Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Branzino Restorante Italiano (Philadelphia) 01/2011

There is a cluster of Italian restaurants within a small block or two of this area (17th St. between Locust and Spruce Street). and they were very full even at 9.30 pm on this Saturday, in the middle of restaurant week (RW). Described as fine dining and heaped with praise by a lot of patrons, we had mixed feelings. On the down side it is very crowded, very noisy, there is one unisex toilet downstairs, for which it was often hard to get a seat (no reservations just queue up) and the food was patchy. On the plus side it was extremely friendly, service was well paced, inexpensive, it was RW, with a reasonable menu and it's BYO wine with no corkage fee. An amateurish mural of a Mediterranean seaside scene overlooks diners.

We started with cultured Prince Edward mussels simmered in a garlic tomato sauce. The sauce was rather acidic but it hardly mattered as the mussels, although small, were full bodied and tasted fine. A second appetizer, grilled calamari,
was gently seasoned with a light balsamic and vinaigrette dressing, and remarkably tender. A main course of mushroom risotto was a coarse dish, the rice much too dry and over salted for my taste. Green and white fettucine sauteed with crab meat, shrimp, cherry tomato sun dried tomato, white wine and garlic
had too much in it for the crab to be properly appreciated. There was plenty of it but it just got lost in the strong flavours of the other ingredients. A badly conceived dish. The pasta itself was excellent. Two desserts were also very good. A light Cheese cake
and a fine chocolate mousse cake finished quite a good meal but there is nothing Italian about that!.
Score 13.25/20


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Meritage (Philadelphia) 01/2011

Meritage has a special meaning in America. It is a combination term, merit and heritage, applied to small productions of blended wines in which no grape dominates to the degree that it can appear in the name. It also has to be the best wine that the vineyard can produce. I cannot see the connection to this restaurant except that they are both excellent.
This is restaurant week in Philadelphia. About 85 of their best restaurants are offering a $35 three course dinner, or $20 three course lunch, daily, except Saturday. (Taxes and gratuities not included). On the recommendation of the maitre de at Prime Grill we booked at Meritage without any great expectations. Oh boy were we surprised. Chef Anne Coll cut her teeth at Le Bec Fin and then worked for some years at Sussana Foo where she learned to subtly combine Asian flavours with French cuisine. The menu was interesting although a couple of dishes were no longer available when we were seated at 8.45 pm. For the record here it is:

Red Wine Braised Esgargot with Garlic Potato Puree

and crispy brussel sprouts

Eberly farms chicken liver pate with fig chutney and pickled vegetables

Heirloom butternut squash soup

Pan fried Hudson valley foie gras dumplings

Pickled beets, herbed goat cheese mousse, toast, petite salad

Pei mussels with kaffir lime curry sauce

Second Course

Pan Seared Skate curried cauliflower and apple purée, wilted spinach

and Meyer lemon emulsion

Tea Smoked Pork Tenderloin with sweet potato pudding and confit cabbage, apple chutney

Seafood fricassee with coconut curry sauce and rice vermicelli

Grilled hangar steak with parsnip purée and roasted Brussels sprouts

Steamed lentil sticky rice, truffle espuma, smoked tomato chutney, and maitake mushrooms

Third Course

Coconut panna cotta with tropical fruits

Chocolate torte with raspberry sorbet and Swiss meringue

Chocolate peanut butter bombe, currant jelly sauce

Mango sorbet

They had some extras on the regular menu which Sandra elected to have. An appetizer, a quite substantial bowl of paparadelles
in a slightly sweet cream with lots of mushrooms and some beef was very unusual. The pasta was a perfect texture and strangely,the whole dish blended well with the sweetness. She also chose a grilled wild barramundi
which was served on a potato pancake and spinach. No skimping here on another very good dish.
My appetizer of Escargo
were very much more interesting than than rather mundane garlic butter sauce in which they are normally served. They were on a bed of creamy garlic pureed potato with oyster mushrooms and crisp brussel sprout leaves. The high standard was maintained with the stuffed pork tenderloinwith oyster mushrooms and a superb apple and cabbage chutney and a few crisp Brussel sprout leaves.
I had to have the chocolate peanut butter bombe
which was very very rich and had all expected tastes with a perfect soft meringue as well as the currant jelly sauce. You would not get a finer panacotta in Italy than Sandra had.It sat on a creamy sago and was accompanied by a mango ice cream and small pieces of fruit, including pomegranite seeds which modified the sweet tastes.
The restaurant is pleasantly furnished, occupying three rooms with bar seating for about a dozen in the first room. Tables are a good size.
It was very busy and a bit noisy until about 9.30 but the food was worth a lot more noise than that!
Score: 16.5/20

Friday, January 21, 2011

Prune (Manhattan) 01/2011

Ever since Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune, came to Melbourne, to speak about future food trends, I have been wanting to visit her restaurant. It is noted for the wide ranging and unusual products used and their creative modern American dishes. Last year I found the one hour wait too long and gave up but I made it last Monday. It was Martin Luther King Day so they were not serving their regular menu but a brunch which had a large concentration of egg dishes, breakfast dishes and a considerable cocktail menu, an odd combination. Things I had been looking forward to like sauteed chicken hearts with flagelot beans, or skate wing, were not available.
Not really wanting anything on the menu, and being alone, I settled for the $25 "Lower East Side Appetizing".

This consisted of a platter of smoked salmon, sturgeon, cable fish, a small smoked mackerel, onion, tomato with Russ & Daughters assorted breads and garnishes.
This simple dish was really good but hardly gave me a fair view of what the restaurant could do.
It's a sardine can joint in a down market area in the Lower East side. The decor is basic, walls are wood, painted a rough yellow to about a metre and then plaster.

A bar takes up about a quarter of the room. From the outside it looks like this,
with the bar on the right.
Definitely a place for patient foodies.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Amaranth (Manhattan) 01/2011

An historical note, from Wikipidea: (You can go to Wikipedia for the links)

"It (Amaranth) was a staple food of the Aztecs, and was used as an integral part of Aztec religious ceremonies. The cultivation of amaranth was banned by the conquistadores upon their conquest of the Aztec nation. Because the plant has continued to grow as a weed since that time its genetic base has been largely maintained."

Occupying some of the most expensive real estate in Manhattan at 21 E 62nd St. it astonished me to see a neon sign, on the first floor above this restaurant, advertising an Astrologer!
Always full it gets very noisy by about 9.00 p.m. with patrons sitting cheek by jowl with those at neighbouring tables. Essentially Italian the menu offers reasonable variety. I started with a split pea soup while Sandra pursued her interest in French onion soup. There is an immense variety in this soup and this was one of the best. Several salads were available which looked like attractive appetisers but I did not taste them,

including an endive salad with Roquefort cheese.
For mains we had Maine lobster on risotto.
Shown here in slightly greater detail.
The risotto was magnificent, creamy, the rice not too soft nor too el dente with a gentle fine blend of tastes, a touch of garlic, a touch of tomato and cooked in a fabulous broth. Unfortunately the lobster was fibrous, I think because it was overcooked, and there was not much of it. A giant shrimp curry, we would call them prawns in Australia,
was handled more delicately, the prawns not overcooked and the light curry fitting well with them. A tart tatin was actually a stewed apple cake with no resemblance to the dish it was named after.
Subtracting the cost of a bottle of Champagne left us with a quite modest bill for the food.
No pretensions just good food
Score: 13.75

Aldea (Manhattan) 01/2011

The winter tasting menu here started, as most of them do, with an amuse bouche, which was beautifully presented.
The chef asked me not to use flash so pic's are not too good. The first course, fingerling potato soup with Santa Barbera sea urchin and black truffle
worked extremely well. Sea urchin, which can be overwhelming, was gently blended with the other tastes of the soup. Baby calamari 'a la Planche, market spaghetti, squash,shell fish jus, squid ink took longer to type than to eat. It was a small delight.
Another delicate dish but only about a quarter as much as I would have liked, Diver scallop
was also beautifully presented and prepared, resting on a stew of razor clams, leeks, fennel and saffron. Again this would be OK as part of a 10 course meal but was a meager serve on this five course degustation. The last main was only slightly larger. A duck confit, chorizo, olive and duck crackling.
Seasoning, which can easily ruin this dish, was very subtle with no dominating taste. A pre dessert palate cleanser
preceded the dessert which was a banana custard brulee with caramelized rice, lemon, chicory ice cream. At a time when a lot of chefs are using coffee and coffee beans for flavour, which I don't like in food, I see little reason for using chicory, which replaced real coffee at times of scarcity.
This was a very interesting meal, supposedly Portuguese influenced. Service was pleasant, except for the chef who seemed unbothered when another patron took multiple photo's, with flash.
The place is quite small and innocuously furnished with a small bar at the far end in front of an open kitchen.
Whilst the food was good it was too expensive at $85/ head before wine, taxes and gratuity. Well over a $100 with all that.
Score 13.75/20

Jo Jo (Manhattan) 01/2011

Tourists are unlikely to find this little restaurant unless they are following the footsteps of Jean-George Vongerichten. This is one of about 10 restaurants, including Jean Georges, in New York and other countries, under the wing of this celebrity entrepreneur chef. Of course he was not there but the food was very good.
Starting with an amuse bouche, a small cup of soup

with a little foam on top. Slightly odd when the first course on their set menu was a soup.
For once we ate a la carte. I started with a Peekytoe crabmeat appetizer
which was delicate, tasty and very good. Served with mango and cumin crackers, handled with a light touch it was a superior dish. Whilst Sandra chose a three cheese ravioli,
which was also very nice. This is a good choice any time but certainly not 'to die for'.
We both had lobster on a lemon and Thai risotto. Another very good dish with plenty of lobster and an excellent risotto.
We had to try the pavlova whichturned out to be a very firm meringue, covered in passion fruit,
with a sour passion fruit ice cream in it's centre.
Not a patch on the pav's we get in Australia.
We would have to rate this as a very good, modestly priced, suburban restaurant. It was reasonably quiet with friendly and pleasing service. With a bottle of wine, taxes and tips it ran around $100 per person.
Score: 14/20

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

11 Madison (Manhattan) 01/2011

The menu at 11 Madison is curiously obscure. It lists only main ingredients, set out on a page something like this.





Patrons choose either four courses and waiters will discuss the way the dish might be prepared, or the chefs tasting menu in which case accounting for allergies and particular dislikes you are in the hands of the chef. We took the tasting menu which turned out to be about 15 courses. The restaurant occupies a very large art deco room with the ceiling at least 20 feet high. There are about two waiters for every three patrons and, because there are so many small serves, they are constantly hurrying to the kitchen and back, laying cutlery, delivering food and removing used plates and cutlery. Presentation of most courses is very simple, often set out on small rectangular blocks. Our first course was an amuse bouche of small, hard, not very light or tasty gougère,
followed by a second amuse bouche, a cheese lollipop. Cute but again nothing special.
Next we had a rich, slightly lemon flavoured very rich cup of seafood veloute
with a tasty finger of seafood flavoured toast. A very delicate small cube of beetroot flavoured marshmallow
preceded a complex combination of pate, truffle and a memory defeating list of other ingredients. I can say it was a lovely dish. The most striking dish, a foam filled egg shell and an oyster in a lemony dressing was next.
The constant lemon flavours were beginning to get a little boring. There were several breads to choose from and two different butters, one a normal butter the othe a truffle butter. A fennel flavoured soup with a good serve of lightly cooked langoustine was a fine combination. Next we had a slab of duck foie gras
which was served with a slice of toasted olive bread.
Relief from these very rich dishes arrived in the form of roasted vegetables with some crunchy topping. Lightly cooked they were pleasant but again quite ordinary.
It was all in the presentation and the spiel. John Dory was particularly disappointing.
It was a very small piece of fish seriously overcooked, quite dry and hard, although the smear of parsnip puree was nice. The last 'main' course, if you could call it that, was a small piece of lamb loin.
Again a very ordinary, rather small serve. A lemon flavoured pre dessert served on a pillow of porcelain was another eye catcher but too much lemon.The next desert was an unusual flavoured ice cream sprinkled with coconut before a series of small tasty sweets.

Unfortunately the chef's menu is a series of individual dishes of varying quality from lovely to awful. It is very unbalanced as a meal and suffers from a concentration on sour and lemon tastes in the seasoning of the dishes. On top of that it is very expensive.
The restaurant is next to Madison Park but really has no view outside. The interior is quite modest art deco with a nice flower arrangement in the middle of the room.
Score 15/20