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A Bold Claim: The Best Chocolate Cake in the World

6 Dec

Being a chocolate connoisseur is a serious calling. Like a sommelier, I’ve been studying and educating myself for just over 25 years. And I made a promise long ago that I’d always use my powers for good.

So, when I read about a bakery in Nolita boldly named The Best Chocolate Cake in the World, I knew what I had to do. I simply had to take a break from writing my final papers for the semester and try this cake. After all, it was my duty.

Outside The Best Chocolate Cake in the World store, at 55A Spring Street

I headed down to Nolita with my Trusty Sidekick in tow. I really liked the interior of the cafe–it’s warm and cozy with soft, low lighting, plush sofas, and lots of mirrors–but because of homework waiting back home, we took our slice to go.

 

The interior of TBCCITW

 

Our first disappointment was the price. The Best Chocolate Cake in the World doesn’t come cheap–it’s $6 per sliver of a slice (?!)–so we only tried the milk chocolate (for dark chocolate fans, they also offer a 70% dark chocolate slice).

Just from looking at the slice, you can see the cake has lots of layers of cake and mousse, all topped by a rich, shiny ganache. But, take your first bite and you know right away that the word “cake” just isn’t right for this dessert. It gives you the expectation of a moist, devil’s food cake when the slice really has layers of flourless, crumbly, crunchy chocolate meringue.  With the mousse and ganache, the taste is rich and chocolately, and it has a nice texture–but, well, it’s the texture of meringue–not cake!

So, chocoholates everywhere, be forewarned: this cake is a fake. It’s a delicious chocolate experience, but because it’s really not cake, it just couldn’t be the best chocolate cake in the world.

And so, the search continues…

p.s. Have you had the Best Chocolate Cake in the World? Tell us where to find it!

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Local, Sustainable New American Comfort Food at Recipe

7 Nov

My Trusty Sidekick and I have been trying to watch the budget lately–something that’s not always easy to do in New York.  It’s been about five weeks since we’ve gone out to dinner, so, we decided to splurge a little in the name of Date Night (some of the best words in the English language) and try Recipe, a “recently opened” restaurant (as of May ’09) on the Upper West Side that we had heard great things about.

Recipe is billed as a New American cuisine, but this isn’t quite right; it’s more like New American prepared by Grandma, if that makes any sense. Recipe’s menu features local, sustainable, and seasonal ingredients in rustic, comfort food interpretations of New American.  The menu features tons of market-fresh vegetable and seafood options, as well as slow-cooked rotisserie fare. Basically, it’s homier and heartier than your typically clean and contemporary New American cuisine. While we were a little disappointed with the pace of our meal (more on that later), it was a delicious dinner. We’ll be back…as soon as we’ve saved up enough money for another night out.

Location: 452 Amsterdam Ave (between 81st St & 82nd St)

In one word: Rustic

Food: Tons of appetizer options caught my eye, but I couldn’t say no to the Soup of the Day, which was a Parsnip and Chestnut puree served with a Spinach and Feta Spanakopita ($7). I wasn’t sold on the combination of the soup and spanakopita, but separately they were each very tasty. The combination of parsnips and chestnuts made for a  creamy soup was full of fresh flavor and had an incredibly satisfying texture that was thick but extremely smooth.

 

Love the generous portions here.

Trusty went with the Short Rib Tortellini ($11) and raved about the rich, hearty dish. Basically, it was delicious comfort food.

For my main course I tried the pan seared sea bass with brussel sprouts, eggplant, zucchini and a sweet and sour apple cider vinegar sauce ($22). The fish was cooked perfectly–it had a great, golden crust on the outside and was tender and flakey inside–and, the light and tangy sauce paired well with the delicate sea bass.  I was disappointed with the veggies. Specifically, the fish was supposed to come with brussel sprouts, but this was a little misleading–there wasn’t a single whole brussel sprout, rather, under the fish were a few brussel sprout leaves.  C’mon Recipe. For $22, you should spring for 4 or 5 whole brussel sprouts per plate.

I love that Recipe garnished the fish and soup with fresh chives.

For his main dish Trusty went with the Winter Lasagna, full of seasonal root vegetables including carrots, parsnip and squash, as well as eggplant, all nestled in a rich tomato sauce beneath a bubbling layer of fresh mozzarella cheese  ($18). Yum, yum, yum. I got to try a few bites of this dish and would definitely recommend it.

 

Yep, that cheese says it all–this is true comfort food.

As if we didn’t have enough food, we shared a side dish of roasted winter squash and fingerling potatoes ($5). Simple and delicious, these veggies had great carmelized, roasted flavor. This is the best part eating a restaurant that uses local, seasonal ingredients: everything is fresh and flavorful, even when prepared in the simplest way.

For dessert we split the Chocolate Pignoli Tart ($8) which was divine. Definitely a must-have at Recipe (you’ll thank me later), and more than enough to share between two. The dessert was a great combination of sweet and salty–it had a crunchy chocolate crust, a layer of buttery, sweet and salty caramel followed by a layer of thick, rich chocolate mousse. Sprinkled with roasted pine nuts and a few grains of sea salt and topped with a sweet, creamy, melty marscarpone gelato, this tart was an amazing end to our meal.

Drink: I had a great glass of Paul de Coste Blanc de Blanc Brut ($10) that was delicious with my fish. Trusty tried the Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager ($5) which was a light dark beer–not too heavy–and went well with the Short Rib Tortellini and Lasagna. Like their regular menu, Recipe’s drink menu was small, but full of well-selected items. If you’re trying to save money on your drinks tab, try one of their beers–all are $5.

Service: Our waitress was friendly and the wait staff kept our water glasses full. We had a strange complaint: the service was actually too quick. It wasn’t that we were rushed, it was just that the courses were served at a very brisk pace and when you’re going out for a nice dinner you want to savor the experience, linger a little over the appetizer, then the entree. You also need a few minutes between courses to digest a bit. With each course coming back to back, we felt as though we finished before we had a chance to enjoy the meal.

The mini clothespin that grasps the menus at Recipe is a great rustic detail.

Scene: Recipe is a tiny, sliver of a place–basically it’s a long, narrow room with seating for only 20, maybe 25 if you count seats at the bar (be sure to make a reservation before you go). As a result, it’s an intimate, cozy space that lends itself well to dates or dinner with a close friend. This isn’t a great place for groups. The wood block tables and chairs, with simple white tile backsplash, gives Recipe a rustic, homey feel that works with the restaurant’s menu of local, sustainable “New American” comfort food.

Dress: Casual chic is very safe here.

Delivery: YES! Download their delivery menu from their site.

Cost: With tax and tip our bill came to just over $100. Not bad for a nice night out in New York. And with the generous portions, we felt like Recipe offered good value.

If you like, try: The Girl and the Goat in Chicago, Freemans, Cookshop, or Savoy in New York

Mediterranean Meal at Vareli in Morningside Heights

29 Sep

In a neighborhood filled with debt-strapped students, newly-opened Vareli has a tough road ahead. Westside Market owner George Zoitas and chef Amitzur Mor, of Food Network’s “Chopped” fame, have teamed up to open this new “Mediterranean-inspired” spot that’s a step up for the restaurant scene in Morningside Heights that’s dominated by chains and diners.  Hopefully Parents Weekend Season will sustain them through the fall, because Vareli has a lot of potential.

My Trusty Sidekick and I decided to check out Vareli last Saturday for a little date night action. Here’s the breakdown:

Location: 2869 Broadway at 111th Street, Morningside Heights

In one word: Mediterranean

Food: We started by splitting the Tomato Salad appetizer ($13), made up of big sesame-roasted croutons and thick slices of local heirloom tomatoes marinated in oregano and sherry vinegar, garnished with slices of red onion and jalapeño, morrocan olives, and a handful of delicate sprouts. It was delicious.

When I go out to eat I try to order things I couldn’t necessarily prepare at home, so I have to say, I wasn’t on board with this appetizer initially. But, the flavor and texture combination won me over. Sweet and slightly garlicky, the heirloom tomatoes had amazing natural flavor that worked well with the light and slightly tangy marinade. Combined with the heat of the jalapeños it was a party in my mouth. I also loved the croutons which were crunchy on the outside and softer in the middle.

See the sesame seeds roasted with the croutons? They must have been roasted in a little bit of olive oil because they had a great nutty and fruity flavor.

For my main course I ordered the Pan Seared Scallops ($23) with leeks, asparagus, pearl onions, and peas, all sitting on a lovely drizzle of breakfast radish and asparagus coulis and garnished with fresh flat leaf parsley and little bit of dill.

A coulis is a very thick sauce made from puréed and strained vegetables (or fruits, in the case of desserts). This one, made from aspargus and breakfast radish, gets its orange color from the breakfast radish.

The scallops were very well prepared–seared perfectly on the outside and tender and juicy in the middle.  I really loved the slightly carmelized flavor of the roasted veggies, especially the pearl onions.

The dill was a delicious surprise, and, with the parsley, added a bright freshness to the dish.

Trusty ordered the Sautéed Dorade with Gigante and Fava Beans, Kalamata Olives and a Roasted Red Pepper Coulis ($22).

Look at that giant bean peeking out from under the fish!

Trusty was kind enough to permit me a bite or two of his fish, which I really liked.  If you haven’t tried dorade before I think you’ll probably like it. It’s a small white fish with tender meat and a rich flavor similar to Red Snapper–very unoffensive. Traditionally a fish from the Mediterranean sea, in the past decade the dorade has become available in NYC mainly via Israeli cooperative Ardag (some interesting info on their operation here).
The fish was tender, seasoned well, and tasted delicious with the roasted red pepper coulis. (I want to try making a coulis at home. Anyone have any good recipes?) With the hearty and starchy fava beans this dish was a little bit like a lighter, fish-centric version of steak and potatoes.

Before we visited Vareli I had scanned a few Yelp reviews and knew that their Chocolate and Toffee Bananas dessert ($7) was coming up big. So, to end the meal we decided to split this. Man was it good.
This is the dessert to order at Vareli–you don’t even need to look at the menu. The dense dark chocolate mousse, nestled on a pool of delicious, rich toffee-banana pudding and slices of carmalized bananas dusted in chocolate slivers is divine.

Check out the density of that dark chocolate mousse. Mmmmmm.

Definietly a great end to our “date night,” until Trusty joking offered me his hand and said, “Well, it was nice to meet you” and pretended to imply that there would not be a second date.

Drink: Vareli has a great (and ginormous–3 pages!) beer menu with tons of affordable $5 options. If you’re not in the mood for beer, you’ll get good value with one of Vareli’s 1/2 Liter Carafes for the table.

Service: For a newly opened restaurant, we agreed that Vareli’s service operated very smoothly. Our waitor was attentive and personable, and our water glasses were well tended.

Vareli's 20 foot copper bar has the potential to become pretty much the only classy late night hot spot in the neighborhood.

Scene: When Trusty and I do date night, we do it right. I.e. we’re trained to go for the early bird special, even if there is no special being offered.  Hopefully we’ll snap out of it once we finish grad school. In this case, we showed up at Vareli for 6:45 reservations on a Saturday night. Even at this early hour, the restaurant was quite crowded. There were a few other couples, some young families, and what appeared to be several groups of professorial types (“It just irks me to see the comma used in that manner” was overheard. No joke.)

The soft, low lighting and wine barrel tables makes for a rustic feel that’s on the cheesy side, but overall Vareli’s look is inviting. Check out the long polished copper bar–very posh for Morningside Heights. I can see this quickly becoming the spot for unofficial Columbia GSB happy hours.

Dress: No dress code, really, but the dressier side of jeans and top will work best since this is a pricier place in the neighborhood and people are bound to dress up a bit.

Delivery: Not available.

Cost: By calculations we were in the range of around $70-$75 (about $35 per person).  Of course after Trusty’s line he got to pick up the check.

Students of Morningside Heights, never fear. If you don’t $35 bucks to splurge on dinner in the name of Date Night you could do Vareli on the cheap. Their menu has lots of Mediterranean-inspired small plates to share, as well as some less expensive entrées, including lamb and beef burgers that are getting great reviews on Yelp.

If you like, try: Kefi in NYC’s Upper West side, Masouleh in Chicago’s Roger’s Park

Crab Cakes, Roasted Trout, and Skate on a Plate: Celebration Meal at the Mermaid Inn

30 Aug

My Trusty Sidekick got a job! Woohoo! It’s very, very exciting news–especially since we’re both broke grad students. To celebrate we went out to a delicious seafood meal at the Mermaid Inn on the Upper West Side (there are two other locations in Greenwich Village and the East Village).

MI has great fish and a fantastic oyster bar (if you go before 7 pm, there are $1 oysters at the bar–can’t beat that). Their menu is modestly priced–expensive enough to be a really nice “Special Occasion” meal, but not ridiculous (after all, the job doesn’t start until he graduates next Spring).  That said, MI also has some great Daily Blue Plate Specials (good until 7 pm) as well as Nightly Specials (good after 7 pm) that make it much more accessible to the student budget. Bottom line–their delicious seafood is worth the splurge!

Location: 568 Amsterdam Avenue (between 87th and 88th), New York City

In one word: Seafood

Food: My Trusty Sidekick and I started off the meal by splitting Mermaid Inn’s Friday Night Special: Maryland Crab Cakes with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce and Fennel Slaw ($22). It was amazing. Ah-maz-ing.

The perfect appetizer to share.

For their Roasted Red Pepper sauce, I think the Mermaid Inn took a page from my brother and sister-in-law’s crab cakes with Red Pepper Remoulade. It was a little bit sweet, a little bit acidic, and really complemented the crab cake well.
The Fennel Slaw was something I’d never think to pair with crab, but it was delicious. A little bit licorice-y, and very crunchy, it was a light and refreshing contrast to the rich and buttery crab cake, which was delicate and filled with fresh, sweet crab meat. This special is a great reason to check out the Mermaid Inn on a Friday night.

My Trusty Sidekick ordered the whole roasted fish of the night, which was an Idaho Trout, served with an amazing warm potato and string bean salad dressed in the most delicious mustard sauce ($22).

I usually avoid eating things with eyeballs, but this was delicious.

Here’s how this works–Mermaid Inn roasted the trout and de-boned it before serving it, so, when it arrived at the table my Trusty Sidekick just flipped it open, like a laptop, to reveal one of the most tender, flakey, and flavorful fish I’ve ever tried. I’d love to try to make this at home.

The fish was roasted with a sprig of rosemary, and so when the fish was flipped open, the scent wafted out–yummmm. And, each bite had the very faintest taste of fresh, sweet pine.

For my main course, I ordered the Skate special ($18), which was pan fried and prepared in a lemon-butter-caper sauce, garnished with green apples and tomatoes, and served with a side of steamed spinach.

Skate on a Plate--Yum. Sorry, it's a little hard to see in this picture, but the skate is underneath that pile of diced green apple and tomatoes.

Have you ever tried skate before? It’s not for everyone, but if you haven’t tried it, I’d recommend it. It’s really not a fish, but a type of ray–a relative of the shark–with a flat body and two triangle shaped wings off to either side. So, when you eat skate you get a thin piece of the wing. The meat, when cooked correctly, is soft and delicate, with a mildly sweet flavor. Here’s a picture from Wikipedia of an uncooked skate wing:

Picture of uncooked skate wing. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

I really liked the combination of the soft skate in the salty and buttery sauce with the crunchy apple, which was slightly sweet, slightly sour. The acid of the lemon and the briney bite of the capers also cut the buttery sauce well. My only complaint was with the spinach. I like spinach as much as the next gal, but, after being steamed, it was so soft and mushy–not my favorite pairing with the already soft and tender fish. I think I would have preferred something crunchy. I actually would have preferred the green beans my Trusty Sidekick got–the mustard sauce on those beans was so so good.

Mermaid Inn doesn’t have a dessert menu. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they bring everyone a small espresso-sized cup of chocolate mousse at the end of the meal (complements of the chef). Free dessert is one of the other reasons why I love the Mermaid Inn!

Yum! Smooth, creamy, cold and chocolatey. The perfect end to a great meal. Plus, it's free!

Along with your chocolate cup, at the end of the meal the Mermaid Inn will give  you your own Fish Fortune Teller. It’s a small fish made out of plastic film that you drop into the palm of  your hand. Depending on how the fish moves when it lands, you’ve got yourself a fortune!

For example, if the fish curls its head towards its tail, you’re jealous. If it curls its head and tail together, you’re passionately in love (there’s a fine line between passion and jealousy). If the fish doesn’t move at all, you’ve got a dead fish.

My Trusty Sidekick got a dead fish.

Drink: Mermaid Inn has a pretty straightforward wine and beer menu, with several wines by the glass for $10.

I tried the Cava ($10) and Trusty went with the Bordeaux Blanc ($10). I enjoyed the Cava but have to say that the peach notes in the Bordeaux Blanc made it surprisingly great. Both went very well with our fish dishes.

Service: Our waitress and the wait staff were very attentive when we sat down at 7:15. However, as the night went on and the dining room got more crowded they forgot about us. Our water glasses weren’t refilled more than once, and we waited about 15 minutes after finishing before we were finally were able to flag down our waitress and ask for the check. Slightly irritating, yes, but nothing that will keep us from going back.

Scene: There was a big variety of guests in the dining room–families with young children, couples, tables of girlfriends. The restaurant has a very laid-back feel. The wood paneling, maps of different coasts and pictures of fish hanging on the wall make it seem like you’re walking into a Cape Cod or New England restaurant–it feels very authentic, not in a kitschy way at all.

Dress: Friday business casual is safest. It’s a nice meal, so you’ll probably want to dress up a little. But, if you don’t, jeans and a nicer top will work. That guy in the American flag t-shirt (in the left hand corner of the picture above) was a bit  under-dressed.

Cost: With tax and tip our great seafood dinner was $110. Definitely in the “Special Occasion Price Range” for us.

Delivery: Not available.

If you like, try: The Cape Cod Room in the Drake Hotel in Chicago, Pearl Oyster Bar in New York City, Stella’s Fish Cafe in Minneapolis

More French Onion Soup (and Romance) at Café du Soleil in NYC

24 Aug

I’m back in NYC with my Trusty Sidekick, and after being apart all summer we decided to go out for a romantic and expensive French dinner. So, we headed to Café du Soleil.  Besides being right around the corner (relatively), CDS’s fantastic French menu, weeknight specials, and charming bistro ambiance make it perfect for a nice but inexpensive meal out.

Editor’s note: Unfortunately the romantic, candle-lit atmosphere didn’t make for the best pictures. I apologize in advance for the poor lighting in these photos!

Location: 2723 Broadway, New York City

In one word: French

Food: Our meal started with a really interesting sweet and savory breadbasket. Half of the pieces of warm bread were filled with raisins, while half were filled with black olives. Both types were delicious dipped in CDS’s intensely flavored herb olive oil. This olive oil is one of my favorite reasons to come to this restaurant!

There are things you’d eat every day of your life, if you could. For me, French Onion Soup is one of those things. I had to order a crock ($6.95), plus a small plate of Escargots ($11.95).

The French Onion Soup was very large for being only appetizer-sized. So satisfying–gruyère-y, warm, and rich as you’d hope it to be. There were tons of carmalized onions inside my crock, waiting to be rescued (eaten) from the rich onion broth. I love it when that happens.

But, as good as the French Onion Soup was, I have to say the highlight of my meal was the escargots. They came outside of the shell, nestled inside a row of baguette slices and smothered in yummy garlicy herb butter. On top of the baguette were small pieces of diced, tomato that must have been dressed in some kind of vinegar because they were sweet and acidic and cut the richness of the snails and butter perfectly.


Unfortunately it’s hard to see from the lighting in this picture, but the escargots were very large–about the size of a quarter–and very well cooked. They were tender and had great flavor. If you haven’t tried them before, think of the rich, meaty, and earthy flavor and texture of a well-cooked mushroom. Not rubbery, not fishy. You’ve got to try them. The crusty baguette was the perfect complement to the escargots and sopped up all the garlicy buttery goodness really well.

CDS has different specials each night of the week that give you a chance to get great food at amazing prices. Because we went on Monday, Steak Night, when any steak on the menu is $12.95, my Trusty Sidekick ordered Steak with a Red Wine Reduction Sauce ($12.95) and a side of steamed asparagus ($4.95). The steak was prepared as he ordered and was a fairly generous portion (we took home leftovers). The steak special is definitely a fantastic reason to visit CDS.

For dessert we went all out and ordered their Espresso Chocolate Mousse ($6.95) and Crème brûlée ($7.95). Any chocolate lover will be in heaven over the mousse. It’s dark, rich and smooth. The espresso flavor is very subtle–I’m not a coffee person, but I loved the flavor. Something to note: this mousse does have a thicker texture than a traditional mousse–it’s more like peanut butter in your mouth than what you might expect if you’re thinking of a mousse as being airy and fluffy.

CDS's Chocolate Espresso Mousse--YUM

I have to recommend the Crème brûlée–it has a hint of lavender that makes the flavor amazing. The crispy sugar crust is such a great contrast to the creamy egg custard. I hear this is on CDS’s To-Go menu…might become a good dessert to pick up every now and then, or everyday.  It is a huge portion (we took home leftovers–best leftovers ever!), so if you love crème brûlée and you love someone else who loves crème brûlée, you could definitely share this dessert and be very happy.

Drink: We skipped beverages in favor of dessert (such are the dilemmas of a grad student on a budget), but noticed that CDS has a great selection of wine by the glass for affordable prices ($7-$8). We’ll definitely be back sometime on a Wednesday night, which happens to be when CDS’s special of the day is 1/2 price bottles of wine.

Service: Our service was friendly, though not the fastest I’ve seen. There were a couple of times we were looking around the room for our waiter. The wait staff member who was handling water was very attentive, though, which I appreciated; our water glasses were always full.

Scene: There were several other couples in the dining room when we arrived, and a few families were seated while we were dining. This is a great place for a date or for a family night out, though the lighting may be a little dark for smaller kids (i.e. If they can’t see very well, I imagine it may be a very messy meal for them).

If the weather is nice, ask to sit outside on CDS’s sidewalk “terrace”. It’s right on Broadway so you’ll get to enjoy some great people watching while you eat.

Dress: There really is no dress code that we saw on a Monday night–maybe this would change slightly on the weekend? It’s located in a neighborhood dominated by Columbia students, so I suspect you can go casual, wear jeans and nice top and you’ll fit right in.

Cost: Our romantic dinner only cost $52, plus tax and tip. Not bad for romantic dinner standards in NYC.

Delivery: 86th St to 125th St; Central Park West to Riverside Dr.

If you like, try: Meritage in St. Paul, Salut in Edina (MN), or Cyrano’s in Chicago