Tuesday, May 26, 2015

To SUR, with Hate (LA)

I’m not proud to say I have a weakness for most of the Housewife mayhem that spouts from the blowhard mouth of Bravo, sucking me and many of my unassuming friends in for the train-wreck. This included my east coast pal, Taryn, so we agreed that the next time she visited San Diego, we’d road trip to LA and eat at (Beverly Hills Housewife) Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurant, SUR.

As the setting of Vamperpump Rules, SUR buzzed like a hive of iniquity where the pretty and privileged, degenerate, worker bees (and self-perceived queens) pollinated all the drama you could stomach.

Vanderpump’s Vibe
But this hive was a heap, and my first thought upon entering was that of a basement/ warehouse turned restaurant. The purple, velvet curtains shuttering the entrance were heavy, but cheap looking, like the kind you’d see in some high school stoner’s bedroom. Light was scarce. We were seated right next to an enormous, concrete planter, which looked more like a lawn ornament from an English estate than indoor décor, especially since it cut into my side like an oversized man spilling from his seat on a plane.

We weren’t given any menus, so I asked the kid filling our water, and he looked at me like I was nuts. He paused then said, “Let me see if we have any.” He came back with only one menu. For us to share? Was this an LA thing? (Menus are soooooo 2014!!)


Apps: Fried goat cheese balls, cucumber salad, mango sauce
But in fact, there was one item which we already knew we wanted - fried goat cheese balls. In one particular episode, the show’s evil queen, Stassi, raved about them. I'd pictured finely sculpted orbs, rolled lightly in breadcrumbs and herbs, but I should have known better than to trust that lying trollop! Three deep-fried, teeny tiny balls, no bigger than a marble, arrived masquerading as mozzarella stick’s ugly step-sisters. The only thing that could cut through their inch-thick breading was the mango slime that drenched the limp bed of grated carrots and cucumbers beneath.

Entrée: Roasted rack of lamb, rosemary red wine sauce, two side orders
SUR’s selections read like a cafeteria menu – pick a side and a veg - was that served on a metal tray? We kept trying to decide on entrees, but between the four chicken dishes, meatloaf, and pasta, it was slim pickings. The only thing that caught my eye was the lamb, and I paired it with a side salad and mashed potatoes (yawn). At this point, Taryn looked over in disappointment and said, “Do you just want to split an entrée?” I mean, it only made sense to order one meal, since we only had one menu, and after the cheese ball blunder and the lackluster list before us, I readily agreed…and we couldn’t have made a better decision.

First of all, the SIDE salad was served on the same plate as the lamb and potatoes, which meant that all of the balsamic vinaigrette and the lamb’s watery, red wine sauce ran together, until there was no separating the two. And could there be anything more unappetizing than warm, wilted lettuce? I think not. I’ve seen Lisa Vanderpump’s house; her closet was bigger than most apartments. She could afford to spring for a few salad bowls.

The lamb was under-seasoned, but decent. The four, petite chops were cooked to the correct temperature and had enough of their natural juices left to wash away the gluey after-paste from SUR’s extra starchy, mashed potatoes.

Dessert: Crepes with dulce de leche and whipped cream
Dessert was the only highlight. Delicate crepes, thinner than the tablecloth, came folded and filled with the caramelized, creamy decadence of dulce de leche, and topped with homemade whipped cream. Tasty, but definitely not worth the trip. 

Boulevard of Broken Dinners
What was worth the trip was our “celebrity” sighting of Katie (the girl next door who finally found her voice). And Peter (the "I want to be Rico Suave” manager, but just a goofy guy [with great abs]), who was nice enough to take a picture with us.

And in reality (TV), that’s what we were there for: the cheap thrill. The fact that dinner was a disaster only made sense because we had ditched our integrity for a quick dance with celebrity, and our palates were punished for such shallow sins.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Feasting Flashbacks: A December Night at Nougatine at Jean-Georges (Manhattan)

Who knew that our little legs would carry us from the theater on W. 45th street to Central Park West in such a hurry? Maybe it was the sea of holiday traffic propelling us forward, our feet barely touching the pavement (unlike the few poor fish struggling upstream), that had us knocking on Nougatine’s door at 5:30 pm, even though our reservations weren’t until 7 pm.

Nougatine, Jean-Georges’ sister restaurant, or should I say Siamese twin, shared the same location and was separated only by a wall…and atmospheric conditions - Nougatine as the laid-back lounge vs. the elite sophistication of Jean-Georges.  Ninety minutes was a long time to spend at the bar, but once we realized we could order the entire menu bar-side, we decided to get dinner cracking.

We got cracking alright, even though a nut cracker wasn’t needed for the fanciful array of bar snacks spilling over in silver bowls - wasabi nuts, cinnamon almonds, seasoned popcorn = one posh nosh.

Mental note:
1) Coming here for drinks would include access to these snacks.
2) Come here for drinks.

Drinks – Such Great Heitz
Wait, I was confused. The Heitz Cellar cabernet I wanted was…$29 a bottle? That seemed kind of low, but there was a glass for $15, so that had to be the bottle price, right? My brow creased in confusion until I figured out that it cost $15 for a tasting, and was $29 a glass!!

Nurse! Nurse! Someone call a nurse because that’s what I’d being doing with this glass for the entire meal – talk about savor the flavor. But just when I had one sip left, a couple came up to the bar in search of two seats. There was one on either side of my mother and I, so even though we were right in the middle of dinner, I asked if they wanted us to move down so they could sit together.

They couldn’t thank us enough and as we slid our plates down (with the help of the attentive bar-back), the bartender came over and said, “That was really nice of you.” And with that, he took out the Heitz Cellar bottle and poured me another full glass! YES!!! Now, that’s what I call instant karma cabernet.

Raspberry Lychee Bellini : Drusian Prosecco, Raspberry, Lychee
The cocktails weren’t much cheaper, since the Bellini was $18, but then again, we were at a Jean-Georges joint, so I guess that was to be expected. Plus my mom loved their bend on a classic Bellini - switching the peachy for lychee – nice twist!


Amuse bouche: Chestnut broth with spinach/cheese ravioli
Of all the infectious olfactory senses Manhattan could extract, there was one which I loathed: roasted chestnuts. It was impossible to escape the fuel-filled force field surrounding these vendors and their suffocating stench, choking the throat and nostrils. So when our amuse bouche of chestnut broth was placed before us, I was still stuck on that street stank, but then poof:

Nat King Cole appeared in a cable knit cardigan, his crooked arm resting languidly on a mantle above a roaring fire, before slowly turning and belting out, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…

Besides my mental crooning, I was making noises that were bordering on inappropriate every time I had a sip. I couldn’t control the guttural grunts that spewed from my mouth as I downed this magical elixir.  The pillow of mini-ravioli fluffed nicely on the tongue, but in reality was just a distraction from my broth. Oh, my beloved broth!!!  My biggest regret was not asking for an entire bowl of you!!

Lobster burger with Gruyere cheese, green chili mayonnaise, yuzu pickles

Step over SpongeBob because crabby patties ain’t got nothing on Nougatine’s lobster burger. This compact cutie was succulent and full of hunky lobster, which paired well with the subtle tang of Gruyere and though it worked as a sophisticated snack, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a memorable dinner pick. 

As usual, my mom and I agreed that there was just nothing better than lobster au natural with drawn butter (note: as an admitted lobster purist, I’m not the most objective).

Veal Milanese – parmesan, pecans, lemons, capers, escarole

Boy, was it chilly out, and whenever I visited the East Coast, all of my wintery, comfort food cravings came back with ferocity. My usual go-to was some type of burger* or pasta dish, but the idea of thinly sliced medallions of lightly fried meat was exactly what I was looking for.

 Lemon led the way, popping up like spring flowers for a perpetual brightness in a somewhat heavy dish, and a smattering of chopped pecans added somes unexpected woody undertones. My veal: like velvet. It became the supple, paper-thin lining in a cape of beaded breadcrumbs, the craggy surface catching all the salty bursts of capers and freshly grated parmesan.

Dessert Amuse: Truffles to go

nou·ga·tine(ˈno͞oɡəˌtēn/) noun
1. nougat covered with chocolate.

We were handed two shiny bags, each containing a small box big enough for a pair of earrings. And indeed, it was a matched set…of house-made truffles! Tiny squares covered with sheer, dark chocolate dissolved into the airy, homespun nougat that gently tousled the tongue before waving good-bye.

*How big is your burger?
When I was still debating what to order, I considered checking out their cheeseburger. But I needed to see how thick their burgers were because I’m not a fan of biting into a giant wall of meat, so I figured I’d ask. Simple question, right? Not so much. Since my karma-pouring pal was busy, I asked the second bartender, who I will nickname Snotty McClure (SMC) and this was the conversation that followed:

Me: Excuse me, could you tell me how thick your burger is?

SMC: The usual thickness.

Me:  So would you say it’s a big burger?

SMC: There are bigger burgers.

Me: Um, so is it thick or thin?

SMC: Relatively thick.

Me: *moving thumb and index finger up and down to mimic its possible thickness* This big? Or this big?

SMC: Well, how are you going to have it cooked?

Me: Medium rare, medium.

SMC: Then yes, it would be a relatively thick burger.

Me: Okkkkkkkk, thanks.

Besides that, service was impeccable, especially the bar-back who helped us move down when the couple arrived and gave us our parting gift of truffles.  And of course, the St. Peter of Pours, my favorite bartender, who saw to it that a second coming of cabernet passed through my pearly whites.

Spies like Us
Also, the couple who we moved down for ended up being some sort of super connected, Nougatine know-it-alls. Besides calling everyone by their  first name and having the bartender prepare his “usual”, the man started ordering dishes that were nowhere on the menu! Of course, as a Grade A eavesdropper and unapologetic, staring champion, I watched with mouth agape as suspicious sauces and incognito entrees were laid before them, course after course.  

Nougatine’s narrative
What I learned from my night at Nougatine was that sometimes you needed to take the table less traveled, and sit bar-side.  It might just end up being the best seat in the house. Also, it doesn’t cost anything to be nice…and sometimes that karma came back immediately in the form of free wine and secret menus of Manhattan's restaurant world.