Friday, February 17, 2017

Welcome to the Neighborhood: Krupa Grocery

The simple arugula salad

Krupa Grocery is that great little neighborhood spot that should exist in every little area but is so difficult to replicate. It has a well edited menu of a few log standing items, with frequently changing additions and subtractions, friendly service, a great bar (rotating local taps!) and gentle prices.

The restaurant is a place where you can pick up coffee and pastries during the day, but then have a wonderful meal at night -but also charge your phone while you're sitting there. And the small plates are perfect for sitting at the bar, when you don't have the time or appetite for a full meal (there's also a daily happy hour, but before AND after dinner).

Of course, it's all child friendly; with small plates, kids can have just enough to fill their tiny tummies.

Krupa is in Windsor Terrace, which is off most tourist and foodie radars, yet several times when we've been there, we've had Hollywood celebrities seating next to us (I'm looking at you Anna Kendrick). Yet we still had the same superb service, and waiters didn't seem to fawn over the famous faces.
The vegetarian farro salad

The risotto balls have been on the menu since the place opened a couple of years ago and you want to get an order or two (one nitpick: why three to an order? How many people eat out in groups of three?). These are crisp outside, gooey inside and nestled on a bed of tomato sauce scented with fennel.

At a recent meal, we had a simple arugula salad, showered with shaved grana padano and the burrata with fried artichokes and lemon puree. An arugula salad is a good test for a restaurant; with just a few ingredients, the proportions have to be perfect or the result is unbalanced. This one is perfection. A farro salad was another delicious small plate; now it has migrated over to the entree section, topped with tuna poke.

The gnocchi, better hot
We almost always get the roasted delicata squash, with the changing filling, but there were too many other things to try. But this is a great vegetarian entree and it was the first place I had cooked winter squash skin; it gets chewy and almost meaty.

There is often a pasta or two; we had a vegetarian ricotta gnocchi, delicate and loaded with wild mushrooms and broccoli rabe. Unfortunately, it came to the table cool, but the waiter replaced it with a piping hot version and took the item off the bill to boot.

My meat eating friends love the lamb burger, another long-standing menu item. And if you are gluten-free, there are many options.

Fried artichoke with burrata and lemon
There are always several IPAs on tap, but there is also a 'Manhattan madness' with three types of Manhattans - the civil, with cynar, is spectacular. For winter, there are also yummy hot toddies.

And go in warm weather, when the outdoor garden beckons.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Just in Time for Valentine's Day: Chocolate Tour

Jacque Torres' original DUMBO shop

Chocoholics should run, not walk, to A Slice of Brooklyn's Chocolate Tour.

In fact, you might want to run before, and after, the tour; you will consume a serious amount of serious chocolate on the tour. Since you are going around by bus, you have to walk only a few steps at each stop, and you might find yourself (gasp!) turning down chocolate by the fourth chocolate shop.

Goodies at Jacques Torres Chocolate
The tour offers a look at four very different places, starting with Jacques Torres, a French pastry maker who set his toque in DUMBO with his eponymous shop. Jacques Torres Chocolate, which has expanded over the years to include seven Manhattan locations, is justifiably famous for its hot chocolate (the spicy wicked hot chocolate is a personal fave) but don't make a rookie mistake and buy a cup while sampling the chocolates included on this tour. You will tap out before you even hit the second stop.
When the Chocolate Room expanded, they found this vintage sign already embedded!

Fancy French chocolate, in Brooklyn

We had champagne truffles and heart shaped chocolate truffles, along with dark and milk chocolate covered peanuts here. If you have a nut aversion, the shop is happy to offer a substitute, but if you have a peanut allergy, this is probably not the tour for you.
Heart healthy gifts from the Chocolate Room

On the day I took the tour, New York had just gotten over nine inches of snow, and several people didn't show up. Our friendly and funny tour guide, Paula, offered us plastic bags to take the extra samples home.

Paula also offered tidbits of information, like the mnemonic to remember the order of the East River crossings, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg: "BMW, like the car." She pointed out Jim Carrey's $19 million Brooklyn home, Hillary Clinton's former campaign headquarters, played clips of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka and urged everyone to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge: "it's free!" 

Again, pace yourself! Don't eat the extras - bring them home to share, or keep for another day.
The raw ingredient at Raaka

We next went to Cobble Hill, where The Chocolate Room has a cafe that makes a spectacular chocolate cake and an incredibly rich hot chocolate. We got a shot of the hot chocolate, made with milk; it's so thick, you could practically eat it with a spoon. We also got a mini cupcake that was a miniaturized version of that chocolate cake.
Valentino Pier in Red Hook

Dessert cafe - The Chocolate Room

The Chocolate Room is actually based in Park Slope, where I live, but I never knew the story behind the successful business. The husband and wife team, a rock drummer and modern dancer, used to go on "dessert dates" when they couldn't afford to eat dinner at a restaurant, and they wanted to open a place specializing in desserts. There's also wine and beer; the black chocolate stout from local Brooklyn Brewery pairs quite well.
Raaka's motto

But we didn't drink on this family friendly tour (there were no children the day I took the tour, and the crowd included a mix of foreign and domestic tourists and locals who love chocolate). Bottles of water were offered on the bus, and since the tours start at 11am, and end after 3pm, you might want to bring along a healthy, sugar-free snack to eat on the bus. The bus driver stays with the bus, so you can leave bags at your seat.

On a break

We took a short walk down a long pier at Valentino Pier, in Red Hook. This land is one of the closest to the Statue of Liberty, but the walk is really a break to let the earlier chocolate metabolize before we moved on to our next stop, Raaka.

Raw beans

Raaka bars, straight off the production line
Raaka, which means raw in Finnish, specializes in raw, or un-roasted, chocolate bars. Organic beans are ethically sourced from fair trade farmers and the bars are vegan, soy and GMO free, Kosher, and flavored with usual ingredients like smoked chai spices, maple and ghost pepper (even the labels are printed with soy-free ink). An 82% cacao bar has beans that were aged in bourbon casks.

We had to wear hairnets at the Raaka factory, since production is ongoing. We could sample - and buy - any of the collection, along with limited series bars like one scented with Douglas fir. There is a "milk" chocolate made with coconut milk; don't think of bringing up white chocolate, which Paula dismissed as 'not really chocolate' here.
Raaka nibs for sampling, and bars for sale

But old time, and new: LiLac Chocolates

Li-Lac and its hip Industry City neighbors
Tempting treat at Li-Lac

Li-Lac bridges the old and the new; it is both Manhattan's oldest chocolate house, having been in business since 1929, and one of Brooklyn's newest; it recently opened a huge production facility in Industry City, the Uber-hip foodie destination in Sunset Park.

At Li-Lac you can watch the kosher chocolate being made through huge windows. The shop, with an intoxicating aroma, specializes in dark chocolate almond bark (we got to sample some) and specialty molds; wen your kid signs his NFL contract, this is where you go to have a football made of chocolate. It also has chocolate hearts, chocolate bunnies, chocolate covered graham crackers and an exquisite riff on a Reese's peanut butter cup, with dark chocolate of course.

Chocolate at home

Hot chocolate, made with Sugarpova
Sugarpova, form tennis star Maria Sharapova, has a line of gourmet chocolate bars, with a 70% cacao dark chocolate bar and a 50% cacao dark chocolate coconut bar that is subtly infused with coconut. The chocolate bars are kosher, non GMO.

I made a vegan hot chocolate by melting four squares of the coconut chocolate into three tablespoons of Natural Bliss coconut milk. The rich, thick hot chocolate was perfect on a winter day.

Note: I was a guest of A Slice of Brooklyn. I was not compensated for this review.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Going Vegan - with Coffee! Finding Natural Bliss

Acai bowl toppings, with coconut creamer in the base
When I was training for the marathon, I cut down drastically on the dairy I consumed. I wasn't completely vegan, but I started avoiding milk and using almond or soy milk for my morning coffee.

Vegan dishes
So I was excited to hear about Coffee-Mate's new creamer line, the plant-based Natural Bliss. There are four varieties: vanilla almond milk, caramel almond milk, hazelnut almond milk, and sweet creme  coconut milk.

To highlight these, and offer a deep dive into vegan food, Coffee Mate invited me to a tasting at the Tasting Table Test Kitchen in Soho. There, we were treated to vegan food, cocktails and the full line of plant based creamers.

Cocktail choices
Since I knew I was taking home one of each creamer, I stuck to the cocktails; who can resist a maple old-fashioned? Or, for that matter, an expertly prepared French 75?

The soba noodle salad with shiitake bacon and beet salad with watermelon radish were delicious, but what impressed me most was the acai bowl. The bowls were made with berries, acai, and the coconut creamer. So if you use only a tiny splash of creamer each day, you don't have to worry about it spoiling; you can easily use it up in a smoothie.

We could top our bowls with a variety of fruit, granola and chia seeds. Maybe if I had a high powered blender and a food prep guy on hand I would eat a more nutritious breakfast.

Natural bliss needs to be kept refrigerated, or on ice at a party
I tried the vanilla almond milk in my coffee this morning and it was delicious. And since it was snowing and we'd run out of skim milk, I used the coconut milk to make oatmeal. It was a touch sweet, but tastier and heartier than water and vegan to boot.

The Natural Bliss creamers come in 16 bottles refrigerated containers are made with no GMO ingredients.

Note: Opinions expressed are my own and I was not compensated for this review. Cocktail consumption was an added benefit.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Bring on the Veggies: Luxe Vegetarian at Nix

A winner: the shaved brussels sprouts
The beginning of the year is often a time of asceticism: after over-induluging at the holidays, people exercise more, go on a diet, drink less. So it was easy to convince my carnivore friends to try out the vegetarian Nix in Greenwich Village. This is not abstemious dining by any stretch (and there are wonderful, inventive cocktails) but they were trying to eat less meat and since it was my birthday, I got to choose the place.

Nix is owned by the same team behind Dovetail, but it's less formal and strictly meat-free. What it isn't is less expensive, because the sharing plates add up and before you know it, you've accumulated a hefty bill.

Michelin star

Nix was just awarded a Michelin star, which means reservations could be harder to come by. We made one four weeks before, but late January isn't really a big dining out time in New York.

This broccoli dish is off the menu

Dipping in

We started with the delicious tandoor bread and a couple of dips. The flatbread is delicious, but $6 for one is a bit steep. The labneh and red pepper walnut dip (Muhammara) were both quite tasty, but each dip is $5; 2 breads and 2 dips and you're already $22 in.


Sunchoke salad, a lighter dish
Most of the cocktails are $14. We had a Nix martini, with vodka and thyme, the Honey Bee, with gin, sake, and Thai basil and the Albion, another gin drink on the rocks, with blackberries. All had just the right proportions and it was easy to order a second round. Wines start at $50 a bottle and quickly go up.

If you are avoiding alcohol entirely, there are homemade sodas: Pear & cardamom; Blackberry & juniper; and Mango & paprika.

The sharing economy

Shiitake cacio e pepe
Our server told us that 'chef recommends' 3-4 'lighter' sharing plates for a party of four, and 3-4 'bolder' plates. In other words, an appetizer and an entree per person. The lighter plates are $13-15 and the older are $16-30. We followed the numbers and while the flavors were exceptional, the portions were not really sharing size, and we joked that chef recommended you have a sandwich before coming. 

The only dish we didn't love was tofu-skin pockets filled with sweet potato and a tomatillo pepito salsa. But maybe we were just annoyed that the dish comes with three, so we were up-sold to a fourth. If the plates are for sharing, how many tables have three people? On the night we were there, not a single one.

But the roasted sunchokes with living greens were outstanding, as was a broccoli, cheese and peanut dish that is no longer on the menu.  We also had the jicama salad with blood orange. Our favorite lighter dish was the shaved brussels sprouts with almonds and cheese.

Service snafus

Artichokes with broccoli rabe
The plate sharing, unlike the sharing economy, leads to table overload; we got a glut of dishes all at once and were overwhelmed with dishes, our own plates, and serving spoons. But once we had each taken a little bit, busboys kept trying to whisk the half filled plates away. If you are the first person taking food from a sharing dish, you want to make sure everyone has, so you don't take enough, and then the next person takes even less; you need to go around a second time to finish the dish. But we felt we had to fight off the busboys and keep our plates.

The same thing happened with our $6 bread. We had one, ordered another and before we could finish it, someone had grabbed the plate away, along with our dips.

Swoon-worthy vegetarian food

On the other hand, we swooned over the shiitake cacce e pepe with polenta and the intoxicating braised cabbage with potato puree and truffles. I guarded these closely so we could savor every scrap.

If you are vegan, there is a separate menu. Some of the dishes,  like the 'bolder' Artichoke and broccoli rabe sauté, with preserved tomatoes, show up on both menus, but there are few extras on the vegan one. Since you rarely see broccoli rabe on a menu, we had to get it, and the bitterness of the greens played off the sweetness of the tomatoes. Plus, we got to ask my husband, Rob, "more broccoli, Rob?"

Because I loved so much of the food, I would definitely eat here again. I'd just make sure I had a hearty lunch beforehand.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza, Comedy on the Side

The classic Neapolitan pie at Grimaldi's
As a Brooklynite for most of my life, I know a fair amount about my native borough, (yes, I was born here - and have lived my entire adult life here, too) yet I had never been to two renowned Brooklyn pizza restaurants, Grimaldi's and L &;B Spumoni Gardens.

This all changed last week, when I was a guest of A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours, a four hour eating and entertainment extravaganza. The tour, led by the hilarious and energetic Marc, also a Brooklynite started in Manhattan and took us all around Brooklyn, with stops at these iconic pizza places.

Rolling - or not - on the bus

The interior of Grimaldi's
We didn't get off to an auspicious start. The brand new bus broke down and Marc shepherded our group of 20 or so through the streets (the tour meets outside and it was quite cold) so we could sit in the heat while a replacement bus was sent. By the time we got to the bus, it was running and we were off. [Despite the short break down, the bus was quite comfortable, with USB charging ports at every seat, a clean bathroom and a good sound system]
Where the magic happens: the coal ovens at Grimaldi's

Best pizza in Brooklyn?

There are other famous pizza parlors in Brooklyn and I've been to most of those, but these legendary establishments have been stuffing pie holes (mouths) for generations and offer competing variations on pizza. And they both usually have long lines; with the pizza tour, you waltz right in and get seated right away.

Vegetarian friendly

To taste the pure essence of pizza, the slices you get on the tour have no extra toppings, so vegetarians are at ease. If you are gluten free or vegan, well, this tour is not for you.

Starting out in DUMBO

Great views in DUMBO
Grimaldi's coal-fired Neopolitan pizza has a thin crust, fresh mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes and a bit of fresh basil. This is the classic margarita pie, and we had two fresh-out-of-the-oven slices. Marc claimed the pizza had some health benefits, since bits of ash are on the crust, and charco caps settle the stomach. I doubt that anyone has eaten pizza to cure a stomach ache, but the delicious pizza had the perfect crust to cheese to tomato ratio and I showed my out-of-town tablemates how to properly fold and eat a slice.

Unusual Brooklyn house in Bay Ridge
As we drove from DUMBO to Bensonhurst, March regaled us with stories about Brooklyn and pointed out interesting houses movie locations. Even better, screens in the bus played a movie scene  - and then we would see the exact location. I've seen dozens, maybe even hundreds, of movies, TVs shows and ads filmed around the city, but I've never seen so many exact spots that made it onto film.

Movies filmed in Brooklyn

My favorite clip had to be form Annie Hall, my top movie of all time; as we drove by the Verrazano Bridge, March played the scene where Diane Keaton drives Woody Allen on the same road, in her tiny VW Beetle.

We took a circuitous route from DUMBO to Bensonhurst, wending our way through Red Hook, Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights so could see more movie locations. Here was where John Travolta ('before he was creepy,' March said) strutting under the elevated tracks in Saturday Night Fever, there was the housing project where someone was shot in the French Connection.

 Inside L & B Spumoni Gardens

On to Sicilian pizza

After about an hour, we arrived at L & B Spumoni Gardens. This is a combination sit down restaurant and ice ream (spumoni) parlor, and those who had room after two slices of Sicilian pizza could buy an ice cream (beer and wine were also extra; we got soda or water included with our pizzas).

Sicilian pizza is like deep dish; a thick crust, square slices and a cooked tomato sauce. At Spumoni, the sauce is ladled on after the cheese, to keep the cheese in place. This is knife and fork pizza, and totally different from what we had at Grimaldi's. It is also quite tasty.

Sicilian pizza at L & B; cheese under the sauce 

Brooklyn history lesson

I learned that Bay Ridge was formerly known as Yellow Hook, until a yellow fever epidemic made the name unpalatable, blue street signs means the street was renamed for someone famous, and that Marc considered Coney Island the alcoholic grandfather of Disney World. Although my grandfather was a teetotaler, I can never go to Coney Island again without thinking of this.

Closed for winter in Coney Island - but there's plenty of parking!
Most of Coney Island's rides and attractions are closed in winter (though there is another well-know pizza place here, too) but Marc led the group for a brisk 15 minute walk along the boardwalk. At this point, stuffed with sauce, cheese and bread, I waddled to the subway for a quick ride home. 

Would I eat at these places again? Fuhgeddaboudit!

Note: I received a free and a fully belly tour for the purposes of this review. I was not otherwise compensated.