The $1,000. Steak

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New York is renowned as a premier destination for a classic steakhouse. Whenever foreign winemakers come to visit the Big Apple on wine business, I usually field requests for the best beef restaurants. While it is true that the home cook now has access to a variety of top pedigree beef, ranging from naturally grass fed to dry aged, the options at restaurants are much more problematic. Aside from the exorbitant costs, especially comparing what you can get for the home kitchen versus what you are actually paying for at a steakhouse, there are other pitfalls to consider as well.

Wine lists are generally unimaginative and rocket juice oriented. If there are gems on the list, they are too far and few between, creating a dilemma of agony over the correct wine pairings and strategy. Stylistically there is little imagination or variation, often a who’s who of cult cabernets or expensive super Tuscans, Burgundy or Bordeaux wines that are nowhere near ready to drink.

The second issue is quality. The demand for high quality beef is simply too high to meet demand, and I have visited steakhouses only to have wildly varying experiences in terms of beef quality. One visit to Pete Luger’s was quite good, the second, not up to par. There was a time in the eighties and early nineties when the porterhouse at Luger’s was always great, often exceptional.

While a cote de boeuf at Minetta Tavern was very impressive on my first visits, a recent presentation of this signature steak was upstaged by the black label Pat Lefreida special cut burger.

At the old standby Keen’s Chophouse, I realize that conventional wisdom is to order the mutton chop, but they have long since stopped serving mutton for a over an era now. The steak, although good, ultimately becomes unmemorable.

And this is the same feeling I get at a litany of beef parlors. Sparks, The Palm, Smith and Wollensky’s, Old Homestead, Marc Joseph, Wolfgang’s, Ruth Chris, The Strip House, Morton’s etc. Often good, but not memorable, and ultimately overpriced.

At the steakhouses being sponsored by celebrity chefs such as Costata, M. Wells and BLT Prime, the wine lists are richer, and the sides stand out for execution, but the steaks are only marginally better. Prime Meats in Brooklyn, sans celebrity chef, is a member of this tier as well.

Not in the same league, and clearly for value, it is a safer bet to head over to Queens and have an entrana (skirt steak) at a Uruguayan or Argentinian steak house such as La Esquina Criolla, or El Gauchito. La Entrana is an everyman’s cut and harder to screw up. If it is overcooked (good chance) there is classic chimichuri sauce too soften the blow, and the price is definitely right. I cook skirt steak at home often and reserve my portions with my butcher at Harlem Shambles.

Nowadays I lean towards St. Anselm, across from another meat lover’s paradise, Fette Sau, in the Burg. Most everything is grilled and/or smoked, and the hangar steak (on par with skirt, albeit a bit gamier) is one of the best deals in town. They also offer an axe handle steak of various sizes, from 60 ounces and up. It is rich and satisfying, and reasonably priced for the portion size in comparison to all of the plus $100 cuts of cote de boeuf in Manhattan.   Of late, this is the only steak preparation that beckons me to return, and for more of that feeling I decided to go to South America.

First stop Uruguay, where the capitol, Montevideo, is home to a Mercado of smoked meat dreams. Outside, billows of flaming ember smoke release tender wafts of sweetbreads and iron rich blood sausages. Inside this temple of cow is a wonderland for carnivores, several communal, rustic dining areas juxtaposed vying for tourist attention to the religion of beef worship. Parrillas are designed to use either wood or carbon which is the half the secret to cooking a perfect steak. The other half is pedigree, of course.

The technique is impressive to watch. On one side of the grill wood burns. The embers fall underneath on their own natural time and is then pushed by the pit master to the other side of the grill, where the meat is waiting, receiving no touch of fire, just gentle blazing neon orange wood embers, relaxing the beef, grilling slowly and surely, creating masterpieces of cooking perfection. It was a revelation.

Across the pond by Buquebus from Colonia de Sacremento, Buenos Aires stands, ripe with steak houses of all sorts for all budgets and styles. There are too many to count, and each particular in what specialties they can deliver. For some it is the chinchulines (intestines), the mollejas (sweetbreads), morcilla (blood sausage), ojo de bife (ribeye), entrana (skirt steak), or costillas (short ribs). At La Cabrera, the restaurant is designed for tourists and local families alike, but the quality of the Pampa beef is undeniable. The portion sizes are not for the weak.

In Argentina, the only issue is that the wine lists are 100% local, and selecting a malbec that isn’t overoaked, overextracted and less than 14.5% alcohol can be problematic. Much Caution must be exercised. In fact, throughout most of Buenos Aires, this is the style of wine that proliferates. It is disheartening to say the least, but a recent visit with a few winemakers in Mendoza and Patagonia has yielded a glimmer of hope. Lighter, fresher styles, even for malbec awaits. Better bet are the lighter fresher indeigenous grapes such as criollo, torrontes, or wines made from cab franc, cabernet sauvignon, or merlot grapes. With some bottle age these wine tend to be softer and better suited for the rich beef.

At a modern take on the steak house at La Carniceria, I felt transported to a hip Brooklyn eatery as the young owners have created a cool vibe focusing on casual service and great beef. The quality is eveident as the beef is sourced from one of the owner’s family run ranch at La Pampa. Snag a seat at the bar for the show. They are passionate about wines and can steered me in the right direction.

The showstopper was at Don Julio in Palermo Soho. Considered to be the best, I had the good fortune of being invited by a sommelier named Rodrigo, a regular who arranged a tasting of wines showcasing a lighter style of Argentinian craftsmanship.

Chef Pepe spread slabs of beef on the counter, and I got to choose from the several cuts. We nibbled on starters such as the grilled provoleta cheese, chorizo, intestines and sweetbreads, cleared our palate with a fresh tomato salad, and made room for three cuts of beef that were nothing short of spectacular. Everything was so tender, juicy , smoky, rich, and deeply nuanced. So many flavors and thought provoking swoons from the ethereal beef. We tasted many wines from all over the country, JI JI JI,, Micheliniwine, Otra Piel, Zorzal Eggo, Achaval Ferrer Finca Altamira,, Zuccardi Piedra Infinita, Blanc de Alba to name a few. All were a breath of fresh air and confirmation the climate for heavy, brooding wines is not the only option in the Argentine winemaking landscape.

I also dined at Francis Mallman’s 1884 restaurant in Mendoza, the chef who is a legendary master of fire. His clay oven, open mechanized grill and almost medieval grill invention inspired adulation and awe. Unfortunately for me, the madman was not present to conjure his magic, and the famed double cut portion of beef was not the menu. I did partake in a beautiful rib eye, just another example of tender, rich Argentine Prime, but couldn’t help but feeling just short of being transported.

Back in time for the holidays, I recently ate a dry aged steak with a good amount of funk to it. My best friend Dr. L. cooked it near perfectly, and we drank very good wine, as NYC is the wine capitol of the universe now. But something was missing, and it took a heartbeat or two to figure out what. If only I could bring a few branches from Riverside Park and infuse some local wood flavor. Now that, my friendly carnivores, would be a steak. The cost of flying to Argentina to have four or five steak dinners may actually be comparable to steak dinners here at home, but given a choice, bring out the wood baby, every time.

 

 

 

East Village Erupts

By now you probably know about the huge explosion that rocked the East Village on March 26th, claiming the lives of two people and injuring several others, not to mention the destruction of three buildings.

Preliminary reports point to plumbing without a proper permit resulting in reckless safety measures and a gas explosion.

Could this tragedy have been avoided?  Sure.  But that would take a series of policy changes this city has yet to address even under the esteemed former Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure.

Many NYC buildings are over fifty or sixty years old or more, and are patched together every day by less than professional or approved workers, just to keep the building functioning.  Landlords charge exorbitant rents to their tenants, both residential and commercial, but refuse to update outdated infrastructure with the profits.  The city in turn collects enormous taxes from these landlords and commercial tenants via real estate taxes and spends those funds elsewhere.  The monies could be used to enforce stricter measures against these landlords to ensure that all buildings are up to date and following all safety codes.

Since the implementation of the food grading system,  tens of millions of dollars are collected from hard working small businesses each year.  These monies could be used to make sure that restaurants are safe too.

But like a dam which sprouts a small splinter in its wall, the city puts its thumb on it, then a pinky, until it has run out of fingers or viable means of plugging up the leaks.  The result is Happyland, The Fire last year in East Harlem, or the current tragedy that has decimated East 7th Street and Second Avenue.

Rather than employ more inspectors, or use the collected taxes to do something about New York City’s failing infrastructure, tomorrow will be business as usual.

A restaurant owner is not an expert in plumbing, or gas pipes,nor holds a degree in engineering.  The fire department comes to inspect the system once, signs off on it and that’s it. A restaurant owner enters into a lease assuming the building’s infrastructure is sound, safe, and up to code.  Much to anyone’s surprise, this is often not the case.  And to top that off when a business owner calls for help, the chance that the contractor is actually qualified is 50/50.

It can only be called fortunate that these type of tragedies have not occurred more frequently, or claimed the lives of more people.

If not for the courageous acts of firefighters and residents involved in the disaster, many more lives could have been at risk.

It is time for priorities to be set for safety first, above profit, greed and any other agenda.

Let us pray for all those affected, and help keep the East Village alive by supporting the community in any way we can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mi Buenos Aires Querida

Mi Buenos Aires Querida

What do you do when waves of snow are coming your way? Make like a bird and head south. So in celebration of my 45th birthday, I packed my swim trunks and headed to Punta del Este, Uruguay and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Forecast, sunny and 85 degrees. NYC outlook, below zero and tons of snow.

First stop, Punta del Este, the Latin American version of the French Riviera. After a lengthy plane ride (over 12 hours), a hunger the size of a sumo wrestler developed. So before the bus transfer to Montevideo, we visited the Mercado de la Puerta. Just think Chelsea Market in size or La Boqueria and then replace the stalls with parrillas, grill restaurants, everywhere, with the wonderful aromas of smoking meats and woods and charcoal, a veritable smokehouse open marketplace. Hypnotized and mesmerized by the sights and smells of all that beef, it is difficult to make a decision where to begin. Families sitting in front of enormous selections of grilled meats, organ and otherwise, washing it down with bottles of medio y medio (sparkling wine mixed with white wine, a bit sweet), or enjoying whisky and tannat.

We chose to sit outside, where I tasted the mollejas (sweetbreads) and some rib steaks and lamb ribs, modest fare to start, but all so wonderfully cooked and smoky and tear provoking. We had started this trip on the right foot. Meatapalooza had begun.

I stayed in Punta Ballena, a short drive to Punte del Este, with my good friends Joe and Emir in a condo complex overlooking the vast ocean, complete with pool and indoor grill. Every home has an indoor grill with chimney. The days were spent bronzing under the warmth of the sun, eating strange Italian sandwiches for lunch (some version of tomato, melted cheese and ham) or terrible pizza (shockingly awful), looking towards the evening for the nightly grill activities. We shopped twice, purchasing plenty of rough cuts of meat and provoleta (cheese to be grilled) as well as tannat and more medio y medio. Aside from the trips into town for shopping, pastries from Les Delices, and gelato from Freddo, there was no need to leave the vista and sun’s embrace.

I learned a special grilling technique o control the cooking temperature of meats perfectly. It involves two sides of the grill. One where you start a wood fire, and when the embers fall, you rake it over to the other side. When you have raked enough over, you start the grilling.

After a week of baking and quite frankly getting sunburned,regardless of diligent spf protection and application, we took the journey to Colonia del Sarcamento, an old town that was once a battle point. You can still see the old fort and canons and historical trappings. We found a wonderful sleepy wine bar, El Buen Suspiro, with eclectic food and a great wine list. Many of the wines were locally sourced and all reasonably priced ($20 to $100). We spent the night drinking and looking at the moon and stars.

The next day we took the Buquebus, the famous ferry that takes travelers to Buenos Aires in under two hours. As Americans, we had to purchase entry tariffs to the tune of $160.00 per person. It is valid for ten years and must be purchased in advance. This shows you how badly the Argentine economy is suffering.

We stayed in the Palermo Soho district, a hodgepodge of old and new, with shopping and restaurants vis a vis Soho, NYC.

We stayed at the Rendez Vous, a boutique hotel with Jacuzzi and terrace. The staff was fantastic and extremely helpful. The rooms modern and well appointed. We learned quickly that restaurants were willing to give us a better exchange rate if we paid with US dollars. This led to the understanding that if you exchanged dollars for pesos in the casas de cambio that dot Florida (nabe), you could get up to thirteen to one as opposed to the official 8.66 to one the bank or credit card charges. In other words, if you are thinking of coming to Buenos Aires, bring lots of cash. Most shops and restaurants will give you a better rate.

Buenos Aires has many parillas and pizzerias. Many of them are standard in terms of menu. We had one good pizza at Guerrin, a Grand Central Station sort of place, reasonably priced and well crafted. The rest of the pizzas on the trip were forgettable and poorly constructed.

We visited two of the more popular parrillas, Don Julio and La Cabrera. Don Julio was rustic where La Cabrera a bit modern. But both delivered in terms of quantity and quality. Late nite bustling, there are long waits past ten pm and even at lunch time, so time your seating or make a reservation. After sweetbread, provoleta, morcilla (blood sausage), empanada, and chinchulines (lamb intestines or chitterlings), there is barely any room for dry aged strip or ojo de bife (rib eye), but we ordered any way, hoping the malbec would break down some of the protein fast enough for us to make it to dessert. After these two huge meals, we turned our attention to fine dining.

Even in early February, it was still a bit humid for my taste in Buenos Aires. Our days consisted of waking up late, grabbing a coffee and heading to a different neighborhood. What ends up happening is shopping, gelato, and lunch. Murillo for leather goods, Recoleta for Madison Avenue type of shops such as Tramundo by Martin Churba or Mariano Dappiano. Centrico for handmade leather shoes, or new sunglasses or lenses with Latin American flair at Sante Fe Optica. Michelle made out like a bandit. Quite a haul.

This would bring us to merienda (happy hour), a time for siesta or drinks, and what better place than Bar EL Federal, as old school as they come. We had very strong, proper negronis and sloshed home to the Jacuzzi, Havana Club cuba libres fashioned in the hotel room.

We couldn’t quite catch up to the schedule of dining past 11 pm and then hitting the cocktail bars. Cocktails first and then dinner, and then we’d see if we could party like a porteno.

Some fine cocktails were served at The Harrison Speakeasy, where the bartenders travel frequently to bolster their craft. In a club setting, the Victoria Brown bartender showed a deft hand, albeit under the pressure of the booming sound system awaiting the night crawlers to creep in until the wee hours of the morning. For a funky milieu, try Mundo Bizarro. Perhaps the best in the group for total package is the stalwart Floreria Atlantico in the posh Recoleta area, entrance via a staircase downstairs from a cool flower shop, a speakeasy with distinctive Argentine character.

The fine dining scene is alive and well. Just take a look at the Latin America Top 50 restaurant list. Though many hail from Peru, Buenos Aires has its fare share. Our first choice was at I Latina in Murillo, where flavors of Latin America are combined to bring comfort in its familiarity and impress in technique and fusion.

A beautiful front garden leads to a tropical setting in a townhouse with high ceilings and open kitchen and striking artwork from Chef Santiago Matias’ mother. Warm Caribbean décor and colors sets the right mood for the whole experience. Fine bow-tied servers with excellent tableside manner guide us through the wine and courses. A duo of white corn arepas set the stage with avocado and goat cheese, delicate , spicy and bright. Then followed a bread basket made of coconut, banana and chipa, unusual and hearty. Beef cheek mole followed, rich and deep, with a hint of mescal, for me the star of the evening. Prawns accented in pineapple and fennel resonated true Caribe. Then the Baru style ceviche changed my mind about the mole. Perfect marriage of mango, coconut and lychee. Pulpo ensued in a stew, tender and moist.

The pork tenderloin smothered in a coffee sugarcane reduction worked least for me. I’m just not a fan of coffee in food. The coffee flavor usually overpowers the whole dish. Avocado and aguardiente ice cream anchored the dessert. We drank malbec, which, as much as I would like to love, just doesn’t pair well with several course tasting menus. This would be a theme throughout our meals.

We also tried out Tomo 1, again a Latin America top 50 housed in the Panamericano Hotel, where chef Federico Flalayre weaves his magic in a more traditional portena gourmet style. Chef was gracious enough to pose in a picture with me.

The cooking had a strong backbone in bistro style, with dishes such as chicken liver mousse and buffalo bresaola. Pristine Patagonian shrimp and dumplings, pumpkin soup, mushroom ravioli and trucha, beef tenderloin and Cornish game hen, finished by a series of flans and parfaits with tropical fruit flavors. We drank chardonnay throughout the meal, switching to malbec for the meat course. Fede is rocking it.

At Tegui, in Palermo Soho, the setting was rich in urban feel, complete with side garden of palm trees with open roof to the starry night sky. The food was more experimental here, giant steer’s horns adorning the front of the open kitchen towards the rear. The flavors spanned a spectrum, starting with beet yogurt and smart tomato salad in different textures. Octopus and shrimp in a corn soup make its presence well represented, interrupted only by another fruity bread course. We sipped a curried carrot soup out of a wooden bowl, and then ate lovely sardines with broth. Pork and beef tenderloins made their appearances in various smears and sauces, topped off by a fruit compote and some chocolate. The wine service was off. Our somm failed in trying to find a wine of my taste even after lengthy discussion. Otherwise a stellar experience.

The next night we hit Aramburu bistro, not feeling up to the challenge of another ten course tasting menu of molecular gastronomy. And what a relief it was to have straight forward bistro food. Simple beef carpaccio with cous cous and mushrooms, rocket in simple vinaigrette, a potage of seafood, mussels in a curry broth and grilled rib eye steak. Dessert was a dish of arroz con leche granita, wildly textured and cool, as well as some chocolate cream. Actually can’t wait to come back and try the whole shebang at his flagship.

We watched the Super Bowl in Buenos Aires, which proved a tad difficult. The few bars that aired the finale turned the whole event into a NYE production. We were told to arrive several hours before if we wanted a table. So we got Mexican take out at La Fabrica de Taco, went back to the room and watched a great game.

We really wanted to try some apartment restaurants, but a few were closed or the timing never worked out.

Buenos Aires, a city of fading glory, European charm and architecture, a cultural hotspot, complete with many great traditions and a rising food trend, offering great shopping and entertainment for all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dough vs. Doughnut Plant

Ever since the Doughnut Plant opened in Chelsea, I have sent countless tourists to walk the High Line and end up at the Doughnut Plant as a reward, to be followed by a stop at La Maison de Macaron, and a civilized cup of joe at Stumptown or Cafe Grumpy.

But for the past month Dough has become my mistress.  While I still am loyal to the Doughnut Plant, Dough is that much better.  The texture is light, airy and ethereal.  Just the plain old glazed doughnut is a work of art, head held eye stacked up against great flavors such as salted caramel, hibiscus and dulce de leche.  On a previous visit I had lemon meringue, topped high in a white cumulus cloud.   Swoon.

The nearest police precinct should get a discount, but I hope the men in blue stick to the Plant instead.

Doughnut Plant                                          Dough

220 West 23rd St.                                    14 West 19th St.

 

While I am in the kitchen…

The summer has been very busy for me into fall, what with a complete staff overhaul.  Gone are all the familiar faces at Pata Negra.  They are on to greener pastures and I wish them the best.  Things have finally stabilized, and I have been able to sneak out once or twice a week.  Not enough intel for full reviews, but here’s a sneak peak of the work in progress.

Marta

What a gorgeous space inside the revamped hotel where the thin crust pizzas are heavenly topped and the people watching is fun too.  So many great choices for wine and excellent apps make for a blockbuster hard to get into Danny Meyer winner.

Batard

Montrachet 3.0 is a comfortable restaurant with all the trimmings, with food that is made with finesse and a wine list that is very reasonable.   Octopus terrine is inspirational.  Testa is the best I’ve had in a very long time.  Lamb for two brings it home. Tribeca is back on the map again.

Tuome

Alphabet City defies the real estate market once again with a small nondescript space on fifth street serving as a canvas some some good cooking, solid technique with Asian inflections.  Don’t miss the chicken liver mousse or deviled eggs.

Lovecraft

Jacques Costeau meets mixologist in this two layered den of infused vodkas, bourbons and absinthe concoctions.  Live bands do play downstairs and the joint is transporting.

Dear Irving

Absolutely stylish cocktail lounge on the second floor right smack in the middle of Irving.  Bar is attractive, but back room is time trasnporting, a stark contrast to the bling of the front room.  Drinks are not as exquisite as in some other all pro dens, but overall the experience is way positive.

Evelyn

If it were just for the punches alone, sorrel is so delicious, this rough and hewn bar belies its expertise in cocktails.  Sleeper on ave C.

Maysville

The wine list at now defunct Manzanilla has been added to an already smartly chosen list which can only marry well with the delicately smoked southern cuisine that is a star here.

Huertas

Yet another attempt at some authentic tapas falls a bit short in execution.  Tapas look pretty, but are not packed in flavor.

Rosemary

After waiting some time, Rosemary seems to be a resto tailor made for women of all ages with crowd pleasing vegetable dishes and ho hum pastas.  The reasonable wine from $40. and $60. columns offer good value.

Gansevoort Market

Not as cool as Essex Street, but a welcome addition to the waste land b & t meatpacking district.  More grocery stalls are needed ala Essex St., but all in all a good thing.

Bubby’s Meat Packing.

A brunch wasteland with not enough parking for all those baby carriages.

Russ and Daughter’s Cafe

Bagels and cured fish done at a very high level.  A good wine list to boot.

Untamed

Sandwich shop in Fashion district with good flavor combos.  Price tag may be a tad too high though.

Aldo Sohm Wine Bar

Aldo hits all the right notes in this grand project around the corner from Le Bernardin.  Smart Austrian style tapas and yak cheese serve as a vehicle for the real star, the well chosen wine list.

After a few more visits, full reviews to follow.  Next up, my short jaunt to the lovely food mecca that is Montreal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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