Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween

A fitting costume for a Halloween days before the most important presidential election of my generation.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Halloween Plant

At first I didn't realize these were real plants. They looked like something a seamstress would have. I've never seen a Pincushion (Nertera granadensis) plant before. The tiny bead-like orange berries on this plant make this the perfect festive plant for Halloween and Thanksgiving.

It's a bit odd that these native New Zealand plants looked so fresh considering they require full sun or they produce few berries. The Pincushions are apparently very hard to care for and die fast.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Our Next President is a Pumpkin Head

Wow we can't believe the presidential election is next week already - Tuesday, November 4th. We were getting nervous that we weren't going to get to vote as new residents. But today, we finally got our New York voter registration information and our polling place (at the Lesbian and Gay Center). Yay! To be able to vote is a powerful thing! And we won't take that for granted.

So in the spirit of the presidential election countdown, here's some photos we took of carved pumpkins at the Chelsea Market the other week.

And one of them will be our next president . . .

And finally (and thankfully) buh-bye to this "evil doer."

And here's a photo for those just sick of looking at the faces of politicians. (We think a carving of an apple in an eye would have been cooler than the hand).

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Underground Musicians

There's always free entertainment at subway stations, especially at the main hubs. We've been impressed by some of the musicians, of all ages and from all over the world, that keep stressed out New Yorkers entertained while waiting for the crowded subways to whisk them away, and all they want in return is a dollar or some of your spare change. For example, last week at the Columbus Circle station, I heard a young musician doing a great soulful rendition of "What a Wonderful World" that I think Mr. Armstrong would have been pleased with. Some musicians are bypassing the image-centric record industry game by selling their music directly to the people.

This musician seemed to get more attention than any other we've seen - Michael Shulman of Black Violin at the Union Square station. It's hard to miss this guy because of the large crowd surrounding him and his theatrical moves with his long wavy hair flinging around, taking you back to the days of the heavy metal hair bands of the 1980s. Except this hair tossing headbanger is a shred violinist from Moscow, Russia, playing electric violin set against music as diverse as rock to pop (this unfortunately includes the music mess that is Britney Spears).

At first you're not too sure what you're listening to or what you're watching. He's holding what appears to be a violin but it sounds like an electric guitar, and he's wearing tight, shiny black leggings and doing moves that seem part Lord of the Dance and part how you might have danced in your bedroom while watching Headbangers Ball. Even if you're in a rush to catch your next train, you can't help but to stop, watch and listen.

For a $10 donation, he'll give you one of his CDs. When I went to drop $1 in his black tote, I noticed some crisp 20-dollar-bills in there so he seemed to be doing good. His music was definitely unique and he had energy and intensity that drew the crowd in. If only he could have played his electric violin to Beat It or Thriller.

Thank you subway musicians for entertaining us so that we're doing more than staring into the abyss or watching the rats roam around the tracks.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

All You Can Eat Rice

The supposedly really good sushi restaurants in New York are either going to make you broke or make you stand in a long line. While doing some online research, we saw good reviews for Funayama (on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village). Timeout New York rated Funayama among the city's best sushi. But what made us really want to try this Japanese restaurant was on Mondays and Thursdays they have all you can eat sushi for $23.10 per person. All you can eat sushi? How could we not go?

Ordering from the all you can eat sushi menu is just like the way you order from Dim Sum houses, where you write the quantity next to the selection you desire. The all you can eat sushi selection is your standard list - tuna, yellow tail, salmon, scallop, shrimp, octopus, eel, masago, stripe bass, mackerel, egg, surf clam, crab, smoked salmon, flying-fish roe, shrimp tempura hand roll, spicy crunchy salmon hand roll, etc.

The first thing we noticed when we got our sushi platter is the amount of rice on the sushi. We've never seen sushi loaded with so much rice. It didn't take us more than a second to figure out what the restaurant's schtik is: give customers so much rice that they get full and won't order too much sushi, thereby helping them not loose money on piggies like us. And by now you're wondering, well why can't you just not eat all the rice? Because if you leave any rice behind (or any parts of the sushi for that matter), they charge you for the price of the sushi. So if we left a ball of rice on the platter, they'd charge us $3. Another negative thing about the rice was that it was very dry, crunchy and loosely packed. We're all for not wasting food but they're not trying to deter customers from being wasteful, they're trying to deter customers from happily partaking in an all you can eat sushi feast fest. Booooooo!

Also, they brought us the wrong order twice - like the dreaded cucumber rolls - why the heck would we go to a sushi restaurant to order cucumber rolls? It'd be like going to a steak house and ordering chicken. So the rice ploy sucked, but the fish itself was not too shabby. Their Yellow Tail was surprisingly delicious. After we finished our first platter, we were not about to let their schtik deter us from getting a second platter. We were determined to get our money's worth. So probably to the dismay of the restaurant, we ordered another round of sushi. We should have brought a ziplock bag to stuff the extra rice in it.

But we could not do more than two platters because the rice really filled us up, as expected. Funayama would not be a bad place for big eaters who aren't familiar with the ways good sushi should be prepared (without so much darn rice). Also, the service at this restaurant was painfully slow. This restaurant was doing well with delivery orders, which the waiters seemed more attentive to than the customers actually sitting in the restaurant. For the price and quality, we'd rather go back for one dollar sushi any night.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Crunch 'n Cheese

We couldn't wait to go back to Chat 'n Chew to try the highly-recommended Macaroni and Cheese (described as "from our trailer park days, with a crunchy top"). My co-worker was right, it's yummy! The really crunchy top layer is what makes this mac and cheese extra special while keeping the interior juicy. (Now that I think about it - aren't the top parts always the best? Like the top part of cakes and cupcakes, and the top part of muffins? I believe there was a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine said someone should only sell the top part of muffins).

Anyways, for $10.95, they give you so much mac and cheese that we had a hard time finishing it. Next time, we'll order their "Teenie Weenie Mac and Cheese" for $6.50. This was probably the best example of a traditional take on a classic. The cheesy bowl from Chat 'n Chew was the second best mac and cheese we've tried, coming in second after the unique mac and cheese from the Inn.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Chat 'n Chew in Comfort

My co-worker gave me a list of restaurants that have made it on her favorites list during her 10 years living in New York City, and Chat 'n Chew was on the top of her list. She said they have "hands down the best macaroni and cheese, the best desserts, the best drinks, but you go there for the mac and cheese." Sounded like our kind of place.

In addition to mac and cheese, Chat 'n Chew sells other quintessential American comfort food like grilled cheese sandwich, meatloaf, turkey, fried chicken, pork chops, a Holy Cow hamburger, and a "TV Dinner" (chicken fried steak, green bean casserole & skin-on smashies with country gravy). Their Sweet items include a Coca-Cola Cake and Cookies 'n Cream cake. It's a fun-looking restaurant filled with American nostalgia decorations and large Christmas tree lights.

As we said before, brunch on weekends is a New York institution. New Yorkers know how to brunch, where to brunch, and when to brunch. When we went to Chat 'n Chew for brunch yesterday, it was as crowded as could be, which made the restaurant feel very congested. But you quickly forget the people around you because of their delicious food. Our intention was to try their mac and cheese but their brunch menu was calling us and we're "breakfast food at non-breakfast times" kind of people.

We ordered their Banana Pecan Buttermilk Flapjacks. These were unbelievably chew-tastic. These flapjacks were nicely dense, not overly cooked, had the perfect texture, and the powdered sugar, bananas, pecan, and maple syrup just gave us that good 'ol lovin feeling. (Side note: We realize that our pictures at times royally suck balls, especially when the restaurant, like Chat 'n Chew, is dark. All of our photos on this blog have been taken with our phone camera, which means no flash, no zoom feature, no macro feature. We'll need to cut back on dining out to afford to buy a new camera).

For an extra $2, you get a plate of several large slices of ham. This is probably the best ham we've ever feasted on.

We also ordered the "Sam the Butcher" - a jumbo three-egg omelet with crispy bacon, honey-baked ham, potato, spinach, and gruyere. Yowza! That's what I'm talking about! Even their toast tasted good. Yes, it's just a plain white toast but it was super duper crispy and crunchy without looking like it had even been toasted.

These people do not skimp on their food. They make sure to give you a BIG good meal so you're getting your money's worth. This is the first omelet I had a hard time cutting. I've never eaten an omelet with gruyere cheese in my life and man I feel suckered for not having had this spectacular combination until my current ripe age. Most people make omelets with the typical American, Swiss, Cheddar, or Blue Cheese. I think the Gruyere really made this omelet.

The only thing we had no desire to try from their brunch menu were their brunch drinks, which included a beer mimosa (yuck!). We are definitely gonna go back to Chat 'n Chew to try their mac and cheese and partake in their $2 happy hour beer specials. If not for the recommendation from my co-worker, we would never have known to come here. And it's in a great location near the Union Square open market. So after we stuffed our faces, we walked it off at the open market (finding comfort from the chilly air by drinking pear apple cider, and by getting more food, of course).

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Best Home-Style Cupcakes - Hell, The Best Cupcakes Period

Magnolia Bakery's cupcakes are the best cupcakes we've tasted in our lives . . . so far. We say "so far" because we haven't been in NYC for very long so who knows what frosted gem we'll find in some obscure hole-in-the-wall throughout the year. So yes, these are the best cupcakes and they're from the famous Magnolia Bakery. Their story is interesting because they only started making cupcakes due to the amount of frosting they had leftover from baking cakes. Magnolia Bakery's been credited with starting the cupcake craze, and they've been voted as having the best frosting in New York City. We absolutely agree.

Their frosting is superb! It's soft, creamy, and stimulatingly sweet. They must use at least one bar of butter in the frosting per cupcake. It's that rich. The frosting also looks quaint, like it was made by your grandma in her kitchen rather than with one of those fancy cupcake makers. Not only was the frosting tasty, it was easy to eat (which is not always the case with some cupcakes that are more about decoration).

We got a four-pack of cupcakes - two vanilla, one red velvet, and one chocolate. The vanilla cupcakes with vanilla icing are the best of the bunch (the vanilla comes in various pastel colors like pink, green, and yellow). They were all good but if you have to choose only one, get the vanilla - it's seriously that good. These cupcakes are baked fresh every day without preservatives.

Their Red Velvet Cupcake with their traditional whipped vanilla icing. Each cupcakes is only $2.50 each.

We've only been to their Rockefeller Center location (their third location), pictured here. Their first location is on Bleeker Street - the location where at times there can supposedly be long lines wrapping around the block. (Their second location is in Uptown). Magnolia Bakery is even open until midnight on weekends to help you with your late-night sweet cravings.

Stop counting calories, stop worrying about cavities, screw the phrase "guilty pleasure," and treat yourself freely to a Magnolia cupcake - you will be a happier person.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Welcome JAX!

Congratulations to new parents Jamie and Robby, who welcomed Jax into this world yesterday at 8:14 PM (5 lbs 12 oz & 19 inches long). Robby is probably figuring out his new son's sports schedule as I type this. Jax is so lucky to have such caring, funny, good-natured, hard-working, loving and strong parents like them. Jax is going to be a handsome one, probably athletic, definitely a big eater, and if he takes after his mom he's gonna be uber-competitive (scrabble players beware). Many blessings and good health to Jax and family.

It's beautiful to have known someone since you were a kid, in braces with bad hair, and grow with them into adulthood, being a part of their lives as they become parents (when it seemed like just yesterday that we ourselves were naive kids).

It's difficult to be physically so far away from loved ones during special moments like this. If we were there with them now, we'd be oooohing and aaaahing and goo-goo-ga-ga-ing in our most annoying baby voice adults make when we are smitten in the presence of babies. (Coincidentally, my co-worker told me today that the main character's name in her book is Jax).

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Longest Line for a Burger

Shake Shack has had an obsessive following in New York City since its opening in 2004. This all-American food stand is so popular and the lines are so ridiculously long that Shake Shack had to incorporate a webcam on their website (check it out on their home page) to allow people to see how long the current line is in real time. (When I visited their webcam at 3:00 pm today just for the hell of it, I saw that the line was still out of the park, literally). Surely, this must be a sign of something special about this place, in a city of 18,696 restaurants. And New Yorkers are fast on their feet, so the fact that many of them will plant their feet in one location for an hour to get one burger or one frozen custard was reason enough for us to spend our holiday at this amusing site.

The Shake Shack is a diner-looking "roadside" food stand in Madison Square Park (southeast corner of Madison Avenue at 23rd St.), powered by wind energy, that's famous for its burgers and frozen custards. It can't be called "fast food" because it 'aint fast by any means. From March through October, they're open daily from 11 am to 11 pm, from November through February, they close at 7 pm.

When we went today before 11:00 am, we completely lucked out because the line wasn't too long. I think the key is to go either really early, really late, or go when the weather is really bad (the lines during the summer months supposedly can keep you waiting for upwards of two hours). Still, it seemed we had sheer luck on our side, or maybe people slept in late today from a long night of partying.

Thank goodness, we're almost at the magic window . . . it made us wonder . . . perhaps it's a scheme . . . to keep people waiting so long in anticipation of the burgers that even if the burgers were crappy, people would think it tasted good out of pure hunger. Hmmm . . .

But we only had to stand in line for about 15 minutes, then waited another 15 minutes for our food. You take a buzzer back to one of the very clean park cafe-style tables and watch the hungry jumpy squirrels as you kill time. We saw one squirrel pigging out on one of the Shake Shack fries.

The verdict is in . . . it's not a evil scheme . . . this was one of the most delicious burgers we've ever given our mouths the joy of experiencing. Everything lived up to its reputation. Their burgers are ground daily, cooked medium (which we love), and made to order. We ordered their ShackBurger single for $4.75 (with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and their special Shack Sauce). Sometimes the best burgers are the simplest ones. The meat was juicy, tender, succulent, the bread was perfectly soft (no part of the bread was crumbling), like a sweet bread without the sweet, and the Shack sauce was so good that we barely dipped the burger in ketchup. We found our "happy place" with this one.

And woah woah woah! This is Shake Shack's Double Stack for $8.50 (cheeseburger and a 'shroom burger topped with lettuce, tomato, and Shack sauce).

And look at the cheese oozing out of the Double Stack.

These french fries were out of this world! Perfect. The best fries we've ever tasted. Soggy-proof. Perfectly golden crisp. Only $2.75 and 100% free of artificial trans-fat. If we knew how good these fries were going to be, we would have gotten two orders. We loved them but we weren't insane enough to stand back in line for them (as we were eating we saw the line getting longer every minute). The Shake Shack fries have spoiled and ruined us from being happy with other fries.

We also wanted to try their frozen custards because in addition to the burgers, the Shake Shack received legendary status because of their frozen treats. Today's custard of the day was "Pumpkin Spice." It tasted like they just cut up a pumpkin right then and there and mixed it up with the best frozen vanilla ice cream on this planet. Their October custard calendar also includes Apple Rosemary, German Chocolate, Pancake, and Shack Shiraz Poached Pear. You can order them in a cone, or a cup more suitable for messy people like us.

Their other menu items are brilliant, which includes the enormous Shake Stack (two cheeseburgers and a 'shroom burger) and four different types of hot dogs. Their desserts include frozen custards like the black & white hand-spun shake, Purple cow float, and the Concrete jungle (dense frozen custard of hot fudge, bananas, and peanut butter). You can even order beer and wine at all hours of the day here (brown bag not necessary). And since New York City, is such a dog-loving city (seriously, it seems everyone here owns dogs and treats them better than they treat themselves), the Shake Shack offers the Pooch-ini, a chilly treat for your dog consisting of vanilla custard, peanut butter and dog biscuit.

We're really glad we waited until the Fall to experience the Shake Shack. Eating at Madison Square Park in the Fall, beneath the trees as the leaves are beginning to change into its beautiful orange, yellow, and red colors, is really beautiful. It's not sticky like the summer, it's not freezing cold or wet like the winters, it's just cool and wearing a light jacket is sufficient.

Madison Square Park also currently has tree huts in several trees created by Japanese-born artist Tadashi Kawamata dispersed throughout the park.

The trees here are beautiful.

Enlarge this picture. This is what the line at the Shake Shack looked like when we were leaving around 12:15 pm. The lines will always be long at any hour of the day, but never go during the prime lunch or dinner hours, especially when the weather is good like it was today, unless you're lonely and don't mind being surrounded by anxious cranky people.

The bad thing is now that we're hooked on their burger, fries, and frozen custard, we're gonna want to to back, and so we will then have to join the "Shake Shack Webcam Freaks" group. Maybe we'll wait until the dead of winter when the lines (might) die down.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sugoi Basta Pasta

We saw the Italian menu in the window, then we saw the Kanji sign in the doorway, and we were a bit hesitant because in the past we weren't too thrilled with Japanese/Italian fusion restaurants, which always seemed like a discombobulated mess. But the restaurant looked quaint and it was crowded with customers, so we thought we’d give it a shot. To think we could have walked right past this little gem!

When we walked into Basta Pasta (on 37 W. 17), we received “irashaimase” from the all Japanese-speaking staff. On our first visit, we chose to sit at the bar and eat, which ended up being a great decision because we had the most fantastic bartender we’ve ever met in our lives – Misa, from Japan, had a sincere sweetness about her and was extremely polite and attentive to our needs. The bar was stocked with various olives and breads, and we were impressed with the lovely presentation and clean details.

Our first experience at Basta Pasta was so great we couldn't wait to go back. On our second visit, we sat in their charming (and very busy) dining room.

Basta Pasta is one of the most interesting Italian restaurant we've ever encountered. It's been in business in this same Chelsea spot for about 20 years and it sells authentic Italian food, but has some Japanese influences in its dishes, and is owned and operated by Japanese chefs. The friendly and welcoming staff were all Japanese, and most of their customers were also Japanese. The restaurant was very busy and we watched as people were turned away, but we didn't have problems getting a seat in the dining area on a Saturday night without reservations.

So the restaurant is cute, it's clean, the service is excellent. But let's get down to the best part of Basta Pasta - their food, starting with this tiny wonder snack. It's a toast cracker with cheese spread. Sounds like nothing special, right? Absolutely wrong. This fantastic gorgonzola spread was mixed with something that I unfortunately can't remember what it was. The spread was so delicious! We have to go back to get the recipe from Misa. The cheese spread was creamy but had an almost whisphy, airy quality to it. They only give one per person and it’s small, which you can’t complain about because it’s free, but I’d seriously pay for a whole appetizer plate of these. It got to the point where I'd look around the tables by us and think "I don't think she's going to eat it, perhaps the waiter can bring us their half-eaten piece."

At this point, we had high hopes for the main pasta dishes. And wow, we ordered one of the best pasta dishes we've ever tried: Farfalle con Salmone e Crema is a bow tie pasta with lightly smoked salmon, cauliflower and tomatoes in tarragon grain mustard cream sauce ($15). This dish was oooh la la. Normally I prefer tomato sauce over cream/white sauces because I love red sauce on anything (ketchup lover), and because cream sauces are usually too rich. But Basta Pasta's cream sauce wasn't heavy at all, sprinkled lightly with cheese. The salmon tasted equally delicate, not too “fishy” and not too salty. This was a winner! The only bad thing was that there seemed to be a hole in the dish - the food suddenly disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared.

Their Crespelle con Funghi e Ricotta (homemade silk handkerchief pasta with mixed mushrooms, lemon zest, and ricotta cheese, $16) was absolutely delizioso! Really delicate and lovely!

Their Spaghetti with Parmigiana Reggiano and Parma Prosciutto is served in a large half wheel of Parmesan Cheese at the table. This was a crowd pleaser, since everyone around us seemed to have ordered this. I think people just liked watching the waiters take out the noodles from the cheese-on-steroids (like an over-sized gift box made out of cheese). It looked so decadent when the waiter took the spoon in the cheese to get the cheese sauce, then drizzled the creamy portion of the cheese on top of the already cheese-laden pasta, and then topped off the pasta with large prosciutto slices.

Some of their other menu items include: Linguine with fresh sea urchin and basil in pink sauce; Homemade taglionlini with Chilean sea bass ragu and shredded zucchini in spicy tomato sauce; Orecchiette with free range chicken ragu and sliced proscuitto; Homemade pappardelle with eggplant, basil and fresh tomatoes in tapenade sauce; Risotto with oysters, lemon confit and proscuitto pangratatto; Charcoal grilled Naiman ranch pork loin with mustard green, paprika paste, prosciutto pangrattato & olive flake; and Charcoal grilled rib-eye steak with Gorgonzola onion gratin & roasted garlic.

The chefs cook the dishes right in front of you in the open kitchen, near the bar and the front area of the dining room. What a clever idea – for customers that were only thinking of getting one glass of wine at the bar after work, probably can’t resist the intoxicating scent of meat, fish, and spices, then add the visual stimulation, and you're like putty in their hands. Their refrigerators are also at the front of the restaurant and look like a lumber jack's subzero fridge (as shown on the home page of their website).

They have a simple yet nice selection of wine and cocktails. They even have one sake and Sapporo. By the way, this is what their menus look like. They look like they were drawn by the chef's kids. Again, very quaint. These little details add to their unique appeal.

Although summer has past, their Sangria is still a must! Probably the fourth best Sangria I've tasted. It's refreshing and lightly flavored so it complements their delicate pastas perfectly, strangely even more so than wine.

They even do their desserts with a light hand. Their Cream Caramel tasted almost fluffy, and arigato to them for the generous amount of caramel.

They tend to mix up their menus, including their desserts. So although we couldn't try their creme brulee yet (next time), we had the pleasure of trying their tasty crepe which ended up tasting almost like creme brulee. This crepe was very unique. It came with earl grey tea gelatin, apple gelatin like substance, caramelized almonds, vanilla filling and the top was coated with a caramelized hardness of a crème brulee.

This is what each dish we tried at Basta Pasta looked like after about 10-15 minutes. No exaggeration. This is a sign of full satisfaction. We love Basta Pasta!