Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tapas: Tia Pol and Alta

Even though I don't talk about tapas all that often, I think they are my favorite cuisine. I love hacking away at a big piece of steak as much as (or probably more than) the next person, but the endless parade of fun, inventive plates brings a variety to your meal that you can't get otherwise.

Aside from the Japanese tapas we get at Bozu, the only real (read: Spanish) tapas places I ever go to in the city are Tia Pol and Alta. I definitely need to expand my horizons in this area. Each of these spots have their merits and their drawbacks. I've been to Tia Pol maybe five times now and don't plan on stopping my occasional visits; I visited Alta for the second, and probably last, time last night.

Tia Pol, located in Chelsea, is unfortunately very tiny and they do not take reservations. Not an ideal setup when you want to catch up with someone, as the crowded group of waiting people are literally breathing down your back (at least in the seat I always seem to get) and the waiters are clearly rushing you out. BUT, Tia Pol has the greatest sangria I've ever had in my life. Their crispy hot patatas bravas with aioli are insanely addicting. Chorizo and bittersweet chocolate on toasted bread bring the sweet/salty combo to a new level with crunchy, soft and chewy textures all in one bite. Their lamb skewers are incredibly tender, and their ham and cheese croquettes almost cause chaos at the table -- we normally order a few plates of that.

But then, Tia Pol isn't perfect. They have a few dishes that are merely "eh," even if I'll order them again and again. Rob loves the "garbanzos fritos" (fried chickpeas) but even through the salty greasiness I feel as though something is missing in them. The deviled eggs aren't any better than I can make myself. The Spanish almonds are standard.

If you're feeling particularly patient, I'd definitely recommend giving this place a go. Just be prepared to wait maybe an hour or so on a weeknight. The sangria helps make that wait worth it, even if you're nose-to-nose with a stranger the entire time.

Tia Pol
205 10th Avenue (between 22nd St & 23rd St)
New York, NY 10011
(212) 675-8805

Last night Tia Pol was having a private party, so Rob and I and a few friends met up at Alta in Greenwich Village. Although Alta can get terribly crowded -- and LOUD -- the place is pretty big with upstairs and downstairs seating. We sat in a more secluded area; two small rooms accessible only by walking through an upstairs kitchen. Those chefs must get pretty frustrated by that constant interruption, right? You would think.

The menu here is longer and more involved than Tia Pol's, but by no means better. There is no patatas bravas. The sangria is fairly terrible. Most dishes are good, but forgettable. Not like Tia Pol where you'll walk around mumbling "lamb skewers!" with stars in your eyes a week afterwards.

Here's a breakdown of the twelve dishes we shared:

Fried Goat Cheese -- Must have been made in those takoyaki pans as they were perfectly round and crispy on the outside. Menu says its served with lavendar-infused honey, but I didn't taste the lavendar.

Smoked Trout Croquettes -- These were actually creamier and less salty than I expected. I wish they had more of a selection of the croquettes, but the trout was pretty good.

Lamb Pastrami "Sandwich" -- Crispy bread and tasty lamb. I'm not sure how I felt about the blood orange cole slaw they served with it; it was a little too acidic for a cole slaw but still very interesting.

Carpaccio of Beef -- The creme fraiche foam served on top of the beef was sinfully good. The beef itself was good, but overpowered by that foamy topping.

Tunisian Spiced Roasted Beets -- Cut way too small. Served with toasted hazelnuts, which is a nice compliment, but also with a lot of greens on top that seemed sort of like a filler.

Sauteed Broccoli -- Standard broccoli with a light cheese sauce.

Grilled Gulf Shrimp & Chorizo Skewer -- I don't remember the "avocado cream, warm garlic & sherry vinaigrette" its supposed to be served with, but the shrimp and chorizo themselves were very good. I'm not normally crazy about shrimp but big, juicy and perfectly cooked to my taste.

Chicken Wings -- This was one of the few dishes where I could taste the little additions they advertised. The agave glaze was surprisingly sweet and the wings were perfectly crispy. Ok, I admit that I don't remember anything about the "chile spice blend."

Pulled Pork Empanadas -- The pork in these weren't fantastic, but I really liked the crispy dough. Served with a cilantro dipping sauce. I can't remember if I dipped or not.

Skewer of Grilled & Maple glazed Duck Breast -- A nice, succulent bite of duck with a foie gras emulsion and Marsala reduction that I do not remember. But the duck itself was tender and fairly juicy.

Sea Scallops -- These scallops were served in a way I'd never seen before. It looked like one of those awesome blossom cutters went crazy on two scallops. Menu says it was served with romesco sauce, scallion fondue, vanilla oil and Greek basil but again, these flavors played a minimal role. The scallops were soft and fresh. Sand was minimal but present.

Ricotta Parmesan Gnocchi -- One of the disappointments of the group. The gnocchi was so soft it was almost mushy, and the foam served on top -- "parsnip lemon puree, Prosecco almond espuma" -- was a weird accompanyment.

For dessert, we had chocolate cake and panna cotta. The panna cotta had a weird sort of spices and citrus strips I wasn't crazy about, but the texture was ok. I only had a bite of the chocolate but it was pretty bangin'.

Anyway, I guess its pretty obvious that I wasn't wowed by the food, but I had a great time catching up with friends. Sitting with my back against a small corner of a small room was appreciated over having strangers standing over my shoulder. In the meantime, I'll be on the hunt for a new go-to tapas Spanish tapas place when I don't have the patience for Tia Pol. Anyone?

64 W 10th St (between 5th Ave & 14th St)
New York, NY 10011
(212) 505-7777

Another Reason to visit Le Bernadin...

When we visited Le Bernadin in March, everything from the food and wine to the service was impeccable. While I thought the sommelier did a fantastic job paring wines for each course, I had no idea he was considered the World's best until I read this article from Food & Wine magazine. The publication hired Frank Bruni to become the most difficult diner imaginable, challenging poor Mr. Sohm to think on his feet. While we were all very happy with the parings he gave us, it's pretty cool to know he can come up with an aged rum to match the Kobe beef and a beer to match a chocolate dessert.

Like you needed another reason to visit Le Bernadin!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Where to Buy Cured Meat, Cheeses, Coffee, Fish, etc.

Like I mentioned before, Rob and I hosted our first Thanksgiving this year. We were determined to make it the best tasting Thanksgiving ever, so when shopping for the big event we had to rely on a few old favorites while seeking out a few new places, too.

I know Murray's is pretty much the standard as far as NYC cheese shops go, but Rob and I usually prefer the East Village Cheese Shop instead. Even though its cash only and they don't give out tastes, its easier to get to and (usually) less crowded than Murray's. They have a great selection, great prices, and the smaller space bumps up the funk factor. For Thanksgiving appetizers we bought some bleu cheese, a hunk of brie, walnut-studded gouda and my current cheese favorite, manchego. I gave the brie and gouda a little pre-Thanksgiving test with crackers the night before. All four kinds were wonderful, and just like I suspected, the walnuts worked great in the smoked gouda.

East Village Cheese Shop
40 Third Ave (Betw. 9th and 10th)

Greg was in charge of the pork this year, and hit Emily's Pork Store for pre-meal soppressata and pancetta to spruce up the brussel sprouts. I haven't actually been in here before, but both meats were fantastic. I HAVE, however, been to the nearby Model T. Meats and cannot recommend their huge $5 skirt steak enough. They also sell excellent whole chickens (great for roasting), huge and juicy pork loins, and standard stuff like eggs, butter and frozen octopus.

Emily's Pork Store
426 Graham Ave (between Frost St & Withers St)
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Model T Meats Corp
404 Graham Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11211

And while we're on the topic of meats, I have to spotlight the Nassau Meat Market for its insane collection of kielbasa. I wish they spoke better English there, but it's part of the charm to be the only non-Polish grandmother in their huge Saturday morning lines. We've tried to ask a few questions about what they have, but so far all we know to ask for is "double-smoked." Can anyone come with us and translate sometime?

Well, in case you're wondering, the double-smoked works great in mac 'n' cheeses, red sauces, potatoes, scrambled eggs and pretty much anything else that could use some cured, salty meatiness.

Nassau Meat Market
915 Manhattan Avenue (between Greenpoint Ave & Kent St)
Brooklyn, NY 11222

Two days before Thanksgiving and we set out to buy our Tom Turkey in Red Hook, at Fairway Market. Rob had been before so I knew that I should brace myself for grocery store madness, but I was not expecting a full-on food funhouse. This place had everything and anything. Like bizarre looking tomatoes.

And jars of pink Himalayan rock salt (remember when I had some in my gelato at Grom?).

They had a huge cheese selection. They had a crazy olive bar. They had cuts of beef so big I'm fairly sure they were whole quarters of cows. They had oysters. They had lemon salt. They had all kinds of truffles. They had our organic, never-frozen turkey too, of course ("Murray") and a crazy selection of house-roasted coffees for post-dinner sipping.

Fairway Market
480 Van Brunt St.
Brooklyn, NY 11231

Thanksgiving came and went in a blur, and Friday morning we woke up hungry and exhausted. Since it is very rare that we have Fridays off, we made our first trip to Acme fish market for smoked fish to go on our bagels. We've had Acme fish at Roebling Tea Room and probably at a lot of other places, but they only open their wholesale warehouse to the public on Fridays. They have a few samples out and I tried a bit of smoked tuna. We stuck with the salmon.

Acme Smoked Fish Corp
30 Gem St.
Brooklyn, NY 11222