Why come Here? Impressing a date, parents or guests
Right Amount for 2? monkey bread, a starter, a pasta and an entree
I first came to this space several years ago when it was a mediocre wine bar. I remember sitting in the back room looking out at the garden and thinking someone could do a lot more with this space. Well, someone has. And they called it Piora.
Piora is a sleek restaurant perfect for impressing a date or a big night out with friends in the West Village. The front area has a long, quaint cozy bar with a cocktail list that makes it worth coming in just for a drink. Try the Sunset Romance. There are a few tables up there, but you want to hold out for one in the sexy back area. You feel like you could be eating in a chateau with wooden beams on the ceiling and a quaint garden against a brick wall back drop.
Once here you’ll receive the menu, which is New American with Italian, French and Korean accents. Your meal should begin with an order of monkey bread and an appetizer. Fortunately the starters are primarily veggies and seafood so you won’t be too full heading into the obligatory pasta course (preferably shared). Follow that up with a main consisting of heartier items like Porterhouse for 2 and Rohan Duck.
All of this ain’t cheap as most of the entrees are in the mid-$30s, but you’re getting high end ingredients and a great space in a prime area. It’s also one of the few places in the West village where tables are comfortably spaced out, making it perfect for a European-style lingering meal. Come in viewing it as an indulgence, and you’ll have no problem leaving with a lighter wallet.
Here’s what I tried:
Monkey Bread I’m hesitant to pay for bread at a restaurant given the shortage of high quality free stuff throughout the city. However, the crisp outside and cloud like softness within combined with the interesting flavor of the seaweed butter makes it worth shelling out the six bucks.
Barbecued Octopus Get ready to get smoked. This octopus picks up a ton of burnt flavor from the grill and the hot fermented pepper adds a sour spiciness. Despite the charred exterior, it’s perfectly tender inside. The basil makes a refreshing addition.
Rohan Duck The duck with lavender at Eleven Madison Park is one of my favorite dishes of all time. While this doesn’t quite reach that level, the mere fact it’s in the same conversation makes it a must order.
430 Hudson Street (Morton & Leroy Sts.)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? Top notch New American cuisine, fine dining in Williamsburg, great food with generally no waits
Right Amount for 2? A snack, a starter and 2 mains
When you enter The Elm, you’ll wonder if the long flight of stairs you just walked down somehow tunneled you into Manhattan. This might be the only restaurant in Williamsburg without an exposed brick in site. The modern three-story space is loaded with metal, wood and plants and looks more like the trendy fine dining spaces found on the other side of the East River. Perhaps this design has left the local populace confused as the place was inexplicably half-filled on a Friday night. Seriously, this might be the best restaurant in NYC you can get into without a wait most nights.
My first experience with chef Paul Liebrandt’s cooking was at Corton in Tribeca. It was a high end concept offering only a tasting menu with a focus on molecular gastronomy and I also felt it never got the love it deserved (although it did receive 2 Michelin Stars). At the Elm, he takes a more casual approach to both the setting and the food with an a la carte menu and a more familiar French-New American style. With seven of us dining for my mother’s birthday, I got to sample a reasonable number of items. Everything impressed with great ingredients and interesting preparations. In fact, there wasn’t a thing on the menu I wouldn’t have been excited to have on my plate. The prices are even reasonable with most entrees in the mid-$20s, although they are on the smaller side so a starter is advisable. We tried a few cocktails too and they were also all very enjoyable. The point is I don’t understand why more people aren’t coming here, but get here soon and keep these guys in business. Here’s everything I tried:
Crab Doughnuts I thought I’d seen everything when it comes to crab cakes. Then Chef Lebrandt stuffed a lightly seasoned ball of crab into a doughnut like shell making the perfect snack to share with the table.
Porcletta The Elm does a nightly special and this is currently the Friday edition. It was described to me as “the porterhouse of a teenage Canadian pig covered in bacon jus.” Sounds pretty wild, eh. It is and its also probably the best pork chop I’ve eaten. Get it.
160 N. 12th Street (Bedford & Berry Sts.)
Below are my recommendations for a casual meal in Montreal. For a full-on dining experience, check out my post Fine Dining in Montreal.
St-Viateur Bagel (263 Rue St-Viateur Ouest)
Generally when I leave New York, I plan on giving up bagels for the duration of my trip. But if Montreal is the world’s “other” bagel capital, St-Viateur Bagel is its Washington Monument. Step inside and you’ll find a guy feeding bagels into a massive wood burning oven and tossing the finished products into huge bins. Relative to NY bagels, these guys more resemble a 1920s tire with a giant hole in the middle and smaller, flatter edges. While this sounds weird, these bad boys can hold their own with anything I’ve had back home. Ask for whatever is freshest out of the oven and you’ll feel like you’re biting into a poppy or sesame covered cloud. While there’s no seating at this location, you can pick up some lox and cream cheese and make your own sandwich at home or at the nearby Club Social coffee shop.
Reuben’s Deli & Steaks (1116 Rue St-Catherine Ouest)
Rueben’s specializes in another delicacy typical to NYC: smoked meat. It’s similar to our pastrami, except that brisket it used leading to a slightly fatty end product. I found it to be lighter and less salty than most New York renditions and must admit I generally prefer this style. The traditional serving is with mustard on rye, where it comes piled mile high (whoops, wrong city). The “small” clocks in at 10 oz while the Big Bang weighs a full pound and towers almost six inches off the plate. You probably shouldn’t finish either alone. Other versions include a classic Reuben with sauerkrat and swiss as well as a must try poutine edition. The space resembles sort of a cross between a bar and diner that’s suitable for a hefty lunch or casual dinner.
Olive Et Gourmando (351 Rue St-Paul Ouest)
One place Montreal doesn’t generally fare favorably with New York is gourmet sandwiches. While the French breads make them all pretty enjoyable, when the flashiest topping is ham and cheese you eventually long for a little more excitement. This explains the popularity of Olive Et Gourmando, a small sit-down sandwich shop in Old Montreal which offers interesting sandwich combinations like garlic and yogurt chicken, smoked trout and pancetta, pork and gruyere. The seating is tight and waits can be long but the hipster French cafe vibe, creative sandwiches and local beer and wine selection make them worth putting up with.
Here’s a place unlike anything you’ll find back home: a chocolate bar. They offer many chocolate-centric desserts which are delicious although nothing new. Where Juliette is special is the “single origin” chocolate menu. Here you’ll find lists of chocolates with detailed tasting notes usually reserved for fine wines, served melted in a glass to be eaten straight up by spoon. It’s a decadent and cool experience, and the chocolate is damn good even if you don’t taste every nuance. They also serve excellent coffees including a chocolate covered Viennese, so make sure this is on your list for dessert or a midday pick-me-up. Your girlfriend will be thrilled and you’ll enjoy it too.
Continuing my tour of our friendly neighbor to the North, I recently took a trip to Montreal, Quebec. Given that the area was settled by the French and remains staunchly Francophone to this day, it’s not surprising that it’s widely viewed as the food capital of Canada. Should you make a trip up there, I recommend a dinner at these spots:
Le Club Chasse et Peche (423 Rue Saint-Claude)
Although the name translates to “The Hunting and Fishing Club” there’s no membership required to dine here. Don’t tell your friends that though, as the experience is very much that of slipping into one of Montreal’s old dining dens. While most restaurants in the Old Montreal section try to draw you in with large windows peering into their fancy spaces with mediocre food, you could quite easily miss the small sign next to the unassuming 18th century door that leads to Le Club. I’m guessing that’s just the way they like it.
Once inside, the old world experience continues with arched doorways leading to numerous small dining chambers. Ours was dimly lit with stone and darkly painted walls, about six tables and a bar featuring an exposed brick vaulted ceiling. The crowd was well-dressed with a reasonable mix of locals and tourist. Yet for a what is essentially a fancy French restaurant, Le Club manages not to be stuffy or pretentious.
The food is rich and it helps if you are too (entrees are in the mid- to high- $30s), but it was consistently some of the best french cooking I have experienced. There was not one item I wouldn’t order again, although every item on the smallish menu was intriguing in its own way. So if you’re up for something fancier, don’t waste your money on the many tourist traps in Old Town. Enjoy a real Old Montreal dining experience here you won’t regret.
Foie Gras They love their foie in Montreal and they do seem to have some of the best stuff on the market. This one sits on a bed of vegetables and mushrooms including…wait for it…truffles. Continue your decadence with a plate of this.
Suckling Pig A perfect cut of pig, with a crisped outer layer of fat providing a bacony flavor to the tender chop within. As with every other dish, it needs a decadent topping and this time that topping is marrow. Fantastitique.
BarBounya (234 Avenue Laurier Ouest)
Right Amount for 2? 5-6 plates
At some point on your trip, your body with need more to run on than crepes, foie gras and poutine. Enter modern Turkish spot Barbounya. It’s located far from the tourist hordes in the Mont-Royal neighborhood and eschews the typical Montreal rustic style for a modern feel with high ceilings, exposed brick and communal tables. The vegetable and seafood focused menu is served in tapas-sized portions that are large enough to share with a few friends. Our server recommended getting 3-4 per person, but I would say five to six max for two people unless you order very lightly. Other than his attempt to expand my waistline, our waiter was very helpful in working us through a menu that includes many Turkish words and later in securing a taxi home.
Barbounya Ceviche Barbounya (red snapper) is thinly sliced and served on a plate with tomato, chili and other spices. It lacks the overpowering lime flavor often found in ceviche and has some interesting Turkish accents instead. It’s one of the best ceviches I’ve had and an absolute must order.
Ricotta Imam Bayildi Imam Bayildi is a Turkish dish that involves taking an eggplant, slicing it in half and simmering it in olive oil with garlic, tomatoes and Turkish herbs. Sounds good. But the geniuses at Barbounya realized the missing ingredient: cheese. So the whole thing is covered in baked ricotta. I’ve never had a Imam Bayildi before, but I can’t imagine anyone doing it better than this.
Zucchini Pancakes (w/ smoked mackerel) While I love pretty much anything smoked, the risk is always that the smokiness of saltiness overpowers the rest of the dish. This mackerel is light and low on the smoke flavor. It’s great compliment to the tangy zucchini pancakes and salsa.
For a lunch or a casual meal, check out my post on Casual Dining in Montreal.
There’s little doubt that the enjoyment of food comes from more than just our sense of taste. No one like gnawing on a rubbery piece of meat, regardless of how delicious the sauce. And Instagram has certainly proven that people can derive tremendous pleasure from even a tiny image of someone else’s meal. But pairing music with food? I can’t say that’s something I had considered before. So when I was invited to the book release dinner for Barbara Werner’s Musical Pairing: The Art of Harmonizing Music to Your Meal, I found it far too interesting to pass up.
While the tag line may read “the art of harmonizing music to your meal,” Ms. Werner boils it down to more of a science. Each dish is given a “food pairing number” based on the protein, richness of sauce, cooking method and spice level. Songs receive a “music pairing number” made up of the genre, primary instrument, tempo and dynamics. If the number is the same, you’ve got yourself a food and song pairing.
So how well does this work? To demonstrate, the dinner began with a bowl of plain old vanilla ice cream. First we took a bite of it on its own, then had another while listening to a paired piece of classical music. I have to say the second bite was definitely more enjoyable. But then again, good music makes everything more enjoyable, right? To prove that’s not the case, another classical piece with a non-matching pairing score was put on. Enjoyment reduced.
While classical may seem like the natural genre to pair with food, Ms. Werner demonstrated that any type of music can work. Over our nine course meal, everything from Paint it Black to Gangsta’s Paradise appeared on the soundtrack. Each pairing elevated the enjoyment of the dish by probably a quarter- to half- point on my rating system.
So overall I was quite impressed with how well it worked. I probably won’t be scoring and pairing every meal I eat, but I could imagine coming up with some playlists for a few favorite dishes. I expect you’ll see this more as people look to set the right background music for dinner parties and events. I am also now taking bets that a restaurant launches a “music tasting menu” within the next year.
You can learn more about musical pairings, get suggestions and order a copy of the book at MusicalPairing.com
As for the food itself, we sampled a lot of it with the music. Below are my top picks should you dine at Ruth’s Chris sans musical pairing.
Petite Filet As the name implies, Ruth’s Chris is known for their steaks and with good reason. While it may not be quite on par with the city’s top steakhouses, they serve up a very tender and flavorful piece of beef.
Stuffed Chicken Breast This was a surprise favorite for me given there’s not too much you can do with stuffed chicken that hasn’t been done a thousand times. While this chicken was quite good, the sweet potato casserole is what got me. It’s on the sweeter due to addition of brown sugar and was the perfect compliment to the tangy cheese inside the chicken. I’d also take one by itself for dessert.
Veal Osso Buco Ravioli In sticking with using other senses on food, this was definitely the best smelling dish of the night thanks to the brown butter sauce. But the ravioli itself was nice and light and osso buco didn’t dominate as I thought it might. It’s another solid option if you don’t feel like getting the steak.
You can learn more about musical pairings and order a copy of the book at MusicalPairing.com
Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse
148 W 51st Street (6th & 7th Avenues)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? Great tasting menu at a great price
To me, the tasting menu represents the pinnacle of the dining experience. You get to just sit back and let the professionals bring you the best dishes they can make that day. Multiple foods, fresh ingredients to try and no decisions to make. How can you beat that? The one drawback of course is the generally wallet busting price. Enter Contra.
Contra occupies a small, somewhat hidden space on the Lower East Side. Decor is minimal with what appears to be two-thirds of a painting covering the otherwise empty brick and white walls. In back, barely separated from the rest of the restaurant is the open kitchen. Here the chefs turn out a Nordic-inspired New American five-course tasting menu for the perfectly reasonable sum of 55 dollars. For the the quality and creativity, this price makes Contra a must stop for foodies. However, unlike an Aska, the food is normal enough that average diners will appreciate it as well. While the tasting menu is the only dining option at Contra, you can choose to tack on bread (+$3) and cheese (+$8) courses. The cocktail selection is also ever-changing to match the menu and every bit on par with the food.
Below are the dishes from my tasting earlier this week:
Cranberry Beans, cabbage, tomato Cranberry beans aren’t something I’ve come across before and had no idea what to expect. But from what I can tell, they are far more more bean than cranberry. In fact they tastes nothing like a cranberry but very much like a pinto bean. Whatever the reason for their name, they provided a nice bite to the lighter notes of the cabbage and thin tomato sauce. This was an enjoyable starter, more so without the overpowering dollops of lemon aioli.
Beef, eggplant, amaranth The beef was cooked rare and loaded with flavor. The lightly fried eggplant was also excellent. This would have been a three starrer had it not been for a little too much fat in the meat.
Cheese Course This was the biggest surprise of the night. Instead of bringing out the ususal slice of cheese and accompaniments, we were presented with a bowl of mixed shaved cheeses over semi-cooked corn kernals. The result was essentially the best white cheddar popcorn you’ve ever eaten.
Wild chamomile, strawberry, olive oil The first dessert was reminiscent of a strawberry panna cotta. So basically you’re enjoyment of this one comes down to how much you like strawberry sauce. Luckily for me, it’s very much.
138 Orchard Street (Rivington & Delancey Sts.)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? One of NYC’s best sandwich shops
Meat Hook Sandwich Shop occupies a tiny space in East Williamsburg marked only be the image of a meat hook and the word “sandwich.” It comes from the guys who run the Meat Hook, one of Brooklyn’s top butcher shops. And while it’s been open for less two months, I’m already prepared to proclaim it one of New York’s best sandwich shops.
Step inside and you’ll find little more than a hanging menu, a counter and a handful of tables. That’s because all the frills were saved for the sandwiches. The meats come from their butcher shop and the breads from Bakery Boys and Sullivan Street Bakery. The selection rotates daily, but there always seem to be five meat sandwiches with a veggie and a sausage option. All their sandwiches have unique twists, from the tonatto covered roast pork to the recently added beef tartare. So far I’ve made three visits and been blown away each time. While they do sometimes run out of some of the meats (especially the chicken), I’ve never experienced much of a wait. So get here before the masses find out. Oh yeah, they also serve beer.
Roast Beef First off, the roast beef on it’s own is amazing. Rare, moist and packed with flavor. Then they cover it with hash browns, cheddar and what they call “horsey sauce.” It’s also a monster. I had to eat the second half for dinner because I’m clearly not sharing it.
Hot Chicken A massive, crispy fried hunk of chicken slathered in hot sauce on a brioche bun. It’s got a kick but it’s not overly spicy, perhaps owing to the hunk of cole slaw on top. This one seems to always sell out early, with good reason.
Roast Pork Topped with spicy raisins, escarole and tonatto, this sandwich has some crazy flavors going on. What is tonnato you may ask? Apparently it’s a mayo made with tuna. The fishiness definitely comes through, but is well matched by the sweet and spicy raisins. Some people love this one but while I appreciated it’s distinctive taste, I prefer the more meat forward options.
Why Come Here? NYC’s richest ramen broth, solid option for Midtown Easters
In researching New York ramen bars for my ramen quest, the three names that kept coming up as if to form a holy triumvirate are Ippudo, Totto and Hide-Chan (which is owned by the same people at Totto). As the first two represent my best ramen experiences in town, I happily set out to complete the Triple Crown despite the hot-bowl-of-soup unfriendly 90 degree heat.
Hide-Chan is hidden up a flight of stairs on a side street in Midtown East. Not surprisingly, it’s a popular lunch spot for the many workers in the area, although if I were an employer I’d be docking pay from anyone returning after a bowl of the rich pork fat laden broth. With its second-level space Hide-Chan is larger, brighter and more restaurant-y feeling than many of the ramen dungeons around town. It’s also more group friendly with many tables in front that can be put together. They do maintain the traditional counter seating as well although it’s around a bar instead of an open kitchen. As for the decor, well, it’s interesting. The most noteworthy element is a collection of Japanese cartoon masks that range from Spiderman to a child with an extra eye on his head. So at least you have something to talk about while you wait.
The menu offers three categories of ramen: tonkotsu (pork) broth, tonkotsu with burnt soy sauce and vegetarian broth. But the decisions don’t stop there as Hide-Chan offers two other unique ways to choose your own adventure – you get to select both the firmness of the noodles and thickness of the broth. I tried one from both tonkotsu based sections with different broths and noodles. Both broths were tasty but lacked the complexity of Ippudo or Totto and the noodles, while well prepared, were lacking in flavor. The pork in both was sliced medium-thin and tasty, although I still prefer the big hunks of belly. Maybe the heat was factor, but I just didn’t find either to be on par with Ippudo or Totto. More on both bowls in the dish section below.
The rest of the menu consists of typical ramen apps like pork buns and gyoza with some Okonomyaki (Octopus balls) thrown in. Service is the typical ramen bar quick with our food arriving about 5 minutes after we ordered it. Here’s what I ate:
Hakata Kuro Ramen The broth in this one includes their signature “ma-yu” garlic oil. While this unsurprisingly puts it on the garlicky side, the bowl is well balanced overall. I ordered it with the rich broth, although it was still lighter than the traditional used in the much more pork-forward Kogashi. I also took the firm noodles option which may have been the wrong decision given the lighter broth and stringy noodles used. Their texture was quite good though, even if they didn’t have much flavor.
Kogashi Shoyu Tonkotsu Ramen If you like your broths almost milk like, this is the ramen for you. I only ordered it medium rich (NY style), but still got my pork fat intake for the next week. It comes with thicker, wavy noodles which are better for supporting the hefty liquid. Don’t order this one at lunch unless your boss allows nap time.
When you think of the great food nations, Canada generally comes in somewhere between Paraguay and Kazakhstan. However, I recently spent a long weekend exploring our Friendly Neighbor to the North’s largest city and I have to admit the food scene there is pretty legit. Below are my recommendations for a casual meal in Toronto:
The Burger’s Priest (463 Queen Street West) The Burger’s Priest is a high end burger joint that drew me in with it’s impressive 28 Food score from Zagat. That number may be a little generous, but it’s clearly one of the better fast food style burgers out there. I ordered the High Priest , which I dubbed Big Mac 4.0 due to it resemblance of the Mickey D’s classic, but with significant upgrades in the key categories meat, sauce, bread and pickles. There’s also a “Secret Menu” you can access through their website with additions like blue cheese and chili.
Rol San (323 Spadina Avenue) Toronto Chinatown may not rival New York’s in terms of size, but one place they seem to have us beat is in the all-day dim sum category. Rol San is a popular option, probably in part due to it’s proximity to Kensington Market. Like many dim sum places, you’ll feel lost if you don’t know how to order. So let me lay it out for you: you get a card with a list of all the dishes and then write the quantity you want to order of each. While this is in no way made clear, the orders are all reasonably sized portions with about four dumplings or equivalent per order so about 2-3 per person should leave you satisfied. I won’t pretend I know a lot about dim sum or was even always sure what I was ordering, but everything we got was tasty and cheap (nothing is over $4).
Banh Mi Boys (392 Queen Street West) A quick service sandwich shop that’s a nice option to have if you’re shopping on Queen Street West or just craving a Vietnamese sandwich (or tacos for that matter). There’s a wide selection of meats to choose from including the rarely seen braised beef cheek and squid. Personally, I recommend the Grilled Pork
Smokes Poutinerie (Several Locations) Every city needs its late night eatery. A place to fill the belly with something solid to make the next morning a little easier. In New York, we have pizza. In Toronto, they have poutine. Poutine is traditionally a plate of french fries covered in the heart stopping duo of gravy and cheese curds. And at 2AM on a Saturday night, the lines stretch out the door to get a box of the stuff. Smoke’s doesn’t stop at the traditional though and will happily cover your fries in goodies like caramelized onions, Montreal smoked meat and chipotle pulled pork. It’s a ridiculously good treat for a visit, but my arteries are pleased we settled on the ‘za.
Why Come Here? Cheap, interesting Korean/American Diner food, late night, hipster atmosphere
Right Amount for 2? 3-4 small plates
When researching restaurants for my recent trip North of the Border, I looked for places unlike anything we have here in New York (’cause who wants to try the best Italian in Canada)? So when I found a spot offering a spot a blend of “Korean and North American diner food,” I quickly added it to my list. After eating there, I can tell you Oddseoul belongs on yours too.
From the moment you start trying to find the place to the moment you leave, you get the feeling these guys don’t give a damn about anything except serving good food. There’s no website, no phone, no reservations and no sign. When you get there, you look for what could pass for an old barber shop with a wooden exterior, big windows and the telltale barbers pole. If instead of an old Italian guy with scissors you see a hipster shaking cocktails, you’ve made it to the right place.
Step inside and you find a small industrial rustic space complete with faded brick walls, large vents and reclaimed wood tables. The decor follows the same don’t-give-a-damn philosophy as the marketing with boomboxes, a mounted bear’s head and a flag that seems to be some sort of combination of the US and Korean (sorry Canada). Gonna go out on a limb and say those three things have never been in the same room before. The music is loud and heavy on the 90s to quell any doubt this is a place for a quick, boozy meal. Waits supposedly get long during peak hours (although we had none at 7PM on a Friday) and the kitchen is open until 2AM. So if you can’t squeeze it into your dinner schedule, at least be sure make a late night pit stop.
When it comes the food, most items are meant for sharing with a lot of small plates and a handful of rice bowls and entrees. The menu isn’t online so I’ve forgotten some of it, but expect a mix of Korean and diner food like Bulgogi Cheesesteaks and Squash Poutine. Such combinations are often hit or miss, but I was pleased with everything I ate here. Best of all, most of the dishes were in the $5-7 range and four of us with three drinks got out of there satiated for under $100. Try pulling that off in New York. Here’s what I recommend:
Squash Poutine For those not familiar with poutine, it’s one of Canada’s National Dishes (along with anything doused in maple syrup). It basically involves smothering french fries in gravy and cheese curds. So think of this as the healthy version. Crispy diced squash replaces the fries and sesame sauce, kimchi and mayo the gravy and cheese curds, making it pretty much nothing like the original except for the little tooth picks you get to eat it with. But hey, if that’s the only complaint you can come up with, they’re doing something right.
The Loosey Oddesoul’s signature dish is basically your classic Patty Melt with a touch of Korea. It’s toasted bread topped with short rib patty, lettuce, American cheese, kimchi and a special sauce. It’s about as dinery as it gets, and I bet it gets even better closer to the 2AM closing time. Get one for every 2 people to share.
Pork Dumplings These were a special, maybe because they don’t meet the “diner” portion of the restaurant’s mission. Not that the owners seem like they would care the much. Whatever the case, they were crispy and covered in a very enjoyable tangy sauce and if you see them, order with confidence.
Bulgogi Cheesesteak Another Korean-ed up classic American sandwich. The bulgogi beef makes this more of a sloppy joe (and perhaps even looser than the loosey) while the mustard adds a spicy touch. It’s a little less exciting than some of the other dishes, but still highly worthy of your eats.