Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Under $25 at Bistro 25

After one visit, this hidden away gem fast became my favorite go-to affordable restaurant for New American casual fine dining. With every dish and every bottle of wine from their fairly sizeable list under $25, Bistro 25 is an absolute treat, where upscale taste combines with great value.

Truffled Mac and Cheese
Service is definitely high-end but intimate, with presentation that is worthy of a New York City restaurant rather than a quiet corner of a quaint little village. The maple roasted butternut squash soup was to die for, creamy, rich, and poured piping hot into your bowl over lovely creme fraiche (seasonal), and the lobster bisque is rich and satisfying.

Mushroom Risotto
The small plates are pretty generous portions, especially the Truffled Mac and Cheese (a combination of smoked gouda, cheddar, and parmesan) and the chock-ful of mushroom risotto. Super rich and heavy, ideal for a winter starter in the cozy atmosphere of this homey Hamptons-style restaurant. The Smoked Mozzarella Ricotta Fritters, balls of fresh, flavorful cheese in a fresh sweet tomato sauce is also fabulous, and the braised pork belly with pickled shallots, corn pudding, and an apple demi-glace will be the next new thing I try.
Smoked Ricotta Mozzarella Fritters

They used to serve a rather fabulous salad with beets, frisee, asparagus, and goat cheese, but it seems to be off the menu now. Instead, it appears that a few of the ingredients were substituted as an updated Sweet and Sour Salad with lardons and a pickled egg.

Beet, Pear, Frisee and Asparagus Salad
The portions are not whopping, but again, neither are the prices. They're more portions are more nutrition-guideline sizes rather than Supersize Me Americanized plates, and packed with sophisticated yet robust flavor that fills you up to a healthy point without feeling disgusting. For instance, the brandy peppercorned Steak Frite is only 10 ounces, and although you wish there was more just to keep the taste going, you're glad you have room to share a dessert. The salmon, atop a creamy, perfect risotto and topped with fried leeks, is also an ideal size (although the new menu doesn't have it anymore, either ...). The Burgundy-Braised Short Ribs, served with whipped horseradish potatoes, are also worth a try, with a subtle richness that's perfect for the coming fall.

A new addition to the menu that sound particularly exciting is the Duck Cassoulet (duck confit, andouille sausage, white beans and spaetzle), which for $18 sounds like a particularly good bargain. 

Steak Sandwich
For sandwiches, the Shrimp Po'Boy isn't exactly authentic, but unlike the disappointing impostor at Bobbi-Que, it's actually tasty on its own merit. The steak sandwich is satisfying, with a generous portion of gruyere melted all over a hot, crusty baguette. Again, you'd wish there was a little more steak, but you'll forgive the size once you dig into the perfectly medium meat and dip into the fragrant au jus. Also, you'll be surprised at how tender the steak is--I certainly was.

Carrot Cake Bread Pudding
Now dessert. Definitely worth digging into here. The Carrot Cake Bread Pudding is an incredibly inventive feature, and well executed, served with delicious thin shortbread wafers and a dab of cream cheese ice cream. It's not daunting, and the taste packs a punch. Not too sweet, with an extra-moist, dense, cake texture, it's a very interesting spin. The Lemon Blackberry Tarte Tatin is kind of blah after the excitement of the bread pudding, and also pales next to the sweet and creamy Creme Brulee.

I also can't wait to try the brunch here. The simple fact that they offer 2 brunch cocktails on their already low-priced prix fixe menu ($15, I think?) is highly attractive, and they have nice, refined spins on classic offerings. 

Overall, I love, love, LOVE this place, and just writing about it has inspired a text to the hubby to try the summer lobster menu offerings before the season's out. You can't beat 4 lobster dinner options for UNDER $20!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Horse of a Different Color

The Tanger Outlets in Riverhead are a great outing destination for the summer. The long highway ride there gives you a reason to cruise with the top down or sunroof open, and the massive selection of designer shops is a spender's paradise. Newly added are furniture outlets to stores like Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn, and West Elm, which brings me to why I was out there in the first place.

The couch of contention.
We're redecorating our living room, because obviously, changing our form of seating means that the rest of the room no longer matches and I hate everything. Apparently, this is a normal visceral response (the depression and dislike of everything in the house). I've been assured that shopping will help me push through the hatred of said house and its "outdated" (but not really, when I think with the logical part of my brain) furnishings, and so shopping I went with one of my creative genius friends, Liz, who -- awesome for me! -- also happens to be a full-time and immensely talented interior designer.

After some serious power-shopping, which I emerged empty-handed from, to her great chagrin ("Accessories! You need accessories! And pillows!"), sustenance was needed. I hightailed it to my Yelp app and found a $20 for $40 deal to the Dark Horse Restaurant on Main Street, which boasted gluten-free friendliness (which doesn't apply to me; I just think that's extra friendly. Plus, brioche bread instead of wheat flour bread is just plain exciting).

My first impression was that the name didn't fit. I thought it'd be dark. I'm not totally sure why, but I think it may have been just because of the name of the place. Instead, it was painted a goldenrod yellow with large windows, welcoming black banquette seating (don't walk into them -- I did and skinned my knee, like a dingus), and was bright and modern.

A really impressively elegant New American/Eclectic menu made up the offerings, and although it looks like a relatively short list of offerings, it's clear that quality trumps quantity over here. There just isn't a need for a longer menu--it was more than challenging to make a few selections from the list of options. Everything sounded splendid, from salads to apps to entrees.

Eye-catchers in the starters section included the North Fork Salad (baby spinach, sauteed mushrooms, bacon dressing), bison paté (whaaaat?!), and "Good Ground" New England-style clam chowder. The available entrees made decision-making even more of a challenge, with refined classics like short ribs with house-made pickled onions and smashed potatoes (pickled things are apparently very "in/hipster" right now), duck two ways (breast and confit with blackberry brandy with creamed spinach and almond rice), white bean and white pumpkin ragout, lentil and potato stew, and (dum-da-duuuum!) bison ground steak or Piedmontese beef burger on brioche with hand-cut fries and BBQ sauce.

What to do, what to do? Apparently, ask a whole lot of questions of the first-day waiter who was helping us. After torturing him in the friendliest of manners, I finally decided to start with a cup of grilled shrimp bisque and to order the Brasserie Salad topped with duck confit (only a $5 charge -- the meat add-ons to the salad are SHOCKINGLY reasonably priced, as are the salads themselves). Liz ordered the pork loin with blood orange demiglace.

The soup was astonishingly good. It was richly creamy without being overwhelming. There was a little separation in the soup, but the taste was smooth and comforting with hints of tomato, sweet shrimp, and a nice green flavor that came from the fresh scallions diced on top. Subtle and satisfying, in a nutshell.

The salad was excellent as well. A now-classic combination of baby greens, Gorgonzola chunks, and candied walnuts, this salad benefitted from the addition of sweet, ripe Fuji apple slices and diced beets. I had the dijon-laced French dressing on the side, but used a minimal amount because of the robustness of the rest of the ingredients in the salad. Everything tasted fresh and clean, which was the perfect foil to the rich flavors of the meaty duck confit, a crisp treat for the meat purist. Just a hint of salt was the ideal accent for duck, letting the meat itself steal the show.

The pork loin that Liz got was outstanding. Twice the size of the normal pork loin, this was no mere slices or medallions. This thing was cut like a filet, and seared like one, too. There are few things more satisfying than feeling the slight resistance of a crunch on a thick slice of meat. But one of the things that IS more satisfying than that is when you put that beautifully cooked piece of meat in your mouth and it turns out to be divine.

The blood orange demi wasn't overly sweet, perfectly balanced, and the viscosity of the sauce was enough to grip on to each bite without being actually thick. The grilled zucchini (veggie of the day) was a simple preparation (lightly grilled, very lightly touched with salt), but the lemon-buttered grilled corn on the cob is enough to turn you into an animal, bursting broken kernels off the cob as you tear into the sweetness of fresh-picked, height-of-the-season, local Long Island corn. I didn't even try the roasted potatoes, so distracted was I by the corn.

Although we were in a rush and service was unhurried, we figured there was no harm in taking a peek at the dessert menu. We ordered the ice cream-topped blondie, which turned into a blondie soup of caramel sauce. The tower of whipped cream was nice, but with everything else souping on the plate, we felt a bit ridiculous as we caught ourselves pushing pieces of the dessert into it to get blondie crumbles (yes, the blondie itself melted, too) on the spoon. The peanut butter brittle accents were nice, but not necessary. Off to the side, they were forgotten.

We left feeling satisfied, but not sick or stuffed. The portions were great -- generous without being gluttonous -- and the flavors were so incredibly clean without being overly simple. Preparations were light but refined, and the prices were totally reasonable. Our food bill came to only about $25 or so for two people. I can't wait to go back there with Boy and try some of the other stuff on the menu. After all, I think I may need a few decorative accessories after all ... ;)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Eater's Remorse: Meat Masquerading as Steak

Most of the time, Groupon/Newsday Daily Deal/Amazon Local/Living Social/Doubletake Deals is a fantastic way to get to know your new local restaurants, become acquainted with hidden favorites, explore a different neighborhood's offerings, or afford that fancy dinner at the place up the road you've always wanted to try.

Sometimes, they are reasons for anger. 

I had a Newsday Daily Deal for Pace's Steakhouse, an old-fashioned steakhouse that firmly fit into the category of "fancy dinner I've always meant to experience." Unfortunately, it didn't live up to that expectation. 

In two words? Overrated and overpriced. As an old-fashioned steakhouse, the expectation is that the beef should be so flavorful, rich, and delicious as to stand on its own. Literally. A la carte, on a plate, and no less satisfying in its minimalism and simplicity. 

This is simply not the case at Pace's. Although advertised as "prime" steak (which, by the way, is a lie at most joints, considering that only 1% of the beef out of the Midwest is categorized with this label), insider verification had previously informed us that the meat is sometimes purchased in bulk from a supermarket supplier. However, I was willing to dismiss this as hearsay and try it for myself.

I ordered a filet, which is usually the golden standard for pure red flavor. It was a little undercooked, which is forgivable. But what was NOT forgivable what the blandness of the meat. I haven't salted a steakhouse steak in years, having formed a habit/expectation that all proper steakhouses season or marinate them to a chef's standards before serving the meat. For me to reach for the saltshaker was a travesty. There was no seasoning on the steak at all. It wasn't aged, wasn't marinated, wasn't charred--wasn't anything other than a plain hunk of just-okay meat. 

Although it's usually a nice bonus to get little extras on your plate to accompany your very expensive chunk of beef, there are some garnishes that just cheapens the experience. Like things that you can get out of a frozen food or Sysco box. Things like wide bar-food onion rings. Potato chips fried in blah oil. Yeah, that's the shit they garnished my filet mignon with. The polenta cake was fine, but seriously? Frozen onion rings?

My husband got the Friday Lobster Bake special, which sounded like a massive amount of food, which is great. But again, it was a plate that just said, "blah, blah, blahhhh BORING." In a flat "Buellerrr" voice. Steamed lobster is steamed lobster, so whatever. Same with corn on a cob, and clams and mussels. But the potatoes were boiled in mere water, and the burnt "roasted" chicken (literally, skin burnt to a crisp) had no flavor other than generic "chicken." Not even a hint of salt. The ribs were okay, but a little soggy.

Well, we attempted a dessert anyway, even though the bread that came at the beginning of the table was dry, the cornbread had a chunk taken out of it, and our meals were on the meh-er side of meh. We figured chocolate chip brownie sundaes always sound good, and how do you screw up a chocolate chip brownie sundae? 

You microwave it. You microwave the SHIT out of it. 

It was sliced in half and I'd requested the ice cream on the side (not homemade, btw), and they zapped that thing into holy hell. The corners were so hard they were inedible. Like Swanson Hungry Man brownie hard, and equally "flavorful." The middle was kind of warm, but everywhere else was awful.

The waiter asked how it was. I told him it was clearly microwaved and not very good, because at this point, I was horribly disappointed that my date night dinner sucked so badly and cost so much. 

Also, you're forced to valet park. I hate being forced to valet park. You spend a couple more bucks extra for someone else to drive your car and mess with your settings. Plus, there's construction on 347, so do NOT drive a low-riding car; the shoulder is crazy steep and will scrape up your car.

Save yourself the trouble, though. Go to an ACTUAL steakhouse if you're going to spend $37 a steak.