Why Come Here? You’ve got a hankering for a solid grilled cheese sandwich
Living in Chelsea, the options for good delivery/take out comfort food are limited and the Melt Shop has become one my staples. The space is best described as farmhouse meets old meets 1970s kitchen with one half wood-paneled and the other painted bright yellow with a blackboard on it. If you think about it hard enough, they both evoke cheese in their own way. Maybe. There are a few tables inside and a few more in an adjacent plaza outside, but for the most part this is a takeout / delivery operation.
Tired, sick, or hungover I’ve now made my way through most of the menu. And overall I have to say Melt Shop is a very good grilled cheese sandwich spot. All of the ingredients are high quality, especially the cheeses and the bread which is perfectly grilled without being burned. However most of their sandwiches are an element a way from being great. Some are a little skimpy on the fillings while others could use a sauce or vegetable to add some freshness or tanginess. Until then feel free to hit it up when you’re in the mood for some good comfort food, just don’t expect to have your mind blown. I have generally preferred the non-meat sandwiches over the meat ones and below are my top picks:
The Dirty For the spicy lover, you get jalapenos and pepper jack cheese with the always appreciated addition of potato chips. Unfortunatley the pressing of the sandwiches takes some of the crunch out of the chips, but it’s kick makes it enjoyable nevertheless.
Truffle Melt I’m surprised they don’t call it the one-percenter, as the combo of arugula, truffle oil and havarti seems completely out of place on what is otherwise an everyman’s menu. It feels more like something you would eat on a flatbread than a grilled cheese sandwich, but that’s not an insult. It’s a good sandwich.
Smokehouse Turkey The combination of gruyere, smoked bacon, turkey and bbq sauce is an intriguing one. Yet while the gruyere and sweet/tangy bbq sauce were winners, there should be at least three times as much turkey on this thing.
55 West 26th Street (6th Ave & B’way)
New York, NY
Note: The Melt Shop also has locations at 135 West 50th Street and 601 Lexington Avenue with some variation in the menu. I have not been to either of these locations.
Why Come Here? NYC’s best thin crust pizza, BYOB
When you read reviews of Lucali, they are often half about how the author killed their hour and a half wait at a local bar or drinking on the quiet streets of Carroll Gardens. In that sense, I feel un-entitled to properly review the Lucali experience. Coming on an icy Monday evening, there was no wait and the restaurant wasn’t even full. The quiet atmosphere, rustic decor and fact it was heated to about 80 degrees made us feel as if we were dining in someone’s Italian farmhouse instead of what is normally a teeming pizzeria. And we really wished it has been a farmhouse where we could have retired upstairs, because making the trip back to Manhattan stuffed and freezing was the only way to put a damper on the evening.
Also contrary to some reviews, we found the service to be friendly and generally phenomenal. When I hadn’t finished all of my crust (some pieces had about half an inch worth), our waitress brought over some marinara sauce with parmigiana cheese to dip it in. Naturally, those remaining end morsels didn’t last long. Bonus: it’s BYOB. Un-bonus: it’s cash only.
The menu at Lucali consists of exactly two options: pizza and calzone. Naturally, we tried both. Here are my thoughts:
Pizza Pie The pizza lives up to it’s billing as one of New York’s best. If thin crust is your game, it may be your favorite. It’s cracker thin, with the perfect crisp and char. Other toppings (including fresh basil and garlic) are appropriately applied to make sure you can taste everything on it’s own. It’s the type of pizza where once you take a bite you realize you’re four pieces deep with no memory of how you got there. Yup, blackout inducingly good.
Calzone It’s a good calzone and I would order marinara sauce that you dip it in as a drink if it weren’t for “society.” But I’m not a huge ricotta fan and this puppy is loaded with it. If you’re a ricotta-holic, this may be your jam. For me, I’ll be sticking to the ‘za.
Why Come Here? See how good ramen can be
Ramen might be the hottest dish in NYC right now, and I don’t just mean when it comes fresh out of the kitchen. Authentic Japanese imports and late night bowls are popping up all over town with waits in the hours to slurp a bowl of broth noodles. I have to admit, until recently I couldn’t understand what all the commotion was about. I had nothing against ramen per se, but for me it was still a 59 cent college penny saver meal and the few versions I has tried around the city did little to allay that feeling. Therefore the multi hour wait for a $14 bowl at ramen flagbearer Ippudo long had not appealed to me. But as a food blogger in New York, I felt an obligation to check it out. And now that I have, the mystery of Ramenmania has been revealed.
Ippudo, a popular ramen chain in Japan, ignited the current ramen craze when it first opened its doors in New York five years ago. Despite it’s age and the arrival of numerous competitors, the restaurant has only gotten more popular. Whereas one hour hour waits were once the norm, you can now expect to have 2.5 hours to kill between arrival and seating. Fortunately, the staff will take your number and text you when your time has come, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the East Village’s numerous drinking establishments (Continental – home of the infamous 5 shots for $10 – is just around the corner…)
Once you are seated you’ll see that the back dining area is not as large as the bar area up front may have led you to believe, which is part of the reason you waited so long. That said, they do a great job of packing in the slurpophiles with most seating at either communal tables or a counter. While sharing a table with four strangers can be a recipe for an awkward meal of flying elbows and TMI, the careful spacing of seats generally makes this a non-issue at Ippudo. The decor is so perfect I can’t imagine a ramen shop any other way: moderately lit with Japanese characters and empty ramen bowls perched on the walls, trees flowing from the middle of tables, an open kitchen and dried noodles inside the bar.
When it comes to the food, your first decision upon reaching a table will of course be which ramen to order. If you’re a ramen rookie as I was, I suggest opting for one of the two most popular: the Askamaru Modern and the Shiromaru Hakata (and get the extra pork option). Keep in mind they have a system called “kae-dama” where if you eat all your noodles, you can get a whole new ball dropped in for a mere $2. So plan accordingly when slurping your broth. Yet despite the fact the ramen is what brought you here, don’t forget to start out with some of their killer apps (you’re probably starving by now anyway). Some of the city’s best pork buns and sishitos await and would be a shame to miss out. My rundown of what I’ve tried is below:
Pork Buns Because pork is the one thing you can’t have too much of at any given meal, these meaty, tender buns in soft, semi-sweet buns are a must order. They are serious contenders for the city’s best and if you’ve only had them at Momofuku, you definitely need to give these a try.
65 Fourth Avenue (9th & 10th Sts.)
New York, NY
Note: There is another larger location at 321 West 51st Street that purportedly has the same food and shorter waits.
Why Come Here? Tantalizing “New Creole” creations, a tasty and affordable meal in an area severely lacking both, long happy hour, great private party space
Located on a side street in the foodie dead zone between the UN and Irish Pub District of Second Avenue in the 40s/50s, it’s easy to see how Masq has flown under the food world’s radar since opening early last year. However, this New Orleans themed restaurant/lounge has a lot going for it. With innovative Creole inspired dishes, friendly service, and a design that evokes New Orleans without being over-the-top Mardi Gras, this place deserves a lot more buzz than it’s getting.
Occupying the first floor of a town home, Masq is divided into four medium sized rooms each of which is perfect for a different type of occasion. First up are your “grab a drink and a bite areas.” Upon entering into the bar area, you’re greeted by a white oak, horseshoe-shaped bar topped with Christmas lights, big screen TVs and a Happy Hour that goes until 8. Adjacent but maintaining the casual feel is the white wood-walled lounge, which is filled with Mardi Gras masks, Persian rugs and paintings you’d expect to find in the French Quarter like the Mona Lisa in a Venetian mask. For a more intimate meal, the main dining area evokes a dinner party at a Garden District mansion complete with mood lighting, vintage tables and chairs and a mural that looks straight out of The Garden of Good and Evil. There’s also a small stage where that hosts live music on Thursday nights. The final is room is a curtained off private party area known as the “Red Room” and resembles the parlor of a grand Victorian home complete with plush reddish-purple furniture and antique mirrors.
When it comes to food, the words “lounge” and “New Orleans inspired” generally evoke images of good times more than good eats. But Masq breaks the mold here as well, serving what I’m dubbing “New Creole” cuisine that is worthy of a try by both lovers of NOLA style cooking and good food in general. Think Mac ‘n Cheese croquettes in a spicy remoulade, “Cajun” dumplings with andouille sausage and the chef’s signature jambalaya tempered with a helping of goat cheese. They have some solid non-Creole options as well should you have some friends that can’t take the heat. Prices are very reasonable with most entrees under $20, wines under $40 and a $10.95 lunch prix-fixe that includes a 1/2 sandwich, soup or salad and alcoholic beverage. I was invited for a press tasting and got to sample quite a few items. Below are my top picks.
Jambalaya It’s tough to find a good jambalaya in New York, but this is actually the best I’ve had anywhere. Everything is fresh and the cajun chicken and andouille sausage add a great kick that is tempered by the addition of goat cheese. A definite must try if you’re a jambalaya or spicy food fan.
Mac ‘N Cheese Croquettes As if the the name doesn’t sound intriguing enough, these bad boys are also filled with bacon and jalapenos and come in a spicy remoulade. These belong on your table whether you’re here for a full meal or just a drink at the bar.
Asian Marinated Salmon Cooked salmon can be hit-or-miss, but this is a solid piece of fish well balanced by the tangy-sweet honey soy marinade. It’s not a creole dish in any way, but if you’re looking for something lighter after overloading on croquettes, this’ll do the trick.
Sabayon [not tried] I was unable to try this due to the egg yolk, but the rest of the table swooned over this custardy French-Italian classic served with fresh berries in a martini glass.
Masq Restaurant & Lounge
306 East 49th Street (1st & 2nd Aves)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? Unique, healthy Indian spiced sandwiches that are vegan friendly
If the term “vegan sandwiches” conjures up images tofurkey and meatless “meatballs” and sends you running in the opposite direction, you’re not alone. As a carnivore, I have 0.0% interest in replacing perfectly delicious meats with lesser soy-based versions with kitchy names. I do however love me some good, fresh veggies. Fortunately, the folks at Bombay Sandwich Co appear to feel the same.
After a successful run at Smorgasburg, Bombay Sandwich Co. recently opened a brick-and-mortar location, with about as little brick-and-mortar as I’ve ever seen. The customer space is seven feet wide by about 25 feet long in which they’ve managed to jam a small counter for about ten people to eat. Not surprisingly, things get pretty tight at the lunch rush, but fortunately it’s connected to a plaza where you’ll be able to sit in warmer months. In the meantime, the cozy confines will at least keep you warm, as will the friendliness of owner and cashier Shiv who seems to be on a mission to learn all his customers names. Good luck to you sir.
As I mentioned, the food is primarily vegan although two dishes do contain actual milk-of-a-cow mozzarella cheese. And as the name implies, there in an Indian bent to the food. But don’t come here expecting anything you’ve seen on the streets of Mumbai. The sandwiches here for the most part contain chutneys and some Indian spices, but are otherwise unique creations using local and seasonal ingredients like squash, kale and fennel. The menu is also not limited to sandwiches, but also offers wraps, bowls and salads for those watching their carb intake. So far I’ve tried several of their sandwiches and found them all tasty and satisfying. My recommendations are below and I’ll update the page as I continue to work my way through the menu.
Honey-Fennel Grilled Cheese One of two non-vegan options it’s also probably the heartiest sandwich on the menu, making it perfect for these chilly days. It’s a nice combination of sweet, spicy and tangy.
Smorgasburg Sweet Potato The sandwich that started it all has a smorgasbord of toppings including including dried cranberries, cilantro, ginger and chutney. Needless to say, it’s an explosion of different flavors that airs a little on the sweeter side.
Bombay Sandwich Co.
48 West 27th Street (6th Ave & B’way)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? Texas BBQ style tacos, burritos & sides
One day a man walked into a Chipotle and said “This place is good. But you know what would make it better? If the meat was smoked and sides were fancier.” So he opened a restaurant in the Flatiron District whereby he took the three meats offered by Chipotle (beef, chicken and pork), smoked them Texas-style, and offered to put them in the familiar burrito, taco or bowl wrappings. Given the number of meats and the fact that he was serving the food of Spanish-speaking Mexico, he called his restaurant “Tres Carnes” (three meats).
While I was unable to confirm this story, it is likely the tale of how this restaurant came to be. However, to say it’s merely a smoked version of Chipotle would be completely unfair. While the way you order your food is nearly identical (go to a counter, pick a wrapper, meat and toppings), the food and feel are not. Tres Carnes has the much more welcoming feel of an Austin smokehouse than the more industrial setup of Chipotle. The staff also seems to have more leeway in allowing you to mix different meats in one order of tacos and – if you’re suave enough – will let you sample their sides at no charge.
When it comes to the food, it’s fair to say it’s a step above Chipotle quality. Tender, dry rubbed and smoked meat meats come with legit vegetable sides like chipotle squash and “street-cart” corn. There’s also a nice selection of housemade drinks like fresh agave limeade and some micheladas. Since it basically make your own I won’t break my picks dish by dish, but instead am listing my favorite ingredients below. They also feature a “smoke of the week” of some meat you would never see near in larger chains such as tongue, antelope and rattle snake.
Burnt End Chili Although it’s not on the menu, they’ll fill your burrito with this if you ask all polite. And you should, because the smokey/spicy sauce is absorbed by your rice into complete deliciousness.
688 Sixth Avenue (21st & 22nd Sts)
New York, NY
Note: Locations at 101 Maiden Lane and 954 Third Avenue will open in early 2014 with the same menu.
Why Come Here? Modern, interesting and affordable Italian with a friendly staff
It is said that in the East Village, you can’t throw a PBR can without hitting an Italian restaurant. Most of them churn out perfectly good staples like pastas, meatballs and tiramisu in perfectly nice environs. So to choose one over the others requires something special. I was recently invited to dine at Giano, and I can tell you it has what it takes to become your go-to neighborhood Italian spot.
It all begins with the owners, Paolo and Matteo. If Paolo is in, you’ll know it. He works the restaurant the way only an Italian can and leaves you feeling like you’ve just dined at an old friend’s home. He also designed the place, which you’ll quickly realize has a lot more going on than your typical “rustic” decor. Giano takes its name from a Roman goddess with two faces looking in different directions (the past and future), a theme which carries over to many aspects of the restaurant, including the design. The front contains a modern looking banana shaped bar and sleek white tables. The back, segregated by some red rope straight off a pirate ship, is more traditional: dimly lit with wooden tables and brick walls, although it maintains hints of Paolo’s flair with touches like feather covered chandeliers. There’s also a cozy, plant filled garden in back you’ll want to bring a date to in warmer times.
The duality of modern and tradition flows into the kitchen as well under Chef Matteo. While there are some old Italian standbys, most dishes offer a playful twist on classics like the amaretto cookie covered risotto and basil mashed potatoes (both must trys). All the pastas are made fresh in-house and there is a focus on local and seasonal ingredients, except for those needed to be imported from the source (Italy). And with most dishes coming in under $20 and most wines under $40, you’ll have some extra cash for your night out in the East Village. Everything I tried was a winner, and my top picks are below:
Cappuccino Gelato Have you ever dreamed of eating your cappuccino in ice cream form? If not, you will after eating this. Think espresso ice cream topped with ricotta and cinnamon foam and a sprinkle of biscotti chips.
Filleto al balsamico Normally I don’t order steak at Italian restaurants and avoid filet’s in general. But rules are meant to be broken. This steak is juicy and flavorful and comes with Chef Matteo’s basil pesto mashed potatoes, which are a must try in their own right.
Gnocci ai 4 Formaggi Often after a hearty bowl of gnocci l’m ready to hit the old dusty trail. But this gnocci is pillowy and light while still quite satisfying. Even the four cheese sauce is more of a light glaze meaning nap time won’t be necessary.
Risotto w/ butternut squash & amaretto I’m always a fan of butternut squash risotto, but this one had an added bonus I found intriguing: crumbled amaretto cookies. The sweetness was the perfect match for the rich risotto and gorgonzola. One of the best risottos I’ve eaten.
126 East 7th Street (1st & Ave A)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? Top flight seafood at a reasonable price
Seafood may not be the trendiest food in New York, but some days you just need to slurp a few oysters and down some scallops. And New York is technically a seaside town, so why not enjoy it’s precious bounty once in a while? Cull & Pistol, the newish seafood restaurant from the people who brought you The Lobster Place, is the perfect place to do just that.
You may recognize The Lobster Place as one of the city’s top seafood purveyors. They also have a small but solid selection of prepared food I hit up whenever I’m in the area. Cull & Pistol takes that latter concept and runs with it. Not surprisingly, they do a lot fantastic fresh simply prepared seafood like 1.5 lbs steamed Lobsters, Clam Bakes and a (mostly) East Coast oyster raw bar. But when they get a little fancier and still manage to knock it out of the park.
The design is about as classic seafood joint as it gets. Think a big raw bar on ice up front with the mandatory white brick wall behind it that was apparently voted the official symbol of seafood restaurants at a secret conclave. With some wood on the other side, all that’s missing are a few anchors on the walls. All of this is jammed into a narrow space between the Lobster Place and Green Table in Chelsea Market that seats maybe 30. Still, we were able to walk in and sit immediately on a Friday night, so it seems the secret isn’t out yet. Get there before it is.
Fish & Chips This is probably the best rendition I’ve had. The hake was thick and flavorful and the batter had a nice sweetness to it. Not your typical fish fry. The “new bay” fries are thin, crispy and covered in an incredible upgraded old bay seasoning. They’re also available separately. On way or another, you want to get them.
Cull & Pistol
Inside Chelsea Market
75 Ninth Avenue (15th & 16th Sts)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? Elevated Thai cooking with authentic flavors, lively atmosphere
Recommended for 2: 2 apps/2 entrees or 4 apps/1 entree
Having spent five weeks in Thailand, I like to consider myself a Thai aficionado of sorts. So any time a new “authentic” Thai restaurant opens up in NYC, especially one manned by cooks from Per Se, I get pretty excited. And I am happy to report that Uncle Boons did not let me down.
The decor at Uncle Boons is meant to resemble a “typical Thai house in the ’60s and ’70s.” Apparently Thais used to cover their walls in a large collection of eclectic photos and their ceilings in a series of non-matching chandeliers. Who knew, but at least it makes for some nice conversation pieces. Combined with the brick walls and dim lighting, it’s a cool space you can easily bring a date or group of friends. They only take a limited number of reservations each night, but we only waited about an hour walking in on a Friday. Luckily there are many bars nearby and the mait’re d will send you a text when your table is ready.
The food is positioned as “Thai-style drinking food.” I’m not quite sure what to make of that as I’ve yet to find any Thai food that isn’t better with some booze. I supposed some sections of the menu do lend themselves more towards drinking such as “Char Grilled Goodies” and “small plates / Thai drinking food” (ok fine). There’s also a selection of large plates with more upscale Thai dishes, many of which you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere in the city. Overall there are a lot of intriguing dishes and I look forward to going back to try some more. Here are my thoughts on what we had:
Mieng Kum (Betel Leaf Wrap) Ginger, lime, dried shrimp, coconut and chilies on an edible leaf. So yeah, it hits pretty much every flavor you can imagine. Which makes it a great snack to start the meal.
Sai Krok Ampai (Pork Sour Sausage) I ordered this one after having a phenomenal sour pork sausage on the streets on Chiang Mai earlier this year. While some of the same flavors were there, I found the pork a little too fatty.
7 Spring Street (Elizabeth & Bowery)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? Authentic Japanese small plates and hot pots
I recently went to Jukai for a fantastic food blogger event hosted by Tabelog and Asahi Beer. I was unfamiliar with the restaurant going in, despite the fact it had been open since 1968. When I arrived, I got the feeling it was a secret intentionally kept. Jukai is tucked away in a basement on a stretch of 53rd Street filled with Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants. You could easily walk by it a hundred times without noticing it’s there, and even knowing the address I would have done the same had I not happened to notice the small lamp in a stairwell outside with a Japanese character and the word “Jukai” written in small letters. After descending the stairs and entering, you walk through a curtain into a small, dimly lit space containing a sushi bar and a few tables that looks like the type of place your cool friend would sneak you into in Tokyo.
Since it was an event, I can’t comment on the normal dining experience but I can tell you about the food. Jukai’s focus is on Japanese small plates and hot pots. The menu has some pretty interesting and unique (for New York at least) Japanese dishes, and we got to try a nice assortment. Here are some of the highlights:
Pacific Oyster The photo doesn’t capture just what a beast this thing is. It’s probably 3x the size of your typical East Coast oyster. I’m often skeptical of food this freakishly large, but the meat was tender and briny and had a nice assortment of toppings.
Shabu-Shabu This is where the hot pot comes in: thinly sliced beef freshly cooked with cabbage in a garlicky broth. The sauce was very tasty but In serving such a large group my beef got a little overdone. Might be three stars if you do it right on your table.
237 East 53rd Street (2nd & 3rd Aves)
New York, NY