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Monday, July 21, 2014

NYC: Fine Italian @ Marea, Midtown West

Heralding 2 stars since its opening day in 2010, Marea redefines Italian dining with a touch of class and excellent cooking. This felt a little contradictory as my perception of Italian dining has always felt more homely rather than classy unlike the French. It is rustic in appearance, filled with classic flavours and typically come in larger portions. Then again, that is just my mindset which was proven wrong by this unparalleled Italian restaurant. 

Walking in to the restaurant, the service was instantaneous. I was made comfortable in my seat in no time with the maitre’d coming to my table to offer his service every now and then. One thing I’d realise is the attentiveness of the waitstaff at Marea. I generally have a “lost look” and every time I looked up, the waitstaff would notice me, walk to me and asked if I needed help with anything. Lost Asian kid in New York? lol. 

After settling in, I decided to go with the Marea tasting course. A course that will bring out the finest that Marea’s chefs has to offer in a 5 course meal. Needless to stay, I was looking forward to the meal. First up were the three slices of raw fish. They were fresh, but the combination of each pairing was the highlight. The tuna was the highlight for me over the fluke and snapper. What that green puree the tuna sat on god knows, but it was nice together. Plating was sensational and the attention to detail was every bit clear in its presentation. Thinking back, I should have cut them into halves! Their small size means the joy was a little short-lived. Worth it though!
 ASSAGGIO DI TRE, a tasting of three crudo. 

 My next course was a popular crustacean. On the plate were perfectly arranged lobster portions on a pressed burrata with the herbs, eggplants, tomatoes and basil seed. I will be honest here. The combination of the cheese, and lobster with a slight drizzling of olive oil was all I needed on this plate. Never had the cheese served this way before but there seemed to be a whimsical sense of creativity where everything just fell in place. Basil seeds did not quite play a big impact but the fresh tomatoes added a sour-sweet note that mellowed very well with the lobster and the fresh creamy cheese. 
ASTICE, nova scotia lobster, burrata, eggplant al funghetto, basil seeds. 

A classic Italian staple, the pasta was my next course. But this by no means was any ordinary pasta feat. The combinations of flavours here can be compared to how an expert talk about perfume. Different notes/flavours coming in at different time. It all seemed very plan. The first bite always had a burst of tomato with a strong crab taste. Something like a bisque. Just as the flavours pass on, you get the sweet-briny flavours of the sea urchin. Decadent! I now wonder whether the sea urchin gave this pasta sauce a cream like silkiness too! Great sauce for sure! Its accompany pasta was called strozzapreti, something like a coarsely rolled spiral with less swirls through. Cooked al dente, the pasta was spot on ( I would be disappointed if it was not) :)!. The chefs were smart to ensure the dish did not appear one-dimensional and added the garlicky crumbs which not only had texture, but a fragrance to match the well loved seafood used. 
STROZZAPRETI, crab, sea urchin, basil.

I was expecting a little beef dish pop up at my table after having three seafood courses. But least did I expect the showpiece of this meal to be another seafood course. This time a stunning dish of scallops, and root vegetables. Before I go further, if any of you watch cooking shows you will understand how important prep work is when cooking scallops. Chefs always say “hot pan”. This was where the magic happened. A really burning hot pan which was probably red in colour. Scallops here were only cooked on one side with butter added at the end and gently scooped many times to cook it at the top. The result was a phenomenal crusty scallop with a melt through flesh. Intense sweetness of the scallop paired sautéed mushrooms, pickled shallots and slow-grilled endives set a top a smooth onion puree resulted in an instant foodgasm! This was clear why Marea has been one of the best if not the best Italian restaurants in town. Sensational. *respect* 
CAPESANTE seared sea scallops, oyster mushrooms, grilled endive, pickled shallots. 

To end, the Marea put together a strawberry dessert. I am not quite sure what it was but I tasted notes of pistachio, coconut. There was probably almond in there haha. Ok, I did not know what I was eating. My brain was still stuck in the previous course. One thing for sure, it was good but nowhere near as memorable as the lobster, pasta or scallop course. 
 TORTA DI FRAGOLE strawberries, ricotta crema, rhubarb, perilla

Boom boom pow! What a lovely meal I had that day. The artsy plating, sophisticated creations of Marea definitely had me think twice before generalising Italian finesse. Their marque automobile is after all the Ferrari. It has been said that always treat your subject with respect and your subject will reward for you.  Marea has shown the world what it does with the produce of the sea.  The ability of the chefs at Marea in retaining the flavours of the seafood was clear from start to end with each protein prepared with respect and garnished with seasonal ingredients that bring out nothing but the best out of its seafood. There were not heavy lashings of cream, tomato sugo, vinegar or cheese. Most if not all ingredients were subtle and filled the undertones of each course. Very well done to Marea.  I am terribly impressed with this Manhattan establishment. 

Last but not least was the great service I received through out the day. Despite being dressed in chinos and oxford shirt whilst the businessman and woman in this trendy town were set in their black coats and formal wear, I was never neglected . Instead, the waitstaff were still every bit courteous with their greetings and I felt indifferent from the rest of the people. Definitely deserves the rating it has. 

Marea on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 18, 2014

Bites: Omakase @ Sushi Azabu, Tribeca

One of the most memorable meals I had in NYC was at a no nonsense sushi place in Tribeca.  Coming at 5.30pm it was just me,  a sushi counter and 3 Chefs. Sushi Azabu is a 1 Michelin starred restaurant. Serving only Omakase at the counter, it was perfect as I did not want to be making amateur decisions like the typical salmon and tuna cliche orders.  Instead, trust the chef to deliver what was in season.

After a courteous bow and jovial introduction, I had a go at a broth meant to clear the palate prior to starting the Omakase.

Then, an Amuse Bouche consisting of a slice of grilled Ayu (sweet fish) and sakura shrimps with Dengaku (eggplant) marked the start of my meal.
I was a little skeptical at jumping right into it as I felt it looked like a mackerel and I have always felt that mackerel carries a strong fishy taste.  To my surprise, every bit was super fresh.  No fishy gut taste and even the bones were soft. It was really quite sweet too.  Eggplants on the other other hand were well marinated and went very well with the shrimps that had a little saltiness to them.  In the hands of a good chef, some impossible looking ingredients become the most palatable.  True enough!

Next was a unique seasonal course consisting of a slice of white fish, and sea urchin set a top a curd.  I found it hard to understand and neither was the taste really outstanding but it was simply different.  In a good way of course.

Then came a dish more familiar to my taste buds minute seared tuna with wasabi honey miso.  The elements critical in delivering such a dish were aced with no mistakes.  Seared to perfection was one and balance in the sauce was the other.  A minute or a notch over and it all goes to waste.    The lean tuna slices here will not melt in your mouth but the flavours of the fish mixed with the sweetness of the honey and heat from the wasabi made it all a very pleasant bite.  Yummy!  

The sashimi course which came up next was splendidly fresh.  On the plate I had Chu-toro (medium fatty tuna), Snapper, Fluke, live Squid and live Alaskan Prawn.  Whilst the squid was less apparent to be alive, the prawn’s moving pods and antenna really caught my eye.  The other couple who had their's later in the night was too shocked to eat it that the chef offered to had the brains removed to kill it off lol.
What can I say?  So much to like but the prawns had to be the sweetest protein on the plate.  It was just tantalising! I am drooling thinking about it already!  The snapper was the least impressive fish for me.  The Tuna was yummy and the squid was the most unique considering the its combination with the plum sauce.  After finishing this course, the prawn head was deep fried and served again to me.  Crispy, and slightly salted.  It was the tastiest bit in the Sashimi course!  

I never had the chance to go to Japan to experience the full sushi experience for various reasons. Nonetheless, I have heard enough from experienced people that a meal at Sushi Azabu is as close as you will get to Japan’s best sushi meals in the States.  Without a doubt, I was impressed about what Sushi Azabu served next.  To prevent a massive repeat of the F-word for fresh, I shall let the pictures do the talking here. Shim, the sushi master said that the fish arrives fresh every Monday at Sushi Azabu which was the day I went.  So now you know when to get your sushi fix :)!

Kohada, Japanese Gizzard Shad with Marinated Seaweed.  

Herring with Shiso Leaf.

Salmon Aburi, Torched Salmon

Zuke, Marinated Tuna.

O-toro, Fatty Tuna.  Picture says enough I believe :)!

Shiro Ebi, White Sweet Shrimp.  At this point, I started thinking of how people say that prawns need to be cook right and wondered whether prawns when fresh should just be eaten raw.  It was sweeter than ever!

Unagi Sirayaki, Fresh Eel Simply Grilled.

Anago, Conger Eel.   This was perhaps my least favourite.  I never quite liked eel but this one tasted more fishy due to its minimal preparation.  The difference between the two was the origins of the eel.  This was a salt water and is usually prepared with minimal season whilst the fresh water one above is usually grilled.

Yariika, Spear Squid. 

Alaskan King Crab with Caviar.  You know that feeling when you bite into a thick piece of a crab claw flesh that has been freshly steamed following its catch from the sea?  The tender flesh overflowing with the mild saltiness?  Noms!

Clam miso.

Uni, Sea Urchin.  I never had a good Uni before.  Until I came here.  It was top notch.  Briny, sweetish, creamy and just so decadent.  Booms!
Negitorotaku-Maki - Blue Fin Tuna with Takuan and Scallion Roll. The apprentice’s special.

Tamago, Tokyo Style Egg Omelet.  I loved this and it was prepared by the apprentice too.  He got me two more slices cause I really liked it haha.  Biting into the Tamago, the crisp outer parts tasted like a really enjoyable eggy cake before going right into the middle  where you get this false feeling as if you are biting into a creamy custard.  Absolutely lovely.  Some criticise it for being not sweet enough, which is true when served as a sushi.  On its own, it was just perfect.

Mochi filled with a strawberry and red bean paste (Azuki).

At the end of the meal, I stayed to finish my tea.  My time spent stoning suddenly turned to thinking of how awesome this meal was.  In front of me was a ranked crew from master to apprentice folded my rice to shape, sliced the fish and prepared every piece of sushi I polished.  It was made to look simple that perhaps, even a baby could do it.  Yet, the rice is compacted enough to hold itself when lifted which chopsticks and loose enough to just unfold in your mouth at the slightest touch.  The seasoning in the sushi rice hit all the right notes.  Sweet, salty and sour.  Temperature was right for my common tongue.  I would be proud to be them for one night.

Kept safe from all the unnecessary hype, Sushi Azabu serves authentic style sushi for good value. $120 got me an amuse bouche, 2 seasonal cooked dishes, 1 sashimi platter, a sushi course (10-13pcs) and 1 dessert.  This is nowhere near cheap obviously but at this level of dining, Sushi Azabu felt like a bargain.  Not to mention the enjoyable perks you get in such a place that you do not get at other Michelin starred restaurants.  Proximity was one of my biggest likes at Sushi Azabu.  By the end of the night I knew all three of the chefs names and it was pretty cool.  The careful explanation of the chefs about each sushi and their attentiveness in folding the sushi right before you makes it a very special occasion.  Also, do note that other similar places would charge upwards for $180 with Masa apparently charging close to $400 for their Omakase. Other types of fine dining establishment would easily be double or similarly priced and all you would get is a table with food coming from the appetisers through to dessert.

Sushi Azabu on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

NYC Bites: The Best Burger @ Spotted Pig, Greenwich Village

There are burgers and then there is THAT burger.  The one that you have been waiting for.  After looking at tonnes of websites including the Gothamist, NYCSeriousEats and a whole host of blogs, I was on my way to what could possibly be the best burger on the East Coast.  Welcome to the Spotted Pig.  A Michelin starred casual dining restaurant set within the Greenwich Village.

Expect to see pigs on the wall, on the counter, along the rails and when your dish arrive, possibly on your plate too. But no pig on my plate today, it was all beef!  When my cheeseburger came, I was thinking “Wow!  This looked exactly what I expected to see,”.  And it was even more to be honest.  
It was simple and lovely.  The bun came with the most perfect chargrilled marks and the thick patty was cooked to order; spot on medium with that lovely pink middle.  Its meat was absolutely tender and seasoned right.  Salt and pepper.  Then comes my biggest love.  The smear of Roquefort cheese.  This French beauty with them lovely mould spots have always been a favourite of mine.  The fragrance of the Roquefort paired with its tangy, sweet - saltiness just provided a depth of richness not achieved by the boring Swiss.  No insults :P!  That is why, whenever I go to Jus Burgers it was always for their blue cheese burger!With a burger patty between two buns and nothing else?  Damn it was heavenly.   

Then comes the fries.  WOW!  So thin and crisp that the picture barely justifies it.   Not to mention the mild garlicky rosemary flavour infused into the regular potatoes that is even harder to explain.  

Alright.  I tend to talk about minimalistic dishes and several restaurants that focuses on purity.   It is usually difficult to relate such characteristics to a burger considering all the other elements that are usual slopped on to a burger including ketchups, mustards, salad and god knows what else.  But when you are presented with a patty, bun and cheese, it was hard to be distracted from the quality of each ingredient.   Here it simply worked.  No need for any special sauce.  No Shack Sauce, Big Mac Sauce or whatsoever Umami driving the sales of other joints.  Just plain old burger with whatever you might want to add after.  

A class act?  I definitely think so if.  And that is a BIG IF you enjoy the Spotted Pig's take on the classic cheese burger as this one is not for everybody.  Instead the Spotted Pig's famous Cheeseburger is likely to please people who enjoy cheese and burger rather than the cheeseburger one normally gets. as the Roquefort is not for everybody.  For me? Spotted Pig, damn you are good.  I loved every bit of this cheeseburger meal and would definitely come back if I ever made another trip to NYC.

The Spotted Pig on Urbanspoon