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Is it a great wine? Hardly. Nevertheless, Amherst Farm Winery's Cranberry "fruit-infused grape wine" (12% ABV) has found a place on my Thanksgiving table the last several years.
Tart and bright, this cute little wine really does taste of cranberries—an ideal pairing with roast turkey and all its accompaniments. It can even offset the sweetness of a cloying cranberry sauce. With its vivid color, this wine adds a festive cranberry tone to any Thanksgiving celebration.
Amherst Farm Winery
529 Belchertown Rd (Rte 9)
Amherst, MA 01002-2705 (map)
For more than sixty years, generations of New Yorkers have visited Junior's Restaurant to eat, kibbitz, and indulge in a slice of the fabulous cheesecake. So popular was their dessert that, when the restaurant caught fire in 1981, horrified onlookers shouted, "Save the cheesecake!" My most fabulous friends asked me to spread the word about their National Cheesecake Day celebration taking place a week from today. On 30 July 2015, dine-in guests who order an entrée at any of the four Junior's locations will receive a slice of cheesecake (any variety) at half-price. (One slice per guest.)
386 Flatbush Avenue Extension
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201-5331 (map)
Please visit their website for other locations
Happy Bastille Day! While la fête nationale is celebrated every year on le 14 juillet in France, FIAF's annual street fest took place two days ago in la Nouvelle-York. Below is a sampling from this year's Bastille Day on 60th Street.
Booths offering freshly prepared Gallic snacks and packaged foods lined the three blocks between Fifth and Lexington Avenues.
Simply Gourmand featured a number of items for the pantry, including the extra-spicy Amora L'Extra Forte Dijon mustard. (The quotidian Amora is the analogous Gallic version of French's "classic" American yellow mustard.)
A notch or two higher is the delicious Maille, whose Cognac mustard is outstanding. Other flavors include Noix, Bleu, Basilic, and Crème de Cassis de Dijon.
Mange-ing merguez on le 14 is akin to eating hot dogs on the Fourth; having this grilled lamb sausage is de rigueur on Bastille Day.
While merguez is typically served within a sandwich stateside, the sausage is eaten sans bread—using knife and fork—in France. Alas, in Le Souk's Franco-American adaptation, the baguette masked much of the flavor of the spicy little sausages.
As in Paris, there were crêpe stands everywhere. Unlike Paris, however, these thin pancakes were considerably larger and far less delicate than their French cousins.
The most popular (and slowest) among the foregoing stands was that of the Crêpe Café, whose filling choices included traditional sugar, Nutella, ice cream, and the all-time French classic, PB & J.
Even after seeing how it was prepared, I rather enjoyed the simple butter sugar crêpe.
Other sweets included the canelé, a Bordelais speciality. This baked delight consists of a dark, caramelized shell encasing a moist, custard-like center. In Bordeaux, it's often served with crème anglaise.
The sweet treats from Canelé by Céline were good enough to be served in Bordeaux.
As always, the chocolatine, er, pain au chocolat from Olivier Dessyn's Mille-Feuille was excellent.
Some tasty freebies …
Savory milk and dark chocolate samples from Magique
Cookie samples from St Michel
While the outdoor events were free, the Champagne & Chocolate Tasting and the Wine, Cheese, Cocktails, and Beer sampling required an entrance fee.
Bastille Day on 60th Street
60th Street between Fifth and Lexington Avenues
Sunday, 12 July 2015, 12:00 Noon till 5:00 P.M.
When I received an invitation to try a brand new restaurant called The Cake Lounge in Little Ferry, New Jersey, I wasn't sure quite what to expect. Walking past Palermo's Café & Bakery, and ascending the steps to the floor directly above it, I assumed this would be an intimate evening spot for desserts, drinks, and live music. Ah, but this charming place turned out to be so much more than, well, a cake lounge.
With a nod to their native home in Sicily, the Bruno family established Palermo's Custom Cakes & Bakery some thirty years ago in the Garden State. Having earned wide recognition for their superb confections over the decades, they felt it was a propitious time to extend their brand beyond cakes and pastries. "We wanted to open up something where we could combine our background in sweets with the savory front-end [Italian] cuisine," co-owner Paolo Bruno explained, adding, "We wanted to keep it as authentic and as upscale as possible for the area."
Eclectic is perhaps best way to describe this contemporary Italian restaurant. Though seemingly random, the disparate collection of elements in the dining room was curated, with careful attention to detail, to afford an exquisite setting for dinner, dessert, drinks, or, as was the case for my Comestaccomplice and me, a fabulous evening out.
Before we even looked at our menus, two important aspects of the overall experience revealed themselves. First, the dining area was designed for the visual, physical, and auditory comfort of the diner. There was an emphasis on contrasting materials and textures throughout; the interplay of different woods, granites, and limestone in various shades of cream and black, together with a skillful use of glass and mirrors, created a stunning yet calming environment. Replicas of famous landmarks and a statue of Buddha stood out among the diverse sculptured confections on display in the unique Cake Gallery along the dining room's southern wall. "We wanted it to be upscale contemporary with a bit of an urban chic feel to it," Mr. Bruno told us. Grounding this setting was the creamy-soft leather upholstery of the chairs and banquettes.
Further punctuating the tone of casual opulence was the tasteful, live background music—comprising mostly Italian-American standards—that alternated between vocal and instrumental. (On our Thursday visit, we were treated to the musical stylings of John Micalizzi.) The only off-note in the vibe was the pair of televisions mounted over the bar—one tuned to sports news, the other to European football games. A glass partition between the bar area and the dining room did little to abate the distraction of the large screens.
The second memorable aspect of our evening was the impeccable service. We were greeted warmly and treated graciously. After declining two tables, we were finally settled, most elegantly, into one of the best in the house: a semicircular six-top reminiscent of the golden age of Hollywood. The headwaiter, Gennaro, came here from Sicily specifically to lend his hospitality skills to his family's new venture. He and his assistant were flawless in their service; they were informative and solicitous without being obtrusive. When one of us, attempting to exercise frugality, ordered an inexpensive wine, we were made to feel good about the selection. While many other establishments patronize the patron at this juncture, Gennaro made us feel comfortable.
Video: Gennaro describes I Piatti del Giorno
Perhaps the best part of this agreeable atmosphere was the absence of the rarefied air that typically excludes all but a privileged few; in less than three months, The Cake Lounge has established itself as a welcoming place for all. "We didn't want to create something that was outside of its own demographic," Mr. Bruno told us. That sentiment was also reflected in the reasonable menu prices: generous appetizers and pasta dishes were priced in the teens; mains ranged from the low 20s into the 40s.
We began with complimentary bruschetta, an appetizing start to our sumptuous banchetto.
One of the most telling aspects of any restaurant experience, at least for this diner, is the quality of the bread, and yes, the butter. The Cake Lounge scored highly in this category. The bread was crusty, creamy, and yeasty in proper proportion. While I prefer olive oil with my bread, I simply had to taste the butter as well. The burro had a rich, farm-fresh flavor, though possibly a grain too salty—but certainly not enough to lose points.
Almost all our dishes were selected from the chef's menu. Our starters, though quite sapid, did not really provide an accurate indication of what was to follow. While the Stuffed Artichoke—a whole flower head, stuffed with Parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, and garlic—was rather tasty, its unctuousness made the dish slightly heavy.
The Caprese was presented as a tower of alternating fresh mozzarella and tomato slices, culminating in a crown of fresh basil leaves, with roasted peppers encircling its base. This beautiful interpretation elevated a simple salad to artistic heights. Because this starter was listed on the regular menu, I should like to try it again when tomatoes are in season.
Our secondi were truly a main event. The Rack of Lamb alla Romana—brushed with Dijon mustard and sprinkled with seasoned bread crumbs—was outstanding. Upon determining what rare meant at this restaurant, my dining partner ordered her lamb medium rare to ensure the rack would be red rather than blue. It proved to be the right choice, for the doneness of the eight chops varied considerably—from medium on the outer ones to rare on the ones inside. The meat was as tender as could be, imparting deeply grassy and pure flavors as it melted in the mouth. While a mustard application can often overpower such a dish, the light touch of Dijon complemented the lamb's flavor in perfect measure. A glass of Villa di Capezzana Carmignano—with its medium firm dark fruit, hints of smoke, and smooth tannins—was the perfect wine pairing for this viand.
My Fillet of Salmon—topped with artichoke hearts, Boursin, and bread crumbs—was a pleasant departure from the usual preparations. The creaminess of the seasoned cheese, together with the mild acidity of the Mediterranean thistle hearts, matched the rich flavors of the perfectly cooked salmon, without overwhelming them. A glass of Primarius Pinot Noir—a light-medium-bodied Oregonian, with berry flavors and slight smokiness—was an exquisite wine partner to this fish dish. As with the lamb, this generous serving was plated artistically with its accompanying mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables. Both mains were as delightful visually as they were gustatorily.
To even think of forgoing dessert at The Cake Lounge would be utter folly. One look at the tray of luscious dolci immediately overpowered any possible resistance we could have offered.
My Comestaccomplice's initial reaction to the confectionery Lobster Tail was, "Wow, that's one serving?" After a very satisfying meal, it seemed almost too decadent to contemplate such an enormous portion. Upon taking her first bite, however, any misgivings dissipated quickly. This creamy crustacean was a marvelous marriage of flaky, buttery pastry with thick, rich whipped cream. Its perfect sweetness was achieved by judicious restraint in the use of sugar; there was just enough to distinguish the dairy flavor of the cream from that of the crust. While both elements were deep and rich, their flavors were clean and pure at the same time. When dairy becomes even slightly old, it imparts a faint barnyard flavor—before turning sour. The components of this sweet Tail were clearly fresh.
My companion's luxurious Espresso Martini was so seductive, she wanted to sip it all night. Martinis are not only specialty cocktails here, they're also confections. In addition to serving cake-inspired martini drinks, The Cake Lounge offers signature martini desserts—e.g., Strawberry Shortcake, Tiramisù, Nocciola, Red Velvet, etc.—crafted and served in martini glasses.
For my final course, I chose the more traditional Tiramisù. As with everything that preceded it, this lovely layered dessert was fashioned into a delicious work of art. The flavors of the coffee-infused ladyfingers, creamy mascarpone custard, and cocoa, paired exquisitely with a cup of espresso and a large snifter of Sambuca con la Mosca (literally, "Sambuca with the fly"). There were indeed "flies" in my liqueur—in the form of toasted coffee beans. It was a marvelous cap to a highly satisfying evening.
Launched just eleven weeks ago, The Cake Lounge has enjoyed an auspicious start. "As we move forward in the next few months, we'll be doing wine pairings, spirits pairings, cocktail pairings, along with dessert pairings," said Paolo Bruno, adding, "We're going to be introducing dessert flights with spirit, beverage, and cocktail flights … something you can't get anywhere else." The future surely looks sweet.
The Cake Lounge
389 Liberty Street (CR 503), 2nd Floor (NE corner Harding Pl)
Little Ferry, N.J. 07643-1008 (map)
More than 600 hungry foodies rocketed their way to Flushing Meadows Corona Park for this year's Queens Taste at the New York Hall of Science, a vestige of the 1964 World's Fair. With 66 tables showcasing 56 different purveyors of "the best food on the planet," the Queens Economic Development Corporation launched the thirteenth edition of its annual gustatory event on 12 May 2015—a stellar occasion in which to meet and eat.
This year, winning entries were chosen by popular vote; everyone who completed a ballot helped determine The People's Choice of Best Appetizer, Best Entrée, Best Dessert, and Most Refreshing Beverage.
Queens Taste 2015 video
Queens Taste 2015 welcomed several newcomers including Dan Frieber's carrot-based Tango Chile Sauce, an organic, piquant condiment with the potential to have myriad food partners. The hot sauce certainly accompanied tortilla chips well.
One of the sweet surprises of the evening was the highly addictive Amarena Fabbri. This delightful treat, made from wild black cherries, traces its origins to 1905—in Portomaggiore, Italy, not Queens. How dolce it is!
After its triumphant debut last year, Zenon Taverna returned armed, so to speak, with its famous Grilled Octopus (judged Best Entrée in 2014), along with Koupepia (stuffed grape leaves). Stuffed with rice, and seasoned with tomato, mint, onion, parsley, and fresh lemon juice, Zenon's koupepia would have typically contained chopped pork—an ingredient excluded from these samples in order to include vegetarians.
Chef Julio Velasquez's superb Steak Tartare from Bayside's Aperitif was the People's Choice of Best Appetizer—a rightly deserved distinction for this well prepared classic.
Chef Hugue Dufour of M.Wells in Long Island City rolled out an additional round of raw meat. His delicious spherical servings of Angus Beef Tartare were accompanied by simple potato chips.
Vinny Accardi's first Queens Taste was also a celebration of his first anniversary as chef and owner of Room 55 in Glendale. (His 5 May graduation fifteen years ago from the Culinary Institute of America was the inspiration for the restaurant's name.) Viewers of Hell's Kitchen may recognize him from the reality show's eighth season, in which he appeared as a contestant (video). Vinny's Taste debut featured Chilled Cucumber Greek Yogurt Soup, Pork Belly and Fresh Ham (seasoned with honey and pickled fennel), and Milk Chocolate Mousse S'mores (with housemade crème de marshmallow). The pork's sweet seasoning yielded flavors vaguely reminiscent of Chinese five-spice.
The Deconstructed Chicken Caesar Salad from LIC's Dutch Kills Centraal left me feeling like an outsider to an inside joke. This unusual diversion consisted of a romaine purée at its base, upon which a morsel of salt-cured chicken thigh, a garlic crouton, shredded Parmesan cheese, Caesar dressing, and bits of crumbled egg yolk were stacked. While a little jest such as this was probably meant to amuse my gueule, it did little to humor my palate.
Mulan, a contemporary Asian restaurant situated on the second floor of Queens Crossing in Flushing, served attractive chicken patties. Because my sample was cold, however, I was unable enjoy it fully.
Visitors to the Hall of Science witnessed an astronomical gastronomical line for one of the stars of this year's event. Bareburger's sliders—mouthwatering organic, grassfed chopped beef, topped with blue cheese and bacon jam, unified harmoniously in a bun—earned this Queens-centric chainlet the People's Choice accolade for Best Entrée. And yes, these delicious, all-natural little burgers were worth the wait.
Fairway served three types of slider: Grilled Chicken, Flank Steak, and Buffalo Chicken with Gorgonzola.
Just to the left of the sliders, tender, succulent Beef Tenderloin beckoned. Topped with a squirt of Fairway BBQ sauce, this bite-sized, perfectly cooked cut of beef melted in my mouth.
Of course, a slider from Woodside's F. Ottomanelli Burger & Belgian Fries was a must. It was excellent, as always.
Also from Woodside, La Adelita served tasty Fried Tacos.
One can always count on Leo's Latticini to serve Mama's Special signature sandwich, Caprese Salad, and a number of other perennial favorites. This year, Mama's of Corona (as it's known locally) introduced its version of Pizza Rustica, a delectable quiche-like pie, made with a variety of meats and cheeses. Traditionally served at Easter, pizza rustica can be nevertheless enjoyed any time of year. While there are many variants throughout Italy, Mama's is based on a family recipe from Bari. It was a welcome addition to their annual offerings.
"Flushing's hidden gem" came out of hiding with a prominent table position this time around. It was nearly impossible to miss Magna Ristorante's Letizia Barbetta and Eleonora Greco as they dished up their sapid Chicken Piccata (with lemon, capers, and artichokes) and Penne (with cheese, tomatoes, and artichokes).
Although I had nearly reached my point of satiety, an irresistible broiled salmon-shrimp dish from Flushing's Piccolo Sogno reeled me in. "Real Italian" Chef Maurizio's savory aquatic duo, enlivened by a sauce of white wine, lemon, and garlic, was truly a "little dream."
Jamaica's O Lavrador returned with more tasty Iberian fare. For this year's event, Chef Fernando Gomes prepared Seafood Paelha, along with Baked Clams and Bacon. Owing to a food allergy, alas, I was limited to sampling the latter only. Served in clam shells, the rich combination of mollusc and pig was satisfying but sinful.
Food is merely one aspect of Neir's Tavern's considerable allure. Established in 1829, "the most famous bar you've never heard of" is also one of the oldest in New York. Before it was featured in Goodfellas and Tower Heist, this historic Woodhaven tavern was purportedly the venue of Mae West's first performance. At its Queens Taste premiere, Neir's served Cotton Candy-flavored Wings, Saddle-Up Wings, Boneless Chicken Tender Bites, and Burger Bites. I skipped the first one, but tried the rest; the heat of the Saddle-Up wings made them my favorite.
Redwood Deli of Forest Hills was back with a tasty offering that delivered appreciable heat: Spicy Chicken Tacos.
Hoping to repeat its 2014 success, Murphy's Bar of Sunnyside returned with raw oysters (judged Best Appetizer last year), and introduced a crustacean variant of a common sandwich. The Blue Point Oysters were titillatingly fresh, and the Lobster BLT—lobster, applewood-smoked bacon, mesclun, and tomato—was uncommonly delicious.
Ginger is a marvelous digestive aid, and Bruce Cost's unfiltered sparking beverage provides a refreshing way to enjoy it. Made with fresh ginger, sweetened with pure cane sugar, this natural ginger ale contains no extracts or oils. It's the perfect drink for those who gormandize at events such as this.
There were five flavors from which to choose: Original, Jasmine Tea, Pomegranate with Hibiscus, Passion Fruit with Turmeric, and the 66-calorie Bruce Cost 66.
I've been a fan of Drink More Good's old-fashioned soda syrups ever since I tried the Ginger Ale last year. Founder Jason Schuler handcrafts his syrups with half the constituent sugar of mainstream sodas. He uses neither high-fructose corn syrup nor preservatives; his ingredients are truly more good. On this occasion, I tasted Jason's Lemon-Lime—a syrup that blends the juice of fresh, organic lemons and limes (zested and pressed by hand) with coriander, allspice, and lavender. Mixed with seltzer, it was a "sprightly" alternative to bottled and canned fizz.
Other beverages included a variety of hard ciders, beer, wine, and mixed drinks.
LIC's SquareWine & Spirits dispensed a couple of wines along with a spirituous iced tea. Michael Hesslein poured a Verdicchio and a Rhône blend (from Washington), while Maegan Kovatch "tead" off with an Arnold Palmer spiked with Deep Eddy Sweet Tea Vodka.
LIC's Beija Flor showed lots of spirit with its sweet Caipirinha, the cachaça-based national cocktail of Brazil.
Queens Courage Old Tom gin, distilled in Astoria, was a key ingredient in the 2015 People's Choice of Most Refreshing Beverage.
On to the sweets …
The lovely little cakes and pastries from Rose House at Queens Crossing in Flushing were as delicious to the taste buds as they were to the eyes.
Sam Friedman, The Paleo Factory's "Chief Caveman," produces Mud from "ingredients that come from the earth." He blends coconut milk (as a base), cashews (for texture), a flavor element—Madagascar beans (vanilla), raw cacao powder (chocolate), or bananas—and dates (as a sweetener) to yield a pleasingly smooth consistency between those of soft-serve ice cream and mousse.
Served chilled, this modern Stone Age dessert was delicious and not overly sweet. (The Chocolate was especially good.) Here's Mud in your mouth!
My chocolate mini-Bundt cake from Bundts NYC was not quite so moist as it looked.
Having scooped up the award for Best Dessert at their first Queens Taste appearance last year, DF Mavens sought to defend their 2014 title with three more dairy-free frozen desserts: New Orleans Salted Praline (soy milk), Mint Almond Cookie (almond milk), and Key Lime Creme (coconut milk). (The flavors were best enjoyed separately.) Their efforts, however, did not garner the top honor on this occasion.
The Nachspeisen of Rudy's Bakery & Café, a German stalwart in Ridgewood, earned their just deserts in the 2015 People's Choice ballot. Pastry Chef Cristina Nastasi's winning Süßigkeiten included Berry Mascarpone Shortcake, Chocolate Hazelnut Cake, and Mallomars. I had fortuitously saved this year's Best Dessert for last.
Rudy's and Cristina afforded a delightfully sweet finish to the Taste!
Another year, another great celebration of the wide variety of flavors that enrich New York's most diverse borough. "The best food on the planet" served at Queens Taste 2015 in the New York Hall of Science was, dare I say, out of this world. As ever, my sincerest thanks to Seth Bornstein and Rob MacKay.
Queens Taste 2015
Tuesday, 12 May 2015, 6:00 P.M. till 9:00 P.M.
Last week, I savored a parting view of Paulette Tavormina's exhibit, Bodegón (meaning "from the pantry"), at the Robert Mann Gallery in Chelsea. Her splendid tableaux of fruit, bread, and meat, alongside rustic pottery and cookware, are a veritable feast for the eyes. Inspired by Spanish painter Luis Meléndez (1716–1780), Tavormina's still lifes represent a deliciously balanced interplay of colors and textures against a contrasting black background. The exhibit closed last Saturday. In case you missed it …
Robert Mann Gallery
525 West 26th Street
New York, N.Y. 10001-5514 (map)
Whether the concept of serving Greek street food in a restaurant setting is intentional or not, it is executed superbly at bZ Grill in Astoria. Don't look for casserole-style main courses like moussaka or pastitsio here. Such items, as well as seafood platters, roasted chicken and lamb, and other typical Hellenic restaurant dishes, are conspicuously absent from the menu.
The variety of Greek and Cypriot meat offerings is by no means austere, however. While our original mission was to investigate bZ Grill's "New York's best gyro" contention, we ended up sampling that speciality and a lot more with the Mix Grill for two ($25.72), an overflowing plate comprising Chicken and Pork Gyro,
Bifteki Gemista (a "Greek burger" made with seasoned ground beef, stuffed with goat cheese),
Seftalia (a homemade Cypriot pork sausage with hints of fresh mint inside),
and Loukaniko (a Greek sausage marinated with red wine and leeks)—all heaped upon a pile of outstanding french fries. (Greek cooking takes both the flavor and texture of its potatoes seriously.) Tzatziki and taramasalata spreads, along with sliced tomatoes and onions, and a stack of warm pita rounded out our sampler. The meats, all processed at bZ's own plant, were authentically spiced and deliciously satisfying. (For an additional grain of authenticity, there was even a shaker of Kalas Greek sea salt, albeit iodized, on the table.)
Also tasty was our Greek Salad ($9.61) of tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, peppers, and olives, topped with slabs of feta imported directly to the restaurant from Greece. The outstanding quality and flavor of the cheese, enhanced by sprinkles of olive oil and oregano, made us forget that tomatoes were out of season, a rare achievement this time of year.
One curiosity was that the hallmark meat element one expects in a gyro was nowhere to be found: spiced ground lamb (usually blended with ground beef) rotating on a vertical spit. BZ Grill's spits instead offered marinated chicken and pork with plenty of fat remaining. The latter is plated with slices of absolutely irresistible crackling pork. The resulting gyros are among New York's best.
To accompany our mixed grill, we enjoyed a bottle of Hatzimichalis Erythros Red 2007, a smooth and pleasant Bordeaux blend that tasted more like a California interpretation of a Rhône. It lacked the hard spice and lean tannins usually associated with Greek and Cypriot dry reds, suggesting, perhaps, that Greece exports wines tailored to the American palate, while it retains its "typical" wines for domestic consumption.
Although the sunken dining room is somewhat spare, it afforded a comfortable indoor setting in which to enjoy mouthwatering outdoor comestibles. Greek street food has found a good home at bZ Grill.
27-02 Astoria Boulevard (27th Street)
Astoria, N.Y. 11102-1926 (map)
Watch: The busy bZ grill
Comestiblab: What do a Greek sliced-meat dish and a framed-disk apparatus have in common? Both the gyro and the gyroscope owe their names to gyros (γύρος), a Greek word meaning "turn" or "revolution." Thus, gyro meat and the disk inside a gyroscope are said to gyrate around an axis.
While gyro is pronounced "YHEE·rho" in Greece, the word is commonly pronounced "JYE·roe" in New York and in most of the United States.
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