Monthly Archives: March 2011

Pongal Camouflages in Curry Hill

Accompanying the slew of Indian restaurants in “Curry Hill” , sits the small, intimate vegetarian and kosher Indian restaurant, Pongal.

Upon entering the restaurant, visitors are greeted by a large blue cow in the corner. Stringed lights adorn the ceiling, while worn bamboo-like place mats sit on the tables. The decor is low-key, but could use an update.

Named after the period in South India celebrating the end of monsoon season and the beginning of the harvest festival, Pongal attempts to mimic the harvest-like environment by serving up dishes from various parts of India with entrees such as Madras Thali ($7.95), Undhiyu ($9.95), and Malai Kofta ($9.95).

The Madras Thali is an assortment of seven portions of two types of rice, eggplant, spiced potatoes, soup, and two dipping sauces.  A slightly greasy piece of poori bread and papad. The eggplant, which had an unexpected tanginess to it, and the potatoes were easily the most flavorful and memorable parts of the meal.

Madras Thali

One of Pongal’s most impressive dishes are their dosais.  The Masala dosai ($8.45) is a stunning wrap-like meal filled with potatoes and onions. Made from rice flour and lentils, the dough of the dosai is light and flaky, yet still satisfying.  The mildly spicy sambar soup and coconut chutney are served alongside it. The dish would benefit from a bit more filling inside, but the excess can easily be used to dip inside of the soup or coconut chutney.

For dessert, subtly sweet badam halwa ($5.45) provides a nice balance to the spices of Pongal’s entree. With the look and consistency of apple sauce, the thick almond fudge is a filling addition to any meal.

The efforts of the waitstaff can be a little hit or miss. Sometimes slightly pushy and at others kind and patient, the one positive thing to mention is that the food is served very quickly.

Overall, Pongal is a decent dining experience, but lacks the necessary elements to make it stand out in an area saturated with similar cuisine.

Posted in Food, restaurant reviews | 2 Comments

One Restaurant Not Blowing Smoke

The bulk of barbecue restaurants in New York City go through the fire of assessment by both seasoned and self-proclaimed food critics and turn to ashes in one’s mouth. For all that, Blue Smoke extinguishes that concept for the most part.

From the colossal blackboards that sky behind the counter being used for its display menu to the cornucopia of wood that all but blankets the rest of the interior, a neighborly aura is inferred the instant one steps inside the restaurant thanks to their choice of a cracker-barrel layout rather than imitating a commercial restaurant’s cheesy design.

Apart from the amicable ambience, timely service by the staff is provided along with joviality that just continues to reinforce one’s comfort as they await their food.

The look of the one’s order once it arrives and is placed on the table will as good as gouge out one’s inner gorger or create one. Listed under real-pit barbecue main courses is applewood-smoked organic chicken, and its price of $18.95 is too high to a moderate extent. Even so, its winsome shades of brown, induced by the apple wood, make it seem as if it is removed from the smoker right on time. Its smell is faint, yet its mild taste is awakening.

The mashed potatoes, topped with thin, crispy, bland onions, that come with the main course has a look and bite of softness that match the eater’s firm certainty that the flavor is not too saline at all.

Now, the meals will not degrade the experience, if your order does not hinge on assumption. Going into a barbecue restaurant, most would predict the ribs to be the jewel in the crown of the menu, but that surmise is flawed. The overpriced ribs have more bone than meat, and the bit of meat’s taste is as delectable as expired Wheaties without milk. Such circumstances can make one contemplate tossing the plate into to the gargantuan, metal bucket one is supposed to use to dispose the bones.

Be that as it may, while glancing at the crowd of fellow eaters that flock in during happy hour, it is apparent how toothsome the side of macaroni and cheese is. Short after the side is served onto a multitude of tables, multiple spoons dig into the dish at the same time.

Aside from the food, the Blue Smoke Original Ale (NY) embodies the intuition of authenticity that the restaurant gives off. Its price of $7.50 for a pint of that particular  beer on tap is fitting. An ounce of their original ale swamps 40 ounces of the watery Brooklyn Pilsner (NY), which was one of the other beers on tap.

Charming service and homelike atmosphere assist the menu, minus the ribs, succeed in its attempt to have Blue Smoke rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the negative presumption of barbecue restaurants in New York City.

Posted in Food, restaurant reviews | 2 Comments

Le Petite Abeille Warmly Invites You to Taste Belgium

Why is it that a Belgian restaurant combined with the authenticity of an actual French menu and a team of heavy-accented French waiters makes one feel obligated to pull off the best French accent possible? “I’ll take the Gaufre Dame Blanche,” I said, almost pretentiously (I had a French midterm later that day, I was in the spirit). “Oui, Gaufre Dame Blanche?” the waiter said with perfection and a smile, annihilating any attempts of mine to copy his natural accent. Yet, outside of the menu and wait staff, a classic American essence filled the air through the setting—blue and white checkered tables and canary yellow walls give the allusion of your classic mom and pop picnic-styled diner.

Close to the East River is little Belgian restaurant Le Petite Abeille, literally The Little Bee, where the door serves as a portal into another land outside of New York, one that provides a home-style feel. Known for its selection of French wines and its Belgium waffles, the menu is nothing short of classic French dining. From les croques (ham and cheese sandwiches) to Omelette Parisienne (a Paris omelet), Le Petite Abeille provides an array of true French dishes that mostly fall under $20.

Of their specialties, the Belgium waffles seem the most appealing. During brunch, the waffles are on the regular menu, coming in eight possible variations, including plain.

Gaufre Aux Fraises

Gaufre Aux Fraises ($8), or strawberry waffles, come heavenly prepared with a single Belgian waffle, loaded with fresh cut strawberries and a tower of whip cream, floating on a pool of strawberry sauce. Its preparation is far from any I’ve seen at my local IHOP, looking almost too perfect to touch. Almost.

The Gaufre Dame Blanche ($9), a Belgian waffle underneath an ice cream scoop with whipped cream and a side of chocolate sauce to pour over your waffle, is placed on the dessert menu during lunch and dinner. Yet, if you’re one of those folks that enjoy breakfast all day, this treat will serve as a good enough meal just like any other.

Gaufre Dame Blanche

Both waffles live up to their looks in taste. The perfect crisp of the waffle combined with the sweet and delicious toppings prove these waffles to be ones to compete with and worth the nine bucks.

However, if you want maple syrup to come with this plate of beauty, then that will cost you an extra $4. Why? Their maple syrup is actually real maple. A choice of corn syrup is provided for free.

Corn syrup?” I asked the waitress. “Wait, is that what we usually eat, thinking it’s maple syrup?”

“You’ve got it,” she said. “The truth is revealed.”

Beware your choices of syrup guys. We’ve been bamboozled.

Nonetheless, their waffles are specialty for a reason: they are without fault. Don’t worry, there are more strawberries and chocolate waffles to share at this little taste of Belgium.

Posted in restaurant reviews | 6 Comments

Senses, Lust and Blue Smoke

There’s nothing like a nice sunny day, where fellow patrons can dine out with friends and families, letting the inner pig take hold as finger tips and dessert plates are licked clean. The beautiful stench of barbecue based herbs; spices and various sauces fill the air, captivating the senses of the entering customers of the Blue Smoke Restaurant.

Located on 116 East 27th street between Park and Lexington Avenue, Blue Smoke is hard to miss, with its large sign that reads, “BARBECUE,” vertically. Opening in 2002, Executive Chef/Partner Kenny Callaghan and Managing/Partner Mark Maynard-Parisi made the establishment a major Barbecue scene in New York City.

Taking the first steps in, the mind is taken on a wild adventure of seduction as the BBQ aroma dances through the nostrils. Continue and those steps become long exuberant and slightly infantile while making way toward a table to be served.

Near the entrance is a very large bar that holds some 42 different kinds of bourbon as well as wine and other alcoholic beverages. Booths and group tables fill the restaurant, but not to the point where there is cluster. The big red cushions on every seat or chair may come off loud and somewhat tacky, but sitting comfortably, allows some forgiveness.

Throughout the restaurant there is a wide display of various artworks, from mosaic-based pieces and metal crafted structures, to various photos that further animate the restaurant. Sitting in the back of Blue Smoke is where the full experiences can be grasped. Film-covered windows allow for a subtle amount of natural light to shine onto the tables rather than using bright light bulbs.

There is a very welcoming feeling as the host greets and the wait staff serves guest with heavy optimism in their facial expressions and conversations. “The waitress is so cheerful, it’s gross,” said a nearby customer after being served by one. While waiting, customers are entertained and their glasses are kept full.

The prices are fair for the various selections on the menu, and while the main course section may be lacking in variety it makes up for in quality. The Pulled Pork Sandwich, on a homemade Brioche Bun with Pickles and Sesame Slaw ($11.50) is filled with a barbecue zest. Though greasy, warranting questions on hitting the gym after, just one-bite into the succulent and spicy sandwich allows one slacking day.

The Texas Salt & Pepper Beef Ribs half rack ($15.95), with a side of sweet potato wedges was an unfortunate disappointment. The ribs have a nicely seasoned essence; however it doesn’t improve that it’s rather dry, tough and gristly. Adding Chipotle BBQ sauce helped the texture, but the mostly bone and fatty dish nonetheless was far from impressive. The sweet wedges fared better, despite how tiring they can get after a while, maybe the sweet sugary taste.

The dessert however, is always a delight, from the first bite to the last. The apple crisp, which is a personal favorite, consists of glazed baked apples, crispy crust and topped with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. The first try immediately reminded me of one the many mouth watering cupcakes of the Crumbs franchise, but not as sweet. The delectable dessert is well worth the packed gut and paining moans after a good meal.

Posted in Food, restaurant reviews | Tagged | 5 Comments

Cheryl Wills Finds Freedom in her Reading

It was a pleasure being in the presence of a famous television journalist. Cheryl Wills, is a reporter for NY1 as well as a blogger for The Huffington Post. In her reading session earlier this afternoon, she discussed the sentimental values of her book, Die Free. The characters in her book mirrored the experience her great-great-great grandfather, Sandy Wills, who fought in the civil war. As she read, there was passion in her voice as she described the taste of freedom. Her hand gestures made the emotions come alive. The audience sat in silence, mesmerized by the details as she explained the whimpering cries of a slave.

Seats quickly filled up as soon as her voice echoed throughout the lower level of the bookstore and attracted many near-by book worms.

Posted in LeBlanc Talk | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Pongal, the Saddest Meal I Ever Had

On a sunny 55 degree afternoon, I found myself in front of Pongal, located on 110 Lexington Avenue, as I walked in, I felt like I have just left New York and entered India. The first thing I noticed was the dim lighting. What was supposed to be 12:30pm looked as though it was 8pm inside.

The waiter presented the menus, which offered more than 100 items, I sat in silence scanning the confusingly capacious list of vegetarian selections. Thankfully, aside from the original menu, was the lunch special menu, consisting of 4 choices. He explained that the thalis offer different small tasting. I didn’t hesitate and ordered the Madras thali. ($7.95)

There was no doubt, the decorator pulled out all the strings to make it look as authentic as possible.  There were a few artful figurines and paintings hung equally apart from each other up on the wall, red cushions laid on top of the benches on both side of the restaurant, Indian music played in the background which had a smooth settling beat that was pleasing to the ear, and steel cup as drinking utensil.

My eyes widened in shock when the food came. The thali came with a wide selection of different dishes served in 7 small steel bowls on a round tray, 3 condiments, 2 petite vegetarian curries, and 2 different styles of basmathi rice. In the center was a round puffed bread, not nann, (sadly) but poori and papad, a thin, crisp cracker disc.

I started with the papad which had a delicate crunch to it. I dipped the poori into 3 different sauces, one consists of a tomato base, which was pretty watered down, and had neither depth nor flavor to it. The other sauce, a lighter shade of red was even worse, it tasted like tamarind juice: watery, acidic, and a bit spicy. The yogurt, a very common condiment in Indian cuisine sat there waiting for me to use, but it didn’t taste any better dipping the bread into it, it tasted like a cool creamy cucumber yogurt. This was the part where I wish I had some spicy tandoori chicken to go with it. The curry tasted exceptional.

The best part of the meal was the basmathi rice, it came plain and another with sautéed onions with spinach, cooked in a rich broth which gave the rice its yellow color. The way they made it with the special blend of spices gave it a tantalizing aroma and a delicious taste.  In 3 spoonfuls, it was gone.

For dessert, I ordered the gulab jamun, ($4.45) a popular dessert in Southern Asia. It was 2 pieces of fried dough, similar to the size of a munchkin you find at Dunkin Donuts, covered in sugary syrup. The top maintained a crunchy exterior but mid way down, the dough was just mushy from soaking too long in the syrup. It had a hint of sweeten condense milk flavor to it and a rose-like aroma but it was just too sweet for my taste. I rather walk down an avenue for a glazed doughnut from Dunkin.

Posted in Food, restaurant reviews | 3 Comments

Bitter Service, Sweet Food

381 3rd Ave (Btwn 27th & 28th St)

Amber’s modern style decor and trendy bar is a contrast from the stream of customary diners and bars along 3rd avenue, making this restaurant seem like the East 20’s best kept secret.

The second level boasts the Asian restaurants ability to stand out from other establishments with a more intimate and mellow setting provided by the brick walls, dim red lights, and cushioned chairs. However, as Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold” blasted through the speakers, I was left with a “hot and cold” feeling as my dining experience slowly began.

Several minutes after being seated and wondering where our waiter/waitress was, she finally arrived. Asking for our drinks and orders was the only time she spoke to us the entire evening.

Unlike the unfriendly and aloof service, the appetizers and entrees did not disappoint.

Veggie Mini Rolls

Ordering Veggie Mini Rolls ($6) as an appetizer, the steamed carrots and spinach leaves inside tasted fresh and seemed healthy as I was able to distinguish the vegetables from its lightly fried exterior. The sweet chili dipping sauce on the side had a sweet and sour sauce appearance and taste with a hint of spice, acting as the perfect accommodation.

Shrimp Tempura, Salmon Avocado Rolls

The sushi added to the delectable quality of Amber as well. The Salmon Avocado Roll ($5.50) and Shrimp Tempura Roll ($7) each had an unique and tangy flavor to them. With ripe avocado, firm rice, and the fish tasting as if it was caught and cleaned that morning, my fears of eating contaminated sushi were thankfully put to rest.

Pineapple Fried Rice

The originality of these two dishes were seen throughout the entire menu in dishes such as, Tropical Mango Chicken ($17), Spicy Sautéed Sweet Peanut Sauce ($17), and my final choice of the evening, the Pineapple Fried Rice ($11). Served in an actual pineapple (I appreciated the literal touch), the rice was spicy yet sweet as chunks of pineapples evened the flavor. Inside were cashew nuts, chicken, and pineapple-flavored raisins, which tasted as juicy and fruity as the actual pineapples. Once a spoon full, or should I say chopstick full, enters your mouth, so does bursts of fruity, spicy, and sweet flavors.

Unfortunately, the hot streak ended there. Because our waitress forgot our soup and salads, we didn’t receive them until after the main course, when we were completely full.

It seems almost impossible to mess up soup and salad, especially after these unique dishes, right? Well Amber knows how to make the impossible possible.

Known for its salty flavor, the Miso soup ($2.50) was bland and altogether tasteless. The salad, which looked like a plate of leaves with clumpy orange juice on top, was insipid as well; leaving me to believe this error from the waitress was a blessing in disguise.

All in all, Amber was a bittersweet experience. The restaurant has delectable main courses, generous portions accommodating the price, and a pleasant decor. Unfortunately, the indifferent staff and overly loud music, which ranged from 1920’s jazz to obnoxious Z100 pop, lead me to unfortunately quote Katy Perry as I sat in my comfortable seat, unable to hear my friend over the loud music , “You don’t really want to stay, but you don’t really want to go.”

Posted in Food | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Big Things Come in Small Sizes…

How can walking into a cozy, inexpensive restaurant for lunch feel as if I am royalty eating at the Taj Mahal? Baluchi’s, an Indian restaurant located on 25th St. and 3rd Ave., is not what you expect when first looking at its facade. Actually, you would probably pass by it on your way to somewhere else. However, the experience of Baluchi’s happens as soon as you enter the place.

Baluchi’s, whose name comes from the Baloch people who originated from Iran, benefits as a petite restaurant by having a wait staff that can be more attentive. Each time, someone was waiting to open the door to welcome us in and show us to our cushioned red seats as well as to hold the door open as we left. Natural lighting and

light from the colorful hanging lamp shades provided a relaxing atmosphere along with the Indian music softly playing in the background. Twice there was an unclean glass or plate, but the waiter or waitress was more than glad to replace them if we or they themselves noticed it.

And that is already receiving a lot when an entire meal can cost less than $30 and for lunch the meals are 50 percent off.

Another interesting practice of the restaurant is how the food is served. Unlike other restaurants that serve you on a plate, Baluchi’s uses mini-pot-like bowls for the entree and rice. At first glance the small portion sizes do not look filling, but surprisingly I was full after each meal.

Now what comes to mind when you think of Indian food — spicy– and what spice in particular– curry! I am of West Indian descent, so I have had plenty of contact with curry and in result use it as a tester in both West Indian and East Indian restaurants. The restaurant gets brownie points if they can cook curry seafood, my favorite, well.

Shrimp Curry

Baluchi’s Shrimp Curry ($15.95), which is in the seafood entree section, passed my test. It is comprised of shrimp cooked with curry spice, onions and tomato sauce and served with Basmati rice. I have had curry in the past that was too strong; it tasted salty and was too thick. But this one was the right blend of sweet and tangy, which was probably due to the tomato sauce cutting in on the flavor.

The Chicken Tikka Masala ($13.95), which is in the curries entree section, is a dish of “boneless chicken chunks simmered in

Chicken Tikka Masala

tomato and cream sauce.” The only time I have heard of Masala was from the 1991 film Mississippi Masala, starring Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury. So, it caught my attention and like the shrimp curry, it was not overwhelmingly spicy or sharp in taste. It had a hint of sweetness and  was not so creamy that it would be hard too swallow. With the $7 potato and chick pea Samosa appetizer and Nan bread, I was satisfied for the rest of the day.

Next time, I’ll try the catfish curry or the quail. As I said looking at Baluchi’s menu, so much tempting food and only one stomach.

Posted in Food, restaurant reviews | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

The little bee’s sweet and savory sting

Though the food was variably delicious, Petite Abeille already had me at hello. The restaurant’s endearing décor evoked both a countryside feel and a fairytale like atmosphere that fed my eyes with a view of tasteful colors.

While its lemon meringue walls displayed different pieces of art—a chalkboard showing the menu in a neat script on one pillar, the restaurant’s symbol of a bee on another—its tables were covered in blue and white checkered table cloth and arranged in a comfortable array that easily invited me in as if for a picnic.

As a Belgian restaurant and bar, Petite Abeille (French for “little bee”), is best known for its variety of sweet waffles and beers. However, it also offers a number of savory entrees and selection of omelets with their own Belgian twists, heavy on the mushroom, cheeses, and Belgian fries with just about any meaty dish.

Primarily a halal or vegetarian diner, I thought I’d try an omelet, but found them way too pricey at $12.50-$13. Instead, I opted for the $5 Petite Abeille Egg Sandwich. Normally served with spinach, bacon and cheddar on ciabatta bread, I asked them to hold the bacon and add tomatoes.

Waiting a long half hour for my sandwich, our charming waiter was extremely attentive to our table. However, the lunch rush hour arrived soon and the wait staff was far to busy to tend to us the same way throughout. So I recommend coming in the wee hours of the day to get the best out of this little bee. Still, with such a wait, you can be sure your food is fresh. I was confirmed of this when I received my fulfilling egg sandwich.

Smoke steaming out of the crisp ciabatta, the gooey cheese and vegetable combination oozing within and its salty scent wafting out, my mouth was watering immediately. Well seasoned, the melted cheese had a slightly bitter aftertaste, but it was quickly sweetened with the chunks of tomato, while the spinach balanced both tastes. After a bit of struggling to eat as neatly as possible and avoid melted cheddar streaming down my chin, only crumbs remained. At just $5 and a far cry from the much beloved Dunkin Donuts croissant, egg and cheese equivalent, this gourmet egg sandwich was a steal.

I attempted to then satisfy my sweet tooth with the  $9 Gaufre Banana Split: a waffle with vanilla ice cream, banana, chocolate sauce and whipped cream. I love bananas, but with a waffle, chocolate and whipped cream, they were absolutely scrumptious. A dismissible flaw, however, was that the chocolate sauce tasted too watered down. I dipped the cut corners of my soft and chewy waffle into the syrup to get just the right amount and texture. But the Wafels & Dinges truck’s thick and creamy toppings definitely beat the little bee’s.

Still, tantalized by the sweet aroma engulfing my senses, I almost forgot about the ice cream! Hidden beneath the whipped cream and I had to carve it out to taste it. The frigid contrast of the vanilla ice cream can be off putting with the rest of the warm, sugary goodness, though. So maybe I’d have this dessert sans ice cream next time. It would definitely be worth the visit. You could say Petite Abeille had me at goodbye as well.

Posted in Food, restaurant reviews | 4 Comments

All-time favorite food: Blueberry Pancakes!

Mouth-watering Blueberry pancakes!!!!!!

Pancakes are my dream dish. Why you make ask? Because pancakes are the sweetest welcome, and reward I treat myself to on the weekends. I absolutely love blueberry pancakes, they are my all time favorite.  Every time, whether I’m dining out or whipping up of  plate full of hot cakes at home, I fall head over heels for their golden brown crust and soft, doughy mouth-water center  covered with a massive layer of sweet maple syrup. With an overwhelming school schedule, making a batch of fluffy, delicious blueberry pancakes over the weekend is a lot of fun and my mom loves them. On Saturday morning, you will find me on the stove, flipping pancakes like a pro on the griddle, and enjoying a plate full with my mom while watching another addictive episode of CSI: Miami. For many people, the weekend is the only time slot to enjoy the desired things we are too busy for during the weekdays. It has got to stop. Wake up and grab your mojo cup of coffee and enjoy your fine luxuries during the week.

Pancakes may not be your coveted luxury item, but we all have one. Whether it’s enjoying a bowl of double chocolate ice cream or pasta, playing video games or guitar, hanging out with best friends or shopping, or even the all- time favorite pastime; doing nothing but sleeping, these activities and food items are important and should be an addition to our week. Okay folks, it may seem like I am dishing out alot of talk, but I’m girl that transforms her rambunctious talk into action. Monday, March 21st, I woke up early and went to school but not before going on a hunt around the area for a restaurant/food place that has pancakes on the menu. To my surprise and disappointment, there were very few establishments that made pancakes for breakfast-loving customers like me. Of course, there were the usual Gramercy café, Bagel Express and Papous that dished up mediocre plates of my beloved pancakes but they couldn’t win me over.

Instead, I did what every food-lover with a decent kitchen would do-  I made a container of pancake batter and the next morning I treated myself to a plate of pancakes and enjoyed every bite. What can I say; I love pancakes, and couldn’t live with- out them. And surprisingly, I found Clinton Street bakery, a wonderful restaurant in the city that have expert chefs who make a breath-taking plate of mouth-watering, fluffy blueberry pancakes with a side of creamy maple butter. A Breakfast for Champions!!!!

Posted in Independent Film | 4 Comments