Sunday, January 30, 2011

3 at Bats, 3 Home Runs -In the Big Apple

I love the city. I love everything about it. From the people to the museums to the endless miles of concrete, I adore it. Interestingly enough, I’ve never lived in the heart of a major city before. I’ve always lived in the “burbs”, and while this is a much more conducive place to raise a family, there will always be a part of me that wishes I’d had a little apartment at some point right smack in the center of things. This is in sharp contrast to the views of many of my friends who enjoy the wide open spaces and huge distances between homes. First of all, if you’re going to live in the country you need to be somewhat handy. At least everyone I know that lives in a rural setting is. I can’t fix anything. I can barely hang a picture straight. I do own a toolbox. In it are the various requisites I’ve collected over the years but every time I open the lid, Lisa is immediately concerned. And while it has cost me a bit more money over the years than most, I happily pick up the phone for even some of the simpler house projects. Fueling my urban passions are the great cities I’ve visited over the years. On the streets of Hong Kong I thought to myself, “I could live here”. But I also thought that in Miami, San Francisco, London and Washington DC. While every city holds its own unique identity, there is a palpable bond that is common amongst them and I guess that’s the draw for me. Oh yeah… then there’s the food.

I recently arrived in Manhattan on business and aside from the work tasks at hand, all I could think about was where we were going to dine. New York is sensory overload for foodies. It is what Rome is to Catholics, Las Vegas is to gamblers and Amsterdam is to party goers. A simple slice of pizza for lunch is better than any pizza you’ve ever tasted. A quick stop in a coffee shop for a bagel is spiritual. Yet for New Yorkers, it’s just another day. Well I was not about to take one single morsel for granted. My first choice for dinner was born as much out of convenience as it was out of culinary adventure. Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that this has been a pretty brutal winter for New York City and this week was no different. A foot of snow arrived during my visit but that was no deterrent for me. The good news is that New York has great food on every block so I knew I didn’t need to travel far. A quick conversation with the front desk at the hotel and I knew The Bridge Café was a must.

A few steps from my front door and just beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, this is the oldest continuous drinking establishment in NYC. The doors opened in 1794 in the previously dicey Seaport district. Credited with once being a brothel as well as a saloon, the early clientele had more sinister motives; but today this landmark is charming, cozy and above all else, warm. In the bustle that is Manhattan, this small room almost seems out of place. Only about twice the size of an average living room and décor preserved from a hundred years ago, The Bridge Café is in contrast to the modern dining experience one thinks of when thinking of New York City. To me it was more reminiscent of the seaside village cafés of the New England coastline. On the lower east side, there was something quaint. My appetizer was mussels in a ridiculously delicious spicy tomato and andouille sausage broth. This just begged to be sopped up with the warm house made bread that was served. Next came a perfect medium rare hanger steak. There were no frills to this; just a well made cut that I adored. A great first-night-in-the-city meal was in the books and there was more to come.

On the second night, we hit Katz’s Deli. If you told me you had one hour in Manhattan and needed to get something to eat, I’d suggest one of the Jewish Deli’s in the city. There are at least 5 famous ones that I can think of off the top of my head and Katz’s is my personal favorite. They take making corned beef and pastrami very seriously in these places and it pays off. Although table service is available, part of the quintessential deli experience is stepping up to the counter and watching you sandwich be made. Large slabs of beef are hand carved with a knife and portioned onto rye bread with spicy mustard. There is other delectable fare to be had as well. Famous for their salami and with the smell of the sausages on the grill, there are plenty of choices but for me the pastrami is the only way to go. I must offer word of caution. If you like pastrami and try this, you may never be able to eat pastrami outside of New York again.

This gigantic mass of juicy meat between 2 slices of bread is so perfect, so delicious that it’s sinful. I could have lunch at this deli every day for the rest of my life and be amazingly content.

I reserved the last night for the classic New York experience, dinner and a Broadway show. With close to twenty thousand restaurants to choose from in the city, I went back to my tried and true website,, to narrow the options. Once again I was not let down. From their top-ten list in the “Talk of the town” section, I made reservations at the up-and-comer, Osteria Morini. There are no less than 7 restaurants that Chef Michael White has his thumbprint on in and around New York. This latest venture in SoHo is remarkable. White pays homage to the style of the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.

In a setting of imported block tables and wooden beams imported from an Italian farmhouse, White’s attention to detail is second only to his food. Cured meats and cheese appetizers are served on sturdy butcher blocks. House made pasta is silky and flawlessly cloaked in various sauces, butters and broths. Ravioli filled with truffled Mascarpone in brown butter with ribbons of Prosciutto is simple, elegant, decedent and genius. We started with 2 appetizers. First was 2 Prosciuttos. The traditional Prosciutto de Parma that is prized and coveted as one of the best meats to ever come out of Italy was served on one side of the wooden block. On the other side was Lardo, or white Prosciutto (yes just the fat). Set atop toasted rounds of bread, both were equally as delicious but the lardo in particular was like eating a surprisingly light pillow of butter with a hint of salty pork flavor. It was mesmerizing. Also we sampled grilled sardines over white beans with olive oil. I’ve had this dish before but this was on another level. These bear no resemblance to the salty pizza topping we’re familiar with. These fish are rich, briny and especially tasty. Next I chose small hand shaped tortellini of pork and beef in a duck liver cream sauce for my entrée.

Served on a small, elegantly painted farmhouse plate, the fresh pasta and smooth cream sauce were in harmony. I loved this dish for its unique, sophisticated essence. Finally desert. Zabaglione with cappuccino and a scoop of vanilla gelato again did not disappoint. This restaurant hit the mark on so many levels, it is almost indescribable. After sampling all of the aforementioned delectibles, one might be left with a feeling of over indulgence. Nothing could be further from the truth in this case. These portions are not “Americanized”. Smaller plates allow for more tasting options and always leave you wanting a bit more. That’s a much better feeling than gorging on a huge plate of pasta and needing to undo the top button of your pants to sit and enjoy the show. Noteworthy was that every pasta creation was under $20 and appetizers were less than $15. Not bad for New York.

Three delicious meals in the Big Apple down and I was ready to get back home. Wicked, the show we saw was also terrific and I have since bought tickets to take the family when it comes to Orlando in March. The best thing about New York is that my meals there are reproducible at restaurants all over the city. A bad restaurant in Gotham will not stand long. Whether you use word-of-mouth or the internet you will find food that suits you. The only error you can make is to never go there.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lenny's in Clearwater, FL

OK, it’s time to talk about the home scene. After recently paying homage to pretentious meals in Phoenix for which my wallet was left much lighter, it’s refreshing to talk about a little breakfast joint around here that has been attracting quite a following for years. If there’s a better little place in Tampa Bay for breakfast than Lenny’s in Clearwater, I haven’t been there. In the shadow of Bright House Field, spring training home to the Philadelphia Phillies, Lenny’s will fill your belly with more than standard breakfast fare as long as you’re willing to stand in line for a table. Lenny’s vast menu is based on the Jewish delis that New York is famous for. Along with your standard bacon and eggs you’ll find fresh bagels with lox, knishes, cheese filled pastries, polish sausage along with other eastern European comfort food.

The Jewish Deli became a New York institution in the late 1800’s as waves of eastern European immigrants flooded in to New York harbor in an attempt to escape the volatile and dynamic political climates back home. Homesickness was combated by congregating in familiar surroundings and sharing common food. Never fancy or ornate, these establishments were as much a social distraction as they were restaurants. As time has passed, though, these restaurants have become some of the most coveted and visited restaurants New York City has to offer. Katz’s Deli, Stage Deli, Carnegie Deli, 2nd Ave Deli are just a few of the must try places the city has to offer. Sadly, outside of Gotham, there are few –and I mean few –truly great delis of this genre. Also sad is that Tampa Bay is no exception.

The good news is that Lenny’s does a pretty good job with the breakfast component. I used to frequent Lenny’s some years ago when I worked in the Clearwater area. Unfortunately, I just hadn’t been back there in quite some time. Mostly, it was the distance. There are at least 5 decent places to get breakfast closer than the 30 minute drive to Lenny’s and combined with the fact we only go out to breakfast once a month or so, my absence from this great little spot grew. For the past few weeks my 6 year old daughter, Olivia, has been attending a basketball camp on Saturday mornings in Clearwater so I decided to introduce her to Lenny’s and reacquaint myself.

I’d forgotten how long the wait is to get a table. The line at 10AM on Saturday mornings looks painful. If you’re willing to have counter service though, there’s pretty much no wait. So Olivia and I bellied up to the bar ready to eat. She’d been practicing her dribbling, passing and shooting skills for the past hour and had worked up a good little appetite. Me? Well, I’m always hungry –much like a goldfish. The menu is 3 substantial pages long full of specialty omelets, special egg dishes, various breakfast combos and, of course, the aforementioned deli breakfast fare. I ordered a special for the day –Lobster Benedict –while Olivia stuck with her tried and true pancakes. While sipping our coffee and chocolate milk, respectively, we caught the attention of a wandering minstrel of sorts. On Saturday mornings, a gentleman meanders from table to table making the most elaborate balloon sculptures that I’ve ever seen. At our counter spot he stopped and made Olivia a pretty cool looking dolphin.

He also performed a magic trick where he changed the length of three strands of rope and then changed them back. We liked him. It turns out, he is a professional entertainer and has performed at venues both big and small. He shared with me his vision for a new restaurant where guests are entertained in small groups before dinner in a similar fashion to Hibachi chefs at those Japanese joints like Benihana’s. Seems viable to me.

Shortly thereafter we were presented with our food. Knowing I wouldn’t finish, I also ordered a potato knish. Frankly, I hadn’t had one in a while and I just wanted a few bites. These pillowy potato pastries are perfectly savory and especially good with some spicy mustard. Mine was no exception. The benedict was also delicious. Rich hollandaise with sumptuous warm egg yolk over the sweet lobster meat was breakfast nirvana. Judging by the clean plate in front of Olivia, she enjoyed her breakfast as well.

Most neighborhoods have a good little breakfast spot but I think Lenny’s is a cut above. I suggest venturing out from your favorite place and give them a try. Personally, I have 6 more weeks of Saturday mornings to reacquaint myself before Olivia’s basketball commitment ends. I plan on taking full advantage of both that one on one time with my little girl and a thoroughly scrumptious breakfast. Win win.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Phoenix High Life -Elements

As a food lover, there is nothing better than going to a restaurant that leaves an indelible impression on the soul. Great food, all by itself, is impressive enough but combine great service in a terrific venue with a rock star celebrity chef and you might find yourself at Elements in Phoenix, Arizona. Elegant, sharp and inspiring are just a few words that can describe the sense that you get as you drive into the Sanctuary Resort and Spa nestled gently into the foothills of Camelback Mountain. Set off any main road yet only 20 minutes from downtown, this place feels secluded. The Frank Lloyd Write inspired design looks more like art than architecture. A cascade of buildings blends seamlessly into the hillside and I’m targeting just one.

Elements is the creation of Chef Beau MacMillan. Recognized for his work in other noteworthy kitchens around the country, MacMillan was recruited to Arizona in the late 90’s to reinvent the offerings at this transitional property. After a major renovation, Sanctuary and Elements were born and MacMillan would soon be recognized as a major player on the national food stage. His offerings are seasonal, clean and above all else, creative. A few years ago, MacMillan defeated Bobby Flay in Food Network’s Kitchen Stadium in Battle Kobe Beef. Since then he has appeared on numerous programs including the first season of Worst Cooks in America opposite Ann Burrell as the cooking mentor for ridiculously bad cooks. As his face becomes more known to the foodie community, his food remains constant and delicious.

A few years ago my mother and I dropped into Elements to simply have a cocktail and appreciate the views. We sat and relaxed sipping Martinis while chatting and taking in the dessert sun. I recall thinking that I’d really like to get back for a meal. Now my time had come. Visiting on business, we planned this dinner night a week or so in advance. After picking me up from the hotel, Mom and I met my brother, David, and his girlfriend, Brianne at the Sanctuary. The first thing you appreciate when walking into Elements is the expansive appearance of the room perpetuated by the all glass walls. The desert views are breathtaking as the sun sets beyond the looming rock formations above and valley below. This is just the beginning of a spectacular dining experience. The only disappointment I can claim was that Chef MacMillan had just left for the day. I was hoping to meet him but I guess I would have to settle for his food.

Seated against the desert backdrop along the wall, I perused the menu with great excitement. The menu design is exquisitely simple with the focus on clean fresh preparation. Things like butter seared scallops and bacon wrapped filet are dishes that can be found in plenty of restaurants but the preparation and attention to detail are the hallmarks that Elements is known for. My appetizer was Foie Gras 2 ways.

A creamy Foie Gras custard was topped with a perfectly seared Foie Gras slice. Atop that was a vanilla quince compote and dotting the surrounding plate were a few pink peppercorn caramels. In 2 sentences, I described every ingredient in this dish yet this preparation was beyond elegant and most delicious. Brianne’s beef carpaccio looked perfect too, albeit a bit smaller of a carpaccio than I’m used to seeing. The entrée I chose was Hawaiian Opah.

This large Pacific fish is much like tuna with a slightly milder flavor. My first and only other experience with this fish was in Hawaii some years ago and I’m glad to have found it on a mainland menu. Seared on the outside with a light pink flesh on the inside, this buttery Opah was akin to fatty tuna belly. I immediately thought that I need to get back to Hawaii. Served with the fish was a crispy sushi rice cake topped with some rock shrimp and pickled cucumber. I thought the dish was perfectly prepared and I was able to successfully reproduce the rice dish at home. It was amazingly simple but delicious. Even Lisa liked it. The dessert menu, which I typically shy away from, was also an eclectic treat. Dessert wines, teas and the remerging dessert cheese course are available. I went with the pumpkin and cream cheese mouse while David did the Bananas Foster.

Again, perfection. A cinnamon, white hot chocolate was served alongside my beautiful piece of cake that was unlike any hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted. I loved the spice with flavors that reminded me of hot spiced cider, only in chocolate. What a wonderful way to round out a great dining experience.

I have to say, this restaurant is a destination unto itself. Nowhere else that I’ve eaten in Phoenix combines such scenery with great culinary acumen. You will, however, be set back a bit by a visit to Elements. The average appetizer or salad averages around $15 and the entrée is about $32. Dinner for 4 with a great bottle of wine and a few cocktails was just over $500 but our wine was $100. While there are plenty of places in this city to get a great meal at a fraction of the price, Elements is a rare gem that should be savored. Popping into the bar for a cocktail and an appetizer or salad would be a very affordable way to soak in the ambience. There was plenty of the dressed up stuffy crowd but there were also people like me wearing jeans and just enjoying the night. It is a resort after all. I did love this place and this night. There is no better way to enjoy the company of family than over a great meal and Elements helped us fit that bill.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

On the Road in Phoenix -Check Out Durant's Steakhouse

I’ve written about steaks before; several times, in fact. Occasionally, it just begs revisiting. This is one of those times. After all, if you had to pick out the quintessential American meal, it certainly would have to involve a steak. As a young boy we made regular visits to Ponderosa Steak House and I believed that was as good as it got. Not only was there a never-ending salad bar but the smell of searing beef met you at the door where you’d get into a line with your tray and prepare to order. You could see the flames rising from the grill behind the counter where the steaks were being prepared. While I admire my parents for introducing me to this meaty atmosphere, I’ve come a long way since then. I do admit to visiting these economical, family friendly steak venues over the years and it is always somewhat nostalgic. The difference between a food lover and a food snob is the ability to appreciate a meal for what it is. Those meals and those days will always hold a special place in my heart. As I’ve grown, however, and had the great pleasure to travel and explore most corners of the US, I’ve encountered lots of beef. I’m sure I’m not the only non-vegan who just gets the craving for a great steak and as time has passed, I realize I’ve eaten at some very coveted steak houses. Many, I’ve blogged about and many I haven’t.

Let me tell you about last night. Durant’s Steak House is a Phoenix, Arizona icon. Established in 1950 in an unassuming, pink downtown building, Durant’s is one of a kind. Bawdy red velvet wall paper and Cherry wood interior is exactly what you’d expect from the era this was born.

I can only imagine the million dollar deals struck in this place over a great martini and a cigar. I’ve heard every celebrity that’s ever visited Phoenix has eaten here –but on this night, it was a mostly jovial, middle-aged, power-broker crowd who appeared to have plenty of disposable income. Stepping in from the valet, you enter through the kitchen on a red carpet. I initially thought we were going in the wrong door since we were actually in the middle of the kitchen but I learned this is part of the experience. We entered the dining room using the same swinging doors that the wait staff uses to usher in the food. I would guess that there has been more than one high priced steak that has met its demise at that door. Our booth was a small, two-seater next to the wonderfully ornate dark-wood bar. After taking in the entire sensory overload, the next thing of note is the service. Our waiter, Jeff, was one of the best servers I’ve ever had. His knowledge of the wine list and menu combined with his perfect timing when checking on us was unparalleled. When we were about to make a mistake by ordering some wines by the glass, he recommended a bottle of wine along the lines of what we wanted that actually saved us some money. By no means a wine expert, I thought this 2007 ZD Napa Valley Cabernet was awesome. I plan to look for it at home.

While waiting on our entrée, we were served a small round loaf of freshly baked bread topped with the most unusual but delicious accompaniment. Braised leeks with lots of garlic and butter made the bread absolutely addicting and it took all I could muster to turn down a second loaf when it was offered. Next was the most unique soup I’ve had in a while. Cheddar and three onion soup was perfectly sweet from the onions with that little bite form the cheddar. It would be so easy for a soup like this to be overly thick or even goopy, but this had a perfect creaminess that made one wanting for more after the cup was empty.

This bread was unbelievable

Now for the steak –Durant’s signature. I always toil over what cut to order. For me, there is no cut more appealing than another. It just depends on the mood. Tougher cuts like sirloin offer a more beefy, hearty flavor while Filet Mignon is more coveted for its butter like texture that can often be cut with a fork. This night I chose to split that line down the center and had the New York Strip. My knife slid through this perfect cut in a one directional slice. Inside, the medium rare center was the perfect balance of beef flavor, juiciness and texture. I polished off this steak and accompanying whipped garlic-mashed potatoes in very short order despite my stomach telling me that I might already be full. This was definitely an undo-the-top-trouser-button kind of meal and I couldn’t be happier. I would love to be able to describe the over-the-top dessert that would certainly have followed but that was not to be. We were done.

While Durant’s was an experience I thoroughly enjoyed, it was by no means exclusive. I’ve eaten at amazing steak houses both home and abroad and last night gave me pause. Where is the best steak? I could go online and order the same restaurant quality prime beef that I’ve eaten out. I even fancy myself a good enough cook to reproduce the perfect steak at a fraction of the cost. But as I gazed around the room last night, I wondered why so many people craved this high-priced environment to enjoy a steak. Is it a status symbol of affluence combined with testosterone-driven need for decadence? Well, in a word… Yes, I think. I didn’t see many 20-somethings. I certainly wouldn’t have fit in to a place like this in my 20’s either. Older and doing OK for myself, a dinner like this is symbolic. I’m good. I made it. I can do this and I guess, in some small way, I want everyone in the room to know it. That was the mood of the room and it explains why places like this exist in every major city in the US.

As I’ve said so many times, food is an experience. I fondly recall Ponderosa Steak House because it reminds me of my mom and dad. In that context, Durant’s has nothing on those memories. But if you’re in Phoenix, I suggest Durant’s for that one of a kind experience.