Monday, June 30, 2008

Mexican 2008 - Wrapup

Had a great time all over Mexico, but the surprising thing that I realized is Mexican seafood is very similar to Italian seafood - great ingredients, minimally dressed, and cooked well, tastes great. Any who, here's what I want the next time I visit Mexico and I am 100% going back (just not to Playa Del Carmen).

1) Find some good pozole (a hearty soup with hominy). I've had two versions - a shrimp and a pork version, but I wasn't a big fan.

2) Find some juicy cochinita pibil. Every single time I've had this dish it's always been dry. Flavor has always been excellent, but I believe it can be juicier.

3) Find some tacos al pastor - like gyro meat, but it's made of pork. Only saw one place that had it and it was closed.

4) Visit a Mezcal brewery. Tried some Mezcal for the first time and I was completely blown away. Tasted like a great smoky single malt scotch. Mezcal is made from the agave plant (also used by tequilla), but it's smoked. Soooo, smooth and tasty.

5) Check out the grocery store and cook some more. Grocery store contained some fun products - yogurt being some of our favorites. I wish we could papaya or coconut yogurt easily in the states.

6) More shrimp tacos, quesadillas, and gorditas cause they are oh so good.

Curry Ya

Curry Ya is the latest installment from Mr. Yagi's arsenal of Japanese eateries in NYC.
This tiny bar seated joint serves Japanese style curry at a nominal price.

Located right next to Rai Rai Ken in the east village, it's another Japanese joint.
Here are some pics I snapped while dining there last week.
The flavors and service need to be ironed out a bit more... but I can see the place pulling in a ton of Japanese ladies and leisure types strolling the east village once they get up and running.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Puerto Vallarta - All Inclusvie

Dreams - Puerto Vallarta
Stayed at the all inclusive Dreams as our last big splurge for our honeymoon. The food overall was good - tasty at the upscale restaurants, but the fast food places was horrendous. Pricing was much better than the Royal Hideaway, but the service was no where near the caliber of Royal. However, it was still very good and a nice all inclusive.

World Cafe - Highly Unrecommended
This is the first place we went to at Dreams, since I was suckered into the Vegas style buffet they had. It was like the worse cafeteria food ever. Mac and cheese tasted like cardboard, the fries were soggy and gross, the pasta was a clumpy mess. The lone bright spot was the chinese spareribs. Stick with room service for the wings and tater skins - they rule!

Portofino - Recommended

Surprisingly good Italian food. Lamb chops were ridiculously tender and juicy. Pastas were cooked well.

Our Menu
Beef Carpaccio *
Linguine Clams *
Scallops, Mushrooms in Puff Pastry *
Risotto and Shrimp *
Lamb Chops **
Veal Milanese *

Oceana - Recommended
A seafood restaurant that had the best escargot I've had in a long long time. The past couple of escargot I've had were drowning in butter that tasted like nothing. These were nice and earthy.

Our Menu
Mushrooms, Scallops, Cream Sauce *
Stone Crab Salad
Escargot **
Salmon and Scallop Wellington *
Mexican Crawfish and Seabass *
Fried Ice Cream ---

Tom Colicchio at Craft

Saturday, June 28, 2008

vt pub & brewery

One of the coolest hangouts in Burlington, VT.
Cask Ale (creamy stout), Vermont raised beef burger and onion gravied cheese fries.

Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

Friday, June 27, 2008

Mega (sushi) Boat

Have you ever seen anything like this?

Puerto Vallarta

Our final leg of the trip was to the west coast at Puerto Vallarta. This was my favorite place of the whole entire trip. It had a nice combination of beautiful location and a real lived in feel. Walking around you see Mexicans enjoying themselves and you can tell people actually eat and live in this city - the boardwalk / night market rules. I never got that sense really in Playa Del Carmen. It's also very walkable which is a really nice thing...plenty of places to explore and plenty of places to eat.

Picnic - Recommended
Púlpito 154
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
(322) 223-2353

Basically Americanized food, but tasty. I know...not Mexican food, but it had a Mexican owner - does that count? We arrived at 2pm and were starving, so this was the best looking place in our area. BBQ sauce was uber flavorful and spicy. Chicken had a nice crust on it, but on the border between moist and dry. Very friendly service. We did get very good tortillas though with the chicken.

Our Menu
BBQ Chicken *
French Dip

La Palapa - Recommended (for view and service only)
Pulpito 103 and Col. Emiliano Zapata
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Phone: 52 (322) 222-522

Everyone recommended this place for the view, so we decided to check it out. Way over priced ($8 water!?!?), but definitely worth it since you eat food on the beach and have the perfect view to watch the sunset. Also, the service is great there. The lobster tacos were incredible - flavorful and great lobster flavor. All the rest of the dishes had good sauces and good cooking technique (moist, nice crust), but the fish/scallops were of poor quality - no real flavor at all. Still, Bourdain is does taste better with sand between your toes.

Our Menu
Lobster Tacos **
Sea bass

Marisma Tacos - Highly Recommended
320 Calle Naranjo at V Carranza
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Phone: 52-322-222-1395

This place is way out of the way from the hotels, but 1000% worth it. Chowhounders were spot on with this place. Shrimp tacos were sweet and juicy - like eating fried and battered lobster. Top it with the cilantro and lime juice salsa and it was amazing. By itself, it's equally ridiculous. The fish taco had very good flavor but was a letdown compared to the shrimp taco. The fish paired best with the ketchup and onion sauce. Without any sauce the fish is good, but not great. Both served with crunchy cabbage (not lettuce). Definitely my favorite tacos of the entire trip - so good we went 2x. Absolutely no gringos here - but they don't speak English...I got by with my terrible Spanish, but they also have a menu in English which I think you can point at.

Our Menu
Fish Taco *
Shrimp Taco ***
Smokey Marlin Taco **

Los Arbolitos - Not Recommended
Camino de la Rivera 184
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Phone: +52 322 3 1050

Heard about this place based on a lot of Chowhounder's reviews and this is a rare miss. The food served here is no better than Chi Chi's - all gringos too. Not necessarily terrible tasting food, but just nothing to go to Mexico for. Food was borderline bland and seasoned ok. My Mexican plate (recommend by the Chowhounders) was very average. The wife's steak tacos were good though, not great. Oh ya, there is absolutely no view of the ocean. I got that impression from the Chow reviews that you see the ocean, but all you see is a mountain. Nice, but you basically see mountains everywhere in Puerto Vallarta.

Our Menu
Mexican plate (Taco, Chile Relleno)
Steak Tacos *

Tacos El Cisne - Highly Recommended

On Panama Across from Pollo Feliz
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Random tiny taco stand that serves meat - rare, considering just about every taco stand we saw served seafood tacos. Tasty stuff and good selection of meat and pork tacos. The chorizo was dyno-mite! Spicy, salty, porky...everything I want in a taco.

Our Menu
Abodabo *
Chorizo **

Pollo Feliz - Highly Recommended
AV. MEXICO # 171 (maybe at Panama)
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Basically great fast food chicken at Pollo Feliz . The reason why we stepped in because the place was packed with all locals. Basically rotisserie chicken that's juicy , packed with flavor and a phenomenal price. Think the best chicken at a friend's NY area bbq (not smoked, but you know cooked on a grill). These are ridiculously better than that. Served with a side of roasted jalapeno and tortillas. Nuggets were also off the chain good. Crispy, great temperature and perfectly seasoned. Avoid the ketchup they provide you though, it's like gross sweet and sour souce. The wife enjoyed that with the nuggets though. Btw - they have Indio beer which I love...had it in Durango, Mexico but couldn't find it any where. One of my favorite beers.

Our Menu
1/2 pollo ***
9 piece nuggets **

El Arrayan - Recommended
344 El Centro
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Phone: 52 (322) 222-71-95

Our last meal in Puerto Vallarta and we were very happy with it. Appetizers far outshined the entrees in my opinion, but we ordered lots o apps so that was ok. My first time eating insects (chaupulines are grasshoppers) and they were friggin tasty. Scary at first as I was expecting an explosion of guts with the first bite. Not so...crunchy, salty, earthy. Great stuff. The plantains were a big what the f moment for me - sweet, savory, gooey, cheezy. Cochinita Pibil was a tad dry which seemed to be a common theme with that dish every where I went - very flavorful though. Duck carnitas was tasty, but they describe it as duck confit. The images I have of duck confit are the french style, when you touch it with a fork it and it almost falls apart immediately...didn't get that effect. Regardless, this place is very tasty and definitely worth the visit...all gringos here also, but the food is very good.

Our Menu
Chaupuline Tostada **
Plantain Empanada (also stuffed with black beans, cheese) ***
Shrimp Pozole
Hibiscus Quesadilla **
Cochinita Pibil *
Duck Carnitas *

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Playa Del Carmen - Welcome to the Jungle

After the great pampered life of Royal Hideaway, it was time to hit the streets and experience some real Mexican food. Like I said before, it is quite difficult to find authentic food in Playa, but we managed to find some when you venture off of 5th avenue.

Yaxche - Recommended
8th St. between 5th. and 10th. Avenues
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Phone: +52(984)873 2502

Great change of pace from the American Mexican food of 5th avenue. Yaxche serves Mayan cuisine which is the food of the great Mayan know, the time of Mr Apocolypto. Food was very tasty and a good sign is when the salsa's are stupid spicy like this gringo salsas for me por favor. The turkey roulade thing with ground beef and hard boiled egg was the winner for me. A great combinations of textures and flavors - got shredded turkey meat as well as juicy breast meat with the rich roasted pepper sauce. The corn thing takes a while to get used to since it's not sweet and juicy like Jersey corn. More a chewy dry thing...

Our Menu
Moloch - Combo Platter with
Boxito (shrimp taco in roasted pepper sauce) *
Pibxcaic (pepper
stuffed with pork - cochinita pibil) **
Tsotolbilchay (corn bread filled with chaya egg and pumpkin seed) *
Nal (corn on the cob)
Tsic (lobster taco) *

Turkey stuffed with ground beef and hardboiled egg **

Alux - Highly Recommended (for atmosphere)
Av. Juárez, Mz. 12 Lote 13A
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Phone: +52 (984) 803-0713

Found this place from the chowhounders...they rule! Basically this restaurant/lounge is inside of a cave. Food was pretty good, but I am highly recommending this more for the environment since it's pretty awesome eating/drinking inside of a cave. The mayan crepes were the winner here with a rich sweet creamy's basically a quesadilla with a soft corn shell - thicker than a tortilla, but they can call it whatever they want. It's very tasty.

Our Menu
Mayan Crepes **
Sampler - Pork, Turkey, Chicken Tostadas *

Kool Fish - Highly Recommended
Nueva 5ta con 38 Notre
Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

We randomly found this place outside of our hotel (off the beaten path) and we are so glad we did. Definitely, one of the favorites of the whole Playa trip. A local joint with surprise, surprise...actual locals. Food here is great and a revelation on what a gordita should be (not the taco hell stuff we're used to). Crunchy outside and soft on the inside sweet corn casing, the sweetest and most tender shrimp, and gooey cheese. This thing was off the chain good. Italians always frown upon the seafood and cheese combo, but if they had this gordita they would 100% change their mind. The other really amazing thing was the Ojo Rojo...basically, tomato juice, chiles, salt and limes mixed with beer. So f'n sick...kinda like a bloody mary but 100 times better. The tomato juice mixture is called sangrito and it's served alongside tequilla and mezcal as well. Going to attempt to make the Ojo Rojo and the Gordita somehow....

Our Menu
Baby Shark Empanada *
Camaron En Rajas Con Queso Gorditas ***
Quesadillas de Camaron (shrimp) **
Ojo Rojo ***
Fish Soup **

La Cueva del Chango - Recommended
Calle 38 (between Av. 5 and the beach, near the Shangri-la Caribe)
Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
Phone: +52 (984) 116-3179

Saw this place on an episode with Rick Bayless and Jacques Pepin. A quaint little place near Kool Fish that basically feels like your eating in the jungle. The dinner was good, but the breakfast is definitely better. Standouts for me was actually the Habanero cream soup...tasted like a really nice cream of mushroom soup with this fruit heat thing going on with the Habanero...100% making this sometime.

Our Dinner Menu
Habanero Cream Soup **
Chicken with Ancho Chili Almond Sauce *
Fish Filet with Mole and Plaintain

For breakfast, the huevos and the accompanied potatoes were perfectly cooked. Another surprise is the papaya lassie I got...I always thought that was an Indian drink, but hey it tastes good. Fresh papaya, yogurt, but not sweet at all. Just natural tasting goodness....

Our Breakfast Menu
Huevos Rancheros *

Dr Taco - Highly Recommended
Av 10 entre Calle 8 y 10
Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

Another recommendation from one of Jacques Pepin's articles. This place was unbelievably good and another good sign, no gringos there. The shrimp burger was probably my favorite thing this whole trip. Buttered hamburger buns, mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, crispy and somehow soft cheese with perfectly cooked sweet succulent shrimp. I could have eaten 5 of these things. The other tacos were good, but not great. The chowhounders really recommend the fish taco, but to me it's not that great - crisp and juicy, but underseasoned. Better, however, after adding salsa...Make sure to get the hibiscus agua fresca while you're there. Kinda, like a sweet tea....water steeped with hibiscus giving it a nice flavor and making it very refreshing - also pleasantly sweet.

Our Menu
Shrimp Burger ***
Chicken Taco *, Calamari Taco, Vegetable Taco *
Fish Taco
Agua Fresca **

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Brewing at Home

Ever since visiting the Sam Adams Brewery a month ago, Devin and I have wanted to brew our own beer.
Yah, Home-Brew!
Well, this would be my first time in doing so, and I was a bit nervous.
I bought a few books to catch myself up to my beer partner who has been brewing since his college days.

Charlie Papazian's, "Joy of Home Brewing" is pretty much recommended by every single person I spoke to about home brewing.
This book took me from start to finish in a day and gave me the confidence to attempt this noble cause.
The other is Michael Jackson's, "Beer". More of a reference point to what experts consider a great beer.

So once we were determined to brew our own beer, we got in my car and sought to buy our goods the following week
We officially kicked off the 5 week project last Wednesday.

Ingredients and Equipment:
Malt (extracts)
Glass Carboy
Stock Pot - to cook the wort

We decided to try our luck with an Imperial Stout style of beer.
I happened to have premium Belgium Chocolate and Tahitian Vanilla Bean pods at home so we played around with a recipe to make a dark imperial stout with a dark brown head, and chocolate and vanilla finish.

Here is what we ambitiously aim to achieve:
Estimated Alcohol by Volume (ABV) - 7.4%
Estimated Color - 47 SRM
Bitterness - 72 IBU
Bright Malts and Citric Hops through initial sip, with slight Chocolate and Vanilla undertones with a smooth coating finish.
Keywords we are looking for : Alive, Smooth, Rich, Full, Hoppy, Smooth Malts, Coats Mouth, Noble, Medium Complexity.

Man, is this exciting. Only time will tell...

here are just some pictures we took while brewing the beer.
stay tuned... there's more to follow.....

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Where did the talent go?

Aureole NYC,
of all places, was supposed to be a solid dinner with my parents who are in town visiting this week.
I had a business trip scheduled and had it all planned.
6pm dinner, then with a happy and full tummy, on the road by 9pm.
Not the case... and not very happy.

The last time I dined at Aureole, it was still under the command of
Dante Boccuzzi.
About this time last year... Dante decided to uproot and do his own thing in Ohio, and so Charlie Palmer was out an executive chef.
This just goes to show how difficult it is to find a quality Exec Chef.
It's been 1 year since my last visit (and so of the new kitchen staff) so if anyone's going to argue it takes time for a new skipper to fill in the shoes, that argument is out the window.

I ordered the rabbit trio for the appetizer and the seared scallops for the entree.
Both were prepared far below the standards of a fine dining establishment.
(Artisanal or Balthazar puts out plates better than this)
And I wasn't the only one. Everyone in my table just quietly ate their meal, and smiled at one another noting the absolute blandness in their dishes.
The rabbit didn't taste like rabbit. The scallops didn't taste like scallops. The lobster was tough and drowned in heavy curry sauce. And the Lamb was tough and tasteless.

What Happened?!
I can't justify ever going back to Aureole again.

I'm happy I got to spend some time with my family, but after dropping $600 on dinner, not satisfied, and left with a 300 mile car ride ahead of you isn't the best way to kick off a week long business trip.

Playa del Carmen - All Inclusive Extravaganza

Playa del Carmen
For the first leg of our honeymoon tour, we chose Playa del Carmen for the beautiful beaches - spectacular water color which is even better than Cozumel. But, the place is like Disney World to me...not a good thing. Basically, there's a main street called 5th avenue that is full of the same generic touristy shops and restaurants with a ridiculous amount of gringos everywhere. I love the U S of A, but when I visit a foreign country I don't want to be 100% surrounded by Americans only. We did find some gems though, but you had to look off of the 5th ave strip. Regardless, we still had a great time here. Below is the first part of our Playa tour...

Royal Hideaway
Our first food experience in Playa was at the all inclusive Royal Hideaway. The service, location, and decor were spectacular. Definitely worthwhile for a honeymoon experience (once in a lifetime), but the food was pretty average except for one restaurant. This was my first time at an all inclusive and probably my last time. Because we spent an obscene amount of money, I had the urge to eat and drink as much as possible to meet my "break even cost." This prevents you from really exploring the city, which is why I want to travel in the first place. It really felt like if you wanted to do an all inclusive just go to Florida somewhere...I'm pretty sure it would be the same experience.

Spices Lunch - Average
Basically Americanized Mexican food. Some of the dishes were good, but overall it was pretty average - the nachos were straight out of Chi-chi's and the tamales were very dry and cold. Unfortunately, at an all inclusive joint no matter how much it costs I have realized that the majority of the food will be average. Fried fish was the highlight though...nicely crisped skin, juicy meat and the zing of citrus on top.

Our Menu
Ceviche *
Fish Tacos
Fried Fish (red snapper) **
Coconut Cake Dessert *

Rating System

--- What the F - in a bad way
* Good

** Great

*** What the F – in a good way

Las Ventanas Dinner - Highly Recommended
Las Ventanas features international food - whatever that means. Basically a famous two michelin star chef from Spain (Sergi Arola) attached his name to the place. Food is high quality and surprisingly good for an all inclusive. Probably a one michelin or one to two star NY Times joint. Very good FG Terrine and an amazing open faced foie sandwich thing - very Spanish tasting with the roasted pepper and olive oil. Definitely one of the best dishes of the trip.

Our Menu
Tagliolini with Mushrooms, calamari, Parmesan Sauce, and Egg Yolk *
Terrine of Foie Gras with Reduction of Pedro Ximenez and Nuts **
Ox Tenderloin with Tomato Mashmellon and Mashed Potato
Coca bread with Foie, Roasted Vegetable and Olive Oil **
Catalana Cream Emulsion with Lime Sorbet **
Coulant Chocolate Souffle in the Idea of a Black Forest

Las Ventanas Brunch - Average
Came back to Las Ventanas based on the great dinner experience, but the lunch definitely didn't match the dinner experience. Overall the brunch was Ok, but the service was great and I do love me some mimosa and bellini's.

Our Menu
Omelet with Cream Cheese, Chili, and Zuchini Blossoms *
Eggs Benedict

Azia - Highly Unrecommended
The wife wanted a break from the Mexican food, so we tried this place called Azia which received a 4 diamond rating from AAA. Remind me to never listen to AAA ever again. This was one of the worst faux Asian restaurants I've ever been to. The sushi rolls were huge and super clumpy. The pad thai was drowning in sauce and was unedibly sour. The ribeye teppanyaki was cut so thick and cooked so poor, that the meat was either disgustingly fatty or incredibly dry. The lone bright spot was the side of fried rice, which was actually very good.

Our Menu
Azia Roll *
Spicy Tuna Roll
California Roll
Pad Thai ---
Ribeye Teppanyaki ---
Fried Rice **
Thai Duck

Spices Brunch Buffet - Recommended
Wanted to do the Vegas style brunch thing and Spices served up the goods. Nice selection and everything tasted pretty good. The things that impressed me the most were the new fruits to try. Found some pomegranates that were sweet and nutty like popcorn, but with black slimy seeds - different from the pomegranates in the States. Also, tried something that looked like a papaya, but it was very nutty and sweet. I was afraid of trying Mexican fruits from the street vendors because I didn't want Mr Montezuma to attack (it did on my previous trip to Durango), but looking back I definitely want to try some next time.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Cozumel - Food, Fun, and Marriage

Sorry readers for the lack of posts, but I just got back from my Mexican Wedding / Honeymoon and it was incredible. We got married in Cozumel, then travelled to Playa del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta for our honeymoon - obviously eating some great food along the way. Below are the details of the Cozumel portion.

Cozumel - My Take
Basically Cozumel is a realy beautiful island with a great small town feel. Although there are shops lining the beaches it doesn't ever seem insanely crowded for some reason. As you walk further in, you'll find where the real people are and eat. There's a night market that seemed to be where the locals hung out. I usually love night market food, but the one at the Plaza in Cozumel seemed dogs(?), churros, and french fries were the only items served when we were there. In terms of food, we really didn't get to do much exploring since we had a wedding to deal with. Here are the places that we visited...we're definitely coming back btw since we love the area, and I'll definitely look out for more authentic restaurants.

Side note - I did not take prices into account for all these reviews, since we were on our honeymoon. Food was generally on the cheaper side, but your experience may differ if you were looking at the bill - example, La Mission supposedly is very cheap, so if I paid attention I may have thought it was more bang for the buck.

La Mission - Recommended for Mole only
Juarez Sur 271 at 10th and 15th Avenida

A small restaurant a block off the beach. Cheezy atmosphere and all gringos. Not a good sign usually, but the food here was good (not great). Good margaritas, great mole sauce, decent chille relleno, and good quesadilla. I recommend the Chicken Mole above all other items. My mexican combo plate was good, but the mole was much better. The wife's chicken fajitas were average...

Prima - Recommended
109 Avenida A. Rosada Salas
Phone: 872-42-42

Had our welcome dinner here and as most can attest, I'm insanely picky with my Italian food. The food here is good, but not great. Nothing like you would get in Italy, more like the Italian American fare you get in NYC's little italy. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I was expecting nothing from this place. I got the chicken parm which I haven't had in 10 years. Easy, cheezy (literally and figuratively), but I still love it...chicken was juicy and flavorful.

Sonora Grill
- Highly Recommended
15th Ave. and Juarez
Phone: 872-3620

The best of the bunch. Perfectly cooked items, not Mexican, but killer food. Basically, our seafood was buttered, broiled and topped with garlic and lime. Served with a side of buttered rice, buttered veg, and buttered potato...mmmm, cholesterol. Shrimp was insanely sweet and juicy with the shell on - the lime juice really woke up the flavors too. Definitely going to try and recreate this at home.

Shrimp with garlic sauce ***
Fish (grouper) *

Tulum - Recommended
Visited the ruins in Tulum - not that worth it except for the best ocean water I've ever seen. Surprisingly got some good food at some restaurant at the ruins site. The salsa was spectacular - like nothing I've ever had before. The salt content was so high, but it worked so well. Great citrus flavor in the salsa too - our limes in the US don't compare. Pork tacos had an unbelievable pork flavor with a rich chili thing going on, but a tad dry, loved the pickled onions. Caveat though that all our other companions hated their dishes (no one else ordered the pork tacos).