23 June 2010

Otto Enoteca Pizzeria

I spent Monday with one of my roommates, Steven, walking the entire perimeter of Central Park, only stopping to visit the Zoo. After some downtime at home (and by downtime, I mean naptime), we were both ready for dinner. Italian? Absolutely.

Otto is one of my favorite places in the city for Italian food, not least because the prices are reasonable, but also because with Mario Batali behind the operation you know you're getting a quality product. Steven and I decided to take the family-style approach, ordering multiple items to share:

caprese salad
pizza bianca

spaghetti alla carbonara
pasta alla norma

The caprese salad was delicious, though as far as I can tell, untraditional. It's not quite tomato time yet, which might be the reason for this. At any rate, this caprese consisted of chilled, stewed tomatoes and a good-sized chunk of fresh mozzarella. The salad was topped with basil pesto and sprinkled with pine nuts. Lately I've been obsessed with what I refer to as the "crunch factor" in a dish. I loved the pine nuts for their crunch factor.

Pizza Bianca is as simple as can be - pizza dough brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. Delicious, and perfect for sopping up bits of remaining pesto.

I'm no fan of spaghetti (the need for a spoon... the slurping... etc...), but carbonara gets me every time. I mean, it's essentially bacon and eggs with pasta, and how can that be bad? Batali's version is classic, with perfectly-cooked pasta and enough black pepper to be noticed, but not steal from the pancetta, egg, and scallions.

Pasta alla Norma (thankfully) is a penne dish, topped with thick, stewed tomatoes, lots of basil, tender eggplant, and creamy, creamy bufala ricotta. The tomatoes and ricotta blend together beautifully to create a rich sauce, marrying the remaining flavor components in an understated, classic way.

Dessert gets its own paragraph because Meredith Kurtzman's gelato is by far, without a doubt, the best in New York City. In fact, the main reason Otto was conceived in the first place was to present an outlet for Meredith's creations. Her plated desserts are in the style of the coppetta: Italian for cup.  For instance, the olive oil coppetta currently consists of passion fruit granita, basil syrup, strawberries, candied kumquats, and olive oil gelato, served in what resembles a coupe-style champagne glass. It is a thing of beauty.

Olive oil gelato is one of the reasons I wanted Steven to eat at Otto. I had mentioned it to him before in conversation, and he couldn't quite grasp the concept of tasting something he naturally recognized in one form in the form of something completely different. So, we ordered:

olive oil gelato with salted brioche
a tasting of three gelatos: milk chocolate chip, salty peanut, caramel

The brioche basically turns a scoop of gelato into a gelato sandwich. Surprised and pleased, Steven learned to adapt familiar flavors into new textures. What's so fantastic about all of Meredith's gelati is that the flavors are really intense. It's as though a peanut's original purpose was to be spun into gelato base, and olive oil's natural form was frozen.

This was a meal that made me really miss having my own kitchen space. Everything we ate can so easily be made at home (I love cracking that egg over the carbonara to finish the dish!) - even the gelato, with the help of an ice cream machine. Not to shamelessly pitch (for I have absolutely no reason to do so), but if you're looking for simple Italian recipes, Batali's most recent book would be a great addition to your cookbook collection. Molto Gusto is co-written by chef Mark Ladner of Del Posto, and is based on the dishes prepared and served at Otto. There are even gelato recipes...

20 June 2010

At Long Last... Prune!

After multiple botched attempts to visit chef Gabrielle Hamilton's tenured restaurant in the East Village, success was finally achieved. The reason: my friend Brian's visit to NYC. The goal: a casual and unpretentious meal where he would get to try a few new things, hopefully all of which would be enjoyed immensely, without dropping an insane amount of cash. And so, Sunday evening, between a rainy afternoon and game five of the NBA Finals, we ventured to Prune for an early dinner...

fried chickpeas

roasted marrow bones with parsley salad, sea salt, and toast
fried sweetbreads with bacon and capers

seared duck breast with dandelion greens, raisin-caper dressing
steamed mussels in lobster broth

ricotta ice cream with salted caramel croutons
strawberry-almond paris brest

Everything about this meal was great. Does it make sense to say the marrow bones were "meaty"? It might not, but that's the best way I can describe them. There was so much marrow, we almost couldn't finish the dish, which is saying a lot. The sweetbreads were tender and flavorful. The duck was cooked perfectly, and the raisin-caper sauce was a combination I had never had - delicious. The mussels were the largest I have ever seen, and the broth was neither too salty nor too thick. Dessert presented a tough decision; we passed on a black forest cake to try the paris brest, and it was fantastic - pate a choux sliced in half, filled with strawberries and almond pastry cream. The flavor of the ricotta ice cream was quite delicate, and therefore a perfect match for the punch packed by the croutons.

Prune can now officially find itself at home on my list of favorite restaurants. For those of you in Kansas City, I would describe it as my personal Room 39 in New York, except it's not even remotely in my neighborhood, and therefore I will visit far less often than I did Ted Habiger's near-perfect establishment. Regardless, I can't wait to go back to try more of the menu...

16 June 2010

ABC Kitchen


Most of you know this by now, but for those who don't, I am working for a different restaurant than where I was first hired. After a month or so of learning how the kitchen operated at Colicchio & Sons, I became increasingly disconnected from the other girls on my team. It was an odd situation for me, in that they had all gone to school together and were essentially already friends. Feeling as though they weren't accepting new members to their club, I e-mailed the pastry chef at the newly-opened ABC Kitchen, where I had trailed upon my arrival to NYC, to inquire about any available positions. She quickly welcomed me on-board, and my transition into a new kitchen took place. 

I can happily say I am much more comfortable in the environment that is ABC. Everyone is so friendly and supportive of one another, and their mission as a restaurant is one of which I am extremely supportive: keeping everything as local, organic, and sustainable as possible - not only in the kitchen, but throughout the entire restaurant. This can seem a bit gimmicky, but the effort is truly present, right down to the wine list and servers' uniforms.

ABC Kitchen is located in the building that houses ABC Carpet & Home, and is furnished and decorated with items sold in the store. It is truly a gorgeous space. One of the things I enjoy most is that the pastry station is located just off the dining room, so not only do guests get the chance to see a display of all the desserts we offer on the menu, but service is especially calm, quiet, and organized (well, at least from the point-of-view of the guest).

The dessert menu consists of traditional items such as cakes, pies, and tarts, as well as an array of plated desserts. It changes seasonally, which I love, and all of the produce, dairy, etc. we use comes from local farmers. Currently, we are about to move from rhubarb and strawberries into cherries, raspberries, blueberries, etc. Ah, summer.

(below: chocolate cake with malted chocolate ganache and toasted marshmallow frosting; sundae with salted caramel ice cream, candied peanuts & popcorn, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and a caramel tuile)

As we continue to get busier (thanks to several good reviews) and move from serving only dinner into the addition of lunch and brunch, we find ourselves very busy in the kitchen. We've basically begun doing twice the production with the same amount of people. It's extremely stressful at times, but at the end of the day I can look back and think about how being pushed to such an extent shows my loyalty and commitment to such an impressive restaurant, and reminds me that my skill set is growing.