Why Come Here? The “less rich” man’s version of Masa, excellent omakase menu, special occasion
Think of Neta as the Brooklyn to Masa’s Manhattan (even though they’re both in Manhattan…). You get a thing that’s basically a laid back version of the other for a fraction of the price. Admittedly, I’ve never actually been able to bring myself to drop $450 pre-tax, tip and booze Masa so I can’t say for sure. But since Neta was started by not one but two Masa alums, I’m gonna go ahead and assume the comparison is apt. Even if it’s not, it’s stil a great spot for your next omakase blow out.
Neta follows the minimalist decor trend adopted by numerous high-end Japanese restaurants in recent years. This starts with the exterior, where you’ll likelly walk right past the glass windows with tiny signage if you haven’t memorized the exact address. Step inside and you’ll find a giant sushi counter surrounded by basically a few white walls. Unlike many similar places, the entire kitchen is visible from the counter and this is definitely the place you want to sit if you’re in a small group. I found some of the tables in front felt a little isolated from the restaurant and were too loud for the delicate meal being served.
The menu gives you the choice of a range of small plates mostly in the $15-$25 range (with some BIG outliers) or one of three omakase (tasting menus) priced at $105/145/225. So at least the most expensive is still half the price of Masa. If you’re not in a position to come here often (aka you don’t carry a Black Card), do yourself a favor and splurge on an omakase. We did the $105 version which had no shortage of variety or food. Here’s what we got, in order:
Sawara (Spanish Mackeral) Sashimi Salad At first I was a little thrown off by the Mackeral being served warm in the cold salad. Ultimately though, I enjoyed the pairing with the cool vegetables and ginger soy sauce.
Tempura I appreciated the light fry job and it was a fun plating that looked like a little crab on the beach. I’d even say it’s the best tempura I’ve ever had. But then again, when’s the last time you got really excited about tempura?
Szechuan Spiced Salmon It looks like some sort of weird food art version of Howard Stern with the curly head of bonito on top. But I love the addition of szechuan spice to the salmon mixture and the crispy rice added the perfect texture.
61 West 8th Street (5th & 6th Aves)
New York, NY
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? Affordable, healthy all-day cafe in the East Village
If you’ve been to Europe you may have noticed their cafe culture is a little different than ours. Instead of serving as makeshift offices for people with tiny apartments, European cafes are all day affairs where people come to drink, eat and meet people. Apparently the same is true for Israel where Spiegel owner Shmulik Avital was raised. Last May he brought this concept to the East Village with a Mediterranean accented cafe described as “the place you want to be with your friends.”
Spiegel operates eighteen hours a day (7-1) in a cozy corner space in the East Village. There are two walls of windows that afford an ideal spot for both sipping a coffee in the morning watching the world go by and drinking a glass of wine while laughing at drunken NYU students stumble by at night. If you need someone to laugh with, you can grab a seat at the 40 foot horseshoe bar in the center that provides about half the cafe’s seating. And next spring you’ll be able to dine on the sidewalk as well.
Spiegel begins the day as a coffee shop serving up breakfast fare like egg dishes, house baked croissants and the only East Coast location of Verve Coffee Roasters coffee (which makes an excellent espresso.) This menu is generously served until 1PM. In the afternoon and evening they offer an eclectic, vegetarian-friendly menu with cuisine from around the world including many dishes from Avital’s native Israel and Morocco. The fare is mostly light and affordable with all items coming in at less than $20. Pair all that with a global wine list with no bottle over $40 and Spiegel makes a prime candidate for your neighborhood go-to spot.
My favorites from the lunch/dinner menu are below:
Baked Feta The dish may be called baked feta, but the spicy Moroccan tomato pepper sauce it comes in steals the show. It’s rich and peppery yet slightly sweet making it a perfect compliment to the salty hunks of feta, eggplant and kalamata olives.
Stuffed Mushrooms First, forget everything you know about stuffed mushrooms. These mushrooms are lightly fried and stuffed with smoked salmon and cream cheese. I know, it sounds a little weird. But somehow it comes together in a surprisingly tasty and smokey app I consider a must-order.
Spiegel Chopped If I tried to list all the ingredients of this salad, this post would be twice as long. Let’s just say, if you can think of a vegetable it’s probably in here. And they’re all covered in a very refreshing lemon dressing that somehow makes it feel even healthier.
26 First Avenue (@ 2nd St)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? LA style tacos, best shrimp taco in NYC, homemade corn tortillas
Like the pizza slice joint and corner bodega, us New Yorker’s can’t get enough high-quality quick-service taco joints since Chipotle gave us the introduction. Many have run with the concept in new and often better directions, including personal faves Nor Cal Mex Dos Toros and Texas style smoked meat spots Tres Carnes and Mexicue. Now LA-style Otto’s Tacos has entered the ring with homemade corn tortillas and preparations that make it for my money the best of the lot.
If you’ve been to any of the places I mentioned above, you can pretty much imagine what Otto’s looks like. A smallish space with dark walls and a big menu above the counter where you place your order. At the end of the line, you pay and get your food. There are a few tables to enjoy your tacos, over half of which are outdoors.
What’s missing is that place where you tell the guy or gal how many dollops of sour cream or chards of cheese you want on your taco. You don’t pick your topping here. Otto’s is best in town and you should trust them to make you a proper taco. Your only join is the filling: steak, pork, chicken, shrimp or mushrooms. All of them are very good, although I didn’t enjoy the ones with red salsa quite as much. No matter what you get, the homemade soft corn tortillas they’re coming in are way better than anything the competition is doing. I’m also a big fan of the fact you can order them individually, meaning you can mix-and-match or just grab a single for a snack. I recently sampled a trio and my thoughts are below:
Shrimp Taco Grilled shrimp tacos don’t usually do it for me, but these are probably the best I’ve had. The shrimp aren’t overcooked (a rarity) and the serrano crema gave it a nice bite without being too creamy.
Chicken There’s clearly a ceiling to how good chicken in a taco can be but these guys hit it with tender meat and a nice level of spice and char. The excellent tangy green salsa earns it a third star.
Why Come Here? Light sandwiches and coffee in a relaxed setting
Rio and beaches. Amsterdam and pot. Williamsburg and coffee shops. Sometimes places and things just go together. And while it’s true the ‘burg has no shortage, many have become hang outs for people looking bang out code or discuss their next indie film which doesn’t make them particularly relaxing for those looking to chill and grab a bite. At the same time, many of the neighborhoods sandwich shops are focused on gargantuan, meat-centric fare. Sips N’ Bites provides a bit of an oasis with tables too small to conduct business and a full menu of light, tasty sandwiches.
Sips occupies a narrow space with room for only five tables, a counter and small kitchen in back. What decor they are able to squeeze in appears to the be lovechild of a kitchen and tool shed. The sandwich menu is up front with each listed on a different shaped iron serving tray. Further ahead, you’ll find condiments served in pales and what appears to be a tool board covered in old kitchen utensils. Yeah, you’re in Brooklyn.
The menu focuses on sandwiches which are served on either a fresh baguette or ciabatta. Both types of bread are almost good enough it doesn’t matter what you put on them. However, you need more than carbs to live so I recommend choosing a topping. Options run the global gambit with things like Morroccan lamb meatballs, beef banh mi and Korean style stir fry. They’re all moderate in size and generally on the lighter side. I haven’t had a bad one yet. There are also some decent soup and salad options and a cabinet of tempting baked goods. So far I’ve mainly stuck to the sandwiches though. My favorites are below:
Sips & Bites
178 N 10th Street (Bedford & Driggs)
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