Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Epicurean Adventures: My First Hamptons Restaurant Week Dinner!

How quickly does time fly. It seems just a week ago that I was mourning missing Long Island Restaurant Week when lo and behold, Hamptons Restaurant Week was already begun! Always a little behind the times here on Long Island (miss you, NOLA network, with your close communication, great PR placement, and worthy email blasts!), I actually got wind of Hamptons Restaurant Week a full week before it kicked off, which was an accomplishment to be proud of. This gave me adequate time to scope out my choices and make the most informed decision possible.

After much poring over maps and menus, only some of which were accessible directly from the site, I chose to make my reservation at 1 North Steakhouse in Hampton Bays. Their restaurant week menu looked like the best bang for the buck in terms of high-end, high quality. Granted, part of the appeal of sucking up the hour-plus drive out East was the option of $19 prix fixe menus, but for food that was a bit more grown-up? Well, the more common $25 prix fixe just made more sense.

I had originally planned to make my reservation for Saturday night, which would allow us to maximize our trip to the Hamptons since most of the beaches out East are dog-friendly until Memorial Day. We could then take Little B (my Baxter Bear) out for some fun in the sun before Boy and I had some grown-up time. However, a particularly horrendous week and my inability to remember to call after 5 pm to make the reservation led to our running off on Friday instead.

One part of the appeal of the Hamptons and Long Island's picturesque East End towns is the rustic country-ness of the whole area. Woods, canals, beaches, towering pine barrens, and country estates and horse property make up this area that is still not (and hopefully will never be) fully developed. But on the other hand, in a world where directions are no longer requested due to our overwhelming dependence on technology ... well, let's just say not everything is yet mapped correctly out there.

I typed into my trusty GPS Juliet (that's her British name; when I switch over to American, she's Abigail) the address of the restaurant - 1 North Shore Road, Hampton Bays - and she finds it effortlessly. Huzzah! Thinking all is well, I do as she says, "taking the motorway" as instructed ... and end up on a dirt road in the woods.

Dead serious ... off a trailer park, onto a one-lane dirt road in the middle of the fucking woods.

Juliet asked me to continue on this for a couple of miles. I was thinking, well, maybe the restaurant is super-exclusive and on the water in a preserve, and said as much to Boy, wondering aloud how on earth they attracted business from such a remote, inhospitable locale as the underside of my car dinged and scraped along mounds of dirt. Boy was less optimistic and suggested that I turn the f- around. I did the next best thing -- I called the restaurant and asked them if, by chance, they were located off a dirt road in the woods.

They most certainly were not.

The host let me know that Juliet had inadvertently led me to what was known as OLD North Shore Road, and that I did need to turn the f- around (although not in those particular words). He very, very kindly and patiently explained to me where to go and offered to move my reservation down. I accepted his gracious offer.

I finally reached 1 North with five minutes to spare for my reservation time, and was pleased with what I found. We were atop a hill overlooking a beach and the parking lot was full. A cozy, Pottery Barn-like beach house style was the vibe of the place, and we were immediately seated. The table was a little awkward -- I do hate sitting at a small table in the middle of the floor (pictured right, but this photo was pulled off their site; the restaurant was pretty full) -- but spacious and neat. Our waters were immediately filled, and menus presented. The full menu was not unreasonably priced, and their steaks came with dry-rubbed, marinated, or plain options.

Normally, I shy away from steakhouses that look to cover up meat flavors, but ... let's just say, I've been J&Rs-ing quite often as of late and am not as much a steak snob as I used to be. And this place had gotten several good professional reviews, so what the hey. And a nice steak dinner for $25? Hey-oh!

Anyway, the bread knocked me off my feet right away - plain or sun-dried tomato and herb ciabatta. I'm normally not huge into ciabatta since it's generally hard and dense, but this was warm and the seasoned one was phenomenal. I'm talking Italian herbs exploding on your tongue with every bite, and flavorful sun-dried tomatoes with a hint of moisture and more than a hint of hot summer sun. Little butter packets are always welcome (although I do like my butter in a cup at a nice restaurant ...), but not as welcome as the FABULOUS fresh green pesto in a cup that we slathered lavishly all over our ciabatta. This was, hands-down, some of the best pesto I've ever had, right up there with the $6/cup Farmer's Market pesto I used to buy in New Orleans.

When we placed our order -- from the prix fixe of course, house-poor as we are -- I was disappointed that Boy didn't opt for the more adventurous route and instead requested the same exact meal as me from start to finish. I'd had my eye on the bacon-wrapped sea scallops over corn salsa with apricot glaze, but it wasn't alluring enough for me to rescind my choice of lobster mac and cheese, something I fell for hard at last year's Taste of the Town in New Orleans (from 5 Fifty 5, Marriott). Sadly, though, it wasn't as good as that. The Gouda added nice flavor, but also a slightly sedimentary feel, and the sauce was tasty but thin. The lobster meat was good, too, but nothing to write home about since the chunks were only fairly sized.

Other nice first course options included lobster bisque and an arugula salad with warm blue cheese croutons, apples, walnuts, and raspberry vinaigrette. But never a one to choose salad over comfort food, what I picked made sense to me. The pasta was firm and delicious and they were shells, which I thought was cute, since it was then lobster and shells (!).

Service was fast here, and the 18-ounce, 21-day dry-aged ribeyes came out just as Boy scooped up his last bite of the mac and cheese. Served on a metal-in-wod plate, I had some trepidation due to my last experience with metal steak plates (Charlie's in New Orleans, much? That was the first time I had to absolutely force myself, teeth fully gritted, to at least remain neutral in a Where Y'at piece), but the blood thinly oozing out the beautiful seared-in grill marks took away some of that feeling. Beautifully criss-crossed on one side and straight-lined on the other, these sizeable steaks were tender and very velvety with the soy-based marinade barely salty and much less sweet than other Long Island steakhouse marinades.

It wasn't of the melt-in-your-mouth prime quality of say, Tellers or Vintage locally; Ruth's Chris, or Mr. John's Ristorante, but it was good. After all, I could barely finish the steak, and 18 ounces is usually child's play for me when it's a cheap steak. Rich and filling, it suited its purpose, though I am ashamed that I did have to reach for my salt shaker.

However, you can't beat the deal that was offered, especially since steakhouses usually offer sides a la carte and for this large ribeye, butter sauteed asparagus and simple but delicious roasted baby red potatoes were also provided.

Feeling slightly daunted, the creme brulee came, beautifully caramelized and not at all burnt, in a deep cup of thick, luxurious custard. The flavor was delicious, but Boy mentioned that it was a bit cooler temperature-wise than he preferred, probably due to the depth of the ramekin. Sadly, I was only able to power through half of it, great as it was, due to a noticeable expansion of my actual ab muscles and the fact that I now greatly resembled a woman with a fetus.

So would I come here again? For a menu like that, absolutely, after a day at the Westhampton Beach with friends -- nothing could be better to close out a day of leisure. However, with places like the aforementioned Vintage and Tellers within reach, I'm less tempted. But no regrets! This place was definitely very good, and I'm glad that this date night worked out much, much better than the last.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Eater's Remorse: Sonoma Grill Fails at Communication and Other Things

Since becoming a homeowner and a plebian (versus the status of "food writer" I was fortunate enough to enjoy in my beloved New Orleans), Boy and I have had far fewer outings to accommodate our new lifestyle as two of the newest recruits into an elite class known as the house-poor. So when we get to go out for dinner, it's a special treat, and a risk when we try someplace new.

We'd seen a shopping center Italian place advertised quite a bit in our local community ad-rags, so tempted by a prix fixe menu of only $15 for three complete courses, we narrowed down our latest scheduled adventure to Sonoma Grill on Sunrise Highway in Holbrook.

Yes, we should have known better than to choose a strip-mall joint when we had sweet little waterfront villages like Sayville, East Islip, and Islip to choose from only mere minutes away from our house. But $15! And a coupon for a free house appetizer! When all your money goes back into your house, well, you do the math. Cheap eats wins most of the time when the occasion is just that it's a Wednesday.

We were stoked to bypass our usual house-cleaning burrito tradition (Boy cleans the house because he's neat and persnickety; I reward his admirable initiative with a burrito; I also get to eat a burrito; ergo, everyone wins) to try a new restaurant instead, and had high hopes when we pulled up to the spacious restaurant to see that live music was to be played that night. Upon entering, we were greeted with a moodlit metropolitan vibe, and my spirits rose. Maybe there was hope for this shopping center restaurant. After all, diamonds in the rough wouldn't be such if there was no rough.

We were seated quickly and with courtesy, but things quickly went downhill from there. Our waitress, a middle-aged woman with teenaged hair and earrings asked us with no preamble what we wanted to drink. Not even a greeting preceded the brusque question. She left equally abruptly, and returned many moments later with our drinks and some bread and dried herbs with olive oil poured over to dip it in. It was okay.

The prix fixe menu looked pretty passable, and was far, far more affordable than the regular menu, entrees for which averaged around $18 ... a little expensive for the borderline tacky decor and serving staff in t-shirts. A few of the prix fixe selections sounded pretty good, so we decided to go with that, Boy ordering a pasta dish with sweet Italian sausage, and me ordering a grilled chicken entree with a balsamic glaze and fresh mozzarella and tomatoes. I had been leaning more towards the tilapia oreganta, but the waitress informed me that it was very small, which greatly influenced my decision.

We presented the coupon for the free appetizer, wondering if they'd honor it since the verbiage on the prix fixe menu's footer noted that no other specials could be combined with any of those selections. The waitress said that the free app "could not be combined with any other offers," to which Boy responded that the prix fixe was not an "offer" ... it was a menu. The waitress sighed frustratedly, saying that they go through this all the time, and commented snidely that "you don't want me to get the owner here to tell you."

With that attitude, Boy said, "Why not?" Normally non-combative, Boy's dander was up at being spoken to like a misbehaving child who was warned, "Don't make me tell your mom." The waitress sighed again and said she'd be right back.

Moments later, a young girl in glasses in her twenties came over with a faintly exasperated look in her eyes, and reaffirmed that "the coupon couldn't be combined with any other offers" in an extremely patronizing voice. Now that tone got my dander up, because really, who likes being sighed at and spoken to like an idiot? Boy again tried to explain that the prix fixe isn't really an OFFER, and was advertised just as a regular weekday menu, not as a promotion that made the customer exempt from any other special, and that it was wrong for it to be advertised as such and have in the fine print on the actual menu, once the customer was there, that it was exempt from all other deals. (See their verbiage on their website, and you'll see how that's misleading ...)

Getting nowhere with this and arguing more the principle than the actual app (we weren't particularly excited about the overpriced bruschetta that the house app was, but at this point, felt misled and patronized, so were not inclined to be overly cooperative), the snippy girl left to resume her server duties ("owner" my ass ... she was throwing pepper at a busboy on the floor when I passed her to go to the ladies room, and her tables were not too far from ours) and our waitress returned. She asked, "Okay, so do you want me to place the order now?"

Taken aback that the orders she took from us already were NOT in fact in the queue, I merely answered to please do so. Boy was tempted to leave after being treated so shoddily, and I, in hindsight, regret not doing so. But by then, I was already very hungry and had been waiting quite a bit to go eat and lacked to patience to start over.

The salad course was pretty standard. Boy's pasta was fine, al dente and generous in size and sausage as well as cheese, but nothing to write home about. There's something about Long Island marinara that I'm not overly fond of, since it tends to be fairly acidic, thin and strained out, and one-dimensional. Boy liked it, but I wasn't impressed.

My chicken, on the other hand, smelled fabulous and was a large butterflied chicken breast, so it was to my great disappointment to find that it was dry and overcooked, and underseasoned. I am usually of a mind that food out of the kitchen should never be tampered with, but after about five tough bites, had to reach out for the salt shaker to actively combat the blandness. For me to have to grab more seasoning is the ultimate no-no, in my experience. Seasoning should be done outside of the dining room and behind the lines.

Pro: the portions were very sizeable ... it's just a shame eating it became tedious due to the chewiness of the chicken and the lack of sensory appeal.

We took dessert to go, which was a choice of tiramisu, cannoli, or raspberry cheesecake, and the cheesecake was the winner. It was a very smooth cheesecake, rich and soft, with an oat-y textured piecrust, and the raspberry drizzle was tasty, but half an hour after I ate it, it refused to sit still in my stomach, which remained upset for the rest of the evening.

Needless to say, our next outing will be one of the quaint, picturesque restaurants in our nearby villages and we won't be patronizing this establishment again. What a wasted evening.

P.S. I'm definitely not normally this harsh, and we're not normally such pains, but you really had to be there. And obviously, it wasn't just us that felt this communication in their advertising was unclear, since as we were leaving, the table next to ours started up the same rhetoric to ultimately be rebuffed.

P.P.S. It must also be noted that not ALL of the servers were douchey ... just one section over, an exuberant, fun, and friendly young man was playing the role of "awesome waiter," to which I enviously looked over many a time during dinner and wished I were seated in his section. We wouldn't have tackily argued over a tacky coupon were we treated with the friendliness that waiter demonstrated, versus the sour attitude we encountered in our section.

Sonoma Grill
5745 Sunrise Highway 
Holbrook, NY 11741
 (631) 218-3888

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Epicurean Adventures: Springtime Bunnies or Great Things Come in Teeny, Tiny Packages

I had an exceptionally rough week last week. In a service-based business that deals with often intangible or immeasurable (to outsiders) labor, such as my day job's industry, web design and development, clients have a hard time understanding sometimes that things are not "just" that simple, and that adding "just" in front of a request (i.e. "Can't you just make that form work?" "We just want you to change these 80 million things in the design ... they're just small changes; can I see the revision tomorrow?") doesn't make it any simpler or any less time consuming.

So when I got my secret surprise from Sucre at the end of the week, it definitely helped take the edge off. It's funny how much excitement a simple brown box, inscribed with five simple letters, can bring. Anything that comes in a box in the mail is a gift in my mind, and the box-within-a-box of upscale companies like Sucre, as a prominent tastemaker pointed out in a meeting once, brings that thrill to a whole new level.

A teeny little aqua-y jungle green box, wrapped with a slender brown ribbon, was dug up from layers upon layers of crumpled paper (which I applaud the use of since paper is both sustainable and biodegradable whereas styrofoam packing peanuts are certainly not). This could only mean one thing -- chocolate!

I was not disappointed. Pretty, pretty little bunnies, wide-eyed and cotton-tailed, peered up from the depths of the careful packaging. Shaped out of dark chocolate, a rich, barely salted, luscious caramel center filled the lapins and oozed out, thick and viscous -- but not trailing that obnoxious and embarrassing long tail of cheap caramel -- with every bite. The label and description say the little darlings were dusted with pink, but I find that the luster was closer to a rosy-hued lavender, which is equally adorable. The small details, such as impeccable moldings and shiny airbrushed colors, is what sets this boutique artisan chocolatier apart, in my opinion. After all, if your bon-bons cost around $2 each, you expect perfection and whimsy that supports the branding, right? I know I sound like a marketing person right now, but I really do love this shop and the tastefulness and detail in every aspect of the company and its goods, which is why I send stuff from Sucre as gifts and chose them as my wedding favors (which, unfortunately, were "misplaced" -- i.e. stolen off the table -- at my wedding ...).

Anyway, it always seems that packages from Sucre come at the times I need additional cheer most, and there's just something extraordinarily uplifting about a beautiful package with sinfully delicious goods in it that make you feel like maybe, juuuuust maybe, that week was worth suffering through.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Guilty Pleasures: Give Me That Fiiiiiish ... Ohhh!

So way, waaay, back in the day, in one of my first posts, I wrote a post that was essentially a comparative study of fast food fish fillet sandwiches. (You can go back in time and read it here.) And now, sadly to say, that guilty pleasure is back in my life.

The first step down that slippery slope was the return of the Wendy's fish sandwich, white cod breaded with crisp little panko crumbs and its generous size rendering an additional sandwich unnecessary. However, McDonald's must have taken note of the quality of Wendy's sandwich -- they've since engaged in an aggressive battle for fish fillet sandwich sales, the likes of which are so epic that oblivious consumers cannot even ignore.

It started with the Wendy's fish sandwich commercial, which touted the many finer points of their superior fish fillet, and got me super-psyched and put me in "must-have" mode, a condition that comes out raging when limited editions of food is announced. (If Lent is good for anything, it's a plethora of new seafood options!) Around $3-4 each, it's not a bad value compared to most Wendy's sandwiches, or compared to any large fast food sandwiches, as prices have skyrocketed in the past few years.

Enter McDonald's into the ring, with a brilliant little jingle first introduced a year ago sung by a fish on the wall, along with a promo deal for a Filet-o-Fish value meal for just $4.

And now ... it's back. As a text message! With a sweet deal of two of the fluffy soft sandwiches for only $3!

Offensive attack indeed! And good enough to make me forgive the use of the wrong "filet!"

Superior fish aside, who can turn down a bargain like that, when the other option is to get only one sandwich for what is now the price of two? Granted, you're now consuming more bread, more tartar sauce (especially freaks like me, who turn their fish sandwiches into vehicles for tartar sauce ... I literally have to ask staff to make it "disgusting" for it to be enjoyable for me), and probably equal amounts of fish, but two is always more than one ... even if it isn't, really. Even if I know that the meat per sandwich is less, or that I'm just foisting empty carb calories on myself, it's still ... two. For the price of one.

And the catchy commercial that sticks in my head just makes it even more tantalizing, each time the ditty loops in my brain creating a fresh burst of craving for a fish sandwich.

Anyway, here's the commercial for 2010, with the same two guys and the same awesome fish. Please excuse me while I take this time to eat two 380+ calorie sandwiches and oversalted fries. *Sigh.* Yes, I am weak.