Posts Tagged ‘restaurants’

New York to Paris in less than an hour

I love being in New York, but like every city resident, there comes a time when you need to ditch the asphalt jungle for a bit of leafy serenity. So Sarah and I borrowed my aunt’s red Toyota convertible (wouldn’t you?) and we hightailed it with the top down from Hoboken up the Hudson River, across the Jersey state line to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village of Piermont in New York’s semi-rural Rockland County.

Piermont is like an oasis of calm within an easy 50-minute drive (give or take) from Manhattan, and sits comfortably on the eastern banks of the Hudson River. There’s not much to do here, save a scattering of restaurants, a café, some twee boutiques and a bike shop, but that’s the point. You just grab a copy of the New York Times, slurp on a cappuccino and watch as time slows down to its natural state. Road cyclists also have made Piermont a stop on their regular long-distance workouts from Manhattan, spinning over the George Washing Bridge stopping en route to Nyack – either as a caffeine stop, or as a piker’s early turnaround point.

Sidewalkcafe_onionsoup

I had gotten good feedback on an upscale eatery in Piermont, Freelance, but it was too dark inside for the rare sunlight of this ever-raining June in New York. So instead, we opted for the sprawling sidewalk tables of the – who’d have guessed? – Sidewalk Bistro, on the main drag through town, and were warmly greeted by the familiar, but not fawning, staff.

We weren’t starving, having enjoyed coffee and the newspaper at the nearby café, so we merely shared an order of onion soup gratin and the Kobe beef hamburger with frites. Yes, it wasn’t a gourmet meal – it could have been if we had ordered elsewhere on the menu – but we weren’t in for a grand dining experience. It was about simplicity today. And the food met the brief: no more, no less. The soup was topped with the requisite bubbling cheese (Swiss) without overdoing it, and the broth and soaked crusty bread were flavorsome without breaking any new bounds; just what I’d expected. The burger was maybe a touch beyond the medium I ordered (more medium-well, where I would have been happier with medium-rare), but it wasn’t a deal-breaker and the well-executed, thin frites kept things honest, even if I would have suggested more salt.

Sidewalkcafe_burger

It took a trip to the spacious, almost luxurious bathroom for me to discover that there’s another, even larger outdoor area in the back of the restaurant. It was closed for the day so that lights could be installed to allow for late-night outdoor dining. Next time, I’d be temped to hole myself up in the rear expanse, where it’s well-protected from the noise of the main street. Of course, there’s not a lot of noise in Piermont, save the occasional visits by passing motorbike posses, but I’ll take all the extra serenity I can get.

So, no, this isn’t a detailed review of the Sidewalk Bistro, but I found it an enjoyable low-frills getaway. It’s also worth noting that they’re hosting a large-scale Bastille Day bash held every years on July 11th, where the local stretch of Piermont Avenue will be closed to traffic and filled with even more festive tables. During our visit, the diners next to us described a recent celebration where the owners pulled out absinthe and were pouring the traditional method: flaming, over a sugar cube resting on a slotted spoon, into a glass. The owners, they said, are extremely generous people, and poured the alcohol without asking for a single penny.

Now, I can’t promise that they’ll bestow the same treatment on Bastille Day, but it might be worth finding out. It is also unlikely that it will be as serene as on a typical weekday, but the neighborhood atmosphere will probably make up for it while you knock back some absinthe with your new best friends at the table next to you, have a long yarn with the wait staff, shmooze with the French patrons who apparently go out of their way to come here, and soak it all up with some classic French comfort food.

Sidewalk Bistro, 482 Piermont Ave, Piermont, NY, http://www.sidewalkbistro.com

Sidewalk Cafe on Urbanspoon

No Forkin’ Ethiopian at Cafe Lalibela

Lalibela's lamb tibs

I’m moving from Melbourne to New York City for the next six months, so I dropped by my newly former-place-of-employment, Lonely Planet, to pick up packing boxes. Sadly, I forgot how small book boxes can be, but I did get enough to take care of all my cookbooks and fiddly kitchen items.

Lonely Planet’s global headquarters is in Footscray, and for anyone who hasn’t been to Footscray, it is an amazing melting pot just a short drive west of the city centre yet a world away. Here, Melbourne’s Anglo and European population is outnumbered by Vietnamese and African residents. Footscray is poor, ramshackle, just sketchy enough to feel exciting, has my favourite (and cheapest) food market in all of Melbourne, and is the best place in the city to get a great feed for astonishingly little cash.

I rarely had time to escape the desk at Lonely Planet, so now that I’m back to full-time freelance writing, I finally had a chance to check out Cafe Lalibela, a neighbourhood Ethiopian restaurant that’s got strong street cred. I always get turned around in Footscray, so I drive aimlessly as usual until I finally stumble upon Irving Street, catch Lalibela in my rear-view mirror and U-turn into an easy park… in front of some dudes who may or may not be in a gang. With minimal eye contact I slink into the restaurant, and find myself welcomed by friendly staff who advise me to sit wherever I please.

The menu at Lalibela is short, completely unfamiliar and printed on well-worn menus covered with tiring plastic – but who cares when most items are $12 or less? Nor it is a problem that the staff move as quickly as ambulance drivers on a coffee break. I have been transported to Africa, and I now feel like expecting things to move any faster would be, well, a poor response to its chilled-out authenticity. Speaking of which, the crowd seems authentic as well, with women showing up for lunch in bright yellow headdresses and, save two noticeable Aussies, everyone else appears to be African. I love it.

When the waiter (possibly the owner) does arrive, he is friendly and encouraging, and guides my dining partner and I to order lamb ‘tibs’ and a chicken dish stew called doro wat. Both arrive on a large round dish covered with injera, Ethiopian bread with a citrusy tinge to it and comprised of so many holes it looks like the baker’s version of tripe. Atop it are the tibs – chunks of lamb mixed with onion and green chilli and covered with a spicy tomato sauce – and the chicken ‘wat’, a smoky and spicy stew made with berbere, garlic and onion, highlighted with a fall-apart drumstick and topped with a hard-boiled egg. I later Wikipedia ‘berbere’ to find out that it is spice mixture usually comprised of chilli, ginger, cloves, coriander, allspice, rue berries, and ajwain. I can’t be bothered to Wikipedia ‘ajwain’.

Lalibela doro wat

The best part of Ethiopian food is the pleasure of eating without a single implement. You simply break off a piece of injera and use it to grab hold of the meats or veggies placed atop the bread. The is not date food, unless you think sucking berbere-stained fingers feels like foreplay. But it’s fun, and to novices to Ethiopian food, messy, messy fun.

The lamb tibs have a satisfying light tomato sauce, even if the cubed meat is a bit chewier than I’d like. I eat the lot, but get too full to finish the doro wat, whose chicken mince is so dark I first mistake it for meat, and its deep, rich flavour is inspiring in its uniqueness but too powerful for my palate to enjoy in large doses.

Ethiopia is also known for its coffee, so after I’ve had my fill, I head to the bar. I’m told by the proprietor that the coffee is somewhere between espresso and Turkish coffee, which sounds good to me. But as I’m about to order, I’m told that, unfortunately, there’s no coffee today. Oh well, I’ll have to get a latte at North cafe in Carlton North later.

Lalibela isn’t perfect, but it gives me a meal and an atmosphere unlike any other. The bill comes to $24 for two people, and we could have easily shared a single $12 dish if we weren’t greedy for variety. So while the meal may not have been a seamless run, the bill certainly ensures a perfect ending.

Cafe Lalibela, 91 Irving St, Footscray, Vic, (03) 9687 0300

Cafe Lalibela on Urbanspoon

Spice Market and Gigibaba – hot, or not?

spicemarket_statue

“I’m not sure Middle Eastern food should do the fine dining route,” is my paraphrasing of what a notable food journalist was saying to me recently over lunch in St Kilda. “It’s a peasant food and I think it tastes much better that way.”

I was sceptical, saying that I was a big fan of the food at Brunswick East’s funky and always-buzzing Rumi, not to mention the pan-Turkish delights at Sydney’s Ottoman. (Whether Turkish food qualifies as Middle Eastern is up for debate, but as it’s generally lumped into the current mod-Mid wave rampaging through Melbourne, I’m taking liberties.)

But after disappointing experiences at two of Melbourne’s hottest hospitality spots – Greg Malouf’s CBD Spice Market and Collingwood’s Gigibaba, I’m wondering whether I’d be better off sticking to the more traditional and always-pleasing establishments on Melbourne’s Sydney Road or Sydney’s Western Suburbs.

We had friends in from New York, who were looking for a special Melbourne experience, so I chose Spice Market having read so much about its luxe décor and ultra-expensive fit-out, not to mention it being the first part of triumphant return of Middle Eastern cooking great, Greg Malouf (the other is his new, adjoining Momo restaurant). And upon entering via its Beaney Lane entryway, Spice Market is indeed a fantastic space, with an army of Thai statues, decadent lounges, Moorish-curved passageway and more mood lighting than a Satanic ritual. The extravagance is more New York Meatpacking District supper club than bespoke Melbourne bar.

spicemarket_cocktail

The room was busy but not busting, but even so all of the coveted couch outposts were taken or reserved. Fair enough, so I roamed the room until we finally found an intimate table in clear sight of the bar. We looked around for a waitress, and kept trying to catch the eye of one of the tall young blondes that languidly strolled around the room. All of them failed to look in our general direction, and there seemed to be more people welcoming guests at the entrance than there were on the floor, so I finally got up and hailed one of them with the desperation one gets while trying to find a CBD taxi at 3am on a Saturday.

We ordered our drinks and a host of mezze plates. The cocktails were interesting enough, mine nicely infused with star anise syrup, and all we needed was some food to soak up the alcohol. So we waited for our food, and waited, and waited, finally said something to the waitress, and then waited some more. We nearly decided to cancel our order, but we were starving, so we wait until it took a whopping hour and fifteen minutes to get our food. And it was cold. And we ate it because we were starving.

spicemarket_candles

These things happen, but the obvious lack of training of the floor staff made it worse. They were unattentive, unkowledgeable about the food or drink, and walked the floor with the urgency of a surf lifesaver during ski season. We got a weak apology about crowds due to the Coldplay concert that night, but the bar was only at modest capacity. And when we finally complained to the manager, he merely asked us to point out the waitress at fault. But the kitchen was surely equally to blame, as was the person training the staff, and a decent host would have thrown in something to make up for the poor form – a complimentary drink, a couple of items off the bill, some incentive to return. And lastly, the food was simply good enough with little to thrill. So to make sure we ended the evening on a positive note, we left Spice Market and diverted to the always-rewarding Bar Lourinha for a token tapas, dessert and the terrific selection of wines by the glass.

I had a somewhat better food experience the week before at Gigibaba, the super-hyped mod-Turkish restaurant on Smith Street, but again the service was painful and the food merely good. The dishes certainly weren’t mind-blowing and a bit lacking in value. Our waiter acted like we were street beggars pleading for a bit of bread, which we did beg for and received in the form a two miserly thin slices with no thought of bringing more. And when one of us asked for water, we were given one glass, even though the other one clearly had nothing to drink. Our waiter seemed more interested in being discovered in his starring role by a casting agent, even going so far so as to do a little jiggy dance behind the bar as he shook some kind of concoction.

gigibaba_interior

I didn’t take notes that night, so I can’t detail everything we had, but after all the buzz and even an apparent visit by Kitchen Confidential author Anthony Bourdain, I expected more. We left thoroughly impressed by the cool, quirky (and what seemed to be as inexpensive as it is impactful) design: from the thundershower of chord-hanging lightbulbs to the kitchen entryway cut out from a Turkish rug. But the food was just interesting, in the same way Chinese Opera is interesting – I can appreciate it, but I’m not sure how much I really dig it. The most memorable dish was a claypot of deconstructed moussaka, but the crunchy dryness of the dish had me pining for reconstruction.

Maybe I’m sounding a bit harsh here, and I’m admittedly intrigued enough by Gigibaba to try it again and check out other dishes. Spice Market I’ve got less time for. Why spend all that cold-hearted cash on the space and skimp out on service with rank amateurs is beyond me. These guys have to get their act together before I think about giving them any more of my hard-earned money. In the midst of a Global Financial Crisis, I’m going to put my personal stimulus package into the venues that deserve it the most.

Gigibaba, 102 Smith St, Collingwood, Melbourne, (03) 9486 0345
Gigi Baba on Urbanspoon

Spice Market, Beaney Ln (near Russell St), Melbourne, (03) 9660 3777, http://www.spicemarket.net.au
Spice Market on Urbanspoon

Ninja dining in Manhattan

I never realised that we are so deprived in the Australian dining scene until I discovered that New York has taken the culinary world to a new level with the first Ninja Restaurant in the US. (What kind of ‘level’ is up to you.) Can Samurai sushi trains be far behind?

Yes, once again reality is wackier than fiction. Whatever you think, the production quality is impressive. Oh, and they don’t exactly adhere to the Australian practice of freezing crustaceans before preparation:

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