Flavors of NYC

Flavors of NYC

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Yakitori Totto - Midtown West

Food Rating: 4.5/5
Service Level: 3.5/5
Attire: Casual

Cuisine: Japanese
Review: Based on Dinner Menu.
Price Range: $- $$$
Location: 251, W 55th Street

Do you know that taste buds detect chemicals dissolved in saliva from food in the mouth and send sensory signals to the gustatory center of the brain? An average person has around 10,000 taste buds in their mouth and I promise you that being a native of the original curry land and being rather average as a person, all my 10,000 buds signal to my brain that “things on a grill have no thrill”.  I am usually not so high about barbecue genre of food coz why would I have my chicken dry if it can be dipped in a curry & converted to a chicken tikka masala? The answer to this perennial question came in the form of Yakitori Totto (Y.T), a Japanese restaurant in NYC.

On the grill
I was introduced to Y.T by a husband-wife duo- M&P who are  not only my trusted friends but also allies in testing the NYC food bazar. My first dinner at Y.T was on a lovely mayday. No, that was not a typo. It was indeed a lovely day in May and I had not selected a birthday dinner place for Dear husband (DH) so mayday situation it totally was, till M&P rescued me.

Perched atop another Japanese restaurant on 55th street between Broadway and 8th, Y.T is one of those rare restaurants I have been to in NYC that make its customers do a pre-dinner walkup workout.  Now be careful and don’t walk into the ground floor restaurant which is almost always empty and the staff looks rather disappointed every time a customer gives a promising glance towards it before walking up to the  2nd floor where Y.T is located. Once on the 2nd floor, the buzz and ring to the atmosphere is a rather happy one.

The place is super tight on space, super popular and super-fast moving, so don’t complain about (i) someone rubbing their ass against your food while trying to get into their seat, (ii) sitting for an hour staring directly into the back of those eating at the ‘open kitchen area’ (yes, you are literally sitting behind those eating so try not to fall into their plate while you wait) and (iii) the servers are not rude but they are in a hurry. They have quick feet and are sympathetic towards those waiting.

The best seats in the restaurant are facing the open kitchen and it’s totally fun to see the solo chef at work. He works on the food he is making like an artist playing Jal-Tarang (Don’t look so blank- just google the damn word).

Chef at work
If you have been reading my posts then you would know that my food reviews are incomplete without a bit of history and background.

Fushima Inari Taisha
Let me back up a little bit. Upon being told about the magic of Yakitori Totto by M&P, my first dilemma was - “what in the world is Yakitori?”  I had never ever heard of the word before. I turned to Professor Google for help and quickly figured that Yakitori is Japanese version of skewered grilled food. What’s now a Japanese street style cuisine originated in and around 1604 when farmers suffering from ruined rice crops were visiting the shrine of ‘Fushima Inari Taisha’ in Kyoto to pray for prosperous harvest. While on the road they cooked and ate small birds which the farmers considered as a nuisance as they blamed the birds for ruining their crops. Eating roasted birds on the go, was quick and easy and provided much happiness to their vengeful hearts. The wave picked soon after and in the modern day Japan, Yakitori is available in most informal settings in small restaurants and on food stands. The equivalent of this style is called “thelle-walla food” in India.

Yakitori consists of juicy bite sized pieces of chicken (equal honor is given to all parts of the chicken)  and other meats including pork, beef, seafood and vegetables neatly mounted on thin bamboo sticks and cooked either with salt or sauce as per request. I prefer – "with sauce". I am told on enquiring that the special sauce is known as the Tare sauce and is a concoction of sake, soy sauce and sugar. While I am not 100% familiar with what goes inside that sauce, what I can confirm more than 100% is that it adds and invokes a mouth dripping heavenly taste to the otherwise boring piece of chicken’s tasteless body.

Now that you know a bit of history, geography and stylography of Yakitori, the way I always like to think of food, let me familiarize you with the menu.

Without wasting your time on the salads and appetizers (I will touch upon this later), skip very quickly to the page which enlists Yakitori items. Now don’t start at the top. Start at the bottom of the page where it talks about the Specials. Before your server disappears, enquire quickly about the items which are no longer available from the specials. Chances are 4 out of 5 will not be available. Specials go out quickly. Pray, notice the small black board right behind where the makers of this lip-smacking food are preparing your meal. Yes, something is written in Japanese on the board and most of it is crossed out.  – meaning? Those specials are over and out.  The only way to grab one of those items is to arrive early and buy them out before anyone else does.

Out of the regular Yakitori menu, you absolutely have to try the Tsukune (chicken meatballs) with sauce. It’s my most favorite.  (Mashed chicken is shaped into dumplings and covered with an outer layering of bread crumbs/ rice, seasoned with ground ginger root, salt and soy sauce.) I also highly recommend Chicken Oysters, these are soft and tender and melt in your mouth on arrival; Enoki Bacon is another favorite of mine, mushroom wrapped in a bacon with an outer layer of perfect crunch. Your tongue and teeth pierce through the soft outer crunch to reach the tender mushroom which explodes drenched in the flavor it picks from bacon and the tare sauce.

Enoki Bacon

I liked the seafood yakitori lesser. I got the scallops and the shrimp and they both tasted bland. I recommend starting with chicken and vegetable items and graduate to red meat if you are a red meat eater. I personally think the chicken items are the best on the menu.

Two favorite recommendations from my DH are the Lamb Chops and Negi Pon (pork loin with scallion & ponzu).
Lamb Chops

Out of the non-yakitori items (rice and noodle section), I recommend the Rice Ball which comes with choice of Japanese plum, salmon, spicy roe or dried salted kelp. I like it with spicy roe and dried salted kelp.

From the appetizer section, the Croquet's filled with beef and vegetables are worth a try and Tori Dongo i.e. chicken meatballs wrapped in sticky rice is very interesting too, but I surprised myself most when I absolutely loved the Steamed Vegetable Salad on the menu. Remember we talked above tongue to brain signals, above? Salad usually emits numbing signals to my brain but at Yakitori the vegetables while steamed, retain a fresh crispy taste in them and the bagna cauda sauce (concoction of olive oil, garlic and anchovies) adds a superb flavor to it.

Tori Dongo
The miso soup is absolutely great here as well. I asked the server what made it so delicious and was told that they put the real stuff in it- i.e. the red miso paste.

Price is $ but because because the items come in singular form to your table, you can safely eat in multiples and the bill can quickly turn to $$$.

Dress code is casual but I recommend dressing up, for Yakitori Totto is going to serve you one of the best meals of your life

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Saravanaa Bhavan - Lexington Avenue, NYC

Food Rating: 4/5
Service Level: 2.5/5
Attire: Casual

Cuisine: South Indian (Vegetarian)  
Review: Based on Brunch, Lunch and Dinner Menu.
Price Range: $$
Location: Curry Hill/ Kips Bay, NYC

Saravanaa Bhavan stands amongst a crowded block of underwhelming Indian restaurants on the corner of 26th and Lexington Avenue in the Curry Hill area of New York City.

It all began with a bit of romance:

For those unfamiliar with the name, Saravanaa Bhavan is a South Indian restaurant in general, serving food from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu in particular. The first Saravanaa Bhavan in New York opened in 2005, the same year that I began a romantic liaison with a South Indian boy I met at my office Christmas party.  This was my first interaction with a ‘Madrasi’, a colloquial and generic name given by North Indians to everyone hailing from the southern part of the country.

Needless to say that this Madrasi boy introduced me to the awesomeness of Saravanaa Bhavan.  In the years 06, 07, 08 and 09 this party of two went back to Saravanaa Bhavan several times. This review therefore is long overdue and to refresh my already over familiar memory of Saravanaa Bhavan, I went back last week to bring to you the latest updates via this review.

I am not a fan of chain restaurants but it’s true that I make an exception with Saravanaas. So, yes this is a chain restaurant, kick started by P. Rajagopal, a man with a long and interesting history. His introduction would require a separate article to introduce readers with his humble beginnings, the impetus behind his drive to make Saravanaas successful and how from a small cheap restaurant in KK Nagar that first opened in 1981, it transformed into a worldwide chain that it is now.

Chennai Express Service:  It’s hard to give a review of their service level. They are friendly people but in a supreme rush. When I think of the servers at Saravanaa Bhavan, they remind me of the servers at my favorite Chinese restaurant in China Town. They mean well but they always seem to be in a horrid rush. Ok, may be the staff at Saravanaa Bhavan is slightly better, and less in a hurry than the Chinese in China Town but let me sum up by saying there is no concept of “leisurely eating” in their books.  Let’s just focus on the food as that’s what the place is known for.  
So, What is Cooking at SaravanaaS – The menu  here is as overwhelming as the traffic in Chennai. But let me show you how to weave through it:

Steamed (s) and Fried (f) Appetizers: They make it like no one else does.

Idlis(s), Vadas(f), Bajjis(f) and Bondas(f).  

If you are used to South Indian food try whatever you like, you will not be disappointed.  If not, then go for the Idlis or the Idli & Vada combo (see picture below).

New to Idli? – No worries. Idli is a friendly staple south Indian breakfast and snack item and is made from fermented rice. It’s a steamed savory planet shaped cake either served with, or dipped in, spicy grounded thick lentil soup called Sambar, accompanied by variety of chutneys including course coconut (white), tomato (orange red) and mint (green) dips. Tri-colors of the Indian flag. You cannot go wrong with an Idli.

Vadas for the lack of a better word are crispy-like-hell, deep fried savory doughnuts, whereas Bondas are deep fried rice and gram flour balls filled with a medium spicy potato and/or onion filling.  

My favorite appetizer: Mini Idlis (they are served pre-dipped in Sambar).

Main Course: High on Rice

The main course boasts among other things of 26 types of Dosas, 8 different types of Uthappams, the famous and elaborate South Indian Thali, and variety of rice dishes.  

If this section appears too much for you to handle- cut the chase and go for a Dosa but if you have the appetite of a blue whale and patience of Buddha then let’s work the south Indian Thali (literal meaning- a dish plate).   

First the Dosas: Nobody can ever dislike a Dosa or the Dosai’s as the Tamilians call it. You either like it or you love it or you are crazy about it. Dosas are savory crispy golden crepes made from ground rice and lentil (or from rice and semolina), folded into a long tunnel like shape with masala (i.e potato and onion fillings) sitting in the middle of the tunnel. The fillings can differ depending on the type you get and I assure you the results are remarkably different each time depending on the filling and the batter you go for.  (Descriptions are given in the menu).

What can I say about Uthappams- I am totally wary of them. Don’t get me wrong. I used to love them when I was a kid. During my growing up years in Delhi, all birthday and anniversary dinners warranted a customary visit to a South Indian restaurant. South Indian food was a novelty; something my mother did not know how to make at home. I always ordered Uthappams. Now I can’t stand them, perhaps due to over exposure and over consumption.  I think its sufficient to know that these are made from the same batter as the Dosai’s but are thick pancake like and can be made with different garnishing’s on top, such as: tomatoes, onion, cheese or all of those together. They are yummy, just not the love of my life anymore.

The famous South Indian Thali is a more traditional dish to order. Served in a big round circular steel plate, (traditionally served over a banana leaf instead of a plate), it carries 8-10 small steel bowls each containing variety of numerous stews, vegetables, yoghurt, sweets and pickle. In the center is a bowl of rice and pieces of Indian bread, served with papadam, a crisp round disk like side item made of spiced lentil dough, cooked directly over the fire or fried in oil as an alternative. You can take a guess how the cooks at Saravanaas prefer to make their papadam’s?

If not too hungry, order the Ghee Pongal, a porridge of steamed rice mashed with lentils and spices and redolent with clarified butter, deeply soothing with its hot, comforting simplicity. Rava Khichdi similarly is a porridge like mish mash of semolina and vegetables, tempered with clarified butter, a bit grainier in taste than the Pongal.

Mini Tiffin is another good option for those who want to have it all. It consists of Mini Idlis, Rava Khichdi, sweet of the day and you also get a Mini Dosa on the side.

My favorite main course depends on my mood:

1. Masala Dosa (i.e regular Dosa);
2. Rava Onion Masala Dosa (made of rice and semolina batter); and
3. Mini Tiffin (see picture below)

The cold beverage menu is your average Indian drinks menu with the exception of Buttermilk- a salty yogurt drink for the summers, tempered with several Indian spices, ginger and asafetida for digestion and flavor, and garnished with cilantro.

Not many people are fond of Indian desserts due to their high sugar content. But if you would like to try, then Rava Kesari is my favorite, a delectable semolina based dessert cooked in sugar syrup and clarified butter with cardamom, raisins, nuts and red food coloring.

You cannot wrap this adventure with South Indian food, till you have tried their signature coffee.  Madras coffee or what’s also known as Filter Coffee. It is a notoriously potent brew served in a small stainless steel glass called tumbler and a mini bowl known as davara acting as the saucer to the tumbler. The coffee is premixed with milk and is frothy on top. It comes with sugar and rice on the side…… J (Alright, I am kidding about the rice).

Enjoy. Hope to someday bring to you the review of the S.B in Chennai.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

J.G. Melon

Food Rating: 4/5
Service Level: 1.5/5
Attire: Wear What You Want.

Cuisine: American - Mom Pop Burger Bar Joint
Review: Based on Dinner Menu.
Cash you will blow out: $$
Location: Upper East Side

Given that burgers are omnipresent in New York City, you will see several posts of different burger joints on this page of ‘Flavors of NYC’, but let me start by telling you the story of J.G. Melon- my absolute favorite burger joint in the city and also a favorite of Bobby Flay and Ex- Mayor Bloomberg.

I Love History: J.G. Melon stands on the corner of 74th and 3rd avenue since 1972. Before J.G., the place was an Irish Bar known as the Central Tavern run by 2 Italians. The building itself is from 1920’s. Research tells me that Central Tavern was transformed to J.G. Melon by original owners Jack O’ Neill and George Mourges.  Hence the name J.G., but mind you- Melon in fact is no real person.

In the 70’s it quickly became a local favorite amongst the politicians, the artsy folks, and the rich, famous & unknown alike. Quite in an unplanned manner, it became a classic of the neighborhood.

The restaurant as it stands now, is owned by Shaun Young who was initially a bartender and manager of the restaurant in the 80’s, and still holds the warm old New York aura.

Old Charm of NY: The entrance of the restaurant has typical double doors that you will find in many NYC restaurants to avoid direct wind/snow/rain from hitting in. The front room is crowded, very crowded. It houses a dark bar and a kitchen and leads to a rear dining room that is far darker.

The kitchen requires a special mention because it is quite literally placed in the middle of the restaurant and reminds me of a Dhaba/ Shack and despite its tiny proportions, multiple cooks work feverishly inside it, cranking out the most delicious burgers in New York.

Art pieces depicting watermelons appear to be the theme on the walls of the restaurant and the pictures hang in no particular order behind the bar.

In a corner of the front room is a jukebox to choose your own music. I have not had a chance to use this ever during all my visits to JG but I would love to, some day.

The tin ceiling, the wooden bar area and the blue & white checkered table cloth gives this place a rustic classic feeling.

The air inside smells of old school charm. You cannot help but imagine Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman sitting together pondering over their marriage troubles. (Yes, Kramer vs Kramer was shot here).

Who Else Loves J.G: Michel Bloomberg once said on a TV show that he loves "Simple Food" and if there was one thing he had to eat for all 3 meals - it would be a burger. JG Melon is his favorite.

On the show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” , the famous chef  Bobby Flay admitted to being a burger guy. He grew up a few blocks away from J.G. and was a regular patron throughout his childhood and adolescence years. The master chef himself claims that hands-down J.G. is the best burger in NY and I kind of have to agree with that.

The Menu: Mostly Burgers and Sandwiches. Cheese Burger, Bacon Burger, Bacon Cheese Burger, Turkey Burger, Hamburger and similar American comfort food.

I Recommend: Get a Hamburger, Cheese Burger or a Bacon Cheese Burger.  I am also told the Chili Bowl is great here but I have not tried it.  I am just so stuck up with ordering my favorite burger that I have still not convinced myself to try anything else on the menu.

Also, try the Cottage Fried Potatoes on the side and try them with Dijon mustard.

The Greatness: The burgers are fantastic here. The seasoning in them is a mystery to many and it’s a secret that the folks at JG claim either not to know or they do not want to share with their customers, of course. The meat is flavorful and moist. Texturaly it is loosely packed- i.e. unlike the regular burgers where meat is very finely minced and never grainy, the patty at JG has more a feel of chopped meat than minced meat and therefore the patties more loose, grainy, but also more flavorful. It’s either the way the patties are pulled together or it is the use of the flat iron griddle which I am told is also a reason the patties retain so much juice and flavor in them. I warn you that you will need a bundle of tissues while eating these burgers.

The American cheese on top of the patty is melted enough to drip to the corners of the lower soft bun. Ah, and the bun itself is a soft one without seeds on it, and is well toasted not to let the juicy patty seep through it.  Did I mention you can also order a double cheese burger if you want it cheesier. :) By default the burgers are done “Medium Rare” unless you tell your server otherwise.

The Extras: The burgers come with sliced pickles that almost imitate the shape and size of the Cottage Fried Potatoes and you must must order those on the side. The pickles are crunchy and heavenly and the cottage fried potatoes are half crunchy, half not so crunchy- just perfectly done.

Mind it that they don't give you tomatoes and lettuce like in regular burger joints, till you ask for it separately.

The Long Wait: The line outside the restaurant will surprise you anytime of the day and I assure you that on weekends it is absolutely worse :). Apparently the craze for eating at JG has not abated since the dawn of the themed single bars in the early 70’s.  So be prepared to wait outside coz you have get lucky to get a place at the bar.

The wait can be anywhere between 30 minutes to 1 hour or more, but the good news is, that once you are seated on the very tight table almost nudging the person on the next table while figuring out which directions your knees and legs should be pointed towards, the food will make it’s way in a super-fast fashion to your plate.

While you can expect to experience slightly gruff service at JG , I promise you that you will most certainly experience the finest burgers of NYC here.

And Finally: Don’t bother calling them up, coz they don’t take reservations. Also don’t forget to stop at an ATM before heading to JG’s. It's Cash only.


(Dear Readers: Please don't forget to leave a comment if you visit this page. Not only is it nice to hear what you think about the review but it's also encouraging for me to know that you are reading it. Leaving without a comment for me is always like walking into the open door of my house, and leaving without saying hello to me. I look forward to hearing what you think.)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hakkasan NYC

Food Rating: 3/5
Service Level: 3.5/5
Attire: Business Casuals

Chef: Tong Chee Hwee (Head), NY Chef (Ho Chee Boon)
Cuisine: Modern Cantonese
Review: Based on dinner menu.
Cash you will blow out: Significant
Location: Midtown West
(Michelin Ratings: 1 Star) 

I initially planned to take my best buddy for a birthday dinner here but due to her hectic work schedule, ended up at Hakkasan with my husband who is as much a curious food buff as I am. 

Hakkasan stands emitting bright blue light through its windows and Main tall door, on 43rd street, between 8th and 9th avenue, otherwise a totally nondescript block close to Time Square. 

I almost expected a Budakkan, but it was not. No TALL Buddhas, no grand dining space, but a maze of fake room separators inside, preceded by a long tunnel from the front door to the reception area, filled with an Indian incense that to me smelt like my meditation alter at home. 

2 hostesses stood at the reception. One speaking directly to me, and, the other confirmed my name while looking in the other direction at the wall, with a particularly angular tilt to her jaw..(I was not impressed with the greetings) but let me assure you our server made up sufficiently for this, later.

The menu at Hakassan is interesting and offers ample choices on the appetizers, main course and dessert section. The highlight however is the drinks menu. On this blog you will not get to hear a lot about the drinks menu because I am a teetotaler and therefore I always judge a drinks menu by the choice of non-alcoholic drinks on it. And, this one certainly caught my attention with some fabulous non- alocoholic choices offered at $15 each. (slightly pricey for a non-alcoholic drink). 

The Cocktail menu is neatly divided into "Character". "Elegance", "Strength &Grace" and then there is the "Beer", "Bellinis" and last but not the least "Non Alcoholic Cocktails"

I tried the 'Kowloon Cooler' and 'Eden'.. The former a concoction of berries, lychee, cranberry, bitter lemon soda and the latter is made of black grapes, rose sugar, lychee and soda water.

Both delicious.

For the appetizers; we chose two of the small plates: Hakka Steamed Dimsum Platter and Crispy Duck Salad.

The dim sum platter was a colorful box of yummilicous looking dumplings (mix of chicken, shrimp, vegetable dumplings) but failed to impress me as the rest of NYC offers better. Something was missing from the shrimp dumplings clearly. I couldn't point my finger to it but it lacked the taste that I expected from good shrimp dumplings.

On the other hand, the crispy duck salad confirmed to the brilliant reviews by our server. It was tossed on the table and served by the server neatly onto our plates. The duck was crispy and full of flavor and the pine nuts in the salad added to the overall taste.

The appetizers were quite filling so we ordered the main course a bit conservatively 

For the main; we chose: Crispy Chicken with Komquat (lemon sauce) and Chicken and Fish Fried Rice

The Komquat sauce, I was told by the server, is a new entry on the  Hakkasan menu and tasted better than what I have tasted elsewhere. Dense yet not too strong on the tongue, it added a great flavor to the crispy chicken. The only downside was that a piece of crispy chicken had small fine bones in it. (I am not a huge fan of anything with bones and this was definitely a downer for me).

The fried fish rice: First thing first- It smelt great and was served with finesse onto small bowls by our server and from there it made its place on our small plates. The taste of the rice however failed to impress me which was a surprise because how can something that smells so good, taste so bland? I have absolutely eaten better at most $$ places in NY and NJ area. 

At the end of the evening, I was determined to write a review of my mixed feelings for Hakkasan and for the sake of  a complete review, ordered a dessert that was recommended by our server. 

Dessert for us was a Peach Tart with ice cream (I missed taking down the actual name of this dessert and its unfortunately not on the online menu either). The presentation of the tart was beautiful. The tart overall had a citrusy  flavor and colorful character. It was decorated with a sugar ice net on top. The ice cream to my surprise had a strong ginger flavor (not mentioned in the description of the dessert on the menu) but was absolutely fantastic. 

This review is incomplete without a mention of our server, who was absolutely fantastic. He knew the menu and the food he was selling to us. He made some good recommendations and was eager and proactive to help us understand the offerings.(Next time, I will make sure I note the name of the server).

Over all: The experience was good but not outstanding and the bill was "significant" but not super expensive for a Michelin Star restaurant. 

This is my first review on this blog and if there is anything I have missed out on, then do comment in the comments section so I can bring it to you on my next review.


(Dear Readers: Please don't forget to leave a comment if you visit this page. Not only is it nice to hear what you think about the review but it's also encouraging for me to know that you are reading it. Leaving without a comment for me is always like walking into the open door of my house, and leaving without saying hello to me. I look forward to hearing what you think.)