Stumbling through the streets of New York City with eleven other fantastic females…well, that my friends, is what I would call a pretty righteous bachelorette party. Yet, when my dear friend, Emily chose the Big Apple as her (almost) anything goes, estrogen infused, party until you pass out, destination, I immediately cringed. New York City in January? A vision of chapped lips, cracked hands, patchy red cheeks and my little body shaking from head to toe quickly swept through my mind. A born and raised Floridian, I am most certainly the weakest of weak in dreadfully cold temperatures. But, I took control of my internal whimpering and reminded myself of all the glorious cuisine I would be partaking in. That is when, the thought of 30-degree weather fazed me no more. For food in NYC is most definitely in a league of its own.
Who was to take control of the restaurant selections? Well, that should be obvious. Without hesitation, I made it known I would be our mealtime manager for the weekend. Only problem was…I hadn’t ventured to the majestic culinary lands of the big city in ten years! I went right to the source. A friend of mine who is not only a former New Yorker but also has very refined taste would be my personal travel guide for all things delicious and undoubtedly cool. Verifying her suggestions through my handy go-to vacation outlets, Yelp and Urbanspoon, would only prove she definitely knew what she was talking about.
I’ll begin with our favorite and the sure winner for ambiance. Imagine walking through an elaborate palace in Southeast Asia, where your wish is your waiter’s command. Vaulted ceilings, a grand staircase, 10-foot lanterns, and exquisite architecture framing the dream-like dinner paradise surrounds you. The ever so trendy Meatpacking district’s famed eatery, Spice Market captures your soul and your stomach in just one sitting.
To say the menu is “eclectic” would be serious understatement. The talented chef, Anthony Ricco, takes you through a journey of Southeast Asian cuisine with everything from Pork Vindaloo (India) to Green Curry (Thailand) to Char grilled Chicken with Kumquat Lemongrass dressing (Vietnam). Before our starters were delivered, we were graciously presented with a basket of Papadam and chutney (a traditional Indian cracker with a spicy and sweet dipping sauce). Perfection from the start.
We began our food tour with the Black Pepper Shrimp and Dried Pineapple as well as the Peekytoe Crab Dumplings with Sugar Snap Peas and Aromatic spices. The shrimp boasted a polite intense flavor I had never tasted on shellfish before. The spices coating the shrimp were a match made in heaven with the sweet and tangy dried pineapple. The Crab dumplings were the most delicate and delectable dumplings I’ve ever eaten. The crab was so fresh, pairing beautifully with the cool crunch of the snap peas.
Onto our main courses. Served family style, we agreed on a few to share. Beginning with the Cod with Malaysian Chili sauce and Thai Basil. Flaky and supremely fresh, this beautiful white and mild filet of fish was stunning in both its texture and presentation. The chili sauce and Thai basil only further knocked our socks off with bar none flavor variety.
Normally, I am very against ordering chicken out. I feel that I can prepare some pretty phenomenal chicken plates at home, so why bother? This rule does not apply at Spice Market. The Char grilled Chicken with Kumquat Lemongrass dressing was borderline outstanding. The crisp black char provided a colorful contrast to the orangey sauce it came dressed in. The insanely moist bird was flawless with its sweet and refreshing component. I had wondered why our server assured us of this one until the second I took my first bite. Wow.
|Photo courtesy of Spice Market|
For our third shared course, I convinced all of the Onion and Chili crusted Short ribs with egg noodles and pea shoots. Served like a bowl of soup with tongs for meat shredding, it was an interesting sight. We dove in. I really hate to say it…but I’ve had better short ribs elsewhere. Relatively tender, the meat was still stringy and lacking that rich and incredibly juicy short rib characteristic. The broth and noodles provided a great depth of flavor, including a bit too much star anise for some (I am not a fan of the liquorish tasting spice).
With only one dish deserving a “B” grade, Spice Market was a near holy experience with superb service that should be the standard for any eatery. Feeling an overwhelming sense of calm from the beginning until the end, we did not want to leave. Cuisine that opened my senses and an atmosphere that gave me tranquility, I could’ve stayed the night. I will be back to this gourmet Southeast Asian escape next time I visit NYC. Until then, it shall exist only in my dreams.
For a trendy, young spirited, energetic, let loose kind of Sunday morning drink and fare devouring session, there is one place and one place only. Lower East Side’s, Essex is the name in the Bloody Mary and egg game. Walking into the industrial two-story, loft style restaurant, one feels as if they’ve stepped foot into a metal and concrete jungle of forced fun. I say, “forced fun” because at Essex, patrons receive three breakfast libations with brunch. Choose from the spicy and simple Bloody, the “put your game face on,” Screwdriver, or the classic and bubbly, Mimosa. After finally making our way up to the second floor (with a less than ideal wait even with reservations), a Bloody Mary was in order. For two bucks extra, I upgraded my Bloody to a “Bacon Mary,” a very intelligent and rather obvious decision, I’d say. Did I mention the waiters keep no track with how many drinks they’ve poured you? Forced fun indeed, if you can keep up!
With a menu that requires heavy drooling on your shirt, there is something for everyone at this Jewish and Latin inspired brunch and lunch hotspot. I ordered the special of the day: Seared Scallops served over potato pancakes and two poached eggs. The gorgeous golden-crusted scallops cut like silk and tasted so divine with the yolk from the poached eggs and the crispy, perfectly greasy, potato pancake. I was in pure culinary bliss. This dish was so tasty in fact; I took almost an hour consuming it. I wanted to really savor one of the top 10 brunches I have had to date.
My friend, Megan ordered their Crab cake Benedict. Though she felt the egg was cooked just the way she loves it (she’s a sucker for a really runny yolk), she was a bit disappointed with the crab cake. After taking one big bite from the yolky, crabby, hollandaise madness, I understood her minor heartbreak. Though seasoned quite well, the crab cakes were in need of some more crab and less filler. Other than that, this Benedict was scrumptious.
I pressured another friend into the Lobster Mac N Cheese. For she had never had this luxurious delight before and I found that to be a travesty. While the Mac was not served in the most intriguing fashion, it certainly made up for it in taste. With a thick layer of lobster hidden underneath the gooey manchego spiked Mac N cheese, you almost could’ve missed the good stuff. Insanely fresh lobster meat combined with the sharpness of manchego was a combination I have only tasted in one of my many Mac N cheese fantasies. Wait, did I just admit to that? Elbows cooked al-dente and in a devilishly creamy sauce, it was a plate fit for a gluttonous queen.
Mimosa and Bloody Mary refills to my left and right, we could’ve chatted and chuckled in our cozy spot for hours. Essex is a place for partying and eating simultaneously and I think that’s the point. Solid fare, exceptional service and fabulously fun ambiance exists here. It is not where you go for romance. It isn’t even where you go for the most extravagant kind of feast. You go here for one seriously happening time.
Ahh, Balthazar, a place for the stars. Yes, this joint is known for drawing in the big names…so it must be stellar. For our much anticipated, dressed-up night out, Soho’s understandably popular French bistro was the only answer. Strategically shattered mirrors covering almost every wall, old- fashioned fixtures filling the large space with a warm, golden light; this restaurant seemed nearly mysterious and magical in only the loveliest time traveling kind of way. There was just something so charming, so elegant and so unexpected the moment we walked in.
The menu is composed concisely, always a plus for a gal who can never make up her mind. With a focus on French style steak plates and fresh seafood as well as an excellent raw bar, Balthazar also has Lamb t-bones, Duck Sheppard’s Pie, Duck Confit and even a Berkshire Pork belly. A “when on vacation” carb fanatic, I chose the Black Truffle and Lobster Risotto as a starter to share with Megan. Melt in your mouth, decadent, this is the kind of dish you crave for weeks…months after! In the midst of a cauliflower cream sauce and black truffle butter, we were wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, starring at one another with each royal bite. Words truly cannot explain the level of lusciousness.
The carbs didn’t stop there my friends. I am weak for freshly made pasta. The texture tromps the dried stuff. For this reason, with no uncertainty, I ordered the Homemade Linguine with Ruby Red Shrimp, Fresno chilies, broccoli rabe and garlic confit. A flavor explosion created a week’s worth of taste bud happiness with a single bite. With the shrimp so succulent playing with the spike of heat from the Fresnos and the divinely rich intensity from the garlic confit; this plate was executed by the hands of an Italian/French God.
My friend ordered the Sautéed Skate with Blood oranges, toasted pistachios, brown-Thyme butter and celery root. I’ve never tried skate before now. I have really been missing out. A member of the ray family, this fish is flat and with two edible “wings.” It is far from scary looking or scary tasting. Not only did this beauty present itself in a fanned-out diamond shape, it supplied incredibly moist and mild white flakes of fish. The earthy brown Thyme butter contrasted impeccably to the tang from the blood orange while the toasted pistachios and celery root offered great textural variety. A fish dinner I would regard fancy brought on many “Ohhs and Ahhs” until it was completely demolished from the plate.
A few of the ladies ordered the Steak Frites with Béarnaise. From the one bite I enjoyed, it was very evident that Balthazar uses quality meat and cooks exactly to the requested temp. Juicy, tender and full of flavor, it was a steak I’d deem splendid. In the happy company of a heaping pile of crispy fries and the creamy and herby Béarnaise; upscale French influenced meat and potatoes...now I could get used to that.
Balthazar is a fine mix of old Hollywood glamour and 1920’s France…right in the heart of Soho. It has a warm and cozy feel while it also suggests itself as a “place to see and be seen.” Perfect for a girls night out, romantic date or even a high-end business meeting or party, it scored one amazing first impression in my book. I’ve been told by a few foodies since that it is their favorite restaurant in all of New York for the reasons I’ve already mentioned and more. Bravo, Balthazar, Bravo.
Spice Market, Essex and Balthazar were an easy top three for me. For classy dinners with the true New York City experience, Spice Market and Balthazar are the crème of the crop. For a high energy, younger crowd brunch with a killer menu, Essex has my vote. With only three days with eleven ladies, this trip was not ideal for a food snob. I am just so grateful that they allowed me to take power in the planning for good eats.
Because the very last day came after three very late nights with a lot of ahem, indulging, I was not quite feeling up to eating before our plane ride. However, in spite of my reluctance to have one final gorge session, I do want to give an honorable mention to the award winning, trendsetting, innovative eatery, Cafeteria. This place shows off with a menu that proves Southern fare can be done in the North. For me, their menu supplied late morning libations to help ease the plane ride in my near future. I especially like their motto, “You are, You eat.” Fantastic.
|Photo courtesy Cafeteria. We ate in this very room.|
Some highlights from Cafeteria:
Cafeteria Mac N Cheese (A certified specialty of theirs and it’s truly no wonder why). The Trio: Buffalo Chicken and Bleu Cheese, Smoked Gouda and Bacon and the “simple” Cheddar and Fontina. Mac N Cheese Insanity.
You will be in my future again, Cafeteria. Trust me on that.
Thank you NYC restaurants for prohibiting the use of cameras (even cell phone cameras) RIGHT AFTER my visit...CHEERS!