Monday, December 11, 2006

Big is the New Black in NYC Dining

Huge cavernous restaurants that serve 900 dinners a night. Enormous cafés that offer a full chocolate-only menu. Giant family style platters of food. Big is "in" these days in New York. Often bigger can mean lower quality, less attention to detail and inferior service - but that did not prove to be the case on my recent Manhattan food tour.

Max Brenner's Chocolate by the Bald Man
If you're a chocaholic, I suggest you book a flight or hop on the Fung Wah bus to NYC pronto. Max Brenner's is a chocolate paradise second only to perhaps Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. It's a large two-level establishment that looks more like a French bistro than a chocolate café. Their menu consists of pages and pages of decadent chocolate delights, from Mexican Hot Chocolate to "Urban S'mores" to Chocolate Pizza . It's mind boggling. And mouth watering.

We asked our waitress for advice and she basically told us that everything is amazing and we'll just have to come back multiple times to try everything. Big help. Since we're not from New York and won't have the opportunity for multiple visits (which is really a good thing), we opted for the Tasting for 2 (aka the coma-inducing sampler). This ordering strategy enabled us to try a variety of things - a Crunchy Chocolate Cream Snack, Popping Candies Chocolate Lick (a shot of ganache with pop rocks on top), Warm Banana Split Waffle (served with carmelized toffee bananas and a mini beaker of chocolate sauce), Chocolate Covered Ice Cream Scoop and Chocolate Fondue with Marshmallows, Bananas and Strawberries which included a Pu Pu Platter-like flaming device for toasting the marshmallows (fire good). As if that wasn't way more than enough, we each ordered a form of the hot chocolate. I ordered the Italian Thick Hot Chocolate which the waitress said is a crowd favorite. Kemal ordered the "Suckao" which they describe as the "espresso of chocolate drinks." With all the chocolate activity on the table, I neglected my hot chocolate and was only able to drink a few sips of it but man was it good. Very rich. They should probably serve a smaller portion. I can't imagine anyone getting through a whole mug of that stuff. My favorite of everything was the Crunchy Chocolate Cream Snack. It was a thin rectangular slice of taste and texture - rich chocolate on one end and crunchy hazelnut on the other. Heavenly.

They serve their drinks in the greatest cups such as "hug mugs." It's sort of almond shaped. The idea is that you're supposed to hug it with your hands and drink out of the gravy boat-like spout. Very sweet - literally. The "Suckao" was a whole other interactive experience. You put chips of chocolate and steamed milk in a little saucer above a flame until it's your desired consistency then you sip it with a long metal straw. Quite an event.

These people are not just great chocolate makers but they are great marketers, too. They have a gift shop right on-site where you can buy all these cool things and they're plastered with the Max Brenner branding. So is the whole restaurant including the bathroom. A little bit overkill but clearly they know what they're doing.

If it's chocolate you crave, look no further than Max Brenner. They got it covered - in chocolate and lots of it.

When we walked into Buddakan, an incredibly stylish Asian hotspot in the Meatpacking District, I was a bit concerned because that perhaps form might override function. In other words, I was worried the food might not live up to the décor. The place is absolutely gorgeous. 2 gigantic floors- a happening, dimly-lit bar upstairs and multiple nooks of dining space at every turn. A cascading staircase with an incredible view of the downstairs - massive chandeliers, Asian art everywhere and the largest family style table I've ever seen (must seat at least 45 people). The ceiling has to be about 50 feet high on this lower level. Amazing.

We were seated downstairs in an area that didn't make us feel like we were in such a gargantuan space which was kind of nice. We were still recovering from the chocolate bender so we just ordered some appetizers which even if we hadn't stuffed ourselves on chocolate, would have been plenty. The appetizers were fairly generous but not over the top by any means. They serve everything family style which is a brilliant strategy for a restaurant of that size. That's their way of saying, "There's no way we're going to be able to keep up with serving everyone appetizers and entrees in a timely fashion so we'll just bring out the food when the chefs get to it." Which worked out just fine for us. We didn't have to wait long. No complaints.

Everything we ordered was very good, a couple of things were great. The Steamed Sea Bass Roll was one of the great ones. The fish was simply prepared with ginger and scallion oil and then wrapped in cabbage. Absolutely delicious - and healthy, a bonus. The Boneless Spare Ribs with Chinese Mustard was definitely better than your average boneless spareribs. The Shrimp Dumplings with Scallions and Bamboo Shoots in an Egg Drop Broth was my favorite. The shrimp was so succulent. Melt in your mouth delicious. We also had the General Tso's Dumplings, chicken dumpings with ginger. There was broth in the dumpling so that when you bit into it, it was very juicy. I enjoyed it but it didn't live up to the hype the waiter gave it. I thought the other dishes were better.

Buddakan is a great place to go if you want to hang out in a fun, beautiful, lively place; dine on really good food; and not have to deal with the velvet rope "am I cool enough to get in" scene. Everyone is welcome. It may not be the most cutting edge cuisine but after a long day of holiday shopping, it's nice to dine at a plae with no attitude. If you're anywhere near the West Village or Meatpacking District at dinner time, I recommend stopping into Buddakan - if not for dinnner then at least for a cocktail.

Many, many moons ago, I was a student at Fordham University in the Bronx. Our campus was right near an Italian Neighborhood known as "Arthur Avenue" and that is where I first learned about the wonders of Italian cuisine. My favorite restaurant was (and still is) Dominick's. Every time I go to New York I think about revisiting Dominick's but never seem to get over there. This year I was determined to go. I made plans to meet up with some of my old roommates and friends. It didn't take a lot of persuading when I mentioned Dominick's. We all remember it very fondly.

What's so great about Dominick's you may ask. Mostly, their signature dish (at least in our eyes), the Zuppa De Pesce, Linguina with Red Sauce and Seafood (mussels, little necks, lobster and the the most flavorful, tender calamari ever). There's not one thing in this dish that makes it great. It's really the combination of the amazing red sauce, which tastes like it's made with some kind of fish stock, combined with the perfectly cooked seafood and the al dente pasta. Like most of the meals at Dominick's, this one is served family style in a giant platter, fantastic for sharing. Other hits are the Baked Clams and Classic Linguini with Clams.

The other great thing about Dominick's is the ambiance - both outside and in. As we walked down Arthur Avenue, Christmas music was piped into the streets. This neighborhood embraces Christmas wholeheartedly. You won't see anything that says "Happy Holidays" there. It's Christmas to them and they don't make any effort to water it down or make it politically correct. Kind of refrshing actually. Inside, Dominick's is no frills. Family style seating, not much in the décor category - the focus here is good food and good times tucked in tightly with a hungry, happy crowd.

Aside from the food, my favorite things about Dominick's that give it great character are the fact that there is no menu and no check. And you don't question it. The waiter gives you some suggestions, you can then tell him what you're in the mood for, and then you place your order. Once the dinner is over, the waiter verbally tells you how much you owe him and you hand over the cash. If you need a receipt for your business expenses, you'll be out of luck here. I just love that whole experience.

I haven't been back to Dominick's since I was in college and I have to say it was just as wonderful as I remember - so was sitting down with my old - er - former college friends and catching up.

We ended the evening with some Italian pastries at an Arthur Avenue bakery which turned out to be an amazing time. The café had an older Italian gentleman there who was belting out Andrea Bocelli songs. Very impressive. The owner was so friendly to us and invited us to come back. You do not feel that kind of genuine warmth and kindness in Manhattan. I am sorry to say I didn't write down the name of this café. Ladies, if you can help jog my memory, that would be great.

Next time you go to Manhattan, consider a little detour to the Bronx. Just hop on the Metro North at Grand Central and 17 minutes later you'll be at the Fordham Road stop. Arthur Avenue is an easy 10-minute walk away. Also in this neighborhood is the phenomenal Bronx Zoo and Botanical Gardens. So there's lots to see and do. This area is perfectly safe and very friendly for those of you who might be concerned.

Max Brenner's Chocolate by the Bald Man
2 locations:
841 Broadway (Union Square), Manhattan
141 2nd Avenue, New York

75 9th Avenue (Meatpacking District), Manhattan

2335 Arthur Avenue, Bronx, NY
They don't need no stinkin' website. Place is packed every night. Expect a 2-hour wait even at 6pm on a Saturday night. No worries. There's a bar upstairs and others in the neighborhood. It's worth the wait!

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