Sunday: In Search of a Fresh, Lively Salad (aka the “Almost Perfect Baoguette Steak Salad” Post)

photo-6Finally, late into Sunday evening, I found myself  standing at the counter of Baoguette/Pho Sure in the West Village, utterly parched for some fresh, lively greenery after Saturday’s (need I remind you) “Ugghhh …” binge.

There is one salad on the menu, a skirt steak salad. (note: I can find no online menu that reflects this menu change/update.) Skirt steak salad, with pineapple, English cucumber, fresh herbs, crushed peanuts, etc., etc. $12.99.

photo-8“Does that come on a bed of greens?” I ask. I only ask because the only other salad listed, a green papaya salad, while delicious, has no bed of greens whatsoever. And I need some leafy greens. Desperately.

She told me yes.

In fact, the answer is no. No greens. I was sort of annoyed … until I took a bite.

That salad was gone in t-minus 10 minutes, and I wanted more. Simple, fresh, beautiful — and with ample, gorgeous (and gorgeously rare) slices of skirt steak — “Fuck it, I will find some greens tomorrow.”

Wednesday: Going Halvesies (aka the “La Palette Burger Fallacy” Post)

I eat enough burgers to know that the big boys are 8 oz. and up, the average burgers 6-8 oz. and fast-food style burgers, i.e. Shake Shack (which I adore) and 5 Guys (which I hate), are a slim 3-4 oz. These are just the rules of the burger kingdom.

photo-9So when I spotted a 12 oz. burger on the menu at La Palette, both when I was browsing their online menu and also later on the menu in the restaurant, I’m pretty sure my eyes bugged out in that cartoon-y way, just a little bit. TWELVE OUNCES?! This thing has got to be just gargantuan.

And cheap, at $13 for a burger (add $1 for a fried egg) plus fries and salad. This sounds like an impossibly good deal; I had to try it. Sometimes, impossibly good deals do exist. Not sure I could do this alone, I convinced my friend to split the “Tudo” burger me: 12 oz. of top sirloin beef, melted mozzarella, mayo, boston lettuce, tomato and a fried egg.

photo-10We were half-way on our back to watching Top Chef when it dawned on me that we hadn’t even looked at it yet. Let’s see this thing. And … disappointment. My first though was, “There is no way that can be 12 ounces.”

Next, optimism. Outloud I said, “I wonder if there’s two patties? One on each side of the bun, like an open-faced burger?”

Then, realism sets in. “Nah, that’s just the egg,” my friend says, referring to the lumpy shape on the top half of the bun that, in the darkness, I’d been *hoping* was melted cheese obscuring a second patty — not because a burger needs that much beef, but on principle. But she was right. It was just the egg.

photo-11A block later we came upon a mostly empty Magnolia Bakery.

“Eff it, let’s get a cupcake to split, too,” I said.

Spontaneity is the key to my Magnolia Bakery strategy: If you happen to walk by and it happens to not have a hoard of tourists queuing up down the street, go.

Because they do make really great cupcakes: Light and cakey with a tall head of frosting, neither top nor bottom too sweet, Magnolia’s cupcakes are all about classicism: cake flavors are typically vanilla, chocolate or red velvet; the frosting either white or brown or lightly tinted in pretty pastel shades, with plenty of peaks and curves in which to catch traditional toppings, like sprinkles or chopped walnuts.

Half a cupcake (two big bites) was the perfect pairing to half a burger (about five bites); I’d even choose to do it again, on purpose. The burger was well-seasoned, well-executed, and generally a success — aside from the false advertising. It would behoove La Palette to fix their menu; it’s not like they’d have to lower the price.

Wednesday: And This Is When I Fell In Love with Tïam (Wait for It … Right … Now!)

photo-4It began so innocently at Taïm. Somehow, given a brand-new menu of options, I quickly honed in on the hummus or babaganoush pita sandwich, which came with my choice of two salads inside.

Hummus or babaganoush? Also an easy choice: babaganoush, the eggplant-based spread, tends to be more of a free radical across restaurants and genres, and I was feeling adventurous. … As it turns out, this babaganoush is, by  my standards, practically perfect: smokey, pulpy, tangy, sweet and creamy, all sharing harmoniously. No one element pushing out of turn.

photo-10Add Moroccan carrots — long, thick cuts sauteed in garlic, cumin, paparika and E.V.O.O. just long enough to take the crunch away (not unlike the style of some of my favorite Mexican carrots, minus the heat) — and, finally, a light cabbage salad that’s been soaking away in a sweet & sour marinade; stuff everything into a supple, pliable regular or whole wheat pita, for $5.50. Uh-oh. Now I was in trouble.

Never mind the crappy iPhone picture on the left, this is, hands down, one of the best under $6 sandwiches I have had anywhere in the city.

Vibrant flavors, really good for you, and so reasonably priced, no wonder this place has a line stretching out the door most photo-5nights. (Well, that and it seems the good people of the West Village like to queue up, if you consider that Magnolia Bakery and the Mark Jacobs cheep-o store are just around the corner.)

But that wasn’t all. I also had my fair share of a giant side order of fries ($4), cut skinny and served piping hot, which come with saffron aïoli, and my fair share of a falafel sampling ($3.50), two of each kind of falafels that are giving nearby Mamoun’s a run for its money.

photo-6You know why? Because there are falafel options: green (parsley, cilantro, mint), red (roasted red peppers) and Harissa falafel (Tunisian spices.) Because they are perfectly poppable bits. Because, for once, they are not dry or over-fried or prepared too early and don’t buldge as you try to take a bite and disintegrate into bland, falafel dust.

They are so good that I didn’t even need the sauce. The whole place was that good — forget the “Cash Only” (although that’s an important sign),Taïm would do well to post, “We’re practically perfect, no extra sauce or extra seasoning required. Go ahead, try us.”

Yes, please!

Monday: Birthday Dinner Gone Gonzo (aka the “Cheese Three Ways” Post)

There are few things more enjoyable in the world than sharing a meal with close friends, when everyone makes the time in their respectively busy lives to actually be present, and eat and laugh and tell stories and simply enjoy each other’s company.

photo-3… Which makes my birthday dinner at Gonzo in the West Village just about perfect.

It wasn’t the original plan: Earlier Monday morning I found out that Brooklyn Bowl — the new, LEED-certified, 16-lane bowling alley in Williamsburg with a full menu by Blue Ribbon (where I was going to have a small fête) — was closed Mondays.

I needed options, stat. My research skills kicked into high gear, and I ended up with a list of options that included everything from all-you-can eat/drink rip tips (which are excellent) and domestic draft beer at Brother Jimmy’s BBQ ($15.95) to a 3-course, $35 prixe fix meal at Sojourn in the Upper East Side that includes a wine pairings.

In the mix, from my friends at winedanddined.com:

Gonzo (W. 13th nr 6th Ave) is offering 2 for 1 pizzas on Monday nights and from 5-7 on Saturdays.

At first, pizza didn’t sound quite right. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It was the perfect renegade birthday dinner — going gonzo at Gonzo. A girl can’t ask for much more on my birthday than a literary pun that’s this sweet.

photo-2Plus, the grilled, thin-crust pizzas are unique in the city, a culinary gift from the late chef Vincent Scotto. Oblong, ultra-thin and piled high with premium toppings in complex, sometimes exotic, flavor combinations, they’re certainly unlike any pizza I’d ever had.

I’ll be back to try the pizza with watermelon listed as a topping, but for a first taste we stuck with the classics:

(top) Sausage pizza, topped with ricotta cheese, roasted red pepper puree, romano & bel paese cheeses.

(bottom) Wild mushroom pizza, topped with chanterelle, shiitake & oyster mushrooms, caramelized onions, taleggio, romano & bel paese cheeses.

photo-1We also shared a large meat-and-cheese tasting platter ($25), my picks (counter-clockwise from top left): Capicola, Prosciutto di Parma, Cacciatorini with fig & fennel jam; taleggio, pepper pecorino (center), giant basket of grilled bread slices (not pictured). Few things make me happy like a good meat and cheese plate, maybe a glass of prosecco to go with — oh wait, had that, too.

Prosecco was as much a through-line to this lovely meal as was the cherished company and … of course, the cheese.

That thing with a candle up top? Brown sugar cheesecake. It’s a cheesecake purists will appreciate: a slightly different, darker sugar taste (molasses?) comes through, but the flavors aren’t so radically changed as if whole candy bars are thrown in, a la Cheesecake Factory. It’s really, really good. My one critique? With the circular shape, you get less buttery, gram-cracker-y crust.

TIP: The pizzas are definitely larger than our server let on — don’t let them up-sell you. Go with a group and share a mix of the cicchetti, Venetian-style small plates ($7-$11), or maybe a couple of appetizers, plus the pizzas. Two-for-one pizzas makes group dining that much more affordable — and fun.

Dinner: One Night of Decadence, From $1.50 Sliders to a $21 Steakhouse Burger

We didn’t plan this. The stop at The Patriot on the southern fringes of Tribeca was mostly spontaneous (admittedly, the desire for the bar’s superb sliders increases with relative proximity to bar).

And the decision to order a steakhouse burger from Rare Bar and Grill in the West Village, a couple of hours later, was entirely spontaneous — if tangentially indebted to the previous consumption of sliders. (The decision was prompted by the discussion of the $21 burger, which was prompted by walking by Rare and picking up a take-out menu, the interest in which might have been prompted by the fact that we’d just polished off a couple of beers, a half-dozen cheeseburger sliders and a basket of onion rings at The Patriot.)

photo-2photo-5But damn, what a mash-up! In jumping from $1.50 cheeseburger sliders (left) to a $21 steakhouse burger (right), we leap-frogged about 95% of the burgers of New York City. The whole thing was a little heady … and yes, a little indulgent. Here’s how the two experiences stacked up:

photoThe Patriot: One of downtown Manhattan’s proudest dive bars. The jukebox (mostly country, with a smattering of classic rock) is played many decibels too loud, the beer is cold and cheap — $8 pitchers of PBR, $5.50 Beck’s bombers (24 oz.) — the bartenders the epitome of “girls who just wanna have fun.” The Patriot is such a booze-centric bar that it’s surprising that there’s a kitchen here at all, let alone one that turns out good (cheap!) sliders.

photo-1I can’t vouch for much else on the short menu, because once I tried the cheeseburger sliders I haven’t deviated (other than to add the occasional basket of onion rings or french fries, both of which are fairly average).

But these sliders: Mini char-grilled patties, still a touch pink inside — just because they’re small doesn’t mean they have to be overcooked — each one is a perfect 2-3 bites of soft, sweet bun-to-burger ratio, the white American cheese a molten mass melding burger to bun. The sliders are served all nestled together in a parchment paper-lined basket with just a side of sliced pickles and some ketchup packets for company. I guarantee you’ll wind up with baskets that look like this, the scene of absolute belly satisfaction.

photo-4Rare Bar & Grill: Get up and spin around in circles a few times. That’s sort of how it felt to open up this take-out container, revealing this stunning burger specimen, called the Bleeker Burger: 8 oz. of chopped New York strip steak, topped with provolone, sauteed onions, crispy bacon, and accompanied by such premium accouterments as this succulent, sunny-yellow tomato slice, pickles from the Lower East Side and a towering brioche bun.

photo-6Each of Rare’s steakhouse burgers ($21), are made from specific cut (or cuts) of premium beef — tenderloin, ribeye, NY strip steak, T-bone (a blend of sirloin and sirloin and strip) — the distinction of the burger being you really taste the steak, beyond the big beefiness a good burger offers.

It’s decadent, and a little confusing: Who eats steak chopped up like this and stuck between a bun? Part of the joy I get out of eating a steak is slicing through the meat, slicing of just that perfect bite and really savoring the meat for what it is. I found myself pulling out nuggets of steak from the patty, and happily munching on those, between larger bites. I also found myself wishing the beef hadn’t been “infused with Cajun spices” — not necessary, let the meat shine through. (Oddly, all the steakhouse burgers have some sort of “flavor” to them.)

I couldn’t ever quite shake the feeling that this burger is less a burger than a steak in disguise. And why would anyone do that?

Dinner: Let’s Pause for a Moment of Silence and All Say, “Mmmm … Pizza” (The “John’s Pizza OMG” Post)

Yeah, yeah. John’s Pizzeria. In Greenwich Village. West Village-ish. Whatever, on Bleecker Street, yeah, best pizza in the city.

At least, so I’ve been told by multiple friends whose taste I trust, although maybe not entirely subscribe to without a little bit of “personal” validation. It hasn’t won a gold star from me yet.

photo2Finally got around to it. Oh … my … god. John’s truly is the opposite from that old standard, the reheated to luke-warm plain cheese slice:

Doughy, fluffy, hot through-and-through; generous portions of toppings like large, thick slices of meatball and sausage crumbles (truly a meat lover’s pie); sweet sun-dried tomatoes, whole basil leaves and sliced black olives on a second pie, which was the one I dug into.

Something about the exact combination of our second pie — it kept surprising me with a subtle photoheadiness of flavor I can only compare to popping a handful of popcorn into your mouth and getting an unexpected hit of truffles, from the dash of truffle-flecked salt that’d been sprinkled on it. Not to say that John’s uses truffle-infused olive oil in making its pizzas, but the flavor combination was just on.

Best in the city? I’m not there, yet. But hell yes I’m giving John’s it’s gold star. It’s earned it. What a fantastic reminder that there’s so much more to pizza than the thin-crusted, ultra-lightly-cheesy, blush of a tomato sauce, slice?