Eating & Drinking in Manhattan, with a Side of Astoria

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I mentioned in my post the other day that my cousin got married in Manhattan back in June, which gave me an excuse to hang out in New York for a few days. But honestly, when does anyone ever need an excuse to hang out in New York? London, New York, Hong Kong…best cities in the world in my opinion and cities I never need an excuse to visit. Here’s where I ate and drank when I was in New York.

The National Bar & Dining Rooms: When my brother dropped me off at The Benjamin, I still hadn’t had lunch yet so after checking in, I headed straight to the hotel restaurant. It was totally packed with movers and shakers and I was ignored there for a while. I ordered a chicken caesar salad which arrived as a sliced chicken breast and some lettuce and a tiny dollop of dressing. Errr…the bare minimum. I ate it and paid like a gazillion dollars for it and swore to never return. The Verdict: Pass.

Le Relais De Venise L’Entrecote: I knew we’d be able to have a quick lunch at Le Relais De Venise L’Entrecote in Midtown, which would let me get back to the hotel with enough time to get ready for the wedding. If you’re not familiar with the restaurant’s concept, it’s pretty much all you can eat steak and frites and green salad. The restaurant was practically empty when we arrived and still half empty when we left. We managed to demolish a lot of steak and a lot of frites and a surprisingly copious amount of green salad. Service was polite, efficient and surprisingly French throughout. This was a definite crowd pleaser.  The Verdict: I like it.

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Jue Lan Club: In the mood for Asian food the morning after the wedding — and in an attempt to relive our youth — we dropped into Jue Lan Club, located within the old Limelight. (I really can’t believe The Limelight is now a gym, a set of boutique shops, and a Chinese restaurant.) Service was oddly elderly Italian and it was all you can drink Bellinis. (Or maybe it was just two Bellinis. That’s what I had. Two Bellinis.) The food was nothing to write home about, and the atmosphere was oddly quiet and oddly odd. We should have gone to Chinatown.  The Verdict: Pass.

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Cosme: You know how after you spend a lot of time with friends and family, you really need an escape? Well Cosme was mine. I booked a table for one here seriously within a month I think of seeing the new season of Netflix Chef’s Table, featuring chef Enrique Olvera and his restaurant in Mexico City, Pujol. I liked Cosme, but the service was just so darn fast, I was done with my meal in about 45 minutes. (My server was tremendously sweet, to be fair.) It’s a very large space — cavernous — and the tables are spread out, which is nice. The Verdict: Good but not as good as Pujol. Plus, too fast for me.

Astoria

I spent a few nights with my brother in Astoria and understood immediately why he liked it so much there. Lots of cool restaurants and bars and a great neighborhood vibe. The area is rapidly gentrifying though…highrises taking the place of old bungalows. I had to work a lot while  I was at my brother’s, so I relied on him to bring me food: New York pizza, bagel sandwiches, and the occasional empanada, but here are a few places I tried while I was in the hood.

img_3285-1The Sparrow Tavern: I REALLY liked The Sparrow. It was pretty expensive for what it was…I think lunch for two was $50…but the old school meets new school vibe was great, our server was great, and my pulled pork sandwich was surprisingly tasty. Also…the pickles were excellent. This experience was probably helped by the fact that my brother apparently eats here a lot. The Verdict: Go if you are in the ‘hood.

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MosaicMuch like I had my getaway moment at Cosme, I also had my getaway moment at Mosaic, a wine bar down the street from my brother’s. Yes, I went to a bar by myself while I was in Astoria. But my brother had a late work call so it was just me and the dog hanging out. Rather than just sit around and watch TV,  I checked Foursquare for places to go in the ‘hood and they directed me here. I liked Mosaic, although I liked the drunk people sitting next to me less. Also, they need to check their margins on the roast nuts they’re selling. I can’t believe how large my portion was for the price. The Verdict: It’s okay. Better with friends probably.

I’m probably missing more than a few bagel places on this list, and then there’s also the bar at The Waldorf Astoria, which my cousin Jen and I hit up late one night  — best line of the trip: “What do you mean you’re closing in ten minutes? I thought this was the city that never sleeps!!??”

Indeed.

Because Everyone Needs a Night of Pure Chablis

img_3638Let’s face it. Everyone needs more Chablis in their life. EVERYONE. As a keen consumer of Chardonnay — yes, just call me Bridget Jones — Chablis and I are well-acquainted. But to be fair, that’s about all I’ve ever really known about Chablis. It’s Chardonnay. Without the oak that American Chardonnays tend to so heavily favor.

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Douglas Blyde, Masterof Big Words, did me the honor of including my name on the guest list for his Bacchus on a Knife Edge Supper Club at Andaz Studio in The Andaz Hotel in Liverpool Street. (If you’re ever looking for an event space, you should consider Andaz Studio.) I returned the favor of his invitation with a dramatically, dramatically delayed blog post. See, I’ve spent the last six weeks, chained to my laptop, imprisoned in my own apartment, as I try to get a lot of work done in a very small window of time so that I can just hang out and relax for the rest of the year. (Right.) It’s been insane to say the least. Sorry Douglas. And sorry too to the lovely Thomas from Sopexa, the PR firm representing the Bourgogne Wine Board.

What did I learn about Chablis? It’s had a terrible year so far. Hail, floods and frost everywhere, significantly damaging yields. I also learned about the “Four Sisters” of Chablis: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Crus and Grand Crus.

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Our evening started with tiny Norwegian fishcakes and cured cucumber filled with crab and avocado salad. They had been prepared by Martina and Magdelena of the NORDISH supper club. These were tasty little bites, but I wanted more! So I filled up on Chablis instead, quaffing as much as I could of the citrusy Petit Chablis (Pas Si Petit, 2014, La Chablisienne) while we waited to be seated.

Somehow, I ended up at the head of the table, with a fantastic view of the festivities. Douglas and Sopexa had assembled a great group of food and wine loving bloggers. It was great catching up with Tiki Chris, London Unattached, Ms. Food BloggerEdible Woman, Felicia, and many others.

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Shortly after taking our seats, Hana of Pickled Plates delivered a lovely summer vegetable salad with roasted radishes, brown butter dressing, pan-fried whiting and tempura samphire. I could have had two of these, but I couldn’t really because that would have been hedonistically rude of me. (I am a Taurus though.) So I drank more Chablis instead. This time, a clean and fresh  Alain Geoffroy 2014 Chablis, which paired well with the spring-like flavors on our plate. (Even though it was summer.)

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I was giddy now with anticipation of the main event…also, possibly giddy with hunger. Chef Rosie must of anticipated this because she presented us all with a hugely huge pork chop and a generous portion of rice. The soy and miso glaze on the pork chop was fantastic. Douglas chose Julien Brocard’s Chablis, La Boissonneuse to accompany our mains (also 2014). La Boissonneuse was the first Chablis of the night to demonstrate a little bit of oakiness, which helped it stand up to the flavors and textures of the pork chop. Now…now…you could roll me out ot Andaz Studio. I was FULL. Full of food, full of Chablis and having one of those “Life is grand!” moments as the conversation swirled around me.

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Then something amazing happened. UNPASTEURIZED CHEESE. And BUCKETS of Chablis. I mean, let’s give Douglas some credit here. He knows how to throw a good party. EVERY party needs to end with huge boards of cheese and huge buckets of Chablis. In front of us, there was Stichelton from Nottinghamshire, Bleu d’Auvergne, Baron Bigod from Bungay, Camembert from Normandy, Montgomery Cheddar from North Cadbury, Somerset, and finally, my personal favorite, Comté. In the buckets, we found:

  • Domaine William Fevre, Vaulorent, Premier Cru 2012
  • Jean Paul et Benoit Valmur Grand Cru 2012
  • Clotilde Davenne Les Preuses Grand Cru 2008
  • Domaine Laroche Les Blanchots Grand Cru 2007

Given the tough year that Chablis is having, as you’re out there doing you weekly shop and perusing the wine aisle, find yourself some Chablis. Not only will you be enjoying a tremendously versatile wine, you’ll be supporting a region that’s been hard hit by weather lately, which may have knock-on effects in 2017.

Tremendous thanks to Douglas, Thomas from Sopexa, and our supper club hosts who put together a fantastic evening for both the attendees and for Chablis. I know what I will be drinking  a lot more of this year. So should you!

Sleeping in New York: The Benjamin

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My cousin — who will forever be eight in my mind — got married in New York in June. It was a great excuse to spend some time in Manhattan — this would be a real New York wedding, attended by all New Yorkers, smack dab in the middle of the city.

Because I wasn’t quite sure what would all be involved in the wedding,  I wanted to stay close to the venue, a catering hall and steakhouse across the street from the Waldorf Astoria. I also knew that because I would be in New York for over a week, I didn’t want to break the bank. New York has a way of adding up — especially after all the eating and drinking — so I was already planning on staying with my brother in Astoria for a few nights. After a bunch of comparison shopping,  I settled on The Benjamin on 50th and Lexington, just a two block walk from where the wedding would take place.

Thanks to all those years in financial services, when I give myself a budget, I stick with it! I used some Expedia points that I’ve had hanging around for a while and got my two night-stay down from $584.60 to $506.94 or $253.47 a night. If you don’t know about Expedia points, you can essentially earn up to 2 Expedia Rewards Point per $1 spent on flights, hotels, activities, and packages that include a hotel. Then you can redeem those points for flights and hotels on Expedia. The great thing is that you can still totally “double dip” and still earn frequent flyer miles and hotel points on your stays too. (Note that I use my points through my US Expedia account. I believe the UK program is different and involves Nectar points but don’t quote me.)

My brother dropped me off at the hotel and the staff couldn’t have been lovelier. Check-in was efficient and friendly. The hotel lobby is super small and not a place to linger so I quickly headed up to my room.

The room had a microwave, which I thought was a great touch, and one of the most fully-stocked minibars I’ve ever seen. Later in the day, I popped out to Duane Reade — who doesn’t love an American pharmacy —  for microwave popcorn (pun fully intended) so I could have a little snack after the wedding festivities. For some reason, I spend a lot of time in Duane Reades when I am in New York. Standard shopping list: Secret deodorant; Gillette razor blades (they are much cheaper in the US); People and US  magazines, maybe InStyle too; Twizzlers; big fat tubes of Colgate toothpaste; Ziploc bags in all sizes (!!!); Pond’s Cold Cream (Super cheap and I love it); Noxema (again, super cheap but I love it); Tylenol PM (jet lag cure); tortillas (I’m serious); and maybe, just maybe if I feel like risking glass jars in my suitcase, a few jars of Pace Picante Sauce — yum.

The Verdict: The hotel restaurant at The Benjamin as nothing to write home about — my ceasar salad was distinctly unmemorable — and the hotel’s elevators were tiled like showers, which was a little odd. But the bell staff were some of the friendliest I’ve ever met and the wifi was free and plentiful. All in all, The Benjamin is a sweet little hotel in a convenient location. I recommend it.

Tagine, Balham

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I borrowed this photo from Tagine’s website.

Guys, I have a confession to make. I’ve never been to Balham before. Or maybe, if I have been to Balham, it was many years ago. Like in 2004? 2005? I really need to get south of the river more often. But, but, but…Central London is just so very, very convenient…everything you need is RIGHT HERE. I gave a talk to a bunch of University of Connecticut students last month about living in London and what it was like and tops on my list was CONVENIENCE. Everything I need is right outside my door or just a short tube ride away or a short phone call away! Everything I want can be delivered. I can even get Amazon delivered SAME DAY. Why would you ever live anywhere else? (Now if only there was a Trader Joe’s in London, my life would be complete.)

OK, Balham, not a short tube ride, but still a fairly convenient ride for me down the Northern Line.  I made the trip down south to have dinner with my “south of the river” friends Natasa and Olly. They are off the sauce which worked out well because I totally missed that Tagine is BYOB. Also, it was a Monday and who drinks on a Monday night anyhow? (Besides for British people…)

I like Tagine. I like the decor specifically. It’s beautiful. All soft Moroccan lighting and softer still scattered cushions. It makes me want to book a plane ticket to Morocco immediately so I can admire all the tilework. My dad has been itching to visit London to maybe I’ll convince him that we should hop over to Marrakech while he is in town. (It took me many years to discover that a great way to keep yourself from fighting with your parents when they visit is to KEEP THEM DISTRACTED. Go somewhere. Do something. Give them something else to focus on besides for why you never quite lived up to that graduate degree and aren’t making the millions you deserve.)
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Our friendly servers suggested that we begin with an assortment of well, EVERYTHING. So we did. I tried to ignore my mother’s voice in my head, reminding me to not fill up on starters. Sorry mom, I filled up on starters. My downfall? Hummus. Always. Also heavily enjoyable? The beetroot. Known as “slata barda,” this was served with honey, cinnamon, olive oil and a touch of balsamic vinegar. I confess to eating all the Slata Barda. Sorry, Natasa and Olly. And not bad for a gal who never really used to like beetroot. Also, can we talk about how beautiful Moroccan plates are?? Another reason I want to go to Morocco…to buy all the plates.

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We asked our servers for recommendations on mains and they steered us towards two lamb dishes. The first was Tagine Basla, or lamb shank with fried onion and potato. This was a a HUGELY generous portion that I got to take home with me and have for both lunch and dinner the next day. While it certainly wasn’t the most photogenic of dishes, it’ was simple and hearty and satisfying. (Although I wish I had plowed a field or run a marathon beforehand.) I’m a sucker for fried onions so this was probably my favorite dish of the evening.

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Next up was “Lamb Barkouk Tagine,” slow cooked lamb shank with prunes, almonds, poached pear and sesame seeds. It was beautifully tender and the poached pear was an intriguingly delicate match to the hearty, flavorful lamb. This too was a very generous portion, and the remainder also came home with me. I ate a lot of lamb that week. A LOT of lamb.

We rounded out our festival of lamb with a slow cooked fish dish with potato and Moroccan tomato sauce. It provided a nice break from the lamb, which in hindsight, we probably ordered too much of.

At this point in the  meal, we were all so full, our eyes were crossed and all conversation had ceased. No dessert, no tea. Just a slow, lamb-filled walk back to the tube station for me and a slow walk home for Natasa and Olly.

I like Tagine. I like a good neighborhood restaurant that’s different and fun. Service was sweet and attentive throughout. Also, we gave high points to the loo, which was unique and different and very beautiful, in a way that loos usually aren’t anymore. Well done, Tagine. Well done.

The Verdict: I’d recommend Tagine if you’re in the mood for something different. The restaurant is about a 3 to 4 minute walk from Balham tube, which also makes it quite convenient. BYOB will keep your costs down, although the mains — most around £15 — certainly aren’t cheap.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Tagine. As always, we tipped on the full amount. 

The Gate, Islington

The excellent leek tart at The Gate in Islington

The excellent leek tart at The Gate in Islington

In the nearly prehistoric early days of my blog, there were no freebies, no invites to review, no Twitter or Snapchat or Instagram. There were no readers either, but I still enjoyed putting my words out there for no one else but me to enjoy. Maybe occasionally my investment banker friends (and frequent dining companions) liked to read my words,. (And my mother, to reassure herself that I was still alive.) My banker friends were perhaps smarter than me all these years ago and would often tell waitstaff at restaurants that I was a “famous” food critic. I would shrink in my seat, mortified to my soul, as they said so. I just liked to write for myself, really. So I wrote for myself and kept myself anonymous and no one really knew who was I was for a while, but then a certain UK journalist told all of England that I wanted to quit my job to become a professional food critic — I’m 5 trillion percent confident I never said that and please can you imagine the conversation when I went into the office on Monday — and then the invites to review starting coming, and I said no and no and no again. (There is no free lunch really.) Then this one time in 2009 I said yes and it was all very nice but I wrote about my conflicting feels and well…

I returned to London in 2014 with a new “Just say yes” attitude. There were a lot of reasons for this new mindset, best discussed over cocktails and copious carbohydrates and having nothing to do with my blog really but more to do with being a slave to The Man for so long and not having much fun while I was back in Chicago, really. I was determined to have more fun in London now that I was back. So I started saying yes. I thought saying yes would mean fun!

When The Gate emailed me earlier this spring, this “Just say yes” mindset led me to say yes but it was hard to find a date for anyone to come along because, well, I am still a slave to The Man and The Man pays my bills and I like money, you know. (Even though I try to like money less than I once did, I still like it.) The PR was dogged. She did not give up, although I was ready to and in fact had so in my mind because after so many emails with so many people about so many dates and times and vegetarian food and yes, Angel was still on the Northern Line, I decided that maybe we should all just Netflix and Chill instead.

But! Miracle of miracles! I finally found a night without conference calls with the west coast or other incidents that prevent work/life balance. And I owed A Girl Has to Eat an invite after the many kind invites she had extended to me. We were also long overdue a catch-up about work and life and balance. (And yoga.)

I like the location of The Gate, just down the hill from Angel and up the hill from Roseberry Avenue. The restaurant was buzzing with the pre-Sadler’s Wells Theatre crowd when I entered but as soon as I sat down, they all stood up and headed off to their show. Now that’s great timing! A Girl Has to Eat arrived shortly later and we went to town on the menu.

We started with some excellent focaccia and olives. I really wanted more of the focaccia but also didn’t want to ruin my dinner.

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We then split starters of miso aubergine and slow roasted leek tart. The miso aubergine topped with toasted cashew nuts, micro coriander and ponzu sauce was fresh and summery, but it was the leek tart — with swiss cheese, sweet balsamic dressing, sprouting lentils and raw beetroot salad — that I really loved. I could easily eat this leek tart every day of the week. The pastry was particularly excellent.

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This is a terrible photo of the mushroom chipotle because all you can see is rocket. I’m sorry.

For mains, I opted for the wild mushroom chipotle, a mix of foraged wild mushrooms, sauteed in a rich chipotle and sour cream sauce on a bed of braised wild rice and rocket. I am not a huge mushroom eater but the magic word “chipotle” pulled me in and I was glad that it did. What’s so strange about The Gate is that you are eating vegetarian food but you totally forget that you are! It’s like they weave a magic spell over you when you enter: Forget meat! Forget meat! Mushrooms are meat!

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The tasty sweetcorn cakes

A Girl Has to Eat opted for the Sweetcorn Cilantro Cake, served with a black bean, roast pepper and grilled corn on the cob salsa, topped with char-grilled Mediterranean vegetables and chunky guacamole. I had a bite and had food envy, even though I was perfect satisfied with my main!

Service was prompt and friendly during our visit, although our dessert took a very, very long time to arrive. Also, one of the women at the table next to us would not stop talking and SINGING during our meal and it was so distracting and annoying that I really couldn’t even enjoy the much delayed dessert and finally just said to A Girl Has to Eat, “I gotta get outta here” and fled out into the street, which was blissfully quiet and calm in comparison. Ah, also while we were at The Gate, one of the toilets overflowed. Good times. (Signs in the ladies’ loo warn you about the sensitive toilets.)

The Verdict: I really, really like The Gate. Great food, and you leave feeling virtuous and like your cholesterol is lower! It’s amazing. That being said, I think I am done saying yes to invites for review for a while. This blog has always been a hobby and a way to pass the time, and the economist in me understands that there really is no free lunch. My job keeps me busy — too busy at this time of year, and I enjoy my site more when I write what I want to write when I have the (admittedly limited) time to write it. If you can tell by the lack of posts as of late, now is not the time when I have time. So things will go back to the way they sort of were at some point before I lost my penchant for my own discoveries, and I’ll say no to invites to review more often. (But yes to events because I like events. I really really like events.) It was a worthy experiment, but it’s time is over. After, uh, I get a few more of these invites to review posts out of the way first. 🙁 Sigh.

Note: I was invited to dine at The Gate with a guest. We did not have to pay for anything. I tipped on the full amount, if not a little more, and handed the cash directly to our server.