Showing posts with label Restaurant Review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Restaurant Review. Show all posts

6/24/15

Rediscovering the "De-chained" CPK and Loving It

Ever since I moved to NYC, I've had a very strong aversion to chain restaurants. Why should I eat at a place that I can eat at anywhere in the country when I have the best restaurants in the world mere footsteps away?, I thought. 

However, California Pizza Kitchen has always had a special place in my heart as it used to be the go-to birthday spot when I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles. I always knew about the CPK, as it's affectionately known, at 30th Street and Park Avenue, but have never been nostalgic enough to visit during my almost 7-year NYC tenure. But that all changes now.

California Pizza Kitchen NYC

Monday night I had the opportunity to visit CPK--the only location in Manhattan (so is it really a chain? Haha!)--as they celebrated their 30th anniversary and their new mission to "dechain the chain."

I first got a tour of the newly redecorated space, featuring a chalkboard and a wall of herbs at the entrance, reclaimed wood table tops, and scenic NYC photos adorning the walls. The space already feels more welcoming than your typical, cookie-cutter franchise.


Next, I was given an apron and whisked into the kitchen with Head Chef Brian Sullivan (who developed the iconic BBQ Chicken Pizza more than 20 years ago!) and NYC pizza chef Juan who both taught me how to make a pizza and (here's the best part) TOSS THE DOUGH! My first attempt ended up with me breaking holes in the dough, but try number 2 got some serious air and I transformed it into CPK's Wild Mushroom Pizza ($13.49) with 5 different types of mushrooms, 3 cheeses, garlic, and scallions. Yum!

Stretching pizza dough at CPK
Juan teaching me to stretch the dough
Tossing pizza dough at CPK
Oops! Popped some holes!
Tossing pizza dough at CPK
That's a winner!
My Wild Mushroom Pizza
My Wild Mushroom Pizza
At this point, I was finding flour in my hair and covering my arms--tis' the life of a pizza arteest!--but I was having a blast. Then I sat down with CPK CEO G.J. Hart, one of the nicest people I've ever met, who along with Chef Brian walked me through some of the new menu items and cocktails.

The first drink I tried, my favorite of the evening, was the California Roots, a Svedka vodka concoction with muddled avocado, mint, and agave sour rimmed with fennel salt. Talk about unusual! I also tried G.J.'s creation, The Executive Decision, which has Casamigos tequila blanco, muddled mint, fresh agave sour, Monin organic agave nectar and fresh lime, and I thought it was like vacation in a glass. Lastly, I sampled the Blueberry Ginger Smash, which cleverly mixes Jack Daniels with agave nectar, Domaine de Canton ginger, fresh blueberries and lime and cranberry juice into a delightful fruity libation. I told G.J. I could see these drinks going for upwards of $16 at some Manhattan hot spots, but he told me the price point was about half that depending on which CPK you were visiting!

California Roots cocktail
California Roots
The Executive Decision cocktail
The Executive Decision
Blueberry Ginger Smash
Blueberry Ginger Smash

Next, the food! Delicious, delicious food! When I used to come to CPK as a kid, I would always reliably order the BBQ Chicken Pizza. While the old classic is still on the menu, the items that surround it are new, improved, and focused on seasonal ingredients. Case in point, the California Fields Salad (half $9.99, full $13.49) is comprised of gorgeous field greens with fresh watermelon, sweet strawberries, feta, and California pistachios, topped with a housemade Champagne vinaigrette.

California Fields Salad
California Fields Salad

I also tried the new Maine Lobster Flatbread ($10.99), a wonderful dish for sharing, it features real Maine lobster meat, mayo, fresh herbs, arugula, and shaved red onions on a parmesan flatbread. It's like a pizza version of a lobster roll, and I LOVE lobster rolls.

Maine Lobster Flatbread
Maine Lobster Flatbread

For main entrees, I sampled the Tricolore Salad Pizza ($12.99), which is a salad lover's dream! It features a different take on the crust--caramelized honey and parmesan lend it to be thinner and crispier--cooked and then topped with field greens, tomatoes, and shaved parmesan tossed with housemade Dijon balsalmic vinaigrette.

Tricolore Salad Pizza
Tricolore Salad Pizza
I also had a clever take on a gluttonous dish, their Shrimp Scampi Zucchini ($14.79), which had half regular pasta and half noodles made from zucchini (aka: zoodles!) sauteed with lemon, garlic, and white wine. This entire dish is only 470 calories!

Shrimp Scampi Zucchini
Shrimp Scampi Zucchini

Lastly, my favorite entree of the night was the Hearth-Roasted Halibut ($23.79) served over grilled asparagus and butternut squash farro and baby kale. I could eat this morning, noon, and night, and it's a good thing too because the size of the piece of fish they give you is ginormous! Definitely enough for 2 meals for me. And the farro adds a truly unique touch.

Hearth-Roasted Halibut
Hearth-Roasted Halibut
Of course they didn't let me skip out on dessert, and neither should you. Both the salted caramel pudding ($4.99) served with black cocoa cookie crumbs, whipped cream, and sea salt and the Butter Cake ($6.79) served with ice cream and whipped cream are decadent options to end your meal.

Salted Caramel Pudding
Salted Caramel Pudding
Butter Cake
Butter Cake
I go to a lot of restaurant events, and I must say the hospitality I received at CPK was top notch. You could tell the people who work there enjoy the company for more than the fact that it gives them a paycheck--there's true passion behind the food and drink. Their prices are also fabulous! Lunch specials range from $9-11 from M-F, 1-4pm, and they also have happy hour specials.

Me with CPK's head chef and CEO
From Left: Head Chef Brian Sullivan, me, and CEO G.J. Hart

G.J. also told me that CPK is committed to the communities they operate in, offering fundraising events as often as they can. They are also relaunching their grocery store branded items, so keep an eye out for those in the coming months. I also took home a copy of the CPK cookbook, so maybe I'll be trying some of their creations for my next dinner party!

The CPK Cookbook
The CPK Cookbook
CPK Cookbook inscription
Love the inscription!

It's official, I've been converted (partially) back to the chain. CPK, you have thoroughly impressed me and I'll be singing your praises for a long while.

Disclosure: CPK hosted me for this event and paid for my food, but all opinions are my own.


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6/22/15

Get Your Greek On at Eons

The Chipotle model has obviously proven so successful for Mexican food, so it's no surprise we've seen numerous other cuisines steal the build-it-yourself meal restaurant and make it their own. The Greeks have done it this time with Eons in Murray Hill (633 Second Ave @ 34th Street) and it's bound to be your new go-to for fresh, flavorful food.

Eons Greek

Walking in, you get the view similar to what you seen in Chipotle--a line of people waiting to choose their base (here you get you meal served as a pita, over rice, or over salad), protein (chicken, pork, shrimp, octopus, steak, lamb, salmon, or veggies), and toppings (tzadziki, garlic spread, feta spread, eggplant, humus, or something called lado sauce). Then you can choose from a variety of veggies and condiments to top off your meal.

We met the owner Anoush and she sweetly walked us through our options and made some recommendations.


Eons Greek counter and menu

Anoush making my lunch
Anoush making my lunch
Proteins!
Proteins!
More proteins!
More proteins!
Toppings!
Toppings!
Prices range from $7-$15 (with octopus by far being the most expensive). I opted for salmon over rice and have been craving it for lunch ever since! The fish is super flavorful and you can tell that it hasn't been sitting there for days just waiting to be served. The tomatoes which topped my bowl were some of the reddest I've ever seen and I would definitely recommend you not skip the lentils! Also they serve Boylan's sodas, so Eons officially gets 2 thumbs up.


Anoush also brought us a sample of Eons' spreads. The humus was, well, not my favorite, but all the others were great, especially the garlic spread! Mmmmm. No vampires here!

A spread of spreads
A spread of spreads
Our lunches
Our lunches
If you live or work in the area, Eons would be a great place to pick up lunch or dinner. And if you're anything like me, you'll even have leftovers! Don't be afraid to splurge for bigger ticket items like the salmon because they are fresh and definitely worth the few extra bucks.

Click to add a blog post for Eon's Greek Food For Life on Zomato

4/21/15

This is Where to Eat Your Tacos on Cinco de Mayo

If tacos were a food group, I would have no trouble fulfilling that dietary requirement. I love the versatility of those flour or corn tortilla vessels of yumminess--carne asada with tomatillo salsa, mole chicken with toasted sesame seeds, even fried cactus with crumbled queso fresco and I'm game! 

Cafe El Presidente Mexican restaurant

I was recently invited for dinner at Cafe El Presidente, the year-old outpost of the Tacombi chain's well-known Mexican-inspired creations located in the Flatiron district. Walking in, you almost think you've entered a marketplace instead of a sit-down restaurant, with a juice bar on your right, hanging fluorescent lighting above, and black and white checkered tiles below. But then you realize that this is just a rarity in New York: a restaurant with space enough letting you walk around without needing to bump into anyone else. I couldn't help but wonder what used to be in this space as we settled in and I watched the chefs at work in the large open kitchen near our table.

Cafe El Presidente Mexican restaurant dining room

Cafe El Presidente Mexican restaurant kitchen

First things first, drinks. I decided on a margarita with salt (no frills necessary if it's good; $12) and my boyfriend ordered the Oaxacan Old Fashioned (pronounced Wa-HA-Kan for those of you too shy to order it correctly; $14) with mezcal instead of whisky. Both were solid libations, but I'd love to go back and try the Pina Colada ($13) because nothing screams vacation (even if it's just for a few hours) like a pina colada.

Oaxacan Old Fashioned and Margarita
Oaxacan Old Fashioned and Margarita

The menu came, and we were surprised by its understatement. We almost thought that we had to mark off what we wanted with a pencil and just hand it in, as you would to a street cart vendor or something. But alas, it's all part of the ambiance.

Cafe El Presidente menu

We also took the time to admire the impressive selection of hot sauces available on every table. I'm a bit of a whimp when it comes to spice, so I was not about to even touch the "Oro Negro" (literally: black gold) bottle of habanero concentrate and grapeseed oil, although I did admire the numerous warning signs. The other sauces--morita, cascabel, jalapeno, and habanero--were more recognizable and I made a pact with myself to try at least one over the course of the meal.

Cafe El Presidente hot sauces
Hot sauces

To start, we tried the Esquites ($3.95), which was grilled corn with contija cheese and chipotle mayo, and I would HIGHLY recommend it. Served in a cute paper cup, appropriately feeding on the street food theme, it was so good that I could have gobbled up 2. We also had the Ceviche Guerrero ($14.95) served over guacamole. I could taste the freshness of the fish, and the lime juice truly brought out the sweetness as well. Again, I could have made a meal out of just this dish.

Esquites
Esquites

Ceviche Guerrero
Ceviche Guerrero

For our main course, we split the Gringa Madison quesadilla ($7.95) and 6 tacos: al pastor ($2.49), Baja crispy fish ($4.95), Puerco Toluca ($3.49), Nopal de Matehuala ($3.49), Sonoran shrimp ($4.49), and the seared fish de Ixtapaleno ($4.49). Holy my goodness and ay caramba. Note to self: never go here alone.

The quesadilla was served open faced with all sorts of goodies including heritage pork and Chihuahua cheese. It had more of that chipotle mayo which really tied everything together. As for the tacos, my favorite was definitely the Baja crispy fish because it had the perfect ratio of crisp to succulent. I also really loved the Puerco Toluca (chorizo) with the Cascabel hot sauce--see, I tried it! Also, if you've never sampled cactus (nopal), do yourself a favor and try this one. It was paired with swiss chard so I considered it my "vegetable" for the meal.

Gringa Madison Quesadilla
Gringa Madison Quesadilla
nopal, Puerco Toluca, seared fish, Sonoran shrimp tacos
From top left: nopal, Puerco Toluca, seared fish, Sonoran shrimp tacos
Al Pastor and Baja crispy fish tacos
Al Pastor and Baja crispy fish tacos
No meal is ever complete without dessert and at Cafe El Presidente, this means Tres Leches Cake. Literally meaning "three milks," tres leches is your typical sponge cake that sits in a mixture of whole, sweetened condensed, and evaporated milk for a little while to get all moist and creamy. This version is layered with jam and topped with coconut--yum!

Tres Leches Cake
Tres Leches Cake
Taking a look at Cafe El Presidente's brunch menu, it's clear to see why this place is fabulous. Huevos rancheros, empanadas and breakfast tacos? Sign me up! 

For Cinco de Mayo, they are throwing a special France vs Mexico party (with costumes encouraged!). Email info@tacombi.com for reservations.

Cafe El Presidente Cinco de Mayo celebration

So, will I be back? Most definitely. These are some of the most legit tacos I've had in a long time, and that's coming from a California girl. It also helps that the tortillas are made fresh in the kitchen every day in their on-site tortilleria and that all ingredients are sourced sustainably. Come with a date or celebrate with a group, but either way, you're sure to have a delicious fiesta in your mouth.

Disclosure: Our meal was comp'd, but all opinions are my own.

Cafe El Presidente on Urbanspoon

4/2/15

Meet the Indian "Chipotle" Now Open in the Theater District

I'll be the first to admit that having Indian food for lunch often sounds unappealing simply because it's hard to return to my desk and work after a rich, filling, often spicy meal served from an all-you-can-eat buffet. Ironic because I LOVE Indian food. So when I heard about the new fast casual Indian restaurant Chutney Kitchen, which opened up shop in Hell's Kitchen in February, I couldn't wait to try it.


Chutney Kitchen is the brainchild of former finance 9-5'er Silu Sao and her friend since grade school, Pankaj Amin. One morning Sao's 8-year-old daughter asked her why she was working in finance when all she loved was to cook. That week she quit her hedge fund job and enrolled in culinary school. After 2 years of creating recipes reflecting the fresh, high-quality Indian food she likes to eat at home, Sao opened the restaurant with Amin with the goal of providing a light alternative to this cuisine especially geared toward those with special dietary needs like vegetarians and those who eat gluten-free.


The way it works is very much like Chipotle. You choose a base--roti wrap (like a burrito), naan tacos, salad greens, rice bowl, or chaat bowl (garbanzo beans and potatoes)--and then a fill:
  • Charbroiled chicken marinated in yogurt and spices ($8.95)
  • Pulled pork simmered with tangy spices ($8.95)
  • Shredded steak marinated in ginger, garlic and chilies ($9.95)
  • Pan-seared potatoes seared with tumeric, cumin and onions ($7.95)
  • Farmer's cheese (Paneer) sauteed with a 5-spice blend ($8.95)
  • Lentils (Daal) stewed with onions and spices ($7.95)



You can then choose flavors including warm sauces (coconut cashew, tikka, or vindaloo), cold chutneys (date, yogurt, cilantro, or mirchi), and salad dressings (lemon cumin and spicy mango).


If you can't make up your mind (or are just overwhelmed by choices), Chutney Kitchen has some suggestions including the Viva Las Vegas (naan tacos with pulled pork, vindaloo, carrots & cabbage, pickled onions and yogurt and mirchi chutneys) and the Lucy Goosey (Chaat bowl with cucumber and tomatoes, chickpea crunch, and date, yogurt and cilantro chutneys).

I opted for the shredded steak chaat bowl with tikka sauce, carrots & cabbage, corn, chickpea crunch, and yogurt chutney washed down with an Aranciata San Pellegrino. The bowl was enough food for 2 meals for me, which I really appreciated. It was flavorful, yet slightly spicier than I expected. If you don't like spicy, make sure to let the person preparing your food know and they'll steer you clear of anything you won't like.


Other intriguing items on the menu include masala fries ($2.50), hot street chai ($3.50), and mango smoothies ($3.50). The only thing missing was dessert--I would love to see Sao's take on gulab jamun!

Full disclosure: I received a free meal from Chutney Kitchen but the opinions presented here are 100% my own.