Thursday, January 28, 2010
After many futile attempts to take my wonderful boyfriend out to dinner for his birthday (there were many factors at play and cross-country trips to compete with), in the beginning of January, we finally made it happen - and only 37 days after the fact! We walked in to Wallsé (pronounced Vall-Say) right on time for our 8:30 reservation, and we were greeted warmly by the hostess at the front. I left a note on OpenTable that it would be great to get a nice table since we would be celebrating my boyfriend's birthday (I was sure not to use "it is my boyfriend's birthday," since it was not, in fact, his birthday, but we were, in fact, celebrating - nobody likes a liar).
Wallsé is located on a very quiet Far West Village corner, as not many people find their way to the corner of West 11th and Washington unless they're there for a reason. But we had a reason, and the quiet corner seemed completely befitting the restaurant, which exuded a warm, welcoming vibe, giving it the feel of a fabulous neighborhood haunt. The space is outfitted in dark colors; the black carpeting and large paintings prompted Andrew to declare that he felt as if he were in L.A. I didn't get the same feeling, but the restaurant was very spacious and quite relaxing. We settled in to our corner banquette near the front of the restaurant, which was great, since it allowed us to sit next to one another without having to be one of those couples that sit on the same side of the booth.
We started with a bottle of Riesling, the name of which escapes me now, and I was clearly not diligent enough to jot it down or snap a picture at the time. It was a bit sweeter than we prefer, as we both tend towards dry Rieslings, but it was light and delicious nonetheless.
The menu is broken down into Appetizers, Fish, Meat and Sides. Since there were so many things on the menu that looked great, we decided to go with the four-course prix fixe - a great option since you're able to choose your own courses, with the only requirement being that one of your four courses has to be dessert. Since we're the sharing, generous types, we decided on six dishes that we both wanted to try and decided we'd split all of them; I think this approach threw our waiter for a loop a little bit, but it all worked out in the end.
Despite knowing how much food was headed our way, I cannot abstain from a bread basket - and I'm glad I didn't here. The whole wheat bread was the lightest I've had in a really long time, with large holes and a crisp crust, it was awesome.
For our first course, we went with the Spätzle with braised rabbit, wild mushrooms and Brussels sprouts and the Rösti with lobster, fennel and oranges.
The Spätzle is a signature dish at Wallsé - I believe it's been on the menu since the restaurant's inception - and it's a signature for a reason. This dish hit all the right notes: chewy, freshly made spätzle (a nostalgic favorite of mine), studded with tender, juicy hunks of braised rabbit and earthy, satisfying crunches of separated Brussels sprouts leaves. All coated with an unapologetically rich quark-based sauce and brightened by teensy shreds of basil, this dish was a home run. I would return for this dish again and again, had I no fear for the implications such a habit would have on my waistline.
The Rosti was another success - the lobster was meaty and tender, and while my feelings towards potato pancakes can be summed up by my always latke-less Chanukahs, this one was perfect. The crispy exterior gave way to pillow-soft insides and the bright citrus flavors and crisp fennel made the dish feel almost light. Though in comparison to that spätzle, macaroni and cheese burgers might even seen light - not that that's a bad thing, of course…that spätzle haunts my dreams.
We moved onwards to fish. The steamed halibut was fabulous - left pretty much raw in the middle, the purely white fish was accompanied on the plate by a shock of green in the form of a cucumber dill sauce, all topped with a mess of mushrooms. The halibut was as delicate as any I've ever had - though halibut is a meaty fish, the steam treatment gave it an impressively soft, silky texture, one that I don't think I've experienced with halibut before. The sauce was bright, heavy on the dill, and delicious - the perfect complement to the mild flesh of the fish and the earthiness of the mushrooms.
The wild striped bass was accompanied by sauerkraut, a pairing I don't think I'd seen before. The kraut was awesome, and the bass a shining example of a perfectly cooked piece of fish. Crackly skin gave way to a tender, moist white flesh. Another mild fish, the dish was amped up by the aggressive flavors of the sauerkraut, which might have been a bit too much for the meekly flavored fish had it not been for the depth of the black truffles cutting right through it.
For our third course, we went with the monkfish, which was served with a porcini mushrooms and a semolina quenelle, with a petit bowl of Styrian cabbage on the side. These mushrooms were undeniably addictive - at this point in the meal I was about ready to burst, but I could not keep my fork out of those mushrooms. My body said no, but I was not about to deprive my taste buds of those mushrooms - they were innocent bystanders in my destruction of my body anyway, totally undeserving of deprivation.
The cabbage seemed a bit disjointed from the monkfish, but, whatever - it was great too, finely shredded and dotted with juicy, salty bits of ham and caraway seeds, which I adore, it was light and fresh, serving to cut the richness of both this dish and the meat dish we ordered.
That lone meat course (I realized after the fact that it was a bit odd that we'd eaten so much fish given that we were eating in an Austrian establishment, and Austria isn't known to be big on the seafood, being landlocked and all) was a plate of veal cheeks, which sat atop a pile of roasted winter root vegetables and a fingerling potato puree, all crowned with a curl of veal tongue. The veal cheeks were tender, the pieces pulled away with the most minimal of fork-driven efforts. This dish was unmistakably Austrian - the deeply braised meat, fatty and rich, was hugely flavorful. The tender tongue seemed almost superfluous, but who am I to argue? It was delicious.
For dessert, we opted to share one dessert to share a cheese plate, which ended up being a great move since they brought the cheese plate out after we finished our dessert, serving to elongate the meal. The Salzburger Nockerl with huckleberries was brought to our table with a lit candle in a quenelle of schlag (a nice touch, considering I had been a delinquent girlfriend and totally forgot to ask them to put a candle in it, they were really paying attention to those opentable notes). Salzburger Nockerl is like a giant pouf of meringue, burnished in the oven until it achieves that beautiful golden brown crown. This was light, and very, very sweet - as one would expect of something made almost entirely of egg whites and sugar. The dish was definitely a looker, but it was rather one-note, especially once you we got past the slightly crispy tops. The huckleberries provided a bit of a tart foil for the sweetness, but they were rather sweet as well, and after a few bites, both Andrew and I had enough, which isn't to say it wasn't good, it was just a bit too much for both of us.
The cheese plate, which came with fig and - I think - apricot chutney, was completely unnecessary at this stage in the meal, given all that we'd already ingested, but I am a sucker for milk fat in all of its forms so I was not going to stay away. The cheese menu notes that the cheese on offer are Bergkäse Alt, a cow's milk cheese from Bregenz, Austria, a cow's milk Münster from Voralberg, Austria, a cow's milk Gunzesrieder from Allgäu, Germany and Noble Goat from the Austrian Tirol - so I presume that these were the four we were given (I was again, not that diligent, but hey, at least I have the excuse of being half a bottle deep at this point). The second from top in the photo above was my favorite - I believe, but don't hold me to it, that this was the Gunzesrieder, though I have a soft spot for creamy cheeses.
As if that were not enough, we were given a plate of mignardise, which comprised a raspberry macaron, a gelée of some sort, a chocolate-cakey petit four and a little cellophane-wrapped hazelnut nougat. The macaron was pretty good, though light on the filling, the outer shell had that nice crackle and that chewy interior that I love about macarons. Andrew devoured the gelée and claimed it to be delicious. The thought of chocolate at that point was too much for me to handle, so that poor little guy went untouched, while I pocketed the nougat for the next day (it was really quite good).
I have been to a number of Michelin-starred restaurants at this point, and I think there's a great variation in the quality of meals I've enjoyed in such establishments. Judging from this meal, Wallsé should rank very high on the list of one-star Michelin restaurants; it's definitely very high on my list of New York restaurants. The service was effusive, without being overbearing - everyone was treated as if they were a regular. There was none of that fake, haughty courtesy, but instead a warmth and appreciation that made you feel like making your experience exceptional was truly important to everyone involved.
Our server was incredibly helpful, the maitre d' stopped by to check on us and see how everything was going, and the hostesses engaged in very lively banter with us about Julian Schnabel and Lou Reed, who the hostess had chatted with as if they were old friends (turns out Lou Reed is just a regular) when they left the restaurant a few minutes before us.
Because of it's relatively out-of-the-way location, it seems that Wallsé is trying to cultivate regulars, and, had I the funds of the likes of Lou Reed, I'd be a regular in a second.
344 West 11th Street (corner of Washington)
New York City 10014
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Now I have said before that I am not a big dessert person. So as not to beat a dead horse, we'll just leave it at that. There are, however, a few desserts and desserty-type things that I find myself with constant cravings for. Chief among such crave-ables is ice cream, which I think is more of a craving for an incomparable texture/mouth feel/eating experience than for the sweetness that comes with those inimitable features. And I have obviously shared my salty-sweet-tooth with you before. But outside of these, there isn't much that I really crave. There are, however, a couple of dessert dark-horses that I just really can't resist - if offered them, it's quite hard for me to turn them down. One such thing is banana pudding. I don't know where this affinity comes from - it's not like there's any sort of nostalgic connection between me and banana pudding. It's just so innately, deeply comforting - the sort of flavors that are familiar regardless of whether you've ever had them before. Banana, whipped cream and vanilla cake, cookies, whathaveyou - these things just belong together.
Yet despite this affinity for banana pudding, it's not something I find myself eating frequently. Unlike ice cream, it's not something you can just keep around and eat when you feel lie it, and there aren't multiple places (or just one little place in particular) selling it on my way home. And while I really do enjoy it, I rarely find myself actually craving it - while I really love the creamy texture and the sweet, creamy bite of banana hunks throughout, when I'm sitting on my couch crying about the Jets - it's ice cream, and not banana pudding, towards which I will look to drown my sorrows. But all this was before I had tried Sugar Sweet Sunshine's banana pudding. This is truly amazing stuff - and might catapult my relationship with banana pudding from being a passive enjoyment, wherein, should banana pudding cross my path, I will likely indulge, to an active love affair - leading me to find reasons to traipse on down to the lower east side and perhaps swing by SSS and pick up some banana pudding.
I can't really describe this banana pudding in any better way than to say it is eminently craveable. It's smooth, and sweet, borderline overwhelmingly so, though the sweetness is imparted by ripe (but not overripe) bananas, and not by an artificial banana flavor (though, it kills me to admit, I really do love that artificial banana flavor - while the lime and orange runts were mere ammo in games of "throw the runts into the bug zapper," banana runts actually provided a good deal of sustenance at sleepaway camp). The fact that it is borderline too-sweet is, I believe, a blessing in disguise, as I can have a few bites and put the rest away for later, allowing me to savor the deliciousness that much longer. The classic nilla wafers benefit from their pudding partners, somehow taking on all of the attributes of rich, buttery pound cake by virtue of their association with the other ingredients. The final product is a study in textural contrasts, the moist nilla wafers have a great crumb, moistened pleasantly by the pudding and is accompanied by the creamy bite of fresh bananas, all crowned with a light-as-air, barely sweetened (if at all) whipped cream, that ties it all together with an almost unbearable lightness. It's, in a word, delicious. A sweet, creamy, delicious, chunky mess of a dessert. I suggest you give it a try.
Sugar Sweet Sunshine
126 Rivington St. (between Essex and Norfolk)
New York, NY 10002
Friday, January 8, 2010
With the start of each new year, many among us make resolutions, a large portion of which tend to revolve in some way around the way we eat - be it losing weight, eating more fruit and vegetables, eating more responsibly-sourced meat and local ingredients, and just generally getting healthier. While I don't kid myself with such grand illusions, every once in a while I make a resolution, and I do my best to make it stick. Apparently we're more likely to stick with a resolution if it's specific ("I will do yoga three times a week") rather than overbroad and vague ("I will exercise more"). The specificity gives us an actual goal to work towards, rather than a foggy conception of what it is we'd like to achieve, and it's therefore easier to hold oneself accountable. Last year I made an effort to floss every single day (please don't judge me for my less than exemplary flossing habits). I made it to the end of February - pretty good, mais non?
Truth be told, it's never a bad idea to eat healthily no matter what time it is, regardless of whether you've made resolutions or just want a general detox from the unavoidable holiday bingeing. I try to keep my diet relatively healthy, and I'm typically successful. One of the staples of my diet is oatmeal. It is one of the few things that I could eat every day, at practically any time, no less. I eat it at my desk for breakfast usually every day at work (with the odd fage detour). Sometimes I even eat it for dinner. I don't love over-sweetened oatmeal, but prefer to taste the nuttiness of the grains through whatever flavorings I'm using. When it comes to dinner, however, I often go for straight savory options.
I have, for a while, been using oat bran almost as a substitute for grits. The texture is not exactly the same, as oat bran does not maintain that same, well, grittiness that corn meal does, softening a bit further than polenta can as it cooks. It is, however, a good deal better for you than corn meal, with fiber and protein to keep you sated for a while. When it comes to those meals, I'll often flavor my oatmeal with a pinch of salt and a pepper, whatever spices or herbs I'm feeling at the moment, grate in a little bit of parmegianno for some umami, and top it with a runny-yolked poached egg. A little prick of that yolk sends the unctuous yellow river flowing from the egg, coating everything in the bowl with a wonderful richness. It's simple, it's satisfying, and it's really quite healthy.
Ever since reading that Mark Bittman loves his oatmeal topped with soy sauce and scallions, though, I've expanded my oatmeal horizons beyond my egg-topped oat bran and into the world of whole oats - the article serving as reassurance that my oatmeal was not going to revolt if I did not top it with brown sugar. I've tried different permutations, some sucessful and some not. A couple of (cough) weeks ago, however, I stumbled upon one that I quite like. And it should be no surprise, for the flavor combination is a quite familiar one.
Apples and oatmeal are frequently paired together, though usually cinnamon and brown sugar join them. This time, though, I went for gruyere, which I have used many times before to make grilled cheese and apple sandwiches. If the flavors worked there, why wouldn't they work here? And I added some rosemary to the pot, to brighten up the flavors and provide some freshness to the dish to make it seem a bit rounder, more complete. What I had was a fine dish indeed, it tasted healthful, but not boring. It was clean and simple enough for me to feel good about what I was eating, but not wish that I was eating something else. It is, simply, good.
Oatmeal with Apples, Gruyere and Rosemary
This is an approximation of a recipe, as I measured nothing except the oats and water. Granted, however, there are only two other ingredients that arguably require measuring.
I used quick-cooking steel-cut oats here, since I really like the way they almost seem to pop in your mouth, but I don't really want to stand over the stove for 45 minutes waiting for them to cook (though making this for dinner is less burdensome than making it for breakfast, as there's no impending need to get dressed and out of the house as soon as possible). While I'm sure this would work well with your standard rolled oats as well, I really like the textural contrast between the oats and the apples, which soften up during cooking.
1 tsp. butter (salted or non-, depending on your preference)
1 small to medium-sized apple, cut into bite-sized pieces (Skin on or off, as you desire. I like to leave the skin on since that's where a good amount of the nutrients in an apple are hiding. Also, I used a gala apple)
1/4 cup steel-cut irish oats or 1/2 cup rolled oats
1 cup water
a couple of tablespoons of shredded gruyere, or more to taste
Rosemary, 1/2 - 1 tsp fresh, finely chopped or 1/8 tsp dried, or to taste, depending on how much you like it
Salt and Pepper
In a small pot over medium heat, melt the butter and saute the apples until they start to soften up just a tad, about a minute or two. Once that happens, add the oats to the pot and stir them around a bit, allowing them to get toasty, which will create a nuttier depth of flavor. Toast for two minutes, stirring frequently and making sure they don't burn (you may need to add a touch more butter). Add the water, bring to a boil, and cook the oatmeal according to the package directions. Once the oatmeal is cooked, take it off the heat and allow the mixture to sit for a minute. Stir in the cheese and rosemary, season with salt and pepper to taste, and enjoy!