Monday, June 25, 2012

A Very London Summer: Two Worth the Trip

Pappardelle with Duck Ragu at Ducksoup
The Queen’s Jubilee has come and gone.  The Olympics are around the corner.  And today Wimbledon, arguably the greatest tennis tournament of the year, got off to roaring start complete with the usual ladies in big hats nibbling on strawberries and cream at Center Court.  It’s turning into a very London summer indeed.

In the spirit of public interest for those of you crossing the pond in the coming months, I’ve recently made the journey myself and returned with a couple new restaurants to add to the “must eat” list.

Sea Trout Carpaccio with Fennel Salad
Last summer I spent a bit of time in Soho checking out the delicious small plates at no-reservations Polpo, the intoxicating lamb curry at CâyTre, and the toothsome udon noodles at Koya.  I found myself back in Soho this year (same charming beau in tow) this time to checkout the fantastically named winebar-cum-restaurant Ducksoup

Walking up to the restaurant on a balmy Saturday night, English chaps spilled out the doors of the pubs and onto the streets, a sure sign that a wait was ahead for us given Ducksoup’s no reservation policy for parties of two.  It was a pleasant surprise then to find several open seats at the 9pm hour, particularly given that the narrow room can seat no more than about twenty people at a time.

We started out strong with a plate of wild sea trout carpaccio the color of ruby red grapefruit served along side a crisp fennel salad.  Two perfect lamb chops followed, redolent of oregano.  The side of bread was worth the £2 extra as every last drop of the lamb juice had to be slurped up.  We were happily encouraged to a save a bit of bread for the quail course, as the tiny bird arrived roasted in a bath of white wine with fresh bay leaves, lemon, and olives.  The pasta of the night, a homemade pappardelle with yes, duck ragu, was better than a pasta we had the previous night at a far fancier restaurant down the road in Mayfair.

Dining Room at Ducksoup
The wine list was a bit hit and miss and prices were out of synch with the otherwise affordable menu.  But we made due, sampling a few and sharing before settling on a light red Burgundy, a perfectly quaffable beverage for pairing up with the game meats or sipping by itself, staring out the open window at the jolly pub-goers across the way.

Upon leaving dinner in Chelsea the following night, I shook my head and said to John, “I’m not sure how they stay in business feeding people like that.”  Whether I was contemplating the slabs of foie gras that came tucked between the breast and leg of my wood pigeon, or the fried balls of bone marrow that garnished John’s blade fillet of beef, or the complex sauces that came with each of our dishes of the sort that require a diligent, exclusive saucier- Medlar had all the elements of high-end French dining utilizing mostly local ingredients at a price so low as to be dumbfounding. 

English Asparagus and Goats' Curd

I wanted to throw money at them!  Here!  Take it!  We had been fed so well, served with such genuine care, I simply could not get over that all of that could be had for only £30 on a Sunday night (£39.50 Monday-Saturday dinner, £30 weekend lunch, £26.50 weekday lunch).

Wood Pigeon with Foie Gras
Many prix fixe restaurants limit choices and then charge additional fees to recoup the cost of expensive ingredients on certain menu items.  Not at Medlar.  It is one price fits all.  For that, on a recent Sunday night you could get a choice of seven different appetizers like English asparagus with goats curd, pea mousse, black olive, and pickled Japanese mushrooms, or one extra large raviolo swimming in a sauce of melted leeks and seafood bisque.  Of course, one could choose to eat lighter, but when foie gras, filet, game birds, and bone marrow are in such expert hands, why hold back?

Chocolate Delice with Milk Ice Cream
Desserts were simple and nice though nothing much to remember.  Perhaps the passion fruit sorbet with coconut tuille would have shined at another restaurant but even my brick of rich chocolate delice with milk ice cream seemed a tad banal in comparison to the previous courses.

I am told that the end of King’s Road where Medlar resides is the bad part of the street, well beyond Chelsea’s hipper restaurants.  I can imagine once word of Medlar spreads that will not remain the situation for long.  Even in merry old England, less than two and a half miles from Buckingham Palace, there are still trails to blaze.

Note: Many thanks to for always pointing me toward some new and interesting eats in London- a great resource for anyone living in or traveling to London.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How to Lose Friends and Alienate Customers

Duck Confit Mofongo at The Toucan and the Lion
“Hi.  My name is Brad*, I’ll be your server tonight.  Have you dined with us before?”  Before you get started, no, this conversation is not happening at the Olive Garden but rather a hip new gastropub in the East Village of Manhattan.  “Brad” may not be his real name but let me tell you, I could not have made up Brad and his chain-restaurant personality even if I tried. 

For starters, Brad has an uncanny ability to interrupt really good stories just as the storyteller is building up to the punch line.  It is like a sixth sense. The third time he manages such an intrusion on a recent evening it was almost comical, except for that it wasn’t- time is precious with good friends and having a waiter who cannot read table cues for appropriate timing virtually defeats the purpose of going out to eat. 

Brad is also an educator.  Upon answering that no, we had not eaten at The Toucan and the Lion before, he patronizingly says, “Well, we do things a little different around here.”  Yes, those words actually come from his mouth.  He lets us know that we are going to want to order 3 or 4 starters to share and then an entrée for each of us.  In Brad’s world, no one has ever dined at a shared plates restaurant before nor are any of us capable of gauging our own hunger.

If Brad is your waiter, no matter what, do not ask for a fourth short rib taco (delicious, for the record) to be added to the plate of three.  At The Toucan and the Lion they cannot add an extra taco so that we could each have one, even for an additional charge.  Again, we are reminded, they do things different around here.  If we want enough tacos for each of us, we have to order another plate of three.

If wine is your thing, Toucan and the Lion is not the place for you.  Unless you get indecision fatigue when faced with two wines that is, because two wines make up the entire red wine selection.  In that case, you are in just the right place because Brad will helpfully let you know that you really don’t want the California Cabernet Sauvignon, which leaves you with the Spanish Monastrell.  You might insist on trying the cab anyway to discover that Brad is right (you really wanted him to be wrong) but even then, the Monastrell feels like it has been stored in an oven.  Brad grudgingly brings an ice bucket. 

On occasion Brad can be a helpful chap.  When the group laments that some of the items we had seen on the restaurant’s website and in the reviews are not on that night’s very short menu he lets you know that a. the menu just changed and b. the website has never really been accurate.  (Who really uses this interweb thing anyway?)  What he’s telling you is don’t get too excited about those patatas bravas made with purple sweet potatoes you read about online.  Apparently no one was ordering them.  He should know- according to Brad the staff was fed the unsold leftovers as their nightly meal everyday for months. 

Not that that an up-to-date online menu would help much, even the paper menu plays tricks with expectations.  Corn fritters would more accurately be described as hushpuppies.  Bao buns are basically toast, our night missing the garlic-lime butter with which they were supposed to arrive and along with it, any semblance of flavor. 

In spite of Brad and the restaurant’s best efforts, the food sometimes worked as with the intensely flavored short rib tacos and the simple kale and radish salad.  Beyond that I’m not sure what to recommend as menu items and their execution are inconsistent.  Well there is one thing, if you do go, don’t have Brad as your waiter.

The Toucan and the Lion, 342 E. 6th St. New York, New York

*Names have been changed but trust me, this guy was for real. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Thursday, June 7, 2012

DC Food Tour 2012: A Speakeasy Easy to Love

Celery-Fennel Shrub at Columbia Room
“D.C.  It’s not that bad.”  That was my brother Paul’s proposed slogan for attracting skeptics to the District.  I’ll be the first to admit for a long time I was one such reluctant visitor, barely holding back my raised eyebrows when Paul would insist that yes, there is great food, vibrant nightlife, and culture in his adopted city.

If there was ever evidence of DC’s arrival, the ColumbiaRoom is it.  A cubby of a bar in the back of über popular watering hole The Passenger, Columbia Room is riding the national wave of interest in craft cocktails with a finesse rivaling San Francisco or the Lower East Side, minus the pretension.

Like most foodie world “secrets”, this one takes some planning- our reservations for four of the twelve coveted bar stools at Columbia were made weeks in advance. And though the eleven pm Saturday night slot we scored is not late for drinking by urban standards, the two and a half hour cocktail performance at Columbia proved a bit challenging arriving as we did on very full stomachs post-dinner. 

Kate, the lead bartender, eased us in with a modern wine cooler of sorts, allowing some room for post dinner digestion before getting on to the serious cocktails. 

Crostini with Quail Egg and Crispy Kale
Round two was a “shrub”, a classic cocktail made with vinegar in place of citrus, the more common acid, to balance a slightly sweet infusion of celery and fennel with notes of black pepper and caraway.  The vinegar was assertive and came as a bit of a shock on the palate, but after a second and third sip the flavors mellowed into what the whole group agreed was a thoroughly enjoyable, if unusual beverage.

Just as interesting as the shrub itself were the long ice cubes, a perfect rectangular block that was the exact height of the highball glass.  Where does one get an ice cube that size, I asked?  Did they have special trays?  Maybe an outsourced company that cut them with high precision equipment?  No, Kate explained, the ice cubes were made by her bearded counterparts behind the bar cut from large blocks of ice using nothing fancier than your garden-variety chain saw.

Even though the focus of Columbia Room is the drinks, they do not let patrons go hungry.  Along with the second course shrub came a simple bite of food- a crostini topped with a fried quail egg and crispy kale was a luscious fatty contrast to the sharp sweet-sour bite of the shrub.

Classic Martini
After leaving it up to Kate for course one and two, we were each allowed input into our final drink.  When it was my turn I announced, “I’m a gin drinker.  I like it sour, bitter, fruity, pretty much anyway just not too sweet.”  Kate nodded sagely and without thinking more than a few seconds mixed up a martini.  But this was not the martini we think of today, she explained, as she stirred equal parts Hendricks gin and sweet vermouth with homemade orange bitters in a cocktail shaker.  Occasionally she paused to check the temperature until the thermometer reached a perfect 32°F.  She strained the mixture into a chilled glass and slid it across the counter without any adornment.  It was light and floral, the waft of orange hitting the nose first and then fading seamlessly on the palate when mixed in with the herbal liquors, all sans the burn of your average martini. 

At least, I thought that was our last round of cocktails until one of the bearded bartenders starting working The World’s Largest Cocktail Maker into a back-and-forth frenzy hoisting up over his shoulder.  My arms quivered just watching him.

Snack menu
Kate explained he was making a Ramos Fizz for a patron at the end of the bar.  The problem, she said, was that every time someone ordered this drink the rest of the bar was so intrigued they would end up making another round for all to taste.  Now they prepare by making enough for all twelve at the bar stools plus the bartenders.  Ten minutes of vigorous shaking later, the egg white was as stiff as the top of a lemon meringue pie.  And the drink was just about as tasty.

DC might never have a nightlife as neon bright as New York, it might never be as raucous as New Orleans, but I also don’t think it will ever think as highly of itself as some of these so-called hipper cities.  As for me it is just was well, I like my martini’s straight up without the dash of pretension or spritz of condescension that come with so many artisanal cocktails these days.  At Columbia Room it is just inspired cocktails served up with an unobtrusive garnish of humility. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell