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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

You Goat to Get to Stephanie Izard’s new restaurant, The Girl and The Goat

21 Jul

Have you seen Inception yet? Cool movie. Without revealing too much for those of you who haven’t seen it, Leo and the gang formulate a plan to break into someone’s dreams and plant an idea in the mind. As they carry it out they go deeper and deeper into the mind, until by the end of the movie they are in a dream within a dream within a dream within a subconscious. That’s four levels of “reality.” I’ll say this: it’s a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

What does this have to do with The Girl and The Goat, the new Chicago hot spot opened last week by Top Chef Season 4 winner Stephanie Izard? I just got back from dining at the small plates restaurant and this movie is the first thing that comes to mind to describe Izard’s food. Her dishes have as many flavors and textures as Inception has dream-reality levels; put a fork in your mouth and you’ll experience a flavor within a flavor within a flavor within a flavor–all surrounded by different texture combinations. Just like Inception’s suspenseful plot, Izard’s inventive and well-balanced ingredient combinations will keep you guessing.

Here’s the breakdown:

In one Word: Combinations

Location: 809 W. Randolph, Chicago, IL

Food: It’s a small plates place, so come with lots of friends and plan to try lots of different things the entire table can share. It’s the best way to eat, if you ask me!

The menu changes daily, and is divided into three parts: Vegetables, Fish, and Meat, with 10 items offered in each section. There’s also a daily “specials” menu–tonight while we were there it included a Breads, Oysters, and Animals section. Our server Amy told us this is where Chef Izard likes to “recycle” any additional parts of the animal, vegetable, etc. that weren’t completely used up to make the daily menu offerings. I love this green approach to cooking.

We vowed to try something from each part of the menus, and decided to start off with the Stecca Bread with anchovy butter and roasted garlic cloves ($4).

Stecca Bread--delish!

I absolutely loved the sweetness of the olive-oil roasted garlic cloves mixed with the saltiness of the anchovy butter. There was also a great texture combination: the softness of the garlic, the creaminess of the butter, the crustiness of the bread. For all three of us at the table, it was a dangerously good starter!

The next dish to arrive was one we ordered from the “specials” menu–Smokey Whipped Fat Back with an onion relish cooked in bourbon and red-wine and warm buttery mini-biscuits ($10).

Once you try whipped fat back you'll never want to go back to plain old butter.

I admit, we decided to order this because it was so unusual none of us had ever heard of anything like it. It was bizarrely amazing–the same consistency and texture as home-made whipped butter, but better. Much better. It had spectacular flavor–smokey and slightly sweet–like applewood smoked bacon with just a hint of maple syrup. When you spread it onto the buttery biscuits you understand the crucial role the onions play in this dish. In fact, we could have used a larger portion of them! Cooked in bourbon and red wine, they have a tangy and sweet taste, as though they’ve been pickled. The vinegar profile of the onions–and their crunchy texture–is the perfect contrast to the rich, creamy fat back spread and flakey biscuits.

Wood-fired Wellfleet Oysters  with Horseradish Aioli (3 per order) arrived next ($10). Their delicate, smokey and lemony flavor is unlike your typical briny oyster. If you like oysters, try them.

You can see that a spectacular parade of food was beginning to form! Up next was one of the best surprises of the night: the pan-fried Shishito Peppers with melted parmesan and sesame seeds was absolutely spectacular ($7).

The peppers weren’t spicy at all–in fact, they were slightly sweet, like a green Bell Pepper, but so much better. The smokey sear on the peppers paired well with the nuttiness of the seasome and parmesasn sauce, which was so melty it was more like a Bearnaise.  I also loved that the peppers were still slightly crunchy.

This is a great plate to share with a large group, since there are a generous amount of peppers–over 25 in our bowl. They’ll disappear quickly though!

Awesome Parmesan-sesame sauce!

My favorite dish of the night arrived next: Crisp Soft Shell Crab with sweet corn, lime, and chili aioli ($15). Wow. You’ve got to try this. It brought back memories of an amazing soft shell crab appetizer at Scylla, Izard’s fantastic Bucktown restaurant that closed in 2007 (when it closed, part of my heart closed too–but now it’s opening again!).

My favorite! Don't miss this dish.

We all loved the sweet corn and the sweet and buttery crab that were cut by the acid of the lime juice. YUM! The crab was perfectly prepared–lightly fried so it was tender and juicy when you took a bite, but also crispy. Our server, Amy, told us that the secret to the batter is to use sparkling water–I’d never heard this before but I will definitely be trying it! The corn was crunchy and very fresh. Amy also mentioned that when Chef Izard found this corn at the farmer’s market earlier in the day she ate an entire ear–raw–for breakfast. Sounds crazy, but I completely understand–it was fantastic.

This was another dish that didn’t last long: Amy also mentioned that this dish, with the chili aioli, is meant to be the spiciest on the menu, but, to her (and to all of us at the table, too), the heat wasn’t discernible. While I’m a fan of spicy food, I see why really spicy food would not get along with the dishes on the menu–each of them have such delicate flavor layers that too much heat would overwhelm the dish, elbowing out all the different tastes on the plate.

Crisp Skate with grilled calamari, chickpeas, grilled radicchio, and tomato aioli was our second favorite dish ($14), which had the tough job of following up the crab.

This was another flavor and texture combination to die for. The skate was so buttery–crisp on the outside and soft on the inside–and was balanced well by the crunchy, bitter radicchio, sweet and juicy roasted grape tomatoes, tender grilled calamari, and salty capers. I especially loved the generous amount of pepper used to season the skate. And the chickpeas were surprisingly delicious–sort of like mashed potatoes to the skate’s steak.

Can you see the pepper seasoning here? Yum.

Seared Scallops braised in veal, with an eggplant and tomatillo caponata, and finished with marcona almond butter was next ($13).  The scallops were perfectly cooked–tender and sweet. But, the superstar of this dish was the in-house made marcona almond butter. As Amy our server revealed, marcona almonds are a type of Spanish almond known as “The Goddess Almond.” Chef Stephanie cooks, then purees these almonds until they form the sweetest, nuttiest, and richest faux-butter you can imagine that serves as a cozy little bed for the scallops to nestle into.

Look closely and you can see the Marcona Almond butter peaking out from under the edges of the scallops.

The scallops were rich, and we very well could have stopped the meal after finishing this dish. But, we decided to press on, and two more plates were ordered. First came the Escargot and Goat Balls ($12). I never would have imagined these two ingredients together, but they were delicious. When I think about it, the sounds of the words are even delicious together.

This was a really fun dish to try. The escargot were great–if you’ve only ever tried them cooked in the traditional french way with tons of butter and garlic, you’ve got to sample them prepared this way, Spanish-style, with a romesco sauce (romesco is a Spanish sauce that is typically made from nuts, like almonds or pine nuts, roasted garlic, and nyoras, which are a type of mini red bell pepper that is very sweet, and dried). The sauce really made the dish–I tasted roasted tomatoes, sweet onion, and fennel and mint in it. This went well with the goat meatballs, which tasted like a hearty fennel sausage.

Our final small plate before dessert was the Seared Summer Flounder with tart plums, sweet onions, and house-made potato chips ($16). I have to say, this is the only dish we tried that I would not highly recommend.

While all the other dishes showcased an amazing multiplicity of tastes and textures, this dish didn’t have as much going on. The plums were neither tart, nor sweet, and the texture wasn’t right–they were a touch mealy. Unlike all the other amazingly prepared seafood that we tried, the flouder wasn’t as well cooked–it was dry and not well seasoned, making it pretty blah. My favorite part of the dish were the house-made potato chips–they were delicious with the awesome beurre-blanc sauce served with the fish.

Finally, dessert! We ordered two from the menu (each $8). On both, the flavor combinations were out of control. I couldn’t help but think about how Top Chef contestants traditionally avoid making desserts–how even Stephanie herself was nervous about preparing dessert on the finale of Season 4.

Our first dessert was a fudgecicle with olive oil gelato and Dragon’s milk–sounds curious, right? If you haven’t tried Dragon’s milk before, it’s an aged beer with a very distinctive taste–bitter, burned–very dark.

When the dessert arrived at the table, the fudgecicle and olive oil ice cream were in the dish, and the Dragon’s milk was in a small pitcher. The manager then poured it over the dessert while standing at our table. The beer reacted a bit like a root beer float when it hit the chocolate and ice cream, created a small amount of foam at the bottom of the bowl. Pretty cool presentation.

Together, the taste of the fudgecicle, olive oil gelato, and beer is hard to describe. You really do experience individual flavor layors and textures in your mouth. First is the bitter, burned taste of the beer bursting on your tongue–liquidy and slightly foamy. Then, the smooth creamy sweetness of the gelato. Then, the thicker texture and intense chocolate flavor of the fudgecicle cubes.  Speaking of the fudgcicle cubes, I was expecting fudgecicle ice cream but the cubes are sort of a play on fudgecicle texture–the best I can describe them is as some kind of  intense combination of fudge and mousse–not quite as hard as fudge, not quite as soft as mousse.  My favorite part of the dish was the olive oil gelato–I have to find a recipe to try to make this. If you have one, please share it with me!

Our other dessert was out-of-the-park spectacular: Goat Cheese Bavaroise with a toffee Crème Brûlée crust, layered on top of  blueberries with a brown sugar cake bottom:

Pure Heaven.

Image the smoothiest, fluffiest, lightest cheesecake–that’s the texture of the goat cheese bavaroise. Creamy, rich, not too sweet, not too tangy. When you eat this, get a spoonful that will take you through all the layers in one bite:

At the bottom is a spongy cake, which contrasts perfectly the crunch of the house-made toffee on top. All around, it was one of the most well-balanced, “perfect” desserts I’ve ever had, and the perfect end to a lovely meal.

Drink: The Girl and The Goat has a top-notch beer menu. We tried two beers on tap–Three Floyds Robert the Bruce Munster ($6), a delicious Belgian ale–and Two Brothers Cane and Ebel ($7), a pale ale with a flowery, hoppy aroma that finishes clean with almost no malt–if anything there’s a hint of sweetness.

Gran Sarao Cava ($9), left, and Three Floyds Robert the Bruce Munster ($6), right

Other drinks at the table were a Gran Sarao Cava ($9)–good for if you’re looking for something sweet to play off the salty, rich flavors of Izard’s food–and a La Fiera Veneto Pinot Grigio ($8)–a great deal for what you get: a full glass, plus a side carafe.

Later in the evening we also tried a Pierre Ferrand Amber Grande Champagne Cognac ($13) with dessert. It paired well with the rich, decadent desserts.

Service: Everyone at our table agreed that The Girl and The Goat should be applauded for a gracious and smoothly run dinner service. Though The G&G is a newly opened restaurant, their team worked together like old, seasoned pros.  Amy, our server, provided amazing service to our table. She answered all of our questions and provided helpful information and recommendations about different choices on the menu. A manager also stopped by our table several times to ask if we needed anything, and later personally served our dessert. Our water glasses were always  filled, and our plates and flatware were discreetly replaced twice–once in the middle of our parade of food, and again for dessert. The wait team’s friendly and approachable attitude is exhibited in their “uniform”–a black t-shirt with different sayings on the back (“Please don’t feed the goats, but beer is fine”, “Caution: Goat Crossing”) and jeans.

Scene: I’d describe the decor as “urban-rustic”–high unfinished ceilings, exposed brink, and a front wall made up of large windows makes the restaurant feel very much like a West Loop converted loft/warehouse–while the antiqued black paint of the room’s large center pillars, the large plank wood floors, and the thick wooden tables that look like giant-sized cutting boards and simple wooden chairs give the restaurant a very rustic atmosphere.

Front wall of windows at The Girl and The Goat.

I loved the slightly smokey smell that filled the room and whet your appetite as soon as you entered. The noise level was also very good–it was easy to carry on a conversation throughout the evening.

The restaurant has a beautiful bar, and a small “lounge” area where you can comfortably wait to be seated (every table was booked the night we went, so make sure to get a reservation).

A fantastic, giant painting is the centerpiece of one corner of the restaurant and is really the only bit of color in the room so it draws a lot of deserved attention. Izard’s friend “Quang” painted it, depicting Stephanie with a goat (her last name Izard is a type of mountain goat that lives in the Pyrenees mountains)–thus the restaurant’s name was born (read more about it here).

The painting that gave the restaurant its name.

Dress: People were very casually dressed. The after-work crowd dominated the room, wearing very comfortable business casual. Not one tie could be seen. Very low-key dress, appropriate for the West Loop, will work fine. If you want, throw on a statement accessory or a strappy pair of shoes but there’s no need to go over the top.

Cost: $211 with tax, tip, food and drink was the total bill–split three ways the tab broke down to about $70 per person. I thought it was worth every penny–not bad at all for a memorable meal at what will undoubtedly be a “Best New Restaurant 2010.”

If you like, try: Avec, Blackbird, and Boka–G&G has the unexpected flavor and ingredient pairings reminiscent of Avec and Blackbird, but the “aura” that Avec/Blackbird has–there’s not as much hipster flare; G&G is more in line with the inventiveness of Boka, which focuses on fresh seasonal ingredients (FYI–Boka’s owners are actually partners of The Girl and The Goat, so it seems natural the two spots are compatible)