“Call me a joker, call me a fool
Right at this moment I'm totally cool
Clear as a crystal, sharp as a knife
I feel like I'm in the prime of my life
Sometimes it feels like I'm going too fast
I don't know how long this feeling will last
Maybe it's only tonight”
-Billy Joel, I Go To Extremes
My business partner and best friend Josh always tells me that I have an extreme personality. If I drink, I drink a lot. If I eat, I eat a lot. If I am angry, I am very angry and if I’m happy, I’m very happy. You get the picture. Whatever the emotion, the person, or the project, it is all encompassing. What is the point of doing something unless you are going to go all the way with it?
My life has always followed this path of extremes. My mother pushed me to be a good student when I was younger, so then school was all encompassing. In my junior year of high school I memorized thousands of words and definitions for the SATs and spent countless hours with a tutor. When it was said and done, I got a respectable 1400 on the test, got into Cornell’s Hotel School, and that was it – I officially checked out from the world of academia. That summer I headed to Los Angeles to work as a cook in Wolfgang Puck’s original Spago on Sunset Boulevard. Through my friend Danny Zelouf and my co-worker Jesus, I discovered forties of Olde English and next applied my extreme personality to Malt Liquor… West Side till I die. I recall showing up to work in Spago’s kitchen with my first real hangover and puking in the sink. I swore off alcohol for the first time, but it wouldn’t be the last…
My odyssey of excess continued from L.A. to Cornell, an incredible school located in the most boring city in America. The most exciting thing about Ithaca was the supermarket, a gourmand’s dream, Wegmans. The store was a food heaven way ahead of its time, filled with specialty items, ethnic food sections, and an incredible café full of delectable sandwiches, pastas, sushi rolls, and butchers that would grill the meat right in front of you. During this phase of my life, I started many of my extreme food journeys at Wegmans, including searches for the hottest peppers on the pepper chart, chipotles, to feed raw to my fraternity pledges during hazing. There is joy in watching grown men cry.
I remember one cold and snowy Saturday evening in Ithaca when I had nothing really planned. With my Jewish Latina girlfriend in toe (what a find), I went to Wegmans and picked up a case of Coors Light, a baguette, a half pound of prosciutto, and a hunk of the fattiest Brie available. The sea was angry that day my friend, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli. As my girlfriend watched with childlike disbelief, I polished off the lusciously decadent melting Brie at about beer number nine, and the last slice of prosciutto at around 13. As my mind said yes, my arteries said no, but like Brett Favre and an interception, for better or for worse, there was no stopping me from my ultimate goal.
I am now 30 years old and not much has changed. Last Friday in Miami I once again woke up hungover and in extremist fashion ordered the Blueprint Cleanse for commencement upon my return to New York. The Blueprint is a six-juice-per-day cleanse that is delivered to your house. You drink those juices for a set amount of days and it cleanses your system – in my case, of everything I did that past weekend. I cleansed from Sunday night until Thursday morning, erasing almost seven pounds (probably mostly water), clearing my head, and creating an uncontrollable craving for delicious food and drinks. As is the case, one extreme leads to another and at 7 p.m. on Thursday I was raring to go, so I started by meeting my friend, Eric Goldberg for drinks at Hundred Acres in SoHo. I eagerly anticipated my first Belvedere on the rocks with three olives. As Will Ferrell said in Old School, “Once it hits your lips, it’s so good!” Maybe he wasn’t kidding or maybe he was, but either way I was back on the gravy train and ready for the weekend. After a plate of meatballs with tomato sauce over a bed of polenta, I left to meet my cousin Rob for the first of this weekend’s gluttonous adventures.
Aldea Restaurant (31 W 17th Street)
Thursday, 8 p.m.
For those of you who don’t know, Chef George Mendes’ restaurant, Aldea, has received tremendous praise. It was named one of the 10 best new restaurants in the country by critic Alan Richman of GQ Magazine and Mendes’ himself was nominated best chef in New York by the James Beard Association. So with much anticipation, I arrived about 30 minutes early for my reservation. As I walked into the restaurant from the darkness and cold of 17th Street, I felt like a man coming out of a coma and into the light. Aldea is a beautifully bright and airy restaurant with a warm and calm energy. The hostesses immediately disarmed my New York edge with authentic warmth. One hostess was a funky downtown girl with spectacles and a peculiar yet inviting smile, while the other was a curvy ethnic firecracker with a deliciously cute giggle. There was no room at the bar for me to continue my drinking, as it was filled with diners. I told the girls and they quickly recommended I check out Rye House, a bar and restaurant down the block, while I wait. Having knowledge of this street and its former lack of personality, I was surprised to find Rye House – a great vibe-y speakeasy with handcrafted cocktails, an incredible selection of spirits (especially its namesake whiskeys & bourbons), and a surprisingly interesting food menu, definitely worthy of a trip of its own.
Upon my return to Aldea and my cousin Rob’s arrival, I was once again greeted by my two favorite hostesses, one of whom told me she was a fan of “Cocktail Hour.” (I was pleasantly surprised, but I think Brooke from my office definitely set this up. Either way… AWESOME!) I was shown to a great table on the main floor with a perfect view of chef Mendes’ open kitchen. Mendes is of Portuguese descent. He was mentored by David Bouley in his original Bouley, and worked in kitchens across the globe with chefs like Roger Vergé, Kurt Gutenbrunner, and Martin Berasategui. At Aldea he is cooking high-end interpretations of the Portuguese and Iberian food of his youth and achieving incredible results. Our waitress, Maggie, greeted us warmly, suggesting a crisp, aromatic, and slightly mineral Albariño Fesinanes from Spain to begin and a bottle of Argentinean Red, called Paisaje De Tupungato, for our main course.
We began our meal with the Knollcrest Farm Egg cooked in its shell with Bacalao, black olive, and potato. The dish was beautiful and theatric. The Bacalao, a dried salt cod, gives the egg a hint of fishiness, which I personally don’t love but I am sure is traditional for Spanish and Portuguese food. For our next course we shared the Shrimp Alinho with garlic, coriander, pimenton, and pressed jus. The shrimp was perfectly cooked with a haunting smoky flavor that could only be created through long slow preparation by a patient and talented chef. The taste of the Alinho was what I would imagine delicious to be, had I been born to Portuguese parents. Chef Mendes then visited our table with his “taste,” a sea scallop with black truffle over a squid ink risotto. The dish was a very nice compliment to some of the stronger flavors presented during the meal and Mendes was a humble, distinguished, and personable host. When asked why he opened on 17th Street, he told us he wanted to be close to the Greenmarket purveyors with whom he had built relationships. He then told us about the flavors of his youth which he was cooking, including things like the squid ink he used in the scallop dish. I can only imagine a young chef Mendes cooking with squid ink – a parent’s nightmare.
We followed these dishes with our main courses. I had the much lauded Arroz De Pato with duck confit, duck cracklings, chorizo, and olives. This was like duck paella with a strong and smoky flavor. I was most impressed with the sliced duck confit, which topped the plate. It was almost like eating a Kobe version of Duck Breast (if it existed) – super soft, flavorful and luscious. Rob had the Tilefish with crispy brussel sprouts, green mango, and a lemongrass ginger broth. Now Rob, for some odd reason, always orders Tilefish. I had never had it before, but this fish was absolutely stunning in its flavoring and execution. The skin had a crisp and salty crust, and the meat was cooked to beyond perfection. It was almost like Mendes made a deal with the devil – let me cook fish this way and I will give you my soul upon closing the restaurant.
The real reason I am writing about Aldea is not the fact that it is a great restaurant or that the food is spectacular, although both are true. Aldea to me represents something very interesting within the New York hospitality landscape. It is a restaurant with the best possible food you can get and prepare, that is served in an environment that is not stuffy and at an attainable price. The cost of our meal was $140, including a bottle of wine and a brand of hospitality that is authentic and not bothersome. For all of Danny Meyer’s 51 percenters, the staff at Union Square Café is often too nice. I am from New York; if you are too nice to me I get suspicious. I don’t want any Stepford servers. Aldea is 2010’s Union Square Café, a groundbreaking restaurant in that it is providing perfect food and service in an environment that is young, approachable, and warm. It may be Portuguese food, although the chef will tell you it is market-driven with Portuguese influences, but the style and feeling is distinctly American. Aldea is one of the best new restaurants in the country because it does everything right, but most importantly it speaks to the current moment.
Camille Becerra’s Apartment
Friday, 8 p.m.
After Aldea, I continued my week of extremes with a second memorable meal Friday night at Chef Camille Becerra’s apartment. Becerra is dating an avid foodie and good friend of mine, Vincent Rotolo. She is a lovely woman, was a contestant on Top Chef, and owned the much heralded restaurant, Paloma. We had an incredible four-course meal with highlights including a marinated manchego with fresh tomatoes, walnuts, and rosemary, a spectacularly flavorful kale crostini with mozzarella and pecorino, a sole crudo with hemp seeds and black sea salt, and seared tuna with a decadent piquillo-chorizo sauce. On the spur of the moment, Camille prepared a decadent chocolate soufflé and perfectly pressed coffee. All of these were accompanied by a wine. We started with a Prosecco, followed by a new style Chardonnay, and a nice baby Barolo to finish. There is something to be said for dining with like-minded foodies and even more to be said to dine side-by-side with a great and passionate chef. Becerra is creative and strong, and I am very much looking forward to her next professional kitchen and collaborating on some exciting projects in 2010.
Apotheke (9 Doyers Street)
Friday, 1 a.m.
After my meal I was craving more drinks to ensure a really fertile hangover the next morning, so I met a friend briefly at Brinkleys. After two tequilas we headed to Apotheke in Chinatown for more cocktails, designer versions of the same devilish spirits. Apotheke is a great cocktail lounge on Doyers Street known for its speakeasy feel and off-the-beaten-path location. Sadly the secret is out. Apotheke now has a line of people outside and the place was jam packed. As much as I love the cocktails, a speakeasy in Chinatown loses its splendor when there is a line of people waiting to get in and it is nearly impossible to get a drink. Combine that with the 20 spot I had to give the doorman to cut the line and Apotheke is officially off the list for “Cocktail Hour.” We say goodbye and Murray Hill says hello, hello, hello.
Wall & Water (75 Wall Street)
Saturday & Sunday Brunch, 1 p.m.
If someone wanted to assassinate me during brunch in the Financial District I wouldn’t be very hard to find. I skipped my regular order from Leo’s bagels on Saturday and Sunday for incredible brunches at the new Wall & Water restaurant in the Andaz Hotel. The Andaz is Hyatt’s new boutique hotel brand and they have done a great job creating a more service-driven and stylish version of W. I have to say that in terms of value, food quality, and service this may be the best brunch in Manhattan. All hotels have to serve breakfast, especially hotels at this level, and this one is putting out an outstanding product and variety for a bargain price (less than $30). Come in for brunch before they realize that they are losing money doing it.
Ballaro (77 2nd Avenue)
Saturday, 5 p.m.
As I walked home from Paul Smith on Saturday, I passed a Southern Italian wine, Panini and Proscuterria called Ballaro. This perfect mix of New York and Southern Italy drew me in like a Sephardic Jew to a Purim party. I enjoyed a Panini of prosciutto di parma, pecorino romano, artichokes, and roasted peppers with a bit of olive oil on a crunchy round roll. Had the smell of liquor not made me nauseous I would have definitely indulged further in a glass of Chianti, but sometimes I know when to say when. One note: everyday from 6 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. Ballaro serves the most beautiful selection of antipasti Toscani, including cheese and salumi, complimentary with the purchase of wine. Stop by if you don’t mind seeing me daily.
Bianca (5 Bleecker Street)
Sunday, 8 p.m.
Now it’s Sunday and in my world of extremes that means I would usually stop drinking and start thinking of ways to heal my bruised body and fragile ego. But wait – my friend Danny Zelouf, the one who started me on this rough and tumble road years ago in Los Angeles – just called. He and his consigliore, Jason Behfarin, want to have Sunday night dinner at Bianca on the Bowery. I think I can survive one more night. You see, I am realizing that despite what you think, you can usually do so much more than your mind allows you to believe. I don’t know if you are supposed to apply that to drinking, eating, and pleasure-hounding, but right now, I don’t really care. Bianca is a Florentine-style Italian restaurant with a great downtown feel and clientele. As a kicker, they are bringing in wine direct from Kelham Vineyards, my favorite winery in Napa, for only a $15 per bottle corkage fee. I am already thinking of my order Gnocco Fritto with Scamorza Cheese, Carciofi Parmasean Salad, Tagliatelle Bolognese, sliced Filet Mignon with Rosemary, and Tiramisu to finish. All that for $40 dollars a person along with good friends and great conversation – what could be better?
So why do I go to extremes? Most of us have had a tough past 12 months, because when the economy tanks, it gives you a gut check and makes you question what’s really important. I spent the last 10 years focusing on what I was going to become, but the truth is, all that matters is now, and that’s why I go to extremes.
“Let me tell you this, the older you do get the more rules they're gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin' man, L-I-V-I-N.”
-Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), Dazed & Confused
Keep life delicious and see you next time at Cocktail Hour, where more often than not one drink turns into ten and no one knows where and when the night will end.