Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ladies Who Lunch Noshes on Falafel at Taim, NY

Living in New York as a teen on the salary one made as a ballet dancer, I was the typical starving artist.  My friends and I would often meet up in the Village to hang out at cafes or cheap diners where we would nurse a single cappuccino for hours. It was there  in the Village that I discovered falafel at Mamoun’s on MacDougal.  It was healthy, filling and relatively inexpensive.  I was hooked.  I frequented Mamoun’s often and also started going to a chain that had opened up in the city called Amy’s (long gone, still missing their frozen yogurt with dried fruit and seeds) that also served a decent falafel (though not as good as Mamon’s),  Falafel became one of my favorite foods and a staple in my diet.  Over the years I have tried almost every type of falafel known to mankind: Israeli, Egyptian, Greek, Lebanese.  I have bought them across the globe (L’as du Falaffel in Paris being a fave) and even made them at home from scratch and from mixes.
So, one night watching The Food Network (yes, I am one of the geeks that watches it) I was particularly intrigued to find an episode of Bobby Flay Throwdown where the challenge was falafel.  I am a big fan of Bobby Flay’s shows, so watching this one was a no brainer.  In this episode, he challenged the chef/owner Einat Admony of a falafel restaurant in New York called Taim.  I was glued to my seat and wanted to find out how I could make the best falafel at home.  Taim’s falafel lost to Bobby Flay, but in a rare moment, Bobby told the viewers that the judges had gotten it wrong and that Taim actually had the best falafel you would find.  I was intrigued!!
Upon arriving back in New York, I was going out to eat with my best friend Brenda and she asked me where I would like to go.  I know that she expected me to say PIZZA, as it is generally the rule that I want some good New York pizza when getting back home.  However this time, I told her of the show about Taim and that I was dying of suspense to try it.  Brenda was game since she loves Middle Eastern food, so we took off for the West Village to find Taim.
Located in a small storefront on Waverly Place just off 7th Avenue, it is tiny, with not more than 5 stools along a narrow ledge in the window to eat at.  When we came in, the place was packed with people placing or picking up orders, a good sign.  Brenda ordered the Mixed Falafel Platter, a sampling of all three of their falafels (Green Traditional cilantro-parsley-mint, Red with roasted red pepper, and Harissa with Tunisian spices) served with hummus, tabouli and israeli salad.  Wanting to approach this from a purist standpoint, I ordered the Falafel pita with Green Traditional falafel.

By the time we got our food, the crowd had somewhat cleared and we were able to snag two of the window stools.   We dug in and upon the first bite I was immediately in heaven.  The Pita was light and fluffy in a way that I had never had pita before. I imagine in my minds eye that this is what they refer to in the Bible when they talk about manna from heaven.  Stuffed inside it was the falafel, hummus, israeli salad and it was dressed with tahini.  All of the ingredients were exceptional and packed with flavor.  Then I took my first bite of the falafel itself.  A perfect balance of herbs and spices, this falafel really delivers on flavor.  But even more amazing than that is the texture.  This falafel is wonderfully crisp on the outside with an interior that is so light and airy, it almost melts in your mouth. Each successive bite delivered more of the delightful flavor and I could tell that I was falling deeper and deeper in love.  After my purist moment had been satisfied, I tasted a little of each item on Brenda’s platter.  The other 2 falafel had the same wonderful texture as the Green Traditional, but also had equally tasty characters of their own, the red pepper a little more rich and the harissa with a mild spicy bite.  We both chowed down with complete satisfaction.  It was everything that Bobby Flay had promised and oh so very much more.  I was hooked.
Taim is now firmly on my destination list for when I am home in NY.  I may last one or two days being home in NY before succumbing to my craving and dashing down to Taim for another one.  I get obsessed, kind of in the way Woody Harrelson is obsessed with Twinkies in ZOMBIELAND.
If you happen to pass me on the street anywhere in the world and I have a wistfull look in my eye and licking my lips, I am quite possibly jonesing for another fix of Taim’s falafel.

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Ladies Who Lunch: Scott's Restaurant & Bar South Coast Plaza

Located directly across the street from South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California, Scott’s Restaurant & Bar is hard to miss.  However, over the years I had never tried it, let alone stepped inside.  Most everyone I know that frequented Scott’s raved about the seafood. Since I was never much one for fish, I always skipped over it in my mind as a dining destination.  After becoming completely vegetarian, a friend once suggested Scott’s and after looking over a menu that was most definitely a meatatarian menu, I dismissed it once again.
Then last week, I went to Scott’s for a cocktail meeting.  I didn’t think much about it, since we were only going for cocktails, not food.  I somehow had it in my mind that Scott’s was an old and stodgy restaurant and I certainly hadn’t thought of it as a world class restaurant.  Little did I know that I was in store for a wonderful evening that would dispel all of my preconceived notions of this restaurant.
Our party of four met in the bar/lounge area of the restaurant and since we were only there for cocktails, decided to just take a table there.  The bar area is very comfortable, modern and well decorated.  I certainly had not envisioned such a cool space being in there.  Drinks ordered (3 Layer Cake Shiraz and 1 Scotch on the rocks), we settled in to discussion.  The Layer Cake Shiraz was a new discovery for me and is definitely a keeper.  Nice bouquet, full bodied, smooth....what’s not to like?
As our discussions continued, someone suggested ordering some food.  And another suggested doing a tasting menu.  Executive Chef Mike J. Doctulero came to our table and asked us what our preferences were, especially if there were special dietary needs.  When he got to me, I told him that I was vegetarian, so not to worry about food for me.  Without blinking an eye, he said that he would take care of me.  I was intrigued, yet still pretty skeptical.  With the exception of a few salads on the menu, there really wasn’t anything there for me.
Shortly afterward, the food began to arrive.  For everyone else at the table, Chef Mike started out with Hamachi Yellowtail jalapeno roll with dungeness crab and spicy ponzu.  For a vegetarian option, we got a Burrata and Zucchini Blossom Pizza and a Roasted Beet Salad with white balsamic vinaigrette, mache and goat cheese.  The rest of my party devoured the Yellowtail Roll and didn’t need to give me their reviews.  Their contented “mmmmmmmmmmm’s” said it all.  Meanwhile, I started with a slice of the pizza.  The balance of flavorings was wonderful with the smoothness of the Burrata complimenting the delicate taste of the zucchini blossoms.  I then dug into the Roasted beet salad. I love beets and the pairing of red and golden beets with mache and goat cheese was really a delight.  I of course fought against my inner voice telling me to horde these 2 dishes to myself and shared them with the rest of the table.  For all I new, this would be the extent of vegetarian food for the evening.
Then the next course arrived.  Chef Mike served a dish of Halibut with cous cous.  For me, he served the same cous cous with vegetables (asparagus, carrots..).  Again the consensus around the table was that both versions were hits with us.  This was then followed up with a course of Branzino on a bed of edamame risotto and for me, edamame risotto with mixed baby vegetables.  Again, the preparation was impeccable and the table thoroughly enjoyed this course.  Both dishes were exquisitely prepared.
And then dessert.  Now I am not one who ordinarily partakes of desserts in restaurants.  I am usually quite sated with the main courses and appetizers and skip dessert (only to several hours later, at home, dressed in comfy clothes, devour more than my share of dessert!!!).  But seeing as everything else had been so amazing, I couldn’t resist.  We were served two desserts, the first being a Concord Grape Cabernet Sorbet with fresh berries.  The sorbet was rich with intense flavor and pairing it with the fresh berries made it a light and refreshing end to the meal.  But then came the piece de la resistance , Cheesecake stuffed beignets with vanilla bean panna cotta, caramel and creme anglaise.  All I can say is wow!!  I have had my share of beignet around the world (including the renowned Cafe du Monde in New Orleans) and these are hands down the best.  The “cheesecake” filling is flavorful and light, almost airy.  And the sauces were divine.  If I had been at home, I would have picked up the plate and licked it clean :)
The service was attentive and friendly, definitely first class all the way.  Next time I will sit in the beautiful main dining room (and yes, there will be many more next times!!).  This is definitely not an old and stodgy restaurant.  It is current, vibrant and chic.
Chef Mike Doctulero most certainly had made fans of the rest of my group.  But he had also made me into a fan as well, a big fan.  He proved that a good chef can make extraordinary food for non-vegetarians and vegetarians alike.  He also proved that he could use his talents to make his guests happy and be accommodating to their needs without sacrificing his originality or his culinary vision.
I will certainly be returning to Scott’s and I am looking forward to more of Chef Mike’s amazing creations!!  Thank you Chef Mike for proving my assumptions about Scott’s wrong.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Ladies Who Lunch: Cafe Roma San Francisco

My first day in San Francisco!!! That is my first day on this trip.  I have visited this gorgeous city way too many times to even count.  I am here for the purpose of scouting locations for a San Francisco episode of Ladies Who Lunch.  And while I should be getting down to business, I'm feeling a little laid back today.  After all, I had a late night and an early flight.  Meaning I am running on approximately 2 1/2 hours sleep.  So, I deserve to be a little lazy.  Right???
Anyway, my laziness has actually turned out to be a bit of a blessing!  After arriving, I spent the morning at a friend's office catching up on some much needed computer work. When it was time to venture out, I decided that instead of work, I would just head to a favorite haunt in North Beach.
On my last trips to SF to scout locations, I totally ignored North Beach.  Everyone told me that North Beach was: too touristy, no longer relevant as an in spot, nothing new or exciting to see, shop or eat there. And even though it has always been one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city, I concentrated on "cooler" areas of the city.  And yes, I found some really hot spots that I am chomping at the bit to share with you.  However, I am beginning to think that ignoring North Beach might not be true to myself.
I wandered through North Beach with the goal of hitting a favorite cafe that I had not visited in what seems like forever.  I headed up by North Beach Pizza out of nostalgia. North Beach Pizza was the first place I ate at on my very first trip to SF, back when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth. They have since moved to the corner across the street in a larger space.  Their original space stands empty and forlorn with a giant For Rent sign in the window.  And even though the inside is gutted, I still relive fond memories of visits to SF and the "must" pilgrimage for North Beach Pizza.  Of course, these days the city has way better pizza (which I will soon share with you!), but you can still find me occasionally dining there for nostalgic reasons.  And, as usual, I have completely strayed from my focus!!
So, as I strolled down Grant Avenue, I was intrigued to find several NEW boutiques that offered everything from custom tailored clothing, hip new clothes, tchotchkes and even an incredible cake shop.  So despite my intent to not work, I ended up doing nothing but!!!  AND, North Beach is now definitely on my LWL route!!  I am excited about the inclusion of these cool spots on the upcoming episode.
Now to the original intent of this piece: Cafe Roma Coffee Roasting Company. Located on a triangular block with entrances on Columbus and Stockton, it has long been a favorite of mine.  The interior is very reminiscent of places that I grew up going to in New York's Little Italy and Greenwich Village (most of which no longer exist in NY).  The type of place that is comfortable in its old school italian cafe atmosphere.  Add to that the modern convenience of complimentary WiFi and you have my ideal hangout.  It's the kind of place like "Cheers", where the locals hang and the baristas and servers know their customers.  And even though they did not know me, they treated me with the same familiarity and friendliness.
Offering a great menu of all the usual coffee drinks, pastries, gelato, sandwiches and other cafe specialties, They also boast a fine selection of wines to purchase.  I love coming here.  They roast their own coffee and have the roaster right in the front window.  And it's not just for show.  The coffee at this place is amazing, robust and full of flavor.  On this visit, I opted for a giant soy latte and I had to have a biscotti to go with it.  The coffee was incredible and I liked the fact that they accommodated my soy milk request without batting an eye.  The biscotti was great and authentic!! And while enjoying them, I equally enjoyed the atmosphere, the people watching and the leisure of working on my computer unrushed and content.
Which brings me to the moral of this story.  While it is fun and rewarding to seek out the new, hot and happening, don't discount the relevance of the old and familiar.  And, don't be surprised if some of those new, hot and happening places end up being right there tucked into those old and familiar spots!!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Blame it on Burma

Yes, yes, yes!!!!  I know!!!! It is now officially called Myanmar, but “Blame it on Myanmar” just doesn’t have the same ring to it!!!  So sue me :)
On a recent trip to Myanmar, Yangon (Rangoon) to be exact, the importance of good shopping venues was impressed upon me once again.  As I learned from this experience, shopping sometimes is way more than a luxury.  In some circumstances it is a necessity.  Okay, I can already see the smirks on some of your faces, equating my rambling with Paris Hilton on “The Simple Life”.  And while I wouldn’t object to being a BFF with dear Paris, this is much deeper than that.  This is a subject that touches the heart and soul of all red-blooded shopping mavens across the globe.
Here’s the situation.  I was leaving Bangkok for a four day excursion to Yangon.  I already had some trepidation regarding this trip, knowing the political climate of the country and the enormous amount of poverty.  Since it was a relatively short trip, I decided to pack light.  Granted my version of packing light is not that of others. I still had a full size suitcase and my ginormous computer bag. My idea of packing light is perhaps closer to the concept of not bringing a steamer trunk.  Even in my youth, when everyone else was backpacking through Europe, I “suitcased” through Europe. Please!!! Me with only a backpack??? However, that is a story best left for another day.  In the attempt to “pack light”, I decided to bring only one pair of shoes; a pair of black penny loafers.  I figured that they were practical enough to get me through days of huge amounts of walking, but still dressy enough to wear to dinner in the evening.  I mean, how dressy would I ever really need to be in Yangon?
Now for the glitch.  As I entered the Yangon airport from our newly arrived plane, I glanced down and to my horror saw that the upper had separated from the sole along the entire outer edge of my right shoe.  All I could think of was that here I was with non-functional shoes in a country that from what I had been led to understand really did not have a western concept of shopping.  I kept calm by telling myself that the reports I had heard were surely exaggerated, that they must have at least one shopping mall where I would be able to find a new pair of shoes......
As our taxi brought us into the city, it was very obvious that NOONE was wearing shoes anywhere that you looked.  It appeared that the only footwear that anyone wore were flip-flops or sandals that resembled flip-flops.  Even when living in Southern California, the land of flip-flops, not only do I not ever wear them, I do not even own a pair.  To be quite honest, I abhor flip-flops.  They are unattractive, anti-fashion and despite what anyone says, flip-flops are NOT shoes.  After reading that little diatribe, you can see how I was feeling about the prospect of having flip-flops as my only option.  Now don’t get me wrong, in a country like Myanmar where it is the custom, it totally works for the people there.  It’s in the western world where I can’t accept it and refuse to wear them myself!!
When we arrived at the hotel, I inquired of the concierge as to where I might be able to buy a pair of shoes.  My hopes raised when she showed me on a map a shopping mall, not far from the hotel.  As soon as we had checked in, I was off in search of the shopping mall.  As I waded through the flip-flop clad denizens, I stayed focused on my shopping destination like a guided missile fixed on its target.  I really wanted to explore the sites of Yangon.  But, I was having a bout of OCD and couldn’t focus on anything other than replacing my shoes.
Then I found the mall. You had to pass through a metal detector and two armed guards to enter the nondescript four story building.  Once inside, I realized that we were the only customers.  It resembled a mall only in that it had “stores” along the outer edges of the four floors that surrounded an atrium.  The stores themselves were all small mom & pop type outfits, some selling clothes, some selling crafts and yes, even a few selling shoes.  It all resembled more of a swap meet than an actual mall.  Going in to the 2 “stores” that sold shoes, I found that they were very limited in sizes and that most of the styles had probably been in there since at the earliest the mid 80’s.  The only thing that I could find in my size was a pair of very dated and way too dressy knock-off Gucci Loafers.  Desperate, but not insane, I decided to pass and continue the search.
The rest of that day was spent “seeing the sites”, but my mind was still on my shoes.  I felt very self conscious walking around with shoes that were torn.
The next day, I found another “mall”.  This one was similar to the last, but felt a wee bit more modern.  Perhaps that was only due to having an escalator for each floor and a western style doughnut shop.  I was finally able to find a pair of shoes there that while not anything to write home about would be functional and not altogether hideous.  I purchased them, made my escape and felt no need to return to these “malls” during my stay.
The only other shopping I experienced there was bazaar style shopping.  Very interesting to peruse Myanmar cultural artifacts, fabrics, etc., but hardly my idea of going shopping.  The rest of the visit was devoted to sightseeing and visits to the many pagodas of Yangon. Although on a separate note, we were able to discover a few very good dining options during our stay.  But that will be another tale to tell. :)
Needless to say, upon my return to Bangkok, I made a bee line to the shopping districts and reveled in the massive western style malls! My appreciation of “western style” shopping was highly elevated.  It is amazing to me how much we take our shopping for granted and I for one decided to never take it for granted again!!!