Archive for March, 2013

Bus drivers on a plane

March 2013

Not to rewind a tired tape, but once a year I actually enjoy schlepping to The Consort’s hometown. I half-pay for our two free nights in the nicest hotel in town with a stressful hour as a judge at Nickel City Chef, and I ain’t complaining. This time the hotel was the new @Lafayette, a 1900s-something lodging brought back to get-with-it-Kimpton status (my bitching about the lack of a bathrobe ended when I found the iron had a retractable cord). This is the Ace of Buffalo, with a very cool gift shop, especially if you want a plate imprinted with a photo of the photo in your room, one from the Pan-American Exposition.

And the place is stocked with restaurants — one the best in town — and bars — one the best for cocktails. I’m behind in my work and will post more later on both, but for now:

We started eating on this getaway with my biggest fan in the ladies’ room, at Bacchus, where our early-bird reservation and, I suspect, some intercession snared us a corner table with my in-law equivalent where we could actually hear each other talk. She didn’t freak at the prices, and we were all happy with the food/service/setting. The seasoned olive oil that came with the good bread would have been circus enough for Gloria (a container upended with herbs/spices), but her halibut over asparagus and Bob’s shrimp-encrusted mahi (more toast than seafood) were just as dazzling for a new Panera aficionada. I ordered two apps, a beautifully balanced spinach salad with portobellos and other accouterments that have escaped my cranial sieve plus an overwrought lobster crepe with dill, and was glad they didn’t have to be packed up at the end. As always, the wine pours made Manhattan’s usuals look like trickles. And the list validated the restaurant name.

We were a little cranky at the hotel on wandering downstairs on Morning One to find a Holiday Inn Express-style breakfast awaiting in the lobby, when we were accustomed to a Mansion-style spread, but Bob was smart enough to Yelp when the desk attendants suggested Tim Horton as an alternative (even though it is not open on weekends), so we drove. His filters led us where the desk clerks could not, to Betty’s, where I ate this and he had the “meat lover’s breakfast plate,” so we could try the Spar’s bacon and sausage we’d heard so much about last trip. Not sure which was the best part of that stop: the Philadelphia-in-the-70s nostalgic perfection of the decor/menu. Or the zaftigs at another table who looked to be my age and actually cleaned their heaped-high plates and about whom Bob noted: “At least their skin is supple.” Or the young girls to my left who were socking back Bloody Marys when we arrived and Bailey’s as we left. Blunch, indeed.

Not to bore with minutia, but I can recommend all our other food stops: White Cow Dairy’s cooler-than-Brooklyn shop, where we split an excellent fig-tea yogurt outside while lamb’s tongues and eggs were being negotiated inside. Spar’s, for some of that great bacon plus some sausage for Gloria along with some new/old cultural harmony (Bob’s dad grew up near there, now kiddles rule the meatery). The new Premier, bigger and better out in Amherst, with a wine store so huge and well-stocked it has to offer a map as you walk in. And Nickel City Cheese, a tiny shop with big ambitions. I always wish Bob’s dad was still alive, but I wish it most intensely when we go back to his birthplace and have the kind of experiences he always came to NYC to savor. (Hey, there’s an essay in there . . .)

Lunch that day was at Black Rock Kitchen, a perfect stop for a bite between sausage gravy and biscuits and a gazillion-course dinner (more TK). We split a surprisingly restrained Caesar with crispy Parmigiano and some pork&mushroom spring rolls and one glass of superb Alsatian wine in a smart setting. Breakfast next day was in the hotel in the sleepily opened cafe and was better than we had any right to expect (I put together my plate from the sides — eggs, potatoes, bacon, toast — rather than risking the specials although Bob did quite well with his Tequila Sunrise with spicy poached eggs over a biscuit). Lunch was at our favorite artsy pit stop, the cafe at the Albright-Knox, which as always had outstanding shows to stroll through to work up something of an appetite for a Caesar and a half-sandwich of BLT with enough of the B to make a meat lover’s lunch.

Dinner that night was at Cantina Loco, whose owner in that owner-magic way magically found a way to find us a table after the judging. And now I think all the Mighty Taco jokes about the boyhood birthplace are done. We needed no food at all at this point but nearly chip-dipped the dish clean of a chile con chorizo and then had to force ourselves to stop eating the kimchi-short rib tacos and the special brisket enchiladas. Alcohol was also involved, including outstanding margaritas. (Both should be called Go Back to Using a Notebook. Good comes with no details.)

For our short last day, we first trekked around downtown Buffalo in search of sustenance and bailed on the closest “cappuccino” cafe on seeing its options were kinda processed, then bailed on the cafe in the public library(!) on learning its espresso machine was busted, then bailed on Tim Horton’s on walking in and seeing huge lines waiting in a smell so foul you could almost feel it (no wonder a big puke splat was right outside the front door). Luckily, Bob remembered Spot Coffee, so we schlepped there for respectable cappuccini and a shared wrap filled with scrambled eggs. Later, his mom wanted us to teach her Chipotle as a Panera alternative, so we did it, and did I ever learn. Portions were Buffalo-insane. But if the mission was meant to leave her refrigerator stocked until next year’s visit, it was definitely accomplished.

My work, however, is not done. More to come on dinner at Mike@HotelLafayette. Plus drinks.

New York minutes

March 2013

The good: Montmartre in Chelsea, where my consort and I hooked up with friends willing to be early birds to try a restaurant open only a few days but certain to be packed soon and where our rewards started with a nice quiet table downstairs. As always with a Little Wisco joint, the service was attentive and the kitchen was not afraid of flavor or fat. Everything on the menu sounded tantalizing, and the “canapé” of celeriac in a sort of mousse topped with pickled grape sent the right message as soon as we’d ordered. Because we couldn’t order a couple of apps to take the edge off immediately, because it would tax the kitchen, we held off and just shared one, of tiny, tender escargot teamed with great garlic sausage, Swiss chard and crunchy, spicy little crumbs of potato. Our server used everything but the word stew in describing the veal blanquette, and she was right: it was a deconstructed classic, with tender chunks of meat and almost no sauce surrounded by mushrooms and Thumbelina carrots, with a little bowl of sensational mustard spaetzl on the side (looked like fries, tasted like pungent pasta). I only snared a taste of the skate St. Malo, a crisp fillet laid over Savoy cabbage with bacon cooked in Riesling with mustard, so can only say it seemed to make one friend happy. And if my ample portion of fluke was not especially juicy, it was almost superfluous since the creamed leeks and chili-crab sauce with it were so satisfying. We all shared the dessert gougeres, which sounded like profiteroles, with their chocolate sauce and toasted hazelnut,s but were in fact cheesy more than creamy-puffy. The wine list seems pretty steep, though, with the cheapest bottle (the one we chose) at $40. (Entrees were in the mid to high $20s.) WIGB? Soon, I hope. 158 Eighth Avenue near 18th Street, 646 596 8838.

The relatively good: Zero Otto Nove on Arthur Avenue, where Bob and I stopped first on a field trip out of the house on a Saturday and where, as always, the setting — Italo-Disneyesque as it is — represented half the allure. We got there early and did not have to wait long, which was a good thing because the two hostesses were having a severe breakdown in communication. And so we soon had a table upstairs overlooking the skylit dining room, and we had a potato-sausage-smoked mozzarella pizza on that table in the time it took me to get to and from the bathroom. The crust was a little chewy, but the balance of other ingredients compensated. A salad of escarole with marinated eggplant and olives made an ideal dessert; we split a generous glass of okay California sauvignon blanc (someday someone is going to have to explain how pinot grigio came to be the taste of Italy when it is the most insipid of so many whites). WIGB? Absolutely. The “Italian” restaurants have always been more Albanian, but you can forgive a lot in a setting that transporting.

The not-as-bad-as-I-anticipated: Pylos in the East Village, where we met up with a knowledgeable friend with news to celebrate and where I am very glad I was not a total bitch in pooh-poohing it because . . . she paid, even after we definitely over-ordered. I had basement-level hopes for a restaurant that I thought of as a holdover from the days when that neighborhood was a food wasteland, thanks to denizens who were either too poor to eat out or too rich-druggie to care about eating. But the place looks as polished and fresh as when we were there for a press dinner eons ago, we got a nice corner banquette and the food was surprisingly imaginative. The bean spread that came with warm pita may have been having an identity crisis, but two of the three spreads we immediately ordered compensated (the eggplant purée was as bland as the beans; tzatziki and taramasalata nearly reached Kefi level). Saganaki landed while our pita platter was empty, so it congealed while we waited; artichoke moussaka, grape leaves and oddly sweet and slightly chalky gigantes were tepid even at their hottest spots. We shared a whole grilled branzino and somehow got talked into both roasted potatoes and a sensational side of chard and spinach stewed with celery and fennel. Because it was a celebratory night, one bottle of red led to two glasses more — and two glasses sent back because they did not smell corked but certainly tasted wan. WIGB? Sure. If someone’s treating and I don’t mind rushed-to-impatient service and wine bottles stowed on the floor between pours.