Ferret’s findings Tuesday, Aug 27 2013 

Five ferrety posts you may not have seen yet! Apart from a few relatively new posts that you may not have seen yet, take time to check out these vintage wonders that have been read only by a lucky few:

  1. Spice up your life! In which Ferret extols the virtues of ginger.
  2. Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares! In which Ferret wonders how far the outbursts on this popular show are staged.
  3. Food Book Review: Food and Philosophy. In which Ferret muses over many deep foodie questions, including the criminality of pickiness and whether food critics’ views are really ‘truer’ than ours, or if they’re just more eloquent.
  4. Restaurant Review: Georgia Brown’s. In which Ferret visits this heartland of Southern American cuisine.
  5. Wake up and smell the coffee. In which Ferret sings the praises of its chosen coffee machine.

Time-travel back through the annals of FFW and enjoy 🙂

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Restaurant Review: Ellen’s Stardust Diner, NYC Sunday, Aug 4 2013 

ellens1On our most recent trip to New York City, I decided an appropriately ‘fun’ surprise would be to take my husband to Ellen’s Stardust Diner. This was my second choice, after reading online that late-1990s favourite Mars 2112 had declined significantly in the intervening years. So Ellen’s it was! I helpfully neglected to tell him indoors that the main feature of Ellen’s is the restaurant’s singing wait staff, who sing songs from Broadway musicals. Did I mention that his favourite musical was this?:

i.e., THAT HE DOESN’T LIKE MUSICALS?

(This makes me a really bad person, doesn’t it?)

So apart from this being a place that most likely didn’t float my husband’s boat as much as mine (I LOVE musicals), was there anything else for us to dislike?

Unfortunately, yes.

First of all, there was the line. I know that it was a Saturday night in New York City, in what was beginning to be high season (early May). However, there was nothing on the website that indicated that you ought to reserve a seat or indeed that this was even possible (looking at it again, they only accept reservations for parties over 20 people). So to find a queue that literally stretched out the restaurant door, round the corner and along the pavement was a little bit of a shock. To have to wait half an hour to even get in the door, for something that you know won’t be gourmet cuisine, is never the best start to the evening, despite the concierge’s clear efforts and communication showing that they were doing everything possible to get everyone seated quickly.

But eventually we got in, and were ushered to one of the balcony/gallery seats, which doesn’t affect your view of the action, as the singing waitstaff are naturally moving around constantly to serve food and to sing. There’s certainly no danger of you not hearing the action, as the acoustics are certainly loud even if they’re not very refined or balanced. (Singers sometimes missed their cues thanks to the noise of the restaurant drowning out the backing track.) The loud music serves to make this the main event, rather than the 50s diner-inspired food, which is in some ways a good thing (or perhaps not, if you don’t like musicals). More on this later.

We all know that wait staff in America are paid badly and rely heavily on tips to make a living, which to me seems inherently wrong. What seems even more wrong (if that’s possible) at Ellen’s is that staff effectively beg for even more tips by passing around a bucket as ‘payment’ for their singing. Of course customers aren’t obliged to pay up, but it does make you wonder: just how badly are they being paid? Are they being exploited, or just maximising their resources?

This all serves to distract diners from their food, which is average at best. The ice-cream soda I had at the start was frankly the best bit, and probably only for the novelty of it. Our main courses (Brooklyn Brisket – a steak and provolone sandwich served with potato pancakes – and Stardust Nachos) were huge and greasy. I know it’s America, but surely smaller, better-quality portions are the way forward? Or is the hope that you’ll be so distracted by the singing that you won’t give a monkey’s about what you’re eating?

This all came to $50, including tax and the requisite tip, which seemed too much for what we got. (Bear in mind we ordered no desserts, no side dishes, and no drinks other than the ice cream soda.) Yes, I know it’s New York, on a Saturday night, at the beginning of high season, at what I understand is a relatively high-profile establishment. But surely quality of food has to count for something? We were left feeling disappointed at the mediocrity of the whole thing and generally poor value for money. It’s probably a good visit if you go with mid-week with friends who love musicals as much as you do, and if you just want to eat ice cream. But apart from that, we came to the conclusion that we’d rather stay home, make our own food, and watch the Simpsons’ musical version of Planet Of The Apes, as all Ellen’s did was make a monkey out of us.

1650 Broadway @ 51st Street, NY 10019

Reservations only accepted for parties over 20 people. Phone 212-956-5151.

http://www.ellensstardustdiner.com/

Breakfast in…Philadelphia Sunday, Jun 2 2013 

Our first ever trip to Philadelphia, and we went there for breakfast. And what an excellent breakfast it turned out to be.

On a recommendation from a member of Fodors.com, we chose the Blue Cat Restaurant for its excellent brunch menu and its proximity to both the railway station and the Barnes Collection (a museum that we both wanted to visit). Located a short cab ride from 30th Street Station (you could walk, but being new to the city and having a timed ticket for the museum meant we didn’t want to take our chances), the Blue Cat Restaurant is bathed in sunlight thanks to enormous windows which give you an excellent view of the street – perfect for people-watching travellers like us. The staff are friendly, efficient and helpful, and we were soon settled with a large jug of iced water and a couple of menus. We were surprised that the place was relatively empty for 9.45 on a Saturday morning, but we figure it’s the city’s loss.

The memory of an excellent vegan soup at Au Pain Quotidien in 2012 meant that the Blue Cat’s selection of soups was definitely tempting – from spiced tomato and seafood soup to black bean soup with onion and lime, there’s something for everyone. Salads are also available, as are grilled sandwiches. However, we decided to go down a more traditional route, ordering ranch eggs and homefries (him), and cinnamon French toast (me). The staff are also flexible: I don’t like bananas, which the French toast normally comes with (I’m weird, OK?), so I asked if it could be served without. Not only did they accommodate this request by removing the bananas, but they also topped the toast instead with delicious strawberries, which made it perfect for me. Portions are extremely generous, too. Remember what your parents told you about never eating anything bigger than your own face? At the Blue Cat, you can forget that rule:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile the bread possibly could have been a tad chewier, the combination of flavours (maple syrup, strawberries, nuts, icing sugar, cinnamon…) was such a wonderful haze of sweetness, sharpness and spice that one can easily forgive them that. The ranch eggs also got a thumbs up, as did the fresh fruit juice – even though it’s $4 a glass, it’s freshly squeezed, and again the serving size is generous.

At some point the large winOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdows and beating sunshine became a problem, as it really did get quite toasty where we were sitting, but we were able to move without incident. The sunshine and background jazz, though, proved incredibly relaxing and satisfying in combination with the excellent food. We topped this off with an espresso each, which set us up for our trip to the museum (staff were even able to give us directions). Costing us $34 in total before tax, this also wasn’t bad value for money at all – especially as it kept us full for a good six hours, before we needed refuelling with snacks from the Whole Foods Market (more of which another time).

Overall, we enjoyed our short trip to Philadelphia so much that we are already planning another, longer visit in future, where we can explore even more of the Fodorites’ recommendations for brunch, which are as follows:

  • Rembrandts (741 N. 23rd St.)
  • Garden Restaurant @ The Barnes Collection (2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway)
  • Sabrina’s (1804 Callowhill Street; 227 N34th St; 910 Christian Street)
  • London Grill (2301 Fairmount Avenue)

As for us, though, the Blue Cat definitely has a strong place now in our affections.

1921 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA

www.bluecatrestaurant.com/

Restaurant Review: The Mermaid Inn, New York Monday, Aug 6 2012 

This was where we dined on our final night in New York City during our winter holiday this year (I know I’m way behind schedule in the review, but don’t worry – it was so memorable that I’m sure I won’t miss a thing). We had to go a little off the beaten track for this one compared to previous dining destinations, but it proved well worth it and you needn’t worry about doing the same (although there are three locations across the city, so you can always just select whichever one is most convenient – I’m confident of a high standard across the board).

Servers are enthusiastic, friendly and knowledgeable, and are practically falling over themselves to give you details of dishes you enquire about (this is a good thing!). On the back of their advice, we plumped for what ended up being delicious salt cod croquettes (well-seasoned and made using high-quality ingredients), and innovatively-served lobster pieces in an escargot plate, which came with supremely flavoured parsley butter and grilled rustic-style bread. While the venue is known for its oysters, served in a variety of ways, there are choices to please everyone, from tuna and gazpacho to tacos and skate.

It was difficult to know how to top that, but in the end we both went for the blackened catfish. And what a success – intense, unusual, and tons of flavour from this fish that’s little-found in restaurants where we live. What with this and the crayfish butter, two glasses of Mosel Riesling (probably the best wine on this American trip), and the unlimited iced water on tap, we were as full as could be by the end of the meal. I joked to my husband that it was a good job the Mermaid Inn did not offer desserts (despite my being a proper dessert lover), as I would not have had room for one.

However, a tiny one was thrown in as a bonus – with each of our (complimentary!) espressos (…they must have liked our accents or something…) came a miniature chocolate fondant (predictably, regardless of allegedly “not having room for dessert”, I managed to make room in my pudding stomach for mine anyway). The total bill was $97 for two, which some might say seems a little dear – but to us it seemed reasonable for the perfect food, attentive service, and quirky addition of a Chinese fortune teller fish at the end of the meal. We would definitely return.

http://www.themermaidnyc.com/

We visited The Mermaid Inn at 568 Amsterdam Avenue, 10024 NY. You can also visit the locations at 79 Macdougal Street (10012) and 96 Second Avenue (5th/6th; 10003).

Restaurant Review: Georgia Brown’s Saturday, May 19 2012 

After another busy day in Washington DC on our holiday this year, Georgia Brown’s, located in the heart of the city, seemed the perfect way not only to put our feet up but also to assuage my longing for a good old plate of traditional Southern grits (I feel myself getting Florida-itis again as the five-year mark since my last visit passes).

The friendly servers soon made us feel at home, and their decent range of non-alcoholic cocktails only sweetened the deal (I went for my old Florida favourite, a Virgin Strawberry Daiquiri, after having had a Long Island Iced Tea at a hotel just moments before) – although apparently the Riesling sampled by Jean-Marc wasn’t anything to write home about. Service was swift and el iced water did flow. Before long, too, we were brought our meals: skipping straight to the main course, we’d ordered Charleston Perlau (him) and Low Country shrimp and grits (me).

Finally able to satisfy my desire for what is essentially cream and corn mixed together, I was glad to dig in to what was an enormous plate, topped with seven generously-sized shrimps. The contrast between textures was much appreciated (there is a danger with grits that you will just get a plate of slop), the Charleston Perlau on the other side of the table was dubbed ‘an experience to remember’, and it’s clear, too, that high-quality ingredients and traditional Southern heritage are much-prized at this place.

Lamentably our plates were so enormous that we didn’t manage to finish them, meaning that we also bypassed dessert, losing out on the chance to sample yet more regional specialities, including chocolate pecan pie, peach cobbler, and sweet potato cheesecake. Something to try to recreate at home perhaps for that little slice of Georgia Brown’s in France?!

It’s also slightly sorrowful that we didn’t get to experience any of the wonderful entertainment offered by the restaurant: there is live jazz every Wednesday, for instance. There are also several happy hours on throughout the week for those looking to have a good time with friends at a lower price – although the price was pretty good value for money anyway at $67.10 for two including tax – not bad for dinner and drinks! We would return again for the warm and friendly atmosphere and traditional cuisine – and next time I WILL get my paws on that sweet potato cheesecake.

www.gbrowns.com

950 15th Street NW, Washington DC 20005

(202) 393-4499

Restaurant Review: Zaytinya’s Thursday, May 17 2012 

ImageWe’d had a busy morning on our second day in DC and hadn’t really made plans for lunch. So after foraging in our Eyewitness travel guide (these books are brilliant by the way) we settled on Zaytinya’s, on the basis that it sounded interesting and wasn’t far from where we currently were (FYI, it’s close to the National Gallery of Art).

This restaurant serves a fusion of Greek, Turkish and Lebanese food at low low prices, but the impression from the moment you walk in the door is one of business-like, polished cuisine that still has plenty of personality. The venue’s high ceilings, white walls, and high-shine metal surfaces make you feel as if you’re in a cathedral of cuisine. We were welcomed warmly by the maître’d and the waiting staff, who served us promptly and discreetly throughout our meal.

Frequented, it seems, primarily, by businesspeople working in the area, the emphasis is on good food served quickly and well. In terms of the restaurant’s ethos and personality, chef José Andrés’ proclamation on the front of the menu (pictured above) appealed greatly and set up our expectations. Thankfully this maxim was proved right, with the food we ate in Zaytinya’s among the best we experienced in America.

So just what did we eat exactly? The four-course menu at $22 seemed just too good to pass up, and we were very glad to have chosen it. Within the parameters of the “set menu” there is still plenty of choice: for each course, you have four choices, of which all arrive in perfectly-dimensioned and appropriately-timed portions. I adore chickpeas but felt that hummos followed by falafel would have been a bit much – so I kept the hummos, but followed it instead with arayes (lamb and tahini stuffed pita) and adana kebabs (which I know is lamb, then lamb, but shhh). All were seasoned in a unique and balanced way, with high-quality ingredients used throughout. Naturally, iced water was supplied regularly the entire time for a refreshing lunch.

And what of dessert? This time you have two choices: Greek yoghurt, served with honey and apricots, and “Turkish delight” (a deconstructed version of the classic sweet, consisting of walnut ice cream, yoghurt mousse, honey gelée, orange-caramel sauce, and caramelised pine nuts). Both were beautifully presented and went down like a dream. You definitely feel satisfied, not stuffed, at the end of your meal, and at no point do you feel rushed.

Unfortunately, Zaytinya’s don’t serve any hot drinks at all to finish a meal with (not even any mint tea), so we ended up going next door to Starbucks for coffee and free wifi. A shame, because we would have happily stayed. We would without doubt visit again the next time we are in DC for the swift, organised and friendly service, chatty yet not intrusive atmosphere, excellent value for money, and most of all, the high quality, traditional yet unusual food. Would recommend to all.

Restaurant Review: Old Ebbitt Grill, Washington DC Sunday, May 13 2012 

Where better to dine on our first night in DC than in the city’s oldest restaurant, a stone’s throw from the White House? We were certainly very glad to have reserved our spot: even on a Sunday night, the (enormous) place was absolutely rammed, and we had to wait a couple of minutes before we could be seated.

We had been attracted to the place’s history, enticing menu, and the possibility of spotting eminent political figures, and after a long walk between the city’s main monuments (how does the White House, Washington Monument, Presidents’ Memorials and back again – a round trip of about 5 miles – grab you?), the comfortable seats were welcome too.

Given the size of the place (at least 100 covers), the servers needed to be supremely organised, and did not disappoint in this regard. One guy, who’d been assigned to the water jugs, was there to regularly fill up without being obtrusive, and our waitress was friendly, unflappable and completely on the ball. Having tried and failed a few times at making cannelloni at home, my appreciation of the dish is strong, so I was very happy to order their house cannelloni, which was creamy, cheesy, packed with spinach, and in no way bland. The rockfish also went down well on the other side of the table.

These dishes also proved to be very filling,but my love of dessert prevailed, and again I wasn’t let down by the standard of the ingredients: a blood orange crème brûlée (which I did share, I promise!) combined sharpness, sweetiness and velvetiness in one enormous dish (it would have been fine if it had been half the size, but then again this is America).

To accompany all of this we had chosen two local wines (which are now no longer on the venue’s wine list, which changes frequently). While the wines we’d selected weren’t outstanding, the list does seem to cover a good range of familiar and less well-known wines, mixing Old World and New World – so perhaps we just got unlucky. Prices are honest, too.

Even though we each had an espresso, it was a forgettable experience (I know I say it often, but these things happen when you have a machine at home that grinds the beans for you. One day I should just write a post extolling the virtues of my machine and be done with it.).

Overall, the food was good, the atmosphere was lively without intruding on our own experience, and the bill was reasonable: $75.24 for two people, including tax. We would definitely visit again – even though we know now that DC provides tough competition in terms of the wide range of restaurants it has to offer.

675 15th Street NW, Washington DC 20005

www.ebbitt.com

Restaurant review: Bar Boulud, New York City Sunday, Mar 11 2012 

It was a cold and rainy night in New York and we just had a scary drive from JFK. We were glad to enter the warm dining room, separated from the cold street by an ingenious double door. A friendly and enthusiastic waiter soon appeared and we started to peruse the menu over some iced water. I was immediately drawn to the extensive wine list which featured a lot of carefully chosen wines from over the pond. Sadly we could not go for the $195 1986 Chateau Grillet (although this might actually offer value for money as compared to other French wines on the list) and we settled for a glass each of an excellent Chardonnay from Au Bon Climat, especially made for restaurants belonging to the Boulud galaxy.

ImageThe food was a nice match for this mineral wine, with a generous plate of very fine charcuterie and most of all, a superb lobster salad, laden with generous pieces of the delicious crustacean. Dessert was shared, a light chocolate and coffee tart, and followed by espressos (an important distinction in America!), which probably were the best we tasted on this trip.

Even though we are used to French wines at French prices, at $133, this wasn’t a cheap dinner (the most expensive of this American trip) given that we got off kind of lightly as compared to other items on the menu.

However, this certainly was a very sophisticated experience in terms of both the crowd and the wine list. The experience might not actually be worth this much money, but we would certainly return to enjoy the careful selection of ingredients and the cheerful atmosphere.

1900 Broadway (between 63rd and 64th Streets), NY, NY 10023

telephone 212.595.0303

http://www.danielnyc.com/barboulud.html