The Spotted Pig

I usually try to avoid restaurants with buzz or joints that once had buzz but now cater to the B&T crowd. But The Spotted Pig was just too tempting to pass by. And I am very, very happy that I gave in to the temptation. The place was a bit surprising-looking. I was expecting a more elegant space, but it looked like a typical neighborhood bar. And of course, that’s where we ate, at the bar. The tables, except for one booth (and, probably, the upstairs, which was closed for renovations), are all small and looked uncomfortable. But the bar…ah, the bar. We snagged the corner, so the three of us could chat and share bites (I was accused, fairly, of not sharing). The bartender was attentive, seemed to know the food, and mixed what looked like an excellent vodka & tonic. Unfortunately, we stuck to beer, so I was unable to verify my suspicions. Rest assured, I will remedy my ignorance as soon as possible. They have a few beers on tap, including two cask ales, one of which we tried, but we did not like it as much as the Brooklyn Brewery Local 1. They also offer a nice, albeit small, selection of bottled beers. But on to the food!

We started with some deviled eggs and chicken liver toast. The deviled eggs were very good, but how exciting can they be? The chicken livers are another story. Fantastic! The best! Even better than my grandmother’s chicken livers. They were incredibly rich, with a great texture — almost smooth, but with the barest hint of chunkiness. My only complaint is that the toast was not quite crispy. But I would order this dish again, and again.

Our main courses were tough to pick, and one of my fellow diners made a tactical error, which she realized immediately. A Cuban sandwich may be a good idea, and The Spotted Pig executed it well, but the dish can be had in thousands of places, and many of them will do a great job of it. To make up for this lapse in judgment, she also had “sheep’s ricotta gnudi with brown butter & sage.” I really have no idea what it was, other than an absolutely delicious concoction of cheese and butter stuffed into something that reminded me a bit of gnocchi. Whatever it was, order it. We also had a prosciutto and ricotta tart that was very good, but not exciting. I had an excellent cheeseburger with shoestring potatoes. It was perfectly cooked (and rather large), with a nice portion of Roquefort on top. The cheese was sharp and salty, and they didn’t overseason the burger, so the flavors meshed well. This was a quality job. I judge restaurants by a few things, one of which is the burger situation, and I heartily approve of The Spotted Pig’s.

This place is a keeper, although I have been told that it is a madhouse for dinner. So go, preferably for lunch, but be prepared to wait for dinner.

A Diner’s Bill Of Rights!

This is an article from the Los Angeles Times titled, “ Diners, stand up for your rights!that lists the 25 rights to which we are entitled as restaurant patrons. Apparently, the scene in Los Angeles is getting a bit arrogant on the part of the restaurants, and this is a great way to fight back. Some of them are a bit trivial, but some are just perfect. Number five and number nineteen are classics.

If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

Then you shouldn’t go to Fratelli Tratoria.

What to do on Saturday night with a thirteen year old in tow? Our old reliable Porter House was out of the question. Smoky bars and kids don’t mix. And when we called another local restaurant, Janice, we were told that it would be an hour and a half wait for a booth! Sorry, the food isn’t that good. Actually, I wouldn’t wait that long for any restaurant on the planet. To be fair, Janice is a nice bistro, with some well-made food, if you order carefully. My suggestions were quickly dismissed. Barbecue? Who would eat barbecue on Saturday night? I would, happily, and maybe even for breakfast on Sunday morning. But that was not to be. We weren’t out of choices however. How about a really crappy Italian restaurant that makes you feel like you are eating in a crowded, loud bar, but without the benefit of, you know, booze? And to make it just perfect? The service is really bad. Great choice! 

The last time we ate in this restaurant, the waiters started putting the chairs onto the tables around us as we were eating. Admittedly it was late, but it was before closing time, and we weren’t the only people in the place. So I knew what to expect, and I wasn’t disappointed. We were seated quickly, and the table was set correctly, and with clean linen. This was the highlight of the meal. Our waiter offered us sparkling or still water, and in our naiveté we said “still,” assuming that it wasn’t going to come out of an overpriced bottle of filtered municipal water. We were wrong. And when we told the waiter that all we wanted was tap water, he went off in a huff. We had to ask three times before we got what we wanted, and the last request was in my “I am leaving if I have to ask again” voice. In his defense, he was probably instructed by the boss to sell as much over-priced water as possible, if he wanted to keep his job.

Yes, yes, you say. So the service was awful. Most restaurants in America have awful service. But how was the food? My wife ordered Bruschetta. It was soggy, although the toppings were nice. I ordered Polenta al Funghi, which sounded pretty good; “mushrooms sautéed in white wine and herbs served over grilled polenta.” But in reality, the white-wine-and-herbs was canned gravy, and the mushrooms were…I have no idea what they were, but they didn’t taste much like any mushroom I have eaten. Although that might have been because the sauce was so salty my mouth dried out. The polenta wasn’t bad. It wasn’t grilled either. Oh, the Caesar salad? Resoundingly mediocre.

Shockingly, they partially redeemed themselves with a fairly good Margherita pizza. Nice crust, the sauce wasn’t too sweet, and the cheese didn’t overwhelm the rest of the ingredients. My ravioli Bolognese will be left to your imagination. However, I can say with complete confidence that they did not use Marcella Hazan’s recipe for Bolognese sauce. We also got a side of spaghetti with a plain tomato sauce that wasn’t awful, although it was better the next morning fried up with some prosciutto, parmesan cheese, and a couple of eggs.

This kind of food is not difficult to prepare. These are simple dishes, and executed well are wonderful to eat. But in the interest of maximizing profit, some restaurants will skimp and cheat and take the easy way out. Combined with indifferent (or, more accurately, bad) service, one would expect a brief life. But this is the ‘burbs, where any restaurant, no matter how bad, has a decent chance of survival, and in this case, success. But not with our money anymore.

Show Tunes And Good Food

This is the first of what I hope will be a regular event — a guest blogger! Please ignore the shot she takes at New Jersey…obviously, she has never had a fried hot dog!

One of the most difficult
decisions I have to make when going to the theater in
New York City is where to eat. Do we eat before the theater and
rush through dinner, or do we eat a ridiculously late dinner? Do we try a new,
trendy place certain to disappoint? Unfortunately, in the
Times Square area, the pickings are slim…unusual for a New York neighborhood. I suspect that is because Times Square caters predominantly to tourists and natives from
New Jersey who don’t know better. I have had many a mediocre
meal at crowded Italian, French, Japanese, and Chinese restaurants in the area.

This problem was solved
on Sunday when I discovered Tagine, which serves the best Moroccan food I’ve had
New York. With lots of friendly advice from the charming executive chef and co-owner,
Hamid, and his magnificent wife and co-owner, Toni, we were served an assortment of cold mezze (kale, eggplant and olive dishes), followed
by the sublime bastilla as appetizers. The bastilla was certainly the best I
have ever tried, made with pheasant (not pigeon.) Bastilla is a fillo pie
stuffed with stewed pheasant in saffron broth and glazed with almond and
cinnamon. As a main course, we shared a vegetable couscous stewed in chick pea
broth, lamb tagine with prunes and almonds, and chicken tagine with preserved
lemon and olives. And for dessert, we had a fruit platter, on the house.

The service was extremely
friendly, the Moroccan wine was excellent (believe it or not), and the ambience
was exactly how I imagine a traditional restaurant in
Fez. Even more wonderful, the bill was reasonable. I
understand belly dancing begins at
9:30 p.m., which my sons would have loved to watch but we
had to go home to finish homework. The kitchen at Tagine stays open until
2:00 a.m., but the bar serves until 4:00 a.m. on the weekends. The restaurant is located at 537 9th Avenue at 40th Street. Why
’t I found it before? Because, even though they request a listing each
year, they have never been listed in Zagats. This restaurant is a real sleeper — rustic and warm, with superb food.

Incidentally, when I
described my find to a friend, she said Sushi by Gari is also opening in the
Theater District.

Eating At The Bar; Why Is It So Much Fun?

My wife and I love to eat at the bar…any bar. Some of our most interesting meals have been at restaurants that have excellent bars, where the bartenders are more than happy to serve a meal, as well as a drink. And from a service perspective? I’ll take a good bartender as my waiter any day. I have received enough indifferent table service at supposedly good restaurants to realize that good service is a rare thing indeed. And most bartenders like to talk to people; why else would they be bartenders? Service is mostly about talking to your customers to find out what they want anyway. And the food will be the same as at a table in the restaurant, unless they have a special bar menu, which, in and of itself, is a good thing.

There is a certain intimacy when sitting side by side that lends itself to bar dining. Oh, if the bar is packed and you have to fight for elbow room, it isn’t as much fun, and definitely not as intimate, but the people-watching in a crowded bar is certainly great. And sitting side by side, sharing some interesting dish while drinking ice-cold martinis and watching (and listening to) the guy next to you try to pick up the bartender is always amusing. Knowing in advance that his chances are about as good as winning the lottery adds a certain sangue-froid to one’s appreciation of the carnage. But the food-sharing may be the best part of the experience. I love perusing the menu with my wife, discussing the interesting appetizers and negotiating which main course we will split. And speaking of the bartenders; my guess is that since food adds to the total bill, they are going to be interested in making the typical bar-diner happy. We’ve gotten interesting drink recommendations and countless tastes of wines when we weren’t sure what to order.

We have had great times at the bar at upscale restaurants such as Bar Americain (order the fries and the onion soup) and Otto in Manhattan and Aqua (the salmon steak is incredible) in San Francisco. But we also have enjoyed ourselves at neighborhood places such as Porter House (get the burger) in Montvale and Sabor (avocado mash and a mojito–perfect!) in Hawthorne, both in New Jersey!

So what’s the downside? Well, if you are part of a party of more than 2 or 3 people, it is impossible to have a pleasant communal conversation, so limit your party to 3, or ideally 2, and you will be very happy.

Momofuku Noodle Bar

Warning: I was tending two giggling thirteen year olds who think that the mall is cooler than Greenwich Village, so this was a meal that I was not able to enjoy at my leisure.

After the girls decided that there were no restaurants in the West Village worthy of their presence, I had a moment of inspiration and dragged them east to Momofuku, one of the better known noodle bars in New York. It’s easy to get to, and hard to find. No sign, just a small crowd outside the restaurant, patiently waiting for a seat at the bar. If you go, try to get a seat that allows you a view of the cooks. They are quite relaxed, almost lazy looking, but pump out an amazing quantity of food very quickly. I watched one cook, a cute young woman who seemed to be in charge of the heirloom grape tomato salad. As each order came, she would dress the tomatoes and then taste one to make sure that it was up to her standards. Then (and I loved this) she would chiffonade some shiso and decorate the top of the salad. She also tended the huge stock pot in the corner. And I mean huge! 60 gallons? 80 gallons? Oh, and she was an egg-poaching madwoman!

I had a half dozen Barron Point oysters garnished with some minced summer melon to start. I asked the waiter if melon went well with oyster, and his face lighted up in a big smile. He said that the sweetness of the melon cuts the briny-ness of the oysters. I asked for half with and half without, but since he was absolutely correct about the melon, I felt like a bit of a knucklehead. A weird but fantastic combination.

I moved on to the signature dish of the place, a bowl of Momofuku Ramen. If you are afraid of pork fat, do not try this dish. Big slices of Berkshire pork belly on one side, and shredded pork shoulder on the other. And I think I detected some smoke in that pork. In the middle? A lightly poached egg on top of a generous portion of nicely cooked ramen noodles. It was rounded off with some sweet peas and something that must be bamboo shoots but better. Maybe they were pickled, but whatever they were, they tasted great. There was some green onion in there too that added a nice texture. I am probably missing something, but I will definitely go back to check.

The girls had the chicken ramen, and that was very good as well, but I just couldn’t resist the pork fat. I had a Hitachino Classic Ale with the ramen, and was not impressed. Maybe the Japanese should stick to cooking and building cars, and leave the beer-making to others.

This is serious fast food. Excellent ingredients, well prepared and carefully and artfully presented. Even the waiter knew what he was doing. And fresh chiffonade for each salad? You can’t beat that!

Can The ‘Burbs Support Good Restaurants?

I live in a suburb of New York City that is known for its restaurants. Unfortunately its claim to fame is the number of places to eat, not the quality of the food available. Oh, there are interesting places to eat, but when I want a meal that includes good food, good service, an interesting setting and a martini or two I have to drive into New York City. Why can’t the suburbs support the kind of restaurant that satisfies these conditions? I had a short e-mail exchange with Tommy:eats, a blogger who has obviously spent some time thinking about, and lamenting this situation. I suggested that it may be the pressure to make 100% of the income on food, since liquor licenses are ridiculously expensive, if they can even get one. So each plate has to pay off; no teaser plates and break-even dishes just to get people to drink. He made the very good point that most of these restaurants also push high-end foods. “What kills me, for example, is that a restaurant could make more profit on pork belly and chicken thigh than they do loin and breast, but they choose to not.”

When I say “good,” I don’t mean Per Se or Le Bernardin or Peter Luger or Bouley. What I want is a restaurant that can produce an excellent meal, matched with a reasonable wine list, professional service and an attractive and comfortable physical setting. What this requires is a professional chef, a competent manager, and most of all an owner who is dedicated to his restaurant. I don’t particularly care why; if all he wants is a big pay check and has figured out that the best way to get one is to impress the hell out of his customers so they come back with their friends? Fine with me.

There is enough disposable income in my town and the surrounding area to support restaurants that satisfy these admittedly strict requirements. Why don’t these restaurants exist? Is it the tyranny of low expectations? Do we expect mediocrity? Or is our collective taste so crappy that we wouldn’t recognize good food if it fell in our laps?

Daddy O

Daddy O is a funky, trying-to-be-upscale hotel and restaurant in Brant Beach on Long Beach Island NJ. I really liked the bar, which was hopping at 6:00pm. It is large, rectangular shaped, with a nice steel top. The owners must be Yankees fans too (that is a plus); The flat-screen TV was tuned to the game. The bartenders move pretty fast to serve what seemed to be a hard-drinking crowd, with a mix of middle-aged folks like us, and a fair number of drinkers in their 20s. The bar menu is interesting, and it is clear that management encourages people to eat as well as drink at the bar.

The drinks are nicely sized and well made, and Happy Hour lasts until 7pm. The down side is the liberal use of the gun for mixers; they definitely don’t use fresh-squeezed lemon or lime juices for their drinks. I had hoped for a great margarita, but alas, it was not meant to be. But the martinis are nice and cold.

The owners made a good effort in trying to make the restaurant different, with art deco (I think. I am also not an art major) lamps, nice flatware and linen, and an interesting menu. The service was adequate; none of the waiters is taking the summer off from Per Se. But the food was the reason we were there. And they did not disappoint. The sesame crusted calamari was excellent, with just enough crunch but not over-fried. It was served with a nice sauce on the side; sort of a sweet and sour syrupy glop that was nevertheless pretty good. It had a bit of a bite from some chile peppers so it wasn’t cloyingly sweet. The Philly Cheese Steak was a very clever interpretation of a mostly boring sandwich. They used some short ribs that they shredded and placed on a triangle of non-descript toast. But they topped it with a very interesting goat cheese sauce that went surprisingly well with the rich short rib meat. Excellent!

We also had a mediocre Caesar Salad (mine is much better!), and an excellent chopped salad with some smoky bacon and blue cheese. Very nice. One of the specials was a black bean and corn soup that was well made and very pleasant, even on a hot summer evening.

The crab cakes were a cut above the typical bread crumb and egg filled standby. I actually saw some chunks of crab! But the winner was definitely the burger. The waitress said that they made it with Kobe beef, which I do not believe. But it doesn’t matter if they made it with cat meat, it was juicy and beefy, with a well chosen accompaniment of applewood smoked bacon and cheddar cheese. It was topped with a couple of mediocre onion rings that I ignored after tasting the perfectly cooked fries that came with the burger. I am not sure which was better, the burger or the fries, and that is a dilemma that I really enjoy.

The wine list was quite overpriced. I find it irritating to the point of offense when I see on a wine list bottles that are priced at 3-4 times retail. Am I the only one who thinks that if restaurants price their wines fairly they will sell more of them?