Monday, February 8, 2010

China Y Latina

Before I moved to New York, my friend Vinny was giving me some pointers about the city. And since he was born and raised in the Bronx (family immigrated from Puerto Rico), and he worked in Manhattan, I listened to his advice. One advice was "try to avoid getting shot like me near the subway," but then again he lived in New York during the height of crime. I don't think it phased him much. His other advice was about food. But he didn't eat at Manhattan's fancy schmancy places. His favorite spots were at working-class places. So he told me that I absolutely had to try Cuban food made by Chinese immigrants that immigrated from China to Cuba to New York. My first reaction, was "are you serious?" and my second reaction was "I guess only in New York could I find that." He said they were some of the best chefs and made Cuban food often times better than Cuban-born chefs. Sounded like my kind of food, and we found one such restaurant conveniently located near our apartment called La Nueva Rampa (149 W. 14th St.). Their menu is exhaustively huge and consists of a mix of Chinese and Cuban food. Carne Asada Chow Mein anyone?

La Nueva Rampa is the kind of restaurant that wealthy people might look at as being sketchy. Hell, there were a few times we walked by the place and thought the same, and we normally love hole-in-the-wall places. But we're glad we weren't deterred by the look of the place because the food was damn good, especially for the price, like this Spanish sausage fried rice. I think we paid $6.50 for this and the portion was gigantic.

And this was our favorite - Cuban Tamale ($2.50). It was unlike any tamale we had ever tasted in our lives. If you eat here, eat this tamale. And it's dirt cheap. If you ate the same thing at some fancy Cuban restaurant in the West Village, they'd easily charge at least $15 for this. Sure, the tamale was unique, but what was more fascinating about our experience here was the workers. While we were eating our meal, it didn't occur to us until we turned around that the group of folks speaking Spanish to each other were the Chinese workers. And they weren't speaking Spanish the way people learn it in school as a second language, they spoke it perfectly without any accent. And just as quickly, as soon as a Chinese customer walked in, they would start speaking Chinese to them. They seamlessly moved in and out of speaking Chinese and Spanish to their working-class Chinese and Spanish customers. It was one of those moments in New York that just makes you fall in love with the city all over again.

We unfortunately didn't make it up to the Chinese-Cuban restaurants in Jackson Heights like Vinny told me to, so I can't recommend any there (we'll have to scout that out when we return to New York). In the meantime, another option is La Caridad on Broadway between 77th and 78th Street on the Upper West Side. We weren't able to try the food there, but every time we walked by this place and peeked in, the restaurant was at full capacity.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Zucco: Le French Diner

Zucco: Le French Diner is the perfect place to get a hearty, savory breakfast on a rainy day in New York City. The eclectic music you'll be listening to while eating your buttery dishes come courtesy of Radio Nova.

This menu doesn't include their daily specials, which you should most definitely take advantage of. 188 Orchard Street. Cash or AMEX only. No reservations.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


L.E.S. - a playground for the early-20-something-year-olds, bars, bars, and more bars, expensive boutiques, the Tenement Museum, iconic restaurants like Katz's Deli, and what could possibly be the largest Whole Foods in America. It's also where we found Johnny Cash, where we went for skate art, where we froze our fingers and nose eating bagels on the bench outside Russ & Daughters, and where eight-year-olds sell homemade cookies at bars.

This image represents what we always imagined a typical New York street corner would look like before we moved to New York.

And this image of this other corner represents the modernization of New York. The two bottom floors of this entire building in the Lower East Side is Whole Foods. There's many Whole Foods in NYC, and they're all pretty damn large, but this has to be largest and fanciest one. When you first walk in, the entire front section is devoted to beer, and we're talking the size of several liquor stores. It's incredible. In addition to the large grocery and personal care section, the entire upper level contains a sushi bar, a pasta bar, other mini restaurants, and a huge dining area.

The restaurant supply street.

There's rarely plain walls in the L.E.S.

And the following pictures show reasons why the L.E.S. can be fun, even for the 30+ crowd, like being able to watch John Hughes movies all day while slowly sipping champagne and eating free bagels.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Skate On

Would love to be doing this right now.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

ChikaLicious Dessert Bar

Behind these unassuming glass doors at 203 E. 10th Street, near 2nd Avenue, is ChikaLicious dessert bar. Opened in 2003 by a husband and wife team, it was New York's first dessert bar. ChikaLicious is still one of the few places that only sells desserts, and their three-course prix-fix menu is the thing to experience here.

If you like the look of John Lennon's Imagine video, you'll love the Chikalicious decor - white, modern, and simple. The best seat is at the dessert bar centered around an open kitchen where you can see owner/pasty chef Chika and her assistant in action. For $14 (used to be $12), you can get an amuse, your choice of dessert off a menu that changes daily, and petit fours. The amuse and petit fours are chosen for you by the chef. Each additional dessert costs $7. Since there's only 20 seats in the 400-square-foot Chikalicious, they take no reservations and parties greater than four will not be seated. We've read the wait can be impossibly long, especially on weekends. We went on a weekday at around 3 PM and had no problem getting seated at the bar, although we took up the last two seats.

The dainty desserts are airy and delicately sweet. Chikalicious is not the kind of place you get traditionally heavy, ultra creamy, extra sweet desserts. Chikalicious is the antithesis to a place like Serendipity. The dessert we chose was one of their signature dishes - the Fromage Blanc Island "Cheesecake." We knew we were in for something special as we watched Chika's assistant skillfully prepare this for us using a cheesecloth. The Fromage Blanc, served on ice, was a more elegant interpretation of the classic cheesecake. It was much more in line with the Japanese style of cheesecakes, but with a twist. It was unbelievably light and delicious.

For an additional $7, you can get a wine paired with your three-course sweet meal. The menu provides suggestions for the best pairing for your dessert. We could see the logic in why this wine was paired with our dessert; however, it was much too sweet for our taste. We would have been better off ordering their espresso.

We always love learning about the history and the story behind the place. We especially love when businesses are owned and operated by families. Pastry chef and co-owner Chika Tillman (pictured below) was born in Japan, trained at the French Culinary Institute, and worked at places like the Gramery Tavern before opening ChikaLicious with her husband Don Tillman. Don, a saxophone player from Philadelphia, was a Japanese-language major that fell in love with a nutrition student named Chika in a Tokyo jazz club decades ago.

As we sat at the bar, we saw what a great yin and yang team Chika and Don formed. Chika was focused, friendly in a more restrained way. We appreciated that she created the desserts with such precision, with such refinement; as though she was gracefully playing a piano. More importantly, we appreciated her almost zen-like calm. It was truly relaxing to watch her moves.
Don served as host, busser, manager. Don was very friendly, welcoming, polite, and could probably make any stressed out New Yorker feel more relaxed with his genuinely inviting smile. We didn't realize he was the owner until much later. Considering how many arrogant business owners are out there, we really appreciated his almost humble air and un-forced warm demeanor.

Our petit fours were adorable, they tasted delicious, and although we were prepared for small portions here, these left us wanting/needing more. But we definiely appreciated this French-style presentation.

This brilliant, refreshing melon gelee amuse was by far our favorite. We'd eat this every week if we had our way. The sweet melon flavors definitely took me back to Japan. It was sweet in a mellow way and the soft texture felt so good in our mouths. What we liked most about this was that the flavors and texture of this dessert aren't something you can easily find in many dessert places in the U.S.

As we sat at the bar, we noticed that Don Tillman kept walking to and from a place directly across the street. We learned that he was also managing their recently opened Dessert Club, Chikalicious. Dessert Club, ChikaLicious also only sells desserts, but it's more take-out style, although there are seats. If you want something quicker, less expensive, more casual, and with a larger dessert menu, Dessert Club is an excellent option.

Dessert Club, ChikaLicous was recently voted as having the best cupcake in New York City by Grub Street. They have a fantastic dessert menu. And like its predecessor, Dessert Club also does desserts differently. For example, their cupcakes doesn't consist of thick, highly sweet icing (like Magnolia's, which we love); like Chika's other desserts, these cupcakes are light and airy. It's definitely the most unique cupcake we've tasted. Their cupcake options include: Smore; Caramel; Banana; Triple Chocolate; Mocha; Red Velvet; Coconut; and Black and White.

The vanilla cupcake from Magnolia's Bakery is still our favorite cupcake, but this Smore cupcake is a close second. How can you not love a cupcake with marshmallow topping and chocolate filling that doesn't leave you feeling full and overly high on sugar? And if you want to walk around the East Village while nibbling on a sweet treat, you won't have to worry about getting messy frosting all over your face.

Dessert Club, ChikaLicious also sells: Shaved Ice; Espresso Ice Shots; House Made Brioche Bread Pudding (baked in Vanilla-Brandy custard); Adult Chocolate Pudding (dark, Valrhona ganache-chocolate served atop crunchy chocolate streusel); Coconut Marshmallows (seasonal); Banana Creme Custard; Ginger Spiced Carrot Cake; Cinnamon Baked Apple Crisp; and Vanilla Apple Pudding Cake. The best part about this "casual" dessert spot is that you can have beer, wine, or champagne with your cupcake and shaved ice. You can't get that at Magnolia. How's that for some grown up fun?

We loved the way the desserts at both ChikaLicious Dessert Bar and Dessert Club, ChikaLicious tasted. We loved how clean everything was (germaphobes appreciate cleanliness). We loved that you can get the fine dining experience at one place and then get desserts to take home from the other place. We love that it's run by a husband and wife team from different parts of this world. We love that they took that risk. But most importantly, we loved how we were made to feel invited as guests. That's mainly thanks to Don Tillman. Who knows, we could have just caught him on a very good day. We just hope all customers that enter ChikaLicious catches him and the rest of his staff on a very good day. One criticism - being unable to navigate their website - when you click on some of their links, it just freezes up your computer.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Prune Brunch

It's Saturday, which means many people in New York have had brunch and cocktails somewhere in New York. This calls to mind our brunch experience at Prune (54 East 1st Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues). It's a place that has packets of Alka-Seltzer at its bar. After you've eaten here, you'll know why. Prune is famous its quirky American menu and Bloody Marys, and its chef/owner Gabrielle Hamilton, described as "rogue" and as one of the most exciting chefs by Anthony Bourdain, and who just happened to beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America in her spare time. At Prune, you'll find all the "comfort" dishes Hamilton personally loves, like monkfish liver.

Prune's wait during brunch was horrible, as expected. However, we lucked out and managed to be seated in about 10 minutes. The people immediately after us weren't as lucky and crowds of people kept forming outside the restaurant.

This restaurant is cramped, and you will be knocking elbows with strangers during your entire meal as waiters in their pink shirts try to maneuver around the small space.

We arrived at almost 2 PM, ample time for brunch considering Prune's brunch ends at 3:30 PM (lunch is also served until 3:30 PM on weekdays). We wanted to try everything on the brunch menu, but since our budget only allowed us to order two, we started with Prune's Dutch Style Pancake - One large pancake cooked in the oven with blackberries, served with Canadian bacon, sour cream, and powdered sugar, $14. This pancake just looked perfect. It was almost too pretty to eat, and looked more like dessert than breakfast.

We've never seen a pancake so thick. And considering how thick it was, it was made perfectly fluffy. The sour cream with the powdered sugar was a child-adult's fantasy fulfilled.

We also ordered the decadent Monte Cristo - Triple decker ham, turkey, and swiss cheese sandwich, custard-style battered and deep fried, served with fried eggs and egg currant jelly, $13. This was also good, but for the price, we felt the portion was just a tad bit small, or maybe it was just that good that we wanted more. Maybe they should make it a quad-decker? Other brunch items include: Lower East Side Appetizing (courtesy of Russ & Daughters) for $23, grilled handmade lamb sausages and oysters served with stewed tomatoes and grilled peasant bread for $18, Youth Hostel Breakfast (fish pastes, liver wursts, lanjaegers, and grainy breads for $16, and spicy stewed chickpeas for $14.

We noticed we were the only ones that weren't fully engaging in the full Prune brunch experience, which meant ordering one of Prune's sadistic, downright scary-sounding Bloody Marys. And, the Bloody Marys are served with a Red Stripe as a beer chaser. A bit whoa, even for us. This combined with rich food could spell out heartburn disaster and we had a full day ahead of us and we were not about to be spending our day walking the city in search of toilets. Prune's Bloody Mary menu includes: The Bullshot (Absolute vodka, beef-bouillon, Worcestershire, Tabasco), Mariner (Absolute Citron vodka, clam juice, and olives), Southwest (Tequila with smoked chipotle peppers), Caesar (gin, clam juice, and pickled egg), Chicago Matchbox (homemade lemon vodka, pickled vegetables, caperberries), the Green Lake (with wasabi), and the Danish (marinated with white anchovy).

Prune is hardcore brunch not for the faint of stomach. But if you can handle it, you'll love it.