Via Verdi Cucina Rustica – Miami, FL

Authenticity as it pertains to food, has become an increasingly important quality to bloggers, and even critics over the years. After all, as people become more adventurous in their taste, their quest becomes all about finding the “most authentic” version of the cuisine in question. This is in stark contrast to how we thought about ethnic cuisine 50 or 60 years ago, when immigrants had to tailor their dishes to suit our timid taste buds. The clearest example of this phenomenon is Chinese food, a cuisine that historically exudes bold flavor, vibrant color and generous use of spices. Sadly, here in America, our inexperienced palates have transformed it into a bland parody of itself.

No cuisine is immune to the changes that inevitably take place when a dish reaches our shores for the first time. Chef Ed Lee, in a recent “Mind of a Chef” episode, explained that this isn’t always a bad thing, and that we shouldn’t necessarily be chasing authenticity, but embracing the new cuisines that spawn from this metamorphosis. These are, after all, what make up “American food”, not only burgers, fries and apple pies.

While I agree with Chef Lee, I also feel that it’s possible to find truly authentic food here in the States if you care to look. It may use local ingredients, but that doesn’t make it any less genuine, as all the best food cultures adapt to new surroundings. The search for such food however, is important, as those who can’t afford to travel regularly, shouldn’t be deprived of the wonderful flavors from faraway lands. Even if you can pony up for a trip, you shouldn’t have to jump on a plane to get a taste of your favorite dish.

Via Verdi spread

Thankfully there are others who share my crazy Utopian ideals, and luckily for me, they’re Italian. A couple of years ago, the exuberant Carro brothers, Fabrizio and Nicola, along with mixologist wizard Cristiano Vezzoli, opened Via Verdi, with the simple goal of serving authentic Italian dishes, with quality ingredients and an exacting eye for quality. It’s a recipe touted by many, but executed by few. This trio however, succeeded, and has created a restaurant with the rare ability to transport its diners with a single bite.

I hesitated to write about Via Verdi after my first two visits, not because they were undeserving, quite the opposite in fact. The meals impressed me so much, that I feared this shining star would quickly burn itself out. So many times after having a great meal, I’ll return, only to find out the chef has left for greener pastures, or the owners, smelling success, have grown too quickly, leaving the quality lacking. This hasn’t been the case at Via Verdi. The team, experienced from their time at Miami mainstays, Quattro and Segafredo, have kept themselves focused on the original mission.

The menu is simple, no need for a paragraph when a handful of words will do, the ingredients speak for themselves. The polenta with truffle Parmesan sauce, in its tiny cup, commands attention as the wonderful aroma of truffles fills the air. Other fried dishes like the beautifully crisp arancini, or the sumptuous veal polpettine highlight Via Verdi’s mastery of tomato sauce. Take note other Italian restaurants, this is how you make tomato sauce. You can tell just by smelling that sauce is on point. Whether it’s their classic marinara, or fiery arrabiatta, the distinctive tang of San Marzano tomatoes is present and complemented with the perfect touch of sugar and spices.

Tonnato di vitello, a dish easily ruined by low quality ingredients and overpowering sauce, is a must. Via Verdi’s is a graceful rendition of the classic Northern Italian dish, light and refreshing, with hints of citrus and a briny pop from the capers.

Via Verdi pasta

Pasta of course, displays the same rigorous attention to detail as the rest of the menu. From herbaceous spinach gnudi covered in that wonderful sauce, to strozzapretti in rich and gamey braised osso buco, quality reigns. Even the vegetarian choices like a pecorino and beet ravioli in a zucchini sauce, are excellent. Naturally, all the pasta is made in house.

But it wouldn’t be a true Northern Italian restaurant without Piedmont truffles, the knobby little nodules that bring grown men to tears as they empty their wallets in the hope of just one fleeting taste.  People like to throw the word truffle on the menu, but few actually show you the goods, fewer still trust their diners enough to leave said goods on the table unattended. I was fortunate to pay a visit to Via Verdi on a night when white truffles were indeed on the menu. A delicious but simple risotto dutifully served to deliver the tasty tubers, as you wouldn’t want anything to overtake the delicate yet assertive flavors that every great truffle bestows.

White truffle spread

While dessert , sadly doesn’t come with white Alba truffles (although I didn’t ask), it’s absolutely worth saving room for. Panna cotta with passion fruit and strawberries should be on the table if it’s available. Another fantastic option is the Bunet, a chocolate amaretti flan with caramel sauce that doesn’t kill you with sweetness, but leaves you feeling cozy and warm.

Via Verdi dolce

Is Via Verdi authentic? Absolutely. Does it matter? Heck yes it matters! That’s not to say that every restaurant serving ethnic cuisine needs to stick hard and fast to the rules of the homeland, but for those that do, and do it well, I applaud you. As I’ve said time and again, a meal, when done right, has the ability to transport you, and the boys at Via Verdi are offering flavor trips to Alba with every  dish.

Via Verdi Cucina Rustica Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

é by José Andrés – Las Vegas, NV

When all is said and done, the goal of a restaurant, whether it’s fast food or fine dining, is to seat you at their table. If we’re talking about the latter, besides the menu, there are a number of tactics available to a discerning restaurateur. Hiring that hot bearded chef from some hip locavore, farm-to-table joint perhaps, or landing the top floor in the latest Zaha Hadid building. Or maybe it’s touting a one night only tasting menu featuring sustainable heritage bacon.

All of these strategies have been executed in principal, or more likely verbatim, but in Las Vegas, the capital of distraction, attracting diners to your restaurant is an even greater task.  So how do you do it, how do you compete when almost every celebrity chef has a Vegas location vying for those dining dollars? Well for one diminutive dining room, it’s simple, you don’t.

This tactic of isolationism would be suicide for most restaurants, but é by José Andrés is not most restaurants. You won’t see any signs for it as you walk through The Cosmopolitan, it’s not listed on the website, and even if you were to walk by Jaleo, it’s parent restaurant, you’d probably miss it.

E spread 1

It all started with a call from my dad and a one word question, “Vegas”? The answer was an instant yes, and with that, the meal planning began. Well, I say planning, but it was really just jumping online the second I got home to see if é had two spots open during our trip. I had heard about José Andrés’ semi-secret restaurant within a restaurant a while back, and it had been on my wish list ever since.

A few days later a dainty envelope bearing a faux wax stamp arrived containing two gold admission tickets. I can hear the snickering, but for me, it showed that the staff at é sought not only to provide a meal, but an experience, starting with your own personal Charlie Bucket moment, and it totally worked.

We arrived at Jaleo with golden tickets in hand, and no clue as to what lay ahead. Soon after, our seven dinner companions slowly trickled in. Naturally small talk exposes occupations first, and we were a diverse bunch; two neuroscientists, a spinal surgeon, a PGA rules official, a “businessman” with two young “lady friends”, together with me, an architect in training and my aircraft trading father, formed a group like a strange food loving cast of Gilligan’s Island. Little did we know how important that group would prove to be to the experience. Each of us took our seat at the bronze, horseshoe-shaped bar, surrounded by full height walls of library card files meant to represent Chef Andrés’ mind, filled with flavor ideas. After a quick introduction to the friendly, and thankfully not too formal, staff, our meal of over 20 dishes began.

E spread 2

Smooth foie gras and crunchy corn nuts, wrapped in what looked like pressed dryer sheets, but turned out to be cotton candy, was a refreshingly playful way to start a meal of this caliber. José is a decidedly serious chef, as his many restaurants can attest, but you can tell he’s having fun at é. Take his “beet-kini” grilled cheese with its two slices of “bread” formed from pressed beet meringue, achieving a color that’d make Willy Wonka proud, sandwiching a thick cream of La Peral blue cheese. Yet the flavors are always the main attraction, concentrated sweetness from the beets against the grassy blue cheese.

At an Andrés restaurant, you’ll never be without seafood for long, so the coca de recapte featuring a pristine Murcia sardine and deconstructed escalivada (a traditional Catalan dish usually made with grilled red pepper and eggplant) piped in neat rows was a welcome sight. Three quick bites followed, mini brioche stuffed with goat cheese and Iberico ham, a smoked Kushi oyster, and one of Eat a Duck’s personal favorite delicacies, a seared chicken oyster set atop crispy skin.

E spread 3

How about some shark? Why, yes please! A little Cadiz style fried nugget of adobo marinated thresher shark was as impressive as it was simple. Think of a piece of perfectly fried pork belly, and then remove any trace of lean meat, that was the texture. The fish itself didn’t have a distinct flavor, but the combination of spices from the adobo and the sharp sherry vinegar on the crisp shell was intoxicating.

Apparently you can pickle mussels, and guess what, they’re delicious! The creamy little shellfish with their added sourness were paired with little pea-sized olive spheres and a squeeze of citrus that woke up the tongue. Which brings me to Cava sangria spheres! After downing these high-end jello shots, everyone at the table had a smile on their face.

Let me just state that by now, I had become fast friends with the two lovely ladies to my left, one of whom was already starting to get full, and I being ever the gentleman, graciously offered to assist her in dispatching whatever morsels remained from each course.

The next course was a true brought me back to earth as the preparation was explained. I take it there’s no fear on the staff’s part of divulging secrets here, because I was no clearer on how this dish was created after the explanation as I was before it. From what I gathered, (and José would probably cringe, or laugh if he read this) you take fava beans, purée them, mix them with some molecular something or other, and then reformed them into their former fava shape. The result is an impossible smooth “bean” creme floating in a comforting jamon consommé. Two schmears in the roasted and black garlic varieties packed an incredibly concentrated flavor, playing off the subtle ham tinged broth.

E spread 4

A return to the sea with two prawns from Palamós, barely cooked on the grill to keep their creamy texture. If you’ve ever had ama ebi nigiri, it was a similar mouth feel. The flesh was exceedingly sweet with just a hint of smoke. Sucking shrimp heads seems to have become the cool thing to do after years of Bourdain and the like preaching the gospel of guts. Seriously though, when the opportunity arises to wrap your lips around a crustacean of this quality, you’d better suck every last succulent drop out of that shell.

The grilled Txocoli style cod jowls that followed brought the dreaded “wall” within sight. It didn’t help that I had a double portion after sharing with my generous neighbor! The garlicky pil pil sauce mingling with swirls of squid ink was almost too luxurious. In keeping with the cream theme, we were then presented with a steaming package of champagne cork sized mushrooms in a creamy bagna cauda.

I won’t lie, I was reaching my limit, but the sight of an enormous grilled Australian Wagyu ribeye was enough to generate a second wind. The color was unreal. Their grill must’ve been screaming hot because it had an amazing crust, but the deep crimson flesh beneath was still wobbly to the touch. Piquillo chips and white asparagus joined the perfect slice of beef, pairing with the grassy notes. A nice layer of fat lent its flavor to an already delicious cut.

E spread 5

With that exclamation point, the dessert parade began…with an egg, or what looked like an egg, but was in fact thickened cream whites with an orange yolk. A little chocolate drum shell containing a minty chocolate mousse atop cocoa nibs was a familiar flavor, like an intense Andes mint, or Andrés mint if you will.  José’s own take on a Ferrero Rocher was presented as a golden nugget in a ring box. The distinct hazelnut chocolate flavor combo was spot on, and even more pronounced than its namesake.

I’ve had very few dinners where I leave with more friends than I arrived with. I can confidently say that the group you draw at é can make or break the dinner. Without fail, the food will always be incredible, but the people make the experience special, and that goes for the staff as well. Our group was fantastic, the room felt alive, there was laughter and hugs and a common giddiness over this awesome moment we were all able to share. Even the chefs seemed to be having a great time. So if you visit é, befriend your neighbors, chat with the sommelier, joke with the chefs, chat with the assistants, because at the end of the day, it’s the people who make the meal.

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Orlando Food Crawl 2014: Part I

The triumphant return of an original  member of the Four Coursemen gave us an excuse to plan an all-out attack on the flourishing Orlando food scene. I don’t want to give him a Big Head Todd, but in all honestly, he was a true forerunner of social eating and food blogging in the Tampa area. He was the first person to really reach out and try to help us get our name out to a larger audience, without trying to buy our stomachs, and for that I give him 5 stars. So what can you do for a man who eats everything? Feed him.

I like to think we toured Orlando thoroughly the first time, especially since we were dining at the height of the city’s food revival. At that time, places such as East End Market, Cask & Larder and Pharmacy were in their infancy, still working out the kinks, but that didn’t stop them from serving up tasty food. For the most part, the main goal of our last trip was eating at places that none of the Tampa crew had tried.

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I think of my two Orlando food crawls as Paul McCartney albums. The first one was like “Band on the Run”, a masterful effort from start to finish. Our most recent one was something of a greatest hits collection. I feel comfortable saying that they were “All the Best.”

What would be considered “The Lakeland crew” got a late start. I realize punctuality is important, especially when you’ve got half a dozen full service restaurants to visit. However by 10 AM, our bellies were beginning to grumble, so we swung by The Bread Pedlar for a morning bun to prepare our stomachs. It’s not our fault we happened across a random pincho stand raise up like a phoenix, setting fire to the sun. Or should I say, setting fire to our plans of making it on time to Highball & Harvest to meet the rest of the crew. The pincho pusher told me that it would take 2 minutes, which turned into 20. Finally, with a skewer of BBQ’d Chicken and a couple of Plátano Relleno con Carne hand pies in hand, we finally got out-of-town.

Meanwhile, at Highball & Harvest, Kurt, Todd and Thai wasted no time and began eating and drinking with gusto. The highly regarded “Chicken and the Egg,” a fantastic take on chicken & waffles with a sunny side up egg and house made hot sauce, didn’t survive long enough for us to sample. They also ordered “Pig-n-Potatoes”, which was their version of hash for a highly sophisticated southern gentleman. Instead of corned beef, braised pork cheeks were used.

Highball & Harvest spread 1

We were greeted with hisses for our tardiness which quickly morphed into warm greetings as everyone was just so happy to see each other again. There were a few scraps left of the hash we gobbled up like Oliver Twist scrounging about for another bowl of gruel. There were a couple of fantastic Parker House rolls left with a side of apple butter butter. You really must order them with any meal at H&H. The only way I can properly describe these rolls, would be to flash back to the days when we all used to go to buffets as youngsters and eat our weight in those awesome yeast rolls, which is pretty much the only redeeming quality of said establishments. The H&H rolls were like that, only x10 better.

As everyone got comfortable, another round of drinks were ordered by the boys as us late comers played catch up by ordering some food. Coming out of the kitchen first was a  Southern sampler spread, consisting of smoked fish dip, pickled root vegetables and pimento cheese with various crackers. Also ordered was a canister of fried pickles and onion strips with secret sauce. The smoked fish dip was great as were the pickles. We also got a single baby pork belly slider with BBQ kimchi from the bar menu to sample between six of us. The thing was no bigger than a silver dollar, but it managed to round the table twice as each of us attempted to take smaller and smaller bites so as not to be the glutton.

After we slowed on the sampler, our main plates arrived. I must have gone through burger withdrawal, as it had been nearly 2 weeks since #ApocalypseCow. James and I went with their burger, made with ground short rib topped with pimento cheese, smoky bacon, B&B Pickles and mustard. There was something eerily familiar and comforting to me; as if it were a burger I had from many years past.

Highball & Harvest spread 2

Pogo chose a beautiful bowl of red Canaveral shrimp and grits with a thinned out tomato based BBQ gravy. The rest of the boys shared a plate of chicken fried chicken with silky potato purée, sweet pickled green beans and watermelon rind. What a happy accident it was to try the shrimp and grits. For me it was the best plate of food we had at H&H, though we heard rumors that the chicken and waffles was in fact the best, we may never know. I don’t think any one of us expected to love this place as much as we did. I’m very excited to go back for more. Just make sure to validate your parking before you leave the hotel, because it’s pretty steep otherwise.

After some McLaren ogling, we headed to Winter Park, the center of our food crawl battleground. Of course this exercise was obviously first about eating good food. However, the more subtle theme of the day was reconnecting with friends. We took a slower, more relaxed approach and decided to trim off a couple of places we just simply did not have time for, which also gave us an excuse to hit Prato sooner. If you haven’t heard of Prato by now, you either: 1. Don’t like Italian food, or 2. Don’t know us. We’ve covered what I firmly consider the best Italian restaurant in state at length; with not one but two posts as well as the myriad Instagram photo bombs. At this juncture, we were joined by Theresa and Joel, a couple more Bay area peeps who really know their stuff.

Prato apps

Between the eight of us, we nearly ordered the entire menu. Not only did the waiter gift us some of their signature meatballs, but with eight people ordering, real estate on our table was at a premium. We have a rule that forbids the ordering of more than one dish at each place to avoid overfilling. That that rule quickly went out the window as multiple pasta courses were checked off by James and Kurt. If I had to guess, they had nearly half a dozen between them, and they weren’t the only ones. There was pizza covered with cured meats, fresh mozzarella, herbs and an over easy egg for dunking the crust into. Theresa pulled a rabbit out of her hat with her smokey, Italian style Reuben sandwich. Joel, who we found out is indeed a real person (long story), snuck in some soft stracciatella bathing in a pool of warm olive oil with perfectly placed droplets of aged balsamic. Spread that stuff over some crunchy bread and it will make you go crazy enough that your tongue will try to beat your brains out.

Prato spread

I kind of lost track of all the pasta we ate. Whatever they had, we ordered it. If you’re looking for the best pasta area, made in-house and by hand, Prato is the place for you. Just take a look at this rundown.

  1. Giant raviolo filled with soft ricotta and a yolk with parm and brown buttered bread crumbs
  2. Squid ink campanelle with New Smyrna Beach clams, Canaveral shrimp and roasted cherry tomatoes
  3. Cavatelli with beef cheek ragu, butternut squash, greens with a runny horseradish crema
  4. Beet ravioli stuffed with goat cheese then topped with crushed tomatoes, herbs and toasted pine nuts
  5. Chive bagli amatrciana dusted with buttery bread crumbs

Prato pasta

That tied up the first half of our crawl like a nice farfalle. Stay tuned for Part II, featuring the incomparable Kappo and the young gun, Cask & Larder!

The Kitchen Table Bistro – Richmond, VT

Vermont is a wonderful place. Few places showcase the seasons as dramatically as the Green Mountain State. Likewise, few restaurants capture the flavor of those seasons better than The Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond, VT. This chef-owned eatery takes the trendy ideals of sustainable, local dining and humbly applies them as an overarching philosophy. 

The dining rooms are set within an old farmhouse, which aside from the bar, hasn’t been touched apart from a fresh coat of paint and some new fixtures. Naturally this farmhouse sits within a stones throw of many local farms with whom they partner with to source their seasonal ingredients. I’ve had the opportunity to visit The Kitchen Table (KTB) many times, and I’ve never had the same thing twice. Mind you, this isn’t one of those “change the menu every day” type of places. No, the folks at KTB are patient, with an understanding that you should enjoy the seasons and the many fruits, veggies and meats that come with them, until the time comes to move on.

My most recent visit took place just last month, so the fresh summer items were present in full force. The four of us took our place in one of the side rooms, eager to check out the new menu. It was chock full of fresh root veggies like radishes, beets and celery root, along with squash, garlic, sweet peas and corn. The proteins were even more enticing, fresh chicken liver pate, mussels, cod and rib-eye. These types of places always give me a headache when I have to decide between 15 different items when I want to try them all! Stubbornly, we all channeled some of the KTB patience and chose our meal. The appetizers were as follows:

Switchback Fried Half Pint Squash Blossoms, Purslane with Espelette Aioli

Green Garlic Soup, Goat Cheese and Toasted Almonds

Half Pint Heirloom Tomatoes, Tasty Jade Cukes and Charred Corn with Maplebrook Burratta

Boyden Farm Steak Tartare, Crispy Potatoes, Assorted Pickles and Tiny Half Pint Greens

The squash blossoms were, of course, delicious. Fried flowers have never tasted so good, apart from the ones my parents grow in their garden that is. Squash blossoms were born to be fried and dunked in aioli, crisp and sweet, with a slight grassy tinge, they go so well with the creamy homemade sauce.

This summer I discovered a couple new facets of my favorite bulb, garlic that is. First of all, scapes are amazing. I’m a little annoyed that a garlic lover such as myself hasn’t learned about them until now. I’ll have a post on them soon. Secondly, green garlic, which is really just immature garlic, is incredibly delicious. Stronger than a scallion, but milder than full-grown garlic, it makes for a perfect soup. Just enough kick to pair with the creamy goat cheese and crisp almond slices. I’m not a soup guy usually, but this hit the spot, especially on a warm summer evening.

Burrata. What more needs to be said. Local burrata. Oh yeah, it doesn’t get much better unless you’re making it yourself and eating it immediately. Combine it with some fresh veg picked out of the garden that day and you’re in business. I could almost understand how a vegetarian thinks, until I slid a chunk of that cheese into my mouth. C’mon guys meet me half way here, the things we love go together so well! The KTB should negotiate a eats treaty so we can all enjoy the best that food has to offer…anyway.

The entreés. There are usually one or two mainstays that anchor the menu. The most well-known is the Misty Knoll Chicken Breast. While it is amazing, someone gets it every single time, so we all agreed to widen our horizons. And the choices were…

Braised LaPlatte Farm Short Ribs, Creamy Herb Spaetzle, Grilled  Escarole and Mushrooms

Seared Scallops, Sweet Pea-Celery Root Pureé, Peas and Corn

Roasted New England Cod, Mashed Potatoes, Beet Greens, Fresh Pearl Onions and Braised Bacon

You can’t go wrong with short ribs and the boys in the back didn’t disappoint. The reduced sauce was nicely caramelized on the seared meat which practically fell apart to the touch. The spaetzle added a creamy touch that was a nice change from the familiar polenta or potato components that usually accompany dishes like this.

Both seafood dishes were spot on. The scallops, plump and sweet, were complimented by the farm fresh veg that had a sweetness of their own. What I really enjoyed was how lightly the veg was cooked so that they kept their bright and crisp consistency. The cod however, was tender and flaky just as it should be. It was a strikingly beautiful dish as well, the bright white, pillowy cod was presented atop the smooth potatoes like a gift. This really let the bacon and beet greens standout.

Of course, no respectable meal can end without a small smackeral of something sweet. Apparently I’ve earned the reputation of chocolate fiend, so since everyone else had no objections, we went with the dark chocolate fudge cake with warm chocolate and butterscotch sauces and caramel-butterscotch swirl ice cream. I don’t think a fancy explanation is necessary here, I’ll just let you enjoy the pic.

It was another delicious and memorable family meal courtesy of The Kitchen Table. For me, food is more than just sustenance, it’s about making memories. Whether you’re trying something new, hitting up an old familiar spot, or cooking up something fresh and tasty at home, it’s all about the people you’re with.

So if you live on the east coast and you’re hankering for a true fine dining/locavore feast, forget making the pilgrimage to the French Laundry, we’ve got a real competitor on this side of the Mississippi. Many restaurants claim to be farm-to-table, but few can back it up. At The Kitchen Table,  it’s just the way things are.

Kitchen Table Bistro on Urbanspoon

Big Meals in the Big Apple

Logan recently posed an interesting question that he thought might be helpful to you guys. Now that I’ve been working in in the city for almost a year, what three dining discoveries have I made that would come in handy for someone planning a visit? It didn’t take me long to compile a list and narrow it down to my top three of the moment. Hopefully these suggestions will help everyone from the most experienced New York visitors, to the first timers.

1. Snack 105 Thompson St.

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This little neighborhood gem in SOHO was an extremely recent find of mine, two days ago in fact. I was in the mood for Greek food, and I found Snack just over 4 blocks from my office. A very simple storefront displays a humble four tabletops and a food counter displaying some tasty looking Greek pastries. The menu has all the staples you’d expect, Skordalia, Saganaki, Dolmadas, along with interesting choices like Roasted 1.0 portobello mushrooms, red peppers & arugula with a spicy feta spread on sriracho bread. All the sandwiches are named like versions of software, which can only mean they’re constantly tweaking and improving their recipes. I chose a crisp classic Greek salad (meaning no lettuce) and a side of Skordalia (a puree garlic, potato, olive oil, and lemon juice). All the ingredients were at the peak of freshness, which meant the taste was off the charts. In all honesty, having been to Milo’s and sampling some of the finest Greek food Manhattan has to offer, Snack is easily the next best thing, and at a fraction of the price.

Snack on Urbanspoon

2. Da Nico 158 Mulberry St.

20111102-092310.jpgWhen you’re in the mood for some real homemade Italian food, you’ll find it here. Hidden amongst the myriad tourist trap Italian wannabes in Little Italy, Da Nico is serving up some super fresh cuisine, with a respectable wine list chockfull of some kick you in the teeth reds that stand up to the most robust of red sauces. On a recent visit with my family, we were seeking out a plate of Lobster Fra Diavolo to rival the much touted (by my father anyway) Randazzo’s. While it wasn’t on the menu, our waiter didn’t bat an eye when we made our request. We were met with a manhole sized bowl, overflowing with a whole lobster, fresh clams, mussels, scallops and shrimp. Underneath this ocean’s bounty was a pile of perfectly al dents linguine, and the whole affair was covered in a devilishly spicy pomodoro sauce. With great service, food and atmosphere, you can’t go wrong with Da Nico.

Da Nico on Urbanspoon

3. Eleven Madison Park

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20111102-092557.jpgThe first two entries are excellent, casual dining experiences with fantastic food that will definitely make for a memorable time. But if you want a dining “experience”, the kind of meal that you’ll be talking about as one of the finest of your life, make a reservation at Eleven Madison Park. Upon entering, you’ll be greeted warmly by the maitre’d and the soaring ceilings of the dining room. I have to say this was one of the most beautiful restaurants I’ve ever been to. Almost immediately our waiter was at our side, throughout the meal, he made us feel like we were his only table that night. He also served as our guide through the extensive tasting menu. You’re presented with a nicely designed card (which sets the tone for the whole experience) with a matrix of ingredients. The four rows represent the four main dishes. You choose from a variety of proteins, for instance for my first course I was given the options: trout, crab, quail; 2nd course, ricotta, snapper, lobster; 3rd course, chicken, pork, lamb; dessert, pear, strawberry, chocolate. Since the menu changes so often, I won’t bother going into detail about each dish, but you get so much more than the four dishes you choose up front. Normally a fine restaurant provides you with one or two amuse bouches, but that’s not enough at Eleven Madison Park, no we were presented with no less than five. Live scallops with orange zest, a cold pea soup with Parmesan frozen in liquid nitrogen, oysters, homemade cheese puffs, and my favorite, a beet and goat cheese lollipop. The meal was fantastic and far surpassed my expectations, the wine pairings were perfect for each dish, expertly chosen by our waiter (and sommelier). A highlight was during my duck dish, which was served whole and roasted with skin so crisp and meat so succulent. They proceeded to carve and serve the breast tableside, but to my dismay they took the legs back to the kitchen. Only after I had neatly devoured what was on my plate did the legs reappear, only now they had been cooked confit, in fact I couldn’t even see the meat below the creamy white duck fat, out of control.

Before dessert was served, another round of amuse bouches were brought to the table, an array of chocolates, macarons and caramels (I’m not doing these justice by giving such boring descriptions, they were unreal). Following dessert, we were asked if we’d like a coffee or aperitif, my father chose an espresso along with a cognac, I joined him in a cognac as I was in the mood for a nice warming drink. Rather than pouring us two glasses in the back, our man returned with an entire bottle of fine cognac, and plonked it right down on the table so we could pour ourselves as much as we liked.

This has become pretty long winded but I had to give this place its due. Eleven Madison Park is easily in my top 5 dinners of all time. Usually those experiences break the bank, but you could easily have a very special night for under $300. Like I stated earlier, this is an “experience”. Something that may not happen again, something you will surely never forget. That’s the beauty of this great city, it is what you make of it in every way, especially food. Adventures range from ultra expensive, to the cheapest of cheap. These three restaurants alone are a shining example of the range that NYC has to offer. Such a broad spectrum, there’s a gem out there for everyone.

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

So those are my picks, those are the places I would highly recommend to anyone planning a visit to my city. I’m sure there will be more great places to come, so feel free to ask. Enjoy!