Monday, March 31, 2014


Perfect for: A quick coffee stop, or an all-day hangout
Price range: $ Cheap
My rating: 10/10
Food / Coffee: 10/10 Service: 10/10 Ambience: 10/10

I'm sitting in this quaint and rustic West Village coffee shop as I'm typing this post. I'm munching on this delicious slice of cornbread (after overhearing my friendly table-neighbours talk excitedly about it), and sipping on my jasmine and pearl tea with honey. I couldn't be happier. 

The magic of this neighbourhood coffee shop tucked in the heart of West Village isn't so much that it does great cornbread, great cookies, great tea, great coffee, but it's that I come here and the barista knows my name after two visits. They know everyone's name. And Jack, the owner, will pop in and say hi to everyone, then go back to doing whatever else he does. 

Everyone here talks to everyone else, because it's your local coffee house - when Jack first started this joint, he would come in and close people's laptops and get them to talk to their neighbours, because that's the sort of vibe he wanted. 

It's amazing. It's cozy. It's homey. And it smells like coffee or freshly baked cookies all day.

Don't even get me started on the coffee. I originally thought Joe (a couple of blocks away from Jack's) was my favourite, until I came here and everything changed. Not to mention, they serve me a damn good flat white - it really is my home away from home.

Meal: Coffee break
Cuisine: Coffee / Snack
Address: 138 West 10th Street, New York, NY 10014, USA

Friday, March 21, 2014


Perfect for: A quick lunch with a friend, but why not go elsewhere in Chinatown?
Price range: $ Cheap
My rating: 5/10
Food: 4/10 Service: 7/10 Ambience: 5/10

It's very rare to find a Chinese joint that has better service than food. You'd bet that it's definitely a fairly inauthentic Chinese restaurant if that's the case (ahem, Chinese fusion restaurants, I'm looking at you). After all the things I heard about the soup dumplings / xiao long bao at Joe's Shanghai, was disappointed to find that this is exactly a restaurant that offers better service than food. 

I consider myself well-versed in the soup dumpling world, having not only consumed hundreds of dollars worth when I lived near the Chinatown area of Sydney, more specifically, I was within 5 walking minutes of a Ding Tai Fung. Joe's Shanghai's xiao long baos do not compare, not even close.

I ordered one set (8) of the crab and pork xiao long bao - highly hyped, surely can't go wrong. Soon after my order, the waiter diligently brought out the tea pot and the vinegar & soy dipping sauce (this is excellent service for a Chinese restaurant). And my tray of soup dumplings came out within five minutes of that. 

The recount of the story, soup dumpling by soup dumpling:
1. My first dumpling was disappointing to say the least. The dough was too tough and thick, the soup had far too much gelatin in it, and the flavour of the filling was overwhelmingly shrimpy - not even the crab and pork flavour I was expecting. 
2. The second dumpling got worse. At this point, the soup in the dumpling was now overpowering and tasted like I was slurping liquid fat, and not even the good kind. 
3-4. The third and fourth dumplings were only memories of me trying to drown the dumplings in the vinegar & soy concoction
5-6. The fifth and six dumplings are what I would call "the point of no return" where I felt committed to finishing these bad boys (bad, being the keyword here). I don't even know why I was so committed. 
7-8. The seventh and eighth dumplings: when I saw the light. I gave up. This completely wasn't worth it. There are far better calories to be consumed elsewhere in Chinatown (which is exactly what I did).

All eight torturous soup dumplings came to $10 including tax and tip. You know what I can get for $10 in Chinatown? A lot of good Chinese food, that is not from Joe's Shanghai. You can get a duck sesame pancake from Vanessa's ($2.50), 8 pork and chive fried dumplings from Prosperity Dumpling ($2), a plate of steaming peanut sauce noodles from Shu Jiao Fu Zhou ($2), a takeaway container of steamed ho fun from a hole in the wall joint on Henry and Market ($1.75), and a piece of freshly made beef jerky from Malaysia Beef Jerky ($1) and you still have $0.75 for a rainy day. That's what I call a proper Chinatown experience. 

My key learning from this experience: don't buy into the hype - it's not worth the dollars and the calories. 

Meal: Lunch / Dinner
Cuisine: Chinese 
Address: 24 West 56th Street, New York, NY 10019, USA


Perfect for: Fun dinner with a bunch of good friends
Price range: $$$ Exxy
My rating: 8.5/10
Food: 8.5/10 Service: 8/10 Ambience: 9/10

As one of Jean Georges' restaurants, ABC Kitchen is renowned for two things: 1) incredibly fresh good food, and 2) hard-to-get reservations. I love a bit of challenge, especially when it comes to restaurants, so here I was on a Monday night at 6pm, ready and eager to eat. 

The thing about eating alone is that you can wander into whichever restaurant and get a spot immediately (in most situations), but you don't get to try your dining companion's food either. So I'm limited to order a couple of items from the menu and left lusting after 90% of the menu. 

For my starter, I order the very popular roast carrot and avocado salad, crunchy seeds, sour cream and citrus. This was a dish combining both cold and warm incredibly well, with the warm roast carrots combined with avocado and the salad of watercress, seeds and sour cream. The dressing was perfectly tart which brought out the sweetness from the avocado and carrots. All the ingredients tasted incredibly fresh, as promised.

roast carrot and avocado salad, crunchy seeds, sour cream and citrus

And I order the ricotta cavatelli, fennel sausage, broccoli rabe and meyer lemon for my main course. The cavatelli is similar to gnocchi but is longer in form. It was served on a bed of broccoli rabe, which had a very similar taste to pesto, but made with broccoli rabe and the broccoli rabe stalks gave a similar texture to what the pine nuts would do in pesto. I probably would've preferred for this to have a little bit more bite, otherwise this dish was the perfect amount of richness and pasta-to-ingredients ratio. 

ricotta cavatelli, fennel sausage, broccoli rabe and meyer lemon

My overall verdict on the food is that it was great but not exceptional - the two dishes that I tried were simple but had different layers of texture and flavour, and ingredients were very fresh as promised.

The atmosphere of the restaurant is fun and has a very casual yet up-market feel to it. I feel like it is much more of a place that you'd go to with a bunch of friends and get a number of dishes to share. The service was fine at the bar - I wouldn't say they were very attentive at all, but then that's what you get for eating at the bar. 

Would I come back? Yes. But I'm not going to kick up a fuss if I don't. There are plenty of other places in New York that I'd go back to or want to try before I come back here. 

Meal: Brunch / Lunch / Dinner
Cuisine: Contemporary Italian 
Address: 35 East 18th Street, New York, NY 10003, USA


Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Perfect for: A quick slurp (a destination food stop)
Price range: $-$$ Cheap / Not Bad
My rating: 8.5/10
Food: 8.5/10 Service: 8.5/10 Ambience: 9/10

There is a crazy ramen hype here, and Totto Ramen has been wrapped up and thrown right into the centre of it. For good reason too; so far it is my second favourite (to Ippudo) ramen joint in New York. 

I arrived after a long day of trekking around the concrete jungle of Midtown, finding myself covering more tourist ground than I had planned to (a couple of hours at MoMA, to the New York Public Library, to St Patrick's Cathedral, to the International Centre of Photography, to Gotham West Market). The original intention was to get a steaming bowl of ramen from Ivan Ramen at the newly opened Gotham West Market, until I realized I was going to be wasting calories on a 3-Yelp-star joint and jumped immediately into a cab to take me to 52nd and 9th where the small Totto Ramen joint is found. 

The line was at least 20 people long at 7pm - poor planning on my part. I walked in and put my name down on the second page, limiting myself to at most a one-hour wait. Ten minutes in, the waitress came out and called out multiple names for parties of one, none showed. I happily put my hand up and said "I'm a party of one" and within ten minutes of arriving, I'm seated inside up at the bench waiting to order my ramen while looking at the incredible production line that's going into preparing the slurp bowls. 

As I'm checking my Yelp for suggestions, the waitress comes by and tells me that the Totto Spicy Ramen is very good and that I should add the Seasoned Boiled Egg, Corn and Seasoned Avocado to it. The Pork Bun is also very popular, she says. So I order the Totto Spicy Ramen with Charsiu Pork, add the Seasoned Boiled Egg; and one Pork Bun for $3.25.

Pork Bun

My order of the Pork Bun comes within five minutes and I can see them making it the whole time. Every place I've been do does it slightly differently - this one uses a sweeter mayo (almost American-style) and adds salad leaves to the braised pork belly. It's pretty good but doesn't come close to topping my favourite, which by the way is from Momofuku (controversial, I know, but I just prefer it to Ippudo's because of the cucumber). 

Totto Spicy Ramen with Charsiu Pork, additional Seasoned Boiled Egg

Shortly after, my bowl of steaming ramen arrives. The ramen noodles are chewy, or I guess you could call them somewhat al dente. The broth is rich, not so much that you cannot finish the whole bowl, but probably richer than I'd like. Everyone has their own preferences of what ramen should be like and I thought this was slightly, just slightly, too salty for my liking, and the noodles were slightly, just slightly, too soft for my liking. This is also why Totto Ramen comes a close second to Ippudo for me.

Totto Spicy Ramen with Charsiu Pork, additional Seasoned Boiled Egg

All up, with tip, my meal came to $20. It probably took no longer than 40 minutes to order, slurp, pay and go. The service was spot on and conducted with a tremendous amount of precision and efficiency (the Germans would be envious) and the ambience is simple and exactly what I expect of a place as small and rustic as this. 

So the real question is how long would I wait for this? Well, anything under 30 minutes is fine if I'm by myself, anything under 45 minutes if I'm with a friend or a crowd (the rationale is that one person should get seated faster than two or more, and if I'm alone I'm much less willing to wait because I'm not in the presence of good company). But no more than an hour because that's ludicrous to wait as long for a meal as the dining experience itself would take. But it is damn good ramen and clearly a shorter wait time than Ippudo - and if you're really clever, you would get in before 6.30pm. 

Meal: Lunch / Dinner
Cuisine: Japanese (Ramen)
Address: 366 West 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019, USA


Tuesday, March 4, 2014


Perfect for: A special occasion date
Price range: $$$$ Splurge
My rating: 9.5/10
Food: 10/10 Service: 9/10 Ambience: 10/10

If you hadn't noticed, I take food pretty seriously. And if there's Restaurant Week on when I'm around, I'll be the first in the door. So I somehow lucked out and got Monday off work, and the first thing that came to mind was that I had to go and try Gotham Bar & Grill since they are only offering their Restaurant Week menu for Mon-Fri lunches. 

So at 1pm on a Monday, I'm streaming past a number of impeccably dressed men in suits (one of whom was carrying a stack of Forbes magazines - clearly means business) to snag my table at this well-reputed restaurant - it has 4.5 stars on Yelp after a trillion reviews, that's got to mean something. I am immediately seated at the bar - because when you're dining alone, you don't have to wait - next to another lonely diner who is obviously here for the same reason I am (to take photos of food), and two men talking strictly business (I hear the words financing, Wall Street and Carolina Herrera thrown around and I immediately classify them as bankers for high-end labels).

I order from the prix fixe Restaurant Week menu:
Entree: Wild Striped Bass Sashimi with Asian pear, watermelon radish, cucumber, yuzu ginger emulsion avocado wasabi purée
Main: Pappardelle With Braised Short Rib Ragu with swiss chard, winter squash, aged pecorino
Dessert: Tropical "Vacherin" (vanilla parfait, passion fruit, mango paper, coconut sorbet)

Before I dive into the details of each, let me just say that the meal was top-notch. I couldn't fault the chefs even if I wanted to - not even on the quantity, it was all perfect. I can see why they've managed a 4.5 star rating on Yelp now.

The striped bass sashimi was fresh, the wasabi wasn't overwhelming given the avocado addition, and the yuzu ginger emulsion added just the right amount of tart to the dish, almost acting like a vinaigrette for the salad of pear, radish and cucumber.

Wild Striped Bass Sashimi with Asian pear, watermelon radish, cucumber, yuzu ginger emulsion avocado wasabi purée

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I consider myself quite well-versed in the pappardelle-sphere. I can tell you this was great - silky and al dente - a close second to the pappardelle I had at al di la, and that's competing with an brilliant Italian trattoria. The braised short rib ragu wasn't what I was expecting and wasn't your traditional Italian ragu - it was much more soup-like given the additional of the vegetables, but it was incredibly flavoursome and had me scraping the last of my plate.

Pappardelle With Braised Short Rib Ragu with swiss chard, winter squash, aged pecorino

The dessert of the 'vacherin' was described to me as a deconstructed parfait but it was really a combination of coconut macaroon, coconut sorbet, mango paper and passionfruit jelly. I'm butchering it completely but it was a brilliant combination of ingredients, especially if you're a fan of passionfruit, mango and coconut - which I am. 

Tropical "Vacherin" (vanilla parfait, passion fruit, mango paper, coconut sorbet)

As for the service and ambience, this was very much a fine dining restaurant. The waitstaff were incredibly professional all throughout and the only fault I noted was when I had to ask twice for the check (only due to the waiter engaging in conversation with other patrons). The ambience for lunch was light yet you definitely got the sense that this was where the business deals get done over lunch. 

And for $25 (excluding tax and tip) this meal was robbery in broad daylight. Yes I would do this again, I would do this every lunchtime if I had the time and spare calories to do so. Would I dine here and indulge in their regular menu? YES. I'm looking at it now and already planning a trip back.

Meal: Lunch / Dinner
Cuisine: Modern American
Address: 12 East 12th Street, New York, NY 10003, USA