Thursday, September 25, 2008

Paloma: A Cozy Neighborhood Secret

Alright, so maybe it's not so much a secret, but it was new to me.

Last weekend it was so gorgeous out I couldn't sit still. I spent a lot of time wandering aimlessly around Greenpoint, trying to soak up the last few days of summer. On my last stretch home Saturday afternoon I walked past Paloma, a very quaint and cozy-looking spot right next to Coco66, on the opposite side of 68. Even though it's literally just a block down the street from us, we'd never been -- always too busy with our obsession with Brooklyn Label to even think about going here instead. Then I realized I was hungry -- very hungry. All that walking had caught up to me, and when did it all of a sudden become 2pm?

I went home to convince Rob it was brunch time and a few minutes later we were at an outdoor table. A waitress came by to bring us water and a few minutes later, a different waiter came to ask us what we wanted to drink. Right after that they both came to our table with a complementary sticky bun with pecans to apologize for forgetting about us. What, they had forgotten about us? I hadn't even noticed. Already I liked this place -- they were way more attentive than any other Greenpoint brunch spot I've ever been to, even at 2:00.

We sat outside a little longer before realizing that it was a bit too chilly (how quickly autumn comes!) and the waiter and waitress were more than happy to move us inside. First impression, I was surprised at how clean and cute the atmosphere was. Even though the place was practically empty, there was a live DJ spinning some really great 80s tunes. According to some reviewers on Yelp, they project old movies and cartoons on the wall as well. How fun! I also saw that a few magazines were tucked away in the corner. Rob and I both talked about how this is the sort of place you could easily linger at all day, and it seems like that's exactly what they WANT you to do (ahem..... BK Label).

Paloma had a few really unique menu options, so of course we went for the most obscure. Rob got the quinoa hashbrown with a poached egg and chorizo, accompanied by a tomatillo-avocado salsa. While it gets great points for creativity, the taste was only average. There was certainly nothing wrong with it, but I think it lacked a wow factor.

I ordered the Turkish eggs, which I've never had before and am still not 100% sure if I like them or not. It's weird, because my mouth is watering right now thinking about them. Hmm. Turkish eggs are poached and served with a spicy yogurt concotion of paprika, garlic and red pepper. Since its all mushy (and pretty strong tasting) Paloma serves them with "devoted soldiers," deep fried pieces of bread, for you to dip into the egg mess. The crunchiness of the bread helped to offset the creamy dish, but only so much as these devoted soliders were kinda greasy. It was really unique and tasty, but I still feel like something was missing. Maybe I could get a hunk of chorizo in there next time too?

Overall I thought it was a great place to eat and relax on my weekend of wandering unrest. When you're sick of super busy places like Brooklyn Label, this is the perfect little oasis. I wouldn't go back just for the food, but the next time I want to unwind by watching an obscure movie with some live-played records, I'll know where to go.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Five Leaves Debuts!

There isn't often a whole lot of hype when new restaurants open in Greenpoint, so I was excited when Five Leaves made its loud debut on Bedford Ave, right across from Lokal. I think a big part of the excitement has to do with the fact that the late Heath Ledger was a big financial contributor, and that Michelle Williams and Mary-Kate Olson attended the private opening on Tuesday (Wow, celebrities right in our own backyard!). Rob and I went to check it out on Thursday, and sure enough, the place was crawling with the neighborhood's trendiest just dying to be seen there. Even though the service was a little slow, I felt that the food was good enough to live up to the hype.

Five Leaves takes up an oddly-shaped corner space, and the designers did a great job of taking full advantage of it. A slight nautical theme features steel wallpaper, steel and wire light fixtures and poles wrapped in rope, but despite its hard appeal the restaurant manages to be really cozy and warm. A long alley of tables ends in an exposed kitchen to the right and a heavy door at the end leading to a similarly themed bathroom. The most unique part of the setup, though, is the Coffee To-Go window, which allows passersby to grab a cup of joe without having to elbow their way to the bar.

The bar has a few specialty cocktails, so I forwent my usual Stella and tried the Moscow Mule, vodka with lime juice and lots of ginger. At first I thought it would be too acidic and strong, but it was mixed perfectly. I have a feeling the bartender knew what he was doing. He seemed pretty confident when he told me he made excellent martinis and margaritas too.

For an appetizer we tried the homemade ricotta with figs and honey, which was amazing. The cheese was slightly more crumbly and less creamy than the kind you get at the store, and the herbs and figs gave it a nice Italian taste. Excuse the dark picture as it was awfully dim in there.

Now onto dinner. Rob and I both had a meat craving so he got a cheeseburger and I got the hanger steak. Rob's burger was pretty standard, unfortunately they forgot the bacon but it was tall and meaty all the same. The roll it was served on tasted fresh (not your typical hamburger bun) and they were accompanied by truffle fries (which unfortunately tasted a lot like normal fries to us). My hanger steak was a little more fun. While not anywhere near as tender as the hanger steak at Williamsburg's Pampa Grill, they jazzed it up with all the right ingredients. It's served with harissa butter, which is pungent (garlic, chili peppers, and other spices) and adds a nice kick of flavor. The mashed potatoes were surprisingly flavorful, lots of garlic and salt, it tasted like Thanksgiving came early this year. Then a nice vidalia onion for good measure. My only complaint was that after eating it, I was still hungry. Luckily they had a good dessert menu (which included a sorbet from my beloved Il Laboratorio Del Gelato).

Hanger Steak with Mashed Potatoes

I was feeling adventurous, so I ordered the poached pear instead. The waitress said it came with a custard, but instead it was just plain vanilla ice cream (which was fine with me). The duo was sprinkled with almonds and drizzled with honey, bringing our meal full circle. I would have lingered and ordered another drink, but at this point the place was becoming too loud and crowded for my taste. We paid as soon as we could get our waitress' attention -- couldn't they have told us it was cash-only beforehand? -- and elbowed our way out. I'm excited that this place is so is close to home, but I'm wondering how long it will be before the hype dies down.

Poached Pear and Ice Cream

Monday, September 15, 2008

Cafe Grumpy -- A Pleasant Greenpoint Gem

We'd lived in Greenpoint at least a year before we discovered it. It's easy to miss, as Cafe Grumpy is tucked away on the other side of McGuinness Ave on the corner of Meserole and Diamond. But once we found it it easily became our favorite neighborhood weekend coffee spot.

There are lots of great things about this cafe but fortunately the best part is the coffee -- it's fresh, flavorful and strong. The baristas are serious about what they do, and it shows. You can choose from their Clover menu what kind of bean you want (priced accordingly) and the barista will make it fresh from its one cup style machine. I usually just get a plain coffee (iced or hot depending on the weather) and its fantastic -- way better than Starbucks and a better caffeine boost to boot.

While we usually just grab a quick cup of joe on our way to or from somewhere, Cafe Grumpy isn't a bad place to hang out (especially if you're a hipster with a screenplay to write). Actually, the atmosphere is pretty unpretentious. Free WiFi, a few large tables and they recently opened up the roomy back space with board games and a couch. I like to think of it as the logical step up from a university coffeehouse (kind of like Think Coffee for post-college Brooklynites).

Last summer I loved one of their specialty drinks made with Nutella -- I think it was a cappuccino? -- but they don't make any unique concoctions anymore. I guess they wanted to concentrate solely on making regular coffee from choice coffee farms in South America (as is evident from their blog). Fair enough, though I miss my iced Nutella drink on hot days.

They don't have much of a food selection, but you don't come here for brunch, you come for some amazing coffee. They never disappoint in that regard.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Grimaldi's vs. John's of Bleecker Street: A Pizza Analysis

I've always been a big fan of pizza (who isn't?), but lately I've felt as though my knowledge of NYC pizzerias was lacking. I'd been to John's of Bleecker Street many a time, waiting in a reasonable line for a hot and cheesy thin-crusted pie, but that was about the extent of my "Best of NYC' pizza wisdom. I'd only had the chance to go to Grimaldi's once, and the line was so ridiculous that we decided to eat at a Mexican style hole in the wall instead (editor's note: not recommended).

I'd done some research and asked a few people what made Grimaldi's so great. At online forums everyone seemed to have a very strong opinion (either "the BEST" or "not worth the hype"), but no one backed up their opinions with anything solid. Even when I asked knowledgable friends point-blank, "which is better, John's or Grimaldi's, and why?" the best response I got was "I dont know... they're both good... in their own way." Needless to say, I felt I needed to do some research of my own to find out exactly what differentiated the two famous pizzerias. And so yesterday evening Rob and I took Bus 61 to D.U.M.B.O. to brave the line and judge for ourselves.

As expected, the line was out the door and down the street. We'd heard rumors that the wait would be about two hours, but we only waited around 45 minutes. That line moves quick.

Grimaldi's and the Line

Aside from the line being longer at Grimaldi's, both places have the same vibe from the outside. People flock around waiting hungrily and "No Slices" signs hang from the doors. So far, it seems familiar.

Once we were beckoned inside, we were seated across from one another in a long table of about eight of us. Now John's definitely doesn't pack you in like Grimaldi's does, but I have to say it might just be part of their charm. The happy music and loud chattering echoing around the family style room feeds the Italian soul. You're so close to other people that there's no doubt you will have at least some sort of conversation with them. However, the tables are so crowded that if the person next to you already got their pizza, its literally inches away from your nose and you can hear them chewing away happily -- a kind of torture for a hungry person waiting in line for close to an hour.

To make the analysis fair, we ordered exactly what we ordered the last time we visited John's: a large pie with garlic, ricotta cheese and pepperoni. It's a great combination that really mixes the textures and flavors well. The waiter was much like any waiter we'd ever had at John's: brusque, but speedy. It seemed like just a couple of minutes before we had our pizza sitting in front of us.

First impressions: the pizza was really hot so the cheese had that great stringy quality to it (ever notice that pizza just isn't stringy anymore?). Secondly, it was a little undercooked so the bottom of the pie was a little soggy. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it was pretty much impossible to pick up a slice and eat it while it was still hot.

And that brings me to my next point. Since the crust is so thin, the pie cools off quickly. And when it does that, the whole pizza changes dynamically. The cheese ceases to be stringy and instead sits melded onto the crust. The slices are much easier to handle when everythings congealed a little.

Now onto the actual taste: it was extremely satisfying. Each pizza comes topped with basil, and the Italian sweetness of the herb somehow penetrates into every bite. The pepperoni was really thick, some of them were like little cups holding their own individual puddles of grease. It's obvious that all the ingredients were really fresh, because they all stood out on their own. Even with all the garlic, you could taste the doughiness of the crust, the ripeness of the tomatoes, and even the mozzerella and ricotta cheese stood out as really fresh and strong. I dont know about you, but I've had plenty of pizzas that taste like absolutely nothing.

Despite its faults, Grimaldi's wins this one. While John's is very similar with the thin-crusted, coal brick oven roasted pizza, in the end it just isn't as memorable. The basil from Grimaldi's just might be the simple ingredient that separates the two and adds an extra kick of flavor.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Labor Day at the Fair

I know I've gotten off topic lately, and I promise I'll go right back to regular restuarant reviews after this one. But first, my fried food adventure. Last weekend I took a trip out to nowheresville, CT where they host the Goshen Fair each August. I've been almost every year since I was a little girl, and while I used to live for the pony rides and balloons, it's the fried food that keeps me coming back every year (umm.. well, that and the farm animals). Trust me, nothing can make you crave steamed vegetables more than a day with my family at the fair, but it's all in the name of tradition. And deliciousness.

First stop: Art's french fries. Anytime I ever have fries that are above the norm, I benchmark them right against Art's from the fair. And they usually fail. The fries are all made fresh,
of course, from sacks of potatoes sitting out behind the stand. Cut thick and fried to perfection, we'll salt those babies up and they're gone in seconds. I can't say for sure what makes them so good. We've had plenty of fresh potato fries at all sorts of different fairs, but none of them compare to Art's. Maybe one day we will learn their secret.

This year we decided to be economical and get the fries for us to nosh on during while in line for the fried dough. Again, you can get fried dough at any carnival or fair, but something about the fried dough at the Goshen Fair just makes your whole trip worth it. I'll admit that this year the fried dough tasted a little different than normal -- we overheard them fumbling with the oil temperature -- but it still came out well: just the right amount of chewiness (though I kinda missed the bubbles). I know most people like their fried dough with sugar and cinnamon, but my family and I always get the fried dough pizzas. Could you ask for sauce and cheese on anything better tasting?

All things come in threes, so our next stop, naturally, is the thin sliced onion rings. Again, you can see the bags of fresh, yet-to-be-peeled onions hanging out at the back of the stand, ready to be transformed into your next artery clogger. I love to look inside and watch the machine coat the newly sliced onions in batter before they're hand-dipped into the fryalater. They come out thin and slightly crispy. More salt and more fighting your family for more addicting fried food.

Alright, so usually three is enough, but we decided to push our limits this year and get some funnel cake too. Then we remembered that the funnel cake isn't on the rotation for a reason: there isn't anything very special about them. Sure, they're nice and thick, and they're covered in powdered sugar, but there isn't any addicting quality about them that keeps you coming back for more.

After a break from the food to look at the animals, check out the award-winning vegetables and watch the woodchopping competition, we grabbed a bag of salty-sweet kettle corn for the ride home. It was great to get away from cell phone coverage and breathe some fresh air for a few hours, but it was back to the city for me.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Journey Outside the City

Everyone needs to take some time to get away from it all, and Rob and I do this every August by spending a week at his family's cottage in Moody Beach, Maine. While I wasn't visiting any fancy restaurants or dissecting something unique a chef had made for us, we had plenty of fun culinary adventures all on our own. The best part about it all was that we used just a few fresh, local ingredients (think: fresh caught fish and Maine lobster) and let the meals form themselves naturally. If we didn't eat something all in one day, we'd find a way to incorporate it into the next meal. With up to 18 people in the cottage at any given time, we'd usually make as much as we could and see how much we could give away.

One of our first nights at the beach Rob smoked a rack of baby back ribs on the smoker. Unfortunately, this one wasn't a total success. The thermometer on the smoker was a little off and as a result the ribs weren't as tender as they could have been (though after 6 or so hours it had some great smokey flavor). The next morning we used the leftovers to make our own version of Fiore's "meat hash" -- chunks of rib meat, potatoes, onions and lots of paprika and other spices. I love a good plate of homefries in the morning and this one was a great vacation-y treat.

On Monday night, the culinarily involved cottage neighbors were nice enough to cater a lobster bake on the beach in honor of Rob's cousin and his fiancee. For appetizers they brought some amazine rosemary bread with lots of sea salt stuck around the outside. I whipped together some guacamole and brought out some chips. A few other snacks lay around the tent that was set up on the beach and most of us grabbed a beer as we watched the magic of the lobster bake take place. I didn't even know what a lobster bake was until that evening, but what a sight to behold! Once they got a small beach fire going they set a tin garbage bin on top of the flames in order to steam a whole bunch of food all at once. After filling up the bin with about six inches of water, they added seaweed, then potatoes wrapped in tin foil for 20 minutes, corn for another 20, 30 live lobster for yet another 20, then topped off with mussels for 10-15 minutes. The result? Perfect baked potatoes, super tender lobster meat and hot ears of corn.

The next morning we had a ton of food from the bake left over. Rob, his brothers and I got to work making an amazing breakfast of lobster benedict and (non-ribbed) homefries, then cutting up lots of leftover baked potatos and a few onions to set aside for a chowder that Rob's stepmom would put together later.

Rob got all the good bits of meat out of the lobsters and set them out on a tray of 12 English muffins. His brother Russ poached 12 eggs and I had the important task of stirring the hollandaise sauce. Greg made a pot of spicy homefries so high it looked like it was being sent to the army. Lots of scrambing to put everything together towards the end, but 12 of us had an amazing homemade lobster benedict breakfast and surprisingly, all of those homefries were gone in an hour. I didn't even get a picture of the final product because I was too busy running them out while they were still hot (and then, of course, digging into mine) but I'm sure you can imagine.

The chowder that Theo made later was made up of lobster bake leftovers as well -- mostly potatoes and corn cut right off the cob. She added some bacon to add some salty flavor -- I snacked on this for the rest of the week.

Russ spent hours fishing right off the beach for stripers, and one night he caught three of them. Rob grabbed a few things on hand and chopped them up -- celery, ginger, garlic, onion -- then stuffed it into each of the gutted fish. After they were grilled up, we all dug in. I'd never had striper and was a little unsure of trying it (I had heard they have a strong fishy flavor, and I'm not a fan of most fish) but it was tender, buttery and very mild. The celery was perfect to add a bit of crunch to the fish that would otherwise melt in your mouth.

The last food adventure of the week was almost entirely Rob's. He attempted (and succeeded!) to make the mussels and clams dish with chorizo in a tomato-beer broth that they used to have at our beloved 68 restaurant down on Greenpoint Ave. We picked up fresh clams at the lobster pound down the street, got some kind of salami at the wine and cheese shop because we couldn't find chorizo anywhere, and got our mussels from the grocery store. It was made completely on the fly (no recipe) and it came out great. I wasn't allowed to do much since this was Rob's project, so I melted some dark chocolate on baguettes for dessert. I was hoping to make it with chorizo (chocolate-chorizo our favorite baguette combo thanks to the amazing Tia Pol restaurant Julia introduced us to awhile back, a review to come!!) but plain chocolate fared just fine. It was a great sweet follow-up to the spicy tomato beer broth taste that lingered on your tongue.

Definitely a great vacation, and it was such a fun and unique experience to help prepare food for 12 instead of just 2. I never thought I'd say this, but I already miss the fish AND the leftovers (two things I am normally very picky about)!