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.
Why Come Here? Top notch BBQ, great whiskey and craft beer selection, best ribs in the city
Right Amount for 2? 1 lbs of various meats, 2 small sides
In recent years, New York has quietly become one of Americas BBQ hotspots thanks to a slew Southern transplants who have graciously decided to share their techniques with us Yanks. Fette Sau was early to the game when it opened in 2008, yet somehow I never managed to make my way over until last week. Now that I have, I’m happy to report Fette is still serving up some of the city’s best ‘cue, including my new favorite ribs in town.
Fette Sau is German for “the fat pig” but the only thing German about this place is it’s love of meat and beer. In many ways, Fette is exactly what you expect a BBQ joint in Williamsburg to be. The only indication you’re approaching is a neon sign on Metropolitan Avenue, which leads you down a barbed wired off alleyway to a converted garage where it all goes down. Seating is at communal picnic tables, over half of which are located outside in the alley. Given both inside and outside were packed on a weekday evening, I can’t imagine what trying to grab a spot in the colder months is like.
When you reach the garage, you’ll notice a line protruding out of it into the alley. This is the line to order food at the counter and you can expect to spend some time here. Once you make your way inside, a board to the right lists the meats being smoked that day and the price per pound. Plan on getting about half a pound per person, more if you get the ribs (which you better) to account for the bone. You can’t really go wrong, so I recommend ordering all the meats you can handle and sharing them with the table. Ditto for the sauces, of which there are three on your table. Let’s call them The Tangy (orange), The Spicy (black) and The Sour (vinegar). Feel free to use all liberally on all meats.
At this point, you’ll need something to wash down all the meat you just purchased. So look to your left to find the bar. All the care that goes into selecting high quality meats caries over to the booze. There’s a reasonably large selection of craft beers you’ve never heard, served by the pint, quart and gallon from taps topped with various butcher knives. They also have over 40 American whiskeys to sample and a handful of rare wines. So be prepared to go home drunk as well as stuffed.
Here’s a rundown of what I’ve tried:
Pulled Pork A little smokey and very tender, this is some solid pulled pork. It’s probably a little less fatty than what you find down South. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that makes it better. What certainly doe is putting on the little rolls you’re given with some of The Spicy.
Broccoli This is the way broccoli should always be cooked: crispy but not tough. Covered in a light vinaigrette sauce, it’s a solid option if you’re looking for a little something that won’t clog your arteries.
354 Metrolpolitan Avenue (Roebling & Havemeyer Sts.)
Note: I was invited as a guest of the establishment and received a complimentary meal. This was not in exchange for a positive review and opinions expressed are my own.
Why Come Here? Solid and affordable casual Italian/Spanish eats near Rockefeller Center
Generally when it comes to dining in Midtown, my advice is: don’t do it. Sure, there’s some great food to be had there but it generally comes either at a very high price or with very long waits. The rest is mostly mediocre and overpriced; suitable only for tourists and people on expense accounts. Still whether it’s a business meeting, shopping on Fifth or showing around a friend from out of town, every New Yorker will be forced to eat there at some point. And when that happens, Da Marcella presents a great casual option with tasty Italian and Spanish staples, a solid wine list and reasonable prices.
Da Marcella is easy to miss with a small entrance on a busy street in the heart of midtown. Many have managed to discover it though as the place was packed on a recent Thursday night. Located down a flight of stairs from street level, the dining area is expansive with 14-foot ceilings and a seating capacity of 120. Yet despite it’s size, Da Marcella manages to maintain a rustic, homey Mediterranean feel with mood lighting, mustard colored walls and vintage Italian posters. There’s also a 22-foot bar perfect for grabbing a drink and watching the game. Yet if you’re seated in the main dining area you’d almost never know it existed. Service is friendly and more casual than many of the uptight Italian spots prevalent in the area.
The menu is expansive and features traditional Italian and Spanish dishes, a tribute to the chef and owner’s dual heritage. Expect a nice selection of seafood, pastas, paellas as well as cured and braised meats. The breadth and high quality assures everyone will find something to pleased with. Equally pleasing are the prices. Whereas many Mediterrenan eateries in Midtown will set you back $30+ for an entree and $20 for pastas, Da Marcella’s mains are mostly priced in the mid-$20s and pastas range from $16-19.
The wine list is also impressive and heavy on the restaurants two regions. Manager and Wine Director Ernesto Lago did an excellent job pairing them to our meal. There are 18 wines available by the glass, and I suggest getting his input on which to have with your order. However, if you decide to go the by-the-bottle route, make it the 2005 “6 Sombreros” Tempranillo Peludo. It’s a medium-heavy red with bold red fruit and a bit of spice. I’d put it in the top 5% of wines I’ve ever drank.
Onto the food:
11 West 51st Street (5th Ave & Rockefeller Plaza)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? Great Crown Heights neighborhood spot, wide range of offerings to please anyone
There’s a good chance you’ve never been to Crown Heights and a pretty good one you’re not even sure where it is. It’s one those “gentrifying” Brooklyn neighborhoods and lies basically east of Prospect Park and south of Bed-Stuy if that means anything to you. As you may have guessed, that means hipsters. Say what you will about them but if there’s one place we’re on the same page it’s food. And the stretch of Franklin Avenue in eastern Crown Heights is starting to get some damn good versions of it. Mayfield is one of those places that if it were in Williamsburg or the Lower East Side it would be all over everyone’s radar. But because “everyone” doesn’t know where Crown Heights is, it’s still relatively unknown. For now.
Until then, Mayfield is doing quite nicely providing a great neighborhood joint for the people of Crown Heights. The vibe comes in somewhere between a trendy restaurant and sports bar. On the one hand, you’ve got the exposed brick with candle lit tables and an open kitchen for a casual meal. On the other, there’s the large bar pouring craft beer with multiple TVs where you can watch the game.
The menu is equally good at suiting different occasions consisting of interesting twists on traditional American dishes. For the foodie, think dandelion greens with smoked duck, buttermilk fried Quail and corned beef tongue. For the less adventurous, they’ve got crowd pleasers like burgers, BLTs and pork chops. Entrees cost less than $25 and the cocktail, wine and beer lists are all solid. They also serve lunch and brunch as well as “intermission” (between lunch and dinner) where you can get a sandwich and beer for $13. This is what makes it the perfect neighborhood spot - you could easily come here for a three-course meal, burger at the bar and brunch in the same week and not get tired of the place. Here’s what I’ve tried:
Cauliflower Custard This is one of the most unique dishes and my personal favorite. You get a tasty little cake of pureed cauliflower alongside a bed of onion gratin farro (forgot how much I like that grain) and some cheese covered broccoli. Veggies, cheese and grains. The perfect healthy meal. It’s in the entree section, but we split it as an appetizer and the sizing makes that an appropriate play if you’re hungry.
Buttermilk Fried Quail Quail – the small, gamier cousin of chicken – is not a bird I frequently choose to put of my plate. But this dish reminds you that hunting these guys wasn’t always just about preventing the decimation of the grub worm population. The old bay spiced fry and outstanding honey-bourbon dipping sauce are the perfect compliments to the gamey meat and make this a worthy order.
688 Franklin Avenue (Prospect & Park Pl)
Why Come Here? Solid ramen option in the West Village
Jinya is another Tokyo ramen mini-chain import that comes to us by way of LA (and several other West Coast cities). The West Village branch marks their 12th location in North America and given the stellar reviews in LA, I decided to add it to my ramen tour. The ramen is Hakata style which features Tokatsu broth – the rich porky stock found at Ippudo which requires a long nap after consumption. The space is more welcoming for a dinner with friends than many of the hobbit holes where ramen is currently served in NYC. In fact, it actually looks like a real restaurant. A real restaurant that was short of materials that don’t come from trees. Think wooden walls, a large wooden communal table and chairs and a wooden counter that doesn’t actually overlook the kitchen. There’s even an actual bar up front, with a wooden top of course. This place was clearly made with a night out in the village in mind, not the stop n’ slurp (quick slurp) mentality of the likes of Totto and Bassanova.
The menu is small and contains typical ramen bar fare like dumplings, pork buns and edamame. One intriguing addition that I inexplicably didn’t try are the truffled tempura brussels sprouts. Gotta save something for next time I guess. There are several types of ramen utilizing both tonkatsu and chicken stocks as well as a token vegetarian version. Jinya is most famous for their Tonkatsu Black, which I tried as part of the lunch special with gyoza.
Tonkatsu Black Named for the tar colored garlic oil, the thick broth is certainly heavy on the garlic and scallion. If you’re into those flavor you’ll find it enjoyable, although it lacks the complexity of some of the top ramen shops. The stringy noodles are thin and semi-firm. The pork doesn’t arrive in the hunks of belly I generally prefer, but had good flavor and was tender consider how thinly it was sliced. The ramen may not be elite quality, but it’s quite good especially for the location and vibe.
24 Greenwich Avenue (10th & Charles Sts.)
New York, NY