Lunch at Eleven Madison Park.

I’ve insisted that I don’t really read restaurant reviews, and I swear that is true.  That said, I agree completely with every word former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote in in his four-star review of Eleven Madison Park.

Is it distinguished?  Is it impressive?  Progressive?  Superb?  Yes, yes, yes and yessir.  And, even better, Eleven Madison Park offers a two-course prix fixe lunch for $28.00, three courses for $42.00, and a “Gourmand” lunch tasting menu for $68.00, so basically you can decide which option best fits your budget when you sit down.  And yes, I am writing with the assumption that you’ll eventually make a reservation and have a meal here.  I did — three times in the past four months.  It’s that good.

Elelven Madison Park amuse bouchesRegardless of which menu you follow — Gourmand, two- or three-course — you’ll first get an amuse bouche: six gougères, cheesy puffs of choux pastry warm from the oven, and two other little  bites.  Once there were molded domes of golden potato and surprising savory beet-imbued marshmallows; another time there were foie gras macarons and celery root gelée.  With the Gourmand meal, there was yet another amuse: a perfect pale pink scallop standing knee-high in cream of celeriac soup.

Though I’ll fight anyone for the last gougère, it was the soup that I fell in love with.  Its celery root flavor was utterly delicious, that’s a fact not up for debate.  What I became so enamored with was its astonishing mouthfeel: smooth and creamy, with a pleasant weight.

“How amazing would it be to have a robe made of this?” I asked Keith.  Before he could respond, I interrupted myself: “No, wait — underwear.  Can you imagine, long underwear with this texture?”

(Keith’s response: “You’re so weird.”)

Eleven Madison Park Scottish partridgeI don’t care what you order when you come here, because I can guarantee you that it’s going to redefine the word perfect.  I’ve had the heirloom beet salad, which features three different types of beet, each wearing a nasturtium-petal cap and a dusting of crumbled rye toast.  The butternut squash velouté rivals my beloved celeriac soup in terms of texture, but its flavor is far bolder.  Most recently I ate the balik salmon and its accompanying pommes Dauphine, which were lovely and pillowy and delicate.

Unfortunately, the Scottish partridge ballotine is not on the menu anymore, but I can only hope that some iteration of it reappears this fall so that you can try it.  If it were possible to somehow beam a bite of ballotine to all of you, a small plate of it would be appearing at your elbow right now, along with its garnishes of fig, plum and black truffle.

Also no longer available is the lobster navarin — which is a fancy way of saying ragoût, which is the French way of saying stew — so try to console yourself with a plate of the linguini and Alaskan king crab.  It gets its subtle citrus flavor from Meyer lemon, but coarse black pepper prevents the dish from being too precious, adding a much-needed edge.

Somehow I found room for venison and hen of the woods mushrooms; another afternoon, I managed to eat every morsel of my bone marrow encrusted beef tenderloin.  It was a true struggle, but utterly worth it.

If after all of this, you can squeeze in another course, you must have the chocolate peanut butter palette.  I can’t stress this enough: you must have the chocolate peanut butter palette.  Yes, it’s crunchy, and sophisticated-yet-comforting, and there’s edible gold flakes glittering on its surface, and it’s a heck of a tongue twister.  This is all true, but what takes the dessert from delicious and propels it into the next level is the caramel popcorn ice cream it is served with.  Eleven Madison Park’s popcorn ice cream wasn’t my first, but it was undoubtedly the best.

Eleven Madison Park macaronsEach of my three lunches ended with a plate of macarons — once, when eating there with Ben, we were sneakily given an extra plate, and when we had lunch with Stephanie on Friday two oval dishes of cookies appeared, sans the cloak-and-dagger.  I like a bit of covert ops every now and then, but I can’t complain at all about these little meringue sandwich cookies.  Of course, as it’s a risk-taking sort of restaurant, Eleven Madison Park’s macarons aren’t your standard everyday chocolate or raspberry.  Instead they are peanut butter and jelly flavored, or chocolate-and-banana, or toasted sesame, or green tea, or violet, or pistachio-rose, or Meyer lemon, or brown butter-hazelnut, or whatever other fantastic combo the kitchen comes up with.  I’m partial to the lemon, in case you were wondering, and the brown-butter hazelnut, while Keith always snaps up the PB+J.

One last word, and then I promise I’ll stop drooling (intentional pun!) over what just might be my new favorite restaurant: cocktails.  I know I already insisted you have the chocolate peanut butter palette, but now I must put my foot down and stand firm and require you order a cocktail.  I like the Painted Lady, with its frothy egg-white top and dash of house-made bitters.  There’s fantastic non-alcoholic ones, if spirits aren’t for you, like the cool celery fizz and kind-of-dirty-sounding”Up the Alley.”

Okay, that was sixty-two words too many, so I’ll wind it up now.  Just promise me you’ll go?  Please?

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, New York 10010
212.889.0905
elevenmadisonpark.com
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Dinner at East by Northeast.

Two points, before we begin:

Knowing these little facts about me, you would think that I would love East by Northeast, the new Chinese-fusion small-plate-based restaurant in Inman Square, right?

We-ell…

Here’s the thing: I have money issues.  I can easily consider purchasing a $600 pair of great boots because I’ll wear them for six months out of the year for several years to come.  I feel the same way about bags, chairs, and other items meant to last a while**.  With food, I’ll have little problem spending a good amount of money at the market or on a memorable meal; when it comes to a “normal” meal out, though, I want value for dollar.

Am I trying to say that dinner at East by Northeast is expensive?  Of course not; plates average at about $10.  But $10 seems, to me, to be too much to pay for two mini pork belly sandwiches, especially when I’ve eaten two larger, similar sandwiches across the river at Myers + Chang and at Momofukus Noodle and Ssäm — for the pretty much the same price.  I don’t think this makes me stingy though; it just makes me realize I won’t order the pork belly sandwiches at East by Northeast again.

What will I reorder?

The candied pecans ($4.00), for sure, and the celery root/poached chicken/apple salad ($7.00). I’d definitely go back for the pork dumplings with butternut squash ($8.00) and the cilantro-lime soda ($5.00).  If the braised pork with sticky rice ($9.00) and fried shrimp with smoked salt ($6.00) specials were added to the permanent menu, no one would be happier than me.  I’m interested to try one of the delicious-sounding mixed drinks, like the goji-pomegranate cocktail, and order a dish featuring the hand-rolled noodles.  I found the spicy broth in the beef shank noodle soup ($10.00) to be a bit too spicy for my spice-averse taste buds, but the wide noodles were so chewy and lush that I’d skip the meat altogether for the vegetarian version.

See, this is why I feel awful for complaining about price — the food was good.  It was beyond good.  And the service was both speedy and friendly.  And the intimate space is warm and cozy.  And the chef/owner is only twenty-seven!  I’m certain the restaurant will become a neighborhood favorite.

Just… the plates were a bit too small.

East by Northeast
1128 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
617.876-0286
exnecambridge.com

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* Half, but it still counts.
** This doesn’t mean I do it often, but that’s the point.

Dinner at DBGB Kitchen + Bar.

I had dinner at DBGB Kitchen + Bar, Daniel Boulud‘s downtown brasserie/bar, three nights before The New York Times awarded it two stars in its restaurant review, and though I rarely read reviews anymore, I’ve got to say I agree.  It’s a fine place to go eat, but not necessarily one that warrants a special trip.  If you’re in the neighborhood, though, at least check out the menu and see if anything catches your eye.

Speaking of the neighborhood…

The Lower East Side used to be gritty and grungy, the type of place I’d be scared to take my parents — more for fear of my father embarrassing me as he pointed out Hells Angels and littered, graffiti-ed streets than of anything else.  Don’t worry, though, if you’re seeking some grit; in spite of the area’s gentrification, the Hells Angels are still there.  Even with their tattooed presence, I feel a bit more comfortable directing my dad to Delancey…  even if he still might embarrass me.  Chances of that happening, though, are slim at DBGB, where aging parent-types like my dad can comfortably sit in the dining room and non-reservations-holding patrons can order the full menu at the bar.

My offal-loving father would have enjoyed the veal tongue appetizer ($9.00).  Dressed in a sauce gribiche and tossed with fingerling potatoes, it was much lighter than I expected it to be.  Traditionally sauce gribiche is dribbled over a boiled veal’s head, but since I’ve yet to order (let alone encounter) that on a menu, all I can tell you is that in my uninformed opinion, the animal’s tongue makes a delicious substitute.  It still frames the egg-based, caper-y, cornichon-infused gribiche beautifully.

Though I ordered the sautéed skate ($19.00) for my main course, I tried a bite of the DBGB dog ($9.00) and the Beaujoliase sausage ($13.00) — DBGB has a startlingly wide selection of sausages, which can be ordered as appetizers, sides or even an entrée.  Ask for the “sausage duo” and you’ll receive your choice of any two sausages and its accompanying sides for $21.00.  With the authentic-tasting dog, you’ll get a wiener in a bun, along with sautéed onion, relish and crispy fries; the sweet pork-based Beaujoliase arrives atop a mound of lentils du Puy.

I’m a bit sorry to say that skate was, to my taste, underseasoned; I hate having to salt and pepper my food when I’m dining out, but once I did I was much happier.  (My picky parent, on the other hand, would have been disappointed, self-seasoning or no.)  The cauliflower risotto the fish rested upon, however, needed no tampering.  Studded with toasted pinenuts and decorated with threads of saffron, it was the best thing on my plate.

I was too full after dinner to even considering splitting a dessert — though I was really intrigued by the cassis beer-yogurt at $3.00 for a scoop and $9.00 for a two-scoop sundae with Belgian spice cookies, a blackcurrant compote and a lemon crème anglaise.  If I do find myself in the area, and if Prune has no availability, I’d pop in for a taste of ice cream.  Otherwise I doubt I’d go out of my way.

DBGB Kitchen + Bar
299 Bowery
New York, New York 10003
212.933.5300
danielnyc.com/dbgb
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Lunch at Jean-Georges.

I know it must seem like I’m the sort of person who thrives on fancy dinners, dressing up and drinking fine wines late into the night, and while that’s not entirely false, I can’t ignore the fun in mid-week lunches.  There’s something decadent and sly about sitting down in cashmere and silk to a four-course mid-day meal, then afterwards sneaking home to change into an oversize sweatshirt, order in a pizza and watch previous seasons of Dexter on On Demand.  What makes lunch at Jean-Georges Vongerichten‘s eponymous New York City restaurant Jean-Georges even more luxe is the price — for only $29.00, you can get two courses, with each additional course costing $14.50 and dessert setting you back another $8.00.

Basically, it’s the best lunch deal in New York.

I know what you’re thinking: since when is fifty dollars a steal for lunch?  Well, if you can tell me anywhere else that we can have a three-Michelin-star, multi-course lunch for less in this town, I’ll buy it for you. If it’s as good as this, I’ll be happy to do so.  And if they offer housemade ginger-lemon soda ($6.00) to both warm and refresh our palates, even better.

If we’re really lucky, we’ll start with the sea trout sashimi draped in trout eggs, lemon foam, a smear of dill and horseradish shavings, like I did last week.  Jean-Georges sea trout sashimiI’ll admit I was a bit disappointed to learn my dish came with foam (on the menu, it is listed as simply lemon), because sometimes I get so bored with it.  After all, it seems as though everyone in a chef’s hat is foaming it up these days, but Jean-Georges’s is more of a cream than a froth, and far more substantial in both flavor and texture than your everyday spoonful of miniature bubbles.  It went surprisingly well with the smooth sashimi, though I could’ve done with a few less horseradish curls zinging their vapors up my nose.  Maybe I’m being a bit nitpicky here, but personal preference is personal preference, no?

My personal preferences, after all, are what led me to order the young garlic soup, which is served with a trio of sautéed frogs’ legs.  Jean-Georges young garlic soupDotted with teensy little leaves of thyme, it was absolutely redolent of garlic, though definitely not at all  in an overpowering way.  I’ve got to say, and maybe this is a bit unsporting to admit, but I sampled Joann’s risotto and eyeballed Keith’s bacon-wrapped shrimp, and, had lunch been a contest, my soup would’ve won for sure.  I mean, not much can beat all that is lovely about garlic — its original bite and its transformation into something sweet and buttery and mellow.  To top it off, my frogs’ legs were light and crunchy; I was encouraged by our server to dunk the meat into my soup.  Afterwards, I was given a much-needed fingerbowl of rose water.

Since I can rarely resist sweetbreads, for my third course  I selected the option that served them with Jean-Georges sweetbreadstoasted pine nuts, dried cherries and pumpkin.  These were wading in a vinaigrette, and as I lifted each forkful to my mouth I inhaled a not-unpleasant jolt of vinegary zippiness; you would think the vinegar would overwhelm everything else on the plate, but it actually sharpened taste of the bittersweet cherries, the sweet pumpkin, the surprisingly-flavorful pine nut and the meatiness of the sweetbreads.  Though my instinct is to wolf down delicious food, I instead managed to savor each bite as much as possible.  Still, I was finished with my dish long before either Joann or Keith.

Should you choose to get dessert at Jean-Georges, you’ll notice that its menu isn’t as straightforward as in other restaurants.  Rather than listing options like tarte tatin or tea cake, Jean-Georges chocolate dessertit instead categorizes ingredients or even a concept. Last week, we chose from Market, Harvest, Chocolate or Strawberry; underneath each heading was a description of components we would then receive. I chose Chocolate, and ended up with Jean-Georges’s signature chocolate cake, vanilla bean ice cream and a wintergreen soup with chocolate noodles.  I quickly slipped the most creative item on my plate, the wintergreen soup, onto Keith’s, but that was only because I’m no fan of mint.  Besides, the normally-boring molten chocolate cake and usually-uninspiring ice cream were both utterly superb, proving once and for all that sometimes simple trumps complex every time.

Jean-Georges is open for lunch Mondays through Saturdays from noon to two-thirty.  Reservations, which are a must, can be made at OpenTable or via the phone at 212.299.3900.  The menu changes seasonally, and, unfortunately, the price has gone up from last year’s $28.00 for two plates to the current $29.00.  Regardless, it’s still a bargain.  If dressing for lunch is not for you, a similar deal can be had next door at Nougatine, Vongerichten’s more casual eatery.

Jean-Georges
1 Central Park West
New York, New York 10023
212.299.3900
jean-georges.com
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Lunch at Alive + Kicking, or Lobster Monsters.

Alive + KickingCheck out these monsters!  Priced at ten dollars a pound, five of us got three two-and-a-half pound lobsters, two lobster sandwiches and a pound of steamers.  It was way too much food — but, man, was it fun to eat.  Messy, too.

By the way, Alive and Kicking is located in what is basically a garage kitted-out with water tanks, sinks, coolers and a cash register.  Stop by only if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, splatter yourself and others with lobster juice, sit at a beat-up picnic table and eat what may be some of the freshest seafood in town.

Alive + Kicking
269 Putnam Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
617.876.0451

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Dinner at (the new) Ten Tables.

I’d been wanting to check out the new Ten Tables in Cambridge for a while.  I had visited the original Jamaica Plain restaurant at the end of the summer; the memory of that meal had stayed with me over the fall and winter, so when Keith suggested trying the recently-opened Harvard Square spot for dinner I immediately made a reservation.

Ten Tables, 1I started with the spring sorrel velouté with bacon, crème fraîche and a sprinkling of chives.  I chose the dish because I specifically wanted to experience the soup’s texture; a traditional velouté is one of the five “mother sauces” in French cuisine, and its name comes from the word for “velvety” — the perfect adjective to describe each spoonful’s mouthfeel.  Honestly, I think I have a pretty decent vocabulary, and still I can’t come up with a better word.  Flavor-wise, the smoky bacon and sweet, tangy sorrel were a fantastic combination, and the rich, slightly sour crème fraîche added even more lusciousness to every slurp.

Ten Tables, 2The follow-up to my starter was an adobo-rubbed bavette steak, frites and a ramp-infused aïoli.  When asked, I had requested that the meat be brought to medium-rare, which it was; in retrospect, I should have said something like, “Whatever the chef thinks is best.”   Don’t get me wrong — my steak was perfectly cooked, but the cut did not lend well for medium-rare.  Each bite was a challenge to chew, and its squishy texture made it difficult to cut… which was all too bad because it tasted wonderful.  We all know I’m a heat-baby, but the spice rub here balanced intensity and elegance exactly like The Tightrope Walker (which I saw in Chicago earlier this year).

Ten Tables, 3As soon as I spotted the chocolate terrine with sea salt and Thai basil ice cream on the menu, I knew I had to have it.  The terrine’s texture and taste were both reminiscent of an ultra-dense mousse — which made me incredibly happy, as chocolate mousse just might be my all-time favorite dessert.  Chewing was completely unnecessary, as each concentrated, chocolatey mouthful slowly melted on my tongue.

The ice cream was an utter surprise, oozing a refreshing licorice fragrance.  Normally I back away from all things anise, but this cold globe was the exception to the rule.  This I want to eat directly from the carton, in front of the open freezer, at three o’clock in the morning.  It was that good.

You might have noticed that I didn’t mark each course’s cost with its description; that’s because Ten Tables Cambridge runs a special on Sunday nights, the best evenings to stop by.  For $38.00, you can pick an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert from the menu.  Not a bad deal at all, particulary for food of this caliber.  After all, the restaurant is located in the basement space recently vacated by the old Craigie Street Bistro (now Craigie on Main on the fringes of Central Square), giving it some pretty big culinary shoes to fill, something I think it does excellently.

Ten Tables
5 Craigie Circle
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
617.576.5444
tentables.net

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A Late Dinner at The Publican.

A sad but true story:  My friend Lara and I lost touch when we went away to college.  We had spent high school sitting a few seats away from each other in more subjects than I’m capable of remembering (I think we were in at least one Global Studies, almost all of our Spanish courses, perhaps every English class…) but I did such a terrible job at maintaining a long-distance friendship that our level of camaraderie dwindled because of it.

Here’s the happy ending though: an e-correspondence has popped up between us.  Since Lara’s finishing up with her Ph.D at the University of Chicago, the moment I knew I was going to be in town I immediately sent her a message detailing our plans.  We decided to meet up for a tour at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Robie House on the university’s campus in Hyde Park and then spend some time catching up before getting to our reservations at The Publican.

the-publican2The Publican is the newest eatery from the team behind Avec and Blackbird, but unlike its predecessors, the focus at this restaurant is on beer.  Had I been drinking that night, I would have started with the Cane + Ebel red rye from Illinois’s own Two Brothers Brewing Company, before moving on to Goose Island‘s Pere Jacques, a Belgian-style ale.  After all, when in Chicago, right?  Massachusetts law makes it tricky for breweries and vineyards to ship product in; the selection at liquor stores can be very limited, so when we travel Keith and I try to take advantage of locally-made drinks.

publican-dining-room1When we walked in the restaurant’s doors, the first thing I noticed was the noise.  The dining room is big and cavernous; sound bounces around the space like a superball.  The second thing I that caught my eye was the space itself.  For one thing, the ceiling is ridiculously high, and from it hangs countless globe-shaped light fixtures.  For another, like at Avec, a majority of the tables are set up family-style; the rest are shuttered away behind mini barn-like doors.  (You can see them in  this picture here, which is from the Publican’s site.)  I was happy to learn that our table was one of the sealed-off; not only did we get a little bit of privacy — the wooden walls are came up past my shoulders, when I was seated — but the three of us were able to have a conversation without shouting at each other, which is always nice.

the-publican-1The Publican is similar to Avec in one more way: the menu encourages sharing.  Our server informed us that three small plates and two larger ones would be more than enough for our little group, so we had a caucus and decided on our choices.  Since we said we were okay with our selections arriving as soon as they were ready, our dinner started with frites ($5.00).

If it were up to me, all meals would begin with frites, so I was thrilled to see them blooming out of a paper cone like a golden bouquet.  I wasn’t disappointed by the fries — they were so warm they all but melted, and the garlicky mayonnaise we requested went fantastically with the crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside frites.  Lucky for Lara and Keith, a member of staff placed the cone on the opposite end of our gated table from where I was seated.  Otherwise, it would have been very likely that I wouldn’t have shared a single stick.

the-publican-2The second plate we received over our barn door was pork belly atop a pool of black-eyed peas and pickled shallots ($16.00).  Lara had never had pork belly before; once we learned this, Keith and I both insisted upon ordering it (though, to be fair, chances are I probably would’ve demanded the belly regardless).  As I watched Lara have her first bite of belly, I realized how badly I wanted her to love it as much as I do.  In my mind, belly of pork is as close as you can get to heaven — while eating, anyway.  I love its tender texture, and the finger of fat that covers the meat is my absolute favorite part of each bite.  My mouth is watering now, many meals later.

the-publican-3Another plate that we three agrees on was the boudin blanc ($15.00), much to my absolute delight.  I love hot dogs and think of sausages as their chicer, equally lovable older sisters, so the thought of passing the boudin up was a devastating one.

Boudin blanc is white since the sausage is made without blood; this one was served atop a small pile of  apple and celeriac.  Orange-infused mustard had been drizzled over it all, resulting in something fantastic.  Each bite was a bit tangy and a somewhat nutty and, as with the frites, I did not want to share at all.  I did, albeit reluctantly.  I still regret it.

the-publican-4I’m just now starting to realize how pigcentric our meal was, especially now that the time has come to discuss the next dish: pork ribs with polenta and a helping of caraway-mint slaw ($20.00).  The ribs were sweet and lovely, and the polenta crisp, but what really got my attention was the minted slaw.  I had never known that I liked slaw until I had the Publican’s version; it had the perfect amount of mint essence.  Sometimes — well, more like oftentimes — I find mint to be one of the most overpowering of aromatic herbs, beating down into submission whatever other flavors might be present.  That was definitely not the case here.

The ribs, briefly, were sweet and meaty, and devoured almost instantaneously.

the-publican-5The three of us wanted to make sure we ordered some sort of vegetable-focused dish, particularly since  we knew we had one more porky plate coming our way.  Once I saw the  sunchoke sformato ($6.00) with pancetta and dill vinaigrette on the menu, I knew which vegetable I would be voting for.  I had tried sunchokes for the first time last spring in Maine and had loved their crunchy sweetness; I wanted to taste that flavor again.  Not only wasn’t I disappointed with the sunchokes, but a small piece of me totally fell in love with the sformato.  Creamy and milky, it added a lush sort of luxury to the earthy vegetables.

the-publican-6Our last plate, a potée, was another meatastic dish, though it didn’t revolve completely around the axis of pork, as it featured a veal cut.  The Publican’s potée was made out of a minced-meat crépinette, a sizable piece of pork tenderloin and a veal breast ($25.00); the three cuts had been simmered with vegetables, and was similar in feeling to a pot-au-feu.  I think of both dishes as comforting, cold-weather food, the sort that is meant to heat you from the inside out — which ultimately, for me, made the potée perfect Chicago food.  No frosty breeze would be able to blow me over, not with this warming my belly.  In fact, when we left the Publican, the temperature had dropped even further, something that made a perverse sort of sense as we were amongst the last of the patrons to gather our coats and slip reluctantly out into the cold.  The truth of the matter is this: I had forgotten about the chilly air outside, and the iced-over puddles lacing the street.  All that was on my mind that night was the food, the company and the conversation, and how the combination of it all filled me with a toasty glow that stood up to an arctic Chicago evening.

The Publican
845 West Fulton Market
Chicago, Illinois 60607
312.733.9555
thepublicanrestaurant.com

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