Friday, March 21, 2014

The first signs of spring and a welcome rebirth: The Roost

I do not remember ever being happier for, or more skeptical about, the first day of spring. A part of me still does not believe the cold will ever go away. Not to state the obvious, but it has been a long, brutal winter. More than ever, I am looking for those first signs of spring. I need something that signals the time for hibernation is over and I can happily go outside again.

The ice skating rink near my house is finally gone. The green of the turf in the playground where the rink once stood is a welcome sight. I saw my first Cardinal yesterday and the first crocus are popping up out of the ground. Maybe spring is really here.

Spring is about rebirth and renewal.  Which brings me to another sign I saw recently. This one:





This sign is for a new spot on Avenue B called The Roost. It is a coffee shop by day and a bar at night. Stop for a moment and take in what this sunny little chalkboard says they have on offer.

Brooklyn Roasting Company coffee and Balthazar pastries starting at 8 am.

Craft Beer, Bourbon and cocktails starting at 5pm.

Can you be all things to all people? I don't know. But it would seem The Roost wants to be all things to me.


Let's start with the coffee shop. It is a charming spot. The counter and coffee bar are white tile and marble. The small seating area has exposed brick with some painted wainscoting. There are a few stools by the big front windows. The space is warm and welcoming as are the staff.















They make a nice Cortado:




Behind the coffee bar there is a second room with the feel of a an old pub or library. Over-sized leather chairs and a couch sit in front of a fireplace with a faux-fire burning. It would be a nice place to have a cup of tea or a nice porter and whittle away the afternoon.







If The Roost was only this little store front coffee shop it would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood. It isn't. At 5pm the back wall of the club room (pictured above) slides open to signal that the bar is open for business. What a handsome, nicely stocked bar it is.















During the day, sunlight pours in through skylights, original to the building, making the industrial chic interior feel warmer and more welcoming than most similarly designed spots. Light fixtures hung from old pulleys and bar stools that remind you of your old school room desks add to the charm. The best feature of the room is its size. It is long and deceptively wide which allows for a communal table and leather love seat up front and a deep bar and ample seating along the opposite wall in the back.


What this all adds up to is something familiar yet a little bit unique, especially for a new coffee shop and bar in the East Village. A true Local.

The coffee shop serves serious coffee, from a local roaster, well prepared, but without some of the more precious trappings of other well known shops. The sliding wall leading to the bar is not a gimmick. There is no bouncer, secret password or phone to call. It is just the door to the bar. Once opened it stays open and all are welcome. There will be a cocktail menu but this bar is meant to be just that, a really good local bar. It has a strong bourbon selection and some nice gins. It has a very good beer and craft beer list. The bartenders are pros and can make you a good cocktail. But if you are looking for house made bitters and shrubs you are in the wrong place.

The other night my wife and I stopped in for a drink. We ordered two Maker's Mark 46 Manhattans, up.  Matthew, our charming bartender, apologized that he did not have any Martini glasses and asked if it was okay that he gave them to us in an Old Fashioned glass. We replied that it would be fine. They were delicious and went down far to quickly. My wife pulled the cherry out, bright red and clearly store bought and said, "wow, I haven't had one of these in a while." She was right. I couldn't remember the last time I had a cherry that wasn't house made. Hell, I make my own maraschinos at home. Guess what? I loved it.

Don't get me wrong, I love all the temples to cocktails in this city and frequent them as often as possible. But sometime you just want to walk into a bar, sit down, order a drink from a smiling bartender and exhale.

What does all this have to do with spring and the idea of rebirth? The Roost is located in the former Luca Lounge spot. When Luca Lounge closed it appeared that yet another East Village stalwart was lost to rising rents and a changing neighborhood. I am happy to report that The Roost is owned by Vito DiTomaso, the former owner of Luca Lounge (and current owner of Luca Bar on St Marks). This is his reboot. Another great local bar with a coffee shop added, a smart way to maximize your income in a space that surely has ludicrous rent. It also turns out to be a smart way to ingratiate yourself to a neighborhood. They come for the coffee, and when told about the bar in back they are intrigued, not fearful.


The real genius of The Roost is the fact that it is a bit of a chameleon. This hit home for me when the wife and I stopped in for those Manhattans. The lovely Tanya welcomed us and informed us that the coffee bar was closed but drinks were available up front if we found the bar too crowded. We were able to find seats at the bar and enjoyed ourselves. I marveled at the different feel the three rooms at The Roost have. A fine bustling bar in back to drink with friends. A dark, intimate room in the middle to linger in with that special someone. A quiet front room to have a glass of wine and a real conversation. All of these exist behind a single store front on Avenue B. The Roost may not appeal to everyone in the neighborhood, but my guess is it comes pretty close.









The Roost - 222 Avenue B, between 13th & 14th Street.




Saturday, December 7, 2013

Frozen Custard, the Wisconsin way.

I blinked and it was December. So much to share, so little time. I will try to be brief and prodigious. Quantity over quality if you will.

Frozen Custard. Have you had it? It was invented in Coney Island. It is soft serve ice cream's richer, better looking brother. (Don't get me started on the proliferation of crappy frozen yoghurt in this city).

What is the difference between frozen custard and soft serve ice cream? Higher milk fat content, higher egg yolk content and less air in the mix. The result is dense, rich and creamy frozen heaven.

Why do I bring this up? Because some fine folks from Wisconsin (and you don't ever doubt people from Wisconsin on anything dairy related) have opened a lovely spot called 5 oz. Factory on 8th Street. They offer Wisconsin Cheese Melts and Frozen Custard.







Today's focus is the custard.

The flavors offered are your classics like vanilla, chocolate, caramel and peppermint. The custard is offered in 5 and 10 ounce sizes. They offer 30 or so assorted toppings. I wanted to focus so I went with straight custard. Chocolate and caramel.






Becca went for vanilla and chocolate with caramel sauce (smart girl) and crushed Oreos.







Wow. Simply, wow (and these were the 5 oz., or small, size). This is flat out fantastic custard. If you love ice cream than you will fall hard for the rich, thick, dense, fresh and delicious custard than at 5 oz. Factory. This will be your spot. End of story.

Yeah, it is December. Who cares. It is always a good time for ice cream. It is even a better time when there is frozen custard to be had. Happy Holidays.





5 oz. Factory - 24 West 8th Street, between 5th Avenue & Avenue of the Americas - http://5ozfactory.com

Friday, November 8, 2013

Gabriele Bonci, the "Michelangelo of Dough"

Gabriele Bonci, Rome's famed pizzaiolo, recently made a trip to NYC to promote the English translation of his cookbook Pizza. I had a chance to meet him and sample some of his pizza. I wrote about it for The Daily Meal. Here is the link to the piece. Enjoy.

http://www.thedailymeal.com/gabriele-bonci-visits-new-york-city/11613


Sunday, October 13, 2013

First look: Sembrado

The days of lamenting the astonishing lack of good Mexican food in NYC are over. It was always a curious thing that in this, the great city of immigrants, where you could get every different type of ethnic food imaginable, there was a total dearth of good Mexican food.  That has changed, quickly and dramatically. You have natives of Mexico like Roberto Santibanez of Fonda and Salvation Taco showcasing all the diversity and depth of Mexican cuisine and non-natives like Alex Stupak of Empillion combining a passion for the cuisine with an open-ended curiosity to push the food into new realms. At this moment we are in the midst of a Taqueria explosion. They are popping up everywhere, nowhere more so than in the East Village. It is hard to keep up with them but it is fun to try. I recently tried the latest from one of the chefs that has raised the level of NYC's Mexican food scene, Sembrado.






13th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A is a very nondescript block. It is dominated by the back of the local post office and its delivery dock. There has been little reason to walk this block unless you lived on it. Now there are tacos.

Sembrado is the newest restaurant from Danny Mena, the chef of Hecho en Dumbo on Bowery. Sembrado's menu is focused on Tacos Al Carbon, a special style of grilled meats in Mexico City. Sembrado also has a full bar with a focus on Tequilas and Mezcals.

Sembrado is a small space that has been beautifully built out. Exposed brick walls are framed in wood painted white. Art and touches of Mexican tile bring plashes of warmth and color. Large windows look out onto the street, letting light in. On warm days the windows are thrown open giving the space a bigger feel.




























The menu is simple and straight forward. Tacos (authentic, small tacos, not the big hand held Taco Bell kind) are the main focus but the menu also features Alambres (Mexican stir fry) and Costras (caramelized cheese on flour tortillas and meat) along with a few sides and starters. Tacos Al Pastor is the house pride along with the various Tacos Al Carbon.








I tried Sembrado at lunch. As much as I wanted to sample one of the house cocktails I opted for the Horchata. It was delicious and refreshing.




Horchata


Despite the temptation of the daily Alambres lunch special I had to go with tacos. I ordered three to start. Al Pastor (marinated pork), Bistec (Flatiron steak) and Hongos (Portobello mushroom) with cheese.

Sembrado makes their own hot sauces and condiments for the tacos. Two hot sauces, one green and one red, along with a smoky poblano sauce and pickled onions and hot peppers. They are fresh, delicious and pack a punch.



House made hot sauces and condiments



When you decide to have a narrow focus on a particular style of food or item you had better deliver the goods. Sembrado does.




Taco Al Pastor and Bistec with grilled pineapple and lemon wedges


The tacos are outstanding.  The Al Pastor was juicy and rich from the marinade. The Bistec was simple with the quality of the meat coming through. The Hongos was meaty and funky in the best way grilled Portobellos can be.  A touch of Mexico City in New York City. I ordered another Al Pastor.





Sembrado is another welcome addition to the growing number of excellent Mexican restaurants in New York and another step forward in showcasing the diversity of the cuisine. Sembrado is perfect for a solo meal or a group dinner. It is great for a quick snack and drink or a leisurely meal. When you are in the mood for tacos, Sembrado fits the bill.








Sembrado - 432 E 13th Street between 1st Avenue & Avenue A - www.sembradonyc.com


Monday, September 30, 2013

First Look: Counter Culture's new Training Center

Despite being a leader in many things, especially when it comes to food and drink, New York was a coffee wasteland for a long time, which is surprising considering how much coffee New Yorkers drink. While we proudly walked the streets with our blue and white cups from the local Greek diner there were pioneers like Counter Culture in Durham, NC, and Stumptown in Portland, OR,  changing the way we looked at and drank coffee.

Of course, we are quick studies and now New York is at the forefront of the coffee world. Stumptown, Counter Culture, Toby's, Blue Bottle and others have all set up shop here and local companies like Gorilla, Oslo and Brooklyn Coffee Roasters all roast here in New York.

The newest temple to coffee, Counter Culture's new Training Center, opened this week on Broome Street. It is a beautiful space featuring the latest equipment and their wonderful staff. I was lucky enough to check out the space this past Frday, the day of its grand opening. I  sampled some remarkable pour over coffee and caught a business owner's roundtable on owning a coffee shop. Here is quick look.





















The mission statement of the Counter Culture Training Center is education. The training center is used to train baristas in the art of making coffee, be it pour over, espresso or just understanding different types of beans. The Center is also a tool to educate the public on the the remarkable varieties and styles of coffee. They offer weekly cupping classes to the public. These classes give you the chance to experience the diversity in coffee styles first hand. Think of a wine tasting at your favorite  liquor store.

The sad reality is most people in the United States still think Dunkin Donuts is the height of good coffee and a pod coffee maker is the height of home brewing. Coffee companies like Counter Culture and Toby's Estate are working hard to break the bad habits of the average coffee drinker. In truth, today's top coffee companies treat coffee with same care and craft as winemakers and believe that where beans are grown, how they are harvested, dried and roasted, in addition to how it is brewed, can result in a depths of flavor and style as varied as wine. I have become a believer as well.

If you are skeptical, this next bit will get a snicker out of you.


A free cup of coffee to anyone who knows what this is:








A high end stereo pre-amp? Nope. This is the brain of a mod bar pour over module. It is used to program water flow, temperature and wait time. It is connected to this:






The barista uses the buttons to program the flow.


Am I going to install one of these in my home? No. Am I thrilled to enjoy the kind of coffee a system like this can make? Yes.




This is Erin McCarthy.



Erin McCarthy, World Brewing Champion, at work.


Erin won the 2013 World Brewer's Cup championship making him the best coffee brewer in the world. The coffee gods smiled upon me during my visit to the training center. I got a chance to sit at the bar and talk with Erin as he brewed coffee and answered questions. Then I drank his coffee. If all this is too precious and pretentious for you I promise you I was as skeptical as you. I do like coffee, but this could be veering into fetish and artifice. After I sampled the coffee my skepticism vanished.

Erin brewed two pots of coffee. He used the same beans, Counter Culture's Banko Gotiti from Ethiopia. He used the same pour over water program so that the brewing was exactly the same. The only difference in the two pots was the grind of the beans. One finer than the other. The results were surprising. The first cup of coffee was a little think with strong chocolate notes. The second cup was clean, bright and full of fruit. I was astonished.





The cup of coffee that opened my eyes to the importance of the grind.




I have gone to wine tastings where wines have been described in these terms and while I could taste basic differences in the wines I was not getting the "hint of cherries" or "leather" in the wines. This was not the case with these coffees. The first cup was just as I described. The same with the second. I was honestly stunned. Until that moment I did not believe the grind could play such an important roll in brewing and make the same beans taste so dramatically different. Obviously, being able to control the rest of the brewing process so precisely helps. But it gives you an appreciation of the true nature of good coffee, treated with care. If you are still a skeptic I encourage you to fine a cupping class near you and to go with an open mind.








Wine has its mass producers like Yellowtail that many people like. It is cheap, convenient and easy and made to taste the same every time. For a lot of folks that is good enough. But for those willing to dig deeper there is a whole world of wine out there and it is not nearly as expensive or hard to understand as people think. The same is becoming true for coffee. Most people think Pods, McCafe and Mr Coffee makers are just fine. But if you are willing to take the time and have an open mind there is a world of passionate people ready and willing to introduce you to the remarkable world of coffee. Go find them. It is worth the effort.






Counter Culture Training Center - 376 Broome Street, between Mott and Mulberry

http://counterculturecoffee.com/training-centers/new-york

Public cuppings every Friday.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Great Food in unexpected places. Part 1: A sandwich

One of the themes that arose from our two week trek through Maine and New Brunswick, Canada, was finding great food in unexpected places. It can simply be finding a good spot to eat in a remote place or something other than excellent seafood along the coast of Maine. It can also be from having no idea what to expect in New Brunswick. That is part of the fun.

Our family trips to Maine have always been along the coast, with good reason. Maine's coastline is one of the most beautiful in the world. When you think of Maine you think of lobstermen, Winslow Homer's paintings of the sea battering Prouts Neck, Bar Harbor and Mt Desert Island. But the interior of Maine is massive, dotted with lakes and forests. Smack dab in the middle of the state, and hour plus north of Bangor, is Baxter State Park. The park is over 200,000 acres in size and home to Mt Katahdin, the state's highest peak. Less than 100,000 people visit it each year.



Daicey Pond with Mt Katahdin in the distance


With two weeks at our disposal Karen decided it was time to venture inland and visit the park. She found a great place called Big Moose Inn with cabins on Lake Millinocket and a short drive to Baxter State Park.



Our cabin, #4



Our view



The Inn's restaurant, Fredericka's, was closed during the week when we were there so we ate at the Loose Moose Bar & Grille (why the e in grille?), their casual spot that was open all week.  I was particular to the Thanksgiving hero and they had a really good beer selection. But that was not the surprise.

Next to Big Moose Inn sits the North Woods Trading Post. It is the last place for food, drinks and gas before you head into the park. It stocks all the basics you would need for camping (food, drinks, knives, matches, maps, fishing gear, etc) as well as souvenirs. Most people come for a week and stock up at the supermarkets in Millinocket. The cabins have full kitchens so you can make all your meals there. People use the Trading Post to fill in staples they forgot or ran out of. We were only there for two days so we didn't shop before hand. We lived in that place.










The trading post had a little kitchen where they made breakfast and lunch. The smell of egg sandwiches in the morning and steak sandwiches in the afternoon notwithstanding, I was not expecting much the day we decided to get lunch there. I ordered a chicken salad sandwich. They were out of their "regular" chicken salad, but I could get their "special" chicken salad. I went for it. Did I want regular bread or the house made wheat bread for a dollar more? Go for the house made. Here is what I got:











Chicken salad with blue cheese and grapes on fantastic, thick cut, house made wheat. Sweet, savory and absolutely delicious. The blue cheese was sharp and creamy and balanced perfectly with the sweet grapes. The bread was a beauty.  No joke, this is one of the best sandwiches I have ever had. Was it because I did not expect to get anything like this at the Trading Post? Maybe. Was it because I ate it on a picnic bench looking at a lake? Maybe. But I am pretty sure that if I had gotten it at a gourmet deli in NYC and eaten on the M23 bus it still would have been great.

I would return to Baxter State Park for the hiking, the beauty, the nature and how devoid it is of other people. I encourage you to go as well. And if you can get a world class sandwich to boot? Icing on the cake.




Thursday, September 12, 2013

Notes from Down East

The last day of summer is, officially, September 21st. The truth is summer has ended for the majority of us. We are back to school or back to work but the memories of summer linger. I am sure more than a few of us hope to squeeze out few more days of summer revelry before the weather changes and we pack up the flip flops and pull out the sweaters.

All the "Fall Preview" issues and articles have come out but I am not quite ready to let summer go. The reality of being back has hit me square in the face so I need to look back and review summer 2013, especially our vacation, and share it. Hopefully it will give you some ideas for summer 2014. It is always good to have something to look forward to.



The Lobsterman, Maine Fair Trade Lobster, Prospect Harbor




Route 1 runs along the coast of Maine.  From York to Bucksport you will pass through some of the loveliest towns imaginable.  Towns like Kennebunkport and Camden look as if they are a postcard come to life. Even Freeport, the home of L.L. Bean, manages to feel somewhat charming despite the town essentially being an outdoor mall. This is the Maine most people visit and think about.

Things change at the town of Ellsworth. This is the last truly big town with a downtown and a big commercial center you will encounter if you proceed northeast on route one. Ellsworth is where you turn south to go to Blue Hill, Deer Isle, Bar Harbor & Mt Desert Island. Ellsworth is also the starting point of the part of Maine known as Down East.

Down East is the coast of Maine that runs from Ellsworth to Lubec (the Easternmost point of the United States) on up to Calais and the Canadian Border. As you you head out of Ellsworth you start to notice the different feel in this part of Maine. It is less built up, wilder and more rural. While there are people "from away", this is not the summer destination southern Maine is.

It is harder to maintain a business Down East. Those who can survive the winter to take advantage of the fleeting summer season consider themselves lucky. It is an annual ritual for those who spend their summers here to see who survived the winter and what new places have embraced the optimism of spring and have decided to make a go of it.






The Gouldsboro Peninsula is known for the town of Winter Harbor and the Schoodic Peninsula, the only part of Acadia National Park that is on the mainland of Maine. On the Eastern side of the Gouldsboro Peninsula sits Corea Harbor. Corea Harbor is relatively small but it is one of the most picturesque harbors you will see in Maine. It also happens to be situated right where Gouldsboro Bay meets the Atlantic, prime lobster territory.


Dingys, Corea Harbor







The reason you would seek out Corea lies at the end of Crowley Island Road. Crowley Island Road follows along the northern edge of the harbor's long, thin arm, and does a hairpin turn to run back along the southern edge. The road dead ends at the water and the Corea Lobster Co-op.



Corea Lobster Co-op







Here, at the end of the dock, you will find lobster men pulling up in their boats and unloading the day's catch. They will ask you if you want "hard shells" or "shedders," how many you want and what size. Figure around $4/lb for shedders, $6/lb for hard shell. Maybe less. This is the ultimate in "locavore" eating, and it has been going on in Maine forever. Nothing is better that buying lobster, fresh out of the cold Maine waters, from the guys who caught it.


This summer, something new popped up on Corea Road, just past the turn for Crowley Island Road. Someone converted two old lobster shacks on a dock into the Corea Wharf Galley, a lobster roll and seafood spot.



Corea Wharf Galley

 Genius. The shack on the left is the order window and where the fridges are.



Corea Wharf Galley's neighbor



Working lobster shacks and docks, Corea Harbor




The cart out front is the kitchen.



The grill.





Simple menu. All you need.










We tried the lobster roll, $10.95. As meaty and fresh as you can get. Stone crab claws, $8.25. Generous and just out of the water. A nice grilled cheese for $2.50.



If you are looking for proof your seafood isn't flash frozen meat, and watching them fish out the crabs and lobster from the tank isn't enough, just check the buckets.







My favorite? Lobster grilled cheese. $7.95












Take that perfect grilled cheese. Stuff it with fresh lobster. Devour. This is why we are here.


Great food. Great price. The view?



Corea Harbor. The low, long building is the Co-op.

Yeah.

Summer is a hard fought reward in Maine. They suffer through long winters for days like these, places like these. Here is hoping Corea Wharf Galley makes it through this winter to see another summer. This is heaven. This is Maine.


Corea Wharf Galley. Corea Road, Corea, ME.