Category Archives: Mediterranean

Tambour Bistro & Wine Bar

Tambour Bistro and Wine Bar is a cool spot that serves up some great Mediterranean style eats in Brooklyn. They have a great deal going on: for $120 you get an appetizer, a dry-aged porterhouse steak from Romeo Brothers (Bensonhurst meat shop), a side and a dessert.

My wife and I came in to try this stuff out. Here’s what we had.

First, some nice wines. I had a Rioja and my wife had a white that I can’t pronounce.

The mussels here are incredible. Make sure you ask for a spoon to slurp up the sauce at the bottom of the bowl. There’s white wine, roasted chili peppers and herbs in that crack sauce.

This arugula salad was simple and refreshing, with kalamata olives, feta cheese, pickled shallots, English cukes and marinated baby tomatoes.

Next up was the main event: a 70-day dry-aged porterhouse, served Florentine style, with charred lemons and rosemary.

This thing was a real beauty. Perfectly cooked with that great brown Maillard crust on it.

There was a lot of earthy funk on this from the aging process, so wiping an occasional bite across the charred lemon was a great way to cut the fat and funk with a pop of brightness.

We finished every bite. I highly recommend this steak. 9/10.

On the side we had the asparagus with crumbled parmesan cheese. That’s an Italian chimichurri sauce in the back. Basil, oregano, lemon, etc. Great with the steak actually.

For dessert, we had this perfectly executed creme brûlée.

This baby was big, creamy and flavorful.

I will definitely be back here to try their bacon as well as some other cuts of steak. I suggest you give it a shot too, especially if you live in the area.

TAMBOUR BISTRO & WINE BAR
652 5th Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11215

Tessa

TESSA is a modern Mediterranean tavern on the upper west side that blends southern French and Italian cuisines. Their opening in April 2014 was the culmination of a years-long journey by first-time restaurateur, Larry Bellone, and long-time restaurateur, Will Tracy. The joint is named after Larry’s daughter. Will has been involved in the restaurant business for over 30 years.

Executive Chef Eric Cope has been at the helm since the beginning. Before his position here, Eric worked for the Rancho Bernardo Inn in his hometown of San Diego. The Pastry Chef is Yarisis Jacobo, and the Sous Chef is Ray Martinez.

The industrial and rustic interior design is absolutely stunning, and you can see the immaculate kitchen through the massive windows downstairs if you use the spotless-clean bathrooms.

The bar is really beautiful too, and the cocktail list is inventive. I tried three drinks (Kilt & Dagger, 349 and UWS Manhattan), and they were all delicious.

But let me get to the food, because that’s what you really care about the most, right? We started with three apps.

Salmon Tartare

This was nice and fresh. It had a middle-eastern flavor profile, especially when eaten with the soft naan-like scallion pita bread with which it was served. The pomegranate, cucumber, pearl onion, black sesame and saffron aioli really worked well together.

Octopus

This a la plancha style octopus was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. It was really nice! It’s served with marble potato salad, fried capers, black garlic puree and aged balsamic. This was my favorite of the apps.

Mussels

These “drunken” Hollander mussels were beautiful. The broth boasts tequila, tomato, garlic, kafir lime leaf, dried guajillo and cilantro. Super aromatic and tasty.

Next up we tried a duo of appetizer-sized pasta dishes (half of what you’d get for a full order). I must say, the app sizes were generous!

Duck Spaghetti

This was really good, and was offered as a special for the night. Duck sausage and duck confit lent a great savory component to the dish, complementing the fresh greenery of peas and fried basil.

Lobster Rye Trumpet

This beautiful rye pasta dish was topped with a generous amount of lobster for an appetizer portion. This was the better pasta of the two, for me. It was tossed with chanterelle mushrooms, celery root, chorizo, buerre blanc and chives.

We shared two entrees.

Long Island Duck

First, and actually my favorite between the two, was the duck. The breast was rendered perfectly, leaving just a layer of crisp skin above the tender, expertly cooked meat. This was served with a spiced honey sauce, a few crispy duck confit ravioli, baby carrots, cipollini onions and tarragon. The sweet and savory contrast to this dish was so amazing. I’d go back for this in a heart beat.

Cote de Boeuf

This beauty is pre-sliced and 32oz on the bone. Take a closer look at the meat though.

A little closer…

There you go! It’s a 45 day dry-aged DeBragga rib eye that carries a great earthy and funky flavor. The crust on this thing was excellent, and perfectly seasoned. It comes with roasted garlic, crispy fried shallots and  roasted bone marrow. 8/10.

This was a great steak, but I was really torn between ordering this or the other two beef options that were on the menu: a hanger steak frites and a 45-day dry aged strip steak. Next time.

We also tried the fries and shaved Brussels on the side. Both were great, but I only snapped the fries.

In the background, you can also see some grilled romaine lettuce which came with the steak (along with a nice reduction-style steak sauce, and the sun dried tomato chimichurri that usually accompanies the steak frites).

To finish off the meal, we tried two desserts.

Bomboloni

I’m usually not a fan of ordering doughnuts at a restaurant. I always end up liking doughnuts from specialty shops better. But these ones were incredible. It was tough to choose a favorite between the two styles (vanilla cream vs glazed). Both were incredible, and came with a hazelnut anglaise dipping sauce.

Coconut Cheesecake Sundae

Yes, you read that right. It’s coconut sorbet with malted vanilla sauce, diced mango and macadamia crunch. Really inventive, refreshing and exotic.

Is that everything? I think it is. But I want more. I highly recommend this place. The quality of the food and attentiveness of service is top notch. You won’t be disappointed.

TESSA
349 Amsterdam Ave
New York, NY 10024

Cafe Istanbul

Cafe Istanbul is a brand new middle eastern joint in Astoria that offers late hours, belly dancers, hookahs and great food.

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The owner, Sonny, is from Bombay, India. His love of food began when his mother inspired him to cook at age 15. Owning and operating a restaurant was his dream.

Chef Fathi hails from Egypt. Prior to Cafe Istanbul, he was a 13-year veteran of another popular middle eastern restaurant in Astoria. His cooking style is a blend of Mediterranean, Egyptian and Turkish cuisine.

The air in Cafe Istanbul is filled with delicious aromas and the sweet smells of hookah smoke. The best move is to get a few different teas and order a hookah right off the bat, that way you can sip and puff throughout the entire meal.

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I tried three teas: Moroccan, Egyptian and Turkish. My favorite was the Egyptian, which was similar to a sweet black tea. If you want something more mild, then go for the Moroccan tea, which is similar to a green tea variety.

We started the meal with some baba ganoush and  hummus, both of which were fantastic.

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I, in particular, really enjoyed the baba ganoush. I’m generally not an eggplant fan, but it was creamy, smooth and flavorful.

We slurped on some garlicky lentil soup as well, which was really warming on such a frigid winter night.

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We tried a duo of these wrapped “cigar” apps too. One was filled with melty, stretchy cheese, and the other with ground, spiced chicken. Both were good but if I had to choose a favorite, it would be the cheese.

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This simple chopped salad of lettuce, tomato, cukes, herbs and dressing was certainly my speed as far as salads go. I don’t like overly complicated salads with unidentifiable greens lurking within.

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We tried three entrees. First, the Istanbul steak:

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This was a thin cut boneless rib eye steak that was coated with a variety of very interesting spices – like sumac – grilled up, and then sprinkled with finishing herbs. At just $21 this is a good deal, and the robust and unique flavor profile is a great way to dress up a cut of choice beef. Ours was cooked to medium, which was appropriate for this particular cut. As it turns out, the eye portion was slightly more flavorful than the cap, which is an interesting anomaly for me to note for future reference.

Next up: lamb chops.

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The platter contained a mix of both lamb T-bones and rib chops, all seasoned in a similar manner as the rib eye steak above, with sumac and interesting middle eastern spices. I think I actually enjoyed the lamb more than the steak! I know – blasphemy – but these guys really nailed it with the lamb.

The final entree was actually my favorite of the three: shrimp tagine.

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You guys must think I’m losing my mind: the steak guy, not only liking the lamb better than the beef, but liking the shrimp above all! What can I say? It was perfect. The shrimp were cooked just right, and the sauce in the tagine was a nice, thick, tomato-based stew that really hit the spot.

And the rice! I usually despise rice. It’s boring! But here, it was really tasty, and I found myself just spooning it into my mouth over and over, all by itself.

Dessert was fun. We did some more teas, and a trio of nice end-of-meal selections.

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Baklava: This still retained a crunch while also benefitting from a good coating of syrup/honey and flavorings.

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Creme brulee with assorted berries on top:

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This was much lighter and fluffier than all the creme brulees I’ve had in the past. I liked it a lot! Sometimes custard can be heavy at the end of a meal, but this was the opposite.

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And almond rice pudding.

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This was actually my favorite of the three, because it was the least sweet. It was just right after a good meaty meal; delicate and mild.

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Definitely give this place a shot; especially if you’re out in Astoria on a regular basis. Heck; from midtown it was just a quick 30 minute subway ride and walk combined. Right now they’re open from 2pm to 2am, but in the future they will be open for lunch, and eventually breakfast as well.

Note: I was invited to dine as a guest of this establishment and received a complimentary meal. This was not in exchange for a positive review; all opinions expressed are my own.

CAFE ISTANBUL
25-47 Steinway St
Astoria, NY 11103

Bustan

Bustan means “garden” or “orchard” in Hebrew, Arabic and ancient Aramaic. The Upper West Side restaurant named as such boasts a pan-Mediterranean menu that features dishes from the shores of Southern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa, which are home to those languages. Bustan stands out in New York City’s sea of Mediterranean restaurants with its multicultural approach to food and drink, where diners are encouraged to explore and ask questions about their diverse menu.

My wife and I came in for Sunday brunch at noon and the place was already almost full. But the restaurant is spacious, so you won’t have to throw elbows just to cut your food. You may want to make a reservation, though, because the people who live in this neighborhood obviously know how good the food is at this joint.

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We started with a pair of bloody marys that had Mediterranean spiced rims.

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We enjoyed these. They had the right amount of heat, and the mix was a nice, thick, tomato blend that they must have made in-house, because it was really fresh.

Since I’m on drinks, I may as well mention that they have a really interesting and unique cocktail menu that further highlights Mediterranean flavors. And the bar is a great place to sit and eat as well. There’s a beautiful wide grey marble topper and plenty of seating. They also have a pretty incredible whisky selection as well.

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We snacked on some homemade focaccia bread before our entrees came out. This was spiced with the same stuff from the bloody mary rims, along with some toasted and minced rosemary. Really delicious! And its served warm, with a bowl of olives.

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We also tried these burekahs, which are spiraled rolls of doughy pastry style bread with feta and minced kalamata olives inside. Super tasty!

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I ordered the green shakshouka for my entree.

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Shakshouka is a baked egg dish from the region, often made with tomatoes. This green version featured creamed spinach, artichoke, fior di latte and white truffle oil. It also comes with homemade pita.

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I was half expecting something heavy and salty, given the cheese and cream elements, but this was light and mild. I really loved it, and the addition of truffle oil really brought a wonderful earthiness to the dish. All you people looking for a healthy protein boost, this is the way to go! There had to be about four or five eggs in this baby. You get a lot of satisfying food for your money with this dish ($18).

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My wife went with the potato pancakes entree. A large white plate is covered with one huge, crispy potato pancake, and then topped with two eggs (cooked any style you’d like) and three rolls of really high quality smoked salmon.

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The best way to enjoy this dish is to eat a little bit of everything with each bite, so that the saltiness from the cured salmon seasons the pancake and egg with a its natural brine.

This dish also comes with labaneh, which is a thick, tart, creamy, yogurt-like cheese that almost mimics the cream cheese that us NYC locals might eat with lox or smoked/cured salmon. It is a perfect pairing for this dish.

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But one other savory item that’s a must try here is the hummus.

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This stuff has won awards. In fact, I might as well mention Bustan’s overall awards for best restaurant in the upper west side (2014) and diner’s choice top 100 neighborhood gems in America (2015). This place is no joke.

Anyway, this hummus is super creamy, and the addition of tahini sesame paste gives it a massive flavor boost. I actually recommend getting this as an app for the table to share before diving into those delicious entrees.

But you absolutely MUST save room for dessert, because this next thing is my favorite ice cream dessert that I’ve ever had.

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It’s two scoops of vanilla gelato on a bed of candied pistachio nuts, dates and crisped rice, which is then topped with shaved halvah!

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It’s called the Turkish sundae, and I get really excited when I see halvah used in anything, since I always loved eating it as a kid.

Clearly I loved that dessert, but I’ll be back in very soon to try the sticky toffee pudding, which consists of dates, walnuts, banana and tiramisu gelato. In fact several items on their dessert menu are really interesting, as are the entrees. Bustan is truly breaking the mold for Mediterranean fare and offering up lots of dishes that celebrate the entire region’s diverse food culture. Get up here ASAP and eat!

Note: I was invited to dine as a guest of this establishment and received a complimentary meal. This was not in exchange for a positive review; all opinions expressed are my own.

BUSTAN
487 Amsterdam Ave
New York, NY 10024

Atlas Steakhouse

Atlas Steakhouse overall score: 78

My wife and I came to this Mediterranean style steak joint for a press meal. For us, heading out to Brooklyn is almost like a road trip, so we were looking forward to coming here and trying something new, outside the usual midtown hustle. This joint is a small mom-and-pop style restaurant, so it was a welcome change from the big mega steakhouses that are bankrolled by huge restaurant group chains in midtown. There aren’t many fine dining restaurants in this area of Brooklyn, so this is a welcome addition. It opened in the Summer of 2015 and seems to be doing well so far.

Flavor: 7
My wife and I split the tomahawk bone-in rib eye for two. The meat itself was nice and juicy, and had good flavor from the generous peppering. It could  have used a bit more crusting, but that’s not a big deal because there was very little bleed-out (as you can see from the photo of the plate below).

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Unfortunately, however, it was overcooked. We ordered it medium rare, and it came out closer to medium well. Part of that is due to the thickness of the cut (difficult to cook evenly throughout), but part was simply just a mistake in the kitchen.

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If I  had to guess what happened, based on how the meat looked when it came out, I’d say it was probably cooked to rare, then sliced and finished off under the broiler to bring it up a bit more. Aside from that, it was tasty.

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Each steak comes with four sauces. One is a horseradish sauce, one is steak sauce, one is peppercorn gravy and one is a tomato-based sauce. All were good, but I think I liked the steak sauce the best (left).

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Choice of Cuts & Quality Available: 7
There’s a good deal of options here. All the basics are covered for the major chops (plus a skirt), and there are various size and bone options for each. Very nice. Our cut didn’t have too much of the Spinalis cap, but from what I understand they offer table-side meat selection, so you can typically pick exactly the right cut for you. The website indicates that Atlas ages their steak on site, but I’m not certain whether the quality is prime or choice. The quality of fat on our cut was a bit more gristled than what I usually like, but not unacceptable by any means. There was very little waste on our place. We gobbled down everything. Some portions of the steak were a little bit grainy in texture, but I think that was because of the overcooking mishap.

Portion Size & Plating: 8
Portions are big here. Our rib eye was 48oz! And the plating is done nicely here because they use an elevated platter, that way the big steak plate doesn’t crowd the table and take up valuable dining space. I wish more steakhouses would do the same! Other than that, it is pretty basic. Nothing too fancy. Just simple and elegant.

Price: 9
The prices here are something you might expect in the suburbs. It’s refreshing to see a huge 48oz steak for two listed at just $76. Excellent! And it’s just a quick subway ride away on the B/Q. If you’re on a tighter budget but still looking for a pretty good steak, then this is your place.

Bar: 8
The bar is beautifully decorated. It’s situated near the street so you get some good light, and being located on a major street like Coney Island Avenue makes for a good place to pop in for a drink or a quick bite at the bar, especially if the live music is in session. They have a great looking burger selection on the menu. What better place to throw down on a lamb burger that at the bar?

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Specials and Other Meats: 7
There were no specials off the menu, but you can go with lamb, veal or chicken if you aren’t man enough for beef. They even offer some vegetarian options for the truly vaginal.

Apps, Sides & Desserts: 7
We started with the crab cake. This was a good size, and chock full of meat. It had a light crisp on the outside. I think it just needed a pop of some other kind of flavor inside. Perhaps a hit of spice like jalapeño or cherry pepper, or even some celery for a lithe more crunch.

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We also tried the Moroccan oxtail cigars. These are essentially egg roll wrappers that have a nice braised, tender, spiced oxtail meat inside. These were our favorite of the appetizers we tried.

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One of the highlights of this section is the mushroom and spinach gratin. Essentially this is creamed spinach with minced mushrooms in the mix. Absolutely delicious, and it’s one of the best spinach dishes I’ve had at a steakhouse! The big monster steak joints of Manhattan should take note of this gem of a dish. The mushrooms soak up tons of flavor, and the texture becomes dynamic rather than just a mushy goop. I loved it.

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For our first dessert, we tried this crepe cake with chocolate mousse in the layers. Beautiful.

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It was a bit more stiff in texture than I expected, likely because they have to prepare it well ahead of time and store it in the fridge, but I enjoyed it because it had great flavor and was something different from the standard, run-of-the mill steakhouse desserts like tiramisu, creme brûlée and flan.

Next up was yet another unique item, but this one was much more successful. The menu labels it a mango tiramisu, though it is more like a mango mousse re-invention of, or spin on, tiramisu.

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The mango and whipped cream mixture will take you back to the flavor of creamsicles from your childhood. Also there are little buried treasures hidden within the mousse: cream puffs!!! We absolutely loved this dessert. Coffee was good too. Strong!

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Seafood Selection: 7
There’s salmon, branzino and tuna on the entree menu, and a good deal of shellfish on the appetizer menu. Not a bad showing for a small steakhouse! This is on par with the big boys in midtown.

Service: 10
The service here is great. Our waitress had great suggestions for dessert, and everything was nicely timed and cleaned up quickly. They’re attentive, without being in your face.

The table bread was toasty warm – super fresh – and came with a delicious garlic herb butter.

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Ambiance: 8
This place has a really nice decor. It’s a great chic look, but still comfortable. I was very impressed at this place for being a small operation, and they’re truly done an amazing job with the space.

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Atlas also has live music in the evenings (smooth guitar, mellow saxophone and piano), and they just started offering brunch on weekends. They’re also affiliated with the newly restored King’s Theater nearby, which is beautiful. They are one of three vendors who are permitted to advertise and serve in the establishment. That’ll be great for business!

ATLAS STEAKHOUSE
943 Coney Island Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11230

Byblos

Byblos is a Lebanese restaurant on Madison between 28th and 29th that’s named after the ancient seaside town in Lebanon. For about 30 years the restaurant was located further east, until a nearby fire damaged the building, forcing the business to shutter for two years and eventually relocate.

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The old space was two floors, but the new space is a sprawling, roomy, single-floor expanse that feels so spacious it almost doesn’t fit within the NYC dining-scape. Not only can you stretch your arms out without hitting the next table, but every Saturday belly dancers can freely bound around the floor uninhibited by tables and servers as live music plays for guests.

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That bar, by the way, is home to tons of Lebanese wines that are difficult to find in the city. In fact about 70% of the wine list is Lebanese. Pretty cool, especially since the two glasses I had were both excellent (a Pinot Grigio and a blended red). From what I understand, Lebanese wines are only $6 a glass during their happy hour special. Here’s a look at a glass of one of those wines, with some fresh pita bread:

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The joint is owned by husband and wife Sabeh and Sonia Kachouh, who are both from Lebanon but met here in NYC. Sabeh, pictured below, is the chef, and Sonia runs the front of the house.

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My wife and I were invited here for a press dinner, at which we were able to sample a bunch of mezes, an entree, and a pair of desserts. I recommend getting a large group together and trying out a bunch of mezes when you go here, because they really are the star of the show. See what I mean? Look at all of us foodie assholes scrambling to take photos of them:

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This little platter here, with pepperoncini peppers, carrots, radish and pickled turnip, comes out before the start of the meal for fresh snacking:

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Here’s what we had for the press meal (with some additions I will discuss below):

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The hummus was really smooth, and seasoned just right. In the center was a mound of nicely cooked chic peas.

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The baba ghannouj was creamy and delicate. I typically don’t like eggplant too much, but this was flavorful, with olive oil and paprika on top:

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Muhammara might be my new favorite meze. This was made with red pepper, chic peas and walnuts. It was spicy, earthy and filling. It had a bit more of a granular, paste-like texture than the other dips, so it was substantial as a meal in itself:

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Zataar pies are really unique. Herbs like thyme and sumac jump out and attack your palate with zest. Sesame and olive oil round it out for a perfectly balanced flat bread appetizer. Awesome.

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The stuffed grape leaves here are better than other places where I’ve had them. Inside there are whole chic peas as well as rice and herbs. The leaves were very soft and tender, too, so these little bastards are easy to pop into your mouth over and over and over.

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This fattoush salad had a bright zing to it as well. It was topped with grilled chicken and toasted pita bread, but it was expertly dressed with just the right amount of citrus and herb dressing:

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The tabbouleh salad was a bit too heavy on the lemon for my liking. It was super zesty and bright. I realize that my preferences aren’t necessarily the same as others. I will say that all the ingredients within were fresh and flavorful, though.

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As we ventured on from the veggie mezes, our first meat course was kibbe with laban. This is ground lamb meatballs mixed with pine nuts and cracked wheat in a warm, tangy yogurt sauce. The texture was soft and the flavor was rich, just like an Italian meatball, but the sauce came with the zesty brightness typically associated with Mediterranean yogurt sauces.

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The mixed grill usually comes with three types of meat: lamb shish kebab, chicken shish taouk, and beef kafta kebab. We limited the selection to just the beef and lamb, however, so as not to waste any food (we were already pretty full going into this course). The kafta was really the star here. The minced beef was seasoned aggressively with spices like parsley and cumin, and it stayed juicy from the onion. The meat was super tender, too, and had a nice charred/grilled flavor on the outside.

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The lamb still had a bit of chew to it. Perhaps it could have benefitted from some tenderizer, or maybe a higher heat for a shorter amount of time for a medium rare center. This dish came with sides of rice pilaf and peas. The rice was delicious and cooked just right, with little bits of pasta within. The peas were overcooked for my liking, but they had a good green flavor to them.

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Dessert was definitely interesting here. So often the desserts I encounter at press dinners and other restaurants are the same old bullshit: tira misu, creme brûlée, chocolate lava cake, and on and on. Boring. But here, we sampled some stuff that is common to Lebanese cuisine.

For example, check out this homemade “cheese cake,” which is actually baked, semi-melty and semi-firm goat cheese with a bread crumb and ground pistachio crusted topping. The cheese had a similar texture and flavor to firm mozzarella, and the crust was reminiscent of the coating on a fried mozzarella stick, but sweeter due to the drizzled honey and rosewater that garnished the dish.

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Last but not least was baklava. This famous sweet, near-east treat may be well-worn territory for most Middle Eastern or Mediterranean joints, but for me it is still a refreshing change of pace from the regular dessert grind. This, too, was topped with rose water and honey. It was a bit sweet for most at the table, but I really enjoyed it. I’ve had some over-the-top sweet baklava in my day, and this did not fall into that category for me. The filo dough was really nice too: light, papery and delicious. I think everything was made from scratch.

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Last was a bit of Lebanese coffee. Similar to Turkish coffee, this is served with a thick sludge of coffee at the bottom and steeped with cardamom. It’s an acquired taste, for sure. I’m not sure I’m on board with it, but I did find the flavor interesting, not repulsive. HA!

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That about does it for Byblos. If you’re up for something different, fresh and healthy, then you should definitely get over here for the mezes at the very least. And sample some of the nice, hard-to-find Lebanese wines as well.

BYBLOS
80 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10016

Hummus 21

I recently had the opportunity to eat at this really nice Kosher Mediterranean joint over on 1st Avenue between 57th and 58th for a press dinner.

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The restaurant is simply and elegantly decorated with white table cloths, white textured wainscoting on the walls, and a patterned tin ceiling. Wide glass windows open out to the sidewalk along 1st Avenue to give the restaurant an airy, street-side feel without the hassle of being on the sidewalk, in the sun, or bumped by passers by.

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There’s a private room in the back for parties and events, which can accommodate about 20-25 people. The restaurant also offers daily happy hour specials, as you can see from the chalkboard below:

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Although they are not yet open for lunch, they do offer a brunch menu on weekends.

Chef/owner Sam is a young man of 25 years, but he’s been working in kitchens and learning the trade since he was 15, via his father. He spent time running a restaurant in London before he opened up shop here in NYC just six months back. He keeps a small, skilled team by his side, and he runs the show on everything from the apps through desserts. Yes: he even makes all desserts in-house. Pretty impressive for someone so young. He’s truly a skilled chef, and the meal demonstrated to me that he can cook anything and cook it well, to boot.

Whenever I dig on Kosher food, I’m typically apprehensive, because I always feel like a restaurant will have to sacrifice something in the flavor department in order to satisfy the Kosher dietary requirements. That is NOT the case with Hummus 21. Everything I sampled here was incredible, and I tried a lot of stuff from the menu, as you’ll see below. Everything was fresh, well balanced, light and healthy. The short summary is that I would definitely eat here again, and again, and again.

Tables are set with a nice bottle of olive oil and some fresh olives for snacking, and the wine list features a variety of nice selections from all over the world, including a great Israeli pinot noir and a light rose.

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First, we sampled four types of hummus with some fresh pita bread.

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The first was topped with white tahini, olive oil and toasted pine nuts. This had a very creamy, traditional flavor to it.

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The next one was topped with Moroccan style chicken, tahini and a chimichurri sauce. This was probably my favorite of the four. Each bite offered a dynamic range of flavors and textures.

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The third was my next favorite, which was topped with a spicy jalapeno sauce, garlic, cilantro and olive oil. Absolutely delicious. I can eat it all day long!

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The last hummus selection was topped with whole chic peas, tahini and some lemon juice. Really nice pop from the lemon.

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Our next items were golden-brown falafel footballs. These came with a really nice green dipping sauce. They were perfectly cooked: crispy on the outside but still flavorful and juicy on the inside.

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This next dish was beautifully presented – an appetizer sampler with six different items:

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First was a lentil kofta: a lentil cake fried with chic pea flour. This was probably one of my top three selections of the night. It was so tasty, light and crispy.

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Next was the bureka duo. One was filled with potato, and the other with mushroom. These reminded me of knish, only very tasty and with a nice, flaky puff pastry and sesame crust on the outside.

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Third was the kibbe, which was ground, spiced beef battered with wheat flour and fried to a golden brown crisp. These were amazing. I could easily see these selling like wild if they were served on a stick from a food cart or food truck. Could be the next big craze to sweep the city!

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The dolma (grape leaves filled with basmati rice) had a slightly sweet note to them, and were drizzled with tahini sauce. Very good.

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Next was briwat, aka Moroccan beef cigars! These were like spiced beef egg rolls, only not greasy, and very light and crispy.

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Last was this Israeli chopped salad, which was comprised of tomato, cucumber, onion, parsley, olive oil, lemon vinaigrette and mint. Very refreshing, and a great way to cleanse the palette before the main courses come out to the table.

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For the entrees, we sampled three plates. First was Mediterranean red chicken: boneless chicken thigh served on a sizzling skillet with both sweet and hot peppers, cilantro and onion. This was really juicy and flavorful. Perfectly cooked, it was probably my favorite item of the night.

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The second entree was sen’ya, which is a 50/50 ground beef and lamb mixture, formed into a patty and grilled, topped with tahini, and garnished with roasted pine nuts and a side of couscous. These were great; and that means something coming from a meat aficionado such as myself. I instantly started thinking of how amazing this would be if served on a bun with some lettuce, tomato, and tahini sauce: like a Mediterranean burger. The char on the patty was so perfect. It added a great texture to the outside, and the inside had such a unique flavor combination of Mediterranean and middle eastern spices. Highly recommended.

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Last was a rice and lentil dish with tahini sauce, topped with fried onions and served with a spiral cut salad of carrot and cucumber, which was lightly pickled and flavored with lemon.

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Sam had stepped up his game with each item that came to the table, so I wasn’t surprised at the quality of the food when the desserts came out. Everything was beautiful, unique, and delicious. First was kadaif, a Lebanese vanilla soy cream cake served on top of shredded filo dough and drizzled with tahini. This was my favorite of the desserts. It was cold, crunchy, creamy, and sweet, with just a hint of salt that made all the flavors jump out.

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My next favorite was the traditional baklava. This was executed perfectly. It was light and not too sweet or drenched in honey, as so many other baklava desserts can be. I loved it.

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This malabi custard had a light vanilla flavor, topped with shredded coconut and rose water sauce that really made it stand out as one of the most unique items of the night.

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The chocolate molten lava cake was rich and decadent, and came with little wedges of homemade halva, which I was excited to see! I used to love it as a child and I hardly ever see it anymore these days.

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Our host ordered a Moroccan tea, which comes presented in a beautiful pot with a really fancy little cup. Very nice!

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So that about does it for Hummus 21. I hope you guys get a chance to check this place out. If you’re like me, and you don’t follow any sort of Kosher dietary restrictions, I promise you will still love the food here. Everything is absolutely delicious.

HUMMUS 21 IS CLOSED

Fig & Olive

Mark this down as one of the best Groupon deals ever. For about $70 my wife and I had a four course meal with cocktails included.

Speaking of cocktails… what an impressive menu of unique items! We tried the fig and walnut julep (left), which was bourbon, elderflower liqueur, port, muddled black mission figs, mint, lime and garnished with shaved walnuts. This was the better of the two drinks, in my opinion. It wasn’t too sweet, as you might expect, and the taste was very refreshing and herbed. The other was the Fig & Olive (right): Organic cucumber vodka, olive oil, egg white, simple syrup, celery, lime juice and blood orange puree. Very nice and light.

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This plate of rosemary bread was served with three different olive oils. All three had a slight bitter flavor to them, as I imagine they are very fresh and very virgin. I’m not sure I’m into that. I like a standard olive oil that isn’t too bitter on the tongue; a slutty olive oil who knows her way around my mouth, if you will… not a pristine, clueless, unfucked virgin.

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First was a trio of crostini, which was shared. The first was burrata (with tomato, pesto and balsamic), the second was prosciutto and ricotta (with fig and walnut), and the third was crab (with heirloom tomato and zucchini puree). All three were excellent. Tough to pick a favorite here. Quality ingredients, fresh flavors, simple, masterful.

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The apps were also prepared beautifully, with great flavors to boot. We had the octopus and scallop dishes. The octopus dish was gorgeous. Tentacles were braised and sliced paper thin, arranged on the plate like carpaccio, dressed with olive oil, roasted peppers and olives, and then garnished with micro greens and roasted baby potatoes. The ‘pus was very tender and clean, with no chew. I don’t know about you, but I like a clean ‘pus.

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The scallop appetizer came with three good-sized pieces that were seared nicely and cooked to the proper consistency and temperature. The sauce was an orange-spiced carrot and olive oil tapenade, and there were some orange segments, micro greens and a citrus dressing to top it off. These were really dynamic, with all sorts of delicious flavors popping around when you chewed.

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Had we been charged the regular menu price instead of the Groupon price, we would already be at $74 without even getting to the entrees, which, together, would have cost $64 by themselves, and then a $12 dessert, too. See what I’m saying? We had $150 worth of food for about $70. Amazing fucking deal!

My entree was the veal Milanese, which was pounded thin, breaded, and fried to a golden crisp and then topped with shredded Parmesan cheese. On the side was a pesto fettuccine, roasted garlic broccolini, and a tomato-mascarpone sauce that was reminiscent of a vodka sauce, but much better. This was a great dish. I typically don’t go for items like this, but the sides of pasta and broccolini (which is one of my favorite veggies, along with escarole and artichoke) sold me on choosing this. I’m glad I got it. Everything was perfect.

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My wife had the Maine lobster bouillabaisse, which also had grilled scallop, mussels and Chilean sea bass in it as well. The sauce/broth base was lobster bisque, which was poured in tableside. On top was some shaved fennel and parsley, and on the side was a saffron garlic aioli and an olive oil cracker. This was a nice seafood dish. I thought it was a bit small in terms of portion size, but it was tasty and we didn’t leave hungry.

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For dessert we shared the Fig & Olive tasting, which came with four bite-sized portions of different desserts. First was a crunchy praline. This was like an elevated nutty, chocolatey candy bar. Very nice!

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Next was a chocolate pot de creme. Very rich, yet light and airy due to the froth on top. A solid tasting, and those little dots on top were some crunchy bits of puffed chocolate or something. Nice touch of texture there.

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Next was my favorite of the four, the dessert crostino. It had pistachios, sour cherries, a mascarpone-style spread, and some micro greens on a cookie. Freaking delicious. So many differetn flavors and textures going on. Complex yet simple!

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Last was panna cotta, which was reminiscent of a strawberry cheesecake with graham cracker cumble. It was very tart, but also very tasty, with a hint of basil.

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Great meal. If they’re still offering the Groupon deal you should definitely get down here and try the food. The ambiance is a bit over the top trendy and “scene-y,” but you’re ultimately there for the food and drinks, right?

FIG & OLIVE
420 W. 13th St.
New York, NY 10014

Balzem

I was recently invited to a press dinner at Balzem, a little Mediterranean spot near the corner of Mott and Spring in Nolita that opened in the Spring of 2014.

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The dining room is rustic, with an airy 12-foot beamed ceiling, old mirrors, iron hanging light fixtures, and lots of reclaimed wood.

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The surprisingly roomy bar offers a wide selection of Mediterranean wines (40 different wines!), imported beer, and even some wine cocktails like the Hot Cab Manhattan, the Balzem Fizz, and the Ginger Ride. I tried the Efes beer (Turkish pilsner), which was nice, light and refreshing.

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The bar crowd definitely picked up at around 8:30pm, and it was actually getting pretty crowded by time we left at 9:30pm. Also worth mentioning here is the fact they they offer happy hour specials EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK from 5:00pm-7:00pm, where they have $6 Mediterranean wines, $5 beers, $1 oysters and $5 tapas/mezzes. That’s freaking amazing! I’ll definitely be back on weekends, for sure.

Here’s a quick shot of Mehdi (left), wine director and general manager, and Balahan (right), owner and executive chef.

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The menu features lots of tapas and mezzes, even some pizza, in addition to a smaller selection of entrees. Here’s the tasting menu we had for the press dinner, along with the wines that were paired with each course:

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The table bread was a nice crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, country style loaf, sliced and served with olive oil (with a variety of olives swimming in the dish):

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The chicken breast and orzo soup was really tasty. Made from a light tomato broth with Turkish red pepper paste, it packs a great flavor that you can accent with a squeeze of lemon. This dish was based on a family recipe that Balahan’s mother used to make.

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That red pepper paste, by the way, is not made from bell peppers, but a different kind – more like a Cubanelle – that’s red instead of green. It’s something that Balahan made as a kid growing up in Turkey, when his family would retreat to the mountains to cool off during the hot months. There, they made red pepper paste, pastries and breads. Sounds like a great way to spend the Summer – sign me the fuck up!

Next were the prosciutto wraps, which was my favorite item of the night. The meat was thin and perfectly cured. It was soft, and not too salty. The burrata cheese was perfection as well. High quality ingredients presented in a very un-fucked-with manner so that they shine.

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Basil leaf, balsamic reduction drizzle and some roasted red peppers is all they added. The green you see beneath the wraps are actually flattened pieces of pepper. Very nice, especially when paired with the clean rose we were served.

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We jumped out of order here to try the other cold dish; the branzini ceviche. This was really mild, despite being cured in lemon vinegar. This is the first time I’ve seen branzino prepared in a ceviche. I really liked how it wasn’t a soupy bowl of tart citrus, like you get in most joints. It was cleanly presented with some arugula and dill.

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Next up was the grilled shrimp dish. These were beautifully presented on a slice of grilled zucchini with parsley and garlic dressing, and accompanied by an arugula salad with tomato and lemon vinaigrette. There was a swipe of chipotle sauce too, so this dish was spicy. The sweet white wine we had with it was the perfect compliment to balance out the spice levels.

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The shrimp were cooked just right.

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My next favorite dish, after the prosciutto, was this octopus fucker. It was braised for 45-50 minutes in white wine that was spiced with lemon, bay leaf and black pepper. Then blasted on the grill for a nice charred and crispy outer edge, and finished in butter. So soft and light, yet meaty and satisfying.

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These zucchini pancakes were fucking great. Part of me wanted a more crisp texture, but when I got down on them a little more I didn’t mind. They’re made with feta, mint, scallions, parsley, dill, eggs and flour, then topped with a yogurt cream sauce. I could actually go vedge (vadge) with food like this. Awesome.

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Last of the small plates, and my least favorite of the small plates, was the Italian meatballs dish. The garlic tomato sauce was nice; velvety, smooth, sweet yet tangy and spicy… but the meat was a little dense for my liking, and I wasn’t a big fan of the pine nuts and raisins within. The ball itself was made from good quality veal, worked with thyme and basil. I just have a very picky sense when it comes to meatballs: it’s very difficult to compete with my mom’s. I did really like the sleepy-time red wine that was served with the meatballs (Nero D’Avola, Mortilla 2013).

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Now for the entree – lamb skewers with flat bread and some sauces. Yes!

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The sauces were mint, parsley, garlic, oil and vinegar (left) and yogurt (right).

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The lamb was cooked perfectly. It was light, flavorful and soft. No overly gamey flavors, no chewy sinew, nothing. Nice and simple, but well executed.

We sampled three sides with the entree. First, and by far the best of them, was the truffle mac and cheese. It wasn’t over the top like some “truffled” items are these days. This was a gentle and proper use of the truffle, with perfectly cooked fusilli pasta and quality cheeses.

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Same goes for the presence of truffle in the potato gratin side – not too aggressive. I liked this dish too – it just needed a little pinch of salt as you went down into the deeper layers of potato.

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The last, and least liked of the sides (and probably our least favorite overall) was the wheat and veggie rice. It had good texture, but the flavors were a little flat, it was a bit dry, and it just didn’t seem to go well with our entree.

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And just when you thought you tried too much food, along comes dessert. All ye fat men rejoice, for there is chocolate ahead in thy future:

Chocolate layer cake (this ended up being my favorite of the three despite my usual hatred of chocolate cake). The cake itself was a slight bit dry, but the hint of salt really made it work in terms of flavor.

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Chocolate mousse cake. Nice texture, creamy and flavorful.

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And finally, tiramisu. You could taste the rum in this bad boy, but it wasn’t overpowering. It was moist and flavorful. The others liked this dessert the best (I was outnumbered).

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That about wraps it up for Balzem. Highlights of the meal were definitely the prosciutto wraps, the octopus and the ceviche. Those would be absolute must-try items, especially if they’re only $5 a pop at happy hour. That shit’s a no-brainer. The ambiance is also killer here. Really nice inside. And when you go (you will), you should chat with Balahan and Mehdi. Both guys are really awesome, friendly, and hands-on. In fact, the service in this joint is top notch and classy. It makes a great date spot, a great pre-game spot for food and drinks, and it has that amazing happy hour. I will definitely be back as a paying customer. Most likely I will head down for happy hour, but the brunch menu looks enticing, as well as the lunch deals ($12 for soup/sandwich or soup/salad).

BALZEM
202 Mott St.
New York, NY 10012

Da Marcella Mediterranean Taverna

UPDATE: THIS PLACE IS NOW CLOSED!

I was recently invited to a press dinner at Da Marcella Mediterranean Taverna in midtown. This place has an Italian- and Spanish-inspired menu that showcases high quality ingredients and expert preparation. Owner Manuel Moreno has two Da Marcella restaurants. The original taverna is in Greenwich Village, is small, and has a very comforting, mom & pop neighborhood feel with very affordable prices ($10 pastas). It’s been open for two years. The goal since the midtown opening in November is to recreate that atmosphere, despite the challenges of the area being less of a neighborhood.

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Manuel also endeavored to bring his Spanish heritage to light as well in the midtown location, as he is half Italian (mom’s side) and half Spanish (dad’s side).

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The downtown menu is fully Italian, but the midtown menu shows off some tapas, paella and other Spanish staples. All recipes were handed down from his grandmother to his mother (the restaurants’ namesake), so you know you are getting something authentic when you eat at his restaurants.

Our host for the evening was Ernesto, who is manager but also the wine expert. The downtown wine menu is Italian, but the midtown wine list is thoroughly Mediterranean, with choices from Spain and Greece a well as Italy. There are 18 wines by the glass, nine of which change frequently.

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As you can see from the tasting menu, he picked some really great wines to pair with each dish, all of which seemed to get increasingly better as the meal went on.

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So we started with the marinated octopus with caperberries, and Scottish salmon tartare with avocado. Both were absolutely amazing. The octopus was hands down the most tender I have ever eaten. The only thing that would have made it better is if it were grilled to give it a little char. The tartare was perfectly balanced between acidic, savory and even sweet. The wine paired here was a nice dry but floral white from Riax Baixas in the north part of Spain. I enjoyed it, and I typically don’t really like whites all that much.

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Next were the veal and pork mini-meatballs and a plate of burrata with prosciutto and truffle sauce. The truffle sauce was just the right amount of earthiness to bring out the other flavors and make them all pop. And the meatballs, well, they were soft and flavorful. It’s always tough to impress me with meatballs because I am spoiled by having good Italian mom and grandma meatballs, but these were excellent. The wine here was a really nice light Chainti. Well paired.

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The tagliatelle pasta was perfect. Fresh made, al dente, properly sauced, and really delicious. The bolognese sauce is highly complex without being heavy, which in itself is a feat. It contains 18 ingredients, a few of which are meats. They really make grandma proud here, as this is clearly a signature item at the restaurant. With the pasta we had a Cabernet-Montepulciano wine, which was my favorite of the night. Robust and flavorful, but not heavy or too acidic.

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Next we had the seafood and chicken paella, which contained chicken (of course), clams, mussels, calamari, string beans and peas. I haven’t had many paellas in my day, as I tend to like Asian rice dishes better for the crisp texture, but this was pretty damned good. I was amazed at how they got each separate ingredient to be perfectly cooked. For example, I imagine they have to throw in the calamari at a different time than the clams, and at a different time than the chicken, string beans, etc. Each component was just right, so that must be a real challenge. The wine for this and the beef course (next) was a rich Temperanillo. Full bodied, well aged; a no bullshit kind of wine. Probably quite costly too had we been paying customers.

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Our last savory course was the wine-braised beef short rib with creamy polenta. This was awesome. The meat was a bit salty, but when you took a bite with the polenta (which was amazing on its own too) it really balanced it out nicely. I was a happy meat man when eating this. So tender, soft and flavorful.

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For dessert we had a sampling of three items: pannacotta, tiramisu, and ricotta cheese cake. Owner Manuel is a baker by trade, so all desserts are made in house if not brought in from his personal Long Island City bakery called the Bakery of New York. The pannacotta was my favorite here. It was perfectly textured – creamy yet firm. It had herb notes of sage or tarragon as well. Very inventive. The tiramisu was very nice as well, but the consensus of others at the table was that the cheese cake was the big winner. Not too heavy, really nice flavors.

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To sum it up; I really enjoyed the meal here, and I plan to go back soon, especially since it’s so close to my office. I’d also love to get down to the original location in the village to try out some of their very affordable and highly rated pastas (if I can get a table – the place is now generating big lines from what I understand, because there is a lot of demand).