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.

Rosa Mexicano

61 Columbus Ave. New York, NY 10023 • (212) 977-7700 • rosamexicano.com

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I’ve been going to Rosa for years. All three locations in the city, and multiple times at that. So I think it’s fair to say that we have some history together. And while there are many things I still love about Rosa, like any long-term relationship, we’ve had our rocky times as well.

The first time we met, I was instantly smitten by her fresh-made guacamole right there table-side. But this was back in the day before Dos Caminos and virtually every other Mexican joint copied them. Since then, however, I’ve learned a trick or two on how to spice things up, literally. Although the innuendo does work nicely. So, if you’re like me and you want more heat in your heat in your guac, you can ask them to double or even triple the chopped jalapeno count in the bowl. And if you’re into oral masochism, again like me, you can even ask that they go in the back and grab some habaneros instead, to give it more kick than a mule with a soccer fetish.

But man cannot live on guac alone, and fortunately Rosa does many other things very well. Some classics like empanadas, tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas and poblano dishes, and some with a modern twist, like their skirt steak sandwich on ciabatta with caramelized onions and cojita cheese or their incredible bunuelos served with chocolate and raspberry dipping sauces that make them even more ridiculously addictive than they already are (a borderline Ultimate Doughnut).

Sounds like a Hollywood romance, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t always that way. A while back at their Upper West-ish/Hell’s Kitchen location, I took my cousin and his fiance who were in town for a visit. And let’s just say Rosa treated us like mierda. First they made us wait at the bar for about 45 minutes for our table, and that’s with having a reservation. Fortunately, they have great drinks, but the bar was so over crowded it felt more like being on the subway at rush hour with a margarita in your hand.

Then, once seated, we naturally ordered the fresh made guac, and everything was going deliciously as always… That is, until the entrees came. When a few of us ordered the paella risotto, and while it was tasty for the first several bites, it was also filled with shards of PLASTIC!!! Yes, several bits of plastic were mixed all throughout the dish. And when we told the waiter, they literally did nothing about it! They didn’t comp a single dish. The manager didn’t even come over apologize. Nothing. And just like that they lost a customer for over almost a decade.

However, forgiveness is divine, as they say, and a few years back I decided to let Rosa back into my life. The one near Union Square. And slowly but surely, she earned my trust back and we have been together happily ever since… end scene.

3 teeth

 

The Black Ant

60 2nd Ave. New York, NY 10003 • (212) 598-0300blackantnyc.com

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I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for restaurants named after colorful animals. The Purple Pig in Chicago, Yellow Dog Eats in Orlando, The Golden Goat in Eze, France… And there are many more where those came from- Well, now you add yet another to the list, The Black Ant, and while black is technically not a “color,” (it’s a value) if you can find it in a box of Crayolas, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a color.

The place is very cozy and charming inside, playing to its name with a gigantic ant mural and ant wallpaper. And the service is rather jubilant (note the clever use of an adjective containing the word “ant” within it- two points for me!), a noteworthy plus to the dining experience, because it becomes infectious and it’s almost impossible to have a bad time here because of it. Well, because of that or the margaritas. And actually just the smoky jalapeno margarita, which was spicy and smoky as one might expect. The blood orange variety is actually a bit of a miss if you ask me. Much better ones to be had at ABC Cocina in the city or Truck in Bedford, NY.

As for the guac, however, you’d be hard-pressed to find better, or as interesting, made so by loading it with goodies like chipotle, black ant salt, quesillo and garbanzos done in a way that is very reminiscent of corn nuts, all waging a textural tango on your tongue, between creamy and crunchy.

The fries are also done with a cultural flair, foregoing the potatoes in lieu of cactus. Now I can’t exactly say I’ve had a plethora of cactus fries in my life to compare these with, but I feel pretty comfortable in saying that this is probably the most joy a cactus has ever given someone since peyote.

For a taco, I definitely recommend the enchapulinados (fried shrimp). But again, Black Ant doesn’t seem to do anything the easy way, so instead of coconut or panko these shrimp are crusted with grasshoppers. No, not the cocktail. The insect. Accompanied with habanero, garlic aioli and cabbage slaw, all lovingly dolloped on a homemade tortilla. It’s not quite an Ultimate, but it is quite good.

As for my entrée, this was the biggest let down of the night, other than the blood orange margarita. I followed the recommendation of the waitress who suggested the buñuelos de pato, which are essentially fried wontons filled with duck, smothered in mole and cotija cheese, served up with a kumquat salad. It’s not bad I suppose, but after her two previous fried recommendations I started to get a little fried on fried things. And I’m not exactly sure why she didn’t recommend that short rib looker above or the stunning fish dish you’ll find on their website. I can only assume she just has a thing for fried foods, but I’m also not ruling out the possibility that she was trying to kill me.

Well, I would’ve thought that had she not followed it up with the best recommendation of the night, the Piña Loca for dessert. It’s a warm cake and ice cream served over a caramelized pineapple pancake and all I can say is muy bien!

Definitely a worthwhile visit and I look forward to returning with wifey. But when I do, I’m skipping the duck.

3 teeth

Casa Mono

52 Irving Pl. New York, NY 10003(212) 253-2773 • casamononyc.com
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This little corner tapas charmer is located right in the heart of Irving Place, flanked on two sides by huge divided light windows, which fills the tiny dining room with sun. Feels like something you’d expect in The Village or Europe.

Of the small plates, we shared five and unfortunately Mono only hit on dos. The first being the bone marrow (pictured), which was done with capers and olives, giving it a nice, salty flavor, along with a little texture, to help cut through the buttery marrow. One of the more interesting bone marrow dishes I’ve had.

The other gem was a roasted rabbit with habanero sauce and yogurt, so delish I’d have to go back to Playboy or Bugs to find a bunny I enjoyed more. Playing with the elements between the heat and the cool creaminess of the yogurt, it really made every bite somethin’ somethin’.

For the misses, I would take a firm pass on the buratta with snap peas and bacon. It’s a watery mess that tastes more like cream soup than buratta. And considering how low the degree of difficulty is with buratta, I’m gonna have to say this was pretty damn god awful. Like trying to actually shoot fish in a barrel and blowing your foot off in the process.

And the other miss was the Polpo (octopus) with fennel and grapefruit. It wasn’t a shit show like the buratta, but it was definitely a calamity of proportions. So heavy on the fennel and a little too light on the puss. As a result, one might say the octopus was drowning in a sea of fennel. Oh, the irony (note to Alanis Morissette, this is actual irony, not coincidence or tragedy like everything in your song “Ironic,” which tragically helped to successfully misguide an entire generation as to the definition of the word. Okay, I’m done venting)!

Lastly, we went for an attempt at redemption, with my favorite dessert, bread pudding. Because I really wanted to give this place three knives (in my heart of hearts I did like it), but currently it was teetering on the edge of two after burratamaggeddon. Sadly, Mono’s chef screwed the pooch once again serving up a confused dessert that seemed like it was caught between wanting to be a peach crumble and bread pudding and didn’t really stick the landing on either.

So two knives it is, I’m sorry to say. And while Mono may be capable of spots of greatness, there are too many spots of a different color, to the point where one has to question whether or not the chef is just calling it in, or even worse, does the chef at Mono… have mono?

2 teeth

The Ultimate Guacamole

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When it comes to great guac, I have to admit I’m a bit of a priss. Okay, so I’m prissy in general as a rule, but only as it pertains to good food. As for the complexity or simplicity, I whole-heartedly appreciate both. But when it comes to guac, I have to say I kinda prefer the fuss. No simple old mashed up avocado will do for this cat, oh no, no, no. You gotta earn my lovin’ with a little magic in your mush. Below are three of my favorite magicians.

The Ninth Door – Denver, CO

This is the most inventive guac of the three, and more inventive than any I’ve ever seen before or since. It starts with an avocado cut in half, then they flash fry it with a little panko and fill the divot where the pit use to be with pico de gallo. The end result is so unforgettable you’ll hear Natalie Cole singing in your ears while your mouth and your eyes are still busy recovering from the rapture.

ABC Cocina – NY

Jean Georges always seems to find a way to take the basics and turn them into brilliance. From caprese salad to foie gras terrine to guac he really knows how to make you feel like you’re tasting something again for the first time. The dial here is a simple one, however, simply adding sunflower seeds to the green stuff and serving it up along side a wonderful grapefruit salsa and oversized, fresh-baked chips.

Rosa Mexicano – New York, NY

For the purists, I offer up the remarkably fresh, table-side prepared guac at Rosa. I’ve been to hordes of other places that try to do the same, but somehow it always pales by comparison. I’m not sure how or why, but whatever they’re doing, they manage to pull it off at every location too. Also, one of the things I love most about it is that they customize the heat. You like spicy, they throw in more jalapenos. You like crazy spicy, just ask for habaneros. That’s what I do and it’s guac-a-holy-mole!

Chocolat by Adam Turoni

323 W Broughton St. Savannah, GA 31401 • (912) 335-2914 •  chocolatat.com

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If only one could actually eat with their eyes, then perhaps Turoni would be worthy of its price tag, not to mention its colossally inflated rating on Yelp. But unfortunately the best part of the experience ends the moment you exit the shop. And it is an experience, I’ll given ’em that.

Tall, gorgeous glass cases filled with these delectable looking jewels (pictured) flank you as you enter. Each grouping of chocolates accompanied by a card that describes the complexity within. Then, armed with a steel tray and tongs, you are sent out to collect your own box of goodies throughout the shop. It really is terrific concept.

But here’s the rub… Only about two of the ten we purchased were worth the calories, as the overwhelming majority fell way short of their promise. The flavors just lacked the impact one hopes for when you bite into a morsel of chocolate. The habanero wasn’t spicy enough. The caramels weren’t gooey enough. And the chocolates weren’t rich enough. I don’t know about you, but subtlety has no place in the land of desserts as far as I’m concerned. Go big or go home. Now I’m not saying that all desserts have to be heavy or rich, but I AM saying that if I’m going to put my health at risk to try your dessert, the least you could do is send my endorphins on the ride of their life!

So personally I would say skip Adam Turoni and walk a few more blocks over to Leopold’s Ice Cream, a dessert that will easily be worth every last calorie. Plus, the exercise will help compensate for the added poundage.

If you do stay, go for the one with musical notes on it. It’s half white chocolate, half dark, with hazelnuts in the middle. And proceeds from its sale go to the local philharmonic. A distant second was the one made with Brazilian coffee. Beyond those, it’s amateur hour. So load up on those two, or be warned.

2 teeth

 

Westchester Burger Co.

106 Westchester Ave. White Plains, NY 10601 •  (914) 358-9398westchesterburger.com
353 N Bedford Rd. Mount Kisco, NY 10549 •  (914) 218-3200

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Please don’t take these three knives lightly. I mean these guys custom season every burger to match its accoutrements. And as a result, there are burgers on the menu that easily make their way into the four knife realm. The problem, is that there are a lot of two knife burgers as well. And the sweet potato fries that everybody raves about are just “eh.” If you really want sweet potato fries to rock your world, go to Blue Smoke in Manhattan. Also, the shakes, while good, get by more on the guilty add-ins as opposed to the ice cream base.

But back to some of those four knife burgers… Numero uno would be the Napa Burger- WOW! Almost every time I don’t get this, I regret it. Fortunately it’s too big for my wife to finish, so I usually get a few bites anyways. So what makes this burger so good it guaranteed a return visit all on its own? Well, first, they marinate the patty in a Zinfandel sauce and top it with goat cheese and watercress- all aboard a sweet brioche bun. It’s somethin’ special.

Another high would be the Ba Da Bing, made with spicy Italian sausage, as opposed to ground beef, broccoli rabe, provolone, balsamic glaze all atop a focaccia bun. It’s quite inventive and quite good.

And coming in third for me would be the lamb burger served with squash and zucchini, a yogurt sauce and once again, focaccia. They can go a little crazy with the sauce on this one, so I’d recommend asking them to go light or to put it on the side.

In the middle of the road would be their namesake, the TWC – their classic with a twist, or as I like to call it, a high end Whopper. Good, but nothing I would ever order again.

Same goes for the Graziella, The Balboa and The Firehouse. Just nothing about any of them makes a big enough impression to make it worth ordering again. Especially the Firehouse. I mean with a name like that, you’re expecting some heat. C’mon, break out the habaneros or jalapenos or chili peppers- hell, break out something other than just chili.

Service was friendly and fast and they are always great with the kids. Decor is nothing THAT special, however. Not sure why so many people rave about how cool it is. Guess they don’t spend much time in the city… or at Chipotle. It’s not bad, don’t get me wrong, but it’s pretty normal by my standards. Like a Chipotle.

3 teeth

Norman’s

4012 Central Florida Pkwy Orlando, FL 32837(407) 393-4333 • normans.com

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Oh Yelpers, I find it laughable that you compare the service here to the likes of the French Laundry. I have been to both and it’s like comparing Michael Jordan to some guy who owns a basketball. The sommelier , while good, was an apprentice as opposed to a master. The waitress and back servers made several mistakes including taking away a plate while my friend was still chewing and leaving a newly presented dish go unexplained. I think you’re letting the fact that it’s in a Ritz Carlton fool you. Now I’m not deducting a knife or anything for this, but I am calling bullshit on the “impeccable” service.

And as for the romantic décor, it isn’t. It’s nice. But you can’t help but notice you are in an expansive hotel wing.

But don’t think this is another bash session on Yelpers, after all, they got a few things right. For example, the Yucca stuffed shrimp with habanero was very good. I expected a little more heat from the dish, but it’s still definitely worth ordering. Another great recommendation was the pork belly served with an artichoke puree, brussel sprouts and a sherry reduction. Best thing we ordered. And finally the key lime cheesecake was another solid call from the Yelping contingent.

But here’s what they missed:

The ciabatta bread is insanely good, tasting more like a beignet than ciabatta to me, but no complaints there. Just try to control yourself or you’ll never make it to dessert. I know, I sound like your mother.

Another miss is the consensus of praise for the fried green tomatoes. I’m guessing most of these people have never had the dish before because it’s typically savory and even a touch tart. Whereas Norman’s serves it in a tempura batter with a tomato jam on top that turns the dish decidedly sweet, which isn’t to say it was bad, but when you order an iconic dish, your mouth starts to prepare itself for a certain set of expected flavors, so to zag so drastically from it just didn’t work for me.

And the biggest infraction of the night was the chicken. So overcooked and dry it was humiliating… for the chicken. To have died in vain for such poor performance is a poultry tragedy. And while the preparation surrounding it was nice, it was brought down by its headliner.

The second biggest miss came right on the heels of the chicken, with the Havana Banana dessert. And normally I’m bananas about bananas, but this dish is so unworthy of the hype I almost want to hunt down the Yelpers who touted it and pull out their tongues because they obviously aren’t using them properly.

Funny enough, however, the free dessert that comes with your check was the best of the lot. The dark chocolate, hazelnut truffles are incredible. Great way to end a good meal. And while I am only giving it three knives, it’s definitely better than Primo across the way, which I also gave three knives. So consider this an honorary three and a half.

3 teeth

Son of a Gun

8370 W 3rd St. Los Angeles, CA 90048 • (323) 782-9033 • sonofagunrestaurant.com

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Being the sister restaurant to Animal, my favorite place to eat in LA, Son of a Gun had a lot to live up to. And considering I dragged four coworkers there with me to try it, my neck was on the line. Well, I am happy to report that my neck is doing very nicely, thank you. In fact, one might go so far as to say my neck was lauded upon for such a recommendation.

Walking in, the place is nothing like its starker, minimalist sibling. Son of a Gun is enjoys a fisherman’s haute décor with all sorts of nautical paraphernalia hanging on the walls, including deer antlers?

As a result, it is very casual and down to earth. The food, however, is out of this world. We must’ve ordered a dozen dishes and not one of them was bad. Only two were just okay. And everything else fell somewhere between great and excellent.

Among the long list of winners was a salmon crudo with jerk spice, kiwi and habanero. Sounds spicier than it is. And one of the most flavorful raw seafood dishes I’ve ever devoured. Another huge hit was the soft shell crab tempura with pork belly and cinnamon. It was cinnaful.

The octopus salad with fennel, chickpeas radishes and chili was another star(fish). Much spicier than it let on by the looks of it, appearing more like an innocent salad. But one bite and complexity popped you one right in the kisser. As Jimmy Walker would say, it was “dynomite!”

From the crustacean food group, we went with Dungeness crab served in little rolls drizzled with apple yuzu and each garnished with an beautiful, edible purple flower. They were so creamy, yet bright, you would swear they crossbred the crabs with dairy cows. Such a simple, wonderful display of balance and proportion.

Even the chicken sandwich (pictured) was awesome, which was a tad out of place on the menu, assumingly there for those who don’t dig on fish. But this bird is no afterthought. Might be the best chicken sandwich I’ve ever had. Tough to share though, but we somehow managed to power through it.

Other solid, but slightly more mortal dishes were the two-bite lobster rolls and the skate wing. Both are very good, but you’re probably getting adjective fatigue at this point, so I’ll try save the gushiness for where the gushiness is due.

The only true miss of the night was the only waitress reco, the smoked mahi. And the only eh of the night (I’ll take the blame as I did all of the ordering) was the shishito peppers. They were good, just nothing special.

And finally, dessert. On this SOG went an impressive 3 for 3. The deconstructed key lime was light and refreshing. The banana bread was superb. But the closer was the raspberry and peach pie with crème anglaise – stomach pumping good.

This is one fish tale that lives up to the legend.

5 teeth