Monday, June 27, 2011

Cocoa V

Vegan desserts are...a gamble.  Yes, they can be delicious--but sometimes only if the baker knows their way around agave nectar, and xanthan gum, and ingredients so unusual that you can't even buy them at specialty stores without knowing the owner personally.  Which means that vegan desserts not baked by the pros are not guaranteed to be good, the way that even a non-vegan mediocre cupcake is still pretty decent.  Besides:  isn't it hard to entrust a rich, luscious dessert to someone who, won't be using cream, or butter, or eggs?

Such were my thoughts as I approached Cocoa V, Groupon in hand.  I had to walk right by Billy's Bakery, which probably would have lured me inside, were my $20 for $10 deal not about to expire.  Focus.

Yet Cocoa V is actually a really sweet place, with sweets that are actually really good.  You can order items to go, or sit down with a plate of cake, chocolates, or fondue.   When I went to Cocoa V it was pouring rain outside, and I have to say, it was really nice to be able to sit down with a slice of cake on an actual plate and relax.  Anyone else notice that a lot of bakeries these days don't offer seating and they practically push you out the door once you've paid?

I opted for the chocolate layer cake, which was just as decadent and chocolatey as any non-vegan variety.  Every time I started to think that maybe the icing to cake ratio was too high, I relented, because that icing was really good.  It tasted just like buttercream, the kind with a little bit of a bite to it.  I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, indeed.

Cocoa V also offers chocolates, and while I didn't purchase any of the filled ones, I did buy a homemade butterfinger bar.  They really got the peanut butter-toffee flavor down for this gourmet upgrade:

My final purchase was a bag of chocolate covered edamame.  The edamame was an interesting alternative to one of my favorite "protein" snacks:  chocolate covered almonds (humor me...they're a good energy boost).  However, the edamame had touches of lime and cayenne, which was a little funky for my taste.

My one gripe with Cocoa V is not the one I expected to have:  it's a small place, and the offerings don't change much.  They also sell chocolates and cupcakes, but I could cover everything I want to try in 1-2 more visits. 

Cocoa V
174 9th Avenue
New York, NY 10011
(212) 242-3339

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Spot - And Thoughts On Dessert Bars

Pichet Ong, the chef at Spot Dessert Bar, has quite the pedigree.  He has worked for Jean Georges Vongerichten, appeared in numerous magazines and TV shows, and written a cookbook called "The Sweet Spot."

I never made it to his last venture, another dessert bar called "P*ng," before it closed.  From what I can remember, it offered a tasting menu that walked the line between sweet and savory--I thought it was an intriguing concept, but perhaps in practice it was a bit too daring.  P*ng shuttered in 2009, and Spot is all desserts.

This dessert bar offers a variety of options, depending on what kind (and how much) of a sweet-lover you are.  You can order a cupcake or softserve, a plated seasonal dessert, or multiple plated dessert "tapas."  You can even order a $50 omakase, which includes 2-4 of just about everything on the menu.

My companion and I opted for 3 dessert tapas for $21.95, which is the suggested amount for two people.  You won't leave hungry:  they may be called "tapas," but they are the size of full restaurant desserts.

First up was the soft cheesecake:

As you can see, it's served in a glass--the real purpose of which, I'm convinced, is to show you just how smoothly the waitress can slide it out.  But I'm glad that she did this, because I would hate to fight anyone to get my spoon to the bottom.

The cheesecake itself , as described, is "soft," and Pichet has somewhat reinvented it.  The texture is somewhere between cheesecake and mousse.  It's softer and creamier than the usual variety but it's firm enough to stand alone.  It isn't very tangy, which I like, but some people might miss the usual hint of lemon.  It's also one of the best deconstructed desserts I've ever had: get a bit of cheesecake, crumb "crust," and fruit topping on your fork, and you'll never know that what you're eating came out of a glass and not a springform pan.

Next was the Ovaltine Panna Cotta:

It was milky, smooth, and not too sweet (thanks--I've still got one dessert to go!)  The caramel popcorn added some salt and the little chocolate balls added some crunch.  My favorite parts may have been the bananas, which were perfectly brulĂ©ed.

Finally, the Jackfruit Cake.  It sounds like a spice cake, but because of the jackfruit, it tastes distinctly different from any apple or pear cake or standard fruit cake I've had.  It comes with jackfruit on the side so that you can hone in on what you're tasting.  I liked it, but it might not be for everyone.  Fortunately, you can order three desserts at a time here, so you can afford to take some risks.

Overall, I had a great time at Spot, which is why I'm worried.  When we walked in at around 1pm on a Sunday, the place was completely empty.  Perhaps this is nothing to be concerned about.  Maybe it's only in my world that dessert places should be busy every hour of every day.  But I have seen the lines at Max Brenner and Magnolia, so I know what kind of crazy popularity is possible.

I also know that P*NG closed, not to mention a similar concept called "Room 4 Dessert."  I know that a dessert bar I love in DC, Co Co Sala, changed its concept from 3 course dessert menus to a la carte (it's now thriving.)  I know that Chikalicious Dessert Bar in New York is still in business, but Chikalicious Dessert Club, the more whimsical bakery across the street, seems to get all the buzz.

I don't know exactly what all this means for Spot, but I do know what it means for me:  I'm going to go back for a Chocolate Green Tea Fruit Jam cupcake, and soon.

Spot Dessert Bar
13 Saint Marks Place
New York, NY 10003
(212) 677-5670

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Red Rooster

Last summer, I went to a book signing for Marcus Samuelsson's new cookbook, New American Table.  Fresh off his win of Top Chef Masters 2, he talked about cooking for President Obama's first state dinner (an opportunity for which he also had to compete), his ethnic and culinary mix (Samuelsson is Ethiopian but he was adopted by a Swedish family), and his choice to open a new restaurant, "Red Rooster," in Harlem.

After winning acclaim at Aquavit for Scandanavian cuisine (who knew?)  Red Rooster would be a mix of American, Scandanavian, and African flavors.  It would be a community gathering place.  It would be pretty awesome.  But just as I was ready to book my reservation for the first available day, I realized that Red Rooster would not be opening for five or six months, long after I had left the city for the summer.  So I bought two copies of his book instead. 

Red Rooster opened in December, which means it has had 6 months to tweak and perfect its menu.

Andrew and I ordered two of the signature dishes.  The "fried yard bird" was perfect--juicy, dark meat fried and topped with some unusual spices, a splatter of hot sauce (like a spiced mayo) on the side along with the collard greens.  I went for "Helga's Meatballs," eager to see what had won Samuelsson so much praise at Aquavit.

These meatballs took me instantly back to the cooking of the Scandanavian grandmother I never had.  They were both traditional and modern, as the meatballs sat on top of a light gravy and beneath a foam--one of the most surprisingly successful uses of foam I have tried.  Something about the earthy meat combined with the moisture of the foam  made for a wonderful bite.  With a side of mashed potatoes  ("mash"), lingonberries, and pickled cucumber, this dish was able to be both comforting and exotic at the same time.

Red Rooster also serves cornbread, which makes it a restaurant after my own heart.  A $4 order gets you two large slices, each with a nice bit of crust, along with some honey butter and a tomato jam that packs real flavor (no bland tomato sauce here.)

Desserts were another hit.  Sweet potato donuts, rolled in cinnamon sugar, had a filling of pureed sweet potato and cinnamon, sweetened to seem like a jam.  A dessert called "Black and White Mud" was not very unusual but was very pleasing:  vanilla mousse and chocolate mousse on an oreo crust.  The best part of the dessert were the extra bits of salt in the crust and on top, turning it into a sweet-salty combo.

Overall, I think this restaurant is very unique and very polished, and it's one of my favorite meals I've had in the city. In fact, the only item of the night that was a miss was a glass of Sangria.  But hey, the restaurant promises American, African, and Scandinavian influences.  Asking for Spain was going a little too far.

Red Rooster
310 Lenox Avenue
New York, NY 10027
(212) 792-9001

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Red Velvet Brownie Sundae at Bar Americain

I read a lot of menus in my spare time.  I know, it's not particularly exciting.  I read real literature too, I promise.  But every once in a while I read something on a menu and the description is so good that it pops into my head later...except that I can't remember which menu it was on.  And then I have to go rooting through my online history, or retracing my steps throughout the city, to see where it was.  This was the case with this "Red Velvet Brownie Sundae."  Somehow it got into my head, and I had to retrace my steps to figure out where I'd seen it... 

This particular sundae lives at Bar Americain, one of Bobby Flay's restaurants in New York, which I am fortunate enough to work right next to.  Today, when it decided to pour down rain around the time I was planning to leave the office, I decided to take refuge at the bar and get a little cozy with the dessert I had been eyeing.

It's description is pretty spectacular:   "Red Velvet Brownie Sundae with Cream Cheese Soft Serve Ice Cream."  I wasn't sure how all the components would come together (red velvet + brownie = ?) but I was confident they would.

It certainly looked red-velvety.  But when I tried the red velvet brownie, do you know what I tasted?  A blondie.  That's right, a plain tasting bar cake with nuts and chocolate chips.  The chips were solid (so it wasn't warm).  In fact, it was a little hard, maybe even stale.  The soft serve was nice but didn't really taste like cream cheese.  Of course, as with all sundaes, it's hard to say no to something brownie-like with ice cream, chocolate sauce, and nuts.  But honestly, when the chocolate sauce ran out, so did the fun.

What's the deal Bobby?  I've had your Bourbon Praline Profiteroles before and those are great.  I've had your smoked salmon sweet potato hash and your french onion soup and they are delicious.  I have seen you take on some of the best chefs in America week after week and WIN.

Step it up, man.

Bar Americain
152 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019-6004
(212) 265-9700

Deep Fried Whoopie Pie at Flex Mussels

I'm still not really sure that I want to write a blog.  They're time consuming, and you're supposed to have a point of view, or at least a really nice camera, etc.  So as I was contemplating whether or not to even start (because stopping = failure, so this must be considered), I came upon my inspiration.  My muse.

The deep fried whoopie pie.

And I suddenly felt confident that even if this is the only post I ever write, and it sits alone in this blog in cyberspace for all eternity, that I will still have done the right thing.  Because this baby deserves homage. 

I was a huge fan of pastry chef Zac Young on Top Chef Just Desserts, where he premiered this concept.  I was an even bigger fan of him at the 2010 Chocolate Show, where he served me chocolate mousse in a glass and topped it with gold edible glitter.  It tasted good, and it was sparkly, and I was sold.

Last week my friend Jordan and I ventured to Flex Mussels, the restaurant where Zac Young is permanently stationed.  We started with mussels (what else?).  Most of the menu is comprised of different varieties, and the only non-seafood option is chicken (which is actually listed under "not seafood.")  I ordered mussels topped with walnut pesto and shrimp, which was comforting (the whole restaurant smells like butter), but honestly I wasn't taking it too seriously.  I didn't even bother to order the frites.

We each ordered our own whoopie pie, which was the most unusual-sounding option on the menu.  Even so, its written description does not do it justice.  Yes, it's "fried."  But not it's not fried so that it tastes like it's wrapped in dough; it's fried so that it has at delicate crust, providing a crunchy texture to counteract the warm devil's food cake inside.  That "cream cheese filling"?  It melts, and it's incredibly tasty on its own (is there white chocolate in there?)  The whoopie pie itself is gigantic, and it's sitting on top of a pool of thin caramel sauce.

But wait, there's more!  When the plate arrives you may think that someone has attached an extra dessert to your plate.  That "caramelized white chocolate cream" is actually a rich caramel mousse, which supports a scoop of coffee ice cream that complements the pie quite well.  We laughed at how our crispy chocolate bars--probably painstakingly handcrafted at the restaurant--were cast aside and left untouched in the wreckage of our plates.

Since I ate the deep fried whoopie pie, I have been roaming the aisles of grocery stores and asking "Can I fry that?"  Deep fried ice cream sandwich bars, deep fried milanos, deep fried cornbread...

It's a muse, what can I say.

Flex Mussels
154 West 13th Street, New York -
(212) 229-0222
174 East 82nd Street, New York -
(212) 717-7772