Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Big Apple Bites: Eataly

Where do I begin
To tell the story of how great the food can be,
The sweet love story that is older than the sea,
The simple truth about the weight it put on me...
Where do I start?

Forget the first hello! How about with last weekend's trip to New York City and the 4 pounds I piled on.

Daughtress is interning in Manhattan this summer and Hubmeister and I decided to swoop down on her for a visit. Hubs grew up on Long Island and I had been to NYC on a few occasions, so it wasn't virgin territory. What was new to us was vacationing in triple-digit temperatures. I don't know why I packed any makeup because it melted off my face. Leave it to us to leave an area known for sweltering temps for one that is even hotter. But the food (and seeing the lovely Daughtress, of course) were worth it. Here's a taste of one our dining excursions...

I posted about this Mario Batali-backed food emporium last year when it opened. The concept seems to have taken off because this place is a friggin' Italian madhouse.

Picture a grand food court. Noisy atmosphere. Crush of people. It's a scene you would expect to find at noon in most malls in America during the Christmas shopping season. The difference here is that the coffee shop features Lavazza, not Starbucks; the frozen treats are gelato, not ice cream; the baked goods are cannolis, not tollhouse cookies; and the food looks really topnotch, not like greasy mall grub.  

Interspersed with counter-service offerings are several sit-down Italian restaurants, many with bar seating overlooking the cooking areas, and each featuring a specialty such as seafood, pasta, pizza, vegetables, meat, you name it. 

The dining setup is confusing to the uninitiated, due in part to the lack of defined space for each restaurant, creating a free-for-all atmosphere. The absence of enclosed spaces, and no clear directions about where to go or what to do to get a table, produce an air of chaos and confusion. We wandered around and saw what looked like a hostess station at one of the eateries, so we figured we weren't supposed to plop down at any open table. But we did see several other folks committing this faux pas, totally unaware of it until they were asked to remove their keisters from the recycled plastic chairs and put their names in at the appropriate hostess station. Embarrassing. As we dined, people were stumbling haphazardly into the restaurant space, with one brazen lady approaching our table and asking to see my menu. What the heck! Did she think she was in Fort Lauderdale?

After we checked in with a not-so-friendly hostess, whose greeting consisted of "name, how many?", we waited an hour for a table. If you like roaming around with huge crowds of people, you won't mind the fact that there are no waiting areas. By chance, we happened upon a few chairs stacked near a window and tried to remain inconspicuous sitting beside a group of extra highchairs.

While I am "loathing," here's another bugaboo:  The hostess doesn't call your name when a table is ready or give you a buzzer -- she tells you to keep checking in with her. This procedure is totally stupid and a royal pain, especially when the line at the hostess stand is always 15-people deep and pushing your way through the sweat-drenched masses is not on Frommer's list of Top Ten Things to Do in New York City.

Okay, enough about the atmosphere and operational snafus. You know not to expect cushy environs or serenity. The food, however, was worth these annoyances. (Read:  You must be a foodie to put up with this crap.)

We chose the pizza and pasta eatery, where I saw Neapolitan pizzas (go elsewhere if you are looking for Brooklyn-style New York pizzas) landing on tables right and left.

If Mario and partners Lidia and Joe Bastianich are putting their stamps of approval on the pizza recipes, you know they've got to be good. And mine was. Simple and satisfying, the Pizza Margherita had a crispy crust and no trace of sogginess. The few quality ingredients -- tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil and dough -- gelled harmoniously, none overpowering the others. Fresh and simple ingredients topped the thin and delightfully blistered crust. The only herb in this pizza was a sprig of fresh basil, and the pie was absolutely delicious. My minor criticism is evident in the photo below, which screams, "More cheese, please!"

Daughtress and Hubmeister both ordered a pasta dish of ravioli stuffed with meat, then tossed with butter. You could really taste the veal in this dish and appreciate the freshness of the handmade pasta, which came in the shape of petite squares. The waiter indicated menu items that featured homemade pasta because not all dishes do. Portions were adequate -- not overwhelming -- and my dining companions had no trouble downing slices of my pizza while cleaning their own plates.

The only accompaniment with our orders was a basket of fabulous Italian bread and plain olive oil for dipping. Again, simple and flavorful. You don't need to add a ton of seasonings to good olive oil. This Italian oil was fruity and tasty enough to stand on its own.

A limited beer and wine list is available, so Daughtress enjoyed a glass of Italian pinot grigio while Hubs and I swigged refreshing Morettis. Prices ranged between $10 and $20 for our entrees.

After watching Mario for years on TV talking about the peasant food of Italy and the simplicity inherent in Italian cooking, I feel I was able to appreciate his philosophy first-hand.

Here's a tip if you hate crowds but still want to try the food at Eataly:  Buy a takeout panini or some fresh bread, cheese and cured meats, and head across the street to Madison Square Park.  Hubmeister and I enjoyed this nice little park after our meal.  Ahh...serenity now!

Eataly on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ft. Lauderdale Grub Notes

Have you noticed my absence? I have a paid writing gig that's taken me away from my Food and Loathing habit. I'll still be posting, though, because I love to throw around my opinion...

Which brings me to a couple nights I recently spent visiting the Oldsters, a.k.a. my parents, in what I like to call Ft. Liquordale. As usual, I was lax in my picture taking. I am trying to stick to the New Year's take-more-photos resolution, but we all know how that goes. So, here is a quick rundown (sans photos - sorry!) of my dining adventures in the old stomping grounds of my youth.

The sign out front of this Lauderdale-by-the-Sea location indicates the owner's Philly origin, but around these parts, the subs are all homegrown. This itty-bitty place is packed on a daily basis and why is a no-brainer:  The subs are amazing.

Why anyone would order anything other than the Italian Special is beyond me, but the menu offers numerous sandwich options. The fresh-tasting bread is chewy yet soft and the cold cuts are cut to order. No pre-sliced junk here. 

As you wait in the snaking line at the counter, you will actually be treated to a slice-and-toss show the likes of which you have never seen.  One guy slices all the meats and literally throws the stack of cold cuts down the line, aiming for the roll that will house them.  I saw him land a few.  Random misses are caught by the sandwich maker and slapped into place, then topped by cheese of choice, lettuce, tomato, onions, and sweet and hot peppers, and then topped again by more meat. That added meat is a nifty way to hold everything in.  Oil, vinegar and a sprinkle of oregano dress the Italian Special, but choose mayo or mustard if you must. 

Subs come in two sizes:  6 or 12 inches. Yes, I went for the mondo size and made it through about 10 inches worth before caving.  Twelve-inchers are about $10 and worth every cent.  These subs are well-known throughout the city and for good reason. 

A word of advice:  Go a little before noon to beat the crowd and be prepared to yell your order over the hoard of bikini-clad and business-attired sub lovers. Takeout only.

LaSpada's Original Hoagies on Urbanspoon

J. Mark's
With a couple of locations, one in Lauderdale and one in Pompano, J. Mark's is popular with the locals. The Oldsters love it because Mom can sit comfortably in a booth and order gigantic hunks of red meat that she never finishes and ultimately takes home.  Most of the time she hones in on the Fred Flintstone prime rib (which is something you don't see on a lot of menus these days -- this restaurant serves it on specific nights) but this time she went for a variation of the theme:  Prime Rib Sliders. 

Mom reads a million newspapers a day and she was well-aware that J. Mark's had just won the award for best sliders in the city, an accolade proudly proclaimed by the waitress as she nodded approvingly while taking Mom's order.  Dad, whom I believe is responsible for Sister Foodie's and my adventuresome spirits when it comes to dining (thanks to our childhood flashbacks of him devouring steak tartare and raw ground beef), ordered the Ahi Tuna appetizer for his entree.  He recommended the Ahi Tuna at J. Mark's, so that's what I got, but in entree form.

Before I get to the mains, however, I have to tell you about the weird appetizer. They were egg rolls with a Mexican twist, loaded with avocado and cilantro. The menu states the ingredients also include red onions and sun-dried tomatoes, but I don't remember them. This appetizer ($10.99), which Dad ordered for the table to share, was Mom's idea, and if you knew my mother, you'd know she would loathe this starter. She pictured traditional Chinese egg rolls.  As expected, she hated them.  Dad and I ate them but one still remained when the waitress removed the plate. Bad sign. I don't think Mexican flavors pair well with egg roll wrappers.  Perhaps this appetizer explains why you never see Mexican-Chinese fusion cuisine.

The Ahi Tuna ($24.99), on the other hand, was mouth-watering.  Prepared with a perfect sear on the outside and retaining a cool pink center, the tuna had a really flavorful, crispy-peppery crust.

Dad's tuna appetizer ($13.99) was picturesque and offered a lovely portion if you had pigged out earlier in the day on a 12-inch LaSpada's sub. His tuna was accented with wasabi pesto and the plate included pickled cucumbers and a Soba Peanut Noodle Salad.

Mom savored those award-winning sliders ($12.99) and, yes, took most of them home. Smeared with horseradish and basil pesto, they were served au jus and came with sweet potato fries. Those fries looked good to me, but Mom is a traditionalist who likes her fries white, not orange. She will remember to specify her preference for Russets next time.

With its warm, all-wood decor, ice-cold beer, and dependable food and service, J.Mark's is an understandable local favorite.

J. Mark's on Urbanspoon

Aruba Beach Cafe
Talk about a location! I can't believe I had never been to Aruba when the Oldsters live only a couple blocks from it. Aruba is located smack-dab on the beach beside the pier at A1A and Commercial Blvd. We had a clear view out the walls of windows of gently rolling waves and all the lively sights of Lauderdale's beach.  I highly recommend this spot for heterosexual men because the ladies out there sunbathing had spent some serious time at the gym and they were letting everybody know it. Thankfully, I was spared the stomach-churning vision of men in thongs because that would have killed my appetite.

Aruba has three massive bars inside one huge restaurant, and the joint was jumpin' as Mom, Dad, our friend The Professor, and I wove our way around the bars and through the tropical, Caribbean-themed dining rooms to our awesome table.

Mom ordered the Pulled Pork Sandwich and Dad got a Cold Seafood Platter, both specials of the day. The Professor selected the Lobster Salad Sandwich and I got a Blackened Mahi Mahi Sandwich.

Mom and Dad were very happy with their selections. Dad's plate offered crab legs, shrimp, oysters and a variety of dipping sauces. My Mahi Mahi was grilled with Cajun spices, served on a good bun and complemented by a tasty tartar sauce that I used as a dipper for my fries. Although the fries weren't homemade, their crunchy seasoned coating made them irresistible.

The least impressive dish at this oceanfront lunch fest was the Lobster Salad Sandwich. It tasted fishy, the lobster was pulverized, and it was sandwiched between three pieces of supermarket-variety whole wheat bread. The restaurant advertises this as Bimini Bread, which they say they make daily. What? I will pass. The Professor gave me half her lobster sandwich, I gave her half my fish sandwich and it's clear which dish was the winner.

Service was memorable; we had a fun older waitress who constantly brought me fresh cups of coffee. She clearly enjoyed her job, and that enthusiasm is seldom seen in restaurants these days -- at least in my travels.

Sister Foodie says the food at Aruba has always been mediocre. Considering this city's endless dining choices, I don't think I would invest in dinner at Aruba, but lunch and/or drinks are worth it just for the atmosphere. 

Oh, and if you were there during my visit, you would have seen my mother trying to pocket the coffee creamers. Dad pulled her away from the table just in the knick of time. She has lived in South Florida far too long.

Aruba Beach Cafe on Urbanspoon