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Thursday, July 31, 2014

NYC: Modern American @ The Gramercy Tavern, Flatiron District

8 days, a whole lot of food, sightseeing and talking with strangers.  The last stop of my trip after a grabbing a quick slice at Artichoke Bassile’s was at the 1 Michelin Star gastropub, The Gramercy Tavern.  Unlike my previous dinner place at Marea, the dining scene at the Gramercy Tavern is more casual and relaxed as opposed to formal.  Most people will tell you that but do not be too complacent as the $58 dollar Seasonal Lunch Tasting Menu is a favourite among the business community.  Additionally, do no expect any productive conversations as the interior of wood and concrete walls provides little to dampen the noise from a crowded floor.

Before deciding on what to eat I ordered a lemonade.  Kids drink but a winner in Vitamin C.  The lemonade came proper with a small bottle of syrup which allows you to adjust the sweetness to your liking.  I liked how the lemonade was all about you rather than the kitchen because I preferred mine more sour than sweet and that is exactly how I had it :)!

It did not take long after the bread course for my Amuse Bouche to reach.  No mention of the bread at Marea or the Gramercy Tavern because the best bread still hails from either Le Atelier de Joel Robuchon, HK or Tetsuya’s, Sydney. The Amuse Bouche was a complimentary salad filled with the little pleasures of life.  Little chunks of lobsters, sweet grapes halves, crispy croutons, and fresh bean.  All of which were tossed in a vinaigrette.
Amuse Bouche; Lobster, Grapes, Croutons, Pole Bean

The first course was another salad which tasted more like a continuation of the Amuse Bouche rather than a course itself.  In the salad were the vegetables of summer.  Crisp, refreshing and tasty.  This is what makes vegan stay vegans and carnivores refuse to eat vegetables.  Contradictory?  No.   The salad was good but not life changing enough to make people become a convert.
Cucumber Salad; Carrots, Leeks and Meyer Lemon

Another serve of “salad" graced the menu again.  This time, in the form of luxury.  Lobster and eggs with pieces of little pickled ramps.  Sweet lobsters paired with a balanced egg salad.  Not to sweet, or overladen with mayonnaise and neither was it boringly bland.  Lobsters from my experience over the week seem to be a trademark seafood during summer.  Clearly enough, the freshness of the crustacean was intact at the tavern and maximised by its minimalistic preparation.  Poached.
Lobster Salad;  Pole Bean, Pickled Ramps, Egg Salad

Next came my favourite course of the day, a course of fish.  I dislike fish that are stinky and tend to avoid fish wherever I go, but never when it is in the hands of a capable chef.  I have read on other blogs before that the Chef at the Gramercy Tavern cooked at a bistro in Japan prior to coming here.    This dish made it obvious.  Perfectly cooked fish, in a clear mushroom consomm√© with a sprinkling of green garlic infused oil.  The focus on the fish in this dish showed clarity in the chef’s approach.  Everything was about serenading the fish and it was done well.
Halibut; Kale, Green Garlic, Mushroom Broth

A serve of duck changed the course from white to red meat.  How well was the duck cooked?  The picture says it all.  How good did it taste?  The picture says nothing.  I think for a gamey bird like duck, you need a little more flavour to eat.  That does not mean serving it laden with an overbearing sauces but definitely a little bit more than what Gramercy Tavern put on the plate that day.  Coming in here,  I was expected the red meat to be served a little like the beef Rossini at Sage, KL.  This was OK but not something I would applaud for unconditionally.
Roasted Duck; Radish, Almonds, Wheat Berries

After a refreshing palate cleanser of berry foam and orange custard, came the dessert.  I like my dessert to be sweet but mildly sweet.  A fruity-sweet dessert is more welcomed any day than a sugary sweet one. Not a big fan of meringue.  But when something comes out with lots of fragrance but almost 0 sweetness, mannnn it was hard to down.  Sorry the Gramercy Tavern, this has had to be the most try-hard dessert I have ever eaten.  The beauty of it though were all the layers of texture from the smooth Panna Cotta, to the crumbly apricot pieces to the tapioca pudding.  But perhaps 1 or 2 ingredients less.  All I needed was a Apricot Panna Cotta with more sweetness in it and just 1 other element to finish.  
Apricot Panna Cotta; Tapioca Pudding, Coconut, Thyme

Thankfully the creations of the little oven were pretty decadent.  Macarons were good, nougat were OK and the chocolate was spot on.

A sub-$60 dollar meal which consisted of +/- 8 courses depending on what you call a “course” means WenY should just shut up.  But no way.  The food here was superb in some sense but where it was close to excelling, it did not.  Have you heard Lily Allen’s “Not Fair”?   Close enough.  But where the Gramercy Tavern did well, it really worked.  Lobster & Egg salad?  Win.  Halibut in Mushroom Consomm√©?  Win.  Then the average Joe’s which were the two starting salads and the duck.  The Hitler of them all?  The Panna Cotta.  So close to conquering the world yet so far.   Progressive dining places like Marea, Tori Shin, Robuchon, and Sepia got better as the course progressed.  But my journey here was like a trekking adventure.  Ups and downs of different peaks but a thrilling one nonetheless.

Gramercy Tavern on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

NYC: Mixed Platter and Rice @ The Halal Guys, Mid Town.

Good food does not always have to come with a large price tag.  Hidden amongst the ritz and glitz of the Manhattan borough is a story about a food cart phenomenon.  Started by a Egyptian migrant in 1992 who belittled the boring hot dog stands, he started a stall serving halal Egyptian fare on the streets.  Hence the name, the Halal Guys.  His first stall  located between the 53rd Street and 6th Avenue opposite Hilton Hotel still serves up generous portions of meat (chicken or lamb) on rice and flat bread topped with delicious lashings of yoghurt based sauce.  Since then, he has inspired many imitations but none is a good according to biased fans.   
The original store operates between 7pm-4am, 7 days a week(apparently).  When I was there at 10pm, there was a long queue which cleared very quickly but be mindful of the service which deteriorates significantly between busy and calmer nights.

During my stay I could not help but come here twice for a quick takeaway that was surely to satisfy.  My choice here would be the mix platter as it gets you the best of both worlds.  For $6 with no tax/tips, you get a serve of nuclear red rice topped with tender pulled chicken and superbly flavoursome lamb mince as well as a serve of bread and  chopped lettuce.  Once you get your food, move out of the way and start pouring the sauce you like.  First up is a white sauce that resembles a creamy-tasty yoghurt-like sauce.  Then comes the party crasher, a bottle of barbecue sauce.  That was lame.  In the last bottle was a fiery chill sauce that I guarantee will have you tear and shit lava.  Not joke lol. My preferred mix would be a 5 portion of white sauce to 1 red sauce.  It was just right for my Malaysian taste buds.

Nuclear red rice @@!  Not sure what was in it but the right was tasty just by itself!
I really do not think there is much to say.  I would like to call it a Briyani but in no way did this famous rice platter have the same spices like a Briyani.  Yet, it was still every bit tasty.  At the Halal Guys, the food skips all the complexities and dives straight into the comfort food category.  Carbs, meat and delicious sauces.  After two meals here, I was completely satisfied.  Surely this had no Michelin grades or professional recognition.  But to establish a culture that sir, is a class act.  With up to 3 carts and an intent to take the States by storm with a chain-like store, the Halal Guys will not disappoint.   From the hundred dollar meals to the penny pinchers I had in NYC, the Halal Guys will always be something to remember.  No it is no molecular gastronomy but rather a simple pleasure.  Spending 8 days in this big city was definitely insufficient to enjoy all the goodies the city had to offer.  But if you are filled to the brim but still want a midnight supper to conclude, the Halal Guys will be there waiting.

The Halal Guys on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 28, 2014

NYC: Yakitori @ Tori Shin, Upper East Side

Recommended by friends and seconded by the sushi masters at Sushi Azabu,  Tori Shin the one-Michelin star Yakitoriya in the bustling Manhattan became host to my dinner on a rainy night.   Equipped with a charcoal grill fuelled by imported oak-tree charcoal, Tori Shin remains true to the Yakitori practice.  In here, be prepared for a predominantly chicken based menu which the chefs lovingly hand-grill each and every skewer.   I can already imagine people frowning at the word “chicken” but how can I blame you after having so many bad experiences myself.   Chicken is a common protein which means many people tend to abuse the convenience of it.  But after a long time comes something special like Tori Shin.
A moment at Tori Shin with Head Chef and Manager, Atsushi Kono.
As per usual, when at a restaurant like this I decided to go with the Omakase.  After all, if you are a newcomer and want to know what to eat, why not try the best the restaurant has to offer?
Pickled cucumber and radish

The first course of the night was a seasonal course of prawns, mozzarella, bean mix and a tomato like chutney.  It was nowhere near the conventional Japanese I was expecting, yet every bit was more-ish.  Fresh, and appetising with an intention to make one feel like eating more.  Reminds me a little of the pickled vermicelli at Kanta!

Then came the grilled Leba, or Chicken Liver.  Perfectly charred on the outside, creamy on the inside.  Imagine Foie Gras like consistency in the middle serenaded by a woody smokiness.  At the very last piece I added the recommended lemongrass salt which really elevated the flavours beyond the norm.
If you do not do organs, the salt will help a lot! A small bowl of grated radish with a drizzling of soy. The palate cleanser.
Harami, chicken ribs.
Nankotsu, cartilage. Not a big fan of this as it is something I discard from my chicken every single time.  To some though, it is a delicacy.  A true example of the idiom "one man's rubbish is another man's treasure".

Pork Belly with Garlic Miso. Need I say more? Lovely crust on the pork with a garlicky miso to pair. Sweet!
Shiitake. I always knew this little fungus was magical beyond the large red toadstool in children storybooks.  Juicy, earth and with a drizzling of lemon, simple but yummy.
Onions.  You might think I am getting scammed at this point. Michelin dollar for chicken portions that no one really eats, shrooms and now onions.  Do not be fooled.  Even the Koreans put this little lovely herb on their barbecue.  When slowly charred over charcoal, these little beauties caramelises and becomes amazingly sweet.
Soriresu, or chicken oyster.  The most tender part of the chicken.  Juicier than the tenderloin or the thigh, inexperience chefs often discard this section with the carcass after carving the chicken.  At Tori Shin, a crisp and salty skin cover hide a tender chicken pieces that is simply juicy. Mind bogglingly good.
Thigh meat with yuzukosho.

Duck with asparagus.  Thinly sliced duck flesh could easily be mistaken by a high grade beef cooked to perfection.  But its mild gaminess was the giveaway.

The next summer dish.  A dish consisting of marinated diced tomatoes.  Felt like a Japanese bruschetta but with a much cleaner, and crisp finish.  Refreshing :)

Breast meat with Yuan Sauce & Moromiso & Shiso.  A chef specialty and favourite.  Tender chicken pieces marinated in a trio of soy, sake and mirin before being grilled on a skewer.  Topped with sliced shiso and Moromiso.  An explosion of flavours.  The chicken itself had layer of saltiness, sweetness and fragrance from the marinade.  Topped with miso and shiso it was a very nice bite!

Special meatball which consisted of two different mince; chicken and duck.  This was my request for my final piece.  It was simply wow.  Tender and juicy on the inside with rich flavours from the countless basting done.   Nom nom nom!
The last course was a rice dish.  My choice was the Oyako-don.  Chicken, eggs, scallion, onions and rice.  Whilst I found the over marinate was a little under and could do with more mirin/soy, I was absolutely pleased with the silkiness of the egg.  It was just so more-ish.  I added my own soy and made the dish a little saltier and was super happy.  After finishing, I had a bowl of chicken broth to wash it all down.  This definitely had my approval.  Good stuff!

The dessert was a Shiso sorbet.  Could not have had anything more refreshing to end the night with.   This leaf has a beautiful sweetness and fragrant to it.   Never knew it could be turned into something sweet as my meals on Seoul and now the States had taught me that Shiso was frequently used in savoury dishes.  To see it used as a dessert, was an eye opener.

Everyone has a different experience when it comes to eating.  One thing for sure is that the balance between good or bad never comes close.  For every exceptional restaurant come 3 or 4 bad experiences whilst most sit in the middle.   Then we have grilled chicken. Talk dry, sometimes undercooked flesh with the outer bit charred. God must be a very busy man listening to the number of complains from below.  But when done right, it become an impressionist.  A subject so capable almost like an art movement.  Tori Shin does exactly that.  Food is after all art no?  The one good Tori Shin does at this exclusive yakitoriya might be enough to make all wrongs done by other chef become right.  Faith in grilled chicken restored?  100%.  The good dinner tonight goes beyond the 1 star rating under the Michelin system.  Tori Shin has  got to be one of the most underrated restaurants in town!

Tori Shin on Urbanspoon