a full sized entrée – I would DEFINITELY order that.

(If only all the dishes tasted like this: Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Ravioli)

Sad to say though, it was all a downhill slope from there on. The Rhode Island style lobster roll ($9/individual portion) was uninspired. I’ll give it credit though for the lobster meat – I’m not a big lobster fan but I do recognize the beauty of a well prepared fresh lobster. The lobster meat in the roll was definitely fresh and had a good bouncy texture. But that aside, it was nothing special. The bun was probably the best part – airy and soft but a little too much on the greasy side. Which actually is my main criticism of the food at Stanton Social – it’s just too greasy in taste. The chips that came with the lobster roll were flat-out gross and tasted like pure oil. Ech.

(Only OK: Lobster Roll)

The last dish of the night was the apparent biggie – the Stanton Social beef Wellington ($21). This dish as a concept was already a little too much for my personal taste – grilled filet mignon with foie gras mousse and mushroom duxelles wrapped in puff pastry. I liked all these components individually but I had a feeling that tossing all these things together could “crudify” them. It was almost like turning a Carolina Herrera dress into an 80s prom gown. But we were at Stanton Social and this was one of the must-try dishes so I put my ambivalence aside. Again, on the level of purely personal taste, I wasn’t feeling the Worcestershire based sauce (I never do) which is also why I didn’t like the pastry since I soaked up all the flavors of the sauce. The beef was cooked really well though (medium rare) but I was still riding on the memory of the wagyu skirt steak at WD-50 and that steak just set the bar way up there. But my biggest qualm with the dish was with the foie gras which seemed to be completely absent from the dish. I’m not a “I HAVE to order foie gras if its on the menu” person but if I DO order it, I expect it to…well…be there. I couldn’t see it, I couldn’t taste it and trust me, I was REALLY concentrating on my bite. I was rolling the piece in my mouth for a full minute and still, no dice.

(Not worth the calories: Beef Wellington)

Although the food is disappointing, the atmosphere is really great. It’s great for drinks and catching up over a light meal and it’s a place to go to if you’re into the see-and-be-seen loud eateries. The kind of place to meet up but not the kind of place to carry out a deep conversation (good luck battling the noise level). And it’s definitely not a place which gets five stars for its food. Personally, it’s not my kinda place…I’m too old and grouchy for hip places like this. I’ll stick to places like Barbarini Alimentari and I’ll leave Stanton Social to all those Pretty Young Things.

FOOD: 2.5/5

99 Stanton St.
New York, NY 10002
(212) 995-0099

[NYC '09: Brunch, day 5] Max Brenner: Savory or Sweet? Well, Let's do Both!

(Little Miss Pinky: a great Brunch Cocktail)

Debs and I met up with our beloved Shoe for brunch in Union Square on day 5 of our Manhattan trip. It was unreal seeing Shoe in NY! The weather was a little too gloomy and gray for brunching on farmer’s market fare outdoors so Shoe took us to Max Brenner a couple of blocks away.

Max Brenner was surprisingly uncrowded when we arrived. I could smell the rich chocolaty-ness of the place even before I stepped into the restaurant. So much for a light brunch! The brunch menu is so extensive – we took at least twenty minutes to decide on what to order. Debs was the first to close the menu after deciding on the tuna salad sandwich ($11.25). Shoe and I were both vacillating between the sweet and savory offerings so we decided to order two dishes to share. From the savory end, we got the guilt-free omelet ($14.50) and on the sweet side, we went with the spiced apple and walnut French toast ($14.50).

(Mmmm...waffle fries)

Food took a while but we didn’t really mind since we were busy catching up. I also ordered an absolutely delicious Little Miss Pinky Martini ($10) while we were waiting for our food. The cocktail – a mixture of vodka and triple sec with strawberries was a perfect balance of sweetness and tartness and with a name like that, how could I not order it??

Anyhow, the food came eventually and the portions are huge! We should’ve expected it. Shoe and I started with the omelet…which, as we had guessed, was hardly guilt free (trust me – we didn’t order it to be healthy). It was extremely well-made – the omelet was huge and fluffy and chock full of flavorful garden veggies and melted cheese. It was extremely substantial and tasted almost meaty even. The eggs came with a side of well-seasoned hash and a buttermilk biscuit. The biscuit was a shining star. It was buttery, fluffy and crumbly all at the same time. Amazing stuff!

(Delicious but DEFINITELY NOT guilt-free)

We moved onto the French toast which was plated along with two cute vials of syrup and melted white chocolate. The French toast was wonderfully eggy and fluffy. Too bad they didn’t use thicker bread (when will places learn?) to really bring out the toast’s potential custardy goodness. The spiced apple and walnut combo was perfect and everything was made even better with a generous dousing of melted white chocolate…but then again, what isn’t :) ?

(Pass the White Chocolate)

Service at Max Brenner’s is excellent. All the waitstaff are super friendly. Must be from all the endorphins from working at a place like this. The place was getting packed by the time we left so I guess, arrive fairly early if you want to try brunch here. Food was fantastic and the company was even better. It was so great seeing Shoe again. Well, hopefully, before long, we’ll be able to meet up in Manhattan again :D

FOOD: 4/5

841 Broadway
New York, NY 10003
(212) 388-0030

[NYC '09: Brunch, day 4] Rong Hang Restaurant: Noisy, Dirty, but Oh-So-Good

(Spare ribs and beautiful cubes of taro)

After our dinner at WD-50 and our shopping extravaganza at Century 21, Sunny and I decided to economize for our day 4 dinner. Initially, I had planned on grabbing soup dumplings from Joe’s Shanghai but, being a Friday night, the place was packed full with – you guessed it – White people. It was already close to 8pm, I was starving and I wasn’t about to wait 45minutes for my food. So, instead, the two of us walked over to the part of Chinatown on the other side of Manhattan Bridge.

We stepped into Rong Hang Restauarant and were greeted by the loud ruckus of clanking bowls and beer bottles and indiscernible Chinese dialects. Yes, it’s scary and unnerving but it’s also a pretty certain sign that the food is probably really good.

Since the dine-in menu was in Chinese only, Sunny gave me ordering carte blanche. The menu boasted that the restaurant served authentic Fuzhou fare which, I have to say, I’m not very familiar with but seemed to be made up of a lot of animal innards. Well, knowing that Sunny is a non-innards person, I skipped over dishes like sautéed pig stomach and crispy duck intestines and went for the spare ribs with house special sauce ($8.95), the stewed lamb Chinese style ($9.95) and two mountainous bowls of steamed rice.

Both dishes were awesome. Though both the pork and lamb were both bony cuts of meat, the meat was cooked to such tenderness that it fell easily off the bones. The pork was so flavorful – it was cooked in a sort of sweet and sour sauce which was close to being addictive. But what REALLY was addictive was the cubes of taro sprinkled throughout the dish. They were my favorite part of the meal. The sauce really enhanced the taro flavor and the tartness of it really cut through the crumbly soft texture of the root vegetable. The lamb stew was a perfect compliment to the pork dish – it was a lot milder in flavor so it balanced the meal out. Also, the stew broth was perfect when mixed with the steamed rice. The sheets of dried bean curd soaked up all the flavors of the lamb and the broth and turned into a sheet of pure deliciousness. These dishes were a welcome respite from the days of eating heavy Western food – both the pork dish and lamb stew had a hearty balance of veggies and the cuts of meat were cut to small bite-size pieces which made the overall meal less stuffy. That being said though, the portions are huge – we left about half of each dish unfinished…and the total for the two of us still only came to $20. I love Chinese food.

(Lamb stewed to tenderness)

Service is iffy – especially if you don’t speak the dialect. This place is DEFINITELY catered to its regulars. I mean, I could converse with the staff in Mandarin and I still had only mediocre service. But then again, at places like this, it’d be stupid to expect red carpet service. As long as the food is awesome – which it was – I’m a happy camper. I’m glad Joe’s Shanghai was packed. Rong Hand is off the beaten path but it’s a definite gem if you can put up with its seeming rough unprettiness.

FOOD: 4/5
SERVICE: 1.5/5

38 Elridge St.
New York, NY 10002

[NYC '09: Brunch, day 4] Bouchon Bakery: The Lake

(Ingenius Coffee-to-go Lids at Crumbs)

On day 4, Sunny and I decided on a second round of Bouchon Bakery + Central Park. We hopped off the C line at Columbus Circle and picked up a few baked goods before hopping back on the subway out to West 70th. We took a little stroll around the upper west side, stopped at the 72nd street station (so beautiful) before ducking into Crumbs for a coffee-to-go.

(Sweet, moist coffee cake)

We entered the park on 75th – I was planning on enjoying our food at the Ladies Pavilion (remember when Carrie and Miranda talk about forgiving Steve in the SATC movie? Yes, there) but the place was occupied by a wedding ceremony. How cute. Well, we settled instead on one of the benches facing the lake. It was equally lovely.

I took a bite of Sunny’s coffee cake which was crumbly and moist. The brown sugar topping really brought it up a notch too. Stellar stuff. And after falling in love with it the first time, Sunny bought the raspberry and almond croissant ($3.25) again. This croissant is a MUST-TRY. It’s so amazingly flaky – it melts on your tongue and leaves a soft, tart sweetness. SOOO good. I wanted to get that too but since Sunny got it already, I decided to try something else with the hazelnut and fig croissant. I’m not a big fig fan – I got it mainly for the hazelnut. This croissant was also flaky and soft but the fig taste was probably a little too much for me. Definitely get this if you are a fan of figs. It’s chock full in every bite.

(No other croissant will be good enough after this: raspberry and almond croissant)

(Hazelnut and Fig Croissant)

I wanted to try Bouchon Bakery’s famous TKOs (i.e. Thomas Keller’s Oreos) but, since I’m not a crazy big fan of Oreos to begin with, I decided to forego them and opted for a second round of macarons ($2.75/ea) instead. I got the chocolate this time and also got the caramel (my favorite!) again. The chocolate was well and a definite chocoholics’ dream but I definitely preferred the lighter flavors like vanilla and caramel. Seriously, the caramel is so amazing.

It was an absolutely beautiful day. I love Central Park and I love Bouchon Bakery. And, of course, the company I was with :D Sunny and I did manage to sit in the Ladies Pavilion for a while after we had finished our food. So peaceful, so beautiful. And it’s times like these that you know life is good.

FOOD: 5/5

10 Columbus Circle, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10019
(212) 823-9366