Home of Manhattan’s Best Banh Mi Sandwich – Review of Sao Mai

BY ELENA MANCINI

203 First Ave.
East Village
(212) 358-8880 / Sao Mai 

East of the East Village bustle and trendiness, this family-run East Village Vietnamese restaurant serves traditional Vietnamese fare and the best Banh Mi Sandwiches on the Manhattan side of the East River.

Vegetarian Bahn Mi

Available in six varieties including pho, sliced pork, grilled chicken and vegetarian, these sandwiches make a quick, nutritious, flavor-packed meal that’s easy on the wallet (priced between $6-$7). The Bahn Mi are prepared on baguettes are consistently fresh and crusty with a soft and chewy middle. Independent of the filling you choose, the kitchen always strikes the right balance between bread and ingredients. Their vegetarian Bahn Mi is among my favorite comfort-food lunches. Prepared on two warm halves of choice baguette, they’re stuffed with toothsome strands of sauteed bok choy, straw mushrooms, seedless cucumbers, shredded carrot and abundant swaths of cilantro, the sandwiches and seasoned with lemongrass,  sriracha mayonnaise, that provides a subtle and reverberating pitch of complex heat. In sum, it’s a light, filling lunch that delivers high-flavor rewards.

Pho’ Sao Mai

Front: Summer Rolls; Far: Spring Rolls

Lest one think Sao Mi is just about Bahn Mi, flavor mavens and fans of traditional Vietnamese fare will find other  sections of its menu will prove well worth exploring. The Pho Sao Mai will not disappoint. A flavorful broth, rich in tender strips of brisket, sprouts, rice noodles and a medley of herbs will consistently hit the spot. Adding appeal to  Sao Mi’s attractions is its steal of a lunch menu, which includes the choice of an appetizer, entree and a soft drink, all for $10. Sweetening things further,  both the Bahn Mi and the Pho are included in this deal!

Ga Gary – Chicken Curry

With a wide variety of vegetarian options on its menu, Sao Mai is also a smart choice for a low-key dinner that guarantees value, quality and flavor. Pity that wait staff has not yet mastered the walk-in dinner crowd on weekends. During these times, the  friendly service  can turn into a source of frustration for those who do not suffer extended waits and uneven food delivery times lightly.

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A Tour-de-Force in Contemporary Med Cuisine – Review of Vai

BY ELENA MANCINI

429 Amsterdam Avenue
Upper West Side
212 362 4500 / vairestaurant.com/westside.html

Chef Vincent Chirico

While most appreciate the high probability of finding an average standard of dishes offered by many restaurants throughout New York City, particularly when the meal is not a major wallet-leeching experience, the kind of culinary experience that Vai delivers is the of the caliber that people come to New York City to savor and boast about later. Its imaginative, innovative, expertly executed  and deliciously exuberant in the flavor department. Here creativity and technique conspire to structure and combine ingredients, textures and cooking times not in the interest of culinary showmanship, but to exalt the palate. The appealing humility of the approach is also echoed in the decor, the tenor and the pricing of this charming and understated Upper-West side gem. Glass blown candle sconces on exposed brick with lush candle lighting throughout create a feeling of rustic warmth and well-being in a space that is otherwise quite limited. An attentive, but non-hovering service staff accentuate the welcoming vibe.

Opened in late 2011, Vai’s owner and Executive Chef is Vincent Chirico, a native New Yorker of Calabrian roots. Chirico’s previous stints include Jean Georges, Daniel and Aquavit. While Vai is Chirico’s first restaurant, happily Chirico does not seem succumb to the pressures of down economy, as other chefs, even of his caliber might feel compelled to do, by holding back his creativity and playing it safe with more commonplace dishes and ingredients. Rather, Vai is more an expression of one who desires to keep his passion for flavors vibrant and to never get too comfortable in his talent zone. Chirico is ever honing, experimenting and stretching himself as a chef and restaurateur. It’s also worth noting that Chirico also doubles as Vai’s wine director, pastry-chef and has designed the restaurant himself. The $64,000 question is whether Chirico ever sleeps. Joking aside, the result is an elegant harmonization of a restaurant’s many moveable parts.

Twenty to twenty-five percent of the seasonal, Mediterranean menu changes weekly to reflect what is optimally available in season and also to keep things interesting. An international wine list and seasonal artisanal cocktails punctuate the flair for quality and variety.


On to the dishes:

Hamachi and Yellowfin Duo at Vai

 

Sauteed scallops with parsnip mousseline and sicilian capers at Vai

The best way to go about Vai is to opt for one of the tasting menus. Tasting menus are variously priced and range from $39 – $89 (five courses with wine pairings).

Absolute standouts in the the yellowfin tuna and hamachi duo (appetizer), sauteed sea scallop (entree), Alaskan king crab, the back bass and the Arctic char.

Prepared with a pungent ginger sauce and micro cilantro, the yellowfin tuna and hamachi duo exudes freshness and champions bright flavors and a smooth, silken even texture. Gorgeously plated, on a bed of sliced avocado, it’s a dish that rewards the palate and stimulates the appetite.

The Alaskan King Crab is regal in presentation and freshness. Grilled to perfection without being overcooked, luxurious sea flavors were preserved in every bite of the delicate meat. A toothsome consistency and a light sprinkle of Calabrian chili contrasted with a brown sugar butter sauce added to the dish.

The sauteed sea scallop with parsnip mousseline and capers is another example of Chirico’s culinary prowess. As with the Alaskan King Crab, the sea scallops and other seafood dishes such as the Maryland Back Bass and the Arctic Char champion a simple and sophisticated approach to preparing fish that is supremely fresh, allowing the original flavors of the primary ingredients to stand on their own and shine.

While this review devotes a great deal of attention to the sea food at Vai, one would be remiss to think that  Vai caters to those with strong pescatarian leanings –although those who do will find themselves amply rewarded at Vai. Carnivorous indulgences can also be savored here, and not in lightweight fashion either. The beef duo consisting of braised short rib- filet mignon – confit garlic butter epitomizes this category. Sumptuous, perfectly rare, velvet-like filet mignon is accompanied by a rich, yielding, fall-off the bone short rib.

Vai offers many a prize in the dessert category as well. Supple and creamy passion fruit mascarpone semifreddo are among the must-haves.

If there are any missteps in Vai’s arsenal of killer dishes, it would be the burrata ravioli. Prepared with truffle cream and an 18month aged Parmigiano, the sauce is overly rich and buttery and overwhelms the the delicate pasta.

That aside, Vai’s original menu and refined cuisine strongly suggest that it has the makings of a destination restaurant. Its coziness and moderate prices corroborate to sweeten the pot.

Vai on Urbanspoon

What’s On… Amsterdam (btwn 74th & 75th Street)

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

Upper West Side

The late 20th century brought with it the rise of Amsterdam Avenue;  becoming one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Manhattan at the time.  Several institutes of higher learning call Amsterdam Ave home, including City College, John Jay College, Columbia University, and Yeshiva University as well as Saint Luke’s Hospital and New York Presbyterian Medical Center.  While the backside of the Beacon Theater (est 1926) occupies most of the block between 74th and 75th streets on Amsterdam, there are some great choices for pre/post theater (or for any time!) on this and the surrounding corners.

167 74 Street – Levain Bakery
Just around the northeast corner of 74th street lies Levain Bakery.  A tiny, decor-less, space (essentially a kitchen fronted by a counter), Levain dishes out some mighty tasty treats (notably their stellar chocolate chip cookie) that are worth the trip no matter where you’re coming from or where you might be headed – unless you might be headed to East Hampton, where they have a second location.

Levain Bakery on Urbanspoon
300 Amsterdam – Josie’s
Josie’s is a family friendly spot, specializing in fresh and organic fare. Best suited for lunch, Josie’s bright flavors and cheerful decor will leave you feeling refreshed.  Some quip the prices are a little steep, but for the neighborhood and a satisfying meal – spot on.
Josie's on Urbanspoon

By Carolyn Onofrey

303 Amsterdam – Freddy & Peppers Pizza
Pizza toppings abound at Freddy & Peppers where you can get just about any craving on top of a pizza pie. Goat cheese, beans, avocado, seafood, and even a ratatouille slice are all the norm here. *try the Chilean empanadas for an added bonus.
Freddie and Pepper's on Urbanspoon

311 Amsterdam – Fusha West
If it’s Asian fusion you’re looking for, then Fusha West is a good bet.  Although prices are what you’d expect for the neighborhood, most agree the decor and service can justify the extra dollar or two tacked on to each dish. *Try the guacamole with spicy tuna and wasabi chips.

Fusha West on Urbanspoon

164 75 Street – ‘Cesca
At the northeast coner on 75th street, ‘Cesca spells solid Italian for the Upper West Side.  A front bar lends itself to ice breaking on many a first date; a precursor to a meal that may just sweep her off her feet for you.  A nice Italian wine list and menu items that you haven’t seen a million times before make ‘Cesca a standby that we hope won’t go anywhere soon. *Like ‘Cesca?  Check out their sister restaurant Accademia di Vino across town.
Cesca on Urbanspoon

Teasing Customers One Spice at a Time – Review of Spices and Tease

BY LISA M. NGUYEN

Spices And Tease
2580 Broadway (Between 97 & 98 Streets)
spicesandtease.com
/ 347-470-8327

Upper West Side

 This unique stand once started off selling at street fairs, being the odd one out with their robust aromas of different spices and teas, which included 30 varieties of homemade spice blends, over 70 original spices and 180 imported teas.  While walking around Madison Square Park’s food festival, other stands were cooking pizza, hot dogs, sandwiches, and then there was Spices and Tease.  

You’ll be able to find your classic tea’s, like Earl Grey and Chai, but you’ll also be able to try something out of the ordinary like their Dark Choco Orange Black Tea, made with orange bits, cocoa bits, cardamom, and pink pepper.  This mix creates a comfort with the taste buds and turning plain water into a work of art. You can also try one of their other tea’s like their Mango Pineapple Chili, which they like to call their “Pirate of the Caribbean” tea.  This mixture is made up with mango flakes, chili powder, and pineapple pieces.  A soothing and flavorful mix.

Going for $7 for a small tin and $10 for a large, these fancy tins keep the tea and spice’s fresh, and are made for the perfect gift for your family and friends.

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Hospitality and comfort meet the Upper West Side via Druze cuisine – Review of Gazala’s

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

Gazala’s
380 Columbus Avenue
Upper West Side
(212) 873-8880/gazalaplace.com

Gazala's Interior

Although the small Druze village in Northern Israel where Chef Gazala Halabi grew up is a far cry from the Upper West Side, she makes it her own via her restaurant, Gazala’s.
I had the pleasure of dining at Gazala’s, where I felt as if I were in Ms. Halabi’s own home.  
The warm and courteous wait staff made my guest and I feel comfortable in the brick and burgundy colored space, where interesting mosaics covered the walls and small chandeliers accented the high ceilings.

Gazala’s wasn’t very crowded for a Wednesday night, especially when a brief downpour washed away any sign of life dining outside on the small front patio.  Noticing those who periodically came in to Gazala’s, I knew right away that they were past patrons, coming back for more of the transporting food I was about to consume.

Meze Platter at Gazala’s

We started with the Gazala Platter ($33) – a meze platter highlighting most of Gazala’s hot and cold meze offerings.  The taboule and lebanee (a homemade goat cheese) highlighted the cold meze selections with fresh, crisp, and bright flavors.  The lebanee – a surprising, creamy treat melted in my mouth with a hint of lemon adding to the tang of the goat cheese.  The falafel trumped the hot mezes for me, with a burst of garlic and spices once the crisp outer shell was penetrated.  My dining companion, who grew up with Middle Eastern food, thoroughly enjoyed the meat and potato cigars,  and commented on how fresh and delicate they were.  I didn’t want the Gazala Platter to end, with endless combinations of dips, spreads, and things to dip and spread onto the sagg pita.

Spinach and Lebanee Boureka at Gazala’s

I managed to control how greedy this food was making me, in order to save room for our waitress’s special recommendation – her personal favorite, the spinach and lebanee boureka. The baked pie was similar to a Greek spanakopita, however the lebanee and pita dough added dimension, subtle whole wheat flavor and a more substantial doughy texture to the oh-so comforting dish.

Moshakal Platter

Next, the moshakal platter ($19.50) – a combination of lamb, chicken, and kafta served with rice and salad.  The kafta was flavorful and moist with the perfect amount of char and surprisingly seemed to melt in my mouth.

Baklava and Turkish coffee rounded out the meal, a perfect sweet end to a meal that transported me to Chef Gazala’s village, made me smile, and filled my heart with warmth from the first bite.

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New Taste of Upper West Side comforts hungry folks

BY BETH KAISERMAN

When entering a huge tent filled with fine foods from eclectic Upper West Side chefs, it’s important to remember to pace yourself — especially when it’s all comfort food.

Whole Foods Market presented New Taste of the Upper West Side last weekend, a two-night festival celebrating culinary wonders that liven up the Upper West Side. Friday night featured Comfort Classics, hosted by Adam Richman of Man vs. Food and Dylan Lauren of Dylan’s Candy Bar.

Photo by Beth Kaiserman

For a girl who’s been limiting her meat consumption lately, the natural place to start was Five Napkin Burger.

This is one burger joint I’ve never been to, but I’ve perused the menu online, which boasts offerings from matzo ball soup to sushi, and of course burgers.

For the event they served up mini burgers (which I won’t refer to as “sliders,” my least favorite food word) with grilled onions and mayo. This mini morsel of meat did not hit the spot; the meat itself was soggy and the overall taste had a weird tang. One bite in, and I was already cruising for something else.

Photo by Beth Kaiserman

When you have a wide variety of things available to taste, it’s difficult when you find something you really like. Shake Shack didn’t disappoint, serving up a jalapeno-battered corn dog, which I couldn’t resist conquering. It was served alongside a corn relish, but was ultimately delicious on its own. (I even went back for seconds later.) This was my favorite pick of the night.

Once I stopped obsessing over the corn dog, I moved on to other important tasks, like finding a snack to enjoy while waiting in line for Lukes Lobster, which had the longest line in the place. But by the time people pushed and bickered their way to the seafood, the lobster was gone, and I was left with a crab roll that was pretty unsatisfying.

 

At tasting events, it’s hard to say what’s good and what’s bad. You’re not receiving a true replica of what you would be served in each chef’s restaurant. You’re also overwhelmed with trying a ton of things in just a few hours. Therefore, it’s difficult to be overly critical. Still, you expect each chef to put forth his or her best efforts in serving you something memorable.

Photo by Beth Kaiserman

Photo by Beth Kaiserman

Another difficult chore is deciding when to move on to dessert. But once I saw Insomnia Cookies, my fate was sealed.

The standout dessert though was from Eds Chowder House. I was surprised they weren’t serving up one of their signature chowders, but happy with what they presented instead: a not-too-sweet, perfectly comforting bourbon chocolate pudding with a cinnamon spice cream. I’m not a fan of sinfully sweet things, and this had the slightest spice and smoke to it with no overpowering sweetness. “A great way to end a bad week,” said the lady who served it.

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Ed's Chowder House on Urbanspoon

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Mel’s Burger delivers! – Review of Mel’s Burger

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

Mel’s Burger
2850 Broadway
Morningside Heights
212-865-7100/
melsburgerbar.com

Mel's Burger, Morningside Heights, Manhattan

Mel's Burger, Morningside Heights, Manhattan

Mel’s Burger opened on August 26th.  The flickering neon sign reminiscent of Times Square circa 1940 is an inviting homage to what is now kitschy, old New York.  Located in the heart of Columbia University territory, I expected to see a flood of college kids swarming the place and perhaps a stale beer smell from nights past.  Instead, I walked into a rather large restaurant with an interesting selection of clientele ranging from senior citizens to families with young children, to of course, Columbia students.  The interior was decked from head to toe in rustic wood and accented with fun elements like a black and white checkered floor, a large painting with the not-so-subliminal message “hamburgers delicious”, and the restaurant’s namesake spelled out in perfectly made-to-look-dingy lights.

The staff was energized and seemingly happy to be at work.  Their number 1 concern for the entire time I was there was that I was having fun and that I was trying out as many beers on their impressive, craft heavy, list as I could possibly muster.

Cadillac Burger (bacon and cheese) at Mel’s Burger

Cadillac Burger (bacon and cheese) at Mel’s Burger

Reading over the menu, with items ranging from their spiked milk shakes to their homage to the “original” Louis’ Lunch burger (let’s give credit where credit is due!) to the hand cut buffalo and disco fries and onion strings, I could tell that Mel’s really was all about having fun and enjoying food on a college student’s budget (burgers ranging from $8.50 to $12.50).

Fries and onion strings at Mel’s Burger

Fries and onion strings at Mel’s Burger

Also delicious at Mel’s, the French Dip!

Also delicious at Mel’s, the French Dip!

While the stale beer smell may come with time, and the staff might not always be so giddy for work, it is safe to say that as long as they don’t change the special spice blend they use for their burgers and the recipe they use for their delicious french fries, Mel’s will be a staple in the lives of many Columbia students and the residents of Morningside Heights for years to come.

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Comfort food with a twist – Review of Gus and Gabriel

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

Gus and Gabriel
222 West 79th Street
Upper West Side
212-362-7246/
gusandgabriel.com

Ah, the Gastropub; a rather new concept in the New York City area which has only gained popularity in the past 5 years or so and continues to attract vast followings as gastropubs continue to sprout up all over the place.  For a beer nut and foodie such as myself, these places are heaven on earth!

On this particular Friday night, Gus and Gabriel was what was on the menu.  Nestled down a few steps, and located in a tiny space that is easily overlooked, sits Gus and Gabriel, decorated in rich red wood which continues down a narrow hallway and into a larger dining room adorned with a nautical motif. When we arrived around 7:30pm I was a little surprised that the place was not more crowded. It did however, fill up by the time we were ready to leave a few hours later.

Complimentary basket of spiced popcorn at Gus and Gabriel

Complimentary basket of spiced popcorn at Gus and Gabriel

A small basket of spiced popcorn was delivered to our table as a welcome. [Read more...]

Ganesha welcomes you: Review of Ayurveda Cafe

BY CLAIRE McCURDY

706 Amsterdam Avenue
(between 94th St & 95th St)
Upper West Side
(212) 932-2400
AyurvedaCafeNYC.com

Interior of Ayurveda Cafe'

Interior of Ayurveda Cafe'

The vegetarian Ayurveda Restaurant and Cafe is justly called one of the hidden treasures of the Upper West Side. From the beginning the customer recognizes s/he is walking into a very different world.  The place is painted *orange* on the exterior– with happy although slightly dilapidated gilt decorations. And you must traverse a maze of little orange doors before you arrive at the center of the restaurant.  Inside, the great benign elephant headed god Ganesha greets you. [Read more...]

Home Cooking from the Italian Islands of Sicily and Sardinia – Review of Acqua

BY CLAIRE McCURDY

ACQUA
718 Amsterdam Avenue @95th Street
Upper West Side
212-222-2752 /acquanyc.com

The interior at Acqua

Image courtesy of acquanyc.com

An exterior of cerulean blue,  very appealing on an otherwise somewhat dreary block, “sails” hanging in swags from the ceilings, so that you are meant to feel you’re on a ship under full sail; undulating  walls at the entryway with teak and brass portholes; mellow sconce lights; wooden ceiling fan and walls of a warm cinnabar—it’s clear from the outset that Acqua ‘s décor is meant to evoke the sea and the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia.  It is very attractive and calming, setting the diner at rest.  As they say themselves, it’s a comfortable neighborhood setting. [Read more...]