FOOD: Rare Bar and Grill

First things first:

Location: Murray Hill area, 303 Lexington Ave (btw 37th and 38th) New York, NY 10016
Cuisine: fancy burgers / grill
Meal eaten here: Lunch
Bar: yeah, but I was on the wagon
Matchbooks: didn't see any

James (my ever faithful dining partner) and I went to Rare, down the block from his apartment, for a Sunday lunch/brunch. Truth be told, we waited way too long to eat, and were both starving, so of course burgers seemed like a good idea (and anyway, when are they not a good idea?). First little minor thing that ticked me toward the negative side was the fact that, even though I'd made an Open Table reservation for Rare (okay, so I did it while we were walking up the block, but still! I should at least get SOME sort of credit when I dine out), I was told they don't take reservations. And yet I'd found them on Open Table and made one. Gripe #1.

So then we get the menus and are picking out what to eat, and the waitress comes over and gives a shpiel selling their rare burgers, which are actually cuts of steak ground into patties and infused with various yummy things like cheese and booze. Yes, please.

I get one of those (The Rare ribeye - flambeed in Bourbon, with Avacado and smoked cheddar, medium rare) and James got The M&M burger (flambeed in whiskey, with applewood smoked bacon and fried onions, medium). We also got a side of truffle fries - shoe string fries drizzles with truffle oil and parmesan. Needless to say, we were hell a excited (not to mention starving, which actually, I think I've already mentioned).

But, alas, this is where Gripe #2 comes in. It took forever to get our food, which, you know, typically sucks, but they didn't even bring out any kind of bread or anything. But, you know what? Fine, no bread. We were gearing up for this delicious burgers, and they'd have bread, so...

Except then they were brought out, and here is Gripe #3. This is a burger place. And it's not a cheap burger place - fifteen to thirty dollars a burger. And the waitress tells us they're known for their burgers, and blah blah blah. So how come, when I get my burger ( including a little flag that says 'medium rare') it's definitely well done. And, thus, largely inedible?

I've never sent food back in a restaurant - I have a sort of phobia about the result that stems from the idea of someone spitting in my food, etc., but I was pretty close to sending this back. It just sort of struck me as ridiculous. Especially because my burger was charred on the outside. Like crispy charred. The chef should've noticed, at the very least, and not served it. A pox on his saltshaker! Well, not actually, but, yeah. James was kind enough to give me half of his burger (his medium was definitely medium rare). The taste of both (rareness aside) was only just okay, nothing spectacular. And the fries were just average. Again, nothing special, especially for the price. Needless to say, probs won't be dining here again too soon...

Final Verdict:
* out of *****

Price range:
$$ out of $$$

I'd go again:
If Outback Steakhouse and Fuddrucker's went out of business.
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FOOD: Docks Oyster Bar and Seafood Grill

Woot! Two posts in one week. Take that, longstanding goal. (Enter roundhouse kick of joy, Chuck Norris style)!

So, chronologically in my culinary experiences, this actually came after my trip to Gramercy Tavern, but I forgot about it in the face of the Gramercy's food coma, so here we are.

Let's start with the thousand foot view: (there is prossibly a google map of this somewhere)

Address: 633 3rd Ave (at 40th street) NY, NY
Cuisine: Upscale Seafood / Raw Bar
Meal eaten here: Dinner
Bar: You bet your whiskey sour
Have matchbooks: the pyro in me rejoiced

And for the specifics:

We (James and I) arrived on Friday night around 8, prime restaurant time in the city, but they sat us right away, which was, frankly, a pretty pleasant surprise. We both ordered drinks (James was classy and got white wine, while I was a liquor whore and ordered this concoction called the Twilight martini), and these were served pretty quickly alongside some bread and sesame seed crackers. James' wine was lovely, while my drink was pretty bitter and really strong (I'm a lightweight at best, but this thing had me seeing stars. Talk about a cheap date.). All I can say is, with the name and the description, I was expecting something tangy-sweet, but what I got was cold and clammy. Guess they're Team Edward.

Because James had once told me he had tried and loved them, and because I'm trying this thing where I try a new food as often as I can (but not if there's duck on the menu, or meatballs...mmm meatballs), and because it was an oyster bar, we order raw (wait for it) no, not oysters...raw clams. There were two kinds (one was sort of little and slimey, and the other was much bigger, and slimier) and they came with a cocktail sauce and horseradish, as well as an obligatory lemon. I liked both, but the larger one was a little imposing for a first timer, so
I had to cut them in half, which is, of course, uncouth (good thing F Scott Fitzgerald wasn't in the room), but I liked them nonetheless.

For our meals, I had the salmon on these scht-(some word, probably German) bits which were basically in-between gnocchi and pasta, but thinner and stringier with spinach, and James got linguine in clam sauce. James' dish won hands down: delicious, light sauce, linguine was properly cooked, clams were cooked with a white wine sauce and weren't chewy, and overall it was a thumbs up. My salmon was well cooked, but nothing, I thought, to write home about. The sfdiofrhw bed that it was on was all right, but I would have preferred something less mushy, like rice, maybe, on the side.

We didn't order dessert (woe!), so I can't comment on that, but there was someone at the table next to us who I think was a famous sports coach of some kind (mostly because people kept coming up to him and being like coach this and coach that. Also, he was a older and with a leggy blonde half his age. But James had his back to him and I'm not good at following sports so, I guess, don't take my word for it).

Overall impression was that it was a nice place, thought I wasn't blown away by anyting we had (thats not to say it was bad; I'm just hard to impress food wise bc half my family could be on Iron Chef).. The basics (linguine w clam sauce and wine) were good, while anything a bit more complicated (my drink, salmon strehj stuff) were just all right. The quality of the raw fish was nice, but I wasn't blown away by anything--maybe we should have ordered something different, but I think fish at an oyster bar should have been a sure bet. Maybe they're better at brunch (there was a big sign in the window advertising a bottomless brunch that looked really quite good), but for my money, Lure in Soho is still my favorite raw bar (and burger place--go figure) in the city. That said, the atmosphere was nice, and made for a good date night. Plus, they did have matchbooks.

Final Verdict:
** and a half out of *****

$$ out of $$$

I'd go again:
If Lure was closed, or Sinigual across the street had a wait.
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FOOD: The Gramercy Tavern

Well, blog, it's been another long while (must we go on this way?) but I've returned to you at last, with a new commitment to broaden my reviewing horizons. Yes, we're traversing that most dangerous of landscapes--the world of cuisine. So, as my cab-driver's, best friend's, hairdresser's, sushi-chef's younger cousin used to say--allez cuisine!

James (long-term bf) and I took our stomachs out to Gramercy Tavern to celebrate our five year anniversary tonight. Bear with me as I try this restaurant thing for the first time--I'll have to begin at the beginning.

Address: 42 E 20th St, New York, NY 10003
Cuisine: French Comfort Food / Rustic
Meal eaten here: Dinner
Bar: Good to get lit. Speaking of lit...
Have matchbooks: light me up, Charlie

Basically, there are two dining areas to the restaurant - the front room, which is more like a pub decor-wise, and the back room(s), which is/are more upscale (white table cloths, tasting menus, dress code, the whole nine yards). There are two different menus, depending on where you sit, and, since we were in the fancy-schmancy back room (it was 5 years, after all) that's the one I'll be discussing.

For that menu, you can either choose from two tasting menus -- six courses each (see http://www.gramercytavern.com/mobile/menu/) or order from a pretty extensive prix fixe sort of menu, which includes a starter, a main course, and a dessert (including a pre-starter amuse bouche, a post-main palate cleanser pre-dessert, post-dessert petit fours, and even a take-away oatmeal muffin in a baggie for the next morning).

The food was good over all. For starters, James had the smoked trout, and I got the rabbit fettucine. Pre-starter, as we sipped wine, they served fresh baked bread and a puffed potato ball with a hard grated cheese (parmaggiano reggiano, if I had to hazard a guess) to amuse our bouches, and ours were, indeed, in fairly good spirits as we dove into the first course. James' trout was great - melted in your mouth, and the smokey, fatty fish flavor paired perfectly with the pickled onion. My rabbit fettucine was good as well-the sauce was light and salty, and the rabbit was tender, although not exactly mouth-melting. Could have done without the brussels sprouts, personally, but it wasn't bad.

The next course was the main--James ordered the lamb rack and shoulder, and I got the duck. Let me preface this with saying that I am a self-proclaimed duck snob. Nine times out of ten, if it's on a menu, I'm all over it. I was a little skeptical about the pairing with the duck on the menu (rather than a sweet compliment like a fruit sauce, which is my preference by far, the Gramercy paired their duck with cabbage and mushrooms, much more earthy than typical preparations), but I went for it anyway, because, like I said, I'm on duck like Daisy on Donald (hm off-color metaphor, much?).

One thing that was nice about both James' lamb and my duck was that the portions were reasonable, but not miserly; there was definitely enough to get your fill without being stuffed to the point where breathing becomes difficult. The food itself was well-cooked (my duck was medium inside, without my having to specify it, and James' lamb was cooked to his specification of medium as well), though there were a few little issues that, in my humble opinion, kept both dishes from being really stellar. Let's start with the lamb: overall, good presentation and pretty good pairing with the greens it came with. The thing that got me, though, was that they left the fat on, which tends to impart lamb with a flavor that's a little too overwhelmingly, well, lamby. I'd rather have less meat to eat, but more that's ready-to-eat -- ie doesn't require me to pick the fat off the meat, and vice versa. That being said, the flavor was good and it married pretty well with the sides (mushrooms and greens--very light and low in carbs, too).

As for the duck, the confit was perfectly crispy and delightful, and the duck breast (stewed till it was extremely tender) was also lovely. I felt that the mushrooms and cabbage were a little too one-note with the duck (would have definitely preferred something a little more citrusy or fruity to cut through the gamey, fatty taste of the duck). Also, it was a teeny bit too salty for my taste (yes, I'd love some cheese with my whine, actually.) Ultimately, though, it's silly of me to complain since I ate the whole thing without any real issues.

The best part of the meal, in my opinion, came last. As a rule, I love dessert (eat it first, that's my motto)" and, at the Gramercy, they fed you three delicious courses of it. The first was a palate-cleansing mandarin jello with a touch of custard and a delicate meringue coin, this was light, airy, tangy, and exactly what the doctor ordered. Next came our dessert orders (James chose the chocolate bread pudding, while I opted for the Sticky Toffey and Fig cake.) These were superb. Like I said, I love dessert, but I often find that, at restaurants, desserts are overly sweet, entirely too rich, and totally unappetizing after the first few bites, because you're a. Pretty full from the main course, and b. Unable to want more after the richness of the first few bites. This dessert - not so. Both our dishes were ooey, gooey, warm, and wonderful. Both James and I licked our plates clean ( and he doesn't even like dessert! ) so kudos to the dessert chef, very well played.

After dessert came a lovely set of petit fours (chocolate macaroon that was good, if a little dry, a lovely lemon meringue bite, and a chocolate with coffee creme filling. After dinner, they presented us with individually wrapped, home made oatmeal muffins for breakfast tomorrow morning-very nice!

Overall, the service was terrific--we were constantly attended to, water-wise, and our silverware was meticulously changed after each dish. The waitstaff were helpful and polite; great experience.

Though the main dishes could have been tweaked a bit for my palate, the food was generally thoughtfully prepared, and the desserts were unparalleled. The service was great, and the atmosphere was lovely. For a special occasion in New York, the Gramercy is definitely a front runner.

Final Verdict:
*** and 1/2 stars our of *****

Price Range:
$$$ out of $$$

I'd go again:
For a really special occasion / If my lottery ticket cashed in.
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LITERATURE: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I couldn't help it this time, I think. What between work and editing The Greats, and trying to eke out some form of social existence along the way, the reviews have gone sadly by the wayside.

But a new resolution is to post much more regularly.


So let's take a look at a book I polished off today, home sick from work with a migraine. Cormac McCarthy's The Road isn't exactly what most people might pick up for some light reading. On the one hand, it was, I thought, pretty disturbing and had some moderately horrifying and extremely violent details.

Case in point: the body of a headless infant being roasted on a spit over a fire.

I couldn't even type that without feeling my flesh crawl.

But this is getting off on the wrong foot. What I'm trying to say is that despite details that were graphic and explicit--both of physical and emotional turmoil--I think this book is an incredible testament to the nature of goodness and the persistence of compassion, especially that of children, even in the most excruciating circumstances.

So, starting with that lofty little affirmation, what is The Road about, exactly? Unfortunately, I'm not able to tell you, exactly. That is, the gist is that the world has been ravaged by something that caused the sun to effectively go out (or perhaps by the sun's own flares, which, biologically speaking, could, potentially, cause it to go out).It's cold. It's dark. When it snows (which is does a whole lot) it's grey. And, to add insult to post-apocalyptic injury, the few people that are left are largely a sick, almost tribal species that loots, kills, rapes, enslaves, and cannibalizes.

But amid all this, there's a nameless father and son trying to survive. The father does whatever it takes--heroic and incredibly touching--to defend and nourish his child. The boy, for his part, is only about 9 or 10, and has little to no memory of what the world used to be. Despite that, though, he still holds out hope for the goodness of humanity, and has an incredible empathy for everyone they meet that seems to transcend (or perhaps illustrate?) his age.

What I loved about the book was, undeniably, the style (even the paragraphs are blocks of text, with nary a decoration--even at the expense of apostrophes in conjunctions), and the exquisite hopelessness with which it was written. In the grand scheme of things, not a whole ton happens. They scavenege for food everywhere, they avoid and sometimes run into some really brutal people, and some really unfortunate ones, they run out of food, they make camp, etc. But the writing is so taught and airtight, so incredibly full of the expectation of something horrible, that every page turn leaves you on edge. It completely captured the world they lived in--where danger lay in wait and you had to expect the worst everywhere.

It also really got to an ugly, ugly core of humanity, and brought it, glistening in all of its pus and decay, to the forefront of the story. I think, speaking theoretically, if the world ended tomorrow for all save, perhaps, a hundred or so people in total, we would all like to think that those hundred people would find each other and build a community and start the world anew. I think we'd all expect that, to some extent, the idea that you were the last ones standing would somehow bond you together in a way that allowed you to put aside notions of power and race and greed. But McCarthy very deftly allows for a situation where those aspect of society aren't simply brushed away by disaster. Instead, they're magnified to the extent that women are kept around and impregnated constantly so that the children can be eaten. Certain groups and characters in the novel effectively turn humans into nothing more than sources of food. It's sick. It's disgusting. But as you read, part of you really wonders whether or not every one of those last hundred or so people would be able to do the "good" thing, and try to rebuild instead of take advantage and pollute. McCarthy's answer, it seems, is both yes and no. Some people would reveal the most criminal parts of themselves, while others, like the father and son, maintain their identities as "good guys."

Part of me, on reflection, thinks that that's due to the presence of the boy. There were times in the novel where it looks like the father would have killed / stolen / etc on behalf of their survival, but the boy's conscience always keeps them from doing anything that might be anything less than good. It's a beautiful notion--the overcoming of fear and starvation and the distrust of virtually all other people to arrive at a place where you do everything you can to maintain your "goodness." And so that's the running question in the boy's mind: Are we still the good guys? Are we carrying the light?

In the end, they ARE carrying the light.
And (lest I try to escape a post without indelible cheesiness), I'm holding a flame for this book.

***** out of *****
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LITERATURE: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

So the reviews about this book on Amazon (where I went to look up the spelling of the authors' names) were sort of mixed. Some were really good, others really poor. All the good ones, though, seemed to tout this as a purely thriller / actiony novel, a "quick and dirty" read that must, inevitably, I suppose, be compared to Dan Brown's work, since it, like his Da Vinci Code, features a historically-based mystery that gets solved by smart people who happen to know stuff / have the ability to figure out stuff that's eluded the most brilliant of minds for ages.

I have to agree that this was definitely an interesting enough action book -- I sped through it in a matter of a few evenings, and found the pacing very much to my liking for a plot like this--the clues were revealed quickly, and the solutions didn't take forever to puzzle out. I also really did enjoy the unfolding of the double plotlines Caldwell and Thomason developed--the mystery revealed at the center of the historical text that the main characters puzzle out, the Hypnerotomachia, a real text, by the way, and the sort of murder / real life professorial conspiracy that happens in the foreground.

Ultimately, though, what I noticed and liked most about this novel had nothing to do with the mystery (either one). In fact, while I found the murder plot interesting, I found that the Hypnerotomachia mystery fell sort of flat. It was too complex for the average reader (or any reader, for that matter) to puzzle out because it was so intensely ingrained in history; I felt like someone would have had to have read the complete historical, artistic, and literary breadth of 17-18th century Italy to even be able to grasp at straws (which, frankly, may have been totally wrong and unfounded because the keys to the mystery are entirely fictional). This is somewhat different from the Da Vinci Code, which, though fictional, was at least somehow based on artistic / historic fact; the Hypernotomachia, in contrast is unraveled in total unrealism.

But back to what I liked about the book. I found that the biggest success of these two young (at the time) writers, came from their adherence to the age-old adage of writing what they know. Caldwell and Thomason, graduates of Princeton and Harvard (respectively?), detail the Ivy league college experience well. I'm probably totally biased since Princeton is my alma mater, but then again, maybe, on the contrary, I'm a good judge. I felt like they captured both sides of the Ivy league lawn--the rich, traditional side, and the poorer, more down to earth aspect that most people tend to forget. While their characters were a bit caricaturist, I felt like their explanations of Princeton traditions, right down to the eating clubs, danced well along the edge of being good for Princeton grads and non-Princeton grads alike. It was enjoyable regardless of your personal experiences, filled with the kind of interest in the other half that you get from reading F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, their details and love of Princeton's Ivy towers filled me with the same kind of pride and obsession that I got from the parts of This Side of Paradise that I read (review to come when I finish it!).

Overall, though there were parts that were fairly trivial, and others that were somewhat pretentious, I thought this was a great combination of action and mystery, in the perfect setting for tradition and discovery. Though I'm not going to pretend that my love of the setting didn't totally tip my enjoyment of the book up.

*** and 1/2 out of *****
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LITERATURE: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Let me start by saying that this review is probably helplessly biased. Because, in my eyes, when it comes to dystopian novels featuring women, Ms. Atwood is tops.

I mean, The Handmaid's Tale is absolutely a classic, a staple in any dystopia-lovers collection, as necessary, if you ask me, as Brave New World or 1984. It is one of those dystopias that has the society as the perfect backdrop and compliment to the real meat of the story--the individual's life. And, if we thought she'd outdone herself with the Puritanistic society in THT, she blows us (or at least me) totally away with Oryx and Crake, which I've been fervently recommending to people since I read it a few years back. It. Was. Baller.

And not only because I happen to have a fondness for science-fictiony stuff that focuses on great storytelling. The world Atwood created in Oryx and Crake was unbelievably real. Down to the very extinction of animals, and the ability to watch executions online. It was the very picture of what could really happen to our current society with a little ballooning and enough time. That's what I loved most about it--how I could really see what was going on in our society dissolving into her world of fiction based in fact. It was mesmerizing.

But then, when I heard that The Year of the Flood was coming out, I have to admit that I was totally skeptical. Despite absolutely adoring Oryx and Crake, I've seen enough bad sequels to think twice. Even good authors sometimes take a nosedive, and I really wasn't looking forward to slashing and burning what I'd loved about O and C in a sequel.

But what Atwood does (serves me right for ever doubting her!) is incredible. Both from a fiction-writing standpoint and from a series standpoint. The Year of the Flood is neither a sequel nor a prequel. It's a simultane-quel, a retelling of an already incredible story, but the retelling happens in such a way that makes it unlike anything else I've ever read. Specifically, The Year of the Flood happens not to the main characters from Oryx and Crake, but nor does it happen to completely unrelated individuals. The focus of this new novel are characters who are exactly one step removed from the people in Oryx and Crake--friends of friends, almost--which makes them perfect story-bearers who know enough of the conspiracy but who also have their own lives and own problems.

Even without reading Oryx and Crake (it's been a real while since I read it, so most of the details had faded away, sadly), The Year of the Flood still makes perfect sense and is a novel that can stand alone in its own right. And, even better (?) it offers the same kind of world-building satisfaction that Atwood accomplishes in the first novel. The facets of this new, futuristic world are developed further, and we even get to experience aspects of the society that we'd never seen before. All in all, it makes perfect sense that Atwood wrote this second novel--she obviously had more story left to tell in this incredibly developed world that she invented, and who wants to leave when they're only half-finished?

I also loved that Atwood's focus here was on two main women -- Toby and Ren, who live together in this religious commune known as the Gardeners. They are both strong characters, both real in different ways, earthy and relatable and modern all at once. They exemplify what Atwood does best in my eyes; no matter what her story or plot, she always remembers that it's characters and people that move things forward. And, no matter if it's the past of the future, people's fundamental issues and insecurities will always make them relateable. After all, we're only human.

My one fairly infinitesimal gripe (and the reason I lowered the score by half a star) was that the plot seemed sort of slow to start and get going; though the found the second half utterly tantalizing, I found the beginning of Oryx and Crake to be better, somehow, at drawing you in and keeping up the pace. Either way, fantastic read. Highly recommended.

**** and 1/2 out of *****
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LITERATURE: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

I found The Lovely Bones to be, in a word, delovely. And delightful. And delicious. It was heartbreaking and beautiful, with flowing, wonderful prose and meaningful, thoughtful characters.

I don't mean to keep littering it with praise like every other review has, but it's been a while since I read something that was simultaneously a can't-put-this-down mystery / thriller / murder book, and a book that made me think profoundly about death, love, and what it means to live.

Death is always a touchy, strange sort of thing in literature. When you see it happen via murder or old age, see the burial, see the aftermath, it is always from a third-person sort of view. Once the character in question is gone, everything about them ceases; the light goes out. Their consciousness is gone.

In The Lovely Bones, that problem of discontinuity, that missing hole in the plot, is eliminated because Susie Salmon starts from and continues to speak from beyond the grave, after her rape and murder by her neighbor.

Susie is the perfect narrator; her age is ideal--she's at the prime of life, not quite a child, but not as jaded as an adult. She is on the brink of everything and here, in the worst kind of tragedy, her life is taken. I've already said it, but I'll say it again: heartbreaking. And that's not what surprised me most about a novel that I half-thought would have been an over-hyped bestseller like The Lost Symbol. It's not only the narrator that's great--it's the whole construct of the plot. The very first thing that happens is the worst one, and yet the novel is totally wrought with suspense, the whole way through. And yet the suspense doesn't get in the way of the plot, of the beautiful developments of the still-living characters--of Susie's family, her love interest, the oddball friend, Ruth.

Susie's vision of heaven, even, is simultaneously stunning and eerie, strange and lovely without being overly perfect or filled with sunshiney clouds. It reminded me a lot of the heaven in one of my favorite movies-- What Dreams May Come. And yet perhaps the most beautiful part of the whole thing is that Sebold manages to really give her not only a heaven, but also a final taste of earth, a first taste of the love, the sex, and the adulthood that Susie spends the whole novel dreaming of--all without being overthetop, or cheesy, or unbelieveable. It is the cherry on top of a well-envisioned world; it makes perfect sense. As much as I wanted to be like GAH! That's awful stupid happy ending blah blah blah, I couldn't. Because it was just right.

It fit perfectly, all the pieces together, even the way in which the family breaks and then reassembles. Some people, my friend Michelle, for instance, take some issue with it, the way the mother left and then was able to reconcile. But I thought it was more believable than if they'd all just managed to adjust. People experience horror, and then break, but then survive. And in Sebold's world, I truly believe the way in which it happens.

It's an achievement. I loved it.

***** out of *****
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