Category Archives: Restaurant Reviews

Oka

Some of you might remember my recent review of The Crimson Sparrow, up in Hudson, NY.

That was one of the best meals I had all year in 2017. Well, now the Chef/Owner has a Japanese-inspired small plates izakaya joint over in Murray Hill called Oka, and the meal I just ate there is likely to be one of the best meals I will have this year.

A little bit about Chef John McCarthy, which I have shamelessly jacked from the Oka Website:

John is a former lawyer who left a legal career to attend the French Culinary Institute. After graduating from FCI at the top of his class, he worked for Chef Wylie Dufresne at wd-50 for several years, ultimately becoming Chef Wylie’s research and development cook. John is also a certified sake sommelier, and has spent a considerable amount of time in Asia. He lived in South Korea for three years when he was in high school, and he typically travels to Japan at least once a year to either stagiaire or travel for food and drink research and development. For the past two years, he has partnered with Chef Hiroyoshi Amano to prepare two dinners for Outstanding in the Field at the foot of Mt. Fuji for Fujisan Winery.

Not only does he know his way around sake, but he has also crafted some really nice cocktails and curated an impressive selection of spirits as well.

In addition to the impressive cocktail and spirits menu, there’s also a really great happy hour from 5:30-7:00, during which the listed items are just $5.

I was happy to see one of my favorite Japanese beers on that menu, Orion:

Okay so let me get down to business. My wife and I tried a bunch of stuff here. Everything on the menu looked so good that it was really difficult to decide what NOT to order.

Okay so first, the baguette:

This unassuming dish was a great way to open up the meal. The shio kombu butter with smoked salt was wild and invigorating, and the perfectly grill-toasted Balthazar bread was excellent and fresh.

We actually dragged some of it through our second plate, which was the salmon roe with yeasted sunchoke puree and sunchoke chips.

I’m in love with all things sunchoke, so I jumped at this right away. This dish would make for a perfect light breakfast. It was just the right balance of smooth from the puree, pop from the roe, and crunch from the chips.

Just when you thought a Caesar salad couldn’t get exciting, John McCarthy serves you one that is.

This is Romaine lettuce with smoked Caesar dressing, nori panko, anchovy, crispy baked parmesan chips, and shaved, dried bonito flakes. For those of you who are all about that nice fish flavor in a proper Caesar salad, this is all you. It was bonkers.

Next up, steak tartare.

This was easily one of the best tartare dishes I’ve ever had. It stands out among the competition for its notably unique flavor profile. Chef John brilliantly swaps out some of the more standard tartare ingredients for things like pine nuts, gochujang and shiitake to bring this traditionally French dish into his Asian comfort zone.

This next dish was simple but so delicious. Deep fried maitake mushroom, seasoned with za’atar and served atop a smoked dijon mustard sauce. If for some fucked up reason I ever have to give up meat, I would need to consume a lot more fungus like this to try to fill the void. It was meaty, savory, and satiating.

This is grilled baby squid with charcoal garlic oil, kewpie mayo and micro daikon.

The charcoal garlic oil was really something special here. Very simple cook on the squid, but lots of complexity in the sauce.

These giant grilled head-on prawns were massive!

The simple preparation of soy, ponzu and citrus salt allowed them to really shine for the superb products that they are. Make sure you suck the juices out of their heads!

I really dig rice cakes. This Korean version is like gnocchi, only made with rice flour instead of semolina and egg.

This preparation is kinda like mac and cheese; it’s baked with creamy white cheddar and garlic oil, and then topped with spicy cod roe. It might sound weird, but this and the tartare were my favorite dishes of the night! These were like little pillows of chewy goodness with a touch of crunch on the outside, all in a velvety cheese sauce.

Hamachi collar.

There was so much meat on this baby, and every bit of it was juicy and bursting with flavor. I’m convinced this is the best part of the fish. I loved every bite, and it went well with the soy and yuzu lemon zest seasoning that was on it.

This next beautiful and tasty dish is fried rice with pickled mustard greens and mustard seed. Nothing goes better with fried rice than a sunny side up egg. Bur seriously, how gorgeous is this?

The hits just keep on coming. Buttermilk fried chicken:

All the best, most tender parts here. And that dipping sauce is a chili and black sesame mayo. Really nice.

STEAK!

This was a 30-day dry aged Niman ranch cut, which was grilled up and served with a nice house spice made with dried mushrooms and a bunch of other umami bomb type ingredients. Really flavorful!

And last but not least, dessert:

These are Chinese fried dough crullers with white caramel ice cream on a bed of chocolate coffee crumble. Such a dynamic and interesting combination of flavors.

In fact that’s kind of the theme running through the entire meal. Every bite keeps you guessing, and every dish is not only visually arresting, but amazingly tasty as well.

One final note about this place: I love how casual it is. The food is all stunning and delicious, but there is no pretense or attitude. There’s plenty of space to stretch out between tables, unlike other crowded izakaya spots around the city.

There’s also some great bar seating as well.

I highly recommend this place. Get over there and give it a try.

OKA
439 3rd Ave
New York, NY 10016

Hwa Yuan

I went to Hwa Yuan with my wife and a group of friends to celebrate Lunar/Chinese New Year. We had a massive feast, but the very first bite of the meal was the clear favorite for all of us: crispy tangy beef.

This shit was like meat candy. So good that I wanted it by the bucketful.

Next up, Peking roasted duck.

Look at this fellow up close:

Our waiter sliced it up table side:

Here’s a short video of the slicing, set to American New Year music:

I also really liked this plate of sliced mountain yam with ginger, snow peas, goji berries and wood ear mushrooms. The yams tasted like giant water chestnuts.

This plate of eggplant was really tasty too, and I typically don’t love eggplant.

This dish was called “Amazing Chicken.” I really liked the sauce, but I wish the chicken had a bit more texture on it.

This was a roasted and stewed Barramundi fish.

And this bowl of ma po tofu was perfect. Just the right amount of silky texture and numbing spice with heat.

These pea sprouts were tasty too – almost like a cross between spinach and collards, simply steamed with garlic and soy.

Get your asses down to this joint and dig in. The food is really great!

HWA YUAN
42 E Broadway
New York, NY 10002

Maysville

I popped into this joint to try their burger and wash it down with a cocktail.

I went with the Old Smokey.

It was really nice – lots of vanilla flavor to it – but a bit too heavy on the amaro. Over all, though, I really enjoyed it.

Here’s the description of the burger from the menu:

Here’s what it looks like:

This thing was near perfect.

This handsome double Pat LaFrieda patty is topped with American cheese, arugula, pickles, caramelized bacon onion puree, and “sauce 17,” which I believe is a house-made buttermilk-based ranch mayo. The sesame seed brioche Balthazar bun holds up nicely to intense scrutiny without flaking or breaking. All around this was unbelievably tasty, and the fries that come with it are pretty killer too. Go get one before this place has lines forming down the block. $23.

MAYSVILLE
17 W 26th St
New York, NY 10010

Russian Tea Room

My wife and I popped in here with a deal we got on Groupon for a six vodka- and four blini- tasting.

Here are the vodkas we tried, in order of how I liked them:

Imperia
Zyr
Jewel of Russia
Karlssons Gold
Khortytsa

We also had Jewel of Russia Wild Berry as our sixth, but I don’t really count that as a true vodka since it is heavily flavored. It tasted more like a port.

We did two salmon and two trout blinis. The blini was buckwheat, and soft, with a generous amount of sour cream, some chopped boiled eggs, onions and the caviar. We both liked the salmon better.

White fish was also available on the Groupon but we passed on that one.

Overall this was a nice snack. Glad we did it. Just hanging out for a while in the dining room itself is worth the price of admission. So opulent and nice inside.

RUSSIAN TEA ROOM
150 W 57th St
New York, NY 10019

Excellent Dumpling House (23rd)

This joint was PACKED on a Friday evening when my wife and I came in for a quick bite. There’s another joint named Excellent Dumpling House in Chinatown. It has yet to be determined whether this is owned by the same folks.

Anyway, I was fighting off a cold, so I ordered a bowl of chicken dumpling noodle soup. It was pretty great, especially with some of their spicy chili oil.

I also tasted some of my wife’s soup dumplings, which were.. shall I say… excellent? Ha! Maybe. I mean they were constructed properly, cooked nicely… no ripping… But perhaps I haven’t had enough XLBs to really say what is excellent or just above average.

EXCELLENT DUMPLING HOUSE
165 W 23rd St
New York, NY 10011

Chouchou

Chouchou (pronounced “shoe-shoe”) is a relatively new (eight months old) Moroccon restaurant in Alphabet City. The name is a French term of endearment; a word that you might use to refer to your spouse, like “babe,” “doll face,” or “sweet tits.” Actually I think it translates more easily to “little love” or something. But I wanted to use the word “tits” there somehow, because I talk about breasts quite a bit in this review.

In any case, the restaurant is cozy inside, and decorated in such a way that it transports you to the middle east. With cavernous archways on the ceiling and faux-ancient stone walls, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped off the streets of NYC and into a quaint, rustic and romantic dining space in Morocco. Even the sweet mint tea that they serve in small glass cups smacks of authenticity.

The place boasts a very impressive wine menu, which can be seen via PDF HERE. They also have a small selection of really deliciously described craft beers.

The first thing that struck me about this joint, aside from the amazing decor, was the simplicity and focus of the food menu. There are a handful of couscous dishes and a handful of tagine dishes, utilizing largely the same set of proteins: chicken, lamb chops, kefta (seasoned meatballs), merguez (spicy lamb sausage), lobster, a veggie option, etc.

I came to learn that this is how Moroccans traditionally eat: a basic array of starters; some sort of meat item, either with couscous or slow cooked in a tagine; and simple desserts. I like it.

Each entree comes with a collection of starters or mezes included in the price.

Warm pita bread with baba ganoush, hummus, shakshuka, and harissa-spiced almonds, to be precise. Of these, my favorite was the hummus (left of the pita).

While I don’t believe the tagine dishes are actually cooked in tagines (health department and fire codes likely prevent this in NYC), they are presented in beautiful decorative tagines.

I tried the savory lemon and olive chicken tagine, as well as the sweeter prune and lamb tagine. Both were great. The chicken tagine came with a generous half chicken, bone-in. The skin was crisp, and the meat was tender and juicy – with the exception of the breast meat, which was slightly dry in parts. It happens.

I think if tagine cooking were happening in NYC, dry knockers would be a less likely outcome. Tented, closed-vessel cooking preserves juiciness and airborne vapors, while oven cooking involves a dry heat. That being the case, perhaps a Dutch oven technique would be better for these dishes.

While I enjoyed the savory flavors of the chicken tagine better than the sweet-ish flavors of the lamb tagine, I liked the juiciness and succulence of the lamb better. It was almost like a braise, perfectly cooked to fall-off-the-bone tenderness. No dryness whatsoever.

The couscous dishes come with a beautiful plate of couscous, your desired choice of protein, and a bowl of stew juice that contains potatoes, beef, lamb and peppers.

I tried the mixed protein option, called “royal.” This came with chicken, lamb chop, kefta and merguez.

All of the meats were good and juicy, again with the exception of the chicken being a bit dry in the jugs. But when you mix the meats together with the stew juice and couscous, there’s not much to worry about in terms of dry mammaries. It was delicious.

Desserts here are made in house, and consist of a variety of traditional Moroccan pastries and cookies. I was only able to try two – an almond pastry and an orange flavored cookie – but both were excellent.

Dry chicken hooters aside, I would definitely come back here again, and I highly recommend this place for a romantic date night. And again only parts of the chicken (boobs) were dry. The rest was perfect.

NOTE: A public relations professional invited me and a group of food writers to Chouchou to taste the food and review the place.

CHOUCHOU
215 E. 4th St.
New York, NY 10009

Zeppelin Hall

Zeppelin Hall is a massive biergarten in Jersey City. They’re currently (through 2/4/18) celebrating BACONFEST, a glorious time when they roll out a special menu that features various preparations of bacon with influences from all over the world.

As you can see, there are a lot of bacon dishes. Here are the ones we tried:

Bacon Wrapped Tomahawk Steak

I mean let’s get right to it. This thing is fucking insane. It’s a three-pound of beef lollipop, wrapped in delicious maple bacon.

The bacon adds a nice sweetness to the dry-aged meat and compliments is in an unexpectedly nice way.

This is a must-try for any meat lover.

China

This braised pork belly dish still managed to have a really crispy skin on it. Excellent.

Mexico

Can’t go wrong with bacon tacos. These were perfect.

Argentina

Bacon Empanadas. These were fantastic, filled with bacon and cheese.

Australia

Bacon wrapped shrimp – always a crowd pleaser.

Canada

A country known only for it’s poutine, and no other significant contributions of society besides Jim Carrey, must be represented with strength and resolve. Excellent fries.

USA

A 100% bacon patty burger? Yes please. Just add sauce, as the patty can get dry when the bacon must be cooked completely through.

And of course, bacon mac and cheese. Our pride and joy.

Germany

Bacon and kraut. A nice combo.

Lebanon

Bacon wrapped pork skewers. Yes.

Other honorable mentions: Italy’s bacon bolognese sauce, and Venezuela’s bacon arepas. Both excellent.

That about does it. Get over here before February 4th and indulge.

ZEPPELIN HALL
88 Liberty View Dr.
Jersey City, NJ 07302

Domenica Fiore Olive Oil

Domenica Fiore reached out to me to try their olive oil. I can always use an extra bottle of olive oil around the food lab, so I jumped at the opportunity. Here’s what they sent to me:

We used it for some sautéed broccolini and mixed it into a truffle sauce to eat with some black truffle stringozzi pasta. The result was awesome.

My wife really nailed it with that dish, and we were both very happy with the quality of the oil.

Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar

I love this spot. It barely has electric, as it is one of the oldest structures in the country, built in the 1700’s and used as a blacksmith shop before it became a piano bar.

I love old shit, especially old timey bars and restaurants. Hence Tux-Con. Drop into this place for a drink, or even just to walk through and take a look around, if you’re ever in New Orleans.

LAFITTE’S BLACKSMITH SHOP BAR
941 Bourbon St
New Orleans, LA 70116

Pirate’s Alley Cafe

Pirate Alley is an awesome little alley behind the church at Jackson Square in New Orleans’ French Quarter. We discovered the cafe there  back in 2009, and it’s the reason we love absinthe.

I don’t really write bar reviews, but this is a great place to have a drink. That’s all I got!

PIRATE’S ALLEY CAFE
622 Pirate Alley
New Orleans, LA 70116