Sunday, November 30, 2008

I Heart New York Food: Day Two

Saturday was our biggest day of the trip with approximately 16 hours of activity, the majority of it outside and in the freezing cold! We had lots of hearty food to keep us going though.

Breakfast: Sarabeth's

Sarabeth's is Darryl's favourite breakfast place in the city. There are several locations, but we went to the one on Central Park South. It is expensive and you will pay dinner-like prices for breakfast. They also add an automatic 18% gratuity even for a party of 3 with an line for "extra tip". But, the food is of excellent quality. I had the Pumpkin Waffle that came with raisins, pumpkins seeds, berries, and honey. It was good, but I think the best sweet breakfast is the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes. They're feather light with just a touch of lemon. I also had a side of the best roast potatoes and Darryl shared his order of chicken apple sausage, also amazing.

Gyro Cart outside Grand Central Station

We didn't have a gyro or kebab while in NYC, but I was impressed by how fresh the ingredients looked and how great it smelled.

Union Square Farmers Market

This market was super crowded, but full of incredible produce, meats, and preserves. They had tonnes of vegetables that I'd never even heard of before. So many kinds of potatoes. There was a cute stand that sold lamb meat and lamb wool.

I took a paparazzi-type photo of a very cool-looking woman shopping at the market in an immaculate white coat with a white clutch purse, black heels, and sunglasses. She seemed very New York.

Lunch: Katz's Delicatessen

Lunch at Katz's in the Lower East Side was probably the most stressful yet delicious meal of my life. I'd read about it online and it's been around since the late 1800s, so I was dying to try it. Here is the thing. No matter when you go it will be very crowded. When you come in, a security guard will hand you a small ticket. It works like Marche so you need to get your food at various counters where the staff will write down the price of what you received on the ticket. When you leave, you give the ticket to the cashier and pay.

Table service is available only at the tables touching the walls. Everywhere else, you have to get your food yourself. There aren't any signs saying what is available from which guy. Sandwiches are from one guy, platters from another, fries, coleslaw, and drinks from another, potato pancakes from another. Water is at a self-serve stand at the back. Cutlery is next to the fries/coleslaw guy. It's pandemonium. Everyone moves fast and you'll always feel like you're in the way.

Diane and I both had pastrami sandwiches. The sandwich guy can cut a side of pastrami by hand in less than 5 seconds while serving you, the takeout orders coming from the right, and the waiters' orders from the left. He gives you a slice to try before he makes your sandwich. I'm not even really devoted to smoked meat-type sandwiches and I LOVED this one. It came on really fresh, soft rye bread and there is a slightly hot mustard at the table. I'm sorry to say this, but it kicks the ass of anything in Montreal. It really does.

With your sandwich, they give you a handful of Half Sour pickles. They're very lightly pickled pickles and retain a lot of their original cucumbery qualities. I'd never had these before and I loved them.

I went to the wrong counter three times, but I perservered and got potato pancakes. The guy told me "5 minutes" when I asked for them. I didn't know what that meant, so I sat down and started eating. In 5 minutes he yelled "POTATO PANCAKE" so loud that I knew it was mine. They came with applesauce and sour cream. Amazing.

Snack: Mini Chocolate Pudding Pie at Magnolia Bakery

We went to the original Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village and there was a line-up out the door. The one close to Rockefeller Center seems to be much easier to get in. But, the wait wasn't too bad. One of the bakers acted as bouncer at the door, letting in a few people at a time. So you know, the cupcakes at this location are self-serve. You get your own cupcake and if you want something in the display case, you have to ask for it. By the time you get to the cashier, you must have everything you need. The cashier cannot get anything for you. He was annoyed with me because I asked him for my pudding pie.

I brought the pudding pie back to the room and it travelled very well. The picture makes it look huge, but it's actually very small. And delicious.

Dinner: Tapas at Meson Sevilla

We were so full from lunch that we waited until after seeing Avenue Q to have dinner. Fortunately, 10:30PM is a very reasonable hour to be having dinner in Manhattan. Meson Sevilla tapas restaurant was almost full.

We ordered ham and potato croquettes, chorizo in red wine sauce, artichokes in vinaigrette, white anchovies in vinaigrette, red peppers stuffed with crab, and a potato omelette. I think the best thing was the chorizo. I've had chorizo many times before and this is the first time I've been really impressed. They were small links of sausage with onions in dark red wine sauce. So good. The croquettes were excellent and the vinaigrette dishes were very sour, complimenting the fried items nicely.

We were asleep as soon as our heads hit our pillows. Full of food and fun.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

I Heart New York Food: Day One

Last weekend I went on a whirlwind trip to Manhattan and was overhwhelmed by the variety and quality of food there. I'd hadn't been since I was a teenager so I don't remember what I ate before. I only have vague memories of ridiculously huge portions at a deli and a salty pretzel. We were lucky because Darryl has been to NYC many, many times and he is unfailingly reliable when it comes to food. I'd advise anyone going to plan ahead and try to find out where the locals like because when you only have a few days, a disappointing meal can be a real letdown. New York is such an amazing place to eat.

Porter Airlines

We took Porter Airlines from the island airport and it was the best. A free Porter shuttle picks you up at the Royal York Hotel and takes you to the ferry terminal where you can check in if you don't have any bags and want to get it over with before getting on the ferry. There are automatic kiosks for domestic flights and a real live agent for New York flights. The ferry takes you to the terminal where there is an enormous lounge with lots of comfortable seating, individual desks for laptop users, and a kitchenette with free tea, coffee, pop, juice, and water. It's self serve and you can take as much as you like. I had two bottles of water and a Diet Coke.

On the plane itself, they give you a snack box with half a good quality sandwich, a Babybel, Melba toast, and a cookie. Beer, wine, and softs drinks are complimentary.

Snack: Pretzel in Central Park

We arrived in the city in the afternoon, too early for dinner, so we stopped at a snack cart at the entrance to Central Park. I had a pretzel with mustard. It was kind of stale, but the mustard application was impressive. Darryl had a tiny steamed hotdog.

Another Snack: Chesnuts

Before we went in the MOMA, we stopped at a cart so that Diane could get some roasted chestnuts. Almost all the carts in Manhattan looked exactly the same and sold the same things: chestnuts, pretzels, hotdogs, knishes.

Food Displays at MOMA

There were a lot of pieces by a Swedish artist named Claes Oldenburg who specializes in modelling everyday objects, including food such as burgers, ice cream, and cakes. He's my guy!

There was also this fun still life by Tom Wesselmann that was sort of a kitchen collage.

And of course, Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans. This girl got scolded for leaning on the pieces.

Dinner: Rosa Mexicano

We got to Rosa Mexicano at about 7:15PM and we were told there was quite a wait unless we could have a quick dinner. One table was available, but had to be vacated by 8. We are fast eaters all, so we went for it. We consumed pomegranate margaritas, handmade tableside guacamole, and our entrees in 40 minutes.

Everyone in the restaurant was having the guacamole - it was so good. The waiter mushes up avocados in a big stone bowl and adds jalapenos, tomatoes, and other things that went in too quickly for me to see. You must have it. It comes with small, warm tortillas and chips. The salsa were amazing too. One was super smoky and I don't remember how the green one tasted, but I know I loved it.

Dessert: Cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery

I finally had my first cupcake from Magnolia Bakery and it lived up to the hype. Nice and small with delicious icing that wasn't too sweet. I had a plain cupcake with chocolate icing. Yum.

Most Beautiful Bergdorf's Windows

I loved these windows. Not only were they beautiful, but the window dressers were dressed so stylishly while they worked. They were even more interesting than the windows.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

First Brunch at Mildred's Temple Kitchen

Today I am mayor of Luckytown because I was invited to attend a soft launch of brunch at the yet-to-be-opened Mildred's Temple Kitchen, Kevin Gallagher and Donna Dooher's beautiful new restaurant in Liberty Village. Kevin knew from my blog how much I loved brunch at the former Mildred Pierce restaurant, so he asked me to come and provide honest feedback. As my guest, I brought my good friend Marcelo, the perfect brunch companion, who has a great palate, mad food photography skills (he took many of the photos in this post), and lives literally next door to the restaurant (envy, envy).

Kevin invited me by posting a comment on my blog, but didn't leave his contact information so I didn't know how to get in touch. I put up a desperate post yesterday saying I would be coming, but didn't receive a response so I was afraid we wouldn't be on the list. I was surprised and flattered that the charming hostesses and lovely manager Jayne McMahon knew me as soon as I mentioned my blog's name (blush).

I met Donna at Eat to the Beat a couple of months ago, but I had never met Kevin before. He was so kind and earnest as were everyone we met there today. I think Donna and Kevin are a wonderful, talented couple who are working incredibly hard to run a high quality yet affordable restaurant where every single patron feels welcome and cared for. I wish them all the success in the world.

I could barely contain my excitement as we looked at the offerings. Devoted Mildred fans will be happy to know that old favourites such as the black currant scones, buttermilk biscuits, Huevos Monty, Veda's Choice, Mrs. Biederhof's pancakes, and Green Eggs and Ham are all on the menu. I know that I should have tried something new, but it's been a long, painful wait this past year so we ordered our usual scones with housemade preserves, biscuits, Veda's Choice, Mrs. Biederhof's Buttermilk Pancakes, and rosemary bacon and sweet fennel sausage on the side. Greedy, greedy.

To drink we had glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice and sparkling water, filtered and carbonated in house from Toronto tap water. The large bottle of water is presented on a coaster explaining "Temple's Manifesteau" - their project to use reverse osmosis to produce their own drinking water (flat and sparkling) instead of participating in the wasteful process of buying and serving pre-bottled water. Isn't that great?

First came the black currant scones and biscuits with housemade plum and peppercorn preserves. They are presented on long, white plates unlike the baskets previously used at Mildred's. Both the scones and biscuits were exactly as I remember - buttery, buttery, delicious. The preserves were amazing - chunky pieces of plum with a very subtle peppery taste. Our entrees came lightning fast; even before I finished half a scone.

Is there anything better than a friend who is okay with eating half of an entree and then switching so you can eat a bit of both things? I started with the Veda's Choice, unarguably the best incarnation of Eggs Benedict in the world - the Platonic ideal. Two runny poached eggs on top of luscious smoked salmon, covered in Bearnaise, and sandwiched between two halves of a light, buttery croissant. On the side were oven roasted red-skinned potatoes that are different from the ones I remember at Mildred's, but I actually like them even better.

The pancakes were also exactly as I remember. With the first bite the food memory came flooding back. I love the whipped cream and powdered sugar on top made even better by drizzling on some Lanark county maple syrup. Back at the last brunch in July 2007, I poured the leftover maple syrup in a water bottle and took it home, much to the embarrassment of my companions, but I was so glad I did. It has a light floral quality that I love.

The sweet fennel sausage has a very homemade feel with lots of contrasting textures and a great mix of savoury meat and sweet fennel seed. The bacon was cooked to a nice happy medium with just a touch of rosemary.

To finish we had one shot espressos with raw, coarse sugar. It was the perfect ending to a decadent and delicious meal.

Even though we were starving, we couldn't finish all the biscuits and scones, so they wrapped them up for us in a container made from sugarcane fibers that composts under commercial composting conditions within 45-60 days.

Afterwards, Kevin asked if we had any suggestions for improvement. He wanted to know if there was anything in the experience (music, dishes, cutlery, service, timing) that could have been better. He also shared his simple yet brilliant philosophy that restaurant service must warm and friendly so that people feel free to offer feedback. If the food at a restaurant is fantastic but the service is bad then most people won't come back because they don't feel welcome. Good service, he says, gives restaurants an opportunity to receive criticism and ultimately improve. Isn't that the best? And all that any diner wants, apart from wonderful food, is to feel respected and cared for. Mildred's Temple Kitchen has all those bases covered many times over and they haven't even opened yet.

On our way out, Kevin showed us the cool unisex bathrooms that have closed stalls with sinks in them, so it's like having your own tiny restroom, much like on an airplane. Lights in the dining room next to the bathroom door let you know which stalls are occupied, also very much like a plane.

After saying our goodbyes the beautiful hostesses were already waiting for us with our coats. From start to finish, what makes Kevin and Donna's restaurant stand out is their genuine affection and attention to every detail no matter how small. And the food is flawless as it has always been.

The restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday for final tweaking and will open to the public for lunch and dinner on Wednesday, November 19 with the first brunch the following weekend. The wait is over! Enjoy everyone! And I know y'all want to see the dinner menu, so here it is. Click to enlarge:

Mildred's Temple Kitchen
85 Hanna Avenue, Suite 1
Toronto, ON

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Kevin, yes I'm in!

This is a special message to Kevin who left a comment this morning. Yes, I will be thrilled to attend tomorrow and I'll be bringing a friend. Please let me know what time we should arrive. I sent a message to the restaurant's general email as well, but I thought I'd post here in case you didn't receive it. Thank you so much for thinking of me.

Everyone else, please excuse all this subterfuge. Check back in a couple of days!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Where to eat in Niagara Falls

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Niagara Falls to watch my sister run the Niagara Falls Marathon, a race that started in Buffalo and ended in front of the Horseshoe Falls (she had to carry her passport on her). Last year on the way back to Toronto from a Buffalo Bills game, a group of us stopped in Niagara Falls to find some food and were naively shocked to see that a dinner at a place like T.G.I.Friday's can cost $100 for two! I was determined not to fall into this trap again, so for this trip I did some research beforehand and combed the web trying to find places where the locals go. I think I did pretty well and we had some good food. In case you're in the same boat, here is where we went:

Wolfgang Puck

For lunch on the first day, we went to the enormous Wolfgang Puck restaurant across the street from the Fallsview Casino. This isn't a cheap place, of course, but the quality is good for the price. All lunch items on the menu are from $7.50-$26.50. We shared a generous order of calamari ($11.50) that was very crunchy making me think they use cornstarch in their batter. Koto an a really excellent Wild Mushroom Pizza with Goat Cheese, Carmelized Onion, Roasted Garlic, and Thyme ($14.50). The crust was crisp, but not cracker-like and there were at least half a dozen whole roasted garlic cloves that were mellow and delicious. I had the Barbequed Pork on a Sour Dough Baguette with Honey Dijon and Pickled Onions ($16.50), which was decent, but it is not a pulled pork sandwich like I expected. The pork was thinly sliced and hardly dressed at all. The fresh baguette was fantastic.

Golden Lotus Restaurant

For dinner, we went to the Golden Lotus restaurant, a Chinese place right in the Fallsview Casino. This is an extremely expensive place with some dishes on the menu going for upwards of $50. However, they have an authentic buffet that is in the neighbourhood of $20 per person including non-alcoholic drinks. Unlike most Chinese buffets, they had some really interesting things like pig's knuckle, Buddha's delight (mix of different funghi), shredded pig's ear and sprouts, thousand-year eggs, baby squid, shumai, and Vietnamese sausage. For dessert they had many kinds of cold puddings (mango, coconut, red bean) as well as guiltless-sized egg tarts.

Room Service at the Crowne Plaza

The morning of Koto's race, I saw her off at the shuttle bus at 7AM and then crawled back up to the room and ordered room service for breakfast. I'd never done this before and it was so much fun. I ordered Eggs Benedict and it came on a big wooden tray conducive to eating in bed. I gave it a go, but it's actually pretty hard to eat Eggs Benedict in bed so I moved to the table. It was so decadent with real back bacon (not ham) and the English muffins looked like they were made in house. They weren't the kind that split in half; each half was its own animal and resembled a pancake.

Basell's Restaurant and Tavern

Post-race Koto needed a big meal and I had sat out in the cold for 2 hours waiting for her at the finish line so we went to Basell's, an old diner away from the tourist area. Our cab driver asked us how we knew about this place and I thought that was a good sign. I love places like this. We got there at about 3PM so nobody was there. There was a long counter with swivelling stools, a cake and pastry case, and thick, patterned crockery.

I ordered the Roast Pork special and Koto had the Hot Turkey Sandwich. The Roast Pork special was a bowl of soup or juice (I had chicken rice soup), a roll with butter, a dish of coleslaw, a dish of applesauce, about 2 lbs of pork, mashed potatoes (or fries), and corn. The soup was homemade with large, flaky chunks of chicken. The roll was not baked in house, but was fresh and soft and the coleslaw was nice and vinegary. I couldn't believe the amount of pork they gave me. It looked like it'd be tough, but it fell away as soon as you touched it and the potatoes were impossibly creamy. Koto's "sandwich" was about 6 inches high and we couldn't even see the bread. She probably ate about one inch of the height. We both asked for containers to take the rest home and which point the waitress told me mine came with ice cream! We piled two scoops of strawberry ice cream into our already full bellies and rolled on out of there. The bill came to $25.95, about as much as my breakfast, and I made three sandwiches with the leftovers.

When you're in Niagara Falls away from the actual falls themselves, you might feel like it's a terrible, cheesy place with depressing casinos. But when you stand right next to the falls with the sound filling your entire consciousness and see the force of the water plunging over the edge, you can see why people come from all over the world to see them. It's amazing.