Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Birthday Picnic, Sushi, and Jazz at Village Vanguard

Yesterday was the best birthday ever. I'm going to start this backwards with my favorite part of the day - a night of jazz with The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra at the legendary Village Vanguard, located at 178 7th Avenue South in Greenwich Village.

We walked down a narrow flight of stairs and opened the door to a small triangular-shaped cellar.

The Village Vanguard was founded in 1935, but turned into a jazz-only music venue in 1957. This jazz spot has been the haunt of legends like Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and Dexter Gordon, to name a few. Its history is incredible. Hundreds of jazz albums have been recorded here.

Monday nights are reserved for the Grammy award-winning Vanguard Jazz Orchestra that have been playing at this club for over 33 years, and this was probably the first time in my life when I was actually happy that the day of my birthday fell on a Monday. We caught two sets - the first set started at 9 pm and the second set started at 11 pm. If you want to reserve a table, you have to leave a message on their answering machine (and they won't call you back). When we got there, our names were on the list and we got a prime seat right in front of the musicians.

The 15-person Vanguard Jazz Orchestra was incredible (and somehow managed to squeeze together on that small stage). They consisted of five saxophone players sitting on the front row, four trombone players on the second row, three trumpet players on the third row, and one pianist, one bassist, and one drummer on the side. No photos are allowed during their performance but I was able to sneak a few in.

They were an interesting mix of musicians - ages ranging from late 20s to late 60s, the younger ones were wearing suits while the older guys were casually dressed like they were going to a poker game. A young trumpet player on the back row was having the time of his life - constantly smiling, bobbing his head to the music, cheering the other musicians on during their solo performances; it was an enjoyment to watch him enjoying their music. In contrast, a young saxophone player that looked like the Fine Young Cannibal guy never once showed any emotion. You could tell the older guys were absolute seasoned pros and they gave their performances 200%, so much so that they looked a bit weathered at the end.

The second set wasn't as crowded as the first so we decided to switch tables to the side for a more relaxed feel. The musicians also seemed way more relaxed during the second set since they were having some drinks between the sets. If you're only going to visit Village Vanguard just one time, try to go on a Monday night. You won't be disappointed. Here's a clip of one of their performances.

Eating sushi on our birthdays has become a tradition for us. We chose to have our sushi dinner night at one of our favorite Food Network Iron Chef's restaurant - Masaharu Morimoto's Morimoto located at the back of the Chelsea Marketplace.

The restaurant is extremely modern and clean looking. Who knew bottled waters could make for a fancy schmancy wall decoration?

One of the largest sushi bars we've ever seen. This photo only shows one section of the sushi bar seats.

We started off with Morimoto's Junmai sake. It was the most affordable sake on the menu. It was easy to drink, but had a kick to it. We'd buy this sake at the store if we could. Good to know his sakes are good (unlike his awful beers).

We're not going to sugar coat this. The sushi here was a complete let down. And not because the sushi was horrible, it just wasn't exceptional and we were expecting exceptional sushi considering the chef's reputation and the fact that the Chelsea Marketplace also houses the Lobster Place that sells fresh fish daily.

The price of the sushi was surprisingly lower than what we expected, but we were still disappointed. The Mirugai, which we use as our sushi test, was just okay. The best was the Hotate. Mitch's Fish Market and Sushi Bar from our hometown is still the reigning sushi champion by a wide margin.

So the sushi was a downer but two appetizer dishes, including this Yellowtail Pastrami (with togarashi, gin creme fraiche, candied olive), were standouts.

Our favorite was the Lamb Carpaccio (with shiso buds and scallion-ginger dressing). The raw meat was incredibly light and buttery and the shiso was a perfect match. Just a refreshing and flavorful summer time meat dish.

Only two couples (pictured below) were eating at the huge sushi bar, although all the dinner tables were full. We realized this place is the kind of place you don't order sushi at, as oddly as that would have sounded to us before we had our experience here. If you're a money maker, you probably want to try the Morimoto Omakasa (the chef's choice multi-course tasting menu). We saw a lot of people ordering the toro tartare (with osetra caviar, creme fraiche, wasabi, and dashi-soy). We have no idea how it tasted but the presentation was great. Other food items that looked good and included the cripsy rock shrimp tempura, the thick Tajima Wagyu Steak (we were drooling), and the house smoked salmon ravioli (with Japanese sweet yams, salmon roe, and yuzu gelee - first time seeing a ravioli covered with foam at a Japanese restaurant). Another interesting dish we saw looked like flan but it was a foie gras chawan mushi (duck breast shabu-shabu, fresh wasabi, and sweet soy sauce). Duck flan? Bizarre but something we'd definitely try for the hell of it.

If we had a free pass to eat here, we'd veer away from sushi and try Morimoto's interesting interpretations on the modern Japanese entrees and appetizers. We didn't quite get our sushi fix, it was still a fun night and we were glad to have crossed Morimoto off our list of restaurants we wanted to try in New York City. On a weirder note, Morimoto has the best looking toilet area we've ever seen in our lives (yes, you heard me, the toilet area, and yes you should know by now that I find the oddest things amusing). The photo below can't really capture it but it's a photo of the toilet stall, which had a strange out- of-this-world 3D effect. The toilet itself was classic modern Tokyo toilet with way too many buttons.

The bottom level of the restaurant is the bar and lounge area, which looked and felt a little too "hip" for us.

So I said I was doing this backwards. We started off my birthday adventures by picking up paninis for lunch at Grandaisy Bakery and headed to Central Park for a picnic near Strawberry Fields. Grandaisy Bakery's Lumaca is amazing.

We ended our beautiful day at Central Park with another boat ride.

Central Park, Sushi, Jazz . . . I couldn't have asked for a better birthday. Thank you my LOVE, with sincere gratitude for making my first birthday in New York a beautiful one.