Skip to content

Posts from the ‘East Village’ Category


twoshovelAlder was not exactly what I expected. The food was fairly straightforward, at least in comparison to WD-50, which wasn’t a detriment for the dishes since most are memorable close to a month later. I couldn’t conjure up a single detail about the room if I tried, though. Perhaps that wasn’t the point.


Even though I’ve been trying to work my way through two pounds of Chinese sausage picked up at Costco, I still ordered the pigs in a blanket that wrap flattened hot dog buns around the sweet fatty links of lap cheong. The emphasis here is more on the link than the normally puffy coating. Served with sweet chile sauce and Japanese mustard, these are the perfect cross-cultural snacks. They will not be forgotten come Super Bowl.


The quail scotch eggs, whose shrunken size provides a good coating to innards ratio, also tread in bar snack territory.


Grilled octopus combined the most unusual flavors and it was also the most successful composed dish. Octopus and chorizo, I could buy in that Portuguese-y pork and seafood way. Sweet potato–why not? Banana, though, seemed, well, bananas, one step too far. It was not. Oily sausage, paprika and octopus coins are strong enough for a sweet, starchy accent.


Instagram works. I might not have considered the goat if I hadn’t seen the whole animal being prepped before service. I’m not sure what else went into this take on Jamaican goat curry and coco bread, but based on taste it was less a riff than a rendition, just presented spilling out of a wedge of acorn squash.

Alder * 157 Second Ave., New York, NY

Chao Thai Too & Zabb Elee

Chao Thai Too and Zabb Elee are both Queens Isaan
offshoots. Not so long ago, Chao Thai spawned a second larger location in
Elmhurst while last year Zabb Elee made the leap all the way from Jackson Heights
to the East Village. Both are far better than average.

Chao Thai has always been my favorite Sripraphai
alternative (Ayada is in that pantheon too, but I'm less fanatical about them
then others) even though there's that one server who's smarmy about not giving
you the requested spice level. I was hoping he'd remain stationed at the
original, but there he was at the highly staffed Too (though oddly, not taking

Chao thai too fried morning glory salad

The menu is bigger and now formally includes a lot
of the dishes that used to be on hand-written scraps of paper taped around the
room. At the old Chao Thai their take on the crispy watercress/morning glory
salad was always mysteriously unavailable even though always on the wall. Now,
here it is, massive with crisp greens on the right, soft shrimp, squid and mussels
on the left. The coating on the greens here is puffier like a beer batter, the
cashews are crushed instead of whole and the shredded green mango was
unexpected altogether. I like all salads of this ilk, but always compare them
to Sripraphai's, which could be a mess, but is one I encountered first and
always prefer.

Chao thai too trio

Portions are generous, and in this case the crispy
pork dominated the green beans. I think they just gave us all the remaining pork
bits in this rich pad prik khing because it was getting late. The table that
arrived after ours looked at our plate and gave us dirty looks (no hyperbole)
after being told they were out of pork belly.

I'm not convinced this was pad kee mao. I would've
sworn it was pad thai, but it was darker than the pad thai on others' plates
and there weren't any peanuts in it. More sweet than hot and with those skinny
rice noodles, it was the oddball of the evening.

Crunchy fried catfish rounds with Thai apple
eggplant and bamboo shoots, on the other hand, was the biggest hit. Bony and
crazy hot with lots of bitter krachai, it's not as accessible a dish as some of
the others. Whole fish preparations are easier to love, but the catfish hunks
have a snackable quality I enjoy.

In some ways Zabb Elee's existence is more welcome
because Queens is already rife with good Thai and the East Village isn't
(sadly, my new Clinton Hill Thai situation may be even worse than in Carroll
Gardens–and no, Pok Pok isn't in Carroll Gardens [or Red Hook]).

Zabb elee som tum kortmuar

And it's highly unique. The number of papaya salads,
alone, is impressive, and with combinations I've never encountered elsewhere. See
my new entry about som tum kortmuar (green papaya, pork cracklings, Thai sausage,
eggplant, fried fish and noodles) on Real Cheap Eats.

The brightly flavored duck larb included varying textures
of the roughly chopped meat, itself, as well as crispy bits of skin that were
mixed in. They may not initially believe you if you say you want your food hot,
but they will oblige if you insist you can handle a four (out of five). A five
is probably brutal.

Chao Thai Too * 83-47 Dongan Ave., Elmhurst, NY

Zabb Elee * 75 Second Ave., New York, NY

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Double Dandelion Greens & Falafel Three Ways

Levant duo

Levant I never ever used to order delivery, maybe more due to social anxiety (I hate ordering by phone–there's always a misunderstanding) than an abhorrence for convenience. But Seamless has won me over lately because it cuts down on all that messy interpersonal interacting. I was a little bummed when Palmyra went belly up, but turns out it was ok because they were replaced with another Middle Eastern restaurant with better food. Or at least more variety–there's not just falafel but Jordanian (chickpea and fava), Egyptian (fava) or Syrian (chickpea) falafel. I had the standard all-chickpea fritter in my five for $13 mezze, along with labneh shateh (spicy), muhammara, mukhalal (pickled vegetables with a whole preserved lemon tossed in) and mousa'a, a steaming hot stewy eggplant dish not pictured. The pizzas, a.k.a. manakeesh are only $6. The lahmeh bi ajin was topped with ground beef, onions, pine nuts, and was a little salty. I'm curious about the one with blue cheese, dates, honey and walnuts.

Paprika selection

Paprika Despite its existence on St. Marks for 12 years, I don't recall ever noticing this Italian restaurant. There are just too many Italian restaurants in NYC, I'm afraid. That's why owner and chef, Egidio Donagrandi, has gone back to his roots and revamped much of the menu to reflect the cuisine of Valtellina, a Northern Italian region bordering Switzerland. It's also why I was attending a preview dinner. Gone is most of the red sauce (there are still meatballs–lamb, by the way) and a different type of hearty food has taken its place. Buckwheat plays a role the tagliatelle and the lasagna with leeks and fonduta (pictured), Northern Italian cheeses like new-to-me, Bitto, enhance the polenta, also given a little heft with buckwheat, pickled vegetables frequently show up as with the oyster mushrooms atop the bresaola. Also shown here is black kale with pickled onion and almonds, a dandelion salad with pickled radishes and creamy crescenza cheese, and beef crudo with beets and chicory. (Obviously, there are substantial mains, too, but the light waned and I didn't have my real camera on hand to adequately capture them.) Maybe my end-of-2011 prediction that Alpine cuisine would be a break out, will prove true. What happened with Harold Dieterle's The Marrow, anyway?

Frankies 457 Now that Pok Pok exists, waiting an hour for a table at Frankies seems like nothing. Technically, I'd already eaten enough snacks earlier to constitute a meal so post 10pm dinner was fine. But to counteract the already-eaten food, I went healthy and ordered a dandelion greens salad with octopus instead of pasta (well, I also shared a charcuterie plate). It was a bit too healthy, like giant bowl of tart, nicely dressed weeds accented by charred octopus tendrils. I would recommend sharing this unless you're the type who can regularly eat a whole forest of kale in one sitting.

Brick house cocktail listBrick House Tavern + Tap I've mentioned this suburban breastaurant (which seems to be decreasingly breastaurant-y) before. I only want to mention that a short cocktail list with a Manhattan twist and a drink using Firefly sweet tea vodka seems to be in at these corporate-type establishments (Is there a company or consultant who designs lists for restaurants? I feel like I should know.) Brick House has a Woodford Reserve Peach Manhattan (which I ordered) and a Carolina Spiked Tea (which I would never order because I hate sweet tea). Though I can't find any cocktail lists on their websites, both Republic Gastropub and Bricktown Brewery (no relation to Brick House) Brewery in Oklahoma City also had prominently featured a sweet tea cocktail and a fruity Manhattan.

Eaten, Barely Blogged: From House to Haus

Peaches hothouse chickenPeaches HotHouse I suspected the hot hothouse chicken would be no lie, but the boyfriend thought they were bullshitting. And he paid the price. The cayenne-induced blast is possibly the hottest thing we've experienced after Sripraphai's Southern Curry. Taking them seriously (because I read up on things ahead of time) I picked the regular hothouse chicken, which weirdly wasn't hot enough, a little sweet and a lot peppery. A middle-ground fried chicken is desperately needed. Also, the restaurant is oddly Shazaam-resistant. It would not work for me or the young man I noticed holding up his phone to no avail. I was able to recognize Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" on my own.

Goat town mexican mondayGoat Town I thought I'd been to Butcher Bay during Lent last year, but after checking my blog (my only tie to reality, it seems) that visit was actually in April 2009. What the fuck? How did I lose two years? Now I've been freaked out all week and afraid I'll die in my sleep one night not realizing I'm completely elderly and decrepit. Butcher Bay is now Goat Town and on so-called Mexican Mondays you can order Tex-Mex things like the oozy Velveeta-ish enchiladas and puffy lengua tacos we had at non-Texan prices.

Schnitzel Haus The Bay Ridge German restaurant was so uncharacteristically bustling on a Friday that the only table was an awkward two-seater nearest to the Donald Trump photograph in front of the guy doing Neil Diamond covers and in line with the door blowing chilly gusts  (it was unusually cold Friday night) every time it opened. And the table we were given upstairs (who knew there was an upstairs?) after asking if we could move was even more awkward–dark and empty minus a staticky radio station filling the dead air and large group speaking a Slavic language–proving that whenever I try fighting my  tendency to never speak up, it doesn't  pay off.  I drank a Spaten Optimator and part of a schnitzel smothered in mushroom gravy and was out of there. Previously on Schnitzel Haus.



I want to say that I miss the old Acme because I ate there countless times over the years and am upset by the changing character of the East Village. Sure, I'll agree it's pretty sad state of affairs when punks are eating heritage pork and a junk food vegetarian joint can no longer stay in business, but I have no nostalgia for the Cajun Acme, where I ate maybe once in the late '90s. Great Jones Cafe, which is also old Acme in spirit, is still right over there, so there's that. In fact, I stopped in for a beer before going to dinner.

The story of a unmemorable restaurant stealthily reborn as a scene banking on Nordic cachet for a crowd who largely doesn't care about hay-smoking is somehow more interesting than the food, itself. Despite chef Mads Reflund's Noma history, the cuisine at Acme isn't particularly Danish or unconventional. The plating isn't the prettiest either– I had expected something a little more controlled and refined rustic. On the other hand, the ease of getting a table and pleasant enough service was better than I had anticipated.

Acme green graffiti
Sometimes I’ll order something with an ingredient that I hate just to keep from getting soft and coddled. The gin-based Graffiti Green had to be tried because green is my favorite color yet green peppers are kind of foul (I’m surprised they resisted the urge to add It vegetable, kale, or more Nordically appropriate sorrel). The cocktail definitely had that raw, earthy bite but was also sweetened-up with agave and made more familiar with basil and lime. The beauty of the little coupe glass drinks is that if one isn’t to your liking, it won’t last for long.

Acme sweet shrimp & bison

The raw chopped filling inside the endive leaves didn’t taste specifically Chinese or Thai or Malay, just vaguely Asian. I'm not sure if it was simply the shrimp itself or if there was shrimp paste at work because there was a mild dirty, funky undertone like you get from belacan.  Something fermented (not rotten) was at work, though now I'm wondering because no other review I've seen has noted this dimension.

Acme black heirloom carrots

The black heirloom carrots glossed with a barely discernible slice of lardo and flavored so lightly by pine that you wouldn’t notice unless you’d studied the menu description (the boisterous atmosphere is more suited for parties than parsing—it’s hard to gauge how seriously you should be taking the food) were more in line with the style of produce-prominent food I’d expected. Super simple with caramelized vegetable sweetness enhanced by fat, the result was pristine and rich. Four stubs (more like three-and-a-half really—compare these to Time Out’s glamour shot) were not enough. Maybe Nomad’s $22 carrot with duck skin should make me pause and think instead of scoff.

Acme duck in a jar

The duck in a jar with pickled vegetables was just that, and felt like something you could get at any New Brooklyn restaurant.

Acme mackerel

To further exaggerate my few eating issues with green items, I’m also grossed out by lettuce that’s in soups or cooked. Bon Appetit recently recommended roasting heads of romaine along with chicken, and I just wasn’t sold. When it comes down to it, the lettuce is rugged enough to stand up to the heat and char, and even an oily fish like mackerel. The tiny pink flower buds, nearly tossed, not strategically placed with tweezers, was the one homage to fine dining. The mostly starchless mains, if you can call them that, are geared toward sharing and are well-proportioned for two.

Acme chicken & eggs

The chicken and eggs sounded boring, but wasn't. Moist is a gross word and I don't like juicy to describe meat either…so the chicken was the opposite of everything boneless, skinless chicken breast should be. The last time I encountered chicken so slick was the dramatic salt-baked version during a mega-meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Well, and plus an oozy yolk and small tender potatoes practically mashed in their red skins and fried, this was too hearty to be fashion crowd food. (Christian Siriano was the only face I recognized in the fray—and I have a hard time picturing a clay pot of chicken being described as “fierce.”)

Acme bread pudding

Or the oaty, soupy rye bread porridge that I could totally see a British person describing at a “pud,” which is kind of the opposite of fierce. The dessert is malty from Guinness , hot and cold, and topped with chocolate foam and salted caramel ice cream.

Acme * 9 Great Jones St., New York, NY

Empellón Cocina

Blue hawaiiYou wouldn’t think that after twelve Valentine’s Days with the same person you could be surprised (no, I’m not talking about diamond rings embedded in flan) and yet I was after discovering that I'd made reservations for Empellón Cocina on February 13 while the boyfriend had one for the following night. The surprising aspect is that he doesn't really read blogs (so I can really say anything I'd like about him and he'd never know) or food media, so I didn't expect him to be aware of Empellón Cocina's existence or that I wanted to go there (he also had a back-up reservation at Nougatine, which is odd because we just had a Valentine's-Day dinner at Jean Georges a few years ago). We consolidated and kept my Monday night appointment out of fear of being locked into a themed tasting menu on the holiday proper. And besides, Valentine's Day is for Dallas BBQ–there's nothing more romantic than a Blue Hawaii with an extra shot of rum, right?

They do that small plates and snacks (a Masa section in this case) thing where it's hard to determine portion sizes even when using pricing as a gauge because there's variance in each category. We way over-ordered, partially our own gluttonous doing and partially due to the pushing of an extra dish by our server. And then desserts unexpectedly arrived free (not a complaint). Even when full, how do you say no to extras?

Empellon cocina cocktails

I don't see a cocktail menu online, strangely, just the wine and mezcal lists, so I can't recall every detail of the three I tried (yes, three drinks is probably why I can't remember–I often choose an after-dinner cocktail in lieu of a dessert). There was a play on a French 75 (pictured, right) with the dissolving brown sugar cube, as well as twist on a Manhattan. Smokiness was a theme.

Empellon cocina salsas

Smoked cashew and pasilla Oaxaquena salsas with flaky, deliciously oily masa crisps was the right choice of opener. And it was the creamy, nut-based sauce that I could've kept dipping into all night. I may be the only person alive who doesn't care about guacamole, and why diners are so obsessed with its tableside preparation and disproportionate price tag (it's avocados and limes). I realize that's not the drill here, but I still didn't want it.

Empellon cocina mezcal cured ocean trout with cream cheese, roe & sal de gusanos

I'll admit that I chose the mezcal-cured ocean trout with cream cheese, roe, and sal de gusano because of the accompaniments, not the fish. Mexicans (or at least Chilangos) are crazy for  cream cheese in their sushi, so I wanted to see how the dairy would be incorporated here. And I'll always try an item with tangy sal de gusano, the Oaxacan powdered worm condiment. Both were used to quiet effect here; the raw fish was the star.

Empellon cocina queso with tetilla cheese, lobster, tomate frito & kol

Ok, the queso is dead opposite of the above pristine sashimi, and cravable as you'd expect a cast-iron pan of lobster and melted Spanish cheese to be. Tomate frito and kol, a Mayan masa-based sauce, garnish the gooey dip. I'm still confused if the soft tortillas that come with this are corn or flour or a hybrid. Flour would be keeping with the spirit of queso, being Tex-Mex.

Empellon cocina squid with heirloom potatoes, chorizo mayonnaise & black mole

Ribbons of squid were enhanced with a chorizo mayonnaise and one of those zillion-ingredient black moles that I'm happy to leave to chefs, after a few bouts, myself.

Empellon cocina lamb sweetbreads with longaniza, parley root, salsa papanteca

The lamb sweetbreads with loganiza was one of the standouts. Rich and earthy and enhanced by the sweet-spicy salsa papanteca, using piloncillo, pepitas, the meatiness balanced some of the lighter seafood dishes.

Empellon cocina pork ribs with white beans, masa balls & green mole

They also do that thing, which generally, I'm fine with, where dishes arrive willy-nilly as they're cooked. I'd forgotten about the pork ribs with white beans and masa balls in a green mole by the time it arrived last. If anything, the springy dumplings caught my attention more than the lengths of fresh bacon.

Empellon cocina avocado with spicy grains, sunchokes & hazelnut dressing

After already picking out six dishes for two,  we were strongly recommended to try the avocado with spicy grains, sunchokes, and hazelnut dressing too. Ok, fine, we hadn't explored the Vegetables section; avocado was determined to make an appearance no matter what. I don't remember a thing about this; the poor riot of greens' subtlety was completely lost in the shuffle.

Cocina empellon dessert

I'm mildly embarrassed to admit that I don't recall the details of this off-menu dessert beyond the use of green apples, mostly because the strong flavors of the one below eclipsed it and I was hitting palate fatigue.

Empellon cocina sweet plantain shortcakes with cajeta & crema

I was not imagining sweet plantain shortcakes with cajeta and crema to resemble a miniature burger, or to like this as much as I did. The nearly-smoky molasses quality of the sweet plantain filling made me think of Malaysian desserts, rich with palm sugar. I'm guessing that was the result of piloncillo and goat's milk caramel.


Upon exiting, I was face-to-face with another sesame seed bun, much larger in scale.

Empellón Cocina * 105 First Ave., New York, NY

The Toucan and The Lion

Last week I heard a few peeps about The Toucan and the Lion on Twitter and message boards, then I noticed a few blog posts based on an invite from the new East Village restaurant. Scotch eggs? Duck confit mofongo? I could get behind that. So, I went on my own dime…and I think, volition? That's the thing, was it really my own idea or was I influenced in online ways that I like to believe I'm immune to?

Either way, the food and cocktails were overwhelmingly winsome and  that was mostly due to playing to some of my favorites ingredients like goat, fried pickles, taro, and  kaffir lime. For the most part, the flavors were there, though now looking at my photos I can see there is a peculiar swampy palette (not palate, thankfully) at work, lots murky greens and hits of yellow.

Toucan and the lion cocktail

The Lion matches ginger and kaffir lime with rum and a hit of Sriracha that adds a subtle creeping spice. This and a few fried pickles (see below) would be a fun duo to sample at the bar, if I did that sort of spartan thing (I always over order because I want to try too much in one sitting).

Lion and the toucan whiskey sour pickles

I didn't want to order two fried things with kaffir lime aioli so I opted for the whiskey sour pickles instead of the Scotch egg. Tart and crunchy, tempered by the perfumed mayonnaise, the breaded spears were a great snack, but possibly too much for two diners. A little pickle goes a long way (I was imagining less intense coins). My dining companion didn't agree with me and thought the portion was fine, so who knows.

Toucan and the lion duck confit mofongo

Even though there was a lot going on in many of the dishes, the diverse use of tubers caught my attention. I love taro and thought it made a perfect substitute for plantain in an Asian-inflected mofongo topped with a perfect oozy-yolked egg.  I expected the duck confit to anchor the dish, but it was the sweet, garlickly slices of Chinese sausage that pulled everything together. Why not add a mild salsa verde, too? This was very good, and while dense (though lighter than a traditional rendition) I could've easily eaten this, no sharing.

Toucan and the lion goat pot pie

The goat pot pie was sweetish and spice-rich as massaman curries are, and also made use of non-traditional starches: cubes of sweet and purple potatoes to offset the hunks of tender meat. The roti–this is not a pastry-topped dish, despite the name–ended up getting a little stiff, but I appreciated the flaky flatbread's presence.

Lion and the toucan drunken manilla clams

The clams just tasted like clams. Perhaps the flavor was simply more subtle compared to the stronger dishes. I felt it was lacking a distinct element, though, especially since "drunken" was in the description and I take that to mean chile heat . I will say that the bao buns, similar to the roti in usage, was a nice touch.

The Toucan and The Lion * 342 E. Sixth St., New York, NY

Sa Aming Nayon

Now Jeepney. At least it's still Filipino, right? Gastropub or not. I walked past the opening last night and was tempted to pop in. (10/12/12)

Curiously, Sa Aming Nayon appeared in that patch of First Avenue near 14th Street that periodically sprouts and snuffs out Filipino restaurants back in June. Yet their name has been popping up in the past week in food media. Well, just Time Out New York and Tasting Table. Why now?

Who cares, all you need to know is that if you have even the vaguest interest in Filipino food—and you should—this home-style restaurant is worth a visit. Then again, I’m a big booster of Filipino cuisine. It’s an unknown compared to more popular Thai or Vietnamese, and those who encounter the style, reliant on vinegar and other bitter flavors, often write off the entire country’s repertoire. Some think it’s too funky; others find it boiled and bland.

Sa aming nayon lechon kawali

While lamb and goat battle for it meat recognition, pork is still the favorite protein of discerning gluttons everywhere. And no one does pork like a Pinoy. It’s a great introduction. The next best thing to experiencing the bounty of the whole beast, a.k.a. lechon, is sampling the fatty parts encased in crackly skin. This typically means crispy pata, a deep-fried ham hock or lechon kawali, pork belly given the same burnished-in-oil treatment.

Chicharrón is often eaten as is, but lechon kawali needs its sauce. I panicked for a second when it didn’t show up. “The sauce is coming,” I was promised before I could say a thing. Then I could hear the woman who appeared to be an owner yelling into the kitchen for “the sauce.” What if they were out of sauce? I’ve heard of women carrying Tabasco or ranch dressing in their purses. I wonder what they would’ve thought if I pulled a bottle of Mama Sita’s out of my bag.

I have no idea how you would come up with the idea of combining liver, sugar, vinegar and bread crumbs (thrifty, sure) to make a dip for fried pork, but the thick, sweet and savory result that’s more sludgy than saucy, transforms the meaty chunks into something even better. It’s instant umami.

Sa aming nayon pinakbet

Pinakbet combines a slew of vegetables like squash, tomatoes, bitter melon, eggplant and green beans with more pork to create a vegetable stew. Read more about this dish on the new Real Cheap Eats NYC (not so much because I’m plug-crazy but because I don’t want to repeat myself).

Sa aming nayon adobo

Classic soy-and-vinegar braised adobo is an obvious choice (they were out of sisig, which is what I really wanted) but I like that they served a version with both pork and chicken. The meat becomes so stained from the soy that you can barely tell which meat you’re getting until you take a bite. Adobo roulette.

I’d like to go back for the halo-halo. Icy Asian desserts, like snow cones covered in gelatinous goo, often seem odd out of context, but this heat wave is tailor made for tropical sweets, purple yam jam, pandan jelly and all.

Sa Aming Nayon * 201 First Ave., New York, NY

Vandaag: Pining Away


When I first started hearing burbling about Noma—was it years ago? Months ago? It now feels like Rene Redzepi has always been present—the first thing I thought was that I’m never eating pine needles no matter how en vogue it becomes (then again, I also said I’d never wear leggings when they started reappearing in early ’06 and now I do occasionally. Next stop, pajama jeans).

Buckthorn, hay, nettles, fine, but pine needles—even though the prickly leaves and menthol perfume aren’t radically different from rosemary—conjure up a depressing Pacific Northwest dampness from my childhood. Hobbitty, green and moist with moss clinging to tree bark, mushrooms sprouting in suburban lawns, sidewalks slicked with drowned earthworms after a hard rain, larvae the size of two grains of rice wriggling from filberts you’d crack open with rocks during recess and slugs, nearly black and glistening like a turd with feelings, soft little giraffe horns moving. Were they looking at you? No matter where the gastropods appear, they always surprise and spark a guttural repulsion (just looking at photos makes my stomach upset). But I never wanted harm to come their way. I just didn’t want them in my life. I still don’t.

But to my knowledge, modern Scandinavian cuisine hasn’t added slugs to their repertoire yet. They certainly weren’t on the menu at Vandaag (more Dutch and vaguely Northern than Nordic) where I spied many signifiers of this growing trend: juniper, rye, mead, kelp, sea beans, caraway and yes, pine needles (in a duck for two special that I now kind of wished I had tried). Things were being pickled and smoked with wild abandon.

The hefty toast triangles that came with my clams in an vanilla-aquavit broth (prettied with a few flower petals— along with long-stemmed leaves, another phobia of mine that I’ve come to terms with) weren’t merely grilled, but smoked with a wood that our server couldn’t identify for sure but knew had to be a conifer. And the subtle resiny, charcoal flavor was wonderful. I could be wrong about this pine thing.

My spice tree cocktail, a blend of Applejack (I’ll always try anything with this sprit, and it’s certainly the season), honeycrisp apples and ras el hanout aquavit, was more fruity than spiced and definitely not tree-like. There’s not a single pine needle on the drinks list.

The kicker turned up on the dessert menu. A six-dollar-item simply called pine cone. What the heck? I did not order the pine ice cream drizzled with pine syrup in a cone that may or may not have been pine flavored because I imagined something garish and beautifully emerald (I am a freak for unnaturally hued foods, particularly green and blue ones) like a Shamrock Sundae even though I doubt Vandaag would employ artificial dyes, and couldn’t stand the thought of not being able to take a photo.

Despite my goal of weaning myself from photographing restaurant meals, I had indeed toted my camera along—only to discover that I’d forgotten the memory card at home. This had to be a sign. But I’m not superstitious, don’t believe in higher powers and think resolutions are a crock, so I hope to return soon, camera in hand and plans to go pine crazy. I’ll be open-minded until I start seeing slugs appear on menus.

Vandaag * 103 Second Ave., New York, NY

Images from nikao and Arj

Dirt Candy

As much as I love me some Little Lad’s, there are occasions that require vegetarian food that's a step or two above homespun cafeteria fare. Tiny Dirt Candy with its half-cute/half-unappetizing name (I much prefer the concept of dirt candy over nature's candy, which is an exceedingly lame euphemism for fruit. I'm not crazy about 85% of fruit, though, so I'm biased) seemed like a better place for a birthday dinner than say, Angelica's Kitchen. That’s too much earthiness for me, and I'm an Oregonian. So is Jessica, the dining companion who had turned another year older, now that I think about it. No brown rice or sprouts will be allowed on my dime, no way.

Dirt candy portobello mousse

I felt compelled to try the signature-ish portobello mousse appetizer. At first glance you kind of think the plating is fun, then if you scrutinize each component they start to become eerie. The floppy tangle of sliced mushrooms looks very fleshy like indeterminate offal. I'm an organ-loving carnivore so this wasn’t a detriment. The block of mousse is so perfect and reflective that you have to resist the urge to smash it down with a fork and mess up the geometry. We decided it would be a cruel joke to tell a kid this whipped mushroom cube was chocolate (less cruel than trying to pawn off fruit as nature's candy, though) and watch them bite into it.

Fungus rendered rich and creamy and topped with a few chewy ribbons of mushroom worked well together on toast. A pear compote might seem too sweet for those two but the addition of fennel lent just enough savory contrast.

Dirt candy onion soup

Onion Soup with farmhouse cheddar and kumquat marmalade looks very hearty for a brothy soup but I did not try this.

Dirt candy crispy tofu with green ragout

Crispy tofu with green ragout and kaffir lime beurre blanc would've been my entrée choice on paper. I think it was the lime and butter that grabbed me more than the bean curd. But it was Jessica's birthday and this was her pick. I don't like to order the same thing as someone else at a table unless it's a burger, bbq or similar singular item.

Dirt candy stone ground grits

Based on the menu description I’m looking at now there were pickled shitakes in this but I don't recall tasting those at all. I'm certain huitlacoche was mentioned when the dish was presented to me. Maybe there was a shift in fungus. I love the musky, dirty flavor of huitlacoche and the ingredient makes perfect sense with thick corn-speckled grits and what seemed like (I have a problem remembering verbal descriptions—if I don't see something written down I forget it) a crumbly, salty queso fresco. The lightly battered, fried egg made the dish, though.

I'm swayed by the charms of a liquid yolk. Though if I'm correct, it was the egg that turned Jessica off of this dish. I'm not sure if she's creeped out by the yolk, the possibility of runny whites or something else altogether. A fried egg makes everything better, if you ask me.

I semi-randomly chose a bottle of Thurnhoff Goldmuskateller 2007 from the small wine list because I wanted a white and this sounded vaguely German and austere. It turned out to be Italian from Alto Adige, and very crisp apple-like with just a little sweetness and power.  I must've been tipsier than I realized (I blame the pre-dinner gin and tonic minutes after having two vials of blood drawn) because these photos that I edited right after getting home are a bit more washed out than usual. Even in the best of circumstances my eye for color and contrast could use help.

Dirt candy popcorn pudding

Normally, I'm indifferent to pudding and popcorn but served together plus caramel and hazelnuts, grabbed my attention. The smooth and crunchy, salty and sweet was irresistible. Last weekend when I mentioned (I can’t bring myself to say twittered or tweeted) Van Leeuwen’s hazelnut gelato being bland, I didn't meant to imply it was bad but merely too pure and subtle for my taste. I like desserts where a lot is happening.

Dirt Candy * 430 E. Ninth St., New York, NY