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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IMARA

Eppendorfer Weg 186 – 20253 HamburgGermany • +49 40 42918080 • restaurant-imara.de
 

I found Imara to be surprisingly empty for a Friday night, because the Aladdin-esque vibe is actually kinda cool and the food, for the most part, is very good. It’s also a great place for large parties, particularly on short notice, primarily because few people know about it, I suppose?

On the flipside, I’m guessing the reason it’s so empty is the service- painfully slow on the drinks, yet painfully fast when it comes to the tapas- like eat or die fast! So, don’t be fooled by the size of the ginormous tables, because they disappear beneath an army of plates faster than you can say dankeshen.

The best things IMNSHO are the spicy shrimp (so good we ordered seconds… and thirds… and fourths… and I’m not exaggerating). Other crowd pleasers were the bacon wrapped dates and plum, the spinach rolls and the lamb rolls with yogurt sauce. I also dug the mini lamb tagines, forgiving the fact they weren’t served covered.

Misses for me were the horribly dry lamb kebabs and the lame bread with tapenade.

Lastly, I would feel remiss if I didn’t at least mention the bizarre urinal situation. And trust me, it’s not lost on me that this is the second time I’ve brought up urinals in my reviews of Hamburg restaurants alone, but bare with, because it’s worth it. You see, regardless of the fact that there are three urinals, you basically have to go one at a time unless you like touching strangers while you pee, because they are tightly nestled into a corner, so closely together that you’d have to be thinner than Trump’s alibi with Stormy Daniels to not be rubbing shoulder to shoulder with the dude next to you. Now THIS must be the real reason why the place is so empty!

Bella Sombra

Bagarasi Cad. No:24, Golturkbuku 48400, Turkey • T +9 0252 377 6100 • bellasombrahotel.com

Secrets, contrary to conventional wisdom, are better shared than kept. Obviously not all secrets, however. Like “I have another family” or “I’m actually a man” or “It’s not your baby.” But when it comes to restaurant finds, I lean towards letting the word get out. Sure it will make the place more popular and harder to get into, but it beats the alternative of no one ever hearing about it and the place disappears. This is a fate I would like to save Bella Sombra from.

As the name implies it is VERY “bella.” The setting when you walk down those steps toward the pool courtyard is breathtaking. Stone villas flanking it on all sides. The glow from the water, the moon and the lanterns on the steps luring you deeper into the seduction. And as you make your way around the pool, you will come upon the dining area, which is set apart by greenery and charmed with strung lights (pictured). The bar next door enjoys some of the same, but with a very spacious, more casual vibe. Almost done like an amphitheater of chaise-like sofas all facing the wooden bar meets hut in the center of the arena.

Sadly though, it is all wasted, because the crowd is not just virtually non-existent. It’s actually non-existent. We were the only table of the night. There were more stray cats than people, that’s how dead it was. On the upside, service was great. How could it not be?

So maybe it’s the food that’s killing them? Not really. I actually found most of the dishes to be quite worthy (not to mention large). The best dish being an inventive eggplant starter that tasted similar to baba ghanouj only better. The other winner was the paella for two, made with sucuk for a Turkish spin (resisting the temptation to make a dervish joke here).

In the middle for me would be the vegetarian sushi that tasted a bit like red lentil kofte. And the only miss was the manti. I get what they were trying to do, similar in some ways to how it is done at Limon. But in execution, it comes off like chickpeas and yogurt with Cheez-its stuck in it. So a pretty mighty miss in retrospect, but not enough for me to lose confidence as a recommendation. In other words, please go. It would be a shame to see this place disappear.

Murray’s Cheese Bar

264 Bleecker StNew York, NY 10014 • (646) 476-8882 • murrayscheesebar.com

Murray’s has been a New York icon for more years than the aged cheddar in their cheese cases. But more recently they decided to take that expertise and run with it, opening up a restaurant just a few doors down where the cheese flows like wine, or rather in tandem with it.

Our story begins with a robust, spicy blend of Grenache and Syrah by the glass. It was perfect for the cheesy tour de force that lied ahead, starting with the grilled artichokes, which wasn’t all that cheesy to be honest, but holy cow was it good, drizzled with an alici aioli (alici is an Italian fish sauce made from anchovies, in case you were thinking of googling it like I just did).

Equally impressive, and much cheesier, were the stuffed zucchini blossoms filled with spiced cream cheese, roasted corn and placed over a light yogurt sauce. Just killer.

But speaking of deadly, the Mac & Cheese was the real showstopper, making my Ultimate list with flying colors… and cheeses. My daughter technically ordered it, but I got all Daniel Day Lewis (circa There Will be Blood) on her and I “drank her milkshake.”

The sliders were also a solid yum, leading me to believe that the burgers are most likely awesome as well. And speaking of the A-word, the charcuterie and cheese plate is all that and then some. Obviously a lot rides on which meats and cheeses you choose, but you can never go wrong with the sweet San Daniele or the milky double cream. Also adding to the awesome are the inspired accouterments like the maple shavings. A stroke of delicousness!

Another worthy get is the grilled cheese, although I must admit I found the sandwich itself to be shockingly boring. What makes up for it in spades, however, is the kickass, sharp-ass tomato soup. Just dip the mediocre sammy in that red fountain of youth and your taste buds will feel like they’re twenty-one again, unless you’re younger than 21, in which case I’m not sure what the math would be?

Lastly, for dessert, while I appreciate the attempt to recreate iconic dishes with cheese, the Ch-mores fall miserably short and lack the contrast of flavors and textures that make S’mores so wonderful. Instead, the Ch’mores wind both looking and tasting like a cheesy blob. It was the biggest miss of the night and the primary reason I am docking a knife. Apart from that, I’d say it is a perfect stop amidst a Bleeker shopping spree, or for an early dinner with kids that doesn’t compromise for the adults.

The Ultimate Yogurt (Packaged)

Noosa – If you have ever been to Greece or Turkey then you know what I mean when I say that the yogurt in America is crap. Well, I mean it was crap until now. Thank you noosa with a lower case “n,” for delivering an ALL CAPS YOGURT!!! the likes of which this continent has never seen. Creamy, silky and no bitter or chalky aftertaste like Fage or Siggis, who try to convince you that that’s how Greek yogurt is supposed to taste. I assure you it isn’t. No yogurt is supposed to taste like sweaty feet. And while all of you Chobani-lovers out there may beg to differ, I challenge you to a blind taste test, after which I am certain you will see the light. But don’t take it too hard. Chobani was the best of what we had to work with for a while there, but the horse was also pretty good until the car came along.

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

Crimson

2901 Ocean Park Blvd. Ste 127 Santa Monica, CA 90405(310) 396-2400 crimsonla.com

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If you hate Tommy James and the Shondels, the University of Alabama football team and Tom Clancy novels about submarines, then your crimson ship finally came in. In the form of hummus wraps stuffed with fresh tabouleh, bursting with flavor. Dip that in a side of their tzatziki and you’re golden. But speaking of gold, their Turkish style grape leaves drizzled with a harissa yogurt are so good I think they should be made mandatory for all other restaurants to emulate. Even their Arnold Palmer was pretty decent, making this an all around great spot for a grab and go, delivery or a casual bite.

I’d elaborate more, but this one is a solid fastball down the middle. And besides, you have too much work to be sitting around reading lengthy blog posts waxing Hemmingway about a dolma anyway.

3 teeth

Bosphorous

108 S Park Ave. Winter Park, FL 32789 (407) 644-8609 bosphorousrestaurant.com

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Considering my wife is Turkish and I visit Turkey for a few weeks at least once a year, I would say I’m a pretty good judge of Turkish cuisine. Therefore, by the power vested in me, I pronounce Bosphorus to be the real McCoy. One bite and you feel like you’re sitting in Istanbul enjoying mezes (appetizers) and sipping raki (anise Turkish booze). Everything is as authentic as it gets and once upon a time it was pretty damn good too. But ever since they opened a second location in Dr. Phillips, the food at both has slid downhill. Particularly at the Dr. Phillips location. So if you if you’re going, head to Winter Park instead.

That said, there are still a few things that remain strong, like the lavas (a giant puffy bread) with cacik (yogurt mixed with garlic and herbs), the lahmacun (ground lamb flat bread: pictured), the babaganoush and humus. The rest is sadly a shell of its former self, from the oily mucver (zucchini pancakes) to the flavorless okra dish to the adana kebabs that are not very adana (spicy).

But at least the staff is still very friendly, so if you need additional guidance, feel free to let them show you around the menu. Also, two things; I recommend going with three or more people so you can try lots of different things and second, don’t go if you are in a rush. Turks like to take their time and so should you. Besides, it’s not good to eat too fast. And yes, I am your mother.

3 teeth

Dirty French

Ludlow Hotel • 180 Ludlow St. New York, NY 10002(212) 254-3000dirtyfrench.com

Dirty French

It is with great pleasure and relief that I submit to you a review of the restaurant Dirty French, who actually lives up equally to both its name and its hype (which is written in some shockingly eloquent Yelp reviews). And while Carbone and Torrisi can do no wrong in my eyes, I was still a little worried going in with such high expectations.

So, overcoming healthy doses of skepticism from Wifey and I, we arrived for our annoyingly early reservation of 6:00 pm, because nothing else was “available.” I use air quotes because the place was 90% empty when we arrived, leading me to believe that they save the normal times for people with connections, either that or they just hold out on decent times to build the allure of dining there.

But as annoyed as we were, the tides turned quickly when our host managed to accommodate us sitting in the back garden even though it is technically reserved for hotel guests and VIPs, of which we were neither. Not that there is anything wrong with the main dining room. It’s pretty traditional bistro décor, done well. But the garden is much more charming with its exposed brick walls, greenhouse ceiling and an eclectic array of pendants dangling overhead. Granted it’s much quieter and not as lively, so if you’re looking to see and be seen, I recommend staying up front.

The other tide-turning surprise was our server, Kenny, from Croatia. Such an infectiously positive spirit, born with hospitality coursing through his veins. We couldn’t help but smile at his enthusiasm about each dish. He was quick to offer tastes of different wines by the glass or even cocktails. Spot on with recommendations and just as deft with conversation.

Speaking of cocktails I went with the Pigalle, a bourbon based drink with nice balance to it, artfully blending elements of heat (chili) and refreshing citrus (orange and lemon) with just a touch of spice, between the bitters and cinnamon stick. Wifey had the Ludlow Gimlet which I can only assume was good since she finished it and didn’t even offer me a sip, hording it all for herself. But I forgive her. After all, it was her birthday.

And a happy one it was with stunning dishes like the lamb carpaccio (pictured), spread across the plate like an edible Chagall. It is handily an Ultimate across two categories, Lamb and Carpaccio. Seasoned generously with herbs, spicy chili oil, medallions of marinated eggplant and tiny dollops of yogurt. This is then accompanied by several slices of grilled bread upon which you are to spread your carpaccio like paint across a canvas, paying homage to the work of art it truly is.

Another mighty impressive dish in the raw camp is the tuna tartar, dressed in the same spicy chili oil as the lamb, also seasoned with plentiful herbs, including a healthy dose of Thai basil, which truthfully makes the dish- all sidled up next to something they call a crepe indochine.

Not even close to done showing off, the chef keeps the wows coming with a Foie gras terrine wrapped in a crispy phyllo brick, filled with jam and placed over a burnt lemon cream, which all coalesce in your mouth with such dexterity that you could swear you had a tiny, little conductor in there, waving his baton around so that the lemon knew just when to come in and brighten things up.

For our entrée, we split the hanger steak au poivre, which was once again a “dirty,” a.k.a. “unfaithful,” take on the classic French dish, made unique with an Asian twist on the sauce, more Thai basil (apparently the farmer’s market was having a sale) and lime cornichon. And as for the steak itself, it was cooked a perfect medium rare, allowing the meat to melt into the sauce like a dream.

In tandem with the steak, we also ordered a highly unnecessary side of pommes frites, which went perfectly with the steak. Sliced thin almost potato chip style with just enough fluffiness inside to contrast the crispiness. And in lieu of ketchup or mustard, they serve it up with a creamy remoulade that makes them hard to resist, even though you are about to pop like a child’s balloon being filled by a fire hose.

So obviously we skipped dessert, right? No way. Are you crazy? That’d be like a pitcher walking off the mound in the 8th inning of a no-hitter. You gotta see it through. So wifey and I hunkered down and toughed it out with an order of the beignets to see if this meal could truly end flawlessly. Well, landing stuck like Kerri Strug. These fritters were ankle-breaking good, and I don’t even know what that means. What I do know is that they are definitely an Ultimate with their clever hint of chicory, adding a light, floweriness to the otherwise heavy dough dipped in caramel.

Then, last but not least, Kenny, our Croatian master of ceremonies, surprised us with an assortment of birthday gelato on the house. One strawberry, one watermelon and one was coconut. The coconut being the best of the three, but compared to those beignets, I wasn’t about to blow out an internal organ over them, so if you’re deciding between the two yourself, there’s really no contest. Beignets all the ways.

Now, going back to the beautifully written Yelp reviews I mentioned earlier, it pains me that they still averaged out to be a mere 3.5 stars, which is ridiculously inaccurate. GOD, I HATE YELP! It’s so bad that it goes beyond subjectivity and lands squarely on the face of uselessness. When you have people sandbagging things with one star because a server was bad or 3 stars because they wouldn’t know their ass from their elbow pasta it waters down any value the site has to offer. It’s 5 stars people! FIVE!!! Or knives, as the case may be on this site. Okay, I need to go take a Xanax.

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