Tag Archives: mediterranean

Merakia

Merakia overall score: 86

Formerly Kat & Theo, Merakia is a Mediterranean and Greek inspired meat house in the Flatiron district. I was invited in as a guest of Instagram influencer @NYCFoodFOMO to take pics and sample the menu. Here’s the breakdown:

Flavor: 7

We had the porterhouse. This baby had a great seared crust on the outside that was nicely charcoal flavored and charred. I enjoyed that aspect of it – you could taste the garlic that was rubbed onto it, as well as the variety of fresh Greek herbs. The meat itself was tender and juicy as well. It was dry aged somewhere between 28 and 32 days, and hailed from either DeBragga or LaFrieda (there was some confusion about this between what management said and what the chef said). The main pitfall for this delicious hunk of beef was that it was under seasoned.

Choice of Cuts & Quality Available: 8

As you can tell from the menu, there is a pretty nice selection of beef on this otherwise lamb-heavy Greek meat house menu. I was impressed.

Portion Size & Plating: 8

Portions are all on par with similar steakhouses.

Price: 8

The porterhouse was priced at $120, which isn’t too steep for 32oz, but could certainly be a bit lower. Other steaks are priced a bit high, close to the top end of the normal range at expensive midtown steak joints.

Bar: 9

This joint offers some really unique cocktails.

I really enjoyed the “Metal & Dust.” It even came with a small triangle of home made strawberry fruit leather.

The bar itself was really nice, and I would definitely hang here for drinks any time.

Specials and Other Meats: 9

Lamb is the way to go for non-beef meats. This is a Greek joint after all, and they do it well. We tried three different lamb items.

Lamb Ribs

Avid readers of this website will know of my affinity for lamb ribs. I absolutely love them, and I even sell them. Merakia nails them! Perfectly seasoned, nice balance of crisp lean meat to fat, and nice with a squeeze of lemon and some tzatziki. There are enough to share between two people in one app order (five meaty ribs).

Lamb Chops

This is an entree, and it comes with four nicely sized chops. These were a slight bit overcooked for my liking (more like medium to medium well), and also under seasoned. But damn were they good quality. I still recommend them.

Kleftiko (“mountain thief” lamb stew)

This was the star of the night. If you eat here, you must order this. It is a 200 year old family recipe that the chef has carried down for generations. The story behind this traditional dish is that thieves would steal a lamb and cook it in the mountains, covering it underground in the process to conceal the smoke and aromas. It makes for a nice concentration of flavors. Mixed in with the stewed lamb meat are peppers, herbs, spices, and Greek cheeses. It is served in a sourdough bread bowl.

Apps, Sides & Desserts: 10

I mentioned the lamb ribs just a moment ago. Those are top notch. Based on that, I’m giving full points here. We were too full for dessert so we skipped.

Seafood Selection: 8

There are some nice looking fish entrees and apps on the menu. We didn’t get to try them this time around, but we will certainly be back for them.

Service: 10

Amazing people are running this joint. Very attentive but not in your face all the time. Eager to make your dining experience excellent. Chef Scalco is very friendly and enjoys talking about his family recipes and the history of the dishes. If you’re into that sort of thing, you will love this joint.

This is what your table bread will look like: nice toasty bread, high quality olive oil and tasty olives.

Ambiance: 9

I was blown away by the interior of this restaurant. Tin ceiling with awesome beams and Edison bulbs up front:

And a cozy, rustic brick-walled and beamed-ceilinged rear dining room with a fireplace.

I highly recommend giving this place a shot – especially for the lamb ribs and kleftiko.

MERAKIA
5 W 21st St
New York, NY 10010

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

Korali Estiatorio

With a name that means “coral,” it’s only fitting that Korali Estiatorio, a neighborhood gem for authentic Greek food on the upper east side, features a variety of fresh seafood fit for the gods.

Owner Gregori Politis hails from Lefkada, in the Ionian Sea. After 20 years in the hospitality business, he now brings the authentic recipes of his childhood to the masses of NYC. Chef Peter Tsaglis headed up prominent New York City kitchens. Peter focuses on seafood, and has a passion for amazing ingredients and flavors. His upbringing and travels across the Greek islands influenced his style of traditional cooking blended with modern and contemporary fare.

The interior was designed with Mykanos in mind, a seaside town on an island of the same name, which is known for its bright white architecture.

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The bar is stocked with Greek spirits and wines from rare varietals that are uncommon here in the states, like Assyrtiko and Agiogitiko.

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With Greek music playing on the sound system and the invigorating scent of fresh seafood in the air, you really do feel like you are being transported to the Greek Isles.

Okay so let me get to the food… We started with some tzatziki and pita bread. The yogurt this joint uses is so thick, rich and awesome. This had just the right amount of spices and flavorings added, so that our mouths were spared of garlic overload. I really enjoyed this.

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In honor of the joint’s focus on seafood, we did not delve into any meats. I know: blasphemy for me! Perhaps next time I will go hard into the lamb dishes, though.

For our meze courses we had grilled octopus and stuffed calamari. The grilled octopus was so tender and perfectly cooked. It came on a bean puree and was seasoned gently with olive oil and lemon, and sprinkled with capers. Really delicious, and probably one of the better octopus dishes I’ve had in a while. And it was a good sized portion, with about two large tentacles chopped up on the plate.

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I couldn’t resist ordering the stuffed calamari.

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When I was a kid, my family would do the traditional Italian fish dinner for Christmas. My grandparents were the main drivers of that meal, and I would help my grandfather clean all the shrimp, scungili and squid for prep. But my grandma would take the time to make stuffed calamari. She would take the cleaned squid tubes, fill them with a cheese, breadcrumb and meat stuffing, and literally stitch the ends closed with a needle and black thread. Then they went into a skillet for browning on all sides before getting plopped into a low simmering tomato sauce that was filled with crab legs and other shellfish. Before serving, she would pull out the black thread and the calamari would stay pinched closed, holding in the delicious stuffing. It really was a painstaking and amazing effort, and I’ve never seen anything like it since. Until now, until Korali.

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This Greek version is stuffed with spinach and feta, but still served in a tomato sauce. Rather than a traditional stewed style Italian red sauce, this one contained mainly sun-dried tomatoes and garlic. It was a really exciting profile of flavors, and this was hands-down my favorite dish of the night. I highly recommend this!

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For our entree, we ordered a whole grilled fish for two that was on special: “pink snapper” from the Mediterranean Sea.

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The skin was crisp and savory, and the meat was tender, flaky and cooked nicely. It was simply dressed with olive oil, lemon and Greek seasonings, and then topped with capers.

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We cleaned this baby off entirely, even busting into the face to get some of that delicious and succulent cheek meat.

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This fish for two also came with two sides. We picked garlic sauteed spinach and Greek fries. The fries were crisp and had a nice herb and garlic flavor.

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The spinach was sauteed just right, retaining that great “green” flavor without over-wilting the leaves. Also, the garlic was again not overpowering and added just the right amount of flavor to the dish. These guys know what they’re doing in the kitchen!

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For dessert, we got to try an assortment of three items: Greek yogurt with honey and berries, baklava and semolina custard in phyllo (Galactoboureco). By far my favorite of the three was that delicious, thick and creamy yogurt again. This sweet version was the perfect way to bookend the meal after starting with the savory tzatziki version at the beginning of the meal.

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But the baklava was the best my wife and I have had. Usually this dessert is soaked with honey, and that just kills the texture and flavor of the nuts, making everything too sweet and soft. Not here at Korali! These had a cookie-like crunch to them, and I found myself smearing some of the yogurt onto them to make it a double whammy dessert. So damn good!

Overall this was a really great meal, light and satisfying. This is a great place for the UES neighborhood. I don’t live nearby, but I would definitely go back in a heartbeat.

One thing that really got my attention about this place is that you can pre-order a whole roasted goat every Friday, which is locally sourced from upstate. I will definitely be back for this with my crew from The Carcass Club.

In addition, Korali now offers a prix-fix lunch deal Wednesday through Friday, as well as brunch on weekends, with a choice of starter, entree and dessert.

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.

KORALI ESTIATORIO
1662 3rd Ave
New York, NY 10128

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

Ponty Bistro

My wife and I were invited to this joint on 3rd Avenue and 19th Street for a press dinner.

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“Ponty” is named for a major avenue in Senegal, the country from which chef and owner Cisse originally hails.

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Cisse is a French-trained chef, but he has integrated African and global flavors into his dishes to make for an interesting and modern fusion restaurant.

The ambiance here is very bistro, with classic seating, high ceilings and tile floors. But the pale yellow walls are decorated with African wood sculptures to play on the fusion aspect of the place, and African, Latin and other world music plays in the sound system.

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It’s been open since November of 2008. Since then Cisse has enticed a large list of regulars to keep coming back in. We saw him greet several tables of diners by name, always friendly and inviting. He’s expanding too: His cousin runs the larger Harlem location that just opened in August of 2014.

Ponty offers a variety of prix fixe lunches and dinners for very reasonable prices ($19-$25). Although they only have one African wine on the menu, the list does include some very nice wines from around the globe.

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They do have a nice African lager though: Tusker. I’ve had this before, so I knew I’d be pleased with it.

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In addition to the various prix fixe menus, they also offer half price martinis and daily specials.

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From the look of the menu, it seemed like martinis were sort of their specialty. So my wife and I tried the bissap (hibiscus), fresh ginger and “French” martinis (pineapple and fruit based – not sure why). I think my favorite was the ginger martini. It had a nice fresh spice-bite to it (on the left below).

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The full menu is a pretty impressive (there is a steak presence!), and when you start to read it you’ll think to yourself, “Holy shit, there is a LOT of stuff on here, and the flavors are definitely not just French or African,” and you’ll be absolutely correct.

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Chef Cisse was a very early contestant and finalist on the Food Network show “Chopped,” which pits four chef contestants against a “mystery basket” filled with the most random and strange ingredients you can possibly think of.  The idea is to test the mettle of the chefs to see if they can still make good dishes with unplanned ingredients. Given this, one can easily understand why the menu is so diverse: The man is extremely versatile. He can cook ANYTHING, and he can cook it really fucking well. And that level of quality extends across the entire menu. He is incredibly consistent.

This joint was PACKED for a Tuesday. I noticed that there was only one waiter for eight or nine tables of guests. Some of the nearby diners were actually getting restless with slow service near the end of their meals. Even my martini order was forgotten for a while, and I was at the press dinner table! It must be tough to know when it will be busy for a place like this; you don’t want to be overstaffed, because then, as a business, you’re wasting money. You can’t really fault them for it, but one more waiter would have solved the problem for sure without breaking the bank too much. And with take-out and delivery orders coming in too (there were lots of bags going out the door), Cisse must have been swamped back in the kitchen, working his ass off. Hats off to his work ethic.

Okay let me get to the fucking food already. Presentation here is clean and simple, with a slightly refined elegance. Each dish you’ll see is very different from the last. The menu is very global – not just French and African. Essentially it is modern global food that’s inspired by French and African cuisine flavors and techniques. I can say confidently that portion sizes on the regular menu are quite large, based on seeing what other people ordered nearby.

Here’s the list of what we had (ignore the address info on top):

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These first two items are not on the regular menu. They were specials listed on the board outside (pictured above).

First was a rich, filling, and velvety-smooth lobster bisque with caviar. Onion, celery and carrots were minced into this roux-like soup base with perfectly cooked lobster meat.  You could smell the aromatic truffle and cracked pepper when you leaned over the bowl, but their flavors were not overpowering at all. Mine came five minutes later that the rest of the group, so I got more than the others (yes!).

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Next was the green bean and artichoke salad, which was topped with shaved Parmesan cheese and dressed with a light truffle vinaigrette. Again there was smart and restrained use of the truffle; aromatic but not overpowering. This was a very light and fresh salad, and, surprisingly, my favorite dish of the night.

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This scallop dish with beets and asparagus was really interesting. By the way: beets are back! I hated them as a kid. One of my sisters always loved them though. I never understood why. Now I’m seeing them everywhere, on so many menus around the city. Chefs are nailing them now, preparing them in such great and innovative ways, as Cisse did. So now I’m in for beets! The asparagus was tasty as well here. But the star of the plate, the scallop, was cooked absolutely perfectly. It was caramelized on the outside with a nice savory and sweet glaze that made it meaty and satisfying. The sauce you see is an orange marmalade that tasted like a creamsicle. Very different on a dish like this. But it made for a good mix of sweet and savory. I didn’t think beets or an orange creamsicle sauce would work with scallops, but I found myself really liking this dish. Definitely fusion and not classic. The regular sized portion comes with five scallops, by the way.

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This tagine (middle eastern and north African cooking vessel) chicken dish had a nice curry smell with a bold spicy flavor. The chicken was soft; nicely executed. It was plated with couscous. The mirepoix (carrots, celery and onion combo) showed up again here. It is classically French, but the rest of the dish is decidedly north African. The couscous was really good with the curry sauce. It had yellow raisins nestled within, to balance out the spicy curry with some pops of sweetness. The couscous also featured corn, peppers, carrots and zucchini as well – all finely diced.

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This hanger steak was cooked to a perfect medium rare. It was really tender, too. I was a little concerned that we weren’t given steak knives for this course, but it turns out the butter knife was just fine. It was THAT tender. Needless to say, this meat man was pleased. All aspects of this dish were done-up exactly how they should be prepared, and all things tasted exactly how they should taste. A classic wine sauce, sautéed spinach and creamy mashed potato. We returned here to a more classic approach to the dish, as opposed to a fusion or African inspiration. These are tried and true accompaniments to this delicious piece of beef, and Cisse nailed the execution. Sorry the spinach is hiding behind the beef in these photos. I was excited to dig in!

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For dessert we tried the tiramisu and creme brulee. There was a good amount of orange zest to add a citrus flavor to the creme brulee. This took me back to the earlier “orange marmalade” creamsicle sauce that came with the scallop dish. Orange zest + creamy egg custard = creamsicle for dessert. The custard was nicely handled. It was creamy, smooth and not eggy. There was a good texture and nice crisp on the sugar without going too bitter.

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The tiramisu was soft and smooth. There was a nice hint of coffee as well. The ricotta was light, and the cake was not too boozy. I preferred this to the creme brulee. Really nice.

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I’m glad to see that Ponty is expanding into Harlem. I’d like to get up there and try that location out, and I hope some of you readers will try one or both places as well.

PONTY BISTRO
218 3rd Ave.
New York, NY 10003

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).