Cafe Mogador

101 St Marks PlNew York, NY 10009 • (212) 677-2226 • cafemogador.com
 

I don’t mean to sound like that obnoxious guy in the movie BIG, but “I don’t get it.” This place is at the top of virtually every food blog’s list in the city and it is mediocre at best. I mean c’mon, there are SOOO many other middle eastern and mediterranean joints that are far superior. And it’s not like the vibe is anything special either, dressed like your typical bistro. So what am I missing? The tagines aren’t even served in tagines and are decent at best. 95% of menu lacks inventiveness, not to mention excellence. I mean sure it’s good, but since when does good make it amongst the best Manhattan has to offer?

  

The only things that impressed me were the spicy carrot app and the baklava. Both are worth getting assuming you still wind up here. Beyond that, the tagines and the falafels, lamb kebab and the kofte were all quite good, which apparently mean “eh” in England. Just learnt this and trying it on for size. Thoughts? Confusing?  Well welcome to the club, because the love of this place has me almost as baffled as I was after dining at Uncle Boons. 

 

 

El Chile Cafe Y Cantina

1809 Manor RdAustin, TX 78722 • (512) 457-9900 • elchilecafe.com
There is a bit of a Floridian vibe going on here if you ask me, with its pastel, aqua green walls and the sizeable patio out front. But the menu is full on TEX-MEX from the puffy tacos to the margaritas, which make a long day all worth it.Speaking of puffy tacos, if you’ve never had them, they are essentially fried taco shells that puff up around varying ingredients. Of the three we had though, I only found the veggie to be great, made with portobellos as the star. So skip the chicken and the pork.

The guac is also good, but the salsa is just friggin’ weird. It’s NOT salsa. I don’t care what local custom this is supposed to be, but that is the poorest excuse for salsa I have ever had.

I also didn’t love the habanero carrot sauce, mostly because it’s extremely lacking in heat considering that it’s supposedly made with habaneros.

For dessert, I thought the tres leche was pretty good, but it is simply outmatched by the chocolate pecan pie, which just might be one of the best I’ve ever had. So dense and rich with dark chocolate that you will contemplate ordering a second slice to take home.

Hai Street Kitchen

230 Park Ave. New York, NY 10169 haistreetkitchen.com

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Have you ever found yourself eating a maki and thought, “hmm, if only this could be 20 times bigger? If the answer is yes, then you are about to go cuckoo for cocoa puffs, because that’s essentially the concept of Hai Street.

For example, the Slammin’ Salmon is not only fun to say, it’s also made with raw salmon tataki, rice, shredded carrots and cucumbers, gouchujong sauce and for two bucks extra wasabi guacamole, all wrapped in seaweed and cut in half so it looks like a pair of maki pieces gone preggers.

But is it any good you ask? Very. As is the lemonade and iced green tea, which I mixed to create, you guessed it, an Arnold Palmer. I’m so damn predictable.

3 teeth

Allium

Four Seasons Hotel 120 E Delaware Pl. Chicago, IL 60611 •  (312) 799-4900 •  alliumchicago.com

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I suppose it should come as no shock that the restaurant in the Four Seasons is excellent, because after having now eaten at five of them (New York, Toronto, Atlanta, Istanbul & Chicago), the only shock would be if it wasn’t superb. After all, that’s just how they roll- four knives or better, or four get it. And unFOURgettable it was (okay, I’m done with the “four” puns). A farm to table tour de FOURce (I lied) that would make the Department of Agriculture proud.

Feeling a bit chunky, however, I didn’t go all in, deciding to keep it lite with choices like the white asparagus gazpacho accented with marcona almonds, grapes and smoked trout roe. It was one of the best cold soups I’ve ever had and everything I was hoping it would be. Full of flavor, not calories. And as fresh as The Prince of Bel Air.

The other half of my soup and salad duo was a roasted carrot salad comprised of marinated wheat berries, lime yogurt, bitter greens, pistachio and some mysterious form of heat. I’m gonna go with chile. It was like Bugs Bunny’s wet dream on a plate. Ew… I think I might’ve even grossed myself out on that one. But assuming I didn’t just ruin it for you, this is a must get. Trust me. You need this.

Then, wash it all down with an excellent sav blanc from South Africa and you will be happier than Pharrell on Zoloft.

4 teeth

The Clocktower

5 Madison Ave. New York, NY 10010(212) 413-4300 • theclocktowernyc.com

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The Clocktower is so damn good, time stands still. From the moment you walk through the door, you are hit by a bar so insanely hip that you almost don’t want to head up the equally stylish spiral staircase. But please do, because b-b-b-b-b-baby you just ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Upstairs, the décor is simply magnificent. Like a grand, ritzy social club with high ceilings, huge rooms and stunning walls covered in a smattering of incredible black and white photography. And while the setting alone goes a long way in making you feel richer than you actually are, so does the staff, from waiters to hosts, you feel catered to like a Russian oligarch.

And that’s not just the booze talking, because I hadn’t even had a drink yet. But once I did, Whoa Nilly! I only tried two of the cocktails but both were excellent. The first going by the name The Cereal Killer, served in an old-fashioned mini milk bottle, complete with a red striped straw. It’s made with bourbon and Cheerios milk. Need I say more?

On the flip side from rich, the other end of the cocktail spectrum is nailed with comparable skill in the refreshingly light, Dill or no Dill. It’s comprised of gin, cucumber, lemon and dill, of course. Speaking of which, I love the touch they add to the glass with a teeny, tiny clothespin on the rim holding a sprig of fresh dill to the brim.

While we’re on the topic of hooch, the wine list is quite impressive as well, although the majority of the options are a bit steep ($200+), but luckily there are some solid affordable options on the list, even if they’re the minority. Like the Prisoner Cabernet blend (Syrah and Zin both play supporting roles) which I only just discovered days earlier. Great wine and an even better deal.

Firing on all cylinders, the food proves to be every bit as exquisite as its surroundings, plated with an architect’s eye, the presentations keep wowing one after the other, as do the bites. The first being the bread and butter, which might very well be an Ultimate, served warm, right out of the oven with a soft churned, salted butter that melts into every nook and cranny, making it a moral imperative to “get it while it’s hot.”

Going four for four on starters is also great way to get into my good graces, as all of them were shades of fabulous. In fact it was like Sophie’s Choice trying to decide which one was the best. The risotto with chanterelles, crispy veal sweetbreads and lemon confit was an Ultimate, so I tend to lean there, but that should take nothing away from the steak tartar au poirve with horseradish cream and charred onions which was superb. As were the pan seared scallops done up with cauliflower, pickled raisins and burnt butter. The native lobster might’ve been the least amazing of the bunch the more I think about it, but only in terms of flavor, because the presentation stole the show, served over ice, still in the tail, then mixed into an apple, mussel and fennel salad.

In terms of entrees, however, the winner was much more cut and dry. The lamb was the runaway champion, slow cooked and served with spiced eggplant and roasted salsify. Such a mastery of flavors on the fork, you have to stand in awe at the artistry. Following the lamb as a distant second would be the halibut with pink peppercorn sauce, seaweed and a carrot puree. And bringing up the rear was the filet mignon, which is a complete missed opportunity in my opinion (although the fries were good). Skip the steaks. There are so many inventive preparations on the menu that truly showcase the chef’s skill, so why would you ever go for something you could just as easily get at a Smith & Wollensky or Morton’s?

Closing strong, the dessert course also delivered yet another Ultimate, the best tart tatin I’ve had since La Goulue closed down (RIP). It’s made with pink lady apples and topped with Madagascar vanilla ice cream and if I could have children with a dessert it would most likely be this one. The other two desserts didn’t fare as well for me, however. I thought the pistachio soufflé with chocolate ice cream sounded amazing, but somehow fell short in execution, tasting less nutty and more chalky than one would hope. And the grapefruit sorbet with hazelnut streusel and fennel marmalade also proved to be better in theory than in practice.

But no place is without its misses and The Clocktower had very few. Surmounting its hype and outshining its next door neighbor Eleven Madison Park. Sure, them’s fightin’ words, but bring it on. I’d be happy to go toe to toe with any dissenting foodies out there who say otherwise. And I’m not just saying that because Clocktower is my new restaurant crush… Okay, that’s exactly why I’m saying it. But so what?

5 teeth

Konsolos

Meşrutiyet Caddesi No:56, 34430 İstanbul (0212) 219 6530 • http://www.konsolosistanbul.com
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Believe it or not, we walked out on a reservation at Mikla, listed as #96 on Pellegrino’s Top 100 list in the world, just to eat at Konsolos (unranked) instead, solely based on vibe/decor. Call me shallow (which is fair), but I’d say it’s more a case of Pellegrino letting those bubbles go to the brain. The crowd is Disney-hotel-depressing, filled with patrons in their 90’s or 9’s, all oohing and ahhing over a glass enclosed view that comes a dime a dozen at almost every major city around the world. So, trying to coast on view alone, the décor feels dated and sad. Especially by comparison to the top of The George Hotel where we had just come from having a drink and Konsolos, which we popped in for a peek just before arriving at Mikla. Sure, the food might be good (although a fellow foodie told us later that we dodged a bullet), but to be in the top 100 in the world, shouldn’t you be firing on all cylinders?

But enough about Mikla, let’s talk about Konsolos, and its striking dining room, which drafts its grandeur off of its former tenant, the American Consulate, set in a dramatic space where visas were once issued, they have since decked the place out to look like a Victorian masterpiece had sex with a black light poster from Spencer Gifts. I know that doesn’t sound all that appealing as I write it, but I can assure you it’s unequivocally stunning. Dare I say one of the most impressive decors I’ve ever laid eyes on and unfortunately even the photo above doesn’t do it justice, but just trust me. Hell, it made us pass up Mikla, didn’t it?

But this looker’s also got skillz, serving up Italian classics with a twist. For example, the rustic Italian bread comes with a tomato sauce for dipping, made special by the addition of mustard seeds, giving it a little heat, a little crunch and a lotta damn that’s good. Skip the other spread though. It’s walnut and soy based and it’s no contest.

The artichoke trio, while also interesting by Italian standards was pretty basic by Turkish ones, done in typical meze style, only instead of being topped with carrots and peas marinated in olive oil, it was topped with arugula and parmesan crisps, which kinda fell short on either side of cuisine expectations.

After that came the pastas and I have to say, mama mia Konsolos has game! Both the parpadelle ragu and the lamb shank fettucini were moist and delicious. Granted I think the parpadelle was actually fettucini and the fettucini was more like short cut spaghetti. Also, the lamb pasta was a bit over salted, but I think that was more due to the salt garnish around the rim of the plate. If you avoid mixing your pasta into it, or sliding your fork through it, you should fair much better than I did on my first two bites before discovering the culprit.

For dessert, while the profiteroles get full marks for inventiveness, they get very few marks for awesomeness. which was kind of a shame because we were both sorta hoping for a more faithful representation. Nonetheless, what you do get is a presentation not to be forgotten. The waiter actually pours liquid nitrogen (aka dry ice) over the ice cream at the table to create a crumbled “astronaut ice cream” effect next to the four different cream filled pastries. The pistachio cream was the best of the lot, followed by lemon and chocolate, with strawberry in the rear. But the pastries were too bready and the cream was too sweet. And the ice cream, well, it’s novel. I can say that. What I can’t say is that the meal lives up to the décor quite yet, but give this newcomer some time and I firmly believe greatness awaits, especially once winter hits and it becomes more en vogue to dine indoors.

3 teeth

The Strip Club

378 Maria Ave. Saint Paul, MN 55145(651) 793-6247domeats.com

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It’s not what you’re thinking. I mean c’mon, give me some modicum of credit. I’m not about to stoop so low as to review the food in a nudie joint. Although that does pose an interesting thought for a spin off stripper review site, “Ferocious Nudie.” But as misleading as the name might be, The Strip Club does in fact serve up some serious flesh… in the form of beef, pork, poultry and fish. So good it’s actually worth venturing into this sketchy part of town.

For starters I highly recommend the pork belly with the spicy carrot slaw on top and the crispy cauliflower drizzled with yogurt. The seared foie gras is also good, but it is sadly overpowered by the English muffin base, the duck egg and the glazed apricots, so much so that you barely even taste the foie gras. Making it a good starter kit for those just toeing the waters, easing them into their first time, but for true lovers of the livers, you will feel a bit cheated. And last of the starters for me would be the beef tartar over hummus. A bit on the whatevs side of the four.

On the entrée side of things, be sure to skip the duck or pay dearly with order envy should those around you go with the filet mignon or the braised lamb. Both were superbalicious yet simple in their preparations, allowing the meat to shine in all of its mouth-watering glory.

And for dessert we went with the fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, served with a crème anglaise dipping sauce, which actually proved to be my least favorite dish of the night. The cookies were the under baked, doughy kind, which always feels like a cheat to me to get to gooey. And the créme anglaise tasted more like a grasshopper milkshake melted down. But even with ending on a sweet and sour note, I have to give props where they are due. The service was great, the décor relaxed and for some bizarre reason, the patrons old, which is a bit of a downer, but it also somewhat tempers your fears of the neighborhood, because let’s be honest, if anyone is getting mugged, it’ll probably be the sweet old lady, not you.

4 teeth

Contra

138 Orchard St. New York, NY 10002 • (212) 466-4633contranyc.com

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Well, Contra definitely lived up to its name, because it was the total opposite of what I was expecting. Unfortunately, I was expecting greatness the likes of Momofuku Ko. Or at least spots of brilliance the likes of The Musket Room. Well, no dice on either account.

The disappointments started early, first by making us wait over 30 minutes for our table, with a reservation. A duration I haven’t had to endure at restaurants far more popular and worthwhile. But while we waited, naturally I perused the menu to see what exciting dishes lied ahead, and that was the first sign of trouble. Not a single course sounded interesting. So much so that we were certain to pay the extra money for the bread, because at least that looked promising, by comparison to the plates passing us by. And it was. Definitely worth ordering. That said, don’t listen to your servers who will tell you that one order only serves two people. Sure, if that’s ALL they were eating for the night. For normal human beings one order will serve four people quite nicely.

Which brings me to my second gripe, the service. No one was technically rude in the normal sense, but the fact that I must’ve been bumped into by a dozen staff members throughout my dinner and didn’t receive a single apology or “excuse me” shows what kind of mettle they are made from. They did, however, show lots of concern as to why we weren’t finishing our courses- but perhaps those questions should’ve been redirected to the kitchen before serving such a pathetic string of losers.

It started with carrots and uni served over a bed of almond milk sauce and while it was interesting, it most certainly wasn’t amazing. And as tepid I may sound right now, this is actually one of the highlights of the meal.

Next up came the fluke. A relatively bland fish by all accounts, which usually allows chefs to wow you with their preparation of it. Well, no wows were to be found. The preparation was as bland as the fish, which wasn’t even cooked that well. For some of us it was overcooked, for others, undercooked, and no one had the Goldilocks version (just right).

Following the fluke came the biggest loser of the night, the chicken with “ham” and “chickpeas.” The reason the other two ingredients are in quotes is because they are nowhere to be found in this dish. Not by sight, nor taste. They say it is in the jus beneath the chicken, but if you buy that, I have a time machine toaster oven I’d like to sell you. On the plus side, I’d call this dish a win only for the fact that none of us wound up with salmonella poisoning, because the chicken was way pink.

After that came the two dessert courses, the first of which being strawberries and cream and to put it bluntly, you’d do better with a basket of strawberries and a tub of Cool Whip from Stop & Shop. Dead serious.

Fortunately, the last dish of the night showed some semblance of culinary skill but it was too little too late. And while I’d like to tell you about it, I don’t even recall what it was, because by that point I had lost so much interest I no longer cared. I just wanted to go home, call it a loss and lick my wounds, which by the way, were tastier than most of those courses. On the plus side, I hear Contra changes the menu often. Hopefully by tomorrow.

2 teeth

Bacino’s

75 E Wacker Dr. Chicago, IL 60601(312) 263-2350bacinos.com

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In Chicago there are two epicurean musts, deep-dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs. Now I’m not exactly sure why, but for whatever reasons, Chicago is the only place in the world that seems to eat these two mainstream dishes differently than everybody else, and they are hell-bent on keeping it that way. Sort of like how the United States is the only hold out to adopt the metric system.

So, when in Rome (technically Sicily)… or Chicago, if you want to do as the locals, I recommend choosing Bacino’s for your authentic deep-dish experience versus the more touristy Giordano’s. It’s probably a good two inches thick, loaded with cheese and whatever other ingredients you fancy. For me, when I lived there, the go-to was the veggie with hot giardiniera, yet another very Chicago-centric concoction. It’s basically a spicy chopped up, marinated mixture of jalapeños, carrots, celery, onions, red peppers and cauliflower. It packs just enough heat to keep things interesting amidst all of that cheese sticking to your ribs. Which is a plus in terms of wintertime insulation if you think about it. But my suggestion is that you not think too much about it and just enjoy… unless you’re lactose intolerant, in which case you might want to at least think about taking a pill first.

3 teeth