May 31, 2013

Izakaya the "social sushi" house at JW Marriott Marquis, Dubai

Upon arrival at this funky Japaneses concept, we were warmly greeted by the hostess and friendly members of staff.  They walked us into the nicely lit restaurant,with eye catching wall hangings and cool colored cusions.  It almost felt as if we stepped into a night club, as everything from the walls to table and chairs were black in color, illuminated by a green colored backdrop and not to mention the costume clad servers all wearing mis matched shoes! The most colorful of them all was the signature, "wasabi girl" who wore a blue/greenish colored wig, green dress, and striped knee high socks! It was a feast for the eyes.....

As we casually walked to our table, all the service staff shouted and welcomed us from across the dining room.  We sat down, and the hostess explained that "Izakaya" dining is all about the atmosphere.  Everyone in the rstaurant engages with the guests to make it an all around lively experience, and that it was.
 The menu was extensive and contained everything from Sushi to Teppanyaki, Robatayaki, Noodles and Rice, and Tempura of course!  Spoilt for choice, we started with some appetizers and the quintessential edamame are a standard part of any Japanese order.  Izakaya served up 3 varieties, a plain, sea salt, and curried which was my favorite.
 Also included in the starters was the tuna tataki, executed beautifully and perfectly balanced, this little bite covered all the bases.  The lightly seared tuna, with a dallop of avocado, a dash of fresh wasabi, garlic chips, prepared *"Zuke" style topped with Ikura or Salmon roe. 

*In the old days when refrigerators were not around, many sushi chefs immersed their raw sashimi in soy sauce for a few hours, so the sodium prevented the sushi from spoiling too quickly. This is called the zuke method and it is an old fashioned preparation.  (
 For comparison purposes, we also ordered the "Beef tataki" wrapped vegetables with a mustard sauce. The glistening rare rolls of meat arrived at the table, and my mouth started to water. Those perfectly pounded out slices of beef wrapped delicately around the julliened vegetables were prepared meticulously.  The mustard sauce served with them, was concentrated and really packed a punch, Imuch prefered the tataki on there own, with the sublte ginger and soy accents.
 This next dish was recommended by our server, is the hotest ticket item on the menu, and when it arrived at the table, I knew why! Initially turned off by the name, *"Okonomiyaki" a traditional Japanese pancake, I was expecting something very generic. On the contrary, this dish was far from ordinary, it was ALIVE, literally.  Topped with Bonito flakes (Katsuobushi), the hot savory pancakes danced before our eyes.

(*The batter is made of flour, grated nagaimo (a type of  yam), water or dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage, and usually contains other ingredients such as green onion, meat, octopus, squid, shrimp, vegetable, kimchi, mochi, or cheese. Okonomiyaki is sometimes compared to an omlette or a pancake and may be referred to as a "Japanese pizza" or "Osaka soul food :
We order a mix of Nigiri, rolls, and sushi to understand the range of the sushi master's skill, and I am happy to report they were up to standard. I ordered the Volcano hand roll which consisted of salmon, avocado, tobiko, and siracha.  Overwhelming full of flavor and texture, I enjoyed this roll, but found, as most handrolls go, it was pretty to look at, but  messy to eat.  The yellowtail was as fresh as could be, and the Unagi as always was smothered with a sweet Japanese BBQ sauce, which I have grown to love.
And of course if there is an order of sushi on the table, there will be wasabi!  Izakaya has gone as far as keeping a member of staff solely dedicated to the task of bringing this fresh Japanese horseradish to each and every diner in their establishment.  In addition to this cool and quirky touch, they have also created a video that hit the social media scene when the restaurant first launched.  JW Marriott Marquis is in tune and up to speed with all matters of on-line trends that not only boost the business, but give it credibility in the on-line market which has a much further reach than traditional forms of media.   

Tempura is another one of those dishes I hestitate to order, under the pretense that I will be eating something boring.  Izakaya did it again with a very "uncommon" presentation by keeping everything authentic.  Served with green tea powder, grated daikon, and Japanese pepper all provided as condiments and flavor enhancers to the common bowl  of tentsuyu you will often find served along side any tempura, my taste buds were heightened by all the additional compenents to this mix of deep fried items. 
In the interest of comparison, I had to order the miso cod.  All too frequently found on menus across the globe, and especially here in Dubai, it is a go to item for most people.  As this fish dish goes, it's open to any chefs interpretation, and varies in execution and presentation.  Izakaya proved to keep thing authentic with the artful Japanese approach of cooking and presentation in this entree, which was not only visually stunning, but also tasty.  The miso and sweet mirin flavor was rather sublte in this version of the dish, but I also think becuase of the various components and pairings it was served with, it had to be.  The thinly sliced pepper strings,dehydrated fish skin, Ginkgo nuts, and Daikon all added somehting unusual to the texture and final outcome of this cod.
 Last but certainly not the least is the dessert.  From my past experience with Asian style desserts, I have not particularly enjoyed much of anything besides Mochi and the occassional green tea ice cream.  That being said, green tea has recently been taking the world by storm as it is now available in may various forms from lattes and milk shakes, and now, even in a cake.  Green Tea Tiramisu is a fusion of cuisine and technique, and it does so beautifully in this well comprised sweet.  Creamy, sweet, tart, and delicous, it hits all the right notes for an unusual confectionary item. 
Izakaya is funky and an all around treat, the staff and ambiance make this restaurant concept worth the visit.  We had a lovely eating and although ate extensively, didn't leave feeling uncomfortable, just pleansantly full. 

For more information, check out the Izakaya website by clicking below:

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May 23, 2013

NYC finds and favorites Spring 2013

Talde in Park Slope, Brooklyn was a great all around meal.  Talde is an original concept restaurant created and operated by Dale Talde a former contender on Bravo's Top Chef, Chicago.  Talde of Phillipino decent tapped into his Asian roots to bring to the table a nuance of pan asian flavors done unconventionally, yet overwhelmingly well. 

Since this restaurant opened, it has been the talk of the town, and in order to secure a table, one must arrive an hour or two before dinner time to add your name to the list.  Weekends will gurantee you a minimum 2 hour wait, so you might be safer stopping by here mid-week for the unique cuisine Chef Dale and his team are preparing.

The Kung Pao Chicken Wings with peanuts and house-made buttermilk ranch were sticky and sweet and fried to perfection. Coated  with the tangy sweet and spicy fingerlicking sauce that makes people coming back for more. 

My other favorite here was the Lobster Tom Kha with coconut milk, rice noodles, and corn. Being a native New Englander, I am likely to order anything with lobster.  I am always curious to experience the execution of such a delicate ingredient, some due justice and others dilute the natural succulence of this jewel of the ocean.  I am happy to report Talde has done me proud, and paired this morsel of goodness with just the right amount of heat and spice that allowed the lobster to be the shining star in this dish.  The natural sweetness from the coconut milk, infused with a hint of Thai Basil and paired with this shellfish delicacy made for one of the tastiest broths I've ever had.
Caracas is located on the corner of 1st Ave and 7th street with a modest store front and a quaint dining space the size of someone's 1 bedroom NYC apartment.  However the vibrant energy and magnitude of food that comes out of the tiny little kitchen is immense in its level of personality.  This little Venezualan concept in the East Village is somewhat of a hidden gem, mostly known to locals, and because of it's no reservation policy, getting a table is sometimes a longer process than one wants when they're hungry, but let me assure you this arepa bar is worth the wait.  Lucky for us, our timing was perfect, and we waited just a few minutes for a cozy window seat.

The quality of food and price points really can't be beat, especially in a city like Manhattan where there are an abundance of commercial chain restaurants charging extortionate amounts of money for something that resembles food, but was probably pulled out of the freezer and microwaved before it arrived at your table. A restaurant like Caracas, owned and operated by Maribel Araujo and Aristides "Gato" Barrios, is an extension of their love for food.  Their passion to serve authentic Venezualan cuisine outside of their native country just goes to show how wonderful the city of NY really is! Achieving the flavor profiles they enjoyed in their homeland in a completely foreign environment was a challenge and accomplishment they did gracefully and tastefully.
We ordered the guacamole, with house made plantain and taro chips.  It had a much smoother texture than the "Mexican" style Guacs I'm used to, but still equally as delicious.  You really can't go wrong with avocado in anything.  It was actually the chips that created a unique combination of texture and flavor paired with the guacamole that made this authentic venezualen styls snack really shine.
Although there are options other than *Arepas at the **Caracas Arepabar, we stuck with the classics.  I went for the Vista al mar, an arepa filled with pan-seared tilapia, garlic infused olive oil, pickled red onions, radish, and a cilantro, parsley, oregano spread. The burst of flavor from the bold pickled onions and super concentrated herb spread along with the savory warmth of the fish complete with the soft and crunchy arepa it was all enveloped in was a medley of beautifully balanced flavors my palatte is always in search of.  Looking modest in size, I opted for a second one as well, since the waitress did inform us 1.5 arepas per person was sufficient, but to be honest, the one was enough!

*According to Wikipedia "Arepa is a flat, round, unleavened patty made of corn flour or flour which can be grilled, baked, boiled, fried, steamed, etc. The characteristics vary by color, flavor, size, and the food with which it may be stuffed, depending on the region. Arepa is a native sort of bread made of ground maize (or flour), water, and salt which is fried into a thick bread. It can be topped or filled with meat, eggs, tomatoes, salad, cheese, shrimp, or fish depending on the meal. Breakfast egg or cheese are the most common arepa fillings."

**According to the restaurant an "Arepa  resists definition. They are the result of a relentless dedication to homemade quality slow food. Straight from Venezuela, with New York temperament, stuffed or plain, arepas can be a snack or a meal, exotic or familiar. Their versatility is probably their only constant and the reason why in Venezuela they are at the center of every meal; from breakfast to lunch, dinner, and the occasional after party treat."

Another fun East Village find is Big Gay Ice Cream, a NYC original which started out as a little ole truck which made its way around the city and is now creating an ice cream empire with 2 shops, one in the East and the other in the West Village.  With menu items such as the "Salty Pimp" and "Bea Arthur", they aren't just fun to order, but actually deliver in the flavor department as well!

Rainbows and Unicorns are a plenty in this cool little dessert spot.  There is limited space to stand, so for everyone's convenience and to maintain ice cream euphoria, there is a "bouncer" like character standing outside, monitoring how many people from the line are allowed inside.  With a brand such as Big Gay Ice Cream, you wouldn't expect anything less from their employees, so the bouncer and all the ice cream servers alike were over the top and loving their jobs!
Just being there put me and everyone  else there in a good mood! The energy was bursting in every corner of this well lit place as the staff spun and danced after every order was placed.  We were having such a great time, entranced by our surroundings, as we watched our "live entertainment" in awe, before we knew it our ice cream arrived!
American Globs was my treat of choice, with vanilla ice cream, pretzels, chocolate chips, and sea salt, what a combination! My friend Angela Gaspar (a well known Photographer in NYC) and I shared this humongous order. There was so much going on with this cone, they had to actually lay it down on a tray and serve it with a spoon. No matter how it was served did not matter, it was the perfect treat with notes of sweet and salty yumminess, i am continuosly craving.
 For a Birthday treat my friends decided to take me to The Stanton Social on the LES of Manhattan.  The place was buzzing with an electric current found in most trendy Manhattan eateries.  The menu was diverse with items like Maryland Jumbo Lump  Crabcake 'Corn Dogs’ and Potato & Goat Cheese Pierogies with a caramelized onions, truffle creme fraiche, I was intrigued! The mastermind Chef Chris Santos created this as a sister restaurant to Beauty and Essex, a very popular LES spot.  I looked forward to the evening as 6 of my closest friends joined me in celebrating my special day.

As we had a mix of palattes at the table, we ordered a variety of dishes to suits everyones tastes.  A restaurant such as this is best with large groups in order to maximize on eating capacity.  The waitress was also extremely accomodating, and informed us that although most dishes were portioned out for 5 ppl, she could add in extra pieces per dish, a la cart in order to easily serve our table. 

The highlights of our starter selection are pictured below, and we then realized we had ordered more than half the menu items as the evening proceeded.  The baked spanakopita was done in roll form (left) with the approproate cheese to spinach proportion.  The pierogies (right) were baked with a crunchy texture rather than the traditional soft and doughy form  I'm used to, but worked well.  The introduction of goat cheese into this traditional Eastern European delicacy was an excellent move, and the carmelized onion just brought it all together.  Also pictured were the red snapper tacos with creamy avocad and spicy mango, ideally this would be one of my go to items on any menu, but next to all the bold cheesey flavors, it just couldn't match up to the rest of the items. 
The star of the show really were thes French onion soup dumplings.  Prior to dining at the restaurant, I had done my research on The Stanton Social, only to find the most talked about item were these little beauties. Plated perfectly in this sectioned off round dish, each little dumpling sat in it's little individual bowl coated with cheese and finished off with a garlic crouton.  It was creative, tasty, and easy to eat! Definitely one of my favorites of the evening.
The other wonner that night was suprisingly the Lamb Souvlaki.  Not usually my go to item, but special requested by my friend, the tender and well seasoned lamb was as savory as could be! Accompanied by the cool tzatziki and a squeeze of fresh citrus it hit all the right notes, and made for a tasty modern (mini) rendition of the Greek classic.
One of our server's recommendations was the seasonal Spring Pea Ravioli.  Not only were the seasonal flavors fresh and vibrant, they were also satisfying and healthy in these hand made pasta pillows which were gobbled up instantly.  The sauce was a light brown butter sauce and baby mache salad on top.  I am happy that we ordered a seasonal special, as most of the other items we enjoyed that evening were pretty heavy and hearty, this was surprisingly refreshing!
ABC Kitchen has always delivered each and every time I have eaten there. It features "a changing menu that is locally sourced and globally artistic in a fresh and articulate space", so what's not to love! Whether it's the farm fresh vegetables executed to perfection, or the decadently creative sweets at the end of the meal, this place knocks it out of the park every time for me.

The seasonal item of the month are *ramps, so naturally, ABC Kitchen had them featured in several different forms throughout there menu.  Brought complementary to our table was this crusty sourdough bread topped with a ramp puree, goat's cheese, and carmelized onions.   

*A ramp is an early spring vegetable, a perennial wild onion with a strong garlic-like odor and a pronounced onion flavor.
I have been on this crab kick lately, and when I saw Crab Toast with Lemon Aioli on the menu I simply had to have it! The perfectly pan toasted sourdough bread was dressed with a generous serving of the luscious peekytoe crab lightly seasoned with mayonaisse, lemon, dill, sea salt, and topped with a dallop of lemon aioli.  The creamy crab paired with the crunchy sourdough bursted with flavors despite the simplicity in its preparation.
Another simple yet flavorful pairing was the homemade Ricotta with Rhubarb Compote, what a pairing! Similar to the abundance of ramps on the menu, rhubarb was a close second.  The saltiness of the cheese alongside the sweet and tartness of the rhubarb was a smooth and flavorful treat!  The dash of the superb quality olive oil made this more of a savory dish, but I could even imagine having this as an after dinner treat as well. 
Scallop Carpaccio with sea asparagus, fresh dill, parsley and lemon was fresh as can be!  The presentation was gorgeous and the flavor profiles were appropriate together.  However, as far as scallop carpaccios go, I would have to say my favorite is still at La Petite Maison in Dubai.
I don't normally order pasta for a main course, but after seeing the unusual pairing of Bowties with Kasha and veal meatballs, I was intrigued.  Kasha, also known as buckwheat cereal (groats) is commonly paired with bowtie pasta and served with onions and a rich brown gravy (Kasha Varnishkas) in  Ashkenazi-Jewish culture as "soul food".  This is Chef Jean George's take on that classic with a dallop of sourcream, fresh parsely, and grated nutmeg, he has done justice to the original and created a unique dish bringing  the humble meatball to the forefront of haute cuisine.
The obsession with lobster is almost as bad as the obsession with crab, and when a whole lobster is presented straight from the wood oven, roasted with oregano, and a lemon chili vinaigrette, you must simply engage. Cooked and presented as picture perfect as could be, this crustacean was so elegant, I feared to even take a bite.  The sweetness from the fresh herbs brought out the succulent beauty of this seafood, and the sublte heat balanced it all in a harmony of flavors i could enjoy every day of my life.
Writing about pizza always comes straight from the heart.  It is one of my most favorite things to eat, and when it's done as lovely (and healthy) as this, it should be recognized!  A whole wheat dough topped with a forest of mushrooms, fresh oregano, Parmesan, and a farm fresh egg makes my mouth water just thinking about it.  The texture of the meaty mushrooms against the chewy dough and finished of with the egg yolk makes for the comfort food I often dream about.  Salty, savory, creamy, and delicious, you won't go wrong with one of these gourmet pizzas.  You could order one to yourself as a meal, or as an appetizer/middle course to share!
Last featured item from ABC Kitchen is the dessert.  How could I not share the simple goodness of this ice cream sundae, but what makes it unique is the salted caramel ice cream, the candied popcorn and peanuts, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream.  It was like a fancy Snickers bar sundae, but 100 times better!  The first time I had this sweet treat, I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks, this time around was no different. Although they have a variety of  very refined confectioanry items, this will always be my favorite.