Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Into the Boroughs: Brooklyn -- Where the Tomatoes and Onions Cost $15

Sizzling Bacon -- Peter Luger
Peter Luger

Maybe -- just maybe -- we are a tad on the over-dramatic side when it comes to going to Brooklyn.  After all, we have made it all the way across the country and up and down the east coast for eating purposes, and we have not murmured so much as a peep about travel inconvenience and our sudden onset of "There's no place like home"-itis.

But you ask us to cross the East River, and we turn into whiny brats.
A BRIDGE?!  What Do You Mean We Have to Go Over a BRIDGE?!
It's just that we don't really "get" Brooklyn -- we like a borough where the streets are gridded and the subway stays mostly underground and the word "hipster" isn't graffitied across every available surface.  That's just us.  When we get to Brooklyn, we are out of our element, because in the words of Ginger, "Our element is at home on our couches."
This = Not Us
Anyway, against all odds, we decide to venture to Brooklyn for the first time on this eating tour in order to go to Peter Luger for Michael Psilakis's Best Thing I Ever Ate HIDDEN TREASURES dish, the sizzling bacon.
Do They Not Serve Pig Anywhere in Manhattan?
After an extremely detailed email exchange concerning our travel itinerary that would make one think that we are venturing to the southern-most tip of South America, rather than on the M train, we manage to meet in the first car of the same subway train and make it one stop deep within the heart of Brooklyn.
Cut To: Frantic Whisper-Yelling "Where Do We Go? Where Do We Go? Where Do We Go?"
Naturally, our first instinct upon exiting the train is to start complaining ("I am not comfortable with how narrow this subway platform is!  No wonder people are always falling on the tracks!"), and thanks to the massive billboards that Peter Luger has plastered across the neighborhood, we find the place without much incident.
This Would Be a Bad Time to Experience a Case of Vertigo
Much to our astonishment, the place is packed -- PACKED -- at our 4:45pm reservation time.  Apparently, Brooklyn is the place to be if you want to eat dinner four hours before the sun sets.
Peter Luger: The King of the Early Bird Non-Special
After an entirely too confusing situation of checking in and then loitering aimlessly in the bar area, we are led to our table in one of Peter Luger's back rooms.  In said room, we find a much more varied group of diners than we had expected.  To us, Peter Luger is an "old boys club" -- a place where men like to come to gnaw on steak bones and pretend they live in 1945.  There are, naturally, quite a few tables of such displays of masculinity, but there are just as many tables stuffed with kids.  For once, we are fairly certain we won't be the most annoying patrons in the restaurant (though we'll certainly make a go of it).
Apparently We're Not the Only Ones Trying to Leave Brooklyn Before Dark
We peruse the wine list and settle on the second cheapest bottle on the menu (last of the big time spenders), and for many minutes, we sit twiddling our thumbs and waiting.
Hi, Yes, We're Ready to Drink Now Please
"How do we get a real menu?" Ginger asks no one in particular.

"A menu?  How do we get a WAITER?  Water?  Bread?" Vodka pipes up. 

Clearly, leaving Manhattan has done nothing to curb our intense level of impatience.
Napkin Folding Is Not a Skill Which Is Valued Here
Eventually, a waiter brings over two slightly shredded paper menus that have obviously been around for as long as Peter Luger itself.
Printed on the Same Paper as the Magna Carta
Now, as past grumblings have established, we are not exactly steak people.  It's not that we dislike steak exactly -- we just never, ever crave it.  For this reason, Ginger is trying to start off our waiter's attitude towards us on a hostile note by ordering a Caesar salad, along with our sizzling bacon appetizer.
"I'll Be Eating Two Slices of Fat for Dinner, Thanks!"
"No meat?" the waiter asks.

"I got the bacon," Ginger retorts.  Vodka, for the sole reason that she has no plans to ever come back to Peter Luger and thus wants to go out with a bang, orders the single small steak.  Our waiter gives us the side-eye that quite obviously translates to "cheapskates," and he pours our bargain basement wine into our glasses begrudgingly.
"Hey Bus Boy, Give This Table the Day-Old Bread"
A bread basket is soon deposited on our table, featuring three different kinds of carb-laden goodness.  Ginger is quite pleased by the selections, dunking them in a half gallon of the Peter Luger steak sauce which rests on our table, while Vodka finds them all various degrees of "stale."
At Least They Gave Us Two Each of Everything So We Don't Have to Fight Each Other to the Death
Before we can analyze the bread too much, however, our waiter returns with two strips of the sizzling bacon, along with the tomato and onion slices which Michael Psilakis specified should be ordered along side of it.
One of These Plates...
...Is Not Like the Other
Now, said tomato and onion slices are $15 -- $15! -- which is even more than the bacon itself.  Does produce have an extra tax added for making its way across the river on the M train?  What is the reasoning behind this price gouging?!
We'll Hand It To Them for the Knife Skills Displayed Here, but Really Now....
Luckily for Mr. Luger, the tomatoes and onions, just as Michael Psilakis had promised, prove to be the perfect accompaniment to the bacon, along with the famous steak sauce (which, to be honest, tastes almost exactly like cocktail sauce and makes us long for a cocktail of the shrimp variety).
Where's the Shellfish?
Misleading, If Delicious, "Steak" Sauce
The bacon itself, while tasty enough, is rather fatty and not the crispy texture that we prefer.  But, when combined with the veggies and sauce, it morphs into a perfect bite of food.
Cut Up As If Being Served to a Preschooler
Okay, Brooklyn -- not a bad showing for your first time out.  It doesn't mean we're coming back here, it just means we don't hate you.  Yet.
Though If You'd Like to Offer Us a Discount on Those Tomatoes and Onions, We Won't Object
Plowing on through our meal, Ginger's Caesar salad is also rather excellent -- crunchy and creamy, unlike the greasy and damp varieties that we have tasted as of late.
Note: Apparently When Ginger Is Handed the Camera...
...She Only Likes to Take EXTREME CLOSE-UPS
Vodka's steak, in contrast, is good -- well, when it's dunked in enough "cocktail" sauce -- but it is certainly no better than a steak one could find in multiple locations on the western shore of the East River.
Who Serves Steak with a Spoon?!
It has a slight crispiness to the outer skin, and is tender on the inside, but despite Vodka's request to cook it "medium," the steak seems much more overdone than that.
Allegedly, This Steak Is Medium...
...This Steak Is Not Medium
Considering that these cuts of beef are what Peter Luger is known for -- you know, being that it's a STEAK HOUSE and all -- something is decidedly off.
Ah Well, Hand Over More Cocktail Sauce, We'll Make Do
By this point in the meal, we are decidedly jollier, due more to our bottle of wine being empty than any of the food on our table.  Therefore, when our waiter returns (albeit reluctantly), Vodka asks if we can just have a bowl of the homemade "schlag" (whipped cream) for dessert.

"You need to get a dessert to get the schlag," he answers.

"Well, how much are the desserts?"  (The undertone being "If it's more than those $15 tomato slices, we're high-tailing it back to Manhattan").


"Fine, we'll take the sundae."
Truth Be Told, We Probably Would Have Paid $11 for JUST Whipped Cream
Minutes later, the "Holy Cow" Hot Fudge Sundae arrives, and it is a thing of beauty.  The glass itself is draped in chocolate sauce, stuffed with vanilla ice cream, and topped by a gigantic mound of "schlag."  The creation is really so stupendous that on its own, it might warrant a return to Brooklyn.

By other people.  Not by us, but by other people.
An Impressive Amount of Sugar
Along with the sundae comes a dark chocolate cow and four gold chocolate medallions.  We stuff them in our purse for sustenance on our journey home, and in a show of goodwill, our waiter loads us down with four more on our way out the door.
All of Peter's Steak Fortune Is Being Pilfered Into Personalized Chocolates
So THIS Is What the High-End Produce Pays For!
And so it seems we have made it quite obvious to all that when it comes to Brooklyn, we need to be bribed with free treats in order to make our way off of our own little island.

Treats, and a whole day''s pay worth of tomatoes.  

Peter Luger's Sizzling Bacon: 4 stars

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Only Thing We Hate More Than a $16 Bread Basket Is a Bathroom Attendant

French Fries -- Balthazar
We will admit it up front: we have a personal vendetta against Balthazar.

Now, there are many things with which we could take umbrage concerning the place:

1. Their Soho location, causing us to trip constantly over mismatched cobblestones,
2. A seating arrangement that makes airplane configurations seem "spacious," and
3. Their rather pretentious air of "We think we're French, even more than the French do," which permeates the entire place. 
In Balthazar, These Would Be Called "French Flowers"
But none of these details alone would be enough to keep us from returning to Balthazar.  Instead, the main culprit in our grudgery is a little thing called the "Balthazar bread basket."

With All That Money, You'd Think They Could Afford Something Better Than Dishcloths for Napkins
Yes, that is correct -- $16 for a pile of goodness that any respectable establishment would provide for free.  Actually, we retract that statement -- said bread basket, all $16 of it, is not actually that "good."

It's "fair" at best.  Verging on "poor."

It also COSTS $16.

Obviously, few things make us more bitter than having to pay for our carbs.
Presumably We'll Be Shelling Out Money for the Tap Water Next
So we arrive at Balthazar, pent-up bitterness boiling in the backs of our throats, and we are escorted to our table.  By some miracle, the hostess does not insist on squeezing us in between two already full tables, and for five glorious minutes, we have a whole area all to ourselves.

And then, like clockwork, Balthazar begins jamming 12 people into an area where only 6 should ever be. 
FYI, Our Table Is About 1/16 the Size of That Booth
We huddle over the wine list for entirely too long, Ginger trying to decide whether to order red or white, and Vodka discerning whether it makes more sense to order carafes or half bottles.  
"I Might Have to Go With -- " "A Half Bottle?" "I Was Going to Say 'White'"
We soon settle on two carafes of... well, one of the reds.  The one that was deemed by our waiter to taste the most like pinot noir.  And then -- you won't even believe it -- we get a bread basket.

A FREE bread basket.
What Is This Wizardry of Which You Speak?
Now, said basket does not feature oodles of pastry variations like the $16 version, but we never even knew Balthazar gave away any free bread at all!  We are temporarily elated, and the bread (especially after sprinkles of salt are added to the dreaded unsalted butter) is rather scrumptious.

Nicely done, Balthazar.  Way to redeem yourself.
That Wasn't So Hard Now, Was It?
Moving onto our entrees, we are here to eat Bobby Flay's Best Thing I Ever Ate TOTALLY FRIED dish, the French fries, so our main concern is what meal we can order and be guaranteed a plethora of said fries.  Ginger chooses the hamburger, and Vodka the moules frites ("Those are mussels right?  Not oysters?"  We're such gourmands).  In a matter of minutes, our table, which could pretty much fit half of a person comfortably, is overflowing with plates and utensils -- the bread basket, the butter, the wine carafe, two wine glasses, two water glasses, the burger, the mussels, three bowls in which to discard the mussel shells, the French fries, the mayonnaise, and a plethora of flatware.

Needless to say, we start dropping things pronto.
No More Room at the Inn
First things first, the French fries (which, naturally, Vodka douses in two tons of salt) live up to Bobby's description, primarily because they "taste like McDonald's version" (our highest compliment).  
So Essentially, Balthazar Is an Upscale Mickey D's
Light and somehow without grease, they are just crispy enough on the outside without becoming crunchy, and the variations in size and shape make for a pleasant experience.
Truth Be Told, We Really Meet Few French Fries With Whom We Don't Get Along
If we came back to Balthazar again, we would certainly order the fries.  But the jury is out on whether or not that set of circumstances will ever occur.
Do You Have a To-Go Window for JUST Fries?
Ginger is pleased by her burger, which is topped by lettuce, tomato, and onion (but not cheese, which Ginger did not want.  Vodka is predictably appalled).  
All These Years, She Thought "Hamburgers" Were an Urban Legend
It also comes with about a gallon of French fries on the side, so if nothing else, we give Balthazar 5 stars on their portions.
Mount Everest of Fries in Background
Now, Vodka's mussels, while certainly not bad, are not great either.  Rather lukewarm in temperature, they are also piled so high in their caldron that Vodka is a third of the way through the meal before she finds any sauce at all.  
Oh, THERE You Are, Sauce. We've Missed You
If anything, these mussels are hovering on the wrong side of "dry," so Vodka makes a great show out of consuming her cornucopia of fries for 45 minutes instead ("No, no, still working on those, bread boy").
Does This Look Empty to You?
As our meal winds down, we are -- if not HAPPY with Balthazar -- certainly less hostile towards them than we were walking in.  That is, of course, until we enter the bathroom and find an attendant.

And there are few things in the world that get on our nerves more than a bathroom attendant.  
We Hate Them Even More Than We Do Dry Mussels
We consider ourselves more than capable of finding our own paper towels without having to suffer the indignation of someone sitting outside the stall, listening to us pee.  So we fly in and out of the bathroom even more quickly than we would have if left to fetch our own soap.

And we don't leave the attendant a $16 tip either.

Balthazar's French Fries: 4 stars

Monday, June 3, 2013

So Bring On the Figgy Pudding

Warm Barbecue Potato Chips with Blue Cheese and Bacon Dip -- Blue Smoke

There is a reason it has taken us so long to make our way to Blue Smoke.  After all, in what normal universe would we object to consuming homemade potato chips, immediately, if not sooner?
Come At Us, Carbs
But Blue Smoke is not just a restaurant, but also a jazz club, and if there is one kind of music we... how to say politely?

Well, we hate jazz.
Hi, Yes, Do You Guys Have Any Showtunes?
For this reason, when Ginger arrives at our table (which Vodka had already made the hostess switch, when she tried to seat us next to a table of babies.  Homie don't play that), Vodka asks with mild panic in her voice, "Where does the jazz happen?"  (The implication being, "Please don't let it be anywhere near us").

Ginger waves her hand dismissively.  "In another room.  Don't worry.  We're not close to it."
We Have Restraining Orders Out Against Saxophones
With that assurance, we move onto the most important item on our agenda: cocktails.  And it is at this point that our waiter realizes he has a long night ahead of him.
Primarily Because We're Too Busy Reading the Coasters to Pay Attention to Him
Ginger, after trying to talk said waiter into giving us a happy hour special (and failing), orders a Dark and Stormy.  Vodka, however, is trying to discern which, if any, of the specialty cocktails are not sweet, and when our waiter answers, "Um, none of them," she asks if she can have the Porch Swing made with "more gin, less lemonade."
"So Pretty Much Just Bring Me Some Gin"
This comment, while made somewhat ("somewhat") in jest, actually seems to come to fruition, as the bartender's less-sweet creation is not only delicious, but deceivingly strong (it is also a very large pour, which is always appreciated).  Apparently, these are the kinds of beverages patrons need to consume in order to sit through seventeen rounds of jazz riffs.
Though Considering the Headaches We Had the Next Day, Perhaps Blue Smoke's "Gin" Is "Rubbing Alcohol"
With our cocktails squared away, we order Susan Feniger's Best Thing I Ever Ate FINGER FOOD dish, the warm barbecue potato chips with blue cheese and bacon dip.  Not really in the mood for Blue Smoke's classic barbeque delicacies, we debate for many, many minutes about what else to order.  And while heaven knows we love a fat-laden calorie, it is at this time that we realize just how HEAVY all of the items on Blue Smoke's menu are -- there is pretty much nothing one can order and still leave the place not feeling like she has gained multiple pounds.
So, we figure, when in Rome, go for the fried stuff.
Preparing to Become the Pillsbury Doughgirls
We ask our now long-suffering waiter (who has approached our table three times now asking for our entree order, and each time has been waved away with a murmur of "We're drinking") what Jackie's fry bread is, and when he describes it as a "savory doughnut," we're instantly sold.  Within minutes, our first round of food -- the chips and the fry bread -- appear, and we dive in.

Well, we attempt to dive in.

Only the food, the fry bread in particular, is astoundingly hot.  Like, so hot that it's pretty much impossible to touch, let alone eat.  And we are not fond of being delayed from stuffing food into our mouths.
Waiter, Return This Dish to the Kitchen Until It Is Appropriately Lukewarm
We reach for the more temperate of the two dishes, the homemade potato chips, which Ginger has actually had before and was less than overwhelmed by.  The first couple of chips make Vodka think that Ginger was being too picky -- warm with a slight hint of barbecue seasoning, the chips themselves are mostly vehicles for the blue cheese and bacon dip.
Dip = The Greatest Condiment
On their own, the chips aren't all that interesting, but when combined with the dip, it makes for a pleasing, if not entirely original, combination.
Anyone Have a Bag of Utz To Top These Off?
But as we reach the bottom of the bucket, the bigger problem with these chips begins to emerge.  Generally speaking, we're not all that into when restaurants make their own potato chips for a few reasons:

1. They're usually overcooked...
2. ...And yet somehow soggy....
3. And the longer they sit, the more tightly they all stick together.

And indeed, all of these problems are true when it comes to Blue Smoke's chips.
This Dish Would Be More Appropriately Called "Warm Barbecue Potato CHIP"
By the bottom of the barrel, they are essentially one solid mass of greasy chip, in desperate need of some crispiness.  And based on the gallon of blue cheese dip we still have left, Blue Smoke needs some work when it comes to appropriate portions.
So Are We Just Supposed to Spoon The Rest of This DIRECTLY Into Out Mouths?!
When the fry bread has finally cooled down for us to taste, we are instantly disappointed.  The stuff is indeed like a doughnut in texture -- fluffy and soft and just barely fried on the outside.
A Glazed Doughnut Sans the Glaze
But it is so ridiculously BLAND that Vodka ends up using Blue Smoke's entire condiment collection in order to try to bring some flavor to the stuff (for the record, the salt is, naturally, the most effective).
Something In This Contraption Has Got to Have Some Taste to It
You Keep Your Magic Dust, Blue Smoke -- We'll Take Your Salt
At this point, not entirely impressed by Blue Smoke's food selection so far, we opt for a second round of cocktails, a Caesar salad, and an order of sticky toffee pudding.  The salad is decidedly "blah" -- essentially hunks of romaine hearts, hacked into pieces and sprinkled with an oily dressing and grocery store-style croutons.
We Pretty Much Ordered This Because It Was the Only Thing Not-Fried-Within-an-Inch-of-Its-Life on the Menu
We consume it half-heartedly, partially because we are already somewhat full from our foray into fried foods, but mostly because we think it could stand for a bit (okay, a ton) more dressing.
Is THIS What All the Extra Blue Cheese Dip Was For?!
However, lest you think everything (except the cocktails) at Blue Smoke is verging on the side of Average-to-Poor, we still have to contend with the sticky toffee pudding.  And this thing is a bit of majesty.
The Crown Jewels
Truth be told, we're not exactly sure what sticky toffee pudding is -- only that it's an English dessert (a fact we know because we consumed it in the England section of Epcot).  Indeed, multiple times through the course of the evening, we end up referring to it as "figgy pudding," and thus launching into confused versions of Christmas carols.
"How's It Go? 'Bring On the Figgy Pudding?'" "Bring US Some Figgy Pudding. Not Bring ON."
But despite our confusion, we are in love with this dessert -- the cake portion is moist yet sturdy, the accompanying toffee sauce is just sweet enough, and the sprinkle of pecans and whipped/sour cream over top pull the whole thing together.
Everything's Better with a Dollop of Cream
THIS, Susan Feringer, is 5 stars.  Those pesky potato chips are decidedly not.

Admittedly more than buzzed from our two cocktails, we make a great show about screwing up our bill, Vodka launches into a convoluted tale about hair care ("In a manic episode while drinking a lot of caffeine, I bought a hair dryer"), and Ginger begins hoarding Blue Smoke's toothpicks (which Vodka is convinced are matches, and thus accuses Ginger of taking up smoking).
Ginger Didn't Light the Fire
Needless to say, the Blue Smoke staff can't seem to get rid of us fast enough.  And lucky for us, we manage to trip our way out of the place before a single note of the dreaded jazz music hits our ears.

Blue Smoke's Warm Barbecue Potato Chips with Blue Cheese and Bacon Dip: 3 stars