Friday, July 30, 2010

Dining in the Wild Wild West

We recently returned from a lovely, relaxing vacation to New Mexico (Santa Fe & Taos) & Napa Valley. Going into the trip, we expected lots of Mexican cuisine in New Mexico, and lots of vino & modern American cuisine in Napa. What we weren't expecting was to have arguably the best meal of the trip at a non-Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe!

Since a lot of meals were consumed on this trip, we'll stick to listing the highlights:


Love Apple - A great first meal out & turned us on to some delicious "New Mexican" cuisine. What's the difference between Mexican & New Mexican? We're still not sure. Either way, the Tamale that we ordered had the perfect amount of heat & loads of flavor. It's a small spot that you could easily drive right past, but don't! Instead, eat outside under the lights and find out why Taos residents are "weird," as our waitress insisted. I would replace the word "weird" with "in their own artsy, laid back, simple world."

Hot Tamale!

Casa Benavides - This is not a restaurant. This is the Bed & Breakfast we stayed at, and they make homemade granola that is the best I've ever had. It's moist & chewy, with a crunch here & there from the nuts dispersed throughout. It has coconut shavings & dried fruit and it was so good that we bought a pound of it for the road.

Santa Fe

Max's - Arguably the best meal of the trip. The chef at Max's used to work under Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, and the guy has tons of talent! He was even so nice as to come out to our table at the end of the evening & chat it up with us. The owner was also there that evening & was speaking to us throughout the meal, and even provided us with some great reco's for the following day - Frito pie anyone? (Yes, that's what you think it is - the owner described her favorite Santa Fe treat as splitting open a bag of Fritos and dumping in cheese, chili and fix-ins! They sell Frito Pies in the square in downtown Santa Fe).

The staff's friendliness definitely contributed to the great experience we had, but the meal would have fallen flat if the food didn't deliver.

The heirloom tomato salad with goat cheese sorbet appetizer was a hit. Who knew that cheese could be in sorbet form? It melted and spread it's flavor all over the delicious, locally-grown tomatoes.

Everyone loved their entrees with Chicken Two Ways & Beef Sous Vide being the most memorable.

If you're ever in Santa Fe, you need to go to Max's!

Chatting it up with the owner

Ore House - You could put their Charred Salsa on just about anything and it would taste good.

La Boca - Tapas. We got 12 different plates & all of them were wiped clean by the end of the meal. Eric's favorite: bruschetta w/ mushrooms, fried egg, truffle oil and reggianito.

Extra dirty martinis for The Hoppers


Taylor's (Gott's Roadside) - So good we went here twice! In the fried department, the sweet potato fries & garlie fries were top notch. As for sandwiches, they are known for their Ahi Tuna Burger & it lives up to the rep - it's paired with a great wasabi mayo and asian slaw. The patty melt & chicken club were also being raved about. On top of great food, you are eating on picnic tables with the Cali sun at your back & lush green grass at your feet. After some morning wine tasting, a stop at Taylor's is just what your belly ordered.

Elm House Inn - The Bed & Breakfast we stayed at served warm chocolate chip cookies to their guests every evening at 6 PM. Amazing, right? Even better was that these were the best chocolate chip cookies I've ever had. I thought Levain Bakery was tops (Battle Cookie), but not anymore. These cookies are like Levain's, only they have pecans instead of walnuts, add in a dash of coconut & cinamon, and remove the $4 price tag. I know what you're thinking - the best granola AND the best cookies, both found in the same week? Are you sure you weren't just on a vacation high? No. It's true.

I guess baked goods are their thing because every morning they served a different muffin/loaf/cake with breakfast, and each one was better than the next.

On to the highlights from our dinners in Napa:

Market - Our first dinner in Napa and it totally kicked the city off right. Great flavors and a cool bar. Everyone loved the chicken roll appetizer and their respective dishes (filet mignon & lamb short rib to name a couple) - you can't go wrong here.

Mustard's Grill - An institution in the Cali wine country - this place is packed every night serving up delicious meat. Three out of four diners got the mongolian pork chop (listed on Food Network's "Best Thing I Ever Ate Series") and we do not normally eat pork chops but it was DELICIOUS. Another must is the onion rings - not traditional, but thin and piled up high on the plate.

Morimoto - One of our favorite NYC Iron Chef hotspots just opened in Napa, so we were anxious to try it. The decor is great - almost as cool as the one in NYC. I love getting the spicy king crab to start, because it's just SO GOOD and they give you a lot of crab meat. We got the tuna pizza as well, which is another popular dish there. As a main dish most of us got tuna that they cook for you in a really hot bowl in front of you at the table, along with delicious sushi rice and an egg mixed in. We all agreed that the dish delivered & left us very satisfied.

Bottega - One of our favorite meals on the trip was at Michael Chiarello's Napa hot spot. Our waiter was truly amazing and made the meal a fun experience, with the food doing its part as well. The polenta under glass is a must and the ribolita appetizer was delicious as well. Most of us got salmon, which was very tasty, as were the short ribs. I would make sure to come back here next time I'm in Napa.

Tra Vigne - Short Rib takes the cake for best entree of the night. It's a beautiful restaurant with lots of great options, but we were wine'd out. We did get lots of amusement from Carrie Underwood & her hubby dining two tables away.

Goodbye Napa, we'll miss you!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Going, going...back, back to Cali (and New Mexico).

The Restaurant Hoppers bid you adieu. We're headed out to Taos, Santa Fe and Napa Valley for some summer vacation and some good eats! Don't worry, we have most of our dinners planned out already, so we've ensured that we're hitting up the best of the best!

Expect some reviews on our wild west adventure in a couple of weeks. Until then...happy eating!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Earth to MATILDA

Oh, BlackboardEats, you have brought us to many great places with your deals! This week's adventure...Matilda on 11th Street between Avenue B & C. It's tucked away and is definitely a local hangout, which is why it was completely empty until around 8 pm. We went from being the only table at 7 pm to being ignored by our waiter at the end of the meal! That brings me to the only flaw - bad service. Besides that, the meal was great and full of flavor!

Mexican & Tuscan fare, you say? We're there. We started out with the guacamole with basil (instead of cilantro) and red pepper, which made me think: why doesn't everyone make guacamole with basil? It was GREAT and definitely a stand-out against every other guac I've had. We almost ordered a second, since it's not that large of a serving, but ultimately decided on another appetizer.

The BlackboardEats deal was a free bottle of wine with your dinner, so we got a bottle of the Pinot Grigio. I'm always a little afraid to take advantage of deals or discounts, but this restaurant was all for it and I'm sure they've gotten a lot of new business because of it.

For the main course, I got the Salmone Al Tamarindo - roasted salmon fillet topped with a balsamic-tamarind reduction, served with sauteed spinach and shoestring tortilla chips. The menu also mentioned that this dish is the winner of "Matilda's Cooking Slam," whatever that is. But I will say (as would the other other diner who ordered this), it tasted like an award-winning dish. The salmon was perfectly crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. The balsamic sauce and spinach really complemented the dish and the tortilla chips gave it some texture & crunch.

Eric got the BlackboardEats-recommended Gnocchi with a basil-cilantro pesto. This dish is right up his alley and with a little help from his friends (me & the 2 other diners), the plate was wiped clean by the end of the meal (this is not a rare occurrence). They even left him the Parmesan cheese dish so he was able to spread it on top of the gnocchi liberally. The best bites came from the middle of the dish when the gnocchi was soaked in the delicious pesto & topped with a dash of cheese. Gnocchi with pesto is a famous & dangerously delicious dish. Matilda threw us a Mexican cilantro twist curveball and hit it out of the park.

With a cute atmosphere and great food, I would definitely give Matilda another visit in the near future! Check 'em out here:

Monday, July 5, 2010


For this one, we'll let our friend and protege, Jason Bleck, take the reigns for our first ever "guest blog."  Here he is:


Between Rivington and Chrystie, there is an innocuous corridor running amidst typical east village walk ups.  Take four strides too many and one would miss the alley entirely; venture down the path however, and prepare for a truly satisfying and well rounded dining experience. 

Freemans Restaurant endeavors to serve rustic cuisine in a colonial tavern turned hip Bowery hotspot.  The restaurant largely succeeds in its pursuit.  With exquisitely seasoned American staples and a beautiful decor, the only real downside to the Freemans experience is that too many people are aware of its existence.

Without a reservation, the food bloggers were twice denied a table.  Thus, when our dear friend Lindsey was about to embark on her 25th year, the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone presented itself.  We would celebrate her birthday and get a reservation at Freemans (they only accept reservations for parties of 6 or more).  We called many weeks in advance and they were able to accommodate our party for July 3rd at 9pm.

When we arrived the joint was packed.  We waited outside in the sweltering summer air for about twenty minutes and then we were ushered inside to our table.  The AC cooled our skin and the beautiful people were easy on the eyes.  The front bar's antique fixtures and dim lighting were juxtaposed with top shelf liquor and hipsters in fedoras.  The tables in the front were way too close together for my taste which is why being led to the backroom so delighted me.  We were led through the kitchen, past the waiters' lockers into what had to have been the best table in the house.  A lone oak table sat in the middle of the private room.  Beautiful plants adorned antique bookcases and kitchen shelves stocked with wine and liquor.  After seating, our group really felt like we were being treated to a special evening in someone's colonial home.

The service was great, and the restaurant even accommodated a seventh and unexpected party guest.  The waiter recommended some specialty cocktails and our evening began.

I had a Gatsby something-or-other and my friends got the Freemans Cocktail and the Grass Roots Sour.  Although the list of ingredients was certainly impressive and exotic, for $12.00, the cocktails did not impress me that much.  My Gatsby tasted like a gin and tonic flavored with ginger ale and I found myself wishing I just ordered a dirty martini like the b-day girl did.

Artichoke Dip

The meal began with what I can only describe as two of the best appetizers I have ever had in my entire life.  The healthy sized portion of mussels were so delicious that our entire group devoured them within a minute and we had to get more bread just to soak up the remaining juices.  Next came the spinach artichoke dip served with mini toast.  I am not usually a big fan of that dish as I find it is often too creamy for my liking.  However, this dip was perfection.  It was not creamy in the slightest and was seasoned with what I believe was wine, garlic and some spicy jazz.  It was incredible and unlike any spinach artichoke dip you have ever had, I guarantee it.

The entrees we ordered were the filet mignon, the trout, the chicken and the scallops.  My chicken was jazzed up with a bbq sauce that had a great kick to it but it was not overwhelming.  The brook trout was cooked to perfection and seasoned delicately.  The dishes were on the smaller side.  The chicken came with mustard potato salad and we ordered a side of spinach.  I felt that the sides were uninspired, but the meat was so good that it was hard to notice.
Fillet Mignon




Desserts were frankly very plain and probably overpriced, but the bananas foster with rum butterscotch was the highlight and we were glad we listened to the waiter's recommendation.  The meal closed with cappuccinos and an iced coffee (which to my surprise is not something you are supposed to order at restaurants- feel free to comment on this issue below).

All in all, a lovely and memorable evening with great people and great food.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Momofuku Fried Chicken Dinner Day!!

We had been looking forward to the Fried Chicken Dinner at Momofuku Noodle Bar for exactly one month, since you need to make a reservation at 10:00:01 AM one month prior to the day you want to dine. We got a 6:00 PM slot on a Thursday night for 6 people... A solid crew of friends who we knew would enjoy 21 pieces of some of the best fried chicken this city (country?) has to offer.

But before I get ahead of myself, I'll sing the praises of their pork buns. We got 3 orders (1 bun/person) before the fried chicken, and it was a great set-up for the feast that was to come. The bun is as soft as cotton and the pork, hoisin, & cucumber inside melt into it. My only request would be to stuff that bun with even more goodies!

On to the big show... The dinner comes with 21 pieces of fried chicken - half "Southern" style (single fried & drenched in a buttermilk batter with Old Bay seasoning) & half "Korean" style (triple fried & marinated in bibum sauce). You get an even mix of wings, breast, & drumlegs.

Alongside the fried chicken are a wide array of fix-ins: pancakes, veggies/herbs (bibb lettuce, mint, basil, baby carrots, radishes, & peppers), & sauces (hoisin, bibim, ginger-scallion, & jalapeno-garlic).

The bibim, IMO, was similar to a sweet chili sauce, but much more chili than sweet.

Basically, once this is all in front of you, the table is your oyster! Everyone has a smile on their face & is ready to dig in. I suggest you get after it immediately cause the chicken is best as soon as it is fresh out of the frier & in the middle of your table.

The combos are limitless and your favorites will depend on your taste buds. Me? I liked the Korean style a hair more than the Southern style. It had more of a crunch to it, which might have something to do with the triple fry. My favorite combo was a chunk of the Korean (w/ skin on, of course) alongside mint & hoisin. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

Korean-style Fried Chicken

I also loved the Southern style chicken dipped in the ginger-scallion sauce.

The batter plus the deep fry in both types of chicken make each bite crunchy & juicy. The chicken is so good on its own & the fix-ins just push the meal into another world.

Anyone who likes fried chicken NEEDS to get involved ASAP (if you can get a res - it's silly competitive). For those that don't, get involved & prepare to become a fan.

All the info you need regarding Momofuku & their reservation system can be found here:

(Jess & I also did a write up on their Ramen & Milk Bar: