NYC cocktail update – Apotheke and Milk & Honey

UPDATE: I got a much clearer picture of Apotheke’s reservation policy, so I’ve spelled it out in more detail below.

I’m writing with an update on the newest haute-cocktail scene in Chinatown named Apotheke.  As I’m sure many of you have already heard by now, it’s opening in a former opium den in an obscure, difficult to reach location in a quiet corner of Chinatown.

It officially opened a couple weeks ago, but not to the general public.  It was the scene of some Fashion Week parties and various other private events, but as of this past Friday the 12th, Apotheke is officially open to regular joes like you and me.  For the average mixology-seeking cocktail enthusiast, though, Apotheke is shaping up to be quite a different scene than PDT, Death and Company, and others.

Here’s the official reservation policy, procedure, and information:

  • It costs $1,000 to make a table reservation, and that $1,000 is the minimum table spend, not the upfront cost
  • The $1,000 can be spent any way the group would like, whether it’s on cocktails or bottle service
  • Cocktails start at $15 and go much higher depending on ingredients and size
  • Tables can fit between 5 and 10 people, but the majority fit 5
  • I did the math for you, dear readers: for an average table, each person would have to buy on average 10 cocktails to reach the $1,000 minimum
  • You do not need a reservation to go, but there’s definitely going to be a long wait
  • To make reservations, call 212-406-0400 between 12pm and 6pm Monday through Saturday
  • Apotheke is open from 6:30pm through 2am Monday through Saturday

I think it would be an understatement for me to say I’m disappointed with this policy.  Some of the best spots in the city for a cozy cocktails are tucked away tables in cool, speakeasy cocktail lounges that were earned simply by placing the right call at the right time.  That wonder seems to be gone here, replaced instead by the kind of high-roller atmosphere purposely fostered by Goldbar and others.

In other cocktail news, Milk and Honey has officially changed their number, so all of you dear readers who finally found that holiest of grails, that elusive 718 number, you should probably go ahead and erase it from your phones.  Damn you M&H, why must be so elusive!

Mark posted this on September 14, 2008 in New York and it has no comments |

A neighborhood delight: Cafe Gitane

So what does it take for a neighborhood restaurant to become not only an establishment, but a local staple?  Or, more specifically, for it to become intimately connected with the fabric of the area itself?  I’m going to use Cafe Gitane, one of my favorite casual hang outs in New York, as a prime example of what I consider indispensable in achieving such an iconic status around your town.

Cafe Gitane is a Moroccan-French fusion cafe in Soho.  It’s been around for a while, and has gone through quite an evolution of clientele and employees.  Back in the day, I hear it used to be quite the model hangout, but now it’s usually packed (and I mean packed) with hipsters and beautiful, though not professionally beautiful, people.  Naturally, I fit in swimmingly.

So let’s get down to business: what makes Cafe Gitane particularly distinctive, more so than other similar fusion cafes nearby in Soho?  The first thing that I find important is that they’ve managed to retain their characteristic light, jovial air unwaveringly since I started going a couple of years ago.  The room always feels like it’s filled with regulars having an absolutely splendid day and surrounded by bright colors and fanciful decorations–I challenge you to eat at Gitane and not feel immediately elated.

Another reason I love Gitane is that it is unpretentiously casual.  We all know that some places that claim to be casual and have good looking clientele, but go out of their way to make things exclusive, snobby, and basically everything other than formalizing the dress code.  Gitane takes no reservations, treats everyone the same, and does it all with a smile and a laugh.  By fostering this purposely unstructured environment, they’ve managed to become more than just a cool spot: it’s a neighborhood institution.

One way they’ve managed to do this is by keeping the food as casual and unpretentious as the restaurant itself.  Gitane masterfully creates dishes that other restaurants might be afraid to due to their simplicity.  They’ll throw two slices of fresh toasted baguette on a plate with brie and sliced apple.  Delightfully simple, but you know what?  Sometimes that’s all you’re in the mood for, and when it’s done right, it really hits the spot.  Here are a few examples of the simple dishes prepared with not-so-simple expertise:

This is a yogurt sauce with cucumber chunks, spices, and rose layered on top of hummus.  Simple, and mind-blowingly delicious.

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Mark posted this on in New York, Restaurants and it has no comments |

My new favorite aperitif: Moscato d’Asti

I’ve recently had quite the distinct pleasure of imbibing a brand new type of wine for me called Moscato d’Asti.  That name actually designates a particular area of Italy, any what’s special about all the wines from the area can be described as follows: imagine combining the heavenly sweetness of dessert wine with the light, palette-cleansing effervescence of champagne and you have Moscato.

I can hear you saying to yourself now that all that flowery, ostentatious verbiage above was entirely unnecessary.  Well, you’re right.  Moscato d’Asti is really just a sweet sparkling wine, or sparkling dessert wine, but let’s not be so hasty!  The wine comes in two varieties, red and white, and both are meant to be served chilled.  I’ve now had them with dessert at Gramercy Tavern and Per Se, but chez moi I enjoy them as pre-dinner aperitifs because they aren’t overpowering with sweetness at all: it’s just enough to get your tongue all excited and giddy.

The red variety that I can highly recommend is called Bigaro by Elio Perrone.  When the wine touches your tongue, it’s as if you’ve been transported to a field of a thousand fresh roses, strawberries, and other such delicious things.  Here’s a picture of it from my dessert course at Gramercy Tavern:

The white variety that blew my mind only a few nights after Gramercy Tavern was at Per Se, and this one was called Sourgal, also by Elio Perrone (how does this man do it!?).  The Sourgal simultaneously melted through my palette and somehow evaporated without a trace, leaving behind indulgent hints of peach, vanilla, white chocolate, and perhaps even some dandelions.  Here’s a shot of it at Per Se:

These two bottles from Elio Perrone cost around $20 each, so not too bad.  You can also get bottles of Moscato d’Asti for much cheaper, around $10, and because of the sweetness, the quality loss isn’t significant at all.  Noticeable, maybe, but still enjoyable.  So next time you go for the champagne with guests, consider giving Moscato a try, I promise you won’t regret it.

Mark posted this on September 4, 2008 in Musings and it has 2 comments |

A peek into Per Se’s kitchen

Ok, I promise this will be my last post about Per Se for a while, but there’s just been so much to say that it would be a crime and injustice towards you dear readers to cram it uncomfortably into one post!

So there I was two hours into our meal, camera in hand, feverishly snapping photos of some of the most beautiful food this side of the Seine in Per Se’s delightfully elegant, yet tastefully modern dining room, when our server approached me, looking right at my camera.  “Oh no”, I thought to myself, “this is it.  He’s had enough.  Per Se just doesn’t roll this way.”

To my great surprise, not only did our server not mind my incessant picture-taking, but he offered me the treat of treats: a guided tour of Per Se’s kitchen, or, the Holy Grail of Culinary Design as I call it (we’re on a first name basis like that).  What follows is my attempt at re-creating my tour through the spectacular, daunting, beautiful, and flawless origin of Thomas Keller’s masterpieces.

Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?  Nestled in between the dining room and the kitchen is the “cool down” hallway, which is a naked, calm space for servers to collect their thoughts after the hustle of the kitchen and before the bustle of the dining room.

The next room through that seemingly inauspicious hallway is the main room of the kitchen.   Here, food is garnished, completed, plated, and picked up.  It wasn’t entire clear which, if any, food is actually cooked in this main room, but it was where the majority of the chefs were, including the head chef.

Meticulous preparation comes to a close for each dish here before being whisked away by the servers

The main kitchen from the front, with the head chef in all white in the foreground

My tour guide insisted I capture this gem above the entrance / exit of this main kitchen area:

The term my tour guide was insistent on me capturing

Like it so far? Click to continue!

Mark posted this on September 2, 2008 in Pics and Videos, Restaurants and it has 9 comments |

Another Per Se tidbit: Ratatouille

Does the picture below from Per Se look familiar to you?

If you’ve seen Pixar’s animated movie Ratatouille, then it should definitely look familiar.  This is Thomas Keller’s version of the classic provencial French vegetable dish named ratatouille, and its resemblance to the final creation in the movie Ratatouille is no coincidence.

Thomas Keller was actually a consultant for the movie and he allowed the film’s producer to intern at the French Laundry and design this fancy layered version of the dish.  So, if you ever wanted to taste what looked so amazingly delicious in the movie, then all you have to do is take a trip to the French Laundry or Per Se.

Oh, and by the way, it really was as delicious as that evil food critic said it was.

Mark posted this on August 30, 2008 in Pics and Videos and it has 1 comment |

Where to start? Or, an ode to Per Se

It truly is difficult to begin such an important post.  Why is this one important?  Here are three reasons:

  1. Of my many varied dining experiences, Per Se has supplanted Chateau Cordeillan Bages in Bordeaux as the number one meal of my life
  2. This is the first post in my new design (I hope you like it!)
  3. Really, what can I actually contribute to the Per Se dialogue?  I’m a simple, lowly blogger who felt like a pauper chasing after a parade of kings

Nevertheless, Per Se must be written about, and so it shall.

In any given restaurant experience, there are too many moving parts to count that must coalesce perfectly to yield sublime enjoyment and culinary pleasure for the diner.  These parts include general ambiance, room temperature and lighting, service (front wait staff), back service (bread, plate clearing), and food temperature, presentation, taste, flavor, and creativity.

It would be an understatement to say that Per Se succeeded in all of these aspects, and in fact it would be doing Thomas Keller’s masterpiece an injustice.  What Chef Keller has created and managed to retain for the past four years is not an amalgamation of carefully studied procedure and recipes, but rather a seamlessly beautiful journey through a world of food, fantasy, fun, and friends.  Beginning to end, top to bottom, Per Se has masterfully and effortlessly attained an exemplary and enviable status in the world restaurant culture, and such ardent adulation is well-deserved.

Like it so far? Click to continue!

Mark posted this on August 28, 2008 in Restaurants and it has 3 comments |

Where’s Mark?!

I must apologize dearly for my extended absence recently dear readers, but I’ve been in the process of moving from California to New York, settling in, and finishing up the redesign of Black Napkin.  In a week or so the new Black Napkin will be launched in all its wonderful glory, beginning with my write-up of Per Se.

Here’s a sneak preview: it was the absolute best restaurant experience of my entire life.

Mark posted this on August 25, 2008 in Uncategorized and it has 1 comment |

Sushi without rice? Blasphemous!

Or is it?  I was so delighted the first time I had this fantastic roll, I immediately cursed my foolish self for not toting along my camera to share it with you.  So, of course, a second visit was most certainly in order, and I now proudly present the Pain in the Ass roll, designed and purveyed by Sushi Imari.

Sushi Imari, the birthplace of this fantastic roll

Allow me to elucidate why the roll is called Pain in the Ass.  On the inside rests shrimp, crab, tuna, salmon, white fish, and avocado.  On the outside, instead of rice or seaweed, is a delicately wrapped thin slice of cucumber with ponzu sauce.  In other words, it’s a ridiculous pain in the ass to make.  I know it sounds like the kitchen sink, but trust me, it’s both delicious and immaculately constructed.

Pain in the Ass - inside: shrimp, avocado, crab, tuna, salmon, white fish; outside: cucumber with ponzu

Pain in the Ass - inside: shrimp, avocado, crab, tuna, salmon, white fish; outside: cucumber with ponzu

This just goes to show that sushi doesn’t have to have rice, or seaweed, or just one type of fish to be acceptable or delicious.  The Pain in the Ass roll is now on my short list of favorite sushi rolls I’ve ever had, and Sushi Imari’s creativity certainly doesn’t end there.  If you’re in the area, definitely check them out.

What’s the most exciting or unique sushi roll that you’ve ever had?  Share your story in comments.

Sushi Imari
375 Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 641-5654

Mark posted this on August 12, 2008 in Musings, Restaurants and it has 1 comment |

Who said food has to be cooked?

118 degrees
2981 Bristol Suite B5
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 754-0718

As conventional wisdom goes, a trip to a gourmet restaurant should yield a cornucopia of cooked goods, ranging from pork to salmon to beef to frog.  These dishes will likely be preceded by a savory salad and followed by a sweet dessert.  But who says that’s the way it must be done.  Nobody, that’s who.

I had the great privilege of attending a special 5-course wine dinner at 118 degrees last night.  Now, 118 degrees is not your standard restaurant: they only serve raw food.  What?  A whole restaurant dedicated to serving uncooked dishes?  Yes, it turns out they do exist, and from the palpably excited atmosphere I witnessed last night, they’re thriving.  I admit, I was surprised myself to learn that there existed such diverse-enough spectrum of food to support a fine-dining restaurant, but indeed there is and I sampled quite a bit of it over five courses.

The name 118 degrees comes from the idea that any food cooked above 118 degrees Fahrenheit begins to lose its healthy aspects, or in some cases takes on actual harmful qualities.  While I might (and do) debate whether the trade-off of outright health versus taste and texture in the setting of a restaurant is a good one, I suppose the more interesting point is that this harsh restriction on the chef clearly forces them to become more creative with ingredients that other chefs may only see as periphery or garnishes.

The upshot of this obviously is that each dish is unlike any you’ve ever seen or tasted in your life, but the downside is that because the tastes are so unfamiliar and the textures so unique, it may be a tough hurdle for some to leap over.  This isn’t the first time I’ve been to a raw food restaurant, so I wasn’t entirely uninitiated, but it was still what I would deem challenging food.  If you’re willing to experiment, eating raw food can introduce to a whole new world of culinary adventure.

The theme of the evening was a five course wine dinner that paired 100% organic wines and champagne with dishes that aren’t usually on the nightly menu.  The result was filled with ups, downs, lefts, and rights, but if anything it was remarkable.

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Mark posted this on August 9, 2008 in Restaurants and it has no comments |

Culinary risk taking

Seth Godin, the marketing guru behind Purple Cow and other books, writes today on his blog about appealing to who he calls "n00bs".  N00bs are those people who are slow at the uptake, who are not savvy, and who are generally not early adopters of any kind.  He writes:

Every interaction with your public runs the risk that some people just won’t get it. They won’t understand the protocol at your jazz club, or figure out how they use that new thing you just built. They won’t get your verbal shorthand or they’ll be frustrated by your presumption that they’re insiders.

He makes a fair point, and the dilemma risk taking poses is supremely palpable in the food world as well.  I would assume that the vast majority of diners are "n00bs" when it comes to exotic food — we know what we like and we stick with it.  But, without risk taking, there is no excitement.  Seth ends with such a notion:

Once you dumb it down so every single person gets it, you bake out the magic and the mystery and the elegance.

So, when applied to restaurants, this can lead to one of two results: either the restaurant is remarkably challenging (like wd-50 where every morsel of food is a world of unique exploration), or it is indistinguishably boring.  In my ideal world, there would be at least some restaurants that could find an in between.

Here’s my earth-shatteringly new idea: take a restaurant like wd-50 where most dishes are an incredibly different take on an otherwise recognizable course.  To the uninitiated, that might be confusing.  In my fantasy restaurant, diners would be presented with two options for each course: "Challenging" and "Comfortable". 

For example, at the French Laundry, Chef Thomas Keller makes serves a dish called a "Caesar Salad", but his variation features thinly diced strips of lettuce atop a thick parmigiano-reggiano custard, dressed lightly with anchovy dressing.  The entire creation lays on top of a small, perfectly sized flat crouton and is garnished with a dash of balsamic glaze.

Clearly, this is a challenging Caesar salad.  The  "comfortable" Caesar salad would be the variation we all know and love, simple romaine lettuce tossed with Caesar dressing and topped with croutons.  This way, a restaurant can take risks as well as hedge against n00bs, who are invariably around every corner.

Mark posted this on August 5, 2008 in Musings and it has no comments |