Alive and Kicking at Convivio

So I hit a few restaurants the last couple of days - and I like to keep myself as anonymous as possible -because I think if they know you're coming in to review the place, you're not getting the regular service. That's why I wait a couple of days before posting my review. Just gives it that level of anonymity. Either that, or maybe I have some other things preoccupying my daytime life. Or perhaps it's a combo deal.

I still love food.

I enjoy NYC dining so much, too. It's like an addiction now. It's so insatiable. And once you get a taste of some of these places, it's hard NOT to become a regular!

Anyway, let's see.... Convivio. This place was not the easiest to get to, but who cares if the food is great, right?

I was treated very appropriately when I entered. Smiles, a friendly greeting and a helpful attitude was really appreciated. I sat down in the lounge/bar area for maybe 90 seconds before the host came to seat me and my date to the table.

My initial impression of the restaurant was quite favorable. I wasn't crazy about the decor, but realized that those types of things are very subjective anyway.

So as I was checking out the decorum, I noticed that it seemed to get kind of cramped in the space. I followed the host blindly and an older gentleman at a table tried to make room for me to get by him.... This was nice of him, but when his chair landed on my foot, it was anything but a kind way to be introduced to a new restaurant.

I kept from loudly screaming, because all of this man's weight on my big toe was very painful. There was a muffled yelp that emitted from my mouth and then I held my breath for a few moments as the heat of pain surged through my body. I survived the minor injury, but even as I type this blog post, the bruising is still visible and there's a slight tinge when walking in certain footwear.

That being said: Convivio is TOO CROWDED. Too many tables in the space they have available.

But the Maitre D' was quick to respond. He offered ice - but even better, he offered a high-end sparking wine, complements of the house and acknowledged that it wasn't a good way to not only start an evening, but to introduce himself.

Talk about friendly and prompt service!

I just smiled to keep from crying at that point - but I think the Italian version of Champagne was a good move on behalf of the restaurant... "A" for effort!

Convivio offered a prix fixe that evening that was really easy to select from their ample menu. I chose some olives as a starter (sfizi), the quaglia (quail) as an appetizer, Mezzaluna al tonno as my "primi" (first dish) and the sauteed lobster tail as my "secondi" (second dish). By far, the mezzaluna al tonno (tuna-tomato filled pasta) was my favorite of all of these delicious creations. It was so incredibly flavorful and not overcooked - too many restaurants don't have a clue about pasta - but Convivio was spot on with this dish. I also enjoyed the olives -ripe and anything but soggy. The lobster was also quite good, but I tried my date's meal, as well -and we ended up switching! He had the housemade duck sausage. It was served with some lentils -that really made this a mouth-watering savory surprise.

I didn't think I'd have room for dessert, but it was all a part of the 'prix fixe' - so I tried the gelato and sorbet; I asked the house to determine the choice of flavors for me. Chocolate, berry and marscapone were served - a portion for two people. I had to share and we both agreed that Convivio would be on our "must go again" list of restaurants in Midtown East.

I'd recommend Convivio to anyone looking for a fine dining experience and to not wear open-toed shoes until they figure out the table dynamics! The food is spectacular and quite affordable for the amount. Order the prix fixe to sample the menu at an unbeatable price for NYC.

Small Space, Big Taste in the EV

Although I live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (in a shoe box of an apartment), one of my favorite foodie haunts is located in the East Village. The EV just has it goin' on...

Of course, I will try my best to be more diverse in my dining experiences for future postings, but for right now, I must tell you about last night's dinner... I'm still salivating, just thinking about it. And that's a good thing.

This best-loved EV place of mine is Caracas Arepa Bar at 93 1/2 E 7th Street. That's right, it's address is 93.5... and that's surely due to its tiny space.

But the big food that is served -and I mean in terms of flavor, not portions- is truly phenomenal. Space and location are not even considered in this critique -because I mean it: it doesn't MATTER. Caracas can get away with this tiny hole-in-the-wall locale due to its superior approach to food and their level of cleanliness. I'm telling you, don't pay attention to space or time and you'll have an even greater experience. (Unless you're a plus size diner, then, you may want to consider take out.... it's just squeezy with very little elbowroom for even those with skinny butts.)

Arepas are kind of a Venezuelan take on a pita -but made with cornmeal, grilled on each side and stuffed with many different types of fillings. The menu consists of arepas filled with shredded beef, black beans, chorizo, chicken and fried plantains -to avocado, tomato and cheese. There's many options to choose from and almost always has a special on its menu most nights for something a little edgy.

The yellow, tangy sauce is what really gives these little pockets most of its piquancy. There's some spice and a unique union of seasonings that complement the arepas -no matter which one you select on the menu.

Oh! And you'll want to select at least 2!

I'd also recommend the sugar cane drink that is called a Papelon con limon - OMFG! This really off-sets the spiciness of the arepas and simply works well with all of the different experiences your mouth will be privy to! Whatever you do, don't forget to end your meal with their Venezuelan-version of flan, Quesillo. Order this to GO if you have to - it has an aphrodisiac quality to it... I'll just leave the rest to your imaginations and continue.....

Caracas is very affordable (which is a big draw for anyone wanting to dine out, but not spend a lot) but you might have to wait to be seated if you didn't plan on taking out. We were a party of four on a Thursday night and we waited an hour and 15 minutes to get a table. I was ready to start gnawing on my own arm, but there's plenty of little bars to grab a drink while you wait - so not too bad. But honestly - for four people that had appetizers, 8 arepas and drinks - we were less than $80 - ENTIRE BILL. (Don't forget! I'm talking about New York CITY here, people! Manhattan! Where can you get a WHOLE quality meal for that for 4 people in a RESTAURANT -not a chain, deli, crappy diner or a street vendor?)

And as I mentioned and stressed before, its a really small space -so don't even THINK about bringing a stroller inside or taking along grandma in her walker! Get the take out! Just don't be stupid about it.... No one wants a whiny baby in their face or be unkind to those who need extra space when they go out to dinner.... so just order ahead in their 'to go' shop right next door. Its easy ---and I do it all of the time when I don't have an hour to wait for evening chow.

Either way, Caracas give you fresh, affordable and terrific tasting food, the decor is quaint and the wait is well worth it!

Vosges Haut Chocolat - Very Cool & Stylish

I blame my boyfriend for turning me on to these exotic truffles from Vosges. From the moment I opened the dark purple box (plus points for the color scheme!) and found a mixture of interesting chocolate yumminess, my attitude toward anything containing cacao has dramatically changed.

First, the chocolate combinations at Vosges is beyond your regular fare of champagne truffles and common selections of dark, white or milk varieties. Not to say that they do not have them, but it much better than the standard garden varieties found in most chocolatier's stores. Vosges is not simple -by a long shot. You can get your truffles sprinkled with Indian curry or find a small petal of lavender on top.

The combination of flavors is astounding as they are complex.

In fact, yesterday, I visited the Manhattan location on Madison Avenue -because I just needed a fix after a bad restaurant visit the night before. Nothing like getting out of a mood by adding a bit of the choco to one's diet....

I initially meandered my there to get myself a nice, cold iced chocolate drink - the Azteca. Talk about muy muy bueno!! The hint of chili spices with vanilla and cinnamon really make this elixir something very special indeed. I chose to sit and sip from a tall glass in the shop -to people watch and just enjoy my favorite cold chocolate drink in the city. Plus, I was surrounded by chocolates, stark white furniture and fixtures that were a beautiful contrast to the deep purple color of the walls. It's just a fun place to stop in, grab some chocolate and take in the scene.

While there, I also had to pick up a box of 'naga' truffles. Sweet Indian curry, coconut and deep milk chocolate make this a true concoction of serendipity.

The young gentleman behind the counter was very friendly and offered me a sample from one of their newer truffles -that was called 'Balsamico'. From their "Collezione Italiana," this dark chocolate truffle boasts a 12-year aged balsamic vinegar candy goodness, sprinkled with Sicilian hazelnuts. But before you make the face of "ugh" and swear it off - let's not forget the recent studies regarding vinegar and weight loss! Seriously -chocolate with its antioxidants now combined with fat-reducing vinegar. O-M-G! Heaven in a truffle?

Ok, I made that face too. Before I sampled it. It was quite good and worth another bite. Or two. Or three. But wait. It was only a truffle. Guess it's time to buy a box.

Of course, I walked all the way home, rather than take the subway or bus back to my place. Nothing like indulging and then bulging! No, not this time... I'll be back again soon. That little box of truffles doesn't stay too long in an opened box. Nor do I share well. I keep my calories to myself. Literally and figuratively -but it's sooooo worth it!

Aldea is Not "Ideal"

Now honestly - I entered this restaurant with a few expectations, but nothing too high. I just didn't know how low I would have to go in order to get a whole lot of nothing...

At first glance, Aldea's design and overall set up of its limited space wasn't optimal. The bar is cramped and too far forward. I waited to be seated by somewhat inexperienced hostess that wasn't sure which table was ready or where she was really supposed to be taking me. If I was smart, I should have taken the cue and RAN. But no....

So while aimlessly following the unknown, I started to look at the ambience -or lack thereof. I couldn't help but notice the obvious fake plants and bad choice of wall color (gray-tones). One could be overwhelmed with blah. It's like they wanted modern and a Japanese flair -but it just missed its mark. Big time. So far, not so good.

The booth I was seated at was comfortable enough, but there was another obvious design flaw; when looking above my head, I saw an unsightly gap between wall and ceiling, apparently this was for lighting that did not work.

Oh well. Maybe the food will be better. I was hopeful.

Not so fast there, Quick Draw McGraw!

The very first item to be offered at the table was bread. Should be simple. Notice the word, 'should'. Aldea seems to think that rubbery is a good texture for its bread. Yes, like 'rubbah' - and forget the 'butt-ah' because in lieu of butter, a dish of olive oil was offered. Sans cracked pepper or sea salt. Olive oil, plain, with rubbery bread. Fail.

Then came out the appetizers. Maybe something direct from the kitchen would make up for poor design, confused staff members and bread not even good enough for pigeons at Union Square.

That's right, you guessed it. Fail again.

The Knoll Crest Farm egg was too complicated and WAY too salty. The Pickled Ramp Bulbs and Tah Soi was supposed to be served with crispy pig ears, apple and cumin yogurt. Ummm... not quite. Too much apple and the pig ears were soggy and anything BUT crispy. I'm not sure what the chef wanted the dish to taste like, but hopefully he wasn't TRYING to put crap on the menu. That's just what it ended up being.

The 'Jardin' salad was so-so -and thusfar, the only thing that was worth a second tasting. Nothing like mediocre salad being the only edible dish, right?

Too bad I was really hungry. I stayed around to wait for my main course of Arroz De Pato. This final dish was a huge fail-o-rama. It didn't help that when it was served, the waiter didn't even know how to present it. He mentioned that it was "Uh... duck. Confit? With... uh... sauce." Perfect. Even HE is confused what should be on my plate. (sigh)

Truth be told, Aldea -which has only been open for a couple of months, has a new name, "Al-dee-ah Dia-rrhea." I can say for certain that I will not visit this establishment again -nor would I recommend anyone to attempt to visit without a good dose of Immodium afterwards.

Back to Business as Usual - What Else?

Glad that I made a point to go to Momofuku Ssam Bar last night -in spite of the recent Hep A scare.

The food there is always fresh and incredibly well prepared. Guess what? It was even fresher than usual. Ssam wasted NO time getting their employees tested, vaccinated and well cared for -not to mention what they did to scrub the restaurant down to the cleanliest level its ever seen. Everything consumable was thrown out - and new was ordered.

David Chang and his employees went above and beyond to make Ssam one of the greatest eateries in the East Village. Don't let people tell you otherwise - this place was packed with people on Tuesday night and I'm proud I was there to enjoy my spicy sausage and rice cakes with some red wine, recommended by their wine director. Life is just tooooooo good. Enjoy it!

Momofuku - Not Tonight, Dear.....Or?

I'll admit... I'm a regular patron at the Momofuku restaurants... Noodle and Ssäm Bar are my two favorites and I've eaten more pork buns than I'll ever admit here.

But has recently reported an outbreak of Hepatitis A over at Momofuku Ssäm Bar!

So glad that I went to the Noodle Bar this past weekend and NOT Ssam. But all is not lost....

Here is the most recent press release from David Chang:

"New York City - June 9, 2009 —Momofuku Ssäm Bar has confirmed that a newly hired employee tested positive for the hepatitis A virus. In response, we immediately notified the New York City Department of Health, and began preemptively testing and vaccinating our staff.

Pending testing results and further analysis, The New York City Department of Health has not required or requested that we close the restaurant or notify our customers. Though there is a low risk of outbreak, all staff members have been vaccinated as a precautionary measure.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene inspected the restaurant yesterday and noted 0 violation points. We will be open for dinner service tonight.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will make a press release available this afternoon."

There you have it, Kids. No big deal. Go get some spicy rice cakes with sausage tonight... just don't get a tattoo while you're eating at the counter - because that is a different strain of Hepatitis all together.

A New Critical Blog About Good Food in the Big Apple

After a recent move to the Big Apple, I found myself in some amazing restaurants, hole-in-the-walls and hidden locations around this sprawling metropolis that had my friends and family telling me to make a blog about it.

I didn't start out as a food critic -or even someone that knew a lot about food. I like some food and not others. Simple, really.

So here I am.

I will write this blog not for only those who visit the greatest city in the world, nor will I write for tourists only. I'm writing for me and for you. If you like good food and strive to find something fan-freaking-fantastic worth blogging about yourself, then stop in here to see what's new on my list of 'must visits' or just plain 'stay aways'... there's plenty of both of those here in 'Gotham' and I hope to deal with a lot less of the latter.

There's a lot of exploration to be done here in New York City. So many restaurants come and go -and then there are the mainstays. But if I could offer ONE small tidbit of advice for ANYONE visiting NYC - stay away from dining at the chains in Times Square! What's the POINT?!

If I go to Paris, I don't want McDonald's... So if you're in NYC, stay away from TGIFriday's and Red Lobster. Unless you enjoy the next day's worth of diarrhea and overdosing on Mylanta. Just not worth it. Trust me.

Just keep in mind that I am very critical of where I eat. Restaurants need to be clean (obviously), the food should be fresh, flavorful and worth its price. Locations need not to be in an elitist neighborhood - in fact, I like the out-of-the-way place that makes you think, "WTH were they thinking?"

I'm also going to remain anonymous as possible - because the last thing I want is a free meal in order to be swayed by the restaurant's general manager that they are the best thing in the city. If it's the best, I'll let you know - but no one needs to know who it really is behind this laptop telling her readers what she really thinks or is criticizing. I want to be critical and palatable. Let's see how this goes....!

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