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Monthly Archives: October 2008

All the Essentials at Essex

$1 oystersMy good friend Mint Chip was in town a few weekends ago, staying at our apartment. In addition to shopping, touring the waterfall installation on the East River and seeing a Broadway show, Empanada Boy and I wanted to take her out to some good meals. We went one night to Otto and had a tasty and affordable meal of pizza and antipasti, which we were only able to enjoy after enduring an hour-long wait. Wanting to avoid the wait but continue the trend of tasty and affordable, we decided to try Essex. We had both heard of the restaurant, but EB gets the credit for suggesting it. (I apologize for having grainy pictures again. These were taken with Mint Chip’s iPhone because I left my camera at home.)

Lamb chopsThe restaurant is all but unmarked when you approach it from the Essex Street side. There are small silver letters that read “Essex” on the side of the building, although these could just as easily refer to the street name. Inside, the restaurant is split onto two levels with a bar and booths downstairs and more tables upstairs. Exposed brick walls set the tone for the industrial chic decor, which includes a warehouse-like ceiling and simple metal railings. We were there on a Monday night, which meant $1 oysters and half-price drinks, including cocktails, beer and wine by the glass. Cocktails seemed generally too vodka-y and sweet for my taste— EB learned this the hard way— but the wine and beer lists were decent. Needless to say, the poor graduate student in me was pleased. We ordered nine oysters and awaited their arrival eagerly.

Mussels with chorizoThe oysters (see top photo) were remarkably fresh and clean, better than some we’d tried recently at a much fancier place in Chicago. They slid down nicely, with no need for the marring taint of Worcestershire or retro cocktail sauce. EB decided to pair some turf with his surf and ordered the lamb chops with chorizo dumplings over Asian slaw. The meat was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, and, while not the most amazing lamb chop we’d tried flavor-wise, it may have been the best under $20. I wasn’t a huge fan of the chorizo dumplings. They were too heavy and a bit under-spiced. Small pieces of chorizo were also present in the main course I ordered: steamed mussels in a tomato cilantro broth. The broth was interesting— like a cross between a cioppino and a salsa. The chorizo wasn’t Mexican, but it also didn’t have the depth of flavor of a top notch Spanish chorizo. Still, at $10 (plus $2 for frites) this, might be one of the best deals in New York. Essex also has a traditional garlic and white wine preparation that I’m hoping to try soon.

Blackened CatfishMint Chip ordered the blackened catfish over shrimp, potato and scallion hash. The fish was perfectly done and well seasoned, and the shrimp and hash beneath it were surprisingly delicious. Amazingly, the $16 cost of this meal came pretty close to what it might cost to make the dish at home in my own kitchen.

All in all, EB and I were pleased with the quality and affordability of the meal we ate at Essex. I think Mint Chip enjoyed herself too. We plan to come back soon, preferably on a weeknight when there are always special deals of some kind. Tuesday nights offer all-you-can-eat mussels for $14, although I’m not sure I could eat more than I did. Even better, Wednesday nights bring $16 Maine lobsters. I think I know which day we’ll be coming back and exactly what EB will be ordering when we do.

120 Essex St. (at Rivington)
New York, NY 10002

Essex on Urbanspoon

A Greek Feast on the Cheap

Tomato, rusk saladSince moving to New York, I’ve had a problem finding good restaurants to visit. I know it seems crazy. New York is the restaurant capital of the world, and there are excellent, inexpensive ethnic spots in every neighborhood in the city. The problem is that I don’t know about them. I have read the New York Times Dining section religiously for years, but most of the places I read about are the Daniels, Per Ses and Del Postos, the lavish, high-end places that I could never afford to visit. The restaurants that aren’t as upscale are usually incredibly popular, making it almost impossible to get a table when we decide we’d like to go out for dinner at the last minute. Kefi, chef Michael Psilakis’ casual Greek joint, (formerly known as Onera) is one of the places I read a lot about before moving here. It got good reviews and was lauded for reviving traditional Greek cuisine with fresh, lively ingredients and affordable prices. I somehow never thought I would be able to get a table, but Kefi doesn’t take reservations. (It is about to move to a new Upper West Side location, which will accept them.) Honey Roasted Peanut and I met there at 7 pm on a weeknight to beat the rush.

Warm fetaIt’s evident at first glance that the best deals on the menu are in the mezze section. These are the stars of Greek cuisine, and they range in price from $6 to $10. One per person is enough for a light meal. Three shared between two people is plenty. Fulfilling our solemn duty to try more things, HR Peanut and I ordered four. One was the tomato-rusk salad (pictured on top), rusks being crunchy crouton-like cubes. This was similar to a traditional Greek salad, with red onion, olives, feta and oregano. The dressing was a simple vinaigrette, but a little milder than the kind served in your average Greek diner. Rusks gave the dish great texture, and the fresh tomato, cucumber and onion flavors melded nicely. Feta took center stage in another mezze dish where the cheese warmed to softness and served with tomatoes, capers, anchovies, peppers and olives. We used triangles of pita bread to the scoop salty, fishy mixture into our mouths. The bottom line with these dishes: simple and traditional done well wins diners every time.

Octopus and beansOur next round of dishes were a bit more substantial. One was a plate of perfectly grilled octopus with a nicely blackened exterior and a tender core. It was dressed with lemon and parsley and paired with plump garbanzo beans. Our final dish was sheep’s milk ravioli with brown butter and sage. I have loved the combination of brown butter and sage since I first tried the gnocchi at A Tavola in Chicago. After all, what’s not to like about toasty brown butter and lightly crisped and salted sage? The ravioli themselves were also tasty, with al dente casings that enclosed a mild, but elegant cheese. The only downside to this dish was the crispy fried onion pieces that had been scattered on top. HR Peanut and I both agreed that these took the dish down a notch, evoking sports bar onion rings, rather than the rugged hills of Greece.

Despite a few minor drawbacks, the meal at Kefi was worthwhile. The food wasn’t quite as good as the dishes I regularly enjoyed while traveling along the coast of Greece, but it’s rare to find food in exile that tastes as good as in its home country. Kefi’s simplicity and affordability demonstrate the chef’s understanding of what makes Greek mezze fare so enjoyable. Now all he needs is that Ionian Sea breeze.

222 W. 79th St
New York, NY 10024

Kefi (formerly Onera) on Urbanspoon

Blazing Burgers

Blazer BurgerHello again, dear readers. I know I have been M.I.A. in recent days. Let’s just say that the first month of graduate school has taken its toll on my blogging time. Luckily, even graduate students have to eat, and eating cheaply is an even higher priority than ever. I have a number of New York City recommendations to relay to you soon. But first, I’ll tell you about the trip Empanada Boy and I took to Westchester a few weeks ago. We were visiting his aunt and uncle, Spanakopita and Iceberg. They had kindly allowed us to have our wedding gifts shipped to their house, so we spent the afternoon opening them. After our strenuous present-opening session, a juicy burger sounded like the perfect thing. Spanakopita and Iceberg agreed to take us to the Blazer Pub, a Westchester stand-by and a temple to the burger.

Regular BurgerThe Blazer Pub is housed in a quaint old white colonial with reddish shutters. The interior has dark wood paneling and is decorated with random antiques, mostly connected to equestrian activities, sports and Irish themes. The restaurant is named after the Galway Blazers, a fox-hunting club in Western Ireland. Tables are covered with red cloths, and the menu is filled with pub specialties like sandwiches and chowder. Burgers are the main show. Iceberg, Spanakopita and I ordered the regular burger, which only comes with pickles for toppings. We specially requested grilled onions, but even lettuce and tomato would have meant another extra charge. EB ordered the Blazer Burger, a more elaborate concoction, which came with cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and grilled onions. The burgers were thick and almost spherical, making for a very high sandwich. We all ordered them medium-rare, but were disappointed when they arrived medium to well-done. The meat was still flavorful, but it was missing the essential juiciness we had been expecting. Iceberg assured us that this was not the norm and that the cooking sometimes suffers on a busy Saturday night. Our server gently scolded us later for not sending them back, but we confessed to being too hungry to wait.

FriesSides to go along with burgers must also be ordered separately. We got a small order of the Blazer’s massive hand-cut fries. Needless to say, the small was more than enough to serve the four of us. These were a little thick for my taste, but they had a good crispy exterior and a soft, warm interior. EB wanted to try another of the restaurant’s specialties— the Blazer Onion. This is a whole onion’s worth of fried onion rings. He couldn’t find enough support at the table and was warned against attempting to eat a whole one himself. Hopefully, he and I can go back to the Blazer to try them sometime soon. We’ll try to go on a weeknight to avoid the crowds and the burger casualties. I have a feeling the Blazer’s burgers can get a lot better than the ones we tried.

The Blazer Pub
Route 22
Purdys, NY 10578