Saturday, January 27, 2007

Cheap Eats no. 6: Bouchon Bakery

Since its opening in spring of 2006, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery has been the subject of near-deafening hype – at least if you’re a reader of foodie mags and newspaper dining sections, as I enthusiastically am. As such, I wanted to see how it stacked up. Fortunately, Bouchon is located in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, serendipitously situated on the same block as the offices of the American Symphony Orchestra League, where I have an internship. So when Winston rang me for a lunch date during my one-day stint in NYC last week, I knew just the place.

We rendezvoused at Borders on the second floor and ascended the escalator to the third, where we found the full-service section of the bakery immediately beneath the glowing SAMSUNG sign, cordoned off by elegant silver-and-frosted-glass barriers. (Down the hall to the left, there is a walk-up counter for take-out and some high tables for diners on the run.) Nearly every table was occupied, from single diners, to lunching friends, to businesspeople, to shopping families with small children. Keller’s menu offered something to suit them all – as long as you’re OK with paying $12 for a bowl of soup.

Keller runs some of the country’s swankiest, most expensive restaurants, among them the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se, also in New York’s Time Warner Center. This bakery is actually Keller’s second (the original Bouchon is located in Las Vegas), and it brings his artful fine dining to the general public in (relatively) affordable style, with salads, soups and sandwiches.

Our waiter, outfitted in a brown, pocketed polo shirt with a buttonless, open placket, welcomed us to the bakery – an exceptionally heartfelt greeting, it seemed to me. Later, he brought us a carafe of water and a breadbasket, filled with bread outwardly resembling ginger root more than rolls or baguettes. The rolls’ outer crust tasted curiously – deliciously – of cornflakes. The soft, air-pocked inside was similarly appealing, especially with the rich butter that came alongside the bread in its own miniature pot.

Winston, ever in pursuit of elusive omega-3 fatty acids to supplement his diet, ordered the tuna salad sandwich, a.k.a. “Tartine of Tuna Nicoise on Pain de Campagne,” served with “nicoise olives, bibb lettuce and garlic aioli with sliced eggs and radishes.” The “sandwich” came open-faced, a long hunk of tuna with olives embedded in its sides, resting atop crusty, light brown bread (and all of those other things) – unquestionably a fork and knife affair.

Having done my research and previously reviewed the menu, I had anticipated I would get the chicken soup with herb dumplings. For $11.75 a bowl, surely the soup might possess some manner of mystical properties – or at the very least, it would be delicious. But the menu at the bakery was slightly different than the one I’d seen online, which must have been from the fall. Now they had, also in the soup section of the menu, a tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich: “san marzano roma tomato soup with grilled fontina and gruyere cheese sandwich.” Sold.

The tomato soup, served in a small cup, was a smooth puree with a rich vermillion hue and a subtly spiced heat. While delicious in its own right, the soup lost out next to the uniformly golden grilled cheese, cut into two triangles. (Though I’m not sure it’s fair to compare tomatoes to warm, melty cheeses; clearly the tomatoes will lose every time.) Cheese oozed artfully from between perfectly crisped, buttery breadslices, not precisely put together but slightly askew; a presentation of studied messiness. Biting into the sandwich, it became nearly impossible to distinguish the elements from one another; the bread seemed to have absorbed the molten cheese, creating a small-scale warm, cheesy bread-pudding interior.

I once again cleaned my plate; but Bouchon Bakery is one of those rare paragons of perfect portioning where that’s alright to do. The bill for both of us came out around $25 – a bargain for such speedy, courteous service and high-quality food.

Of course I couldn’t leave Bouchon without stopping by the walk-up pastry case. I purchased one of the homemade, oft-written-up Nutter Butters to take back to Syracuse. I don’t like peanut butter (I know, I’m weird), so I didn’t try it myself – but my sources tell me that this is one NYC dessert that definitely deserves its hype.

Bouchon Bakery ranked no. 6 on New York Magazine’s 2006 list of 101 Best Cheap Eats.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Kids these days...

A Syracuse high school canceled a dance recently because students were "grinding," a dancing style known in some circles as "freaking." Last week, the local section of the Syracuse Post-Standard published a point-counterpoint piece featuring two high school girls arguing for and against the freedom to freak, respectively.

I'm assuming that it is for lack of any better ideas that some school administrators are turning to the website to deal with the moral downfall of American youth culture through dance. Through this site, a California-based DJ peddles signs and t-shirts (which also come in babydoll sizes - what?) to "help communicate the message of appropriate dancing during school functions."

The newspaper reported that the designer of the logo is currently devising more signs that feature other "positions" of freaking. I'm certain that posting stick-figure kama sutra will put an end to all this inappropriate dancing and thus to the risky sexual behaviors that each dance-offender must surely take part in. (NOT.) You know this guy is laughing all the way to the bank. I'm just hoping that there's a school administrator somewhere who truly believes that wearing one of these shirts will help eradicate grinding from school dances.

But really - shouldn't they be going after Abercrombie & Fitch?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Cheap Eats no. 72: Westville (plus dessert!)

“Sometimes you just want a burger or a grilled cheese – but not just any burger or grilled cheese,” New York Magazine proclaimed from the pages of its 101 Best Cheap Eats issue – and, dangit, they were right. One brisk, blustery night in January required just this sort of sustenance, so Jon and I set off from Krista’s Union Square-ish apartment in search of No. 72 on the magazine’s list, Westville.

After pounding pavement for nearly a mile and a half, we breezed right on by the inconspicuous storefront before realizing we had just passed it. We doubled back and ducked into the windless respite of the burgundy-curtained entry, which opened onto a well-lit, narrow dining area probably 12 feet across and 30 feet deep before the kitchen took over the space. Small square tables for two lined the perimeter, five of them aligned along a long booth bench on the wall. A table stood in the front window – that one might have seated four – and another was pushed against the wall opposite the booth, below a set of chalkboards enumerating the day’s specials and a particularly extensive market menu of vegetables. Empty chairs filled in the spaces along the wall, providing seating for waiting patrons.

You could call it cramped, you could call it intimate, but neither would be entirely accurate. Westville falls somewhere in between. I had to push the table next to ours aside to access the booth seat on the wall (as did the two couples who arrived soon after us); but even though we were rubbing elbows with our neighbors, the atmosphere still allowed for personal, private conversation. (In the event of an awkwardly quiet dinner partner, there is abundant opportunity for eavesdropping, if you’re so inclined – I myself enjoyed the musings of the film nuts to the right, though not so much the bickering coworkers to my left). A mix of low-key, offhandedly hip music set the stage for standard American fare done one better in this tidy, toasty West Village charmer.

The menu is mouth-watering even before you consider the dozen or so specials on offer on a given night, making decisions particularly difficult. Most American/eclectic restaurants will offer a grilled cheese sandwich, burgers of various meats, and some riff on a Reuben – but how many sit-down restaurants offer a hot dog platter? (And, no, T.G.I. Friday’s doesn’t count.) Westville has not one, not two, but three options for frankfurter fanatics: Hebrew National, vegan, or Niman Ranch’s “fearless franks,” all natural, all beef hot dogs. This place is serious, and seriously awesome.

Various salads – to which you can add chicken, steak, salmon or walnuts – and enticing soups and appetizers – among them macaroni & cheese with smoky bacon and crab cakes – lead off the menu of nonstop hits. Entrees include char-grilled Newport steak and beer-battered fish & chips, and tuna and chicken salad sandwiches and a codfish po’boy round out the sandwich selections. The night we went, a whole brook trout with mixed greens went for $17 and chicken or lamb sausage served over vegetarian chili went for $12 on the specials board. A litany of intriguing vegetable dishes called out from the blackboard: classic collard greens, garlic or pesto mashed potatoes, sautéed cherry tomatoes, roasted butternut squash, beets with walnuts, snow peas with sesame and ginger, cauliflower with dijonnaise, Asian-style bok choy, and lemon-grilled asparagus. And that’s probably half of the list.

But we ordered none of these things. No, we got what we came for: burgers and grilled cheese. Jon ordered the grilled cheese and added bacon atop their blend of cheddar and gouda cheeses. For my part, I can rarely resist a turkey burger, and Westville’s seemed particularly alluring – somehow appending the modifier “cast-iron” to the description gave off the impression that this would be an exceptional turkey burger. I ordered mine topped with lettuce, tomato, red onion and smoked gouda, with a side of mixed greens.

To our delight, our meals were indeed exceptional. Both sandwiches were built on a Portuguese muffin – sort of like an English one, only without the nooks, crannies or sourdough-y kick. Everything was made with top-quality ingredients, from the shredded gouda atop my burger to the golden-toasted muffin to the fresh, vibrantly colored mixed greens. My only complaint is that the 8 oz. burger had to be so thick to fit within the circumference of the muffin that I could hardly open my mouth wide enough to take a bite. Yet somehow I soldiered through, and left nought but a sandwich pick and a few stray crumbs on my plate. It's my understanding that the grilled cheese, served with fries, was similarly delicious, but I was too involved in my own dinner to steal some of Jon’s.

After we paid the bill, which rang up in the ballpark of $30 for the two of us, we suited up for the cold and ambled north on Bleeker Street to that bastion of snacktime hiptitude, the much-hyped Magnolia Bakery. Last year I had been to Billy’s Bakery –somehow related to Magnolia, as I understand it – and split a couple of their picture-perfect cupcake confections. The buttercream frosting, rendered in pillows of soft pastels, was the desserts’ best feature, but couldn’t mask the dry cake underneath.

Magnolia’s goods suffered from much the same problem. The “special” red velvet cupcakes caught my eye this time, so I nabbed one of those and a ginger molasses cookie (I’ve yet to find one of those anywhere to beat Whole Foods’ version) for me and a banana pudding cup for Jon. (Actually, the ginger cookie I finished before even reaching the cash register – it was uncharacteristically small for a commercial cookie, if you can classify it as such.)

If you are at all familiar with red velvet cake and are at all a fan of it, do not go to Magnolia’s and try their cupcake. You will only be disappointed – and out $1.75. The cream cheese icing tasted like nothing, and was piled on so thick that it seemed they were consciously trying to cover up the deficient cake below. Jon was similarly disappointed in his banana pudding (though whose could match Sylvia’s?).

My advice for a post-Westville sweet? Stock up on the ginger molasses cookies – or better yet, if you’ve got a little extra cash, stick around Westville for a slice of homemade pie, or maybe a fresh-baked cookie the size of your face. It might cost a little more, but I doubt if anything Westville has the culinary capacity to disappoint like Magnolia’s surface-over-substance cupcakery.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Notable noshing in NYC

My classmates and I recently returned from our arts and culture immersion in New York City, an eight-day trip that constituted an entire semester’s worth of a class credit. Not only did we immerse ourselves in the city’s arts scene, we also immersed ourselves in delicious, delicious food. With the myriad multi-course meals the cohort consumed, it seems like we each took in a semester’s worth of calories in the process. Fortunately for us, New York involves a lot of walking.

As a group, we ate better than any crowd I’ve ever traveled with – hats off to Janet and Johanna for arranging countless lovely meals of countless lovely courses. (Special thanks are due as well to those restaurants that included a fruity dessert option alongside the ubiquitous cheesecake or chocolate torte/mousse – and extra points to Josephina’s at Lincoln Center for the gorgeous blackberries that accompanied their tasty key lime tart.)

Among these fantastic meals, there were standout dishes that must be mentioned, detailed below.

Bottino (246 10th Ave, between 24th and 25th)
Bottino, an Italian restaurant in the Chelsea gallery district, was particularly refreshing – we ate there on Saturday, after three decadent days of intensive, immersion-style indulgence. Their light fare suited the unseasonably warm and sunny day perfectly. Though my entrée of grilled Norwegian salmon was lovely, the standout course of this meal was the starting salad: thick-sliced tomatoes under a mound of baby arugula, finished off with a light vinaigrette and sheets of shaved parmigiana. Strips of freshly cut basil interspersed throughout the greens gave the mild salad a boost to balance the dry, salty Parmesan. I was seriously talking about this salad for days – and I’m historically not a salad person.

Penelope's (at 30th and Lexington)
The very next day I experienced another culinary revelation. We had all day Sunday free. Rather than going to museums, films or performances, as so many of my more studious classmates did, I met up with friends for brunch, at Penelope’s in Murray Hill. As with most brunch menus, I found myself drawn to at least half of the items listed; but since my neighbors to the right and left were both ordering the enticing pumpkin waffles, I opted for the “Sam I Am,” a breakfast-time tribute to Dr. Seuss that, thankfully, avoids the use of food coloring.

This incarnation of green eggs (sans ham) differed from any I’ve seen before. The color came not from spinach, not from pesto, but from grilled asparagus, which was scrambled with two farm-fresh eggs, per the menu’s description. Once again, the finishing touch – a sprinkling of tangy feta cheese crumbles – brought the dish to life, enhancing the intermingled flavors of egg and asparagus. Penelope’s scored even more points by allowing the substitution fresh fruit – honeydew melon and berries in rich reds and blues – for the dish’s usual French fry accompaniment; and their portion sizes were spot-on, perfectly satisfying.

Monday brought with it another dining delight, about a hundred blocks north of Penelope’s at Sylvia’s soul food restaurant in Harlem. (Sylvia has another outpost in Atlanta, and, for everywhere in between, two cookbooks and a line of canned vegetables and bagged mixes for the home convenience cook.) The bookends of the meal were the high points here: you just knew, when the waitress appeared bearing plastic pitchers of orange drink, that this would be a down home, feel-good meal. Just behind the beverages came a procession of family style platters piled high with lightly crispy fried chicken and fish and heaping bowls of rice, potato salad, and deliciously addictive collard greens; sweet, crumbly cornbread nestled in red plastic baskets completed the Southern spread.

But the crowning glory of the meal was Sylvia’s dessert: banana pudding (a menu choice that Jon desirously foretold). To me, banana pudding at a large-scale operation usually means goo of an alarming yellow tint, bordered in its tiny bowl by Nilla wafers and buried beneath a swirl of Reddi-Whip. But the similarities stopped at the beige cafeteria-plastic mini-bowls. I had no idea something as generic and ubiquitous as banana pudding could be this delicious. I’m not sure how they did it: all I know is that it involved real bananas – I found slices amid the velvety pudding – and a scoop of some miraculous mixture involving Nilla wafers, delicately garnished with a tasteful dollop of whipped cream. As this was family-style dining, the wait staff didn’t bother to count and just kept bringing desserts: Somehow I resisted, but a good few classmates helped themselves to seconds. Needless to say, I’m trying to hunt down the recipe…

The next day, our last full day in the city before returning to Syracuse, held one last food find. At Taboon, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, we were overwhelmed by the onslaught of various mouthwatering meze (appetizers), but somehow managed to save room for the main meal (and who could forget dessert?). My entrée of heraime – a halibut filet, baked in a tomato-based, lightly spiced sauce with roasted pepper and cilantro and served in the skillet – came with a side of couscous.

Oh my God, this couscous. It wasn’t even seasoned, at least not overtly, but it was simply awe-inspiring. Finer than the instant grains available in grocery stores, this couscous felt to the mouth how one imagines the fluffiest cloud might feel. I always found the instruction to “fluff” one’s couscous ridiculous, but it makes total sense after this meal; however, I don’t think any couscous poured from a box or rendered by my hand could ever attain the downy texture of Taboon’s miraculous side dish. Delicious on its own, when combined with the subtle flavors of the fish and its sauce, it turned a merely OK dish into a very good one.

Of these places, I highly recommend Bottino and Penelope’s. As I scout out more restaurants in NYC, most likely of the grad-budget-friendly persuasion, you should expect further posts and recommendations...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"A Chorus Line," revived - Dance: five; Voice: yikes

It’s a good thing “A Chorus Line” isn’t a musical about auditioning triple-threat leads for a Broadway show. If it were, nobody in the 2006 revival cast would make it past the first round.

Now three months into its run, the highly publicized revival of Michael Bennett’s “A Chorus Line” is playing at the Schoenfeld Theater under direction of Bob Avian, co-choreographer of the original.

Set in 1975, the show centers on 17 dancers auditioning for a Broadway ensemble. Each performer has a story to tell – a true-life story, drawn from Bennett’s recorded interviews with professional dancers. The musical unfolds as the onstage choreographer calls on the dancers, one by one, to explain why they want to dance.

Widely criticized as being too reverential toward the original, this revival has problems even before casting issues enter the mix. James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante’s book relies on homosexuality, cross-dressing and plastic surgery for dramatic color; but what was taboo in the 1970s carries little shock value in the new millennium. As a result, the cast must work harder to engage and sustain the audience’s interest.

The ensemble opener, “I Hope I Get It,” showcased the strongest singing and dancing of the night. Taken together, the singers sounded great. But when it came time for solos, most performers favored a pinched, nasal sound, closer to shouting than singing. Admittedly, this is the (unfortunate) norm on Broadway – but even by those standards, the cast left much to be desired.

This production’s biggest Broadway name, Charlotte d’Amboise, was also its biggest disappointment. As Cassie, the Tony-nominated actress incorporated nearly every cliché of musical theater vocalism – breathless talk-singing, overdone consonants – into her performance, which teetered perilously on the edge of parody.

Paired with uninspired choreography by original-cast alum Baayork Lee, this revival never came to life. Song after low-energy song fell short of its showstopper potential.

As Bobby and Sheila, Ken Alan and Deidre Goodwin rescued the evening with convincingly drawn characters. Although these parts aren’t much of a stretch for Broadway actors, Alan and Goodwin’s unaffected performances stood out.

It defies logic that the best part of a musical about dancers should be the acting, but such was the case at Wednesday’s performance.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Immersion snippet

After visiting painstakingly selected art galleries in Chelsea, art critic Karen Wilkin on the fabled gallery scene:

"I don't understand people who 'do' Chelsea. [Something about trudging 'doggedly from gallery to gallery' that I didn't catch verbatim]...
The risk of seeing terrible art is so high. I don't know why you would do that to yourself."

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

New Year's Eve 2007
- a (brief) photo essay -

Mountain Man & Old Man Wolbe, all prettied up and festive

Our hosts for the evening, Dan & Judy

Me and my Llama!

Gayle Noel and her newly pierced ears
(My, is that CZ you're wearing?)

Me and Jo, warming up for the big moment

Farmer Jim and Judy, makin' some noise post-midnight

Noisemaker war! Happy New Year, indeed...