Monday, December 26, 2011

Rabe Us the Wrong Way

Cavatelli with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe -- Roc

The reason we have come all the way to Roc to sip clandestine tastes of egg nog out of our handbags is so that we can also try Rocco DiSpirito's chosen Best Thing I Ever Ate AS GOOD AS MOM's dish, the cavatelli with sausage and broccoli rabe.  We have relatively high expectations for this dish, if only because we have found Rocco's past Best Thing I Ever Ate choices to be delicious (and plus, we have never met a plate of pasta we couldn't finish).

Unfortunately in all cases, Roc's cavatelli dish breaks a few of our usual patterns.
It's Not Easy Being Green... Pasta
When we arrive at the establishment, Ginger initially questions whether Rocco himself owns the place, finding it seemingly unfathomable that more than one person would have the letters "Roc" in his name.  In truth, we wonder what Rocco's informal connection is to this restaurant, as by the end of our meal, we would like to send him to Scarpetta in order to witness what a truly extraordinary pasta dish and bread basket tastes like.
Well, Now, Doesn't This Reek of "Unimpressive"?
In contrast to Scarpetta's prized stromboli, Roc provides a cup of hard bread sticks on each table.  Crunching into the first one, Ginger comments, "Am I supposed to be eating this?  I assume it's not a centerpiece."
Though the Sticks Could Crack Your Teeth as Easily as a Flower Vase
The bread sticks taste of adequacy, as do the components of the bread basket itself (save for a small loaf of olive oil-soaked slices, which tip to the side of the extraordinary).

Along with the cavatelli, we decide to order the spaghetti pomodoro, if only to compare it to Ted Allen's delectable spaghetti choice at Scarpetta.
Someone Get Us a Bib, Stat
Along with our pastas and our forbidden egg nog, we are also contending with our half bottle of Frog's Leap sauvignon blanc, a choice we made because a) we liked the name and b) it was the cheapest one on the menu.  When our plates of food arrive, we become almost instantly aware that the cavatelli was a poor choice on Rocco's part.
We'll Take Some Broccoli Rabe with a Side of Cavatelli, Please
Smothered in gallons of broccoli rabe, it looks decidedly like a health food (and let's be real - if any pasta dish is ever compared to something sold an GNC stores, there is a problem).  Though the busboy coats the pile of noodles in enough parmesan cheese to sink Venice once and for all, it is not nearly enough to conquer the bitter taste of the rabe itself.  Ginger compares the sensation to kale, while Vodka, who makes it a habit to never eat "superfoods," looks on blankly.
Vodka Compares the Rabe More to the Taste of "Just Plain Awful"
Indeed, while the broccoli rabe is the most overpowering component on the plate, the sausage is also cut into overly thick, mildly spicy pieces that pick up wherever the rabe lets off.
Lopsided Cheese Sprinkling Like Whoa
In fact, the cavatelli themselves seem almost an afterthought in this whole mixture, as they are left to drown in the ever-increasing sauce produced by the combination of the rabe and the sausage.

To say nothing for the fact that, in our estimation, the cavatelli is overcooked and mildly mushy.
But Other Than All of Those Complaints, It was GREAT...
In contrast, the spaghetti is extremely al dente -- a virtue which we enjoy, and therefore do not mind when the pasta remains just short of being "crunchy."
Cap'n Crunch, Spaghetti-Style
In some ways, we might even enjoy the spaghetti more than the one served at Scarpetta, if only for how undercooked the noodles are.
And Also for How Wonderfully Those Noodles Photograph
But the rest of the Roc experience does not hold a waxy piece of a molten candle to the delicacies which Scott Conant has created on 14th Street. 
Apparently, We Have Become Messy Eaters in our Old Age
As we emerge from our final joint-eating experience of 2011, we are almost reassured that we have ended with a 3 star dish.  For if our eighty-five posts so far have taught us anything, sometimes Best Thing I Ever Ate is right, sometimes it is dreadfully wrong, and more often than we would like, it is just not all that we had hoped it would be.

Roc's Cavatelli with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe: 3 stars

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

We Brought Our Own Mixer

Egg Nog -- Ronnybrook Farm Dairy
Ronnybrook Farm Dairy

"The egg nog is unspiked, if that's the concern."

And with this sentence, Vodka persuades Ginger to go on our last Best Thing I Ever Ate eating spree of 2011.  The irony being that she had to convince Ginger that we were NOT going to end up loaded on cheap alcoholic beverages in order to get her out of her apartment.

On the most recent SEASON'S EATINGS episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate, Alex Guarnaschelli spoke of the egg nog created by Ronnybrook Farm Dairy.  The egg nog which is only offered during the month of December.

The egg nog that Vodka is hellbent on procuring this year, no matter how hectic our non-Food Network schedules.
Vodka Can Be a Nag About the Nog
And so, with the promise that we will not end up tipsy and stumbling out of lunch like two Beverly Hills housewives, we meet at Roc to say goodbye to 2011 in high style.  But first, there is the egg nog with which to contend.

Vodka had purchased said nog two days prior during a jaunt to Chelsea Market.  In fact, she had tasted the stuff at the same time, as waiting three hours for a Stephen Sondheim event at Barnes and Noble had left her in search of a liquid cure (for the record, egg nog does not the most effective thirst quencher make).
Kind of Like Drinking the Textural Equivalent of Elmer's Glue
Not being overly fond of the stuff in general, Vodka often finds the first taste of egg nog delicious and then grows more and more bored with every subsequent sip.  Therefore, while she found the Ronnybrook Farm's version pleasing, she was not particularly blown away.
Though Thanks for the Christmas Greetings, Ronnybrook
Ginger, in contrast, loves egg nog.  In fact, "love" would be an understatement when it comes to her affection for this Christmastime cocktail.  So when Vodka arrives at Roc (after some minor confusion regarding the nonsensical streets of Tribeca) and hands Ginger her individual portion of the stuff, she finds it quite enjoyable.  Though she may have found it more enjoyable were we not so paranoid about drinking this foreign beverage in a completely unrelated culinary establishment.  It's like Bring Your Own Pickle-Gate all over again.
PS Apparently, Roc Only Has Room for One at Their Bar
As we take clandestine sips of our respective egg nogs and the waitstaff looks on in judgment, Vodka comments, "We're already the spectacle and the egg nog is still in our bags."

Vodka is, naturally, referring to the fact that she plans on asking for a shot of bourbon in order to complete our egg nog experience. After all, if Alex Guarnaschelli had recommended adding alcohol, we are not one to argue.  And so, with a major hint of sheepishness, Vodka asks our waitress, "Can I also have a shot of bourbon?" 
Lunch Beverage Double-Hitter of Champions
To her Oscar-worthy-acting-skills credit, the waitress does not react to this request with any more than a solemn nod, despite the fact that we are already deep into our half bottle of wine and keep reaching for our handbags like neurotic senior citizens.  When she trots off to the bar in search of our request, Ginger confesses, "I was really afraid she was going to ask you what kind of bourbon you wanted."

A few minutes later, the waitress appears with an intimidatingly deep glass of the sour brown liquid which we usually make every effort to avoid.  Vodka sets it aside with a flippant, "Let's just drink our wine and worry about this problem later," and we delay the inevitable for as long as we can.

Which in this case, is approximately 20 minutes.

At that time, Vodka retrieves her egg nog from her bag and pours half of it, lickety split, into the bourbon-laden shot glass. Finding her fork to be the only appropriate stirrer, she mixes the "cocktail" to the best of her ability and takes a sip.
Why Vodka Is Not a Bartender
And her face contorts into the expression of an obvious non-bourbon drinker.

Ginger's slurp, which is even more tentative than Vodka's, confirms the fact that we are not meant to drink any hard liquor (which in our case amounts to anything that is not wine, vodka, or gin).  In fact, we believe the Ronnybrook Farm Dairy egg nog, like the Stand toasted marshmallow shake, is much more pleasant in virgin form.
Egg Nog Was Presumably Mary's Favorite Beverage
It is excessively creamy, slightly spicy, and contains a solid helping of cinnamon, all of which makes for a comforting, if incredibly rich, drink.  The bourbon only mutes all of the otherwise tasty components, rendering the egg nog the Shirley Temple of the Christmas holiday.
Look Away, Roc Waitress.  Nothing to See Here
As it happens, we are both mildly obsessed with Ronnybrook Farm Dairy's chocolate milk, which remains the quintessentially perfect cow-based beverage we have ever tasted.  And while we are certain that the egg nog from Ronnybrook is of ten times greater quality than that from our local grocery store, we're just not sure we would seek it out again.

But we are positive that we will never, ever make another request for bourbon.

Ronnybrook Farm Dairy's Egg Nog: 4 stars

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Off the Map: When Italians Lost Ownership of the Tiramisu

Tiramisu a la Mexicana -- Lolita, Philadelphia, PA

For two fools who claim to eat everything, we sure do use the disclosure "We don't normally like this dish/component/texture" quite often.  And Vodka is about to employ it again:

I do not normally like tiramisu.

For lack of a more logical reason, I tend to find the dish slobbery and dripping in burnt coffee flavor.  I would go so far to say that I have never encountered a tiramisu I have enjoyed.

Until I tried the one at Lolita in Philadelphia.
The Outlier in a Long Line of Tiramisu Failures
Dragging my accommodating Philadelphia-residing friends along to another Philly Best Thing I Ever Ate location, we arrive at the BYOB Lolita clutching a bottle of wine.  Still suffering from our Thanksgiving gorge-fest the day before, plus the half of the Sarcone's Deli sandwich we have managed to wolf down, we are not in the mood for heavy entrees, and we are especially not in the mood for dessert.  All of this ambivalence only makes our later lapping up of the tiramisu all the more astounding.
A Scene Out of the Biggest Loser Reject Pile
But first, we have to make our way through dinner. 

First up is the guacamole, which is served with a healthy portion of corn chips, plantain chips, and sweet potato chips, along with homemade salsa.
"Homemade Salsa" is an Assumption. That Could Be Out of a Tostitos Jar
Vodka, who cannot stomach sweet potatoes in any form (as opposed to our opening line cop-out, they are truly one of five foods she despises), sticks to the corn chips, which she finds salty and perfectly crunchy.
Also, Plantains Just Seem Like Sad Bananas, No?
The guacamole, too, though less chunky than other restaurant varieties, is also quite good, if a bit heavy on the avocado itself.  (And yes, Vodka recognizes the fact that, as Ginger pointed out, this is a ridiculous statement, being that guacamole is, in essence, avocado).
But This One Is Particularly Grinch Green, Right?
For our "entrees," Vodka orders the romaine and asparagus salad, and her friends share the shrimp enchiladas.
And Now, for the "Thrifty Eating" Portion of the Blog
The salad is ten times heavier on the romaine portion than the asparagus (the hunks of lettuce on the plate are so large that James should keep them in mind for any potential Giant Peach sequels), and it is also spicier than one would expect a salad to be.
Salad from the Garden of the Jolly Green Giant
The part of the enchiladas that my friend manages to not dump all over the table in an effort of "sharing" are awash in cheesy goodness, and best of all, our waitress does not seem perturbed by the fact that we are eating like certifiable cheapskates.
Clearly, Lolita is Fond of Their Green Foods
And then we come to dessert.

The tiramisu a la mexicana is Robert Irvine's choice from the IN A BOWL episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate, and based on his liking of, say, over-pureed mashed potatoes, I am skeptical of the variety of baby food that is about to appear before us.  Instead, the waitress brings a small serving bowl with a mountain of cake, chocolate, nuts, and oodles of whipped cream piled in the center.
Well, Hello There, Friend, May I Call You "Tira" for Short?
Scooping up the first bite, I expect a coffee-laden dessert a la the worst barista Starbucks ever hired.

And instead I find heaven.
Vodka's Personal Image of the Pearly Gates
First of all, there is the whipped cream.  There is just so much whipped cream.  Having been known to squirt Reddi-Wip directly into my mouth during college, I am a certifiable sucker for whipped cream, especially the homemade kind, which Lolita's appears to be.
But Much Like Their "Homemade Salsa," This Could Also Have Come from a Can
Sprinkled on top of the whipped cream is a smattering of toasted hazelnuts, which balance the mushy texture of the rest of the components and bring a comforting snap to the spoonfuls.
Snap, Crackle, Pop, Then Moan "THIS IS FIVE STARS"
Praline mascarpone cream mixes in with the whipped cream, and the lady fingers, which have been soaked in kahlua and espresso, have become so moist that they are downright layer cake-like.

This tiramisu is a wonder.
At the Rate We Were Going, I'm Surprised We Didn't Eat the Garnish
Despite the fact that the tiramisu is very rich, we reach the bottom of the bowl sooner than anticipated, assured in the knowledge that even though the Italians may have invented junk yard special hoagies and rectangular tiramisu, the Mexicans have improved the latter dish by leaps and bounds.

Perhaps now they can take on those pesky sesame seed-covered, jaw-breaking Italian rolls.... 

Lolita's Tiramisu a la Mexicana: 5 stars*

*Certifiable Best Thing We Ever Ate

Monday, November 28, 2011

Off the Map: It's Not Even 4 PM Somewhere

Junk Yard Special -- Sarcone's Deli, Philadelphia, PA
Sarcone's Deli

Admittedly, the day after Thanksgiving is not the ideal day to go on a culinary rampage.  But Vodka is, if nothing else, mission-oriented, so stuffed like a turkey or not, she is putting on her elastic waistband pants and heading into Philadelphia to eat.
The Pilgrims Would Be So Proud
Because Vodka is persuasive (read: bossy), she has talked a Philadelphia-residing friend into doing a mini-Best Thing I Ever Ate food tour with her in an effort to check off a couple of Philly eateries we had missed on our previous jaunt around the city.
Here's a Tip: Only Befriend Accommodating People
First up, residing deep within the heart of South Philly, is Sarcone's Deli, which features Adam Gertler's chosen AT A DELI hoagie, the junk yard special.
Vodka Came to Philly and All She Got Was a Sandwich Named After the Dump
Now, here's something to keep in mind about Sarcone's Deli: they close at 4:00pm.  Every day.  No matter what.  Even to early bird diners like us, this timeframe is a bit geriatric.  For this reason, Vodka flies towards the front door of Sarcone's at exactly 3:37pm, anxious to get her paws on this Food Network delicacy before the closing bell rings.
Adding to the "Charm," They're Apparently Closed Mondays
"You got here just in time!" a worker greets me.  "We just started packing up shop."

(Note: It appears Sarcone's closing time is actually 3:45pm).

I order a medium junk yard special, without having the time to look into what I'll be eating or, more importantly, to care.  The price comes to $8.63, which would seem high if I weren't in the midst of alleged Best Thing I Ever Ate greatness.  This hoagie has to be ten times better than any $5 variety served at a corner bodega across the rest of Philadelphia, right?

Well, no.
Gourmet Philadelphia Eating
Trotting out of Sarcone's, I make my way to my friend's apartment, where outside, I am greeted by a few of South Philly's finest residents.  Permeating booze (clearly, they're our kind of people), they are on a diatribe about the faulty address labeling along the block, a tangent they refuse to come off of even when I attempt to make a hasty retreat into my friend's (allegedly mislabeled) building. 

Thanks for the heightened sense of ambiance, South Philly.  You're really adding to the Sarcone's experience.
Now Please Excuse Me So I Can Start Documenting a Hoagie
Opening the package at the safety of my friend's dinner table, we find a large hoagie, its components sandwiched between a hearty Italian roll sprinkled with sesame seeds.  Inside resides fresh mozzarella, provolone, turkey, prosciutto, sauteed Spinach, roasted red peppers, red wine vinegar oil, dried herbs, a parakeet cage, a ball of yarn, and the kitchen sink.

Well, it is a junk yard special, after all.
One's Writing Grows Less Clever After Dining in South Philly
Last three points aside, the hoagie is chock full of unending yet seemingly miscellaneous ingredients.  Widening my jaw as much as possible, I rip a hunk away from half of the hoagie.

And chew solemnly through approximately a loaf of bread.
Can You Tell Me How to Chew, How to Chew Through Sesame Bread?
Now, Sarcone's Deli is apparently known for their bread.  It seems to be their thing.  And I, admittedly, am not the biggest fan of quintessential Italian bread: the crunchy and crumbly on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside loaves that form the "best" Italian sandwiches.  I like my bread pliable and easy to bite, two features that Sarcone's bread is just not meant to have.
It's All About the Bread but Not About the Teeth
And generally speaking, I don't like seeds, so the sesame sprinkling does little to appease me.

The ingredients within the sandwich itself are all tasty and fresh, though not a combination I would order again.  Additionally, because some are sliced (turkey, prosciutto) and others are chunky (red peppers, mozzarella), it has a tendency to fall further and further apart with each bite.
Uniform Slicing, This Is Not
Because, like Ginger, I am never one to refuse a condiment, I think the hoagie could stand for some mayonnaise, but even the creamiest Hellman's available would not have pushed it into 5 star-status.
Though the Bread Could Have Certainly Used a Mayonnaise Moisturizer
Overall, there is nothing remotely wrong with the sandwich.  In fact, if you are in the area at dinner time, you should absolutely stop by to quench your hoagie craving.

Except, of course, Sarcone's Deli will not be open.

Sarcone's Deli's Junk Yard Special: 3 stars

Monday, November 21, 2011

Once, Twice, Three Times at Buddakan

Whole Peking Duck -- Buddakan

And so completes our accidental tour of the North American Buddakan restaurants.

For two people who are not wildly fond of Buddakan, we seem to be spending an awful lot of time here.  First came the mysterious (and awful) non-Best Thing I Ever Ate doughnuts at the Atlantic City outpost.  Then, mere days ago, we acquired the correct dip sum doughnuts at the Philadelphia location.  And now, for purposes of consuming Bobby Flay's BIRD IS THE WORD chosen dish of the whole peking duck, we have made our way to the New York Buddakan.

This, for the record, is about three too many Buddakan experiences. 
And Our Doctors Would Say Too Many Doughnuts
Stumbling through the giant door located just north of Chelsea Market, it takes time for our eyes to adjust to the inevitable dreary (verging on midnight-black) lighting that inexplicably fills each and every Buddakan.  Sounding entirely too much like our mothers (or, in this case, grandmothers), we debate whether or not we will be better off sitting at the bar or at a table, the subtext being "Which will make us feel less like we're eating in a dark tunnel?"  We decide on the bar, at least until the hostess points us into the adjacent room -- the one we could barely see due to the aforementioned bleak lighting and were therefore trying to avoid -- when we change our minds and ask for a table.
Where;s Thomas Edison When You Need Him?
The hostess still points us to the dreaded "lounge area," which seems to have only one lightbulb functioning for the entire room, in order to wait for our table "to be ready."  Now, this charade seems ridiculous to us, as we are now forced to awkwardly stand around this "lounge," filled with people who clearly do not need night-vision goggles to survive in this place, and wait for our "seater."  Said seater arrives moments later, rechecks us in for our reservation (WHY, Buddakan?!), and proceeds to recite her directions to follow her as if reading from a script.  She leads us down the (thankfully better lighted) stairs, Ginger smirking all the way at her Shakespearean recitation of our instructions, and into a room featuring a table built for King Arthur and his knights.
We Wonder How King Arthur Felt About Lo Mein
"You sit at one end and I'll sit at the other," Ginger suggests, and the situation seems merrily ludicrous because we can finally see ourselves in more than shadows for the first time all evening.

Until we are lead to our actual, non-Beauty and the Beast-sized table, which is located, naturally, in a electricity-lacking corner.

Being that we are starving, we try to make the best of our twilight-decor location and get down to the business of ordering.  Ginger chooses the Fever drink, featuring tequila, lime jalapeno, and pomegranate, which she finds enjoyable but Vodka thinks is deathly spicy.  Vodka settles on the less biting choice of the Charm cocktail, featuring prosecco, passion fruit liqueur, and fresh berries. 
Because There's Nothing Like Alcohol-Laden Berries to Get One Through a Third Trip to Buddakan
When we choose the whole peking duck and minced pork lo mein as our entrees, our waiter suggests that we order an appetizer because the duck will take a while to prepare.  We decline and then discuss how this phrase ("Do you want something to start because that will take a while?") seems to be one of waitstaff's favorite things to say to us (We're looking at you, Barbuto).  This ploy could be rendered moot if all restaurants would simply provide their guests with their culinary version of a bread basket: give us something to nosh on and stop trying to pawn off your lame appetizers, you cheapskates.

Plus, the waiter's whole suggestion is proven to be a farce when both of our dishes arrive, literally, five minutes later.  Very sneaky, Buddakan.
Fast Food Duck
Unfortunately, our ability to start eating immediately is hindered by the fact that the Buddakan "seaters" insist on placing one party and then another at the tables adjoining ours, despite the fact that dozens of other open tables are visible.  We find this practice annoying, not just because the constant movement of these interlopers is hindering Vodka's picture documentation (to say nothing of the effects of the ill lighting), but because the people seated next to us are SO LOUD that they manage to increase the volume of the entire restaurant by entirely too many decibels. 
Poor Picture Quality Courtesy of Buddakan's Electricity Department
"What is their problem?  It's too dark in here, it's not too loud," Vodka complains about our neighbors, and we wonder how we always manage to get strapped with the diners who never learned how to use their indoor voices in elementary school.

Eventually, we dig into our plate of duck, which features three small dishes of scallions, cucumbers, and hoisin sauce beside it.
Peking Duckie, You're the One
The pancakes for our duck tacos are located in a small round basket, with a layer of filmy paper separating each.  This paper becomes a nuisance within seconds, as we pile it up in the middle of our table as if dining at The Hillbilly Cafe.
Next Time, Hold the Coffee Filters
Piling each pancake with the duck breast, crispy skin, and the accompaniments, we dive in.

And we chew silently for enough time to know that this dish is not the best thing we ever ate.
We Give It Three Quacks
Neither of us make a habit of eating Peking duck dishes, but we're aware enough to realize that this version is simply okay.  The duck itself, if tasted without the hoisin sauce, has absolutely no flavor.  It's barely even bland -- it's just not there at all.  The crispy skin of the duck is a slight improvement, though it, too, is helped greatly by smears of hoisin sauce.  The scallions do not taste remotely onion-like, and there are barely enough cucumber sticks for the amount of crunch we'd like to add to our duck creations.
Flock of Blah Duck Meat
Plus, the whole thing is a whopping $44.  For that price, you'd think they could have spared another cucumber.

Our minced pork lo mein is also on the mediocre side, though Ginger finds it more enjoyable if only because it tastes better than the monstrosity of a noodle dish that we had at the Atlantic City Buddakan.
And When Compared to "Gross," Most Things ARE an Improvement
The noodles themselves are so slippery that Vodka has to resort to lapping them into her mouth with her fork rather than the more festive chopsticks, and they feature so many red peppers that every other bite leaves her mouth scalding (Ginger, whose cocktail seems to have strengthened her palate, does not experience this death-by-pepper issue).
Noodles Playing the Slip N Slide
Just for kicks, we decide to order this Buddakan's featured doughnuts for dessert, which have been changed to the apple cider variety for the season.
The First Buddakan Doughnuts Featuring Holes
The doughnuts themselves are cakey -- almost too chewy -- though the creme fraiche ice cream which is provided with them is fairly delectable (most likely because its sauce features some sort of ingrained alcohol).
Here's a Tip, Buddakan: Start Infusing EVERYTHING with Alcohol
We request our check in order to get out of our final Buddakan experience as quickly as possible.  After all, if after three times, three separate tries, three different opportunities, Buddakan has still failed to win us over, we know there is no hope for the situation.  As we ease our way out of Buddakan's black shell of a building, Vodka expresses our final decision on Stephen Starr's Chinese trifecta: "No more Buddakan.  Ever."

Buddakan's Whole Peking Duck: 3 stars