There are few things I find more comforting or more satisfying than tucking into a beautiful corned beef sandwich or slurping down a bowl of hot matzo ball soup at a neighborhood deli. I have eaten at a lot of delis over the years, from the world-famous Katz’s Delicatessen in New York to Shapiro’s in Indianapolis and from Jake’s Delicatessen in Milwaukee to Jerry’s Famous Deli in Los Angeles. These are the giants of the delicatessen universe and deservedly so. But a recent expedition to New York’s Mile End was a revelation.
Mile End is a delicatessen that blurs the lines between a Montreal-style deli and a traditional Jewish deli. Opened by Noah and Rae Bernamoff in January 2010, Mile End has set about redefining New Yorker’s notions of what a deli is and should be. Needless to say, I had high expectations.
To get the meal started off right, I enjoyed a steaming bowl of Matzo Ball Soup. The rich, golden stock was so deeply flavored, proof that Mile End makes it with whole chickens and not just bones, while the carrots and celery were bright and tender. But the matzo balls. Oh Lord, the matzo balls. The combination of matzo meal, eggs, schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), salt, pepper, and baking soda came together to form giant, yet light and fluffy balls (words I never thought I would type) that would put your grandmother’s to shame (I am really sorry to say that, but it’s true). All of this made for the perfect restorative on a cold winter day, or for that matter, any day.
I next moved onto the classic Hot Dog, which was beefy and smokey with finely chopped red onion, tangy sauerkraut, and relish all on a pillowy soft split-top bun. A textbook example of a lunchtime staple elevated with the best ingredients.
Hot dog dispatched with, I then sampled the Ruth Wilensky--beef salami with mustard on an onion roll—named in honor of the proprietor of Montreal’s legendary Light Lunch. The thinly sliced salami, made of a blend of brisket and beef short rib, is redolent of garlic and paprika and bears little resemblance to the mass-produced salami of most peoples childhoods. And that’s a very good thing. At Mile End they lightly fry the salami and then press it onto the fresh baked daily onion rolls, which are studded with nicely charred bits of real onion and have been slicked with bright yellow mustard. The high-quality ingredients elevate this humble sandwich to stellar heights befitting a Montreal legend.
The real draw at Mile End is the Smoked Meat Sandwich, a seemingly simple description for a sandwich whose flavors are so deep and so complex. The Smoked Meat Sandwich is what makes Mile End a Montreal-style deli, and this sandwich is certainly is as good as any you would find in Montreal. Mile End starts with a whole beef brisket, which is cured in a mixture of salt, a ton of garlic, peppercorns, coriander and mustard seeds, allspice, onion, and paprika. After luxuriating in the spice mixture for almost two weeks, the brisket is then smoked for hours, after which it is steamed for another few hours to obtain that tender melting texture so desired in a great smoked meat sandwich. The perfectly sliced meat is then placed on two slices of rye bread studded with caraway seeds and slicked with brown mustard. The sandwich is hearty, but not heavy, and has already secured its place in the pantheon of great sandwiches.
I accompanied my sandwiches with the Pickled Vegetables, a beautiful melange of brightly acidic crisp vegetables, including beets, carrots, and cucumbers. These naturally sweet preserved veggies are perfect on their own and are great to help cut through the richness of the smoked meat sandwiches. I also enjoyed Mile End’s Smoked Meat Poutine, Quebec’s ubiquitous dish of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds. Here at Mile End, they elevate the dish with fresh, hand-cut fries fried crisp on the outside to create a barrier to keep the rich chicken gravy from rendering the fries soggy, sprinkle it all with fresh cheese curds, and to gild the lily, chunks of smoked meat. A more heavenly dish I may never know.
The Bottom Line: Much has already been written about Mile End, all of which I would echo (only the positive; although, I have yet to read any negatives). I will merely add that what the Bernamoffs have done with Mile End demonstrates that home cooking can be elevated through high-quality ingredients, a fresh perspective on a classic cannon, and a desire to nourish and satisfy, all of which put Mile End on par with not only the giants of the delicatessen scene, but with the best restaurants in New York.
Ever since New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells gave Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria three stars in a February 2012 review, a mere four months after the restaurants opening, Il Buco Alimentari has been swarmed by New Yorkers trying to get a true taste of Italy (not the Olive Garden kind). And boy, do they get that and more. On a recent trip to New York, I was able to try this casual, rustic offshoot of Il Buco, long known as one of the best Italian spots in town. Il Buco Alimentari specializes in housemade and house-cured everything. From the specially baked breads (part of a serious bread program) to the house-cured salumi and artisanal pastas, Il Buco is devoted to using the best ingredients to make seemingly simple-sounding dishes astounding.
We began with an assortment of the salumi, which on the night we dined included Prosciutto San Daniele, capocollo, and dried chorizo, and set the tone for what would be a remarkable meal. The capocollo was at once delicate and mild with a gorgeous fatty texture that allowed the thin slices to melt into my tongue. The Prosciutto, dry-cured ham from the leg of the pig, was nutty and slightly salty, while the chorizo was rich with smoked paprika giving it an exotic warmth. It is rare to find salumi of this quality anywhere, so we savored and celebrated it by devouring every last morsel.
Next came an assortment of appetizers, of which we chose seven. First, was the subtly-named Ricotta, which was a pillowy soft cloud of fresh, milky ricotta layered with thinly sliced yellow beets, grapefruit segments, and pistachios. The dish was a fantastic interplay of tastes and textures with the creamy ricotta, sweet beets, tart grapefruit, and nutty pistachios all coming together to create a brightly-flavored dish that was as heavenly to eat as it was to look at.
Next up was the Pulpo a la Plancha, a dish of seared octopus, shaved carrots, pomelo, lime, thinly sliced radish, and black garlic. The octopus was so meaty, almost steak-like in texture, but with a wonderfully tender texture, and the sear from the plancha gave the cephalopod a bit of crisp smokiness on the outside. Even those in our party for whom octopus is not a treasured delicacy had to agree that this was simply sublime.
Continuing the steady procession of starters, we next enjoyed the Crispy Artichokes. Deep fried to a golden brown, the artichokes were crisp, yet juicy, and nutty and sweet. Following the artichokes was the smoky, slightly gamy (in a good way) Grilled Vermont Quail, which was accompanied by the ripest persimmon I have ever tasted, with marinated fennel and puffed farro, adding a bit of crunch to the dish.
We then moved into the seafood starters--the Carpaccio di Baccala and Hamachi Crudo. The carpaccio featured thin sheets of house-cured salt cod with a brightness provided by meyer lemon, heat from fresh red chilies, all served with carta da musica, an ultra-thin cracker. The pinkish-white hamachi was light, mild, and slightly fatty and was accented with a pale green cucumber granita and bright orange trout roe.
Our last starter was the Fegato D'Anatra. A slab of shaved foie gras, silky and smooth, with large crystals of sea salt and cracked pepper and clementine mostarda, all atop grilled bread, this dish was so rich and so luxurious that I half expected to see Robin Leach showing it off.
After all the starters I was ready to move on to the pastas about which so much has been written. I chose one of the restaurant's signature dishes, the Spaghetti al Nero, which was a tangle of beautiful inky black spaghetti with chunks of house-cured salt cod, tender fennel with meyer lemon all showered with breadcrumbs for a wonderful textural contrast.
As if I hadn't already eaten enough, then came the Slow-Roasted Short Ribs. A Flintstonian-sized portion of tender-as-all-get-out short ribs that have been roasted until falling-off-the-bone are coated in peppercorns and showered with copious amounts of freshly-grated horseradish giving it a sharp bite. The braised celery, Castelvetrano olives, and walnuts all combine with the short ribs and horseradish to make a truly spectacular dish. I have not been able to stop thinking about this dish since I ate it. A remarkable ending to a remarkable meal.
The Bottom Line: For spectacular, rustic Italian food head to Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria. The atmosphere is warm and casual and the food is top notch. Must haves include the short ribs, shaved foie gras, and the spaghetti al nero. Be sure to make a reservation well in advance; the crowds at Il Buco Alimentari show no sign of dissipating anytime soon. And with good reason.
As Gluttonous Gourmet readers know by now, I have a difficult time narrowing down menu selections to a reasonable few. This week's outing to Aldea in New York City proved no different. Of 16 dishes from which to choose (nine first courses, six second courses), I selected 12 dishes for our party. Ever since George Mendes opened Aldea in 2009, it has been a runaway success, earning one Michelin star, two stars from The New York Times, and raves from diners and critics alike. In a sleek, modern space in NYC's Flatiron neighborhood, Mendes is serving up fresh takes on traditional flavors from the Iberian Peninsula. Which is why it proved so difficult to choose from all of the offerings.
We kicked off the meal with the East Coast Sea Urchin Toast, which featured a healthy dollop of silky sea urchin with a smooth, earthy cauliflower purée, and a hit of pungent mustard seed all atop a crispy flatbread. Up next was the Knoll Krest Farm Egg, a description far too simple to do this dish justice. Presented in a hollowed-out brown egg shell, the egg was so perfectly cooked to a custard-like texture that it literally may be one of the best eggs I have ever had. The egg was perfectly complemented by lumps of bacalhau (salted, dried cod), as well as bits of black olive and crunchy potato.
The Skillet Cornbread that followed was a textbook example of what this dish should be--full of corn flavor, a touch of salt, and a sprinkling of thyme, slathered with sweet cream butter that melted into the crags and crannies of the cornbread. Following the cornbread was the Juniper and Coriander Cured Pork Loin. Tinged with citrus and floral notes from the spice rub, the pale pink pork was sliced thinly and served with grain mustard and pickled okra on the side to cut the richness of the meat.
One of the most superb dishes of the evening was the Foie Gras Terrine, which perfectly encapsulated the look and taste of autumn on a plate. The luxuriously smooth foie gras melted in my mouth and was brightened by a smear of deep purple concord grape jam (my favorite taste of Fall) with slightly sweet, slightly tart charred quince accented with a touch of cinnamon. The next dish to arrive was the Roasted Cauliflower and Mutsu Apple Salad. The salad was rich in texture and flavor--the soft leaves of lettuce, the crunch of Marcona almonds, the nutty roasted cauliflower, the creamy white flesh of the apple, and the tangy bite of the apple-mustard vinaigrette. All the elements came together to form a beautiful, well-rounded salad (not words I use too often). We ended the assortment of starters with Shrimp Alhinho, a dish of garlicky shrimp with coriander and pimentón. The large shrimp were sweet and perfectly cooked and the pool of shrimp jus on which the crustaceans sat was so divine, so redolent of shrimp flavor, that it blew me away. Fortunately, Chef Mendes was kind enough to share the recipe with Food Republic, so we amateurs can feel like top chefs in our own kitchens. (You can find it at: http://www.foodrepublic.com/2011/04/12/shrimp-alhinho-recipe-aldea.)
Finally, we moved on to the assortment of second courses. First up was the Arroz de Pato, or duck rice. This dish of saffron-infused rice with shreds of soft duck confit, briny black olives, and spicy chorizo with accents of bitter orange, was warm, comforting, and soul-satisfying; a truly refined take on a traditional peasant dish. The Diver Scallops, plump and caramelized on the outside while staying moist inside, were topped with paper-thin slices of radish sitting atop a fine dice of honey-rosemary glazed turnips with hen of the woods mushrooms; it was yet another dish awash in autumnal flavors.
The Sea Salted Chatham Cod offered a perfectly distilled taste of the sea, with its kombu broth and filet of moist, flaky cod. Large slices of sweet roasted tomato were draped across the fish while the potato confit added an additional layer of savory flavor. The mild, delicate Black Sea Bass with crispy skin was beautifully executed on the plate, accompanied by a slick of bright yellow corn purée, nutty seared brussels sprouts, and yellow wax beans. Our last savory dish was the Roasted Chicken. I rarely order chicken in restaurants (unless, of course, it's fried) but the accompaniments to this dish are what sold me--lemon thyme bread stuffing, cranberry bean stew, kale and linguiça sausage. All of those were wonderful. Spectacular, really. But the chicken delivered in a way that it so rarely does in restaurants. It was juicy and flavorful with burnished crispy skin. It was finally a chicken that deserved its spot on the menu.
At this point in the meal my dining companions were complaining that they could not eat another bite. Of course, that changed when the dessert menu came around. We chose three, all of which were incredible. The Sonhos "Little Dreams," sugar dusted warm donuts with three dipping sauces--vanilla caramel, chocolate, and pomegranate--were the most popular at the table, as they brought a childlike glee to the faces of those with whom I was dining. The Chocolate Tart, rich as any chocolate dessert should be, was topped with pistachio dragée and saffron-crème fraiche sorbet, refreshing and slightly bitter from the saffron. The Apple Flan was also excellent, featuring a celery root emulsion, garam masala ice cream, and a walnut oatmeal crumble.
The Bottom Line: Aldea is a restaurant that, while respectful of the culinary traditions of the region from which it draws, makes Portuguese cuisine feel entirely new and refined. Chef Mendes and his team are bringing one of the world's great cuisines to a whole new audience, and are doing so in a way that is accessible and deeply satisfying. The flavors are all at once familiar and, yet, exotic, while the presentations are sophisticated and inviting. It's for those reasons why I left almost no dish behind.
Some of my favorite meals have come from some pretty unexpected places. Amazing Thai food from a strip-mall joint in Las Vegas, cabeza tacos from a hole-in-the-wall in Clearwater, Florida, and, in a recent outing in Manhattan, a sushi restaurant in the basement of an Italian restaurant.
Sushi Azabu is a tiny sushi den tucked away in the basement of Greenwich Grill in TriBeCa, far away from the hustle and bustle of the Manhattan streets above. There is nothing on the outside of the building to indicate that you are about to enter one of the best sushi restaurants in New York, which almost makes it feel as if you are the only one aware of such a gem. After descending the staircase down to the restaurant, you feel an instant calm as you take in your surroundings--smooth river stone, bamboo, and red paper walls. You can choose to sit either at the chef's counter, which seats nine, or in one of three booths. We sat at the counter and put our meal in the chefs hands, allowing them to select the best of what they had to offer.
We started with thinly-sliced lotus root braised in soy with sesame seeds sprinkled on top. It was crunchy, salty, and nutty, all of which whet my appetite for a truly wonderful meal. We then moved onto my favorite course of the evening--a raw giant oyster, with soy and thinly sliced scallions. The oyster was meaty and briny and was so large that I had to eat it in multiple bites. I have eaten hundreds, if not thousands, of oysters over the years, but eating this was a revelation in taste and texture. A truly gorgeous dish.
We then moved onto the nigiri-zushi (not a spelling error for sushi, but too long to explain here), which included giant clam, mackerel, bluefin tuna and bonito. All were truly excellent, although my favorite was the bonito, known as katsuo in Japan. This moderately fatty fish with a dark color and a firm texture was quickly seared and had a strong, meaty flavor.
Next up was the medium fatty tuna, chu-toro, grilled and topped with grated radish and thinly sliced scallions, followed by giant clam with cucumbers pickled in rice wine vinegar, which gave the dish a tart sweetness.
The next three sashimi dishes were all comprised of clean, pristine seafood with warm seasoned sushi rice. The quality of the fish here is impeccable as about 70-80% of the seafood is flown in fresh from Japan four times a week. The kanpachi, or amberjack, was softer and more delicate than other yellowtail, and the shrimp sashimi was clean, briny, and tasted of the sea. I have never given much thought to eating raw shrimp, but this was eye-opening. The next dish, blowtorched scallop, featured a beautiful scallop licked by the flames of a blowtorch to create a lightly caramelized surface, and was unexpected, yet delightful. A sharp hit of wasabi and a bit of lime on top added explosive flavor to the sweet bivalve.
The uni, or sea urchin, that followed was briny and slightly minerally, with a smooth, custardy texture. The warm rice on which it sat gave a nice contrast in temperature and texture. We ended with a steaming cup of miso soup, which was restorative and soothing and helped to round out a beautiful meal.
The Bottom Line: For flawlessly prepared edo-mae style sushi served in a serene, well-hidden location, Sushi Azabu can't be beat. It is a true neighborhood gem that stands out in a city full of great sushi restaurants. Embrace the experience and go omakase-style, allowing the chefs to select the best offerings of the day--you will not be disappointed.
This past week saw the indulgence of more gluttonous behavior while I was in New York City, including two dinners on Monday night, a massive lunch of fried chicken and barbecue on Tuesday, an amazing dinner on Tuesday night, and finally, an unbelievable meal at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Most people see lunch as a quick respite from the day, during which you can nourish and fortify yourself for the afternoon ahead. I, on the other hand, see lunch as an opportunity to indulge my insatiable appetite. And so I did.
To set the scene, I was lucky enough to get a lunch reservation for the Rotisserie Duck lunch at noon at Ssam Bar. This is more difficult than it sounds as the restaurant is one of the best in the world. Literally. Momofuku Ssäm Bar ranks #37 on San Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurants List and has been awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand rating since 2009. And, honestly, regardless what any of those lists would say, I will confirm that it is, without a doubt, one of the best restaurants at which I have ever had the pleasure of eating.
In the last several months, I have been lucky enough to enjoy both of Ssäm Bar's large format meals--first, the Bo Ssäm dinner, which is a whole slow roasted pork shoulder with numerous accoutrements, and now, the Rotisserie Duck lunch. The duck lunch feeds three to six people (depending on how hungry everyone is) and includes a whole rotisserie duck, chive pancakes, bibb lettuce, hoisin sauce, duck scallion sauce, Korean barbecue sauce, crispy shallots and your choice of two side dishes, which change frequently. For our ravenously hungry party of four, the lunch was the perfect amount of food.
Before we got started with the duck, though, we had to satiate our hunger pangs with an order of the Steamed Pork Buns and Bread and Butter. The pork buns are like crack. I know of no other way to say it. They are so addictive, they should be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. (Note to the President: If you are looking for a Bun Czar, I am your man). Sandwiched between a soft, warm bun, the pork belly was tender, fatty, and creamy, and utterly fabulous with a slick of hoisin sauce and the bright contrast of pickled cucumbers. As for the Bread and Butter, the name under promises but the dish over delivers. Two loaves of bread served with sea salt butter and whipped lardo, this was not your average bread basket; this was heaven.
Next up was the reason we were here--the duck. The duck was beautifully cooked, soft and pink on the inside, and was also served with duck leg confit, which was tender and deeply flavored with wonderfully crispy skin. The duck comes from Long Island's Crescent Farms, where from the taste of it, it clearly lived a happy life. Served on a bed of sticky rice with a bouquet of herbs (cilantro, watercress, and basil), you are encouraged to pile the duck, the rice, and the herbs into the chive pancakes along with a generous dollop of any of the sauces (the duck scallion sauce was my favorite; it is so good, I contemplated taking shots of it) and the crispy shallots. When combined together they form a magical union of deliciousness.
We selected the seasonal pickles, which included kimchi, cucumbers, sunchokes, beets, and rhubarb, among others, a one of our side dishes. The pickles provided a bright, tart counterpoint to the rich, fattiness of the duck. The spicy potatoes were fork-tender, spicy, with the funk of fish sauce and chiles.
While I had some very memorable meals in NYC last week, of which several will be detailed in upcoming posts, this was the most memorable of all. It was rich, deeply flavorful, satisfying, and the best way I could think of to indulge my insatiable appetite.
The Bottom Line: Go for any of the large format meals, or for that matter, for any reason at all. Plan to put some effort into getting a reservation for the duck lunch or dinner; it is well worth it. Highly flavorful food served in a casual, fun atmosphere, Momofuku Ssäm Bar is deserving of every accolade it has received.
A few months ago I was faced with one of the most difficult decisions of my adult life. I found myself paralyzed not knowing what to do. I am usually so sure of myself, rarely second guessing. But this time I couldn't do it. Let me start back at the beginning.
Sitting in the dark, warm upstairs dining room with a coworker at Keens Steakhouse in New York--a Garment District shrine to meat--I was staring at the menu trying to decide on my entree. Figuring out the appetizer was easy--Grilled Thick-Cut Smoked Bacon. Large hunks of cured, smoked pork belly, meaty and marbled with streaks of creamy fat, this was a no-brainer. But when it came to the main course, I couldn't make up my mind between the legendary Mutton Chop or the King's Cut Prime Rib of Beef. So I did what any gluttonous gourmet would do...I ordered both. On top of that, my coworker, who ordered an 8-ounce Filet Mignon, and I also ordered three side dishes to round out the meal.
After I tore through the bacon, I was ready for my meat double-header. We watched as a runner brought our tray of food up to the dining room. He set it down and looked at the ticket. Then the tray. Then the ticket again. Then he looked at our table (just the two of us!). And back to the tray again. There is no way that these two are eating all this food. Well, maybe the guy, but not the woman (whom, I should mention, probably weighs 90 pounds soaking wet). After a brief consultation with the waiter, the runner began bringing the onslaught of food to our table. And so it began.
Keens is known for their Mutton Chop. A 26-ounce, two-inch tall slab of lamb, it is not technically mutton, but rather a saddle of lamb that has been aged a few months longer than what we typically eat, which helps give it a more assertive lamb taste, but not tough or gamy as mutton can be. Arriving on the bone with a nice char on the outside, the Mutton Chop was cooked beautifully medium-rare, juicy and pink. This was a good start.
I then tucked into the King's Cut Prime Rib, which was a gargantuan hunk of beef on the bone that was as tender and succulent as the taste was beefy. While the menu doesn't tell you how much this Flinstone-sized steak weighs, there is no way that it could be less than at least 24-ounces. It literally took up the entire plate. Nonetheless, I felt up to the challenge of some meat-on-meat action.
Alternating between bites of Mutton Chop and Prime Rib, I felt myself beginning to sweat. Is it hot in here or is it just me? No one else is sweating. This is what happens to me when I start working really hard. I am not going to pretend that this is a sexy look; it's not. It's primal. My shirt is going to burst. Literally, I am pretty sure this button is going to pop off. I unbuttoned one of the bottom buttons on my shirt to give my stomach a little relief. I literally needed more physical space for all of this meat.
In addition to the meat, we had also ordered a few sides: boiled potatoes with parsley and butter, sautéed mushrooms, and creamed spinach. These were all very good; the potatoes were fork-tender and buttery, the spinach was exactly as I like my green vegetables--covered with heavy cream--and the mushrooms had that meaty, umami flavor that makes them a natural complement to steak.
After about 30 ounces of meat I was feeling tapped out. The Mutton Chop and Prime Rib were so good I didn't want to stop. Unfortunately, I already knew that my sleep that night was going to be plagued with the "meat sweats." While not a technical medical condition, the meat sweats occur after the consumption of large quantities of meat and give one the appearance of detoxing like Bobby Brown on a hot August day.
After all was said and done, I was proud of myself for breaking the logjam of indecision. I faced this dilemma head on and, in typical gluttonous gourmet fashion, showed that meal who was boss.
The Bottom Line: Go for the Flinstonian-sized portions of meat in a warm, inviting atmosphere. Mutton Chops, Prime Rib, and Thick-Cut Bacon are must haves. Get your wallet ready or find a friend with an expense account.