Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wine Vault San Diego Restaurant Week 2014

Ah, Restaurant WeekA grand idea birthed with the purpose of drawing out customers to local eateries at a reduced rate, with the hopes that these samplings would bring crowds back at full-price in the future. But it seemed to have become wrought with flaws – from menus that hardly resembled an establishment’s usual fare to over-priced prix-fixes, it didn't always turn out to be such a great deal. Balancing costs and quality product, while remaining true to the tone of the restaurant was a circus act that only a few could pull off.

And that's exactly the reason I'd crowned Wine Vault and Bistro as Restaurant Week's official ringmaster because weekly, affordable tasting menus was their year round specialty: 3-course Fridays ($25/ $15 wine pairing) and 5-course Saturdays ($35/ $25 wine pairing).

Here's a look at their Restaurant Week menu: $25 dinner/ $15 wine pairing (my choices highlighted below). Restaurant Week also meant you received a free glass of bubbly when mentioning their mailing list!

FIRST COURSE (choose one)
Wild King Salmon Tartare | Essence of Chipotle | Red Caviar | Taro Chips
2012 Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc (5 oz. pour)

Roasted Yellow Squash Stuffed With Mediterranean Quinoa | French Feta Cheese | Moroccan Oil-Cured Black Olives | Oven-Dried Tomato Vinaigrette
2012 Matchbook Chardonnay (5 oz. pour)

Peking Duck Breast | Buckwheat Soba Noodles | Shiitake Mushroom Dashi
2012 R2 "Black Pine" Pinot Noir (5 oz. pour)

The first thing that came to mind when thinking of Peking duck was that crispy skin…this didn’t have much of that and my duck could have been cooked a little bit more, but these were some beautiful breasts. The wine pairing was a delicate pinot noir that wrapped my tongue in tannins and folded in nicely with the fowl.

 SECOND COURSE (choose one)
Braised Local Sea Bass | Smoked Tomato + Saffron Broth | Red Pepper Orzo
2012 Stolpman Roussanne (5 oz. pour)

Seared Gnocchi | Heirloom Tomato + Basil Pesto | Sweet Peppers | Swiss Chard
2010 Burgess Merlot (5 oz. pour)

Sous Vide Argentinean Skirt Steak | Patatas Bravas | Whole Roasted Tomato | Chimichurri>
2012 Tres Picos Garnacha (5 oz. pour)

*cue Dire Straits music* They are the sultans of steak! And have sous vide-d meat down to a science. I loved their version of chimichurri and its viscous, garlicy, green consistency, differing from the many times I'd had it in a chunky, raw format of herbs, garlic, and olive oil loosely whisked together. My steak was buttery and seasoned to perfection. And the tomato! Simply cooked with breadcrumbs, it was bright and sweet and added lightness to the heavier “meat and potatoes” components on the plate.

THIRD COURSE (choose one)
Housemade Rum Raisin Ice Cream | "Blondie" Biscotti | P.X. Drizzle
NV Dios Baco 34-Year-Old Pedro Ximenez Sherry (1 oz. pour)

Crema Catalana (Barcelona-Style Crème Brûlée) | Candied Burnet Orange Zest
2013 Margerum "Late Harvest" Viognier (3 oz. pour)

They know how to brûlée some crema, I'll tell ya! Orange zest, candied crust and a light white wine to finish it off  - superb. 

Trio of French Cheeses | Chef's Whim Accompaniments | Maldon Salt Flat Bread
Torres Spanish Orange Brandy (1 oz. pour)

Cheese please! This was a luxurious end to the meal with special accouterments for each bite - a little apple for my gouda, apricot preserves for my blue, and caramelized shallots for my brie. The orange brandy wasn't my favorite, but for a total of $40, I could have cared less - it was a small hiccup in an exquisite three-course adventure, full of surprises and delights. Even the so-so points were chalked up to a learning experience at an affordable price.

$40 deal: It was the best bang for your buck during Restaurant Week, but even if you couldn't make it this week, there was always next week, where the price and the food would be just as impressive.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Manhattan - Summer 2014

Spontaneous and the City

One of the best perks of visiting my family back in Jersey was that there was usually a pretty good chance of taking a quick day trip to Manhattan. My favorite days were the ones where my mom, Eddie, and I rolled out of bed late, hopped on an afternoon train to Penn Station, and arrived with only a loose idea of where we might venture, leaving the rest up to chance.

And that’s when I always saw the City at its best – like a candid photograph that couldn’t be posed or planned – captured at exactly that right moment with an unmatched grit and vulnerable beauty that got me every time.

First stop: Eataly (200 Fifth Ave)
Ok, the name was a little corny and it didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but Mario Batalli figured out a way to plant an enormous, European-style market in the middle of Manhattan (and it was only about a 10 minute walk from Penn Station) - Eataly.

Baskets of fresh produce runneth over...

...and so did the customer service. They'd clean and cut your veggies for you?! Now that's what I call some first-class, grocery shopping.

Glass cases shone with cuts of ruby red proteins...

...and housed carefully wound nests of homemade pasta.

Sleeves of salami hung from the ceiling and beneath, cheeses were piled high like Autumn leaves - silently beckoning me to jump in, toss them in the air, and roll around in my unbridled joy for a while. But there was no time for that since my stomach was demanding to see the sights too, so we checked out the prepared food stalls serving lunch. These stands were offering everything from pizzas and pasta to freshly butchered meats, seafood, vegetarian* - you name it. But for Eddie and I, we had already spotted our prize: the salty meats and cheese booth!!

*I immediately scoffed at the vegetarian stall, being an avid carnivore, but that was before I tasted the sample of grilled corn they laid out.

Coming from Jersey, I’ve had my share of unbeatable, sweet summer corn, but this took the cake, or should I say the cob – either way it made me realize veggies were worthy too.

But with that being said, bring on the MEAT AND CHEESE!

La Piazza was primarily composed of high tables, where patrons could stand and enjoy a quick nosh (much like the San Miguel Market in Madrid), but Eddie and I were ready for a serious sit-down feast, so we squeezed into the only seats offered: an almost-too-close-for-comfort bar that seated about 12 (probably 10 comfortably) within arm's length from shiny, red meat slicers.

We decided within minutes to try the Grande Piatto Misto Di Salumi & Formaggi ($22), their all-encompassing meat and cheese board that had a little bit of everything:

All of these salty, porky delights were included on their basic board.

These were the cheeses included. I highly recommend ordering this. For $22, it was a steal.

Our bounty arrived with brown-paper parcels of crusty, sliced bread and a dish bearing the most lovely accoutrements - figs, apricot preserves, and a river of amaretto honey.

We decided that our Italian feast deserved a bit of bubbly to complete the celebration, so we ordered a beautifully, dry bottle of Flor prosecco ($33) to wash it all down.

And even though we had more than our fair share of cheese, our front row seats wouldn't allow us to turn a blind eye to the fresh balls of mozzarella being sculpted in front of us and the sea-salted, olive oiled, basil leaves which accompanied them - one order please!

Our total with tip: $86. And that is why I Love New York.

Second stop: Union Square (14th-17th Street, Broadway and Park)

Our next stop was Union Square (another 10 minute walk) because even on our spontaneous days, we usually managed to find our way over here, for a couple reasons:

1) Union Square Park– this pretty much guaranteed some type of artistic find - a canvas of swirled oils or meticulous ink sketches (I’d hit the jackpot multiple times). But by far my favorite art form at Union Square was the endless parade of street entertainers that held court there*.

Double Dutch: This time we ran into two guys that were teaching people how to double dutch, and of course, I couldn’t resist but jumping in (literally). By my third try, I finally got my “beat” down and felt my endorphins rise like the tide. After high-fiving my teachers, I stood catching my breath and scanned the surrounding crowd of all ages, either willing to give it a try or just cheering one another on. As I watched the child-like excitement wash over us all, I thought, who knew that the simple answer to happiness lay between two ropes?

And that is why I Love New York.

*Always remember that if you enjoy, participate or stop for a street performer, TIP (generously)!!

2) Blue Water Grill – Sometimes the memory could play tricks on you, but there was never a time I visited Blue Water where my most idolized drink, the passion fruit cosmopolitan, didn’t live up to my mind’s infatuation. We’d always sit outside in what looked like an elongated, opera box of sorts, running the length of the restaurant and elevated only a few feet from the street. So close that you felt like you could snatch up the nearest passer-by and invite them for a bite = people watching at its best.  

The great Dane: Dane, our waiter, was beyond friendly, so we saw his mental anguish when (after realizing we were still full from Eataly) Eddie told him that we were only ordering an appetizer. Not realizing that we were approaching dinnertime, we completely understood when Dane apologetically told us that the outside seating was only for full service, but that we could move to the bar and enjoy our arancini (rice balls with corn, cilantro, queso fresco) problem Dane!

As we were about to switch tables, the manager came over, also apologizing profusely, and carried our drinks to the cozy, amber tones of the lounge.

“Are either of you allergic to shellfish?” he asked. I shook my head and asked why.

“We’ll send over some shrimp dumplings since you’ve been so understanding. We can’t thank you enough.”

What?! As a former waitress, I felt it was my faux-pas for not noticing we were taking up a primo table when not ordering a full meal. But these guys were pure class. Plus, Dane remained. He waited on us until the end - repeatedly letting us know how much he appreciated us, and we parted as pals.

And that is why I Love New York.

Third stop: Greeley Street Park (Broadway, Ave of the Americas bet. W 32 St & W 33 St)

*In a New York minute (ewww ewww ewww), everything changes*

By deciding to cut over one block on our walk back to Penn Station, Eddie and I found ourselves at an unexpected crossroads. I finally understood what it must have been like for Hansel and Gretel to find the witch’s candy-laden house in the woods. And even more, I understood why they had attacked the old crone's home like wild animals – because it pricked every pleasure sense in the brain and left self-control two steps behind. I bared my teeth in delight and surveyed what lay before me – Greeley Street Park.

Gumball-sized, light bulbs led the way down a path of endless food stalls in this seasonal, pop-up food fantasy known as Broadway Bites. Here's just a few in the line-up:

Seoul Lee Korean BBQ  - probably the crispiest, most flavorful chicken wings I've every had... and they went great with my frozen white wine sangria from the Nunu's Beers and Scoops!

Palenque Colombian Food - Arepas for everyone!

Red Hook Lobster Pound - East Coast = Maine Lobster!

Mason Jar NYC - portable and delicious!

Jicama California Street Food - pork doughnut slider, anyone?

Breads Bakery - pastries, breads, babkas...and the nicest people in the park!

Apparently the bewitching hour at Greeley Street Park was 9pm since everyone started closing up shop. As we exited the gates, the woman from Breads Bakery began bagging up their unsold leftovers into several small packages and handing them out - I got one! Receiving this butter-stained bag of savory, phyllo treats was more exhilarating that catching a fly ball or a bouquet. I looked around as if I should be congratulated on my luck, but the City whirred around me without noticing my triumph.

But that was ok. It had already given me enough - stories for days, memories for miles and enough injuries to last a lifetime (my knee's still aching from the double dutch lesson, but I wouldn't have it any other way).

And that is why I Love New York...

...they should really put that on a t-shirt or something.