Friday, December 21, 2012

Become A Wine Snob on the cheap with Groupon

Wine, glorious wine. Is there a nagging feeling inside your head that you should learn a little something about wine? For moments like being confronted with a voluminous wine list at a posh restaurant, and not being able to distinguish between Burgundy and Bordeaux? And what the heck is terroir, or tannins for that matter? Wouldn't you want to dazzle your business associates, friends, family and hot dates with your mastery of the lingo of vino?

I asked myself these questions over the summer, and concluded that some basic wine education wouldn't hurt. But where to find wine classes that are not intimidating and inexpensive? Salvation came in the form of Groupon, the daily deals site that keeps bombarding my inbox with all sorts of cut-rate offers. Among the offers presented were deeply discounted wine classes, usually 2 to 2 1/2 hours long, which promised to help newbies distinguish between Barolo and Barbaresco. Below is a brief roundup of the ones I took part in. 

Who: Drinking Outside the Box (site)
Where: W52nd St. (Midtown West) 
Price: $29 Groupon deal (up to $68 value)
Class Name: Introductory Wine and Cheese Pairing

Did you know there was a Systematic Approach to tasting wine? Neither did I, but apparently there is since a sizable portion of the class dwelt on that stuff. We learned how to tilt wine glasses to judge clarity, color and condition. When it came to actually tasting wine, judging characteristics like sweetness, acidity, tannins, body and length proved to be a challenging exercise as the wine rolled off my tongue and straight down my throat. 

To make matters worse, while others could detect such exotic aromas as blackcurrant, tar and wet leaves (!), my unsophisticated nose smelled only apricot. Oh well. The class was informative and the instructor eager to turn us newbies into Robert Parker. The cheese pairing part was only emphasized towards the end of the two hours though, but the thick handouts did provide pairing suggestions for common wine varietals. 

Who: Vino Versity (site)
Where: 1st Ave & 86th St. (Upper East Side) 
Price: $25 Groupon deal (up to $65 value)
Class Name: Vino! Rosso! Pronto! (Red Wines of Italy)

Fond memories of last year's 5-week Italian vacation made me want to master vini italiani, thus this class sounded perfect. The lecture focused on the intricacies of Italian grapes (Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo, etc.) to different growing regions, their respective statuses (DOCG vs. DOC vs. IGT), and even to deciphering a typical label on a Italian wine bottle. Interesting, if a tad nerdy, stuff that will prove handy, I'm sure.

If that whirlwind North to South tour of Italian viticulture made you dizzy, hopefully sampling eight (eight!) representative wines will ease your pain. For me, given my limited prior exposure (mostly to Chianti and Moscato d' Asti) it was nice to compare and contrast various grapes grown in different areas to discover what their characteristics were, and which ones pleased my palate. At the night's end, the most important lesson I learned was to consider wines from Sardinia, Sicily, Friuli and other regions instead of just sticking to familiar offerings from Tuscany.

Who: New York Vintners (site)
Where: Warren St. (Tribeca) 
Price: $29 Groupon deal (up to $75 value)
Class Name: Grapes of Spain

New York Vintners had the biggest class size, with fifteen participants in the "Grapes of Spain" course I attended. Perhaps Spanish wines are hot at the moment, but for me it was another vacation-driven decision - two months traveling all over Spain, drinking wine pretty much every meal, THAT was the catalyst that ignited my love of wine. And I was here to learn more about what I had been drinking.

The Systematic Approach to Wines made another appearance, and being a bit familiar with it this time around, I pretty much nailed the acidity and tannin levels of the outstanding Spanish wines we tasted. Still had a tough time smelling fruits, vegetables, or whatever else is in the wine though. Nevertheless, the instructor's knowledge and enthusiasm were exhilarating as he expounded on topics ranging from oak barrels to the perennial Old World vs. New World wine rivalry. I couldn't resist buying a couple of bottles from the wine shop out front, that's how much I loved them.

As you have seen, a lot of wine was tasted (no spitting here!), thus fun was definitely had. I gained a little knowledge along the way too, but there's a long ways to go on the road to wine snobbery.  Never have I so eagerly awaited Groupon spam, all in the name of education.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Arlington Club - Steaks on Us

 I'm not quite sure how suitable the name Arlington Club is for a steakhouse, but  the Upper East Side is seriously starved for a decent filet mignon joint. names it one of Manhattan's 12 Hottest New Restaurants, so we decided to go on a field test for our pre-Thanksgiving dinner. An OpenTable reservation in hand, though for the not-so-prime time of 615pm, we marched into the Arlington Club's two-level space that looked straight out of the '50s (or what I imagine the '50s looked like) and were ushered upstairs to our table.

We got started on our Vina Sastre Crianza 2009 bottle of wine and marveled at the restaurant's luxurious  interiors, waiting expectantly for our food. (What can I say, we bought into the hot restaurant hype). The appetizers - ahi tuna tataki and crispy kobe beef struffle - were quite good but not exceptional. Portion sizes were more than expected though, about six pieces for each order. Oh, however I'd be remiss in not mentioning the complimentary cheese popovers that were placed on the table, and instantly devoured. Those were the bomb.

The fun part started when the steaks arrived. My medium-rare sirloin steak was anything but, and looked more like medium-well. Ditto for my friend's bone-in filet mignon. The manager apologized and said they were still working on "temperature and timing issues" and rightly offered to replace them, so we waited a little bit more and downed most of the wine. In fairness, another member of our party who ordered the branzino seemed to enjoy it tremendously, as did our fourth person whose steak was perfectly to his liking.

The replacement steaks were brought over, and alas suffered from the same maladies as the original ones. The manager's IPhone flash light was working overtime to gauge the pinkness of the meat, and we all agreed that these were still too well-done. He offered to remove them from our table's check, much to my delight. (It seemed churlish to ask him to throw in another bottle of the excellent Ribera del Duero we consumed). Both steak sauces I tried - jalapeno chimichurri and the house Arlington steak sauce - were excellent, with the former on the spicy side and the latter a tad sweet.

We lingered for just enough time to watch the group of three women at an adjacent table return their porterhouse steak for the same reason, and their waiter (who was our waiter also) express the same apologies. They seemed content when the new porterhouse steak came out, so probably no freebie for them. However, since the Arlington Club is offering a 20% discount anyway on all checks as part of their soft opening, everyone gets a reward for acting as guinea pigs.

Here's hoping they get their act together soon. I don't doubt it, given the pedigree of the restaurateurs behind this joint. 

Arlington Club on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Numero 28 Pizzeria is Numero Uno

Unlike 99.9% of people in New York City, I have no opinion as to which pizza joint serves the best slice - Lombardi's, Joe's, John's, or whoever else. Thin crust, thick crust, wood-fired oven, Neapolitan, Sicilian, and other terms simply went over my head for one simple reason. I barely ate the stuff. Even on a 5 week trip all over Italy last summer, I could only recall having pizza on two occasions, and both were simply to squash my hunger before launching a fresh attack on the country's numerous cultural attractions. 

click image to enlarge

However, a $15 for $30 deal found on Google Offers was too good to pass up, so a recent Sunday night found our party of three seated at Numero 28 Pizzeria in the East Village. Numero 28 specializes in authentic Neapolitan pizza baked in a hot brick oven to produce a crust that isn't too thick. More interestingly, the 29 inch version of the pies comes in a oblong shape, and up to three choices of varieties are allowed. I thought that was great - who wants to order a huge pizza to find it disappointing, and have to finish all of it, or order a second one?

Each of our party was tasked to come up with one choice, and we decided on these combinations: Capricciosa (tomato, mozzarella, ham, mushrooms, olives, artichokes), Bianca del Diavolo (mozzarella, ricotta, spicy sopressata) and my favorite among the three, their special Numero28 (buffalo mozzarella, speck, truffle cream, mushrooms). Really, who would resist the last one? I had some objections to the choice of the Capricciosa, not being a fan of artichokes but my friend was hell-bent on ordering it (perhaps because when we went to Artichoke Basil's months ago I insisted we get the Margherita instead of the namesake pizza). 

The Neapolitan pizza turned out quite well, and I'd go back to Numero 28, coupon or no coupon. Next time perhaps we'll have some wine to accompany our pizza. Can't really say where Numero 28 stacks up in the "Best Pizza in NYC" race, but it did make me wish I ate more of it in Italy. 

Numero 28 Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Volere Wine meets Prada

"No European carry-all today?", asked S., unable to suppress a smirk. 

"Forgot my man purse today", I replied, appreciating the Seinfeld reference, and laughing at the same time. The "purse" in question was the eye-catching, stylish and eco-friendly packaging that Volére Wine's boxed rosé came in, which I had brought to the New York Philharmonic's free concert in Central Park a few weeks ago. 

Volére's innovative packaging swiftly drew praise from the female members of our contingent, most of them loving the purplish color and designer Italian handbag-like appearance. It almost pained me to tell them that no, this wasn't just some fancy useless appendage, but in fact contained two bottles (1.5L) worth of the night's most important social lubricant. 

I had stumbled upon Volére's boxed wines by accident. Summer being the season for outdoor concerts, events, and picnics, I wanted to bring some wine to these events and yet thought that a bottle was too cumbersome and heavy. Quite a common dilemna, I'm sure. 

"End of aisle 1", said the liquor superstore associate when I inquired about "non-traditional" packaging.The products that initially came into view were not inspiring - plain, bulky 3L (4 bottles equivalent) boxes that made me wonder, "Who'd want to carry these?". They were all right for a picnic in the burbs - you know, where people have cars to transport things - but NYC was another story.

And then, I turned and saw the Volére Wines man purses sitting on a shelf, just below eye level. The weight was just right - not too heavy (I could scarcely believe they held 1.5L). Now which one to buy? Eventually chose the rosé over the pinot grigio (in the more conservative light golden box) partly because it was more eye-catching and would make me feel more self-satisfied about my stylish man purse while walking amidst other concertgoers to the Great Lawn. Unlike Jerry - I would not be unashamed to be seen in public with my "European carry-all", even if only for this occasion. 

After picking a strategic spot, we eagerly followed the easy instructions in opening the box, and were soon quaffing some light, fruity rosé. The pours continued as members of our party gradually arrived, and soon, all of the wine was gone. The packaging garnered all of the attention, but the contents made for easy drinking and paired quite well with Tchaikovsky. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tabata Noodle House - Great Ramen in Midtown

"There MUST be a ramen joint somewhere around here", I thought, when I started my new job in Midtown West (a few blocks north of Penn Station).  However, somehow I couldn't find any - two favorites, Sapporo and MenKui Tei - were over ten blocks uptown; not a feasible option given my limited lunch break.

Thus, I happily settled into a routine of rotating Chipotle, McDonald's, Bonchon, and the incomparable Go Go Curry, among others. But after a few months of downing tacos and burgers, I renewed my search and found Tabata Noodle House, located on a stretch of Hell's Kitchen not known for being a culinary haven. Heck, I'd go as far to say that a more unappealing location couldn't be possible, with the restaurant saddled between the Port Authority and the Lincoln Tunnel entrances. But it was a few blocks stroll and for that reason only worth a visit.

With all the options at ramen places these days, figuring out what to order can be tough. Tired of shio, shoyu, miso, and even tonkotsu? For a change, I opted for the eponymous Tabata Ramen, which seemed like something out of a Thai menu with the cilantro and red onion seasonings in the coconut-flavored broth. Think tom kha gai but a bit spicier.

It's quite a unique twist on ramen, and I've gone back twice to order the Tabata Ramen. Not to neglect the rest of the menu, I've also had the hot and spicy Lava Men a couple of times and loved it as well. Now that warmer times are here, I'll give the less spicy ramen versions a try, and perhaps the rice-based dishes. It might be located in a culinary wasteland, but Tabata Noodle House is a gem and fast becoming my Friday lunchtime mainstay. 

Tabata Ramen on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 14, 2012

Antica Foccaceria @ Madison Square Eats

The sight of those mouth-watering Sicilian desserts, cannoli and cassata, displayed at Antica Foccaceria San Francesco's booth at the Madison Square Eats fair made me renege on my vow to jump start my low-carb diet. 

Yes, they do look that inviting. Everyone's familiar with cannoli, those fried pastry tubes filled with creme, but it was the first time I laid eyes on another dessert from Palermo, Sicily - the cassata

Of course I had to try both! Lest you think I'm a total pig, I managed to restrain my sweet tooth and did so on separate days - I'm happy to report that both were excellent - the cannoli's creme lighter and fluffier compared to those I've tasted elsewhere, and the cassata's green icing sweetness was tempered by the creme inside. In each case, I polished off the dessert in front of in a matter of minutes, and  adamantly refused to share with anyone.

And whom do we have to thank for these delightful desserts? Italian import Antica Foccaceria San Francesco, quite a mouthful. They have been around in Italy since 1834, and have branches in Palermo, Naples, Rome and even in the north, Milan. If your Italian is up to snuff, then take a stab at browsing their website

If you haven't heard of them, well can't blame you since based on my chats with their staff, currently there is no presence in New York. The organizers of Madison Square Eats invited them to participate, and voila! Seems such a long way to come for only a month-long food fair, as I pointed out to the bemused cashier. Perhaps they would consider setting up an outpost here in Italian-food obsessed (or just plain food-obsessed) New York City, I suggested to another crew member, pointing out the success of other Italian food concepts, like nearby Eataly. 

Hopefully my subliminal pleas, along with countless diners' I'm sure, will amount to something, but in the meantime, you have only two weeks to savor their desserts, meat-filled rice balls, pasta and other Italian goodies at Madison Square Eats - get 'em while you can! 

Monday, May 07, 2012

Rippy's BBQ, downtown Nashville

Well, those pork ribs slabs do look appetizing, don't they? They're one of the best things that happened on our spur-of-the-moment weekend in Nashville, but it didn't come easily. 

On the advice of one Grayline Tours Nashville driver, we ventured into Rippy's BBQ on a Saturday night - the same weekend as the annual Nashville marathon - so the place was packed with revelers, diners, and perhaps even concertgoers drinking up before crossing the street to the arena. 

In short, we weren't able to get in that night due to the long wait list. At least it gave us time to actually check Yelp reviews of Rippy's and Jack's, situated on the other side of Broadway and a tad more highly-rated by diners. So, we decided to dine at Jack's on Sunday night instead, only to get the shock of our lives (ok, I'm exaggerating) when we saw chairs piled on top of tables and no signs of activity inside. 

Back to square one then. This time it wasn't such a madhouse at Rippy's, and we ordered two full slabs for the three of us. My friends wanted to get a half-rack each, but excuse me - my stomach demands man-sized portions! So, a compromised was reached eventually.

Ok, about the ribs. They were tender, moist, and the meat fell right off the done with minimal effort. Quite delicious too, and I generously poured Rippy's sweet sauce over them. All of us had just eaten at the Texas-style BBQ joint Hill Country in New York City a couple weeks ago, and we analyzed and contrasted Rippy's BBQ with that establishment's, acting like the barbeque experts that we weren't. But no, we just wanted good grub on a mini-vacation, and I'm happy to say Rippy's delivered. Now, maybe we'll drop in on Jack's the next time we're in Nashville...

Rippy's Smokin' Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 20, 2012

All things Japanese at Mitsuwa Marketplace

A deep wave of nostalgia for Japan drove me to drive to Mitsuwa Marketplace ("Mitsuwa"), the premier shopping destination for all things Japanese, in Edgewater, New Jersey. 

It was triggered by a conversation with a Japanese expat whom I met through mutual friends, and our conversation touched upon my trip to her homeland two years ago, and the places I visited - Tokyo, Kyoto, Hakone and Nikko. 

I also took the opportunity to tell her about my experience staying at a capsule hotel, where the "rooms" are coffin-sized compartments stacked on top of each other; rows upon rows of them lining the hallways. If you have trouble imagining the capsules, check out the pics here.   

And of course, the food. Memories of the amazingly life-like replica food displays in Japan, the visit to Tsukiji market, the conveyor belt sushi restaurants, and hundreds of tiny stalls and shops selling ramen, yakitori, okonomiyaki, and other food stuffs immediately whetted my appetite. I had to go to Mitsuwa! 

Turns out that their ten-day anniversary sale was ongoing, and being a long holiday weekend, the parking lot was jampacked. Not to be denied, I parked at another nearby strip mall and hoofed it to Mitsuwa.  

Shown are some of the loot that i bought. Among them - instant miso soup, rice crackers, Yakult digestive drink (memories from my child hood), and a lot of eel. I've gotten tired of my mostly chicken and fish diet lately, so the sight of unagi was tempting. 

Not only do they have every imaginable Japanese grocery item, but also freshly made sushi and cooked food, so I grabbed a couple of unagi bento (above).  

My mission was only half successful though. I also wanted to dine at the superb food court (which also had the food replicas in the glass display cases), but due to the crowds it wasn't possible. Oh well, perhaps next month when I come back to spend the $5 coupon I received for spending over $50, as part of their anniversary sale promotion. 

One last thing - the two Meiji chocolate bars shown on the left, Black (Dark) and White chocolate, retail for exactly the same price. As you can see, the White chocolate is about 35% smaller. Needless to say, somewhat mystifying and something a nerd like me loves to obsess about.

Can any Japanese reader shed light on this pricing scheme?

For those who are interested, here are some of my travel blog posts from Japan. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Dining by the Waterfalls at Villa Escudero

The two hour drive from Manila to Villa Escudero,  a popular weekend getaway from Manila located on the border of Laguna and Quezon provinces, flew by and we arrived at our destination in a famished state, ready for a big Filipino lunch. 

Mind you, this was only my second visit - and the first one since I was a kid. 
Thus, my recollections of Villa Escudero were non-existent, other than riding on the carabao drawn carriage, and eating lunch by some waterfalls. Had things changed over the years, or were these still part of the experience?

The answer came quickly. After paying the Php1,400 ($32) admission, a quick ride on the carriage pulled by "Maganda" (Beautiful) led to the waterfalls where a buffet lunch was served. Remove your shoes, dip your feet into the refreshing cool water and taste the wonderful viands and desserts for the next hour or two. That's certainly what we did.

tapioca dessert

don't forget to grab some 'pasalubong' from the roadside stands on the way home

Monday, January 02, 2012

Pick your Pintxos in San Sebastian

"Choices, choices...", I sighed, as I surveyed the numerous plates laid neatly side-by-side on the bar at Tamboril, a restaurant just off the main square in old town San Sebastian. "So many pintxos to try", referring to the elaborately-prepared, colorful bite-sized creations that rested on each plate, "and only three meals a day".

Tamboril was the second stop on my lunch hour, preceded by a drink of txakoli (a cloudy white wine) and a taste of two dishes at another bar. Known as tapas in all of Spain, these appetizers were referred to as pintxos in San Sebastian, a charming seaside city located in the Basque country, a region in the northern part of Spain where the eponymous language rules.
In Basque country, there is a unique way of presenting and ordering pintxos. Instead of the dishes being enclosed inside a glass case, tradition dictates that they be laid out on the bar. Patrons are handed a plate and go from one end of the bar to the other to pick whatever pintxos appeal to their eyes and stomach, socializing along the way with other customers.

Once they have finalized their choices, depending on the bar, the attendant either adds up the bill based on the price of each dish (if prices are not the same), or waits until after the patron finishes eating and simply counts the number of pintxos consumed. The latter was more prevalent in the past, but since it wasn't quite fool proof (i.e. toothpicks stuffed inside pockets were not uncommon), thus I experienced it only once.

With all these dishes begging to be tasted, I decided that instead of eating sit-down meals at restaurants, a more ideal strategy would be to go on a pintxo crawl for every lunch and dinner during my visit to San Sebastian.

In addition to variety, the pick 'n choose method eliminated the guesswork involved in choosing food from a foreign language menu, and made for quicker meals - in just half an hour you're done and off to the next joint. For lunch and dinner I'd hit three different places, ordering a couple of pintxos in each one, along with a drink which was either the above-mentioned txakoli or low-alcohol cider.

Ah, the selecting part - that's where I was gripped by moments of indecision, especially if they all looked delectable. One personal guideline is to opt for the more elaborate creations (as the pics hopefully illustrate) instead of the more typical croquettes, Spanish omelet or jamon iberico straddling a piece of bread. Or sometimes I'd chose based on how colorful a particular pintxo looked, and hope for the best.

Newbies to the Basque pintxo culture could be forgiven for being squeamish at the thought of other people's errant fingers brushing against adjacent pieces of food, or wonder exactly how many hours the pintxos have been sitting around, but unlike other regions of Spain, tradition has overcome efforts to eliminate the practice here.

Another surprising part is that waste (napkins, toothpicks) are simply disposed of by chucking them on the floor. However, it is said that the quality of an establishment could be measured by how much detritus adorned its floors.

With the concentration of establishments in old town San Sebastian, It's quite hard to chose among them. There are a couple of ways around this - one can take a somewhat pricey two hour pintxo tasting tour with like-minded foodies that goes to five or six different bars and samples two or three dishes at each one.

A cheaper alternative would be to spend significant time, as I did,  in between meals consulting the website Todopintxos which suggests various routes for pintxo discovery, and where voters rate individual dishes and places. The effort is very much worth it, this I can personally attest to, as I smile at the memories of the delicious pintxos and pat my stomach contentedly.