Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cheesy Cracker

Next time you're cracking open a beer or uncorking a bottle of wine, forgo the cheese and crackers and turn your eye toward the magnificent hybrid known as the Cheese Straw. This classic aperitif accompaniment is easy to make and can be adjusted to taste. It goes equally well with a Yeungling or a glass of prosecco, and whets the appetite without filling you up. And I've always loved Cheese-Its, so these are slightly classier, homemade version. With some kick, especially if you're a little heavy with the red pepper flakes.

I got the recipe from Aunt Betty about five years ago, and it's been a workhorse ever since. A default finger food for when guests are coming over, since you can make them ahead of time, put them in a cute glass or lay them on a platter, and most everyone loves them. It's a simple recipe: combine cheddar, butter, flour, salt, red pepper flakes and half-and-half; roll the dough into a sheet; cut the dough into strips; bake. Ta-da. Cheese-Its for grown-ups.--S

Cheese Straws

4 oz extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
4 T butter, softened and cut into 4 pieces
3/4 c. flour (more for rolling dough)
1/2 t salt
1 t crushed red pepper
1 T half-and-half

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a food processor, combine cheese, butter, flour, salt and red pepper, and pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add half-and-half, and process on low speed until dough forms a ball. [You might need to add more half-and-half; if so, do it little by little.]
2. On a lightly floured surface, using a lightly floured pin, roll dough to a rectangle 8 by 10" and 1/8" thick. With a sharp knife, cut dough laterally into thin strips, 1/4 to 1/3" wide. Gently transfer each "straw" to an ungreased cookie sheet, leaving a 1/4" space between them, and bake 17 minutes, or until the ends are barely browned. Let cool.

Yield: About 30 straws.

Recipe courtesy of the New York Times

Thursday, July 17, 2008

We'll Be Back...

Let's call this a dry run. After giving a coveted three-spork review to Bar Stuzzichini with one hand, and slapping it around with the other, Spoon and I were excited for dinner with friends Cara and Bryan, at newcomer Lunetta, just half a block away from Bar Stuzzichini. We had a lovely evening. We especially enjoyed the company, and there were some culinary highlights. Still, this new Flatiron neighbor kind of fell flat. But, hey, how fair is it to rate a restaurant after just one meal, and after just a few months in business? So no sporks, this time Lunetta, but next time you see us coming, you better...

Lunetta is situated in the space occupied by the old Mayrose Diner, and it comes to us already having achieved a following in Brooklyn, one of the more respected establishments on Smith Street. Note to Chef Adam Shepard: this ain't Brooklyn. You have Bar Stuzzichini within sight, Georgio's and Pizza Fresca around the corner, Beppe and Novita a block away, and the class of the group, A Voce, just six short blocks away. You have time to work out the kinks, chef, but not much.

Let's start with the highlights: the bruschette were tops. We went with the ricotta, hazelnut and lemon zest, and it was sensational. We also had a nice bottle of wine, a sangiovese, from their very reasonably-priced list, and we were ably helped in our selection by the sommelier.

It was hit or miss after that. We went with a tentacled theme to start. The fried calamari, was, well, fried calamari. It's good at Hooters, too, so, you know, whatever. The octopus came served with a Mediterranean flair, on a bed of cucumber, and, frankly, it was abysmal. Cold, rubbery, discolored, and a bit fishy, about as far from the always perfectly cooked octopus served steps away at Bar Stuzzichini.

The main courses were delicious, if inconsistent. My tagliatelle with pork and short rib ragu was fantastic. Perfectly cooked, and seasoned, generously portioned, and with great texture. Meanwhile, with half a dish of my pasta to go, I noticed Spoon's linguine with clams was wiped out. For the record, I rarely see Spoon clean a plate, and never before I do. There couldn't have been more than a fistful of pasta in the bowl. She said it also lacked linguine with clams's signature garlicky punch. Bryan had the meatballs (pictured), also delicious, but served alone in a white bowl, and not quite a filling meal. Cara, meanwhile, enjoyed a nice, simple pomodoro. For dessert, a hazelnut gelato was decadent, while an olive oil gelato was passable, though unremarkable, rather like eating vanilla gelato with an oil-soaked spoon.

The service, while enthusiastic, was also spotty. It was somewhat jarring that our perfectly nice, cheery and tall (at least 6'4") server seemed to have his own hobbit, training a 4'11" comrade who did not speak. When I asked the waiter if the antipasti were individually portioned or suitable for sharing, he replied, "Yes!" enthusiastically. Um, oooookay.... When Bryan ordered the meatballs, he failed to explain that they were served alone. He asked if Bryan wanted a side order of pasta, but he really should have recommended it.

Spoon and I were split over the room itself. Spoon liked the decor, and I agree, it is pretty: high ceilings, all windows on the outer walls with nice drapes, and mirrors on the inner walls. The tables are marble, and we were seated in a comfortable banquette. To me, however, it lacked the gravitas of Bar Stuzzichini's heavy, deep wood and hanging lamps. The decor seemed like it could be disassembled in a day's time. Which it very well might be if Lunetta doesn't do something soon to distinguish itself in a neighborhood already packed with good Italian.

Adam Shepard is clearly a very talented chef. He also is apparently up for a challenge, moving into a neighborhood with so much competition. We're hoping he's up to that challenge. Time, and a few more meals, will surely tell.--F

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Tapas, Italian Style

928 Broadway, at 22nd Street
(212) 780-5100


Sometimes, it's hard to tell the one you love how you really feel. No, not Spoon, and no, not the delightful Bittman sisters, with whom we enjoyed a fun meal Friday evening. For months now, however, we've been meaning to do a proper review of Bar Stuzzichini, one of Spoon & Fork's favorite new spots and a welcome addition to the Flatiron's already brimming culinary wellspring. After dozens of meals over the past year, sampling virtually everything on the menu, and a good chunk of the wine list, well, it's time to get some things off our chest.

When it opened in June 2007, Bar Stuzzichini offered a refreshing proposition, different from the "family style" meals associated with so many Italian restaurants. Its specialty is rustic "stuzzichini," small plates, not unlike tapas, with each plate offering a few bites, ranging from $5 and $10 per, or, the house deal of any combination of five plates for $22 (for two people), or $40 (for four to six people). A nice selection of entrees are served sparely as well, without sides or garnish, alone on white plates.

It's a lovely way to eat, Spoon and I agree. Over the course of a meal, one can enjoy many flavors and textures. It's visually appealing, too, if tough on the dishwashers. You can really appreciate the richness of Italian cuisine when it lays in front of you, simply presented, on small plates, unspoiled by a careless side dish. The wine list, meanwhile, is outstanding, mostly Italian vintages, particularly southern Italian, available by the bottle, glass and "quartino," a beaker-like vessel that holds about two glasses. For me, however, it's hard not to go with an ice-cold Peroni, served in a tall glass. They also prepare a perfect cocktail at the bar, for those unpersuaded by the wine list. The room is nice, lots of wood, with an elegant banquette, illuminated by hanging wagon-wheel lamps, although Frank Bruni's one-star review called the restaurant's opaque light "unflattering."

By now, Spoon and I have our favorites: a typical meal for us includes a fantastic grilled octopus; scamorza, a fried, spiced piece of aged cheese that's a mouthwatering must; grilled prawns, served with the head on; clams presented in a garlicky broth, ideal for sopping up with fresh-baked bread; and a plate of crisp green olives. For entrees, the restaurant serves the best braciole (pictured) outside of your Nonna's kitchen. Spoon has been addicted to the orechiette with cauliflower and bread crumbs since the beginning, though lately the crispy lemon chicken has taken a toe-hold. Other offerings include an excellent bone-in rib-eye steak served with a little spice, a decent rabbit, and striped bass cooked in parchment paper.

Friday's meal, aside from the exceptional company, was fairly typical. Yet Spoon and I both left the restaurant with a feeling that perhaps all is not quite right in Bar Stuzzichini's world. To start, the service was lackluster, and over the past year has been very hit-or-miss. One meal, a server may be very well-engaged, others, barely present. On Friday, it was the latter. I never received a second Peroni (though it showed up on the bill), despite repeated efforts to flag down our waiter in the hardly busy room. We ordered stuzzichini for four, and four of the dishes were appropriately doubled in size, except for the olives: there was only one small dish instead of two. Only one basket of bread, too, and the end piece I had was stale and chewy. Erratic service can be overcome or at least tolerated in some restaurants, but not at Bar Stuzzichini, where ordering and enjoying the menu requires a certain level of engagement from the server.

Of general concern, after more than a year the restaurant has not changed its menu, and there are no specials. For regulars like us, it is beginning to seem like the formula is set and that's it. In fairness, we usually have our meal plotted out before we walk in. But it's beginning to feel like Bar Stuzzichini isn't trying. Why not offer some seasonal specials? Serving small plates of stuzzichini surely offers an excellent opportunity to branch out, especially considering the restaurant is just six short blocks from the Union Square Green Market.

Judging from the dwindling number of diners, we're not alone in our assessment. When we left at 9:30 on Friday night, the restaurant was less than half-full. It could be that we were between seatings, or that numbers tend to fizzle in summer, when patrons leave town. Nevertheless, Bar Stuzzichini, which was packed front-to-back for months following its opening, is less and less so. On a recent Sunday night, we were virtually alone dining in the bar room. That scares us a little, and we have to wonder if the novelty of "Italian tapas" has worn off for newcomers, if the regulars are getting bored, and if those on the fence have been knocked off by the inconsistent service.

If Bar Stuzzichini needs a cautionary tale, it needs only to look around the corner (ahem, Rocco, Banana and Caviar, and now Borough). While Bar Stuzzichini is a far cry from Jeffery Chodorow's brand of hubris, it has made some questionable choices of late, most recently the addition of sidewalk seating. Situated along a treeless stretch of battered pavement that features a bus route, a view of the road construction just a block away, and a subway grate, it offers all the allure of picnicing in a parking lot. We recommend the bar room, as it is generally more festive than the back room, less grimy than the sidewalk, and the service tends to be better.

Despite the restaurant's inconsistency, we still recommend Bar Stuzzichini. Even when it slips, it manages to deliver at a fairly high level. Last night, however, I asked Spoon if we would be such regular patrons if the restaurant was, say, across town, rather than a few steps from our door. The honest answer: probably not. That's too bad. Bar Stuzzichini burst on the Flatiron scene a little over a year ago, and it earned both our business and its considerable buzz. Lately, though, it seems to be coasting, and in a neighborhood brimming with esteemed restaurant competition, including a lot of consistently solid Italian, from newcomer Lunetta, to staples like Beppe, Novita, Georgio's, and Pizza Fresca, there is never time to coast.--F

Friday, July 11, 2008

Beyond the Taco

I'm still swooning over Rick Bayless's Tomatillo-Sauced Enchiladas. The soft, sauce-soaked tortillas. The sauce itself, bright from so many tomatillos and kicked up with cilantro and jalapeno. The stuffing: hearty yet not heavy, made of spinach, mushrooms and chicken. And crumbled cheese on top, a finishing touch adding sparkle and tang. "This tastes like something you'd get at Dos Caminos," I proudly remarked as Fork and I ate. "You'd be lucky to get this at Dos Caminos!" Fork scoffed. (Isn't he the greatest?!)

I'm also still congratulating myself on making tomatillo sauce. I'm pretty swift when it comes to tacos, quesadillas and guacamole, but I've never ventured beyond those Mexican-American staples. I actually wasn't even sure what a tomatillo was (turns out it's like a sweet, tart tomato) or where to find one (I struck gold on Avenue C at Fine Fare, a supermarket that brought me right back to the one we used to shop in on our annual visits to Puerto Rico). After preparing this fabulous sauce, I think I will be buying tomatillos more often. Rick instructs you to puree them in a food processor with garlic, jalapeno pepper and cilantro, and then to cook the sauce down until it's the consistency of thick tomato sauce. You add chicken stock, simmer some more, and then stir in heavy cream. (I've really got you now, haven't I?)

To serve the enchiladas, you dip a warmed corn tortilla in the sauce, place some filling (shredded chicken, sauteed mushrooms and red onion, and steamed spinach) in the middle, roll it up and place it seam-side down on the plate. Once you've got three enchiladas on the plate, you top them with the tomatillo sauce, a few slices of red onion, a couple of sprigs of cilantro, and some crumbled cheese. Rick recommends Mexican queso fresco, but I forgot to look for that at Fine Fare, so I used feta, which I was a little skeptical about (Greek cheese on a Mexican dish?) but it worked nicely.

The best part about this dish was the flavors. There are a lot of distinct notes--cilantro, tomatillo, jalapeno, feta--and everything meshed together just perfectly. I'm thinking the sauce could've been a little thicker, but it's still really tasty, and we have plenty leftover, which I'm sure we'll eat with tortilla chips.

Here's to branching out.--S

Tomatillo-Sauced Enchiladas with Spinach and Mushrooms
Serves 4

3 garlic cloves, peeled
Fresh hot green chiles to taste (I used 1 jalapeño), stemmed and quartered
1 1/2 lb (10 to 12 medium) tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and cut into quarters
1 c (loosely packed) roughly chopped cilantro, plus a few extra sprigs for garnish
3 T vegetable oil or olive oil, plus some for the tortillas
2 c chicken broth
8 oz mushrooms (I used button), stemmed and sliced
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
10 oz (about 10 cups) spinach, stems removed
1 c (about 4 oz) shredded cooked chicken (optional)
12 corn tortillas, preferably store-bought
3 T Mexican crema, sour cream, heavy cream, or crème fraiche
1/2 t sugar (optional)
1 c (4 oz) crumbled Mexican queso fresco or other fresh cheese such as feta or goat cheese

1. Turn on the oven to 350°F. With a food processor or blender running, drop in the garlic and chiles one piece at a time and finely chop before adding the next piece. Add the tomatillos and cilantro; process until smooth.
2. Heat 1 1/2 T of the oil in a medium (3-quart) saucepan over medium-high. Add the puree and cook, stirring nearly constantly, until the mixture is the consistency of thick tomato sauce, about 7 minutes. (The more you cook down this base, the richer and sweeter the sauce will be.) Add the chicken broth and simmer over medium heat to blend the flavors, about 10 minutes.
3. While the sauce is simmering, heat 1 1/2 T oil in a very large (12-in.) skillet over medium-high. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring nearly constantly, for a couple of minutes, until they begin to brown. Add about three-quarters of the onion (reserve the rest for garnish) and continue cooking, stirring frequently, for another minute or two, until the onion looks translucent. Add the spinach and optional chicken and cook, stirring constantly, for a minute or so, until the spinach is wilted. Season with salt, usually a scant teaspoon. Cover to keep warm.
4. Lay out the tortillas on a baking sheet and spray or brush lightly on both sides with oil, then stack them in twos. Slide the tortillas into the oven and bake just long enough to make them soft and pliable, about 3 minutes. Remove from the oven and stack them in a single pile; cover with a kitchen towel to keep warm.
5. Stir the crema (or its stand-in) into the sauce. Taste and season with salt, usually about 1 teaspoon (add the sugar if the sauce seems quite tart to you). Holding a tortilla by one edge, dip most of it into the sauce, then lay it on a plate. Spoon a heaping 2 T filling down the center, roll up and lay seam-side down on a dinner plate. Repeat with 2 more tortillas, arranging them on the same plate. Douse the enchiladas with about G cup of the warm sauce, sprinkle with a quarter of the crumbled cheese and garnish with some of the reserved onion and cilantro sprigs. Assemble the rest of the servings, and carry right to the table.

Recipe courtesy of Mexican Everyday

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ladies' Lunch for Dinner

Last night's dinner was very Ladies Who Lunch: a pink and green, light and citrusy Grapefruit and Avocado Salad with Shrimp and Leafy Greens. Fork and I probably should've been drinking white wine spritzers with the meal. But Fork had just won a softball game, and I'd just completed a speed workout with my training group, so we were more in a water guzzling mood. Dinner, though, rocked.

I found the recipe in Joyce Goldstein's new Mediterranean Fresh, a book of one-dish salad meals and mix-and-match dressings. It's the kind of book I love: easy, healthy plates that can be prepared vegetarian or not. The simple dish I made last night features grapefruit segments and sliced avocado over greens, all tossed in a simple citrus dressing made with orange juice, lemon juice, orange zest and olive oil. Joyce suggests adding crabmeat, scallops or shrimp, and I went with shrimp, which I cooked in a saute pan with some of the citrus dressing and laid atop the salad just before serving. I'm sure seared scallops or crabmeat would be terrific, too.

The grapefruit's tang, avocado's mellow creaminess and greens' springiness all came together beautifully under the citrus dressing. The shrimp gave the salad a little power. We wiped our plates clean.--S

Grapefruit and Avocado Salad with Leafy Greens

Serves 4

2 small grapefruits
2 avocados
3/4 to 1 c mixed citrus dressing (recipe follows)
6 handfuls of assorted mild, sweet leafy greens, such as butter, oak leaf or red leaf lettuce
1/2 lb crabmeat, shrimp or scallops (optional)

1. Working with 1 grapefruit at a time, cut a thin slice off the top and bottom to reveal the flesh. Stand the grapefruit upright and remove the peel in wide strips, cutting downward and following the contour of the fruit. Holding the grapefruit over a bowl, cut along both sides of each segment, releasing the segments from the membrane and allowing them to drop into the bowl. Using the knife tip or a toothpick, pry out any seeds. Squeeze the membrane over another bowl to release the juice. Repeat with the remaining grapefruit. You should have about 1/2 c juice.
2. Cut the avocados in half and remove and discard the pits. With a large spoon, scoop the avocado from the peel. Cut the flesh into 1/4-in. slices. Drizzle with 1/4 c. dressing.
3. Toss the greens with 1/4 c. dressing. Distribute among 4 salad plates or arrange on a large platter. Top with avocado slices and grapefruit segments and drizzle with the remaining dressing.
4. If you are adding shrimp, sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Place 1/4 c. citrus dressing in a large saute pan along with the reserved grapefruit juice and bring to a boil. Add the shrimp to the pan and cook, turning once, until they are barely cooked through, about 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and arrange the shrimp on top of the greens, alternating them with the grapefruit and avocado. Drizzle with the remaining citrus dressing.

Citrus Dressing

Makes 1 scant cup

1/2 c. mild, fruity extra-virgin olive oil or pure olive oil
Freshly grated zest of 1 orange (about 1 T)
1/4 c fresh orange juice
2 T fresh lemon juice
1/2 t sugar, if needed
1/2 t sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In a bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients. Dip a lettuce leaf into the dressing to see if it is tart enough, has enough salt, and is balanced. Add more lemon juice or sugar if needed.

Recipe courtesy of Mediterranean Fresh