Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Off the Map: Sleeping on the Job in New Jersey

Triple Coconut Cream Pie -- Ritz Seafood, Voorhees, NJ
Ritz Seafood

Somehow, for people who don't like coconut, we sure seem to be consuming a lot of it lately.

This time, Vodka found the triple coconut cream pie with which Delilah Winder is obsessed at Ritz Seafood in Voorhees, NJ.  Well, Vodka didn't so much find it, as her enabling mother did.  It seems mildly telling that said pie was featured on the OBSESSIONS episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate, as the mission of this blog has taken on a family-wide monomania in Vodka's household.
New Jersey Pies Can Withstand the Meanest of Heatwaves
Anyway, Vodka, nearly dead from carting her dog down from New York in 100-degree temperatures, is presented with a slice of coconut pie by her mother.  The slice has been packaged in a styrofoam container, yet it is sadly still ten times more attractive-looking than the slab of coconut cake presented to us on actual tableware at Smith and Wollensky.
Mostly Because It Does Not Feature Mystery Goo
A thin crust holds together two thick layers of sumptuous cream, one coconut and the other whipped.  Sprinkled on top of the slice are white chocolate curls and toasted coconut shavings.
Gotta Love a Pie Doo-Dad
The pie is rather lovely.
Especially When It Is Accessorized with Some Fine China
As we dig in, my mother relates that upon arriving at Ritz Seafood to try to procure this slice of pie to-go, she found no one at the hostess stand despite the packed house in the dining room.  Wedged in the back booth, a figure could be found bent over an appointment book in deep concentration.  With no other worker in sight, my mom approached this person, only to discover that she was not hard at work scheduling reservations, but rather, she was fast asleep.

Who Was In Charge of the Pies?!
"Excuse me," my mom said.  Nothing.

"EXCUSE ME," she repeated.  The figure popped awake and groggily instructed another suddenly-available staff member to fetch a piece of triple coconut cream pie to-go.  When paying for the $8 slice, my mom discovered, via newspaper clippings hanging at the entrance, that Rip Van Winkle is none other than the owner of Ritz Seafood.
Who Happens to Think The Title of "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" is "The Best Of" - See Website
Needless to say, if Ginger and I had encountered such a sleepy scenario in our Best Thing I Ever Ate travels, we would still not have recovered from fits of laughter.
And Vodka Probably Would Have Procured a Discount
Anyway, regarding the pie: it is presumably called "triple coconut" because the substance can be found in the outer shavings, in the coconut cream, and baked within the crust itself (though it is not visible in the last component).
Close-Up of Coconut in the Cream Fail
Considering not one member of my family likes coconut, and we all find this pie rather enjoyable, I'm sure it would be delectable to a true coconut lover.  The coconut cream is particularly surprising in its sturdy deliciousness, though truth be told, the flavor of the pie slice as a whole is not particularly strong (the white chocolate curls especially lack the usual white chocolate sweetness).

But is this coconut cream pie worth waking up for each day?  Yes, Owner of Ritz Seafood.  Yes, it is.

Ritz Seafood's Triple Coconut Cream Pie: 4 stars

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Into the Boroughs: When Do We Ever Go Outside on the Subway?

Dolmades Yialantzi -- Agnanti Meze, Queens, New York
Agnanti Meze

Let's be honest: We are not outer borough aficionados.

We don't really know how to get to them, and we very rarely find the need to figure it out.  In fact, when trudging down the sidewalks of Astoria in search of Alex Guarnaschelli's favorite UNDER WRAPS  Greek dish, Ginger can be heard muttering, "You mean to tell me that there are no better stuffed grape leaves to be found IN MANHATTAN?"

And so goes our day in Queens.
All in the Name of a Couple of Grape Leaves
We are in Astoria primarily because Ginger wants to see the Jim Henson exhibit at the Museum of Moving Image.  Never one to forget their main purpose in life (to eat excessively), Vodka discovers that a Best Thing I Ever Ate choice resides mere subway stops away from the museum.  By some miracle, we successfully arrive at first the museum and then Agnanti Meze with very little incident (save for Ginger managing to offend half of our subway car by greeting Vodka with a model-like display of "This is my Queens outfit"). 

Continuing to find it astounding that the subway actually travels outdoors when out of Manhattan proper, we look out the window like kindergarteners on the Disney World monorail once we reach the sovereign nation of Queens.  And later that afternoon, as we trek ten long suburban-ish blocks from the last stop on the N-train to Agnanti, we are no less perplexed by our self-appointed itinerary for the day.
Next Stop: Athens
Confusion reigns as we reach Agnanti, as we are incapable of finding the entrance, and our efforts to discern the location from a busboy results in only a vague hand gesture.  Seating ourselves outside, Vodka, who, as previously stated, considers the sun to be her own personal nemesis, insists on taking a seat under both a tree and a misplaced beer "tent" to protect herself from the rays. 

While we are here for the dolmades yialantzi, we are more concerned with procuring some alcohol, and stat.  Vodka is perplexed by the fact that the menu appears to be a calendar, so Ginger picks up the slack in ordering a large carafe of white wine, which is delivered to us minutes later in a watering can.  A watering can sans spout.
Gardening with Liquor
This lack of spout proves to be a problem when the waiter manages to dump half a glass of wine onto the brown paper table cloth in an effort to pour it.  Too humored to complain about the fact that $4 worth of house wine is now drifting under Vodka's glass, we laugh so heartily once our waiter departs that most of Astoria looks suspiciously at the interlopers in their land.
Somebody Get Me a Straw to Drink Off the Table
Not to be outdone by the wine watering can, our waiter returns with a disconcerting bread basket -- disconcerting because the bread looks like something scraped off of the bottom of Zeus's shoe and is wrapped in what Vodka proclaims to be a "schmatta" (think Hera's used handkerchief).  Desperate for calories, the presentation does not stop us from consuming the bread at rapid fire pace (strangely, there is no butter or olive oil to be found, but we make do). 
Shady Bread
Shadier Schmatta
By the time the object of our desires, the dolmades yialantzi (stuffed grape leaves) arrive, we are both in an absurd mood.  Vodka has proclaimed that "If I had a three-bedroom apartment, I would never even date," while Ginger's glasses are complimented by none other than the identically bespectacled bus boy.  Taking a minute to compose ourselves, we examine the wraps before us.  Five stuffed grape leaves pinwheel a clump of mayonnaise with a lemon on top.  While we're pretty sure that Alex Guarnaschelli received at least double this amount on Best Thing I Ever Ate (false advertising!), we dig in expectantly.  After all, if Alex sent us all the way to Queens to eat these things, they must be unbelievably delicious, right?

Where's the Other Half of Our Serving?
The dolmades yialantzi are fine - they're lukewarm (as is just about all the food and drinks at Agnanti), so we're unsure if they're meant to be served hot or cold.
Mild-Mannered Grape Leaves
Stuffed with chewy rice, they have an overbearing lemon-dill flavor, which is combatted somewhat by the mayonnaise that we scoop on top.  Thankfully, they are not slimy or mushy, as Ginger had feared, but they are also simply not that outstanding.  They are okay, and they are definitely not worth the trek into Queens.
Clearly, We Have No Knife Skills
The rest of our meal is similarly average.  The Greek salad features large chunks of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onion, and while it is good because anything featuring feta cheese has a leg up on other dishes, but it is nothing to write home (dear sweet Manhattan) about.
Are Those Tomatoes Supposed to Be Bite-Size?
Vodka orders the cheese savagli (phyllo dough stuffed with "various cheeses") and Ginger, the Bourek (pastry "pie" stuffed with chicken), both of which we feel should taste better than they do based on their concepts (though admittedly, the more of our watering can of wine we drink, the better they taste).  Indeed, if the two dishes could be combined in some way, we think they would benefit, as the cheese savagli is in need of some protein and the Bourek of some rich flavor.
So Much Potential
Cue the Opening to "Mrs. Lovett's Meat Pies"
Alas, this Greek cuisine is not doing much to impress us today, and not just because we already feel half a world away from our homeland.

At the end of the meal, we receive a complimentary dessert plate with two kinds of cake, yogurt, and marinated grapes.  We soon realize why the plate has been sent gratis, as the cake is so dry and presumably stale that we're certain it was used to help take down the Roman Empire.
Cake In Need of a Good Moisturizer
Packing our things, we retreat back to the underground subway system of Manhattan, more assured than ever that we should not cross the East River again for a long, long time.

Agnanti Meze's Dolmades Yialantzi: 3 stars

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hundred Dollar Gnocchi

Toasted Ricotta Gnocchi -- Jane

"They put us at the date table," Vodka texts Ginger upon being seated at Jane.  "Try not to put the moves on me."

When Ginger shuffles through the door 10 minutes later, she finds Vodka at the corner table, empty seat next to her on the booth.  Date night, indeed.

As Ginger flops down, Vodka, who wilts like expired basil in the Manhattan summer, prattles on about already downing our entire liter of ice water and "God forbid they bring me another one."

We are off to a fortuitous start.

For the past few years, we have avoided Jane due to their refusal, during our last visit, to serve us alcohol on a Sunday before noon (which we understand is the stupid Prohibition-era law, but certainly not one that should be abided by).  However, we are back and willing to give them another shot in the name of consuming Danny Boome's pick from the ORIGINAL Best Thing I Ever Ate special, the toasted ricotta gnocchi.
We'll Take 18 Bowls, Please
First things first, we order our cocktails, and Ginger has to settle for half of her moniker (gin) as there is no ginger-based item on the menu.  Her pomegranate-gin concoction causes Vodka to sporadically call out "It's Gin O'Clock" (a phrase she picked up from the fake Queen of England Twitter account -- @Queen_UK -- you'll thank me later) at random intervals.  Vodka's Passion cocktail is much more agreeable (read: sweet), and more importantly, contains vodka.  Ginger attempts to raise her glass to send "Cheers" to our afternoon, but her sentiment is shot down by Vodka, who instead swats Ginger's hand out of the way of the picture she is trying to take.
The Result of This Bullying
As our drinks arrive, we decide that we need to figure out the schedule and logistics of our upcoming weeks of eating while still sober.  Unfortunately, this plan goes down the drain when we can't manage to keep our fists off our glasses for more than one minute at a time, so lord knows where our drunkenly-planned itinerary will take us in the weeks ahead.

Apparently continuing the theme of date night, Ginger soon finds herself both scooping olive oil off of Vodka's bread plate and ordering Vodka's lunch like a domineering husband: two happenstances, along with our cozy table, that as usual, no one finds as hilarious as we do.

When our toasted ricotta gnocchi arrive, we stare at the bowls in awe for a few moments.  A pile of extra-large, thick, incredibly rich and  artery-clogging gnocchi stand before us, dripping in white truffle cream and a healthy dose of Parmesan cheese.
Jumbo Gnocchi
The cream-based sauce is so rich that yellow butter rivers can still be seen floating through it, and the gnocchi itself has been browned just enough to add a mild crunch and prevent the dreaded gnocchi mushiness.
Everything's Better with Butter
The gnocchi is downright out of this world.

With an almost cake-like texture, the pasta is much more pleasant than we ever expected, having been accustomed to potato gnocchi and unsure of how this ricotta concoction would work.  The sauce, which at first looks heavy-handed, is soon scooped up on each gnocchi piece until it takes every ounce of willpower for us not to lick the bowl clean.  The dish is beyond filling, a guilty pleasure if there ever was one.  But it is incredibly worth it.
And PS We Pretty Much Licked the Bowls Clean
When our bill arrives, we, as per usual, experience issues trying to figure it out (and our cocktails have certainly not helped matters).  Ginger goes on a rant about how lunchtime beverages should not cost $12 (a logical argument coming from a strict day drinker), and indeed, our $87 bill for lunch, before tip, seems steep.

But would we pay it again in order to experience this Best Thing I Ever Ate masterpiece (which, be forewarned, is only available for lunch)?
A Reminder of the Greatness
Anything for the love of gnocchi, my dear.  Anything for the love of gnocchi.

Jane's Toasted Ricotta Gnocchi -- 5 stars*

*Certifiable Best Thing We Ever Ate

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cutting Coconut with a Chain Saw

Coconut Layer Cake - Smith and Wollensky
Smith and Wollensky

Wine and steak: two things Smith and Wollensky do right.

Everything else: major room for improvement.

First a rant from Vodka: as someone who has a tendency to arrive early in life, she despises when restaurant policy forbids her from occupying her reserved table until the rest of her party arrives.  She understands the rationale when the establishment, say, does not take reservations, or when the dining room is full.  But when Vodka arrives at Smith and Wollensky fifteen minutes early for her and Ginger's reservation, the dining room is a ghost town.  Yet despite Vodka's protests, the host insists she sit at the bar until the rest of her party arrives.  UNCOOL, Smith and Wollensky.  Major demerit.
Time to Drown My Frustration in Wine
However, we are not at Smith and Wollensky merely so Vodka can complain about the seating policy.  We are here to try Anne Burrell's chosen LOCAL FAVORITE dish, the coconut layer cake.  Full disclosure: neither of us particularly like coconut, but we'll scarf down anything in the name of Food Network list completion.
Our Wine Glasses are Procreating
Figuring that the gods of Smith and Wollensky would not look kindly upon us trying to order only dessert at their steakhouse, we go during Restaurant Week, when the coconut layer cake is thankfully available as a prix fixe dessert option.  It is only after the waiter distributes the two versions of the menu - the real menu (secure in a heavy wood picture frame and glass) and the Restaurant Week menu (a miniscule piece of paper that looks like it was used as cow's cud) - that we begin to feel like third-class citizens.
Apparently, We Have a Seat in Coach
Drowning our sudden inferiority in a bottle of wine ("Roaring Meg."  If only one of us were named 'Meg'), we dig into the bread basket and appetizers (split pea soup, gazpacho, and Caesar salad), all of which have a distinct aroma of "blah."  Having been ruined by the delectability of the Scarpetta bread basket for life, this one pales in comparison.
All Together Now: Meh
The split pea soup (which Ginger insists on eating despite the 90-degree outside temperature, as she is suddenly a Ph.D. in biology who knows how to "regulate" her internal thermometer) features identical croutons as those featured on the Caesar Salad (which consists of a depressing display of limp greenery), and the croutons might as well have been pulled from a Pepperidge Farm box for their level of originality.
This Salad Looks a Bit Long in the Tooth
The split pea soup is tasty, but, in Ginger's expert opinion, split pea soup is hard to mess up.  Our guest orders the gazpacho, a food neither Ginger nor Vodka is crazy about as a concept.  He remarks that the gazpacho is not cold enough (or perhaps this is Ginger's comment after tasting with boiled peas in her mouth).  Otherwise, the gazpacho is very red and too smooth.
As Opposed to Very Green and Smeary
Eventually, our steaks (the only Restaurant Week option: filet mignon) arrive, and true to reputation, they are delicious.  While we are far from vegetarians, we are also not much of steak eaters, but we have to admit that these hunks of meat are more satisfying than most.
Meat Madness
Thickly sliced, they crunch on the outside and ooze with each stab of the knife, and they are perfectly complemented by the house steak sauce.  These filets could almost make us into regular steak eaters.
The Better to Eat You With, My Dear
And then, in a matter of seconds, Smith and Wollensky banishes the memory of these scrumptious steaks with the most displeasing slices of coconut layer cake known to man.

As previously stated, we are not big into coconut, more due to the texture than the flavor.  However, the coconut itself is far from the main issue with this cake.

The larger problem is that the plates look like they were assembled by three-year-olds.
Cake Cutting with a Fisher Price Knife
Uneven slabs of cake, which we're pretty sure were sliced with a chain saw, lay on the plates - far from centered and even further from appealing.  They are spread with a greenish yellow goo that has the distinct look of something that could be found on a Nickelodeon game show.
You've Been Slimed
The cakes in front of us are so absurdly opposite of the masterpieces of pastry presented on both Best Thing I Ever Ate and on the display tray at the front of the restaurant that it's almost laughable.  Almost.

We understand that Restaurant Week is, for the most part, a joke in New York -- that restaurants hardly ever deliver the same quality to the Restaurant Week crowd that they do on a non-discount basis, but this is pathetic.  Our plates are reminiscent of the carelessly hacked slabs of cake available on the dessert counter in a college cafeteria, the ones that remind you that are are oh-so-far from your mother's loving kitchen.  It is just sad.

As if all of this visionary displeasure weren't bad enough, there is nary a scoop of ice cream to be found with this slab of cake.  As the Restaurant Week menu blatantly states, the coconut layer cake is served "WITH VANILLA ICE CREAM."  Except ours, which for unknown reasons features lime green slime instead of refreshing ice cream.

The entire dessert is a visual mess of epic proportions.
Not to Mention Our Initial Issue with the Slathering of Coconut
Tasting this monstrosity, we find that the goo is some sort of passion fruit-flavored disaster (which Ginger does not find any more offensive than the cake itself, but which makes Vodka want to throw the whole thing at her host friend).  The flavor of the cake (barring the goo) is not bad, but it is also far from good, far from enticing, and so very, very far from the best thing we have ever eaten.  (Even our esteemed guest, who enjoys coconut, is underwhelmed by the flavor and equally appalled by the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am presentation).

Perhaps the whole thing could have been saved by our promised scoops of vanilla ice cream.  But unfortunately, it seems Smith and Wollensky is too busy sharpening their chain saws and hacking through cake to deliver on what is promised to their (third-class Restaurant Week) patrons.

We knew we never liked coconut.

Smith and Wollensky's Coconut Layer Cake: 2 stars

Monday, July 18, 2011

What Else Can You Put Kahlua In?

Cannoli -- Caffe Dante
Caffe Dante

The fact that we have consumed two desserts and three cocktails (not to mention, oh, a burger and fries) so far today does not deter us from venturing to one last stop on our day's itinerary: Caffe Dante for a cannoli, about which Alex Guarnaschelli raved on the very first ORIGINAL Best Thing I Ever Ate special, before the concept was turned into a series.
And Before We Started Eating Our Weight in Pastries
Feeling no obligation to sober up, we peruse the drink options.  When Ginger settles on a cappuccino with kahlua, Vodka asks our waitress if the cappuccino can be made with skim milk (lest you think Vodka has suddenly become vain after a full day of downing calories willy nilly, the truth is that anything but skim milk makes her want to gag).

"We don't carry skim milk," the waitress proclaims.  Having now cut her "cocktail" options in half, Vodka asks the only logical follow-up question:

"What else can you put kahlua in?"

The waitress suggests an Americano, which proves to be a delectable choice.  If only these booze-soaked cocktails had been Alex Guarnaschelli's Caffe Dante menu choice -- they would have been strictly 5 stars.
One of These Things Doesn't Taste Like the Others
Unfortunately for all involved, she chose the cannoli.

Neither of us being of Italian heritage, we are not one with the cannoli culture.  While we have eaten them, and even enjoyed them (the ones from Ferrara Bakery have proven to be especially delicious), they would never be our first choice dessert.
Especially When We Prefer to Drink Our Calories
When Caffe Dante's cannoli arrives, a generous amount of filling spills out of either side of its open shell, and the whole thing is sprinkled with a heaping of powdered sugar.  Each taking a claim to a cannoli end, we stick our forks in, and our Tea and Sympathy facial expressions reveal themselves in reverse.
About to Join the Cast of the Real Housewives of New Jersey
While Vodka, who has tasted only the filling thus far, is content, Ginger is making all kinds of facial contortions of displeasure.  Insistent that there must be something wrong with Ginger's end of the cannoli, we spin the plate and switch sides.

Same result.

Eventually, we discover from where the difference of opinion is stemming: the cannoli shell, which Vodka has yet to try.  Breaking through with her fork, she samples it as Ginger looks on expectantly.

"Ugh" is Vodka's highly articulate reaction.

We have found the cannoli problem: the shell tastes like cleaning fluid mummified in Saran wrap.  Cannoli by Mr. Clean, if you will.
And Based on the Max Brenner Experience, We've Learned Not to Trust a Bald Man with Dessert
The shell is also not particularly crispy.  The cannoli seems to have met the sad fate of sitting too long, filled, under plastic wrapping in the fridge.

Perhaps tellingly, we, as often-certified members of the clean-plate club, do not even come close to finishing this item, and neither of us asks for it to be packed up in a doggie bag.
Poor Work, Team
The cream filling, which is perfectly acceptable if nothing special, is the only thing saving this cannoli from one-star status...

The cream filling, and more likely, the increasing effects of our kahlua-based beverages.

Caffe Dante's Cannoli: 2 stars

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Daddy-O's Landscaping

Herbacious Mojito -- Daddy-O

"I like cilantro, I don't like grass."

And so ends our foray into Daddy-O's cocktails.
Optical Illusion Cocktail Size
Let's backtrack: we enter Daddy-O because we need to try Anne Burrell's BEST I EVER DRANK choice, the herbacious mojito.  Truth be told, we are quite excited about this prospect, as we are certain that it will live up to a previous BEST I EVER DRANK winner, the grapefruit margarita from Barrio Chino (as chosen by Claire Robinson).

Not finding the herbacious mojito on the menu (for good reason, we later discover), Ginger, in a panic, asks the waiter if it is still available.  He assures us that it is, and stupidly, we each order one.

They arrive, each a mountain of pleasing green-colored crushed ice with a sprig of cilantro on top.  They are pretty enough for a picture, of which Vodka insists on taking at least seven before we taste.
Practically a Picasso
Word to the wise: never judge a cocktail by its beauty.

The herbacious mojito is a revelation: a revelation in the fact that we are apparently capable of not finishing an alcohol-based drink.
Not a Revelation We Were Eager to Learn
The green coloring does not lie: it tastes like a freshly-cut field of grass, like something you would find in a health food store that no one but people who like to torture themselves in the name of so-called "nutrition" would put in their bodies. The trouble is, we like herbs, lots of different kinds of herbs.  And we like many of these herbs in cocktails -- rosemary or basil can both make an interesting and delectable addition to a drink.  But sadly, here all we taste is grass.
Fields and Fields of Unending Grass
After a total of three torturous sips, Vodka shoves her mojito to Ginger to finish, and flags the waiter down to order the Freddy Fudpucker (which, while definitely no worse than the herbacious mojito, is also not that great).
I'd Like to Have a Word with Freddy
Ginger manages, with great effort, to chug down her own herbacious mojito, but she cannot summon the strength to make it through Vodka's.
Particularly Because the Straw Doesn't Reach the Bottom of the Glass
And clearly, the fact that, for once in our lives, we can't finish our cocktails shows just how dire the situation is.
And Again, Look at the Faulty Straw Manufacturing
While Ginger goes off in search of a bathroom, our waiter comes by and inquires about our half-filled glass of mojito.

"You didn't like it?" he asks Vodka.  She shakes her head in disgust.

"You must not like cilantro," he continues.

"I like cilantro, I don't like grass," Vodka retorts.  The waiter backs away, presumably to retrieve the lawnmower that he used to make our cocktails.

Daddy-O's Herbacious Mojito: 1 star