Saturday, July 29, 2006

TLC's Dinner Takes All

Friends recently gathered at Cafe Drake to watch our basic cable debut, as a contestant on The Learning Channel's Dinner Takes All television series. The premise of the show is that hosts take turns cooking and dining at each other's homes, and judge the quality of the evening's fares whilst being taxied home. The experience was a mixed success: fellow competitors attacked the challenge with a zest for winning we couldn't quite muster (due to the seasonal heat in large part) and informed with less than stellar palattes; but Cafe Drake remained true to its core and dished up four formal courses based upon historical recipes from the files of the White House. The menu is below followed by a link to the show's website, where you can check the schedule for repeats, grab recipes and more.

From the White House of James and Dolly Madison
Spring Split Pea Soup with Ham and Green Onion Corncakes

From the White House of Ulysses and Julia Grant
Hearts of Romaine with Chutney Dressing and Gloucester Cheddar

From the White House of John and Jacqueline Kennedy
Filets of John Dory in a Green Peppercorn Sauce
Braised Fresh Artichoke Hearts

From the White House of Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter
Georgia Pecan Pie with Chinese 5-Spice Ice Cream

Show Cafe Drake some love at: !!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

West Village (Mini) Restaurant Reviews

Tartine, 253 W. 11th St at corner of W. 4th St, New York, NY (212) 229-2611 [TOP PHOTO]

Cowgirl Hall of Fame, (519 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014 at 10th St. 212-633-1133)

The Spotted Pig (314 W. 11th St, New York, NY 10014 212-620-03930

We love the quiet leafy streets of the West Village. Cobblestoned and cooled by breezes from the Hudson, this shady enclave of historical buildings and luxury homes seems miles away from the bustle of (1 block away!) 8th Avenue. And while weekend crowds can spoil the mood (steer clear of the pedestrian-clogged likes of Bleecker or Christopher streets), there are plenty of unique restaurants and bars that capture the mood and laidback ambiance of the neighborhod. Only 3 establishments will be discussed here today, but check back soon for Part 2 of our West Village dining survey.

Tartine is the sort of place New Yorkers love to take out-of-town guests as much as they love to pop in themselves, on a weeknight or lazy Sunday afternoon. So beloved is Tartine among the area's denizens, a line outside the door for a table seems inevitable. We've been going on and off for 15 years and have never walked in to be seated immediately. Have a little patience (helped along by a bottle of wine, which you can bring yourself - Tartine is so old skool they don't insult patrons with a corkage fee) and know that your wait will be justified. Everything is good on the small menu, but recently top accolades went to a starter of endive and roquefort ($8.95) and the spicy fried chicken with guacamole and french fries ($17.95). Fried chicken and guacamole in a French joint you ask? Why not? The kitchen at Tartine isn't interested in global fusion; they just have an open mind. Now if they could only convince some of the tired neighboring bistros, still turning out retreads of their 1998 menus.

Former mayor Rudy Guiliani's masterplan to turn Manhattan into a theme park always had a few antecedents, none more gauche perhaps than Hudson Street's Cowgirl Hall of Fame. Long before Disney evicted the former colorful theaters and strip clubs of Times Square, Cowgirl Hall of Fame was serving fried miscellania to West Village residents in its family-friendly take on Coyote Grotesque. Resembling nothing so much as a deep fryer decorated with wagon wheels and dusty props from the set of Bonanza, this tourist trap, we are sad to report, is as horrific as remembered. Seems the years of both food presentation innovations and a return to simple, pure ingredients have not been kind to this strip-mall relic; we doubt we'd eat there if it was the only cafe in a one-horse town! In a mistake typical to all not familiar with America's South, the menu combines East Coast pulled pork bbq and catfish and fixins with Texas-style Mexican standbys, as if the two regions had anything in common other than being at the bottom of North America. We sampled from both cuisines: chicken wings in an jalepeno tomato sauce ($5.95 for a half order), Texas beef ribs ($15.95) and Georgia fried catfish ($14.95). The latter was the strangest of the bastardizations; the fish arrived coated with a dark brown crust of thick and pastey fried flour. Quick ya'll - Long John Silver's is missing their batter! Sides of rice and brocolli were bizarre and unwelcome; if aunthenticity were an issue the fish would have been lightly dusted with cornmeal, quickly deep-fried and served alongside coleslaw and hushpuppies. Consolation points however go to the complimentary basket of chips served with house-made black-eyed pea salsa. Bright flavors of chile pepper and cilantro marry well with the creamy earthiness of the beans in this original take on an old standby.

Saving the best for last, The Spotted Pig still lives up to all of its earlier hype . . . and criticism. The seating is insanely crowded, the clientele obnoxiously ostentatious (and not particularly attractive or well-styled), but the service and quality of the food outweigh any complaints you may register. Prices are steep, but every dish arriving from the kitchen is so well thought out, so stellar in quality of ingredients, so intelligently seasoned it seems stingy to fault the sticker shock sure to arrive with the check. A starter of Smoked Haddock Chowder ($12.95) was welcome even on an infernally hot day, laced with lardons of bacon, creamy potatoes and rich chunks of impeccable fish. An unexpected twist renders the soup with a fish stock base and not a spot of cream in site (or missed). So addictive are the tiny house-made soda water crackers served on the side, we've renamed them "crack". The burgers ($15.95) are perfect and served rare (unless requested otherwise) and come with tiny shoestring fries and a brioche bun. Roasted rabbit ($24.95) is the very definition of tender and subtle, with most of the flavor coming from the moist meat and pan au jus. A cheese plate ($12.95 for 2 choices) is on the small side but a lovely end to a hearty dinner. Many wines are available by the glass, including a bargain sparkling rose ($8) and a deep, complex California Pinot Noir ($12).

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Dinner en homage Dorothy Draper

We've been completely taken with the current Dorothy Draper exhibit at The Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd St.). In addition to the large display of vintage Draper furniture, textiles, sketches and more, the building itself is an architectural beauty, and the neighborhood of Spanish Harlem is teeming with Latin groceries and authentic tacquerias for food shopping and dining after your tour. One of the Draper exhibit's treasures can be found in a glass case on the left corridor - a menu from the Camelia Room restaurant(designed of course by Dorothy) of the Drake Hotel, circa 1940s. In tribute to this influential pioneer, and to the grandeur of meals of a time long past, Cafe Drake proposes the dinner below, comprised of favorite recipes suitable for your most refined guests.

Cocktails with Bacon-Wrapped and Broiled Chicken Livers to start . . .

followed by Singapore Salad

1 qt. mung bean sprouts (the large ones) / 1 pt. boiling water / 1 avocado, sliced thinly / 1 red bell pepper, diced / 1 t. dry mustard / juice of 1 lemon / 1 T. tarragon vinegar / 3 T. olive oil / pinch of sugar / salt and pepper
  1. Pour boiling water over bean sprouts. Drain immediately, pat dry and chill.
  2. Place a mound of sprouts on a chilled salad plate. Dress with avocado and bell pepper. Return to refrigerator.
  3. Mix dressing (all remaining ingredients) and pour over chilled composed salads and serve.

moving on to Fritz's Frog Legs

30 frog legs (available frozen but often fresh at Asian markets) / 2 cups dry white wine / 1/4 cup snipped chives / 1/2 cup dry sherry / 2 T. butter / 2 T. flour / 1 cup cream / salt and white pepper to taste

  1. Simmer the frog legs in the white wine and chives (save a few for garnish) for 15 minutes.
  2. Remove the frog legs to a bowl and cover with the sherry. Let sit for 1 hour.
  3. Make a thick white sauce with the butter, flour and cream. Season with salt and white pepper.
  4. Place legs in a casserole and cover with white sauce. Warm in a low oven (300 degrees or so) for about 15 minutes until sauce bubbles. Serve at once garnished with a few chives.

and for dessert . . . Apricot Omelette

1 oz. kirsch / 1 cup apricot preserves / 6 free-range eggs (at room temperature) / 2 T. ice water / pinch of salt / 2 t. sugar / 2 T. butter / 1 t. powdered sugar

  1. Blend the kirsch and preserves and set aside. Preheat broiler.
  2. Blend 3 eggs with 1 T. water, tiny bit of salt and 1 t. sugar. Melt butter in hot pan and add eggs. Prepare omelette, adding 3 T. or more of apricot mixture to center of eggs before closing up the omelette.
  3. Sprinkle the top of omelette with 1/2 t. powdered sugar and run under broiler just to glaze.
  4. Serve at once and repeat steps above for the second omelette.

All dishes above will serve 4 quite comfortably, or 6 with lighter summer appetites.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Ditties to Dine By

Cafe Drake has hit a minor snafu regarding our promised podcasts; namely, we're technologically inept (good at sherry trifles, bad at computers) and secondly, in our debut attempt to craft said podcast we've been informed of certain arcane copyright laws. Well this isn't our first time at the rodeo boys, and you can all rest assured these setbacks will be circumvented, but for now we'll submit a humble playlist per the request of several Cafe Drake web fans.

Music sets moods throughout our daily lives as we all know, but your subway commute list, or songs in heavy rotation for the elliptical trainer, may not be as appropriate for social gatherings. Below you will find suggestions for a well-rounded evening, beginning with the upbeat festive background so necessary for cocktails, following through to majestic setpieces guaranteed to compliment your ravishing entree and dessert. Depending on the guests assembled, tailor the volume and selection to specific tastes. And remember that while you may enjoy geeking out on matching bpm, nobody wants to slurp oysters or spoon soup on a dancefloor, so save the turbo bass for apres-dining dancing.

Dinner Playlist #1

At the House of the Clerkenwell Kid - The Real Tuesday Weld
We Just Won't Be Defeated - The Go! Team
Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams - Kay Starr
Kiss Me Deadly - Lita Ford
Edge of Seventeen - Stevie Nicks
Same Old Scene - Roxy Music
The Party's Crashing Us - Of Montreal
You Were Always On My Mind - Pet Shop Boys
Town Called Malice - The Jam
and now we move to the table for our first course . . .
My Baby Just Cares For Me - Nina Simone
Armeggedon - CocoRosie
Chemicals - The Notwist
Never Let Me Down - Depeche Mode
Miss You - Rolling Stones
Anyone Who Had a Heart - Dusty Springfield
Ode to Billie Joe - Bobby Gentry
Dream - The Everly Brothers
Across the Universe - Fiona Apple
Love is Strange - Mickie and Sylvia
Did I Step on Your Trumpet - Danielson
Start Wearing Purple - Gogol Bordello
Bird Girl - Antony and the Johnsons
Oh You Pretty Things - David Bowie
The Genocide Ball - The Robot Ate me
Venus in Furs - The Velvet Underground
Red Desert - Pernice Brothers
Heard Somebody Say - Devendra Banhart
Chicago - Sufjan Stevens
Pasadena - Goldie Hawn
Lady Bird - Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood
Coming Down the Hill - El Perro Del Mar
Wuthering Heights - Kate Bush

It's all about the mix, keeping diners amused and surprised, and moving the tempo up and down throughout the meal. Hopefully, if, your wine flight has been carefully chosen (and your cocktails sufficiently strong) you'll have a merry old singalong by the time coffee is brewed and digestifs are poured.

Al Fresco Appetites

Cafe Drake regrets that we currently have no open-air dining options, so how lucky for us to spend an enchanted summer evening at the home of Jen and Anthony in Clinton Hill. Behind the tree-lined streets (a charming combo of grit and gorgeous pre-War architecture), several trees - and flower beds and rose bushes and bunches of herbs - grow in Brooklyn. Dining under a striped canopy, provided with an endless stream of grilled offerings (vegetable skewers, tender eggplant slices, marinated mushrooms, crispy charred chicken and spice-rubbed pork chops) and chilled white and rose wines, the group seen above noshed away the night. As if the table wasn't groaning already under the happy weight of so many seasonal victuals, we started the dinner with Manhattans, bruschetta and fresh mozzerella and a sweet and savory salad of mangoes and hearts of palm. We could go on and on about the hot buttered corn, the essence of freshness conveyed through a variety of just-plucked herbs (is there anything more delightful than summer oregano?) and the homemade strawberry shortcake for dessert, but will simply leave you with just the pictures above. And time to find a way to scam an invite to this most exclusive of dining destinations.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Dinner with David and Dessert recipe to follow . . .

We're thinking Citizen David as seen above is channeling the late and great Orson Welles, grandly pondering the camera in all its deep focus glory. While our recent dinner would have seemed pedestrian to Charles Foster Kane no doubt, the basic unadorned menu (see below) is perfect for the relaxed essence of summer.

Gin and Tonics
Turkey and Black Bean Chili
Feta-stuffed Cornbread
Homemade Butterscotch Pudding with Fresh Bing Cherries
A far cry from the chemical taste of the instant variety, this ode to inimitable childhood pleasures is worth the minimum effort it requires to prepare. Top with unsweetened whipped cream if desired, or for company, spoon over warm brownies or fresh peaches.
4 T. butter / 3/4 cup dark brown sugar / 2 cups milk / 5 T. flour / 1/4 t. salt / 2 eggs, beaten / 1/2 t. vanilla
  1. Melt butter and sugar over medium heat until syrupy. Add 1 2/3 cups milk and cook until very hot.
  2. Blend in the flour, salt and remaining 1/3 cup milk with a whisk. Stir quickly and add ingredients gradually to avoid severe clumping. Stir frequently for 15 minutes.
  3. Stir some of the hot mixture into the beaten eggs, then add to saucepan. Cook for 2 more minutes stirring vigorously.
  4. Remove from heat, cool slightly, stir in vanilla and then refrigerate until firm.

Williamsburg Restaurant (mini)Reviews for July 2006

The retro-styled logo of the Roebling Tea Room captures the laid-pack-with-panache feel of the restaurant itself.And down this charming street sits the dificil-to-find Mojito Loco.

Roebling Tea Room (143 Roebling Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211)
Mojito Loco (102 Meserole St., Brooklyn, NY 11206)
Valdiano's (659 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11222)

Occupying a vast former factory space in Central Williamsburg is one of the coziest spots for a cup of tea, coffee, draught beer or glass of vino (the choices are remarkably good - even the house white at $5 a pop). Airy and yet intimate, the fresh-scrubbed bar/cafe/restaurant offers a pleasant respite from the heavy foot traffic of Metropolitan Avenue, and seems miles away from the chaotic charmlessness of Bedford Avenue. We take a miniscule amount of umbrage with nods to certain ubiquitous design elements, namely the wall of wooden stag heads; does this overplayed leitmotif occur outside of urban sprawl? Are New Yorkers collectively craving pastoral comfort in the form of sylvan critters and pine tree references? Moving on to the food (or crawling towards it as was the recent case with our none too fleet-footed waiter), Roebling Tea Room boasts a small but selective menu of sandwiches, casseroles and salads, with reinforcements coming from a blackboard of daily specials. All sandwiches are large and satisfying in portion, sided with cornichons (thankfully in abundance for those of us liking to get our pickled on) and potato salad (nicely seasoned but the potatoes need more cooking). Lunch is the perfect time to sample a "plate" from the menu - the smoked salmon ($8) is a standout, heaped with thick slices of fish, grated beet salad and dilled sour cream sauce. The tuna salad sandwich ($7) is all about the capers (wish they used the ones preserved with salt and not brine, but oh my, we're being picky again), and comes dressed mayo-free but tart with vinegar and quality olive oil. It's all mashed between ultra-thick slices of toasted black bread, themselves slathered with superior tapenade. Delicious!

Maybe we lingered too long during the cocktail hour (and consumed too much), but Mojito Loco would seem to require a Blackberry equipped with GPS to actually locate. The first attempt was abandoned in favor of nearby Italian food, but our second search party was determined. As Octavio Fenech led us deeper into the decrepit streets of East Willimsburg, we began to doubt this particular quest, but before we could cry uncle we stumbled upon the ill-placed Latin eatery. No relief upon stepping into a poorly-ventilated box of a room distinguished primarily by a widescreen TV. The namesake beverages - ordered before closing the door behind us - turned out to be syrupy concoctions of water and mint and inexplicably priced at $9-$10 each. The good news is you can, without fear or danger, share with small children and those heavily medicated on barbituates so low is the actual alcohol content. Fried plantain chips were replinished twice as waited for our food, and the complimentary snacks are satisfying in the manner of all deep-fried starch (ask for a side of "hot sauce" for dipping, milder than a Florida breeze but fresh and homemade). The ceviche is budget-priced at $8.50 but big on flavor; loads of fish are served simply dressed with lime juice and cilantro, and the waitress supplied a spoon for the leftover marinade! Skip by all means the pork sandwich ($9) and fries - both were bland and chewy and utterly boring (though a few bonus points for the side of garlic mayo).

Residents of North Brooklyn are no strangers to the concept of the dining room behind the pizza parlour; often remarkable home cooking is served behind the front pie counter in what used to be a primarily Italian neighborhood. Greenpoint can be proud of Valdiano's and its stark main room past the to-go front section; nestled amidst fake plants and retirement home institutional furniture you can dine very well on homemade pastas, all topped with superlative sauces (the cavatelli with bolognese is good enough to write home about, even if home is Bologna). Similarly, the calamari marinara ($12) is simple bliss served al dente, the pasta and squid both cooked to perfection. Chicken dishes tend to be a bit more ordinary, and the antipasto freddo ($7.95) is an unexpected disappointment, but crazy good cappucino ($2) and an expert slice on the way out (to be heated up post-barhopping) make up for a few shortcomings.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Pacific Asian Attitude

On a sultry summer evening very recently, Cafe Drake hosted the always lovely Jennifer and Anna for an Asian Pacific Rim-themed dinner. Cool and refreshed as if we sat upon a windswept atoll, we began the evening with Blue Hawaiis (a must at least once every summer, and a nod to the beloved kitsch of Trader Vic's), followed by the menu as printed below. Also included is the recipe for the granita, which can substitute well for a cold soup during these muggy nights.

Tomato-Curry Granita
Wontons filled with Chile Peppers and Homemade Hawaiian Sausage in a Mint-Cream Sauce
Calderata (Filipino Stew with Chicken and Yams)
Spicy Pineapple Relish
Shortbread with Lemon Curd Frosting
Although this concoction may sound strange, the flavors blend nicely if the mixture is chilled overnight (or at least 6 hours). In lieu of gazpacho, serve this in small portions as a palatte cleanser at the very start of your meal.
2 lbs. tomatoes, peeled and seeded (drop tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds to loosen skins for easy peeling) / 2 T. honey / 1 T. brown sugar / 1/2 t. salt / 1/2 t. cayenne pepper / 2 t. curry powder
  1. Combine all ingredients in blender and process until completely smooth.
  2. Chill in refrigerator overnight or 6-8 hours.
  3. Freeze in your ice cream maker according to maunfacturer's instructions.