Dinner: Pizza Party for One (What a Great Day!)

photo-3Pizza and rosé. Such a perfect finis to a really excellent day.

While I’ve had my eye on this exact meal for some days now, I had no idea that I’d arrive here like this: Sticky and grimy, the bottle of rosé slapping at my side in my purse, my personal-sized pizza box hot to touch and deliciously fragrant, one hand steadying the box on top of the seat of my new bike, the bike being a vintage, magenta-colored, 5-speed Schwinn, body style “Caliente” (literally translated: hot!) found on Craigslist hours ago. Oh and did I mention that Caliente and I made a trip to see some friends in Queens (okay, just Long Island City) on the way inaugural voyage home?

photo-2photo-1 I didn’t have much hopes for this personal-sized pepperoni pizza that’d been sitting in the display of La Mia Pizza, a local pizza shop that I’d not yet tried, but by the time I got to the Upper East Side I didn’t really care. Feed me.

But I’ll tell you what: I don’t know whether it’s the uber-excitement about my new bike, the stellar rosé or actually the pizza, which is thin-crust, crispy, oozy in all the right places, or a little of all of the above … but right now, it’s pretty damn delicious.

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Sunday: Manhattan Circumference Scouting Trip (aka the Epic Bike Ride)

On Sunday, I biked the circumference of Manhattan. Clocking in at almost 35 miles, (including a few errant detours), I wouldn’t exactly call this an eating-centric ride, although we did make some great pit stops.

photo-9What it was, was: Part adventure, part fitness challenge, part remedy to summer island fever — if we didn’t get off the island literally, at least we were in parts we’d never seen before — and a really amazing day.

Our route: We began on the West Side bike path at about Christopher Street, 10:45 a.m. We headed in a counter-clockwise direction for one reason: Oh how sweet it is for the last fifth of the ride to just cruise down that long, curving bike path that runs along the West Side of the island, from nearly 200th Street all the way home. Nearly a straight  shot (no more lumpy island bell curves adding mileage), the sun on your face, virtually flat track. It’s the only way to finish.

On the topic of lumpy island bell curves … the bottom bit is full of them. I thought it outrageous when it was proposed that our first stop would be above 40th Street on the East Side but, in fact, it makes so much sense. Power through, and do it. Slog through that bottom part and take a snack/juice/coffee break once you’re clear of it. There’s still a whole lot of island left.

photophoto-1 Pit Stop no. 1: Orchard House Cafe, E. 58th Street at Fifth First Avenue. What a little gem! I’ve walked within two blocks of here, but had never seen it before. As we rode by, I literally slammed on the breaks — we have to stop here.

It’s a total neighborhood spot: Light meals, coffee stop by day, in the evening it kicks up a notch with wine and miscellaneous entertainment. The food isn’t exactly gourmet, but they bring in from decent sources. My angel food cake “muffin” with a drizzle of lemon frosting on top was so light and fluffy, almost efferescent — the perfect alternative for anyone who is not into hard, dense muffins.

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Pit Stop no. 2: Indian Road Market & Cafe, 218th Street at Indian Road. Indian Road is, essentially, the northern-most road on the island. (There’s a park on top of that that is technically closer to the proverbial tip, but this is the last establishment.)

I love this place! Inside, it’s a coffee shop/specialty market on one side — really great refridgerated case of craft beers — and a proper sit-down restaurant and bar on the other. On weekends, a live pianist gives the place a real sense of class. The staff are delightful.

In the park across the road, we shared a lovely but simple salad spruced up with a side of breakfast sausage (perk of brunch menu). and a couple of bottles of GUS Extra Dry Ginger Ale — so fizzy and refreshing.

photo-8photo-6 Pit Stop no. 3: Dinosaur Bar-B-Cue, W. 131st Street at Riverside Drive. With only about 130 blocks left to go, it was time to celebrate. A giant plate of some of the most giant chicken wings in the city and a bucket of El Presidente beers (6) did the trick — a small meal by Dinosaur Bar-B-Cue standards, but oh so satisfying nonetheless. Powered by beer and wings, we were on cruise mode the rest of the way home.

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Dinner: Serious Goodness Overload (aka the OMG Flex Mussels Post)

Note: I missed lunch, due to interviews and general hectic-ness, which is how I wound up eating dinner at 6 p.m. As you’ll see, it worked out in the end …

photoNow this is is a concept restaurant that works. To quote the header on Flex Mussels‘ mussels menu: “mussels, mussels, mussels.” By the pound, served 23 different ways.

Doesn’t matter if you order the classic (white wine, herbs, garlic), the exotic (Gisha Girl: sake, green onions, pickled ginger, garlic, bird’s eye peppers) or the decadent (bisque: lobster, brandy, tomato, garlic, cream) — none of them will set you back more than a $20 spot.

I had the Maine (lobster, smoked bacon, corn, white chowder, parsley), and it took me a while, but by the time I got down to the broth (stage 3), I just wanted to tip the pot to my lips and slurp the rest down. I didn’t.

photo-1I was here really early (6 o’clock) — which worked out really well as this place gets just slammed after about 7p-7:30p nightly — and also sort of last moment, which is only minorly unfortunate because, while this pot of mussels could have fed two of us (slurping mandated), what ended up happening was that I overate (just a tad), and, alas, I had to let the bulk of the broth be whisked away back into the kitchen.

photo-2photo-5What else? There is a number of other seafood options, including a raw bar, “snacky seafood” items such as crab cakes, a lobster roll and fish & chips, as well as a few other fish options. But clearly, if you’re going to believe the staff, who are all wearing bad mussel-pun t-shirts like “Flexual Healing” and “Mussel Top” (and I do), Flex Mussels is all about the mussels.

NOTE: Also to try, the half-dozen beers by Unibroue brewery out of Quebec are really excellent. I paired the ‘Maudite’ with the Maine-style mussels, and it was perfect. As are (allegedly) the doughnuts.

Breakfast: Living Vicariously Through Granola (aka “The Expedition Granola Mix” Post)

Diving deeper into the many wonderous food offerings at Agata & Valentina: The latest discovery, Expedition Granola Mix ($5.99, 10 oz.).

photoExploratory metaphors aside,  this is some serious granola. It begins with clusters of rolled oats, bound together by a sweet cinnamon-y coating — the exact kind of clusters that are coveted (and sparse) in boxed, supermarket cereals like Honey Bunches of Oats. Whole walnuts and almonds get the same treatment, which results in a candied crunch to the nuts, which is a real treat.

… which doesn’t mean that this granola shouldn’t be taken seriously as a breakfast option — or as a snack option, either. All the ingredients are natural, no additives, and essentially you’re getting whole oats, nuts (an excellent source of protein) and dried fruit (dried tart cherries, crasins and rasins, and coconut flakes).

Might have something to do with the name, but this granola immediately inspired visions of walking along trails in the woods, taking the road less traveled sort of thing, and I’ve been itching to get out of the city since. Sigh …

Dinner: Hello, My Name Is … (aka the “First Impressions of André” Post)

Disclosure: This meal was a complimentary media dinner arranged by André’s public relations team. That being said, we tipped appropriately, and there will be no special treatment. Now, let’s get down to it.

photo-6When an invite to “Dinner with André” popped up in my inbox the other day, my first reaction was, What? André who?

... Then I got it. Ohhh, the restaurant’s name is André. Cute. It’s personal. And just a touch cheeky, in that cocktail soiree sort of way. I kind of liked it. I gave the preview menu a quick scan — Peekey-Toe crab* salad, jamon de Bayonne and melon trio, smoked terrine de foie gras (and those are just some of the apps) … mmm. Let’s give it a go.

So a little background: André is the newly-redesigned, 30-ish seat dining room attached to Opia bar and lounge on the second floor of the Renaissance Hotel (a Marriott property) in Midtown northeast (59th and Lex).

photo-7What I like about the concept is that nothing, and everything, is new. Opia has been here for years; the venue is growing with the hotel, which has undergone a major redesign during the last few years — think, bulbous, flower-inspired, trippy-chic (left).

Which also means that the management team (Frederick Lesort & Antoine Blech), the chef (Ted Pryor) and even some (if not most) of the rest of the staff have been working together for years via Opia, so there are none of those brand new restaurant kinks to be worked out.

André is an ambitious new project for a team of veterans: They’ve gotten good at what they do, so they’re going after a new challenge, one that builds on what they’ve already accomplished. It’s admirable.

And a tad ballsy. This is not a casual dining room. My friend who wore a full suit was entirely more appropriately-dressed than me; I was on the precipice of under dressed in jeans, metallic heels, a black top and semi-fashionable (metallic threading) blazer. That doesn’t happen so often.

But really, who cares what I was wearing. We were here to eat, and we did. Here’s the breakdown:

Appetizers

photoSo tough deciding on the apps. They caught my attention in the menu PDF I was sent by email, and again at the restaurant. (Thinking about it now, I’d hazard a guess it’s because the kitchen is so much more familiar/confidant doing lounge-y, appetizer-style food.) We finally decided on the Peekey-Toe crab salad on a bed of English pea puree, fried zucchini blossoms, mango vinaigrette ($14), and the jamon de Bayonne and melon trio with poppy seed vinaigrette ($12).

First impression, and the one that carried through the meal: Beautiful ingredients. The crab, fresh, light, non-fishy; the pea puree fresh and springy — think about how pea tendrils bounce and you’re about there. The melon was at the peak of ripeness, and I was photo-1just complaining the other day how I never eat melon at restaurants because it’s so ubiquitously under-ripe and watery.

If how these melon balls tasted was how melon generally tasted, I’d surely be a regular. And who could possibly have anything bad to say about the gorgeous, thin-shaved ham from Bayonne, France. Pas moi.

Missing: A pile of homemade potato chips to scoop up the crab dish. The deep-fried zucchini blossoms, which were supposed to be just a garnish, were actually a tease, because everything about this app is so soft, it needs a crunch, a structure. (What do you think the batter on crab cakes is?) No matter how good the goods, no one wants to eat mushy food with a fork.

Entrees

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We ordered the whole fish à la Plancha with summer vegetables (M/P) — which I would probably not have ordered had I taken the time to demystify the lovely, roll-off-your-tongue sound of à la Plancha, which, I now know, basically means “cooked or grilled on a metal plate.” Which isn’t a bad way to cook a fish, just, well, it’s fish. Cooked well. And briefly presented to you, whole, on a plank, before being whisked back into the kitchen, only to return accompanied by monotone, yellow-white-brown colored vegetables. (Yawn.) On the other hand, the other dish I was considering, the warm-poached Maine lobster salad with baby beets and vinaigrette ($28), looked amazing.

Dish no. 2 was the roasted chicken breast with quinoa grains, butter beans, sherry and fresh fig sauce ($22) — an excellent choice. When we ordered it, the waiter told us the chicken (of all things) takes an extra 20 minutes. What?! Why of all things does chicken take more prep? Whatever they did, the whole dish was well executed and a lot more cohesive than mine.

Dessert

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I don’t eat more than two bites of dessert, generally (unless it’s cheese), so I let my friend pick dessert and he went for the molten chocolate cake, which also takes a little extra prep time. (He was batting 2 for 2 that night.)

What’s not to love about molten chocolate cake? You cut into it with a fork and it oozes chocolate, like a slow-moving lava flow.

Overall, I stick by my first impression, which is that this a bold move to open a restaurant like this, at this time, but variables such as the intimate nature (read, 30-ish seats) of the dining room, plus André’s connectedness to Opia — André’s big brother, in many senses — it’s not entirely implausible. It’s actually a really good situational challenge for a seasoned team with an under-utilized room, which is how I suspect it began.

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Dinner: A Good Patio Makes Every Mediocre Meal Better

photoMy history choosing Italian restaurants: There have been moments of greatness; the rest blend together in a sea of mediocrity.

I always go in hopeful; since moving to the Upper East Side, I’ve been particularly intrigued with Caffe Buon Gusto, which has dual patios — need I say more? There is a slightly-elevated, street-facing patio and a cozy, vine-covered patio out back; really, it was only a matter of time.

The back patio lived up to expectation: Small, round, tiled tables; vines draping everywhere; candles casting a pleasant glow. I’d come back just to hang out, have an appetizer and drink some wine … if the wine list was a little more interesting.

photo-3The food? It was … fine. Which is my problem with Italian food most of the time. It’s rarely bad, but rarely great.

My spinach salad (called the Fiorentina salad) came tossed in a creamy, vaguely tangy (yogurt? sour cream?) dressing and topped with sliced mushrooms and diced pancetta, which was salty even by my standards (and I love salt). The portion was substantial; I could have probably stopped here.

But we also split an order pasta from the choose-your-pasta, choose-your-sauce menu: homemade cheese tortellini, pesto.

photo-2I am no connoisseur of Italian cuisine, but I think pesto, I think fresh herbs pounded into a pulp, mixed with good things like garlic and olive oil. Our tortellini turned up in something more like a cream sauce with some herbs blended in — let’s put it this way, if you were lactose intolerant, this would become an issue. Sigh. Let’s just say, the patio and the company saved this meal from the mediocrity abyss.