Tuesday, August 5, 2008

BCD Takes NYC: Part Two – Cupcakes and Shack Shakes

By Erin and Xani

After our fabulous first meal in the Big Apple, we went home to Lauren’s house in Brooklyn and rested up for our first full day in the city. We started Saturday by going into the city and getting on a big boat and touring the latest multi-million dollar public art exhibit: The New York City Waterfalls. Although the weather wasn’t exactly perfect (i.e., it looked like the Apocalypse was headed our way), the waterfalls were very interesting and we had a grand ol’ time on the "high seas."


Xani and Lauren take to the high seas!

After our boat ride we headed to Sugar Sweet Sunshine, a cupcake shop on the Lower East Side, to grab a sweet treat. Sugar Sweet Sunshine is a cozy, retro-looking space with a handful of flavors of cupcakes, plus other non-cupcake sweets and a coffee bar. The torrential downpour had begun on our way to the shop so when we got inside, we were definitely in need of some sugar and sunshine. So, we got coffees and then did a cupcake tasting! We ordered three flavors of cupcakes: Bob (yellow cake with chocolate almond buttercream), Sexy Red Velvet (red velvet cake with "the moose" frosting (satin buttercream)), and Lemon Yummy (lemon cake with lemon buttercream).

Bob and Lemon Yummy

Then, we divided each cupcake into thirds and did our tasting. The results? Sweet and sunshine-y. The clear winner was the Lemon Yummy, as the cake was moist and lemony, and the icing was sweet (but not too sweet) and bright with lemon goodness. Next in line was Bob, who had equally moist cake and prefect-textured frosting, but the almond extract in the frosting sort of overwhelmed the whole thing, unfortunately. Last was the Sexy Red Velvet (not to be confused with the Sassy Red Velvet, which has red velvet cake and chocolate icing), which had decent cake but lacked the traditional cream cheese frosting (best frosting ever!), instead using the satin buttercream, which was too thin (both in texture and in flavor) for our tastes. The coffee was good though!

One of the best things about Sugar Sweet Sunshine (other than giving us yummy treats and keeping us out of the rain), was that the best dog ever (um, except Gellie, of course!) was sitting outside with his owner. We named him Winston (not sure why) and he was so cute we could barely contain ourselves.

Winston! (Any idea what kind of dog he is?)

After getting our sugar fix, we walked a few blocks to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a museum dedicated to teaching about the immigrant and migrant experiences of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We went on a very interesting tour of two recreated tenements, one from the 1870s and one from the 1930s, and learned about the families that lived (and died) there. Crazy to think 8 people could live in a home the size of EP's living room!

After the tour we had certainly worked up an appetite for our next meal in the big city: Shake Shack! As you loyal readers my recall, we love us some burgers, and Shake Shack is one of NYC's most popular burger joints. The Shack is one of restauranteur Danny Meyer's restaurants (in addition to Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, and Union Square Cafe, to name a few), and it is located in Madison Square Park. There is only outdoor seating, and luckily, the sun came out and dried up all the rain, which made for a lovely afternoon for burgers and fries in the park. Another great thing about the Shack is that it is environmentally conscious, using wind energy and other environmentally-friendly technologies to function. Green is the new black!!

Cousins Ann and Steven joined us for a late lunch and after a 30 minute wait in line (apparently this is a brief wait for Shake Shack!), it was time to eat! We each got a Shackburger, consisting of a burger with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and "shack sauce," and fries (trans-fat free!). The burgers were well-cooked and delicious, and Xani gave them a score of 7.5 burgers out of 10 on her BCD Burger Scale.

Tray o' deliciousness

Lauren got the 'Shroom Burger, which was described as a "crisp-fried portobello filled with melted muenster and cheddar cheese, topped with lettuce, tomato, and shack sauce." It would be an understatement to say that this mushroom burger outshines all others! Most mushroom burgers are just a 'bella on a bun. Eff that! This was totally amazing and better than any of us expected, to say the least.


Now that's a happy girl

Ann and Steven also got burgers, and ordered some cheese fries for the table. The cheese sauce was really tasty (how many times have you said THAT phrase?) on the crispy krinkle-cut fries.

In addition to all these glorious savory treats, we also got a Black and White Shake to share amongst us, and this too was fantastic. It was rich and creamy and had lots of great chocolate flavor, though it did lead us to discuss whether it was chocolate plus vanilla ice cream, or just vanilla with chocolate syrup? It's a question for the ages, no doubt.

We had considered getting a concrete (frozen custard mixed with homemade mix-ins) a la EP's St. Louis favorite, Ted Drewes, but we were too full for anymore treats (at that moment). Ah well - next time! After lunch we walked around (a lame attempt to walk off lunch) and shopped, and later caught the train back to Brooklyn, where we collapsed for several hours. What a great first day in the City! Stay tuned for more great times and great eats in the Big Apple!

Happy times in NYC,

E & X

Monday, August 4, 2008

BCD takes NYC: Part One- We're People Who Know People

by Xani and Erin

Have you been wondering where your favorite food bloggers have been? Bet you have. We've be soooo busy these days: working, playing, (over) celebrating EP's birthday, dining out for Baltimore's Restaurant Week, and most recently, visiting the Big Apple! The good news is we've got LOTS of great blog content in the pipeline and it's headed your way over the coming days and weeks. Starting (right now!) with a post that's sure to make you drool with envy...

One of the main goals/purposes of this trip was to check out another Mario Batali restaurant. Xani had been to Mozza in LA, and EP went to Lupa on another trip to NYC so this time we were going for the big one: Babbo. Babbo is considered the crown jewel of Mario's restuarant empire; it is also notoriously difficult to get into. One must call for reservations exactly one month prior to the day you wish to dine there, at precisely 10am when the phones open. Then you must be prepared to dial and re-dial, and when you eventually get through, you STILL might not get in! But we had a secret weapon, a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy kind of deal, who hooked us up with a 6pm reservation for Friday night. We had been majorly excited for this meal all month!

So when we arrived in NYC we did a quick change at Lauren's (our lovely and gracious hostess for the weekend) office and then out into the big city. First, a cocktail at The Bubble Lounge -- a gorgeous champagne bar with a luxrious Morroccan vibe.

We love how NYC has a place devoted to anything and everything: a champagne bar, a risotto restaurant, a french fry place, a hummus place, etc. And of course we love champagne, so Bubbles was a perfect start to the evening. EP had a Bellini and Xani had a Champagne Cocktail and we soaked up the lovely atmosphere until it was Babbo time!

We arrived and met up with cousins Ann and Steven-- you may remember them from many of our LA posts, but they are currently staying in NYC and we were thrilled to have them join us for dinner! Thanks to our man on the inside (that's you Kerry!) we gave our name and were whisked up the grand staircase to a corner table in the gorgeous upstairs dining room. The space was homey and comfortable, but still very upscale. The giant skylight meant the room was nice and bright-- remember it was still only 6 o'clock! Steven pointed out that there was something very unusual going on: the place was packed with New Yorkers, eating dinner, at 6pm. This is very strange, indeed. But I guess when 6:00 (or earlier) is the only reservation you can get, and you absolutely must try this divine Italian food, even New Yorkers are willing to eat early...
We got ourselves situated and ordered a bottle of Prosecco (more bubbles!) to start, and out came a little treat from the kitchen, bruschetta with a chickpea topping-- just the kind of crunchy, flavorful thing to get your appetite going.

Then came the toughest part of the meal, deciding what to order! The menu is divided into three sections/courses: Antipasto, Primi and Secondi. Before the trip, Xani read approximately 500 chowhound posts and spoke to several people who had been to Babbo to get recommendations on exactly what to order, but even with all that info it was a tough decision. In the end we got four antipasti, three primi and three secondi (to leave room for dessert). Our waiter, who was all business at the beginning, seemed to loosen up as the meal went on (Lauren broke him DOWN!) and was very helpful in our dinner and wine selections. So, let's get to the FOOD, right?!

For the Antipasti course we had a couple of menu staples and a couple of seasonal specials. The staples: a selection of house-made salumi and the Warm Lamb’s Tongue Vinaigrette with Chanterelles and a 3-Minute Egg. The specials: Grilled Greenmarket Mix with Crostini and Fresh Ricotta and Fried Artichoke with Spinach and Ricotta Salata. Here is where we really got to experience the Mario magic-- flavors, textures, temperatures and presentations all coming together into a delicious symphony of tastiness! Wait, what? Anyway, the antipasti were really, really good. The salumi, which included a spicy salami and a proscuitto (details are escaping us here, unfortunately) were both excellent: delicate, refined flavors (although the proscuitto was a bit gamey). The salumi were served with deliciously grilled and oiled bread.

The grilled veggies dish was made of the most tender, adorable veggie babies-- teeny eggplants, strips of zucchini, and tiny tomatoes. They were just barely cooked, leaving plenty of texture and a little smoky taste. They were placed atop a crostino with the fresh ricotta, and the rich cheese worked perfectly with them.

The artichokes were also quite good: crunchy and fried, with the soft spinach and the sharp cheese on top of another delicious crostino. The freshness of the ingredients, especially in the vegetable dishes, was really noticeable.

And finally, saving the best for last, the lamb's tongue. Just wow. It was PACKED with flavor from the tongue, the vinaigrette, the mushrooms, and the egg. Plus there's the "interactive" aspect where you break open the perfectly cooked egg and mix the yolk with all the other components. This dish was a real winner and a lesson to those of you squirming out there: the "weird" dishes are sometimes the best!

Poached egg-breaking action shot
Next, Primi. In traditional Italian dining this is the pasta course, and so we were especially excited since Chef Batali is known as a pasta genius! EP and Lauren had tried his magic noodles (sidenote: is Magic Noodles a good name for a band? Discuss.) at Lupa a while back, but Xani and the rest of the crowd were eager for a taste. We ordered the Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage, a daily special of Black Tagliatelle with Roasted Fresh Corn and the Goose Liver Ravioli with Balsamic Vinegar and Brown Butter.

These dishes were... well, none of the adjectives on the helpful list BCD Dad sent us can describe the sheer heaven of Mario's pasta. A few that come close are: enchanting, breathtaking, remarkable, inimitable, and of course, highly highly enjoyable. The texture is really a huge part of how great the pasta is-- just cooked enough to have plenty of bite, not at all mushy or gummy, but not undercooked, either. Xani especially is particular about well-cooked pasta and she was completely impressed by these specimens. The taglietelle was the most delicately flavored-- the medium-thick black noodles (colored with squid ink) topped with fresh corn (carbs, anyone?) was really subtle but still delicious, and it earned our waiter points since he recommended it (off the tasting menu - it's like a secret!).

The mint love letters, a chowhound favorite, didn't disappoint-- the tomatoe-y lamb sausage sauce had quite of bit of kick to it, but the smooth pea and mint filling of the love letters cooled down the spice.

And of course, the goose liver ravioli. Once again, the offal takes the cake! The texture of the filling was rich but not heavy at all, and the flavor of the liver combined with the balsamic and brown butter sauce was just other-wordly. Like Mom's chopped chicken liver, but made in heaven by baby angels. Or something. All we know is it was damn good. We were sad the waiter took the platter away before we could sop up the remaining sauce with our bread, or possibly pass around the plate so everyone could get a lick...

Next up: Secondi. We ordered a Hangar Steak with Parsnips and Caramelized Onions, Duck with Kumquats, and one of the specials of the day, an Olive-oil Poached Halibut with Tomato Water (forgive the formal descriptions; Mario doesn't post an updated menu on his website since it changes every day). The steak was yet another hit of the evening - perfectly cooked meat with caramelized onions so rich and sweet you wanted to fall out of the chair.

The duck was also fantastic. Both the leg and the breast were presented and they were crispy on the outside and moist and fatty on the inside. We love ze duck!

Last was the halibut, which was the disappointment of the evening (hey, there's gotta be a loser, right?). The fish was firm and well-cooked, but sort of paled in comparison to the other amazing dishes on the table.

Tomato water-pouring action shot
In addition to these secondi, our waiter suggested that we order a green vegetable as a side dish, and per his recommendation we ordered Broccoli Rabe with Garlic. This proved to be a wonderful choice since the vegetables were incredibly fresh and cooked to perfection. The leaves were tender but with a bit of crunch, and the whole roasted cloves of garlic added tons of flavor. This dish cut through all the rich main dishes and balanced out the entire course.

Finally: Dolci. All of the desserts looked so wonderful, and we were having a hell of a time deciding which to get. Finally we just said "eff it!" and ordered SIX desserts for the FIVE of us. We saved room for a reason, right?? We ended up ordering the Pistachio and Chocolate Semifreddo, the Biscotti and Cookie assortment, Profiteroles with Chocolate and Raspberry Sauce, Lemon Poundcake, Maple Cheesecake, and the Assortment of Gelati and Sorbetti. Where do we begin? Let's start at the bottom. The profiteroles were disappointing because the dough was not crunchy enough for our taste, and the raspberry sauce was too alcohol-y. Next was probably the semifreddo, which was good but not as good as some of the semifreddo's we've had in Baltimore.

In the middle of the pack was the biscotti and cookie assortment, which came with an espresso cup full of ice cream. The cookies were delicate and ornate, and quite scrumptious. Also in the middle was the lemon poundcake, which was soaked in lemon syrup (that's a good thing) but the accompanying chocolate whipped cream was a bit out of place.

Cookie and Biscotti Assortment
Lemon Poundcake
At the top were the gelati and sorbetti assortment, which had 7 different types of gelato and sorbet, all of which were absolutely fantastic! Flavors included: toasted coconut gelato, mango sorbet, lemon verbina sorbet, huckleberry sorbet, green apple sorbet, olive oil gelato, and pineapple sorbet. Probably the best one, however, was the maple cheesecake. It was creamy and maple-y and had a great crust to it and delicious caramel sauce all over the top. My computer might short out from all the drooling happening over here, so I'll just stop there.

What a spread!
The Winner!
One great thing about the dessert course was the fact that we each got long, thin spoons (like you would get for an ice cream sundae), so we could reach across the table and enjoy everyone's desserts! We ordered coffees, espressos, and lattes, and they brought out an adorable assortment of sugars and sweeteners, including ROCK CANDY on a stick!

Three and a half hours after we arrived, we emerged from Babbo, full and happy. It was a wonderful meal with great friends and family, and a great kick-off for the rest of our amazing (food-filled) weekend in The Big Apple!

More NYC (and Bmore) posts coming soon! Thanks for your patience - we hope it was worth the wait!
X & E

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