Sunday, September 1, 2013

A trio of noteworthy mid-town & "Flatiron" restaurants …

Restaurants in the New York metro area seem, as we are all well aware, to proliferate much as wild mushrooms do in a forest after a substantial rainfall. And restos - both new & long-standing - tend to open and close all over the city on a relatively routine basis. Simply have a look at any issue of Time Out New York's (TONY's) "Food & Drink" section each week. There is, then, really no paucity of restos in any & every culinary category and every possible metro location. Our choices of restos to visit are virtually limitless. And out of this limitless universe of possible eating establishments, we  select what appeals to us with the help of publications like TONY or The NY Times, or via online sources like Yelp* or Menu Pages, or Open Table.

from Yelp*
We also, of course, select restaurants based on menus strategically placed in the front window of an establishment where it can be perused from top to bottom for their fare, for pricing, for daily "specials," for a prix fixe, or for the latest culinary event(s) offered by the chef (like the 4-course "Taste of Mexico," at Mercadito in the West Village).  And then sometimes, too, we check out restos & attempt to assess the quality of their fare using all of the sources mentioned just above - consulting reviews, scanning online sources, selecting by walking around neighborhoods & locales of interest, and so forth.

And so, for this brief post I've chosen a trio of relatively new (new to me, to us, at any rate), unique, and very different - each one from the others - eating establishments that we've recently investigated, having consulted a few of all possible sources ... and, most importantly, having dined at successfully.

Two of the restos - Aldea & Rye House - are located, roughly, in the Flatiron district, just doors away from one another on West 17th Street (at 31 W. 17th St. & 11 W. 17th St., respectively) and, therefore, in walking distance to Union Square, to Madison Park ... and to our movie-house "mecca," Cinema Village (noted in my last post). In fact, we were heading for these specific destinations following our lunch visits, during the past couple of weeks, to both Aldea & Rye House. 

Aldea (tel. 212/675-7260) is, by far, the most sophisticated of the three restos under discussion in this post. It is a bit of a high-end Portuguese establishment with a sleek though comfortable interior, very helpful & attentive servers, and delectable & intriguing food. We had initially found Aldea on our way to a recent lunch at Rye House and the 3-course $25 prix fixe described on the menu posted in the window lured us in to have a quick look. A week or so later three of us reserved a table & dined there ... and thoroughly enjoyed the food, the wines, the crispy & warm bread supplied, and the desserts (the 3rd course on the prix fixe menu "schedule"). Indeed, Aldea produces a reasonably priced, high-quality lunch, very carefully plated, with all choices & all courses solidly thought through and delicately & painstakingly prepared. It proved to be one of those memorable, special experiences.
We began with appetizers and a selection of wines by the (relatively large) glass - two whites and a rose. My wife, and our dining partner, Ms. F.L., each chose the "early" tomato Gazpacho, filled with hearts of palm, cut cucumber, basil & mint ... which, according to the two of them, was  emphatically memorable, strikingly flavorful, utterly superb!  My wife selected a Sancerre/Sauvignon Blanc blend (Philippe Raimbault, "Apud Sariacum"; Loire Valley; 2012; @ $15) to complement her appetizer and succeeding choices, while F.L.sipped a glass of Portuguese white "Fefinanes" Albarino (Rias Baixas; Galacia; 2012; @ $14) serving her well, complementing her portion of Gazpacho and what followed.

Pork & Duck Terrine
For a first course, I chose the rustic pork & duck terrine flavored with muscat wine gelée, accompanied by a small salad of mixed market greens. Very fresh, especially tasty ... smooth & particularly rich when the flavors of pork & duck were enhanced by a glass of Cabernet Franc Rose (Domaine Ameztia; Northern Basque Country; Frannce; 2012; $13). We slowly moved onward to our entrées ...

Skate Wing
The ladies ordered the Skate Wing with pickled carrot,cauliflower "cabbage" & served in a finely textured brown butter sauce. These plates, too, were delicate & memorable, full-flavored, practically melting their way into one's mouth, on entry. The ladies acknowledged that they were quite pleased with their main selection. Just to be different, however,and to get a little greater feel for the menu and its variation, I chose the Free Range Chicken Breast, with a mixture of asparagus, English peas, chorizo (!) & fava beans - an exquisitely flavorful & complex "country" dish which paired extremely well with my Cabernet Franc Rose. (I practically cleared my plate of any remnant with a few more quick strokes of their crunchy bread!)

The dessert course was soon upon us and we ordered a unique bowl of Cinnamon Rice Pudding bolstered with whipped cinnamon, chocolate, pistachio dragée, fresh raspberries & served with a raspberry sorbet swirl.  (This subtly sweet dessert concoction had been recommended by several writers on Yelp* and certainly lived up to the praises  it had received.)

Gianduja Mousse
We also ordered -- and wholly enjoyed - our two portions of the Gianduja Mousse, where much seemed to be going on at once ... what with toasted orange pound cake, banana brûlée, nutella powder ... amidst a mound of frozen Greek yogurt. After a small, initial taste, it was clear to us that both desserts seemed to cry out for cups of rich, robust black coffee to tame (alright, subdue) all that sweetness into some kind of digestible finish. So we ordered black coffee, polished off the remaining few sips of wine in our glasses, and paid our check!  Ah ... we must award kudos to a talented Chef George Mendes and his highly competent staff for preparing & "orchestrating" the fine food we'd eaten and for presenting it to us with such care in such a low-key but regal fashion!

You'll surely see us at Aldea again, soon ... for lunch, and, possibly, for a celebratory evening meal!  Ladies, are you with me?

Rye House (212/255-7260), essentially a rustic resto & bar, serving unique & sophisticated bar food, is also on our well-worn path to Cinema Village, practically mid-way between Penn Station and East 12th Street (off University Place). It is a perfect  spot for a relatively quick but interesting lunch ... not at all what you'd expect to be served in your typical New York bar. In fact, the food, as one online writer noted, is produced with "a batch of magical ethnic twists" by a chef who knows "the intricacies of flavors, tastes, textures & ingredients."

This establishment is essentially - preeminently! - a spot for whiskey aficionados ... but which, according to one Yelp* reviewer, "even if whiskey is not completely nor always your thing, you should try Rye House out" ... for the substantial $15 2-course prix fixe lunch, maybe coupled with an unusual (gourmet) draft beer, or two, or begun with an interesting whiskey selection. There is a plethora, a veritable goldmine, of all kinds of hard stuff ... rare Bourbon, Irish, Scotch, American whiskeys, Mezcal, Vodka, of all large & small-batch varieties, including some odd & idiosyncratic blends of the week. There is also an extensive list of creative & unusual cocktails - e.g., the Oaxaca, featuring Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, St. Germain, Lime, Ginger, Peychaud Bitters & Salt Rim @ $12; or the Jimmy Stewart, with Balcones Brimstone Smoked Whiskey, Grand Marnier, Angostura & Orange Bitters & Honey @ $14.

And while the beer & whiskey might allure you and attract, the Rye House food should, as well. Just recall the aforementioned substantial & (yep!) unique 2-course $15 prix fixe which we - just the two of us, this time - focused on and ordered from. Lots of fine rustic but sophisticated fare to choose from ...

We each started out with a rather generous 1st-course salad. D. selected the kale Caesar salad, with croutons & Wisconsin "parm," while I chose the frisée salad, with cherry tomatoes, bacon bits, red onion & a buttermilk ranch dressing. We also ordered a plate of Rye House's famous "fried pickles" (a supplement, @ $6) and a couple of gourmet draft beers (Ommegang Hennepin Saison Ale, @ $7 each) large enough to take us through the rest of lunch, through our 2nd course, that is.

"The Pittsburgh"
For her main, D. chose the large plate of crispy shrimp tacos, surrounded by red cabbage & filled with cole slaw, cilantro cream & smoked poblano peppers. This "tacos" course reflected a delectable combination of tastes with more than enough on the plate to share. My own main, "the Pittsburgh" - a bulging sandwich that proved equally unique, tasty & abundant - was firmly stuffed with a batch of complementary, nicely integrated ingredients ... including grilled Andouille sausage, provolone, house slaw & fries. This unusually appealing sandwich packed a proverbial wallop & would certainly satisfy even the most profound luncheon appetite.  

Sorry, hold the dessert; simply no more room whatsoever! (Next time.)

Billing itself as a Fusion Chinese Restaurant (with Korean culinary hints along the way), Shanghai Mong (@ 30 W. 32nd St.; between 5th & B'way; 212/629-6405) is, simply, a standout resto smack dab in the middle of Manhattan's Koreatown. This eclectic resto features a veritable compendium of idiosyncratic & unique Asian dishes ... featuring very complex sauces, emphatic flavors & Korean spices of many varieties & sources. And a helpful (very busy!) waitstaff is never too far away to help you navigate the singularly vast & intriguing menu & to highlight items that might appeal to the Western palate. 

Interior - Shanghai Mong
All kinds of specialties are available at this resto, including a wide assortment of spicy (and semi-spicy) noodle dishes. To get a feel for the culinary orientation, try any of the specialty noodle dishes ("solo" or in "combo") ... say Seafood Jja Jang Myun (@ $9.99; noodles with seafood & vegetables in black bean sauce); or Jja Jang Mmyun ($8.99; noodles with pork & vegetables in black bean sauce; or even Jjamppong ($11.99; hot noodles with seafood & fresh vegetables).  And opt for one of the generous "signature" dishes like pepper shrimp (@ $20.99) with, naturally, large & succulent sauteed shrimp in a black, green & red pepper sauce.
"Mini Bites" / Dumplings

Whatever you select - or whatever a waitstaff member recommends to you - do not leave the resto without trying  the "mini bites" lemon cream fried dumplings (6 pieces @ $8.99; 12 @ $13.99; tender, compact [pork] dumplings swimming in a garlic-lemon cream-based sweet & sour sauce).  

Seafood Jja Jang Myun
You might want to order a round or two of any Asian draft or bottle beer (@ $5) to temper the hot sauces you will surely encounter along the way. And you will want to return to this establishment to sample more of these unique eastern "eats" on future occasions ... when you find yourself inexplicably hungry & in walking distance of this mid-town area haven, just a couple of blocks from Penn Station & steps off 5th Avenue.