Oak & Almond

544 Main AveNorwalk, CT 06851 • (203) 846-4600 • oakandalmond.com
This might just very well be the best restaurant in the world… that is adjacent to a DMV. A dubious distinction by all accounts, but don’t let that sway you, because even if it weren’t right next door to the DMV, it would still be pretty damn good. So if you’re in the area, pounce. And if you’ve just spent an infuriating day at the DMV, double pounce.

The setting is surprisingly nice considering its locale, although it’s not a place I would propose or anything. That said, it’s set far enough away from the road and the DMV parking lot to make you feel like you are elsewhere.

But what really transports you is the food. From get go, you know they’re the real deal when they serve you their homemade, fresh-baked bread with a whipped butter-like cream thing that is dangerously habit-forming.

And the app-e-teasers proved strong as well. My favorite being the fungi flatbread (pictured). This pie is legit. Doing CT Pizza culture proud. A close second was the buratta, which was melt-in-your mouth creamy, drizzled with balsamic and served up with beefsteak tomatoes and perfectly thin, crisp crostini, just strong enough to provide textural contrast with the buratta, but thin enough so as not to overpower it and let it be the star. A close third for me would be the octopus, just missing the second slot because it was a touch overcooked. But the preparation was wonderful. A mix of fave beans, peas, dill yogurt, fennel, potatoes and chorizo, all drizzled with a kicking’ vinaigrette.

The only miss for me was the salmon tartar, significantly lacking in compared to its bunkmates.

For entrée, I went with the lamb burger. Not sure why, because I was already pretty damn full by this point, but perhaps it’s because I’m like a dog and would eat myself to death if you’d let me. Pressing on, I managed to hork about two thirds of it down. But like the octopus, I do have to say it was also over-cooked. That said, also like the octopus, the balance of flavors made up for a lot with the tzatziki and the olive aioli.

But as good as it is, I’m not suggesting you make a special trip just to go here. I mean it’s still right next to the DMV for Christ’s sake! But, if you happen to work nearby, or be in the area, you could do a lot worse. And if you just failed your driver’s license exam, it’s a nice place to lick your wounds.

Consider it a VERY strong three knifer, trending four when you adjust for DMV proximity.

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Forager’s Table

233 8th AveNew York, NY 10011 • (212) 243-8888 • foragersmarket.com/restaurant

Swooned by many a Yelper and blog, Forager seems to make everyone’s top spots for brunch. So, when in Rome, and Chelsea, we grabbed brunch. And as much as I love hatin’ on the Yelpers, I gots to admit, they called this right as rain.* Oh, the asterisk? Well, there was a pretty egregious miss, but will get to that after some lovin’.  

First up, an Ultimate in the pancake category, their orange blossom ricotta pancakes (pictured) are fluffier than a newborn chick after a blowout. Light and brilliant and I’m so glad I don’t live or work closer to this place or I’d become the opposite of light and fluffy. Also in the sweet camp, their Belgian waffles are quite strong as well.

On the savory front, wifey had the salmon tartine and it too was a crowd-pleaser. Said crowd being her teeth and mine. And albeit a simple dish, the ingredients are terrific (like dill creme fraiche) and the balance is nailed.

Not-so nailed is the “steak” egg wrap, which sounds incredible by its description on the menu- so much so that I came dangerously close to order it over the pancakes. Well, phew! Dodged that bullet! But sadly, it hit my father in-law square in the puss. An culinary insult to its brethren dishes, it disappoints on virtually every metric, the first of which being that it is NOT steak. It is ground meat. Granted it might’ve been steak at one point, but that would be like serving up chicken and calling them eggs. Speaking of eggs, they must’ve made them with milk as opposed to crème fraiche, because the wrap was soggier than a toddler’s bed at 2:00am. MOM!!!!!

I don’t want to end on a sour note, however, because the truth is, it was a pretty sweet meal, even down to their fresh juices. But shhh! Don’t tell my father in-law or he’ll disown me.

Buca

604 King Street WToronto, ON M5V 1M6 Canada • (416) 865-1600 • buca.ca/king.html
 

I hadn’t been to Toronto in over a decade, but I remember having some great meals there. In fact, if you ever read my review of Mercer Kitchen, then you will know that it was the sushi pizza from Toronto that is somewhat responsible for finding my wife. So, it probably goes without saying that I didn’t really need another reason to love the Toronto food scene more than I already do, but then Buca happened.

An epic love story all its own, spanning across eleven rapturous dishes. It was like a scene out of Gone With the Wind- me running into the arms of antipasti, secondi and dolci… and antipasti, secondi and dolci all running into my mouth.

To start, Buca is a massive, industrial space right across the street from another strong Italian option, Gusto 101. That said, Buca is a cut above by all measures, including price tag. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t worth every last loonie.

From the get go, Buca served up more wow’s than Sam and the Firefly, starting with their salmon crudo with goat yogurt, zucchini blossoms, capers, cipollini and dill. Quickly followed delectable, little, warm rosemary, garlic and olive oil bread knots and a strong charcuterie board loaded with assorted cheeses and salumi.

And then Buca stopped playing around and brought the heat. Showing off in the most unlikely of places like a salad of mustard greens filled with berries from a local farm, dressed with goat yogurt and an olive oil of the gods.

This was then chased by a simple, beautiful buratta pizza. But all of this matters not, because the bigoli, aka duck egg pasta with duck offal ragu, venetian spices and mascarpone came in like the second coming and stuck the landing like Mary Lou Retton, crossbred with a cat wearing spikes on its feet.

The prime rib might’ve been the most mortal of the dishes we had or perhaps it was more a dimension of comparison, because it was served back to back with the branzino which stole the show.

For the final act, the dolci, Buca reimagined a Tiramisu with espresso soaked tapioca biscuits, mascarpone and chocolate mousse all layered deep in glass I wish was a yard in hindsight. And while the gelato was no slouch either, after that Tiramisu I could’ve just curled up in a ball and died happy.

Easily among the best Italian restaurants in the world, including Italy.

Simit Sarayi

435 5th AveNew York, NY 10016 • (929) 374-3237 • simitsarayi.com

For all intensive purpose the name basically translates to Bagel Palace. And a palace it is not. In Turkey it is essentially a Panera, a local chain of decent baked goods and other dishes. And if I was in Turkey I’d probably only give this place 3 knives, but that’s in Turkey. To have this in New York City on my walk to work, it is a godsend!

About once a month I go butt-wild and buy a double Noah’s Ark- four of everything. The spinach rose borek might just be my favorite thing of all. Warm it up with a dollop of plain yogurt and sliced tomatoes on the side and you’ve got yourself one of the easiest, bestest meals you could wish for.

I also loves me some su boregi, which is sort of like a savory kugel or sauceless, meatless lasagna. It sounds awful the way I’m describing it, but I promise it’s delish. Granted it’s even better at Gulluoglu on the East Side, but since Gulluoglu isn’t on my walk to work, this one is plenty good enough.

Their dill and feta buns are terrific too, which are pseudo pogaça-like. For those of you who don’t find the poaça analogy helpful, it’s a small, savory pastry filled with herbs and cheese.

Ironically the top billing, the simit, can be a bit of a wild card. Sometimes it’s true to the motherland, thin and dense and seeded galore. Other times it tries to masquerade as a wannabe sesame bagel. I prefer the former.

On the sweet side, they also kick some serious ay çöreği, a crescent-shaped, semi-sweet dessert filled with ground hazelnuts that are so dense they almost taste like chocolate. Then, they top it off with sliced almonds.

All of the little cookies are money too. Perfect for çay sati (tea time). They have chocolate chip, Nutella filled, hazelnut and fig. You really can’t go wrong. And that’s what I love about this place. You could throw a dart anywhere in the joint and still be happy with what you got to eat, unless you hit the cashier, of course.

Chez VIncent et Nicolas

92 rue Meynadier 06400 Cannes, France+33 4 93 68 35 39 chezvincentetnicolas.fr

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Just before the bottom of the hill on the main drag in Old Cannes, there is a little alley to the left or right depending on which direction you’re heading, and within that alley you will find three more restaurants tucked away from view. Now I can’t speak about the other two, but Chez Vincent was a nice find indeed.

The night started off with a great bottle of Syrah and very friendly service, and as for the meal, it started off with a gooey, baked Camembert served with sliced green apples and toast. Unfortunately the apples were sliced razor thin and didn’t hold up to the cheese at all. Also, the toast was actually a bit stale. Fortunately, the baguette in the breadbasket was incredibly fresh, so we used that to sop up the cheese instead and it was nummy, nummy.

We also did the scallops wrapped in bacon, which is an oldy but a goody. And finally another classic starter, a whole artichoke served with Dijon for dipping. Both were also very good, but nothing game-changing.

For entrees it was a mixed bag. My mushroom and chicken risotto being extraordinary, the elbow pasta being interesting and the salmon tartar being a touch bland as the fish itself was overpowered by the dill and onion within. And while the French fries served with it were quite soggy, they were actually the best thing about the tartar. That said, if you want the fries without the salmon, I’d suggest going with the burger. It looked crazy good. As did the moules frites (pictured).

And speaking of crazy good, the tart tatin for dessert is another must get, nearly equal to the risotto and between the two enough to have me flirting with the thought of 4 knives. Unfortunately the dessert medley was not-so fantastic, keeping things firmly supplanted at three.

3 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

Lola

2000 4th Ave. Seattle, WA 98121(206) 441-1430 tomdouglas.com

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When you’re staying at a hotel and you ask the concierge for restaurant recommendations, it’s always a bad sign when they recommend the one located in the hotel, just off of the lobby. It’s like, “Suuuure, and I bet your mother thinks you’re quite the catch as well.”

Well damned be my pessimism, because Lola in the Andra hotel is actually rock solid. Now, I only had breakfast there, but that was easily enough to see that Lola has serious skillz. How serious? Let’s just say Dick Cheney is hilarious by comparison.

But as serious as it is, I was giddy as a schoolgirl with my order of Tom’s Favorite Breakfast (that Tom being Tom Douglas, a Seattle restaurant icon). It’s grilled octopus, sliced purple potatoes, tender greens, bacon and green garlic yogurt capped with a sunny side egg. It’s also fan-fricken-tastic. And sure, I was like you going in, “Octopus for breakfast?” So, I asked our server if it was worth the experimentation and she responded with an emphatic yes. And now I can see why. Live and learn people, octopus is the new breakfast of champions.

However, one trick pony Lola is not. Oh no, no, no. The omelette with morels, English peas and minty feta is also dope. Made doper still by thick, meaty slabs of bacon and squashed garlic fried potatoes.

Even the tea here is worth a shout out. No run-of-the-mill mint for these cats. They mix it with licorice and it was fantastic. Normally I’m more of a juice guy, but this was so good I downed the pot like it was the cup of life.

So after such glowing praise, why not 5 knives you ask? Well, after I go back for lunch or dinner, check this review again and we’ll see…

UPDATE: So, after going back for lunch, once again Lola served up an impressive performance with their delicious sockeye kebabs, served with a yogurt, dill cacik-like sauce, a fresh Greek salad and warm, fluffy pita. It was truly awesome. So now why not five knives? Well, I went back again for breakfast and this time I tried the eggs benny and I have to say it was a miss. Sure, the eggs were poached to perfection. And the ham they use is wonderful. But the fresh baked muffin from Dahlia across the street was chewy and hard to cut through. So much so that it brought the whole dish down with it. Not to mention the knife count.

4 teeth