Uh Oh, Here Comes Trouble (aka the “Argo Tea First Look” Post)

What’s this … Argo Tea, open? Oh sweet mother of tea, I’m in trouble now.

Here I was, just last Tuesday drinking in oversized photos of such luscious tea beverages as Earl Grey Vanilla Crème and Tea Sangria (check out the menu here, and see the photo below) and wondering how long I’d have to wait.

In fact, I needed only wait until Friday — the pictures came down to reveal an airy, modern tea shop; smiling baristas chat with customers about the rewards program (it’s one of those accumulate points for free tea deals) and rave about the seasonal ValenTea Passion — an herbal blend of passion fruit and hibiscus flowers that’s being rationed out in 2 oz. samples — or, perhaps, one of the tea time appropriate finger sandwiches.

Long tubes of loose tea along the back wall look to be arranged by color, when in fact it’s a gradation of tea type: black teas fade into green teas, which fade into herbal and other exotic tea types.

Up close, they’re beautiful: Giant, dried balls of jasmine tea (a personal favorite); a Masala chai flecked with dried ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla; a genmaicha — green tea blended with roasted brown rice — that, blended with some steamed milk and a caramel flavor shot “tastes just like caramel corn,” promises a barista.

(FYI: The staff is perhaps overly friendly here by New York standards — but they are also full of useful information.)

Free sample alert: Tea Sangria on ice

“Hmm… Two free hours of wifi with tea purchase, you say?”

There’s a spot at that oversized communal table that’s got my name on it — the only problem I foresee is once the word’s out it’ll be hard to get a seat. On Day Two, which also happens to be an early Saturday evening, the table was already covered in laptops and newspapers.

Argo Tea may have taken its sweet time getting here — after opening 15 locations in Chicago, the brand has finally expanded to New York — but it looks like it’s settling in quickly.

Argo Tea, 949 Broadway, at 22nd Street, 646-755-7262. Additional locations opening at NYU and Columbus circle presently.

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Bay Scallop Carpaccio, Beer and Pretzel Caramels and Chicken-Fried Chicken Livers (aka the “Chelsea Hunt Recap” Post)

In the world of the BLD Project, dinner sometimes begins with a long, vacant stare into the fridge (cue lonely Western sounds).

Other times, dinner begins with a wintery, coat-encumbered embrace, at the conclusion of which a smiling bartender asks, “Would you like anything to drink?” … and hours suddenly disappear.

Then there are those nights when dinner is a hunt — a roving progression that is partially preconceived but inevitably involves detours, disappointments and discoveries. There is no nutritional rhyme or reason; a hunt is not for the faint of stomach. On this last one, in Chelsea, we killed it:

Target no. 1: Yancey Richardson Gallery. I was interviewing the (lovely) photographer, Alex Prager, for Art in America and needed to see these luminous beauties in person. Check.

Detour: En route to the next target, we were sidelined by Cookshop (cue screeching breaks) — it was the Nantucket Bay scallop carpaccio ($15) that captivated us.

As always, the chef was interested in the process — bay scallops are so small and delicate, to make a classic carpaccio would be intense. “I’ve got to see this,” he said. Mee tooo.

We were imagining something small but towering. Instead, the carpaccio was presented on a long, rectangular plate, rough-chopped pieces of the sweet bivalve accompanied by various dibbs and dabbs including grapefruit segments, diced black olives, shaved jalapeno slices, microgreens, radish, lime juice and olive oil.

The result was at once fresh, tart, sweet, but with a touch of heat; in short, delicious. More cerviche than carpaccio … letting that one slide.

“Shit. I think the market’s going to close.” We snapped out of the reverie of our perch at Cookshop’s bar. Back on task.

Target no. 2: Chelsea Market. In our sights, two of the market’s new tenants, Dickson Farmstand Meats, which locally sources its meat and butchers everything in house, and Lucy’s Whey, a cheese shop exclusively selling American artisanal cheeses.

As expected, both are excellent sources for first-quality, if pricey, delectables — Dickson’s entry-level meat, ground hamburger, goes for $7/lb., and many of Lucy’s cheeses have price tags upwards of $20/lb.

Discovery: That basket of simple, wax paper-wrapped caramels, beer and pretzel caramels ($1 ea.), from LiddAbit Sweets. To add the crunch and salt of a pretzel, and the hoppy-sweetness of beer, to that rich, caramel base? Brilliance.

Target no. 3: Tipsy Parson, for induction to the world of, yes, chicken-fried chicken livers ($12). (All in the name of research for amNewYork.)

I hear that liver is an acquired taste, and trying the dark, dense organ meat first alone, I can certify that I’m not there yet.

The liver is infinitely lightened when smeared onto a bit of the toasted rosemary bread and piling on the accompaniments — a sweet, green tomato relish, crispy fried batter bits, microgreens.

The cozy bar area — its shelves filled with tea sets, worn books and other bric-a-brac — invites lingering, and we did, over cocktails, the chicken fried chicken livers and the spread trio ($12) of pimento spread, black-eyed peas, ham salad and flakey, housemade crackers. It’s a bargain on the bar snacks menu … but then, I’m a sucker for finger food with some assembly required.

Whew. Getting tired or tipsy, probably both.

Target no. 4: Basis Foods. On the way to $2 PBRs — a 14th Street secret that’s not mine to reveal — we stopped to check on the progress of this new farm-to-market concept. Based on glimpses of a dark, entirely unfinished interior behind papered windows — this market’s got a ways to go yet. Check back in a few weeks.

Snack Food: Mini-Burger Cooked to Order? You Got It. (aka the “$3.25 Value” Post)

“Damn, this kicks the shit out of Pop Burger.”

That was my first impression of the delicious mini Chicago burger ($3.25) I snacked on recently at New York Burger Co. in the Flatiron, and I’m sticking to it.

I have major beef with Pop Burger, whose over-priced minis are premade, packaged in two-packs and sit there, cooling off and drying out.

Here, a cheat sheet on what New York Burger Co. does so right:

— All burgers here are made to order, meaning the meat doesn’t hit the grilltop until the order goes through.
— All burgers are cooked to the doneness of your preference, even the minis. It’s hard enough to monitor the doneness of a regular, 6 oz. or 8 oz. burger, which makes cooking the minis even more of an exact science.
— The mini Chicago burger had plenty of goodness on top — cherrywood smoked bacon, melted cheddar cheese and 1,000 island sauce, in addition to lettuce and tomato — but more basic burgers, and fries, benefit from your choice of playful toppings including  chili pepper ketchup, curry mango mustard and horseradish sauce.

Next time …

New York Burger Co., 303 Park Ave. S., btwn. 23rd and 24th streets, 212-254-2727

$9.99 Chicken Feast for Two (aka the “Dallas BBQ, What!” Post)

It was the vinyl tarp banner, flapping in the afternoon wind, that stopped us:

TWO FULL MEALS FOR $9.99
2 chicken vegetable soups, 2 rotisseried half chickens
served with cornbread and a choice of potatoes or yellow rice
(Avail Mon.-Thurs. until 11:30a-6p, Fri.-Sun. 11:30a-5p
)

What. The chef and I, we stood there, incredulous. Watched the banner flap some more. It’s hard enough to get a decent meal for two at counter-service or fast food restaurants in New York City, let alone at someplace with sit-down service.

Granted, we were standing in front of a Dallas BBQ, a mini-chain perhaps better known for its boobalicious ads, tacky-cheesy quotient and fishbowl-sized drinks than real Texas-style barbecue. (As a friend once pointed out, “You don’t have to point out that the barbecue’s from Texas to a Texan, we’ll know right away whether it is or not. That sign’s for the rest of y’all.”)

Really though, who am I to judge? I wouldn’t go so far to say that I’ve outright avoided Dallas BBQ in the past … but pretty damn close. That is, until today.

The verdict: The soup, pleasant enough, nice rich flavor to the broth. Big slice of carrot, a couple of tender shreds of chicken. The cornbread, a touch dry and mealy, in the just the way a basic cornbread should be. The fries, piping hot from the frier.

And the chicken? Frankly, it was superb.

Skin crisped and golden, the chicken literally falling off the bone, dribbles of juice running down my hands for the rest of the meal.

Writing this post is almost making me crave Dallas BBQ — that’s right, I said “crave” and “Dallas BBQ” in the same sentence — right now.

Maybe this time around I’ll go crazy and try one of those fishbowl drinks …

Dallas BBQ has several locations around New York City.
See www.dallasbbq.com for location information.

The Breslin’s English Breakfast Splurge (aka the “Must Add Pork Fat Beans!” Post)

For someone who can be so utterly particular about foods “touching” on her plate at this adult age — let’s just call it “a heightened sensitivity to plating” with dismissive hand wave (kidding!) — I should love, love, love The Breslin‘s full English breakfast ($21), which comes sans the traditional brekkie beans and, by extension, the tomato-y bean sauce that pools underneath everything.

I should love that there are no dry toast slices staring me down, begging me to sop up the mingling fatty-yolky-saucy drippings, right before I lick my fingers (possibly not kidding). The Breslin’s rendition is so clean it’s … a sensitive-to-plating foodie’s dream.

… Well except, this time, I sort of want the mess. I love the mess. How the first cut into an over-easy egg sends yellow yolk running into the bean sauce, which has by now commandeered the plate. And the fried tomato? Forget about it. Seeds and juice everywhere. Mmm, mmm, mmm.

By no means is this observation a slight toward the cooks, or the presentation. The execution of every component on this April Bloomfield gold-star dish is the picture of perfection: the browned casing of the breakfast sausage crackles with each bite; perfectly crisped (American-style) bacon; a grilled baby portobello, so succulent. The baked beans in pork fat, get outta here.

But for anyone who wants a truly sloppy English Breakfast, an already pricey meal goes over the top when you add a couple of slices of toast ($1.50/slice) and split a side of the (messy! soppy! delicious!) baked beans ($7). In sum, your English breakfast will cost you $27.50.

Or, I noticed, $2.50 more per person than it would cost to share the smoked pork belly with mashed potatoes at dinner, which is $50 and meant for two.

When I pointed this out to our waiter, he tried to justify the cost by (and I paraphrase): Well, sure, but to really round out the pork belly dinner, you’d probably start with an appetizer and you’d want to order a vegetable side, like the cabbage. And you’d want to balance it with something sparkly, like prosecco, which — did you know? — sparkling wines are the best to help you digest really fatty foods.

Damn that sounds like a gorgeous meal. Until then, you can find me in the bar, where I’ll be sipping on the house cask ale and nibbling on some bar snacks, which look scrumdiddlyumptious.

The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, 16 W. 29th Street, at Broadway, 212.679.1939

Thursday: Móle, Móle, Móle! (aka the “Margarita/Guacamole/Carnitas Nirvana” Post)

This is how I remember Mexican food: The margaritas are strong but balanced, easy on the sweet and sour; the guacamole fresh and vibrant, with a heat that sneaks up on you; the carnitas tender, glistening and … [insert guttural noises] excellent.

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Carnitas is my barometer. More precisely, the crispy carnitas as I remember it from Old Town Mexican Cafe in San Diego is my barometer: Pulls-apart-with-your-fork hunks o’ pork, browned and crispy on the edges, accompanied by a basket of hot, just-made tortillas (a couple of women make fresh tortillas all day long in a kitchen with large, street-facing windows), and a plate of simple, fresh, DIY taco fillings: sliced onion and tomato, avocado, fresh cilantro, lime wedges. (For photo, see here.)

When in doubt, just order the carnitas. And that’s exactly what I did at Móle, the utterly charming, seats 25ish Mexican restaurant in the Lower East Side that I’d previously blown off because of the sort of obtuse neon sign they’ve hung out front.

After a lovely, bubbly happy hour at the Living Room bar at The W Hotel in Union Square, after an all-star appetizer lineup of not one, but two orders of guacamole prepared tableside; an order of queso fundido, that molten, cheesey, chorizo-y, goodness, and an order of flame-grilled asparagus topped with melty sheaths of manchego cheese…

…I was stuck in an infinite loop of indecision. Do I order:

a.) The diver scallop tacos special. Hands-down the most intriguing item on the special board, I just couldn’t commit. Too many sketchy scallops have made me skittish about eating any that aren’t seriously vetted. (I’m sure I’ll come around again.)

b.) The fish tacos. My friend was looking to share an order of her favorite tacos — Baja-style battered-and-fried tilapia fillets, topped off with a creamy sauce and some serious lettuce plumage (they were beautiful). Yes, we had all consumed our fair share of guac, fundido, and more guac, and cheesy asparagus (not to mention tequilla) — but would it be enough? I couldn’t commit.

and c.) The conchinita pibil? The pollo en mole poblano? Camarones al mojo de ajo? One of the other, “fancier” items from the especialidades de la casa list that I ordinarily wouldn’t order, except that it was a special occasion? But which one? What if I got this fish Veracruz … and then realized that all I really wanted was …

“Um, I’ll have the carnitas plate, please. With corn tortillas.”
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