New York City: Upper East Side

 

Cafe Buloud BBG 00017The upper east side of Manhattan is known for it’s haute couture. Madison Avenue is lined with boutiques that reads like a who’s who of the fashion world so it should come as no surprise to find restaurants targeting the same demographic. One of the most recognizable names is Daniel Boulud.

We’re no strangers to the area since Inga’s been working on Madison Avenue for over a decade. We’re also no strangers to Daniel Boulud’s restaurants as we’ve been to each of his New York restaurants at least once and Café Boulud gets my vote for his best. This may come as a surprise to many since Daniel is his crowned jewel but we weren’t entirely impressed when we went. I even said back then that Daniel was not Michelin three-star material and since then, they’ve lost a star.

We decided to have a family night out and dressed for the occasion. We chose Café Boulud (20 E 76th St, New York, NY 10021), located inside the Surrey Hotel, for it’s proximity to Inga’s work so she didn’t have to travel far to meet us. It was also a good restaurant for us to test the waters of fine dining with Gianluca. In general, he’s behaved incredibly well for a toddler but as he gets older, he has his moments of unwillingness to remain seated for long stretches during dinner.

 

Cafe Buloud BBG 00001Café Boulud isn’t the fanciest restaurant but their food is. The service is typical of a Daniel Boulud restaurant, which is to say that it’s top notch. Walking in, you’ll quickly notice the restaurant design is clean and minimalistic. It’s quiet without being stuffy and you can comfortably have a conversation without feeling like the entire restaurant can hear you.

We settled into two glasses of  Domaine Drouhin Mâcon-Bussières “Les Clos” white Burgundy. The Amuse Bouche arrived at our table just as we were handed our menus. It was a crispy Arancini with black truffle.  The menu itself is a bit overwhelming and a little confusing at first because they have four, yes 1-2-3-4, menus laid out over two pages: La Tradition (French classics), La Saison (seasonal), Le Potager (Farmer’s Market Inspired), and Le Voyager (Japanese Inspired). You can order from one menu or you can choose a starter from one menu and an entree from another.

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In our case, Inga ordered the Escargot En Vol-Au-Vent (Snails with wild mushroom, served in a puff pastry ) followed by Icelandic Cod, both of which were from the Le Saison menu. I chose to split menus by ordering the Maine Peekytoe Crab starter from La Saison menu followed by the Crispy Duck Breast from La Voyager menu. There is no children’s menu but our server was more than happy to take any requests to the kitchen and see if it was possible. We played it safe for Gianluca by ordering buttered linguini.

The starters arrived and I was immediately reminded of how beautifully the food is presented at Daniel Boulud’s restaurants. And the taste? The Maine Peekytoe Crab was fantastic. Nice bright flavors mixed with the sweet crabmeat. It’s times like this where I wish I could just order a few more and call it a day. Unfortunately, the Escargot wasn’t as well received. The combination of two earthy items like escargot and mushrooms was too heavy. There were no other flavors to contrast it with and so it just wasn’t enjoyable. Our server was happy to replace it with another starter but Inga insisted she was fine and in the end, he removed it from our check.

The main dishes arrived soon after they cleared the starters. Gianluca’s pasta arrived first. The noodles were bright yellow and glistening from the butter with just a hint of cheese sprinkled on top. I, of course, had to taste it to make sure it wasn’t too hot and it was as good as it looked—Buttery, perfectly cooked noodles with just enough cheese. They normally serve this plate of pasta with shaved  truffles during their respective season. We’ve had it here before and it is a treat that you won’t soon forget.

Inga’s Cod dish was very good. Each ingredient had subtle flavors that when combined, came together nicely as a dish. It paired well with the white Burgundy. In contrast, my duck was anything but subtle. The duck was perfectly cooked with a smokiness coming from the rice, I think. It was the kind of dish I was hoping for on a chilly winter eve. It paired very well with a glass of Château Les Ormes de Pez “Cru Bourgeois” Saint-Estèphe from Bordeaux.

As for dessert, it needed to be chocolate as far as Gianluca is concerned. The only thing that could make it better was if it comes with ice cream. The Molten Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream fit the bill. It was exactly how it sounds except that the chocolate was not as sweet as most kids like and as a result, Gianluca stuck with the ice cream. In addition to dessert, they also serve a basket of madeleines dusted with confectioners sugar. I could eat a whole basket of these lemony little things all by myself. In fact, I believe I did.

Overall, our test was a success. Gianluca behaved very well and we had a wonderful night out. Café Boulud is approachable and the Prices are on par with other restaurants in the area, it just so happens that this one is a Daniel Boulud restaurant.

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And whether you go for lunch or dinner, there are always things to do in the area:

  • Central Park. It’s literally less than 100 feet from Café Boulud
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Ave, New York, NY 10028)
  • Shopping on Madison Avenue (Between 51st Street-86th Street)

 

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New York City: East Harlem

BBG Patsy's 00008In May of 2017, we moved from the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City to East Harlem. After living there on and off for 18 years, I just took the neighborhood for granted. We had everything we could ever want within a few blocks of our apartment; World-class shopping and incredible restaurants in every direction. And best of all, if we didn’t feel like going out to eat, we could have any kind of food delivered to our door, 24/7. To contrast that with our new neighborhood of East Harlem, we have none of that.

There is no Dean & Deluca in East Harlem and certainly nothing remotely similar to SoHo. Restaurants within walking distance, or those that deliver, are sparse to say the least. Now anyone outside of New York City may read this and wonder what’s the big deal so I’ll go ahead and explain— Living in New York City isn’t like living in the suburbs where going out to dinner means getting in the car and driving to dinner. New Yorkers live and die by their neighborhoods. As a walking city, there needs to be restaurants, grocery stores, and maybe some shopping within walking distance in order to make living in that neighborhood worthwhile.

East Harlem has two restaurants that put in on the culinary map of New York City; Rao’s (455 E 114th St, New York, NY 10029) and Patsy’s Pizzeria (2287 1st Avenue, New York, NY 10035). Unless you know someone who has a table at Rao’s, you can forget about ever getting the chance to eat there because it is notoriously the most difficult dinner reservation to get. A table at Patsy’s Pizzeria, on the other hand, is easily attainable and I can assure you that its one of the best New York pizzas you’ve ever had.

The name Patsy’s is not without controversy. There is the original Patsy’s Pizzeria in East Harlem that was opened by Patsy Lancieri in 1933. There are also a few Patsy’s Pizzeria’s in Manhattan that share the same logo with the original but are actually franchises who’s food and menu are nothing like the original. Then there were the Patsy’s Pizzerias that were opened by Patsy Grimaldi, Patsy Lancieri’s nephew. They changed the name to Grimaldi’s Pizza after being threatened with legal action by the current owner of the original Patsy’s Pizzeria. To add to all this confusion, there is an Italian restaurant called Patsy’s, which was opened by Patsy Scognamillo and is not related in any way to the other Patsy’s other than by name. They were dragged into a legal mess by the current owner Pasty’s Pizzeria. The New York Times ran a piece called The Patsy’s Connection; Two Competing Pasta Sauces Share a Name and a Trademark Lawsuit back in 2000. You may, after reading the piece, conclude that you don’t want to patronize Patsy’s Pizzeria at all because of the current owner!

The neighborhood looks rough but don’t let that stop you from going.  Walking into the restaurant, you notice the walls are covered with picture frames but I have no idea who are in most of them. The main dining room is small, with 12 or so tables, is always filled during dinner time. There is another room for overflow but I would prefer (and suggest the same) to wait for a table in the main diving room.

 

The menu is pretty basic. You’ll find some appetizers, soups, salads, and some pasta dishes on their menu… and then there is their original coal oven pizza, of course. They’re all pretty good but for us, it’s all about the pizza. There is also a children’s menu with some pasta dishes and chicken but again, it’s all about the pizza.

The service at this cash only restaurant is quick and attentive but during peak times, there will usually be a longer wait for your pizza to come out of the oven so if you’re with a small child like us, we order the pizza as soon as we sit. We were starving on this visit so we ordered the calamari while waiting for our two pies; One plain and another with pepperoni.

 

The calamari is lightly breaded and fried. It’s not overly seasoned which is exactly the way I like it. You can also order it simmered in marinara sauce if you prefer. The pizza though… is great. If you’ve ever been to the other famous coal oven pizzerias in New York City, the sauce is typically on the sweeter side and I think thats why I prefer Patsy’s because its not as sweet. The crust is thin and crisp in parts and gooey in others… There is always a bit of unevenness with their pizzas that I really like.

Our desert consisted of a Nutella pizza. Who doesn’t love Nutella on freshly cooked pizza dough? I think the only thing that could make it better is adding some toasted pine nuts on top for texture. In fact, I do exactly that for our leftovers.

 

An argument can be made that the original Patsy’s has not been the same since Patsy Lancieri’s widow sold the restaurant to it’s current owner. It wouldn’t be surprising to find out that the dough or sauce has changed over the years. I read that if you want to try the original Patsy’s pizza, go to Grimaldi’s. I found that to be interesting because Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn has long been my favorite New York pizza.

There are a handful of New York Pizza greats that are all linked to the original, Gennaro Lombardi, and referred to as the Founding Four:

Gennaro Lombardi of Lombardi’s Pizza (32 Spring St, New York, NY 10012) is credited with the original New York pizza in 1905 . Living in Greenwich Village, this was our go-to pizzeria because it was so close and they delivered. It was what set the standard for me when I moved to New York City in 1999. While I still like Lombardi’s, I no longer consider it to be the best.

Anthony “Totonno” Pero  was a pizza maker at Lombardi’s and left to open Totonno’s (1524 Neptune Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11224) in 1924. This is the only one of the Founding Four that I have yet to try. We will certainly make that trip and I will write about it.

John Sasso, another pizza maker for Lombardi’s left to open John’s of Bleecker (278 Bleecker St, New York, NY 10014) in 1929. People always talk about John’s of Bleecker. While I think its pretty good pizza, I would not rank this anywhere near the top of my list.

And then of course is Patsy’s Pizzeria. Patsy Lancieri is another Lombardi pizza maker who left to open Patsy’s Pizzeria ( 2287 1st Avenue, New York, NY 10035) in 1933.

The other commonality is that these are also the only the coal-burning oven pizzas NYC.  I am aware that there are newer emission-controlled, coal burning ovens that have been put into use in recent years by other pizzerias in the city.

If you’ve been to all four, we would love to hear from you!

New York City: Upper East Side (Valentine’s Day)

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Valentine’s day dinner for us has never meant a fancy dinner at a Michelin star restaurant. One reason why we don’t go all out for our dinner is because of the typical “Valentine’s menu”, which is limited and designed for the kitchen to push out large volumes of food that doesn’t represent the best they have to offer. We still go out for dinner but it’s more about the opportunity to forget the rest of the world and focus on us—to remind each other that despite the stresses of life that have us at each other’s throats most days, they are stil loved.

Choosing a restaurant has it’s challenges. Finding a place that doesn’t have a limited menu is one and the type of cuisine is another. My rule of thumb is when in doubt, choose a brasserie. There will undoubtedly be a Steak Frites, Steak au Poivre, and Poulet Roti (Roast Chicken) on the menu, all of which are reliable brasserie fare. So after searching with little success, we agreed to go to Orsay (1057 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10021), a brasserie on the upper east side and a staple to anyone living or working in the area. We’ve been to Orsay several times and have always enjoyed eating there but it wasn’t necessarily on our list for Valentine’s day dinner.

While Orsay did have a special Valentine’s day menu, they also had a full al la carte menu as well. On their regular menu, they have a plat du jour for each day of the week. Wednesday’s plat du jour is Côte De Boeuf. Rather than a just a simple rib eye steak, its an entire rib roast similar to an American style prime rib that is carved tableside and served with all the accouterments of a perfect prime rib dinner. Anybody that knows me knows that I’m a sucker for prime rib. And since Valentine’s day fell on a Wednesday, Côte De Boeuf was on the menu, and it just couldn’t get any better for me.

The decor at Orsay is typical brasserie decor. Upscale yet traditional and has a worn appearance that makes the place look a little more authentic. The lighting is dim with an orange tint that brings it all together but it’s dreadful for taking pictures.

The Reservation was later than our typical dinner time so we fed Gianluca at home prior to going out. He still accompanied us to Orsay because I promised him he could have dessert. Gianluca would normally do well while we eat but because of our reservation time, the earlier diners were all being served their desserts as we were just getting seated.  At that point, we just couldn’t distract him away from it so we ordered chocolate mousse for him as we ordered dinner. We both started with baked oysters, similar to Oysters Rockefeller. Inga ordered the Poulet Roti and I, of course, ordered the Côte De Boeuf. The oysters were fantastic but the portion was small; with three oysters per order. Just before our entrees arrived, Our server brought Gianluca’s chocolate mousse  and scooped it onto a plate with crème anglaise and chocolate shavings. The stares we received from the tables near us …I can imagine the judging going on but little did they know that he ate a full meal just 40 minutes earlier.

Our entrees arrived and Inga’s chicken looked perfect. Mine arrived fully plated, sans the whole tableside experience but because the restaurant was full to capacity, it was understood why. The chicken was amazing – the skin was crispy while the meat was still  moist and flavorful. The Côte De Boeuf was more rare than I would normally order but I still enjoyed it. It was served with Horseradish and a Madeira Sauce on the side. Both complemented the beef perfectly.

For dessert, Inga and I shared the Floating Island. Its a classic dessert of meringue with toasted almonds and a caramel sauce, floating in crème anglaise. It’s a light and sweet dessert that doesn’t push you over the top.

Orsay is great at what they do. The service is always attentive and the food is always good. I put it near the top of the brasseries in New York City.

On a personal note, Valentine’s day was overshadowed by the horrific shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. We couldn’t help but think of the 17 families that were destroyed that day. As human beings, we are terrified that these senseless shootings are too common and well on their way to becoming the norm. As parents, we hope that change will come soon so children, like our own, can grow up in a world that is safer than this. So while I sit here typing about Valentine’s day dinner and other things that really don’t matter in the big scheme of things, I wish the victims and their families peace.

 

 

 

New York City: Chelsea

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Photo courtesy of Basta Pasta

The Chelsea neighborhood has so many amazing restaurants and one of our favorite go-to places is Basta Pasta (37 W 17th St, New York, NY 10011). Despite sounding like something you may find in a food court, the name is not the most unusual thing about this restaurant—It’s that Basta Pasta is a Japanese Italian restaurant.  To be honest, I’m not sure how unusual most people will find that to be. I recall an Italian, from Italy, telling me that the best Italian meal he ever ate was in Japan.

The Basta Pasta story begins in 1985, when they opened their first restaurant in Tokyo, Japan. The concept was something new back then; an open kitchen where diners could enjoy the entertainment of having a front row seat in a fully operating kitchen while enjoying creative Italian dishes. The New York location opened in 1990 and continues to have a packed house each night.

I never heard of the place until 2010, when I was in the area with a friend and he suggested I try it. He told me about their signature dish, Spaghetti Con Prosciutto e Parmigiano. Truth be told,  it didn’t interest me at all because it sounded boring. Boring in the sense that if the name describes what will arrive at your table, it didn’t sound like anything special. Their thing is that the dish is prepared table side. The server will toss spaghetti into a half-wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, then plates it with Proscuitto and fresh basil. Not long after that conversation, Inga and I decided to try it and boy was I wrong…We loved it. The food, the decor, and the service is spot on every time. From that point forward, we’ve been devoted customers and look forward to it each and every time.

Making a reservation can be tough, especially on a weekend. You need to call as they don’t take reservations using Open Table and the like. Having a toddler, early dinners are the norm fo us so we typically don’t have an issue getting an early reservation.

Upon entering the restaurant, there is a bar on the left and you’ll notice that the bar is  full of diners, not people drinking. Its become an overflow seating area, which isn’t all that bad as long as you don’t mind people congregating behind you while they wait for their table. Opposite of the bar is a wall of old-school coolers that are actually in use today. As you walk further back, you’ll walk through the kitchen… literally; there is a kitchen on left and right and then onto a relatively small dining area.

The menu is decent and has enough to satisfy every palate. Absent, though, is a children’s menu so know this before you go. There are no cheeseburgers or chicken nuggets but they can make a children’s portion of pasta. They have a full bar and a very modest wine selection. We ordered two glasses of their house Vermentino that happened to pair perfectly with their amuse bouche that consisted of a gorgonzola and mascarpone bruschetta.

Portion sizes are all good. None are overwhelmingly large so you can order a primi piati of pasta followed up with a secondi piati of a meat or fish. The pasta dishes are available in two sizes, an appetizer portion or dinner portion. On this particular visit, we started out with Asparagus Gratinati (Asparagus with a parson crust) and Zuppa Di Cozze e Vongole (Mussels and Clams steamed in white wine and garlic) followed by the Spaghetti Con Prosciutto e Parmigiano. For Gianluca, we ordered spaghetti with butter and parmesan cheese and requested that it be brought out whenever it was ready so he didn’t fill up on bread.

The Asparagus reminds us of the same dish we had at Cantinetta Antinori in Florence. Its my favorite way of having asparagus prepared. There was plenty of bread on the table to dip into the white wine and garlic as we ate the mussels and clams. And then it was on to the pasta. Trust me when I say to ignore any preconceived notion of what this dish sounds like. It may sound blah but its not. There are a few pasta dishes here that will tempt you to stray but don’t. Order the Spaghetti Con Prosciutto e Parmigiano and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The whole thing starts with your server pushing a cart with a half-wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese to the table. A bowl of freshly cooked, perfectly al dente spaghetti and a little pasta water is poured into a carved out area in the cheese and your server does their thing of tossing the pasta and water, scraping of the sides of the cheese bowl, and then stirring the contents until there is enough cheese to mix with the pasta water to create a sauce. Its carefully plated with thin slices of prosciutto (my guess is Daniele) and fresh basil…Thats it. The whole thing just works and it is one of my favorite dishes that I crave for often.

Dessert. I’m usually full enough where I can go without dessert. The desserts here are good but nothing to rave about. On this particular visit, we had the vanilla gelato crepe with fresh berry.

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There are several other dishes worth ordering at Basta Pasta. In fact, we’ve tried most over the years and have never been disappointed. The Linguini Ai Ricci di Mare (Linguini with sea urchin and basil in a pink cream sauce) is incredible if you like sea urchin. The meat and fish dishes are all simple in preparation and all of them are fantastic. The grilled Branzino filet is always fresh and grilled to perfection. The lamb chops and strip steak are both excellent as well. I highly recommend them all.

Assuming you want to walk off some of your dinner, you’re in a great area. 5th Avenue is only a few yards away. Other interesting things to eat and see in the area include:

Is Anyone Still Here?

It’s been a while… We’re here and we’re fine. Taking a break from our new blog was not a conscious decision. We just had too many competing priorities come up where eating out and traveling [then writing about it] simply wasn’t possible. I can sum up the nine month absence pretty quickly and believe me when I say that time flew by, it really did.

After our trip to Austria, Gianluca got sick, then I got sick,  and then Gianluca got sick again. Not long after, we started to spend every free moment apartment hunting. Then came the packing, the moving, and the unpacking. With that, we needed to figure out our new neighborhood. But before we could even settle in, we went to Michigan to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday.

After we finished unpacking the last few boxes, we went on our annual family vacation to Rhode Island. Upon returning, Inga started a new job and I had my own business related issues. Then fall came and went; We celebrated Halloween and then Thanksgiving. And before we knew it, Christmas and New Year flew by us all and  here we are…

In the coming weeks, I’ll write about our new neighborhood, East Harlem and our family vacation to Rhode Island. I also have to catch up on writing about a few places we ate since. So there it is, a commitment to this blog and our passion for what brought us here to begin with.

Our hope is that 2018 will allow us to really settle into this blog by making more time to eat out , travel whenever possible, and then share each experience with you.

Vienna: The City of Music

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To say that we were excited to use our passports again after nearly three years is an understatement. Add to that, this was our first international trip since having Gianluca. I’ve wanted to visit Austria for as long as I can remember. As a child and avid skier, I looked forward to watching my favorite racer, Austrian Franz Klammer. I dreamed of one day skiing Kitzbühel and visiting the Olympic village at Innsbruck. As an adult, I have heard time and time again that I must see Vienna because it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Since Inga’s brother and his family moved to Austria a few years ago, it was only a matter of time before we would make this trip.

Vienna is known as the City of Dreams. It’s easy to conclude that this is  due to the city’s connection with the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. But more commonly, Vienna is called the City of Music. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, also known as the Vienna 4, all called Vienna home at some point. It’s hard to say which one is more true but no matter which you choose to call it, one thing is for sure: Visiting Vienna is like stepping into one enormous and beautiful museum. It couldn’t be curated any better; The architecture is beautifully preserved; the streets and sidewalks are spotless; and the lawns, fountains, and gardens are perfectly maintained.

Considering the season and the possibility of rain or snow, we searched for hotels nearest to the places we wanted to visit most; the Innere Stadt district, also known as the 1st municipal district of Vienna. This is the old town of Vienna where many of the top tourist sites are located: Hofburg Palace, Rathausplatz, and Staatsoper are all located here. The famous Sachertorte from Hotel Sacher is also in this district. The weather turned out to be  unseasonably warm, almost spring-like and that allowed us to spend more time outdoors, exploring this incredibly clean and beautiful country. We had a total of three full days in Vienna but unfortunately, that is not nearly enough time see all there is to see.

How we got there

Austria Airlines offers daily non-stop flights from New York JFK to Vienna but we flew Air France from New York JFK to Vienna via connection through Charles de Gaulle. I’m a stickler when it comes to being loyal to one airline or at least one airline alliance. In our case, it’s SkyTeam. It’s good for accumulating miles and earning frequent flier status.

Where we stayed

Grand Ferdinand Hotel (Schubertring 10-12, 1010 Wien, Austria), located at the southeast corner of the Innere Stadt district. A 5-star boutique hotel with a twist and its that twist that appealed to us most and why we stayed. According to their website, the hotel has their own philosophy. Rather than striving for exclusivity, they believe that hotels should be open for anyone and everyone. They offer suites for €1,500 per night and beds for €30 per night, and everything in between. This philosophy carries throughout the hotel and best of all, no matter which room you choose, the same level of service is provided for every guest of the hotel. We liked that.

The first thing you notice when you enter the lobby is a stuffed horse— As in taxidermy stuffed. I don’t know the story behind it or the purpose it serves but it fit the image and the vibe of the hotel. When we  arrived at the hotel, the staff was extremely welcoming. It was a few hours before check-in time so the bellman took our bags for storage. When I inquired with the front desk, they were able to check us into our room immediately. We had an upgraded superior room with a city view. Since the hotel is a converted office building, the rooms are not all uniform in size and the floorplans can be a little unusual. Rooms with a city view are deep but a narrow. The decor is modern and very European as you can see from the pictures. The matte grey painted walls with glossy white bed is a beautiful combination to me. A hand-written note on the minibar welcomed us to the Grand Ferdinand Hotel. Next to it was a little gugelhupf (similar to a bundt cake) and bottle of wine; a very nice gesture on behalf of the hotel.

Our room rate included breakfast and that’s something we always do when traveling. I know it’s typically far more expensive than venturing out for breakfast but we think the convenience is typically worth the price. Breakfast is served on the 7th floor lounge and private club, called the Grand Étage. It’s exclusive to hotel guests and members of the club. Weather permitting, there is a large patio for al fresco dining as well as the hotel pool. The space is nice and the buffet is positioned so you have the city view in the background. In addition to the hot and cold buffet, they provide a menu that includes  items made to order. During the day and evening, the lounge serves a full menu. You can also stop in for an afternoon coffee or after dinner drink as well. This is where we went to get fresh milk for Gianluca when we needed to fill his bottle and the staff were always courteous and helpful.

Overall, we really enjoyed our stay at the Grand Ferdinand Hotel. Would we stay there again? Absolutely.

What we ate

Huth Gastwirtschaft (Schellinggasse 5, 1010 Wien, Austria) specializes in classical Viennese cuisine in a slightly upscale setting. We were seated on the second level where another family were seated. While they provided a high chair, no children’s menu was available.

The menu was straight forward and had all the traditional fare for Austria. We ordered the Kärntner Kasnudln (Cheese ravioli with brown butter), Kalbsbutterschnitzel (veal meatballs), and Cordon Bleu vom Tullnerfelder Schwein (Cordon bleu from pork). The cheese ravioli was for Gianluca and he absolutely devoured it. Reading several reviews, it appears most people ordering the cordon bleu are under the impression that it was veal when in fact, its pork. The only reason I’m mentioning it is because those same reviews thought the cordon bleu was simply the wienerschnitzel with ham and cheese inside. I found that odd because the taste and texture of veal and pork are so different, it’s nearly impossible to confuse the two.

Vestibül  (Universitätsring 2, 1010 Wien, Austria) was the culinary highlight of our trip to Vienna. This Michelin Bib Gourmand recipient is located inside the Burgtheater, and if the architecture and interior are any indication of what to expect, you’re in for a treat. Like most of our trip, we were with Inga’s brothers family so finding  a reservation for seven people on a Saturday night wasn’t exactly easy. I contacted Vestibül weeks ahead of time to make the reservation and I’m glad I did because the restaurant was at capacity the entire time we were there. I also made sure they could accommodate a child and they had a high chair waiting for us at our table but no children’s menu. The restaurant prides itself on serving upscale yet traditional Austrian food. The exception is Chef Christian Domschitz’s signature dish, Szegediner lobster (lobster with creamy cabbage).

Upon being seated, we were presented with a three and four course Menu du Chef but I immediately noticed the absence of the lobster. Our server notified us that there were a couple of items you can substitute or you can order them a la carte, including the lobster. Ordering for the table was easy; The three course Menu du Chef substituting the set entree with two steak frites and four Szegediner lobsters. In general, I struggle with Austrian wines. Many are too sweet for my taste while others too mineral. So I played it safe by ordering a Puligny Montrachet. It also gave my brother-in-law an opportunity to try a great white Burgundy. It was well-balanced and buttery but most of all, it was perfect for our menu. As for Gianluca, it had been almost a week since he had rice (he’s half filipino after all) and the restaurant was happy to cook some for him. With that, he picked some food from our plates.

Dinner started out with burrata served with candied grapes and radicchio. The burrata was creamier than most I’ve had with the right amount of sweetness from the candied grapes. The radicchio added the contrast and balance to the dish. Next up, the lobster. The first thing you notice is the color. Its orange from the saffron and it’s not the most attractive dish I’ve ever seen. The taste? It was good. The lobster was tender and moist. The cabbage was cooked well and the saffron cream sauce was delicious. Everything seems to go well. What was missing was something to cut the saffron. Perhaps a side dish of something but no. There was nothing else served on the plate or on the side. Had I known, I might have ordered something acidic to contrast with the saffron. Dessert was interesting. They called it Honey-Milk Créme with strawberry sorbet. When plated, there were little meringue drops, milk foam, and these red crunchy things that resembled fruity pebbles. It was good: not too sweet and that works for me. All in all, a very good meal.

Aragwi (Neustiftgasse 3, 1070 Wien, Austria) is one of a few Georgian restaurants in Vienna. It was our last meal with Inga’s family and a Georgian meal was a nice departure from the foods we’ve been eating. Food from the Republic of Georgia is a culmination of  European, Middle Eastern, and Asian influences that date back to the days of the Silk Road trade.

The restaurant is decorated nicely with touches of traditional Goergian decorations on the walls. Georgian’s are very family oriented and the restaurant accommodates kids very well. There is even a children’s play area with a big screen television to keep them entertained. Since I was at a table filled with native Georgians, I simply sat back and let them order their favorites from home: Pkhali (minced beets, beans, and spinach), Khinkali (meat dumplings),  Mtsvadi (Shish kabob), and of course, two types of khachapuri (cheese bread). The meal wouldn’t be complete without the Georgian wine for the adults and Georgian soda for the kids. Gianluca ate well as it wasn’t his first time tasting Georgian food. The Khinkali and khachapuri were two dishes that he kept asking for more.

Café Sacher (Philharmoniker Str. 4, 1010 Wien, Austria), located in the historic Hotel Sacher is famous for one thing: the Sachertorte. The story of this cake began when Prince Wenzel von Metternich in Vienna was hosting a party and asked his chef to create a special dessert for the occasion. The chef became ill so his 16-year-old apprentice, Franz Sacher, was left to create it by himself. Hence the name Sachertorte.

We actually went to Café Sacher twice. The first time was on a Saturday afternoon and when we arrived, the line was literally around the corner so we had to decide whether to waste the rest of the day in line or try again early the next morning. We agreed to go the next morning and I’m glad we did, for a couple of reasons. First, when we arrived the following morning, there was no line. In fact, we were seated immediately. Second, it simply wasn’t worth sitting in line for—There, I said it. The Sachertorte, for all its history and hype, just wasn’t worth it in my humble opinion. I am certain, there was a time when the Sachertorte was a culinary revelation. The the contrast between the apricot jam and chocolate, mixed with fresh whipped cream was so unique and so special, that people would wait in line for a taste. By today’s standards though, with creative chefs pushing the envelope of tastes and textures, the Sachertorte seems boring. The cake itself is on the dry side. The apricot jam is a bit too sweet, and the whipped cream is the only thing that mellows and moistens it enough to eat.

I respect the historical significance of the Sachertorte and I am happy that we were able to sit in this historic hotel and taste the same cake Prince Wenzel von Metternich ate in 1832. Would I do it again? Not a chance.

One thing you must do when visiting Vienna, or Austria in general, is visit a Würstelstände. These sausage stands are a staple in Austrian culture and can be found virtually everywhere. They serve several  kinds of sausage, from frankfurters to Käsekrainer (pork sausage cheese) served on a plate or in a bun with a choice of any condiment you can imagine. The typical Würstelstände is open day and night with customers from all walks of life. If there is a “when in Rome” moment in Vienna, this may be it.

 What we did

Hofburg Palace (Michaelerkuppel, 1010 Wien, Austria) among other things, has three different areas to tour: The Silver collection, The Imperial Apartment, and the Sisi Museum. Seeing all three takes an entire afternoon.

My take on visiting Hofburg Palace is the Silver Collection and Sisi Museum are worthwhile. It is quite amazing to see the amount of gold, silver, and china in one place. It’s still used today for state dinners and and other offical events. The Imperial apartments left me stumped because I don’t believe anything in the entire museum belonged to Franz Joseph and Elisabeth, rather, everything in there was from the correct period. I might be wrong by saying everything but each placard I recall seeing had noted that it was either a reproduction of a period piece, not actually belonging to Franz Joseph or Elisabeth. With that said, I would skip the Imperial Apartments.

Rathausplatz (1010 Vienna, Austria) still serves as Vienna’s city hall and the grounds are used year round for the enjoyment of locals and tourists alike. In the summer, they host a music and film festivals and sporting exhibitions . In the winter they have a huge skating rink and Christmas Market. Since it was still winter, the skating rink and food vendors were still operating. This gave us an opportunity to try Glühwein, a spiced red wine served hot. It’s a seasonal drink and one we were told not to miss. Warm alcoholic drinks aren’t typically a favorite of mine but I wanted to try it. It tastes like hot cough syrup and I mean that in the most respectful way because as Inga will attest, I love the taste of cough syrup. The part that turned me off was the temperature. If it were at room temperature or even cold, I’d actually like it but served hot, not so much.

MuseumsQuartier (Museumsplatz 1, 1070 Wien, Austria) is an enormous cultural center that has museums, exhibit space, performing arts space, shops, and restaurants. I thought about leaving this off our list of things we did because we actually didn’t “do” the MuseumsQuartier. We went there on a Sunday and that was a mistake because nearly half of this amazing place was closed. Second, we didn’t have enough time to even scratch the surface so it was decided to just leave it for another visit. What I can say, based on what I saw, is its one of the most magnificent areas devoted entirely to the arts that I have ever seen.

Wiener Staatsoper (Opernring 2, 1010 Wien, Austria) or the Vienna State Opera, is one of the most breathtaking buildings in Vienna. The opera house offers guided tours that last around 40 minutes. The tour takes you through the auditorium, where we you can see how vast the back stage is in comparison to the auditorium. You then go upstairs and work your way through Tea Salon, Marble Hall, Schwind Foyer, Gustav Mahler Hall, then finishing at the grand staircase. If you don’t have plans to see the opera, this is a chance to at least see the opera house. 

There is no doubt that we needed another three days to experinece more of Vienna. It’s one of those cities that cannot be seen only once. Knowing our time was limited, we focussed on the Inner Stadt and stayed there. We look forward to coming back to see the Schonbrunn Palace, Belvedere Palace Museum, the Naschmarkt, and of course the MuseumsQuartier.

New York City: Meat Packing District (Restaurant Week)

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Photo courtesy of TravelSort

When I moved to NYC in 1999, I really looked forward to Restaurant Week. Back then, it was a lunch promotion to ring in the new year. In 1999, you paid $19.99 for a three-course lunch and in 2000, $20.00 and so on. It was a great opportunity to taste signature dishes from some famous, and often expensive restaurants that you may not have eaten in otherwise. The original New York Restaurant Week dates back to 1992 and has evolved into what it is today. Unfortunately, today’s New York Restaurant Week has no resemblance of the original except in name.

The Restaurant Week we have now is $29 for lunch and $42 for dinner. It primarily consists of a three-course, most cost-effective menu that almost never includes their signature dish(es). It usually equates to a free dessert when you compare it to the standard menu. It gets customers in the door but I imagine more discerning diners look at the limited choices and opt to order off the regular menu— It’s the perfect bait n’ switch. It’s gotten so gimmicky that I no longer look forward to it and rarely partake.

This year’s winter Restaurant week ran from January 27-February 10, 2017. We decided to go to Morimoto (Chelsea Market, 88 10th Ave, New York, NY 10011) for lunch. Morimoto is owned by its namesake, Masaharu Morimoto of Nobu and Iron Chef fame. It’s a large and visually appealing restaurant to walk into. We’ve eaten there for dinner a few times and have always enjoyed the food but have never been for lunch. The restaurant has high chairs but no kids menu so if your child only eats chicken fingers, this is not a place to go.

Not to anyone’s surprise, the menu is limited and lacks the more popular dishes that make Morimoto famous. In the spirit of Restaurant Week though, we ordered from the special menu but added our favorite appetizer, the Toro Tartare. The presentation alone makes it worth ordering but the interaction you have with the dish is what makes it special. The Toro is hand chopped and then spread on a dish and served with caviar. Along side is a perfectly laid out dish of accoutrements consisting of wasabi, crème fraîche, nori paste, chives, guacamole, and rice cracker balls then a bowl of dashi soy.

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Inga ordered the Veggie Bop and I had the Dry Aged Burger. Everything that is included in the lunch arrives together, as a set on one tray. The Veggie Bop is Morimoto’s version of vegetarian bibimbap. It’s extremely flavorful and makes for a hearty lunch. I’m not sure why I ordered the burger but I am glad I did. What popped out at me was reading the description on the menu: miso russian dressing, sake kasu soba ale cheese, soy-ginger shiitakes, house-made nori bun. What? I wasn’t sure what to expect but as soon as I took my first bite, I was in umami heaven. If you’re unsure what exactly umami tastes like, this burger will answer that real quick.

As for Gianluca, he had a little of everything we had. The veggie bop, the tofu from the miso soup, and part of the bun from my burger. I think the burger had too much going on for his young palette to handle but it’s okay. He was very happy, as always.

Some other menu items that we’ve really enjoyed in the past are the Ramen Soup (a simple yet incredible chicken noodle soup), miso glazed roasted bone marrow, spicy king crab, braised black cod, and the ishi yaki buri bop. A bibimbap with yellowtail that cooks table side in a hot bowl.

Other interesting things to eat and see in the area include:

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