Thursday, January 22, 2009

Priya's birthday dinner #1: Convivio

For Priya's birthday, I got reservations at Convivio (at her suggestion), formerly L'Impero, which was recently the subject of a glowing Frank Bruni review. Because of the review, we didn't quite expect to get reservations for a Friday night, but somehow we did--at 8:30! Someone must've cancelled...

Convivio is located in Tudor City, which is a very weird part of Manhattan where I'd never been before. It's right near the UN, and is a little enclave of sorts--some of the cross streets travel underneath it, and you have to climb a bunch of stairs to get to the homes/buildings. Convivio had a tiny sign and was entered through the lobby of one of the posh apartment buildings in the enclave.

It was quite crowded when we entered--and nobody looked like us. Everyone was old and/or wealthy; the douchebag quotient was very high, with stockbroker types bellowing loudly about Israel four tables away.

We went with the prix fixe: four courses for $59. There was a ton of great stuff on the menu, so we both got antipasti, primi, and secondi; however, we decided to share one dessert and "trade in" our other dessert for two sfizi (little pre-appetizer dishes).

It was tough to decide what to get, but after some reconfiguring, we put together a pretty satisfactory meal.

For sfizi, we got the tentacoli (lemon marinated calamari tentacles) and grilled (then, seemingly, pickled) cauliflower. The pickled calamari had an interesting texture--not chewy or rubbery at all, but rather almost crunchy. Pretty good! The cauliflower was great--I had sort of dreaded that it might taste like the pickled cauliflower you get in those jars of mixed pickled vegetables everywhere (yuck), but in fact the grilled flavor came through pretty well. A nice taste before the meal, and well worth the loss of a dessert.

I was very excited about our antipasti choices. Priya ordered a skewer of grilled quail with mushrooms, pancetta, grilled frisee, and vin cotto. I had expected it to be exceedingly bony, but it wasn't, with lots of big pieces of meat, all with a great grilled-tasting crust. My choice, however, was one of the best parts of the meal: duck-heart salad. I thought I might get two or three hearts over some greens, but they gave me nine or ten. Priya was grossed out by the way they looked like little chopped-off penis tips (with the skewer hole in the middle resembling a urethra), but tried one and admitted it was not as bad as she had expected, and maybe even good. I thought they were fantastic. Hearts are not like an organ meat at all; they're basically just a muscle, so they were really dark, tasty poultry chunks with no bones. After the salad, I really looked forward to the rest of the meal, even as I was beginning to already get full.

Little did we know that our pasta dishes would turn out to include the highlight of the entire meal. I chose a simple dish of fusilli with a pork shoulder ragu, and it was excellent--it came with a squirt of melted white caciocavallo cheese drizzled over it, and knuckle-sized pieces of soft pork shoulder. I think I like ragus better when the meat is in big soft shreds, though. But Priya's... Priya's pasta choice was one of the best pasta dishes I've ever had. The tortelli di Amatrice was very simple: stuffed with guanciale and tomato and served on a bed of cacio e pepe sauce... but it all synergized into something outstanding.

My secondo was red snapper over chunks of cuttlefish; the snapper had a nice brown crust on one side and was very flavorful, and the cuttlefish was... kind of odd. It had a real snap to it, like biting a piece of crisp daikon or something, and I wasn't sure if I liked it, although I did appreciate the interesting texture. Priya had grilled lamb chops with escarole, white beans, tomatoes, and garlic. It was the first time she'd ever ordered lamb chops, and she said it may have been the best lamb she's ever had. I tended to agree with her--there was no gamy sheep-taste at all, just a faint nudge to let you know you're eating lamb instead of beef, and it was very tender....yum! Priya's favorite part was the crispy coating of golden breadcrumbs and salsa verde that encrusted one side of each chop and encouraged gnawing on the chop in a very unladylike fashion.

The dessert menu didn't captivate me, so I guess it was good we only had a single dessert choice. It was very nice, though--a perfectly formed stack of pineapple mousse, pineapple confit, and golden cake topped with a browned swish of meringue, served with coconut gelato and plated with a scattering of toasted cake crumbs (like breadcrumbs, but cake) that offered a nicely contrasting crunch. Subtle, but tasty indeed.

Great food, excellent pasta, and a good price (for four courses!)--I would definitely recommend Convivio.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Dinner at Dan & Lena's

Beginning the weeklong celebrations of Priya's birthday, we were invited to Dan and Lena's house for dinner. Dan is a chef at Del Posto working with meat, and he spent the past two days laboring over an enormous, elaborate pig leg he bought at Marlow & Daughters (for "way too much money").

While he wrapped up dinner, we snacked on a piping hot tortilla (EspaƱola)--very simple (the only ingredients were eggs, potatoes, and onions) but very delicious.

That gave him time to put together a salad of roasted beets and chopped endives (didn't get a picture because we ate it too fast!)--the beets were perfectly done, the endive was a great complement (better than the way I usually make endive salads, with cheese--simpler), and I had never really noticed how salt could make or break a dish before (simply by adding a lot more salt than I would--I chronically undersalt stuff--Dan enhanced the simple flavors of the beets/endive).

Next, we had soup--but a much weirder soup than I've ever tasted before. It was a bread soup, an oatmeal-thick, tan/orange mush with chunks of butternut squash, poured over cubes of garlicky toasted bread. What? The soup itself was pretty much just breadcrumbs and butter, not pureed squash or anything.

But it was fantastic! I'd get a bite of mushy "soup" slop and buried within it would be this surprisingly powerful blast of garlic couched in a crisp piece of bread (but not hard and crunchy like a crouton--it squished just right when I bit into it). Here and there a chunk of squash added some sweetness to the soup. Dan told us that there are some Italian soups that are basically only flour. Flour soups! Sounds gross. But this was the most interesting part of the meal, I think, and really really good.

Finally, the main course: the pig leg. Dan had cut the bone out, used it to make stock, and then braised the leg for hours, after wrapping it in caul fat from the Italian butcher nearby. He stuffed the leg with mashed potatoes and shallots and then roasted it until the outside was crisp and brown, then cut us big boneless slices.

The meat had such a dark, rich flavor that it didn't even need a sauce; there were plenty of big, almond-shaped pieces of foot meat mixed in with the potatoes and the thick fat outside. With a side of watercress providing a nice bitter/green crispiness to counter the oozy, rich fat, and a bit of fleur de sel, it was amazing.

For dessert, I picked up a couple of mini cakes (7.50 ea) at Black Hound--a "busy bee" cake with marzipan and chocolate, and a pear/almond custardy cake. We split each cake in half and couldn't even quite finish that.

Awesome dinner! And one I could never make myself!

Oh, and here are some horrible burns Dan suffered at work--I think all chefs eventually develop battle-scarred hands:

Saturday, January 3, 2009

New Year's Day at the Roebling Tea Room, Momofuku Milk Bar, and more

Priya and I had gone to a party in the same building as the Roebling Tea Room for New Year's Eve, and then we stayed at my apartment (which is 50 feet from the RTR), so it was only logical that we'd head there for brunch on New Year's Day. We put in our names and then returned to my apartment to spend the 30-minute wait picking out a movie to see later.

I'd been here for brunch several times, and each time I'd ordered the intriguing-sounding Bone Marrow Breakfast only to be denied. It seemed like they were always out. I began to suspect that it was merely a fake menu item designed to give some foodie cred to the menu. So I had a backup in mind when I ordered it today.

Shockingly, the waitress nodded and wrote it down. Oh yes, they had it. I began to have second thoughts--not about the marrow, but that the "chopped egg and celery" on the side was perhaps mayonnaisey--but we asked and my fears were put to rest (in fact, the server looked insulted, and said, "We never use mayonnaise for any binder." A man after my own heart). On to the marrow.

On the plate were four huge rounds of cow femur, two pieces of toast, and a side of chopped hard-boiled egg and chopped celery (no mayonnaise). It seemed that the best way to eat it was to use a butter knife to scoop a veiny blob out of the bone, spread it on the bread, top it with celery and egg, and eat it like a piece of meaty, rich toast. It was very delicious, and the marrow did kind of blend with the egg and celery to make a non-mayonnaisey (read: non-gross) version of egg salad on the toast. The clear, sweet lychee tea I had on the side was a nice complement to the fatty butteriness of the breakfast.

Priya had her usual order of baked cheddar eggs, grits, raisin fennel toast, and apple butter. Ultimately, it was a good meal, but for $11 I wish it had included one more piece of toast and one or two more rounds of marrow, because I essentially paid $11 for two deliciously buttered pieces of toast.

Priya and I then went to the movies to see Benjamin Button (decent, but really indicative of the poor quality of movies this year that the NYT wrote that it was "dazzling"--Priya hated it though) and stopped at the new Momofuku Milk Bar beforehand for movie snacks. We tasted the soft-serve (snickerdoodle, which I liked but Priya didn't, and salty pistachio, which we both liked, but I felt was a little like eating a spoon of peanut butter--good, but you don't want more than one spoon). I bought a slice of banana-green curry bread for $2 (delicious, but the curry was hardly there as more than a faint spiciness) spread with kimchee butter for $1 (super intense and difficult to enjoy fully, especially as I ended up buttering the bread [and my fingers] in the dark during the movie). For a few dollars more we bought three cookies--the compost (which had everything in it from potato chips to coffee grounds), chocolate-chocolate (a little much), and a cornflake and marshmallow and chocolate chip cookie (excellent). It's a sign of how dense and buttery they were that I could only eat a bite of each before wrapping them up for leftovers.

Then home for dinner, where we homemade tomato sauce and turkey meatballs and broccoli rabe and used frozen dough to make turkey meatball and broccoli rabe pizza, a favorite of mine. It came out great and we ate it while we watched pot-smoking Swinging Sixties Cairenes in Adrift on the Nile. We even got to use the leftover sauce and meatballs and broccoli rabe as the basis for a pasta dinner (using perciatelli) on Saturday night with Sam, Erum, and Nooria. Yum!