new york city

eater's digest: new york city wine & food festival, part 2

In the flurry of activity that is the New York City Wine & Food Festival - from dinners, to lectures, classes and parties - there is one central stronghold : The Grand Tasting. This tented festival at Pier 57 takes place over two days, featuring small bites from some of the city's best restaurants, as well as cooking demos from the Food Network's band of celebrity chefs. It's an almost overwhelming celebration of the city's food, but somebody's got to taste it. Lucky for me, I'm that somebody. Here's the rundown on my favorite small bites:

I've always been a fan of thai/larb-inspired lettuce wraps, but Kittichai's version was more refreshing than most. An excellent choice for an over-saturated tasting event, with acidity and spice that cut straight to the palate.

This is the second time I've sampled newcomer AG Kitchen's cuisine, and I have to say, I'm impressed. Sandwiches usually don't strike me as addictive, but I had to stop myself from grabbing seconds of this spicy, tangy medley of pork, ham, swiss, pickles and hot mustard.

My main complaint at such tastings is that there's usually too much meat. But in the case of MexiBBQ, I was more than pleased by the unusual tequila/oregano sauce. Hot and herbaceous in the most unusual way, this was elevated Mexican - comfort food 2.0.

One of the major surprises of my second day at Pier 57 was Benares' lentil and potato dumplings. A medley of textures differentiated this surprisingly sweet - but not saccharine - dish from the Indian food I've eaten in the past. Definitely a restaurant I've added to my list.

I love lobster bisque, as I do most things seafood-related. But I've had enough bad bisques to last a lifetime. Not so with Brasserie Cognac. This thin soup beats out its creamier cousins with the distinct addition of umami, from mushrooms meant to mimic the texture of tender lobster meat.

At an event where most chefs come at you with a one-two punch, it's always a surprise - and often a relief - to taste something subtle. Nios set itself apart with medley of fresh, mild flavors that proved more isn't always more.

Ian Kittichai managed to show up his namesake's dish (the aforementioned lettuce wraps) with an even more spicy thai dish from Ember Room. At first, the spice startled, but was quickly - and cleverly - cooled by the bitter crunch of an endive leaf.

In the end, however, there must be a winner - or at least, a dish I wish I could taste again. For me, that was Northern Spy's soup. Pickled, but not so much as to be briny, it was an enticing spoonful and a palate cleanser in one. To boot, I've yet to taste a less-than-impressive bite at Northern Spy's day-to-day digs, making for an extra-confident endorsement.

seen and heard : freddie stevenson

In New York City, one often fails to be a regular.  With so many bars, restaurants, clubs, events, etc. to choose from, we often hop from place to place, bereft of the acknowledging nod of a familiar bouncer or bartender (let alone a fellow regular).

But as one ages in NY-years, there is a certain appeal to deciding upon a few worthy establishments to frequent, safeholds in the swirl of the city’s never-ending orgy of frenzied innovation.

For those who fear the commitment of becoming a “regular”, Rockwood Music Hall is a delightful solution.  Within the confines of a single locale, it serves up an ever-changing menu of worthy musical acts (on the hour, every hour).

It was there that I found myself on Sunday eve, to see singer-songwriters Rosi Golan & Ari Hest - a couple of Rockwood regulars themselves.  Having just enjoyed their intimate evening set, I was preparing to leave, and that’s when the floodgates opened.  Concertgoers of all shapes, sizes and ages filled the room (on a Sunday night!) so - with the enthusiastic orders of a photographer “No, you have to stay.  Freddie will change your life” – our curiosity peaked, we decided to linger (at least for one song).

“Freddie” Stevenson did, in fact, change our lives that night (or, at least, our mood and perspective) – from the moment he and his band, the “Midnight Crisis”, hit that first smooth groove.

“I’m in some kind of boutique clothing store/Nothing makes sense to me no more/I’m headed for the door/Everything is more than I can afford”

From there, a waxing & waning 1 to 10 man band (from guitar, to baby-grand, sax, electric mandolin…) filled the smallish Rockwood stage, as we sat mesmerized in the haze of a beautiful, mystical time warp.

Yes, I said “time warp”.  We stayed glued to our seats for a good two hours, while Stevenson’s singer-songwriter/busker/camp rock wooed us.  Nothing short of entrancing, these are anachronistic - yet uncannily relevant - songs for the 20 or 30-something set that plays Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens on beat-up record players, seduced by the lyrics and the crackly sound.  Born in 1980 himself, Stevenson’s lyrics are marked with the profundity of a wise, well-worn sage :

May I pay for my sins in installments?/Sell the keys but save the ring/In the end everything comes to depend/On a few inessential things”

And if Stevenson’s lyrics are of an eerie eloquence – the foot-stomping groove of the Midnight Crisis is nothing but a good ol’ time.

For those of us with a day-job, Stevenson’s repeated midnight Sunday set at Rockwood is nothing short of depressing.  Luckily, he can be found busking in Central Park or performing with The Dirty Urchins at the 11th Street Bar or The Tippler.

You can catch The Dirty Urchins tomorrow (November 30th) at The Tippler, a bar worthy of regular-status itself.

Links: Buy a full 58-song album of Freddie Steveson’s Songs Buy Stevenson’s new album, The City is King on iTunes Interview Magazine’s interview with Freddie Stevenson