Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The New York Lunch (with European Flair)

Business lunch.  Power lunch.  Casual lunch.  New York has many lunches, and they feature all kinds of people, from men in suits to women gossiping over tea (I'm definitely in the latter bunch).  Although there are a lot of pricey options, you don't have to subject yourself to fast food in order to get a good deal on lunch.  Many nice restaurants offer lunch deals throughout town, and I'm not talking Restaurant Week.  These deals are year-round.  Most of Daniel Boulud's restaurants (minus the three Michelin starred Daniel) offer prix fixe tasting menus for lunch at a huge bargain.  Jean-Georges ($32 for 2 courses) and the adjacent Nougatine ($28 for 3 courses) offer excellent deals for lunch, as do most of JG's many eateries around the city.  A four course dinner at Eleven Madison Park costs $125, while a three course lunch is a simple $56 or $74 for the full four courses.  You do the math.  Chances are, if you're like me and can't afford to eat at certain restaurants for dinner, you can manage to still get the experience and some incredible food at lunch, sometimes for less than half the price!

Okay, so some people think these restaurants can be "snooty."  They can be.  Well, great lunch bargains can be discovered in less "snooty" places if you don't want to wear your Sunday best just to go to lunch on a Wednesday.  I'm happy to share a couple fun deals at fairly opposite ends of the spectrum, and yet both have a certain je ne sais quoi.  Could it be some European flair?  I think it could be!

Brasserie Les Halles
411 Park Ave S
(between 28th St & 29th St)
New York, NY 10016
(212) 679-4111

You may remember this restaurant from Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential.  I remember it as the place with the best damn cassoulet I've ever had.  I've been to the downtown location, but this was my first visit to the original Park Avenue South location, the land of Bourdain.  I had an overwhelming craving for Croque Monsieur, maybe Steak Frites, definitely one of the comforting classics.  When I arrived here for lunch this week, I noticed something new (or at least new to me).  A "Dash to France" tasting that visits different regions of France for a mere $20.10... for lunch or dinner.  Not just lunch.  They only offer it every other week, and from Monday through Wednesday, but it's definitely something to keep in mind.  I decided that I could have my Croque Monsieur or Steak Frites another day, those would always be there, but I wanted to try out this special, which this week explored Dordogne, an area I'm not familiar with.  I selected the duck pâté with truffles and foie gras to start, while my friend went with the original menu options and ordered French onion soup as her first course.  The pâté was very good, a nice texture and flavor, perfect atop some lovely baguette pieces that remained in our bread basket.  A light salad accompanied the pâté, and was barely dressed.  It didn't stand out next to the pâté.  I would have loved if they had offered some accompaniments to the pâté as I've seen done at Bar Boulud (coarse grain mustard and cornichons are a good start), but the pâté alone was delicious on the bread.  I tasted my friend's soup as well.  It was very good and satisfying, but not the best onion soup either of us have had.  There was a slight acidity noted in the broth, and I later looked in my Les Halles Cookbook (which was ever so lovingly personally autographed... with a marriage proposal... from Anthony Bourdain... which I asked him to write... even though he's married... and he obliged... I'm not sure why) and noted that the recipe contains both Port wine and some balsamic vinegar.  There's your acid!  Would I still order it on a cold New York day even if it's not the best I've had?  Bien sûr!

Pâté aux Truffles et Foie Gras - Duck Pâté with Truffles and Foie Gras

French Onion Soup $8
For my entrée I settled on the fish option, which was Pike served with a Bergerac white wine sauce and pommes puree.  It was a generous portion, to say the least.  The fish was cooked just right, juicy and delicious.  I was a bit surprised that while the skin had been removed, the "skin side" was still served up.  It was less pretty, and not the way I would have served it.  The potato puree was creamy, perfectly seasoned, and utterly satisfying (I'm a mashed potato fiend!).  The sauce was also very good.  My only complaint would be that aesthetically the dish was basically one color, and texturally it was all pretty soft.  A little color and texture contrast would have been nice, but regardless I licked my plate clean :)  My friend had the quiche of the day, which was with portobella mushrooms and gruyere.  We both thought it had a great creamy texture, but was slightly underseasoned.

Brochet au Bergerac Blanc - Pike in Bergerac White Wine Sauce and Potato Puree

Quiche du Jour - Portobella Mushroom and Gruyere $12.50

Overall, I have not only enjoyed my food during my two visits to Les Halles, my dining companions have always enjoyed theirs, and I'm pleased that I discovered this special, early in the week deal with a well priced tasting menu.  I would happily return to try the foods from other regions, and of course order the classics off their standard menu.

Alice's Tea Cup
156 E 64th St (plus 2 other locations)
(between Lexington Ave & 3rd Ave)
New York, NY 10021
(212) 486-9200

I sincerely love drinking tea.  Afternoon tea became popular in England in the late 17th century and is still popular today, there and just about everywhere else!  Probably the most famous tea party (other than the Boston one, and oh yeah that political one of the moment) is the one from Alice in Wonderland.  Two sisters have taken their love of tea and opened three New York restaurants with whimsical decorations, bright colors, mismatched tea cups, saucers, and teapots, and fun menus featuring not only an extensive list of teas, but dishes that include tea as an ingredient.  The menu extends far beyond afternoon tea, and even offers "mar-tea-nis," tea cocktails.  Going here alone may be fine for regular menu items, but if you plan to indulge in the afternoon tea (which is actually served all day), not only is it more fun with a friend but it will seriously save you money!  The Nibble is their smallest afternoon tea offering, and is intended for one person.  It costs $23 and offers a pot of tea, a scone, a sandwich, and cookies.  The Mad Hatter can be ordered for one or two people.  For one person it will cost $30 and includes a pot of tea, 2 scones, 2 sandwiches, cookies, and a choice of sweets.  For $37 you can get the same thing but with an extra pot of tea, and an extra scone.  That's the same as the Nibble but with an extra scone and additional dessert to share, and you will each pay only $18.50!  For more food EACH than the Nibble!  The third option is the Jabberwocky, best if you're here with more than 2 people.  It starts at $38 with $20 additional per person added, and includes all the same things (and extra pots of tea and scones per person added), but UNLIMITED sandwiches and more desserts.  This is the way to go for a larger party.

The Mad Hatter for Two $37 (with leftovers too!)

My friend and I ordered the Mad Hatter.  She had the African Dew as her tea choice, a darker tea which she lightened with milk.  I chose Alice's Tea, which is a mixture of black and green teas, infused with rose and vanilla flavors.  I liked it, thought it was a bit floral without being over the top, and not so strong that I needed to sweeten it.  We each had a raspberry-cream cheese scone (basically a raspberry scone with cream cheese frosting) which we both loved!  We also split a pumpkin scone (took most of that home), one of their most popular scones, but it was less popular to my friend and I, who thought it was denser and more doughy than the raspberry one.  The scones are served with preserves and cream.

Pumpkin Scone and Two Raspberry Cream Cheese Scones with Preserves and Cream

For sandwiches, I went with Alice's BLT, which is served on toasted pumpernickel with a Stilton spread instead of plain mayo.  Although I felt boring ordering a BLT with all the other sandwich choices, I had read that it was very popular, and I stood by my choice.  It was really good!  My friend had the Curried Chicken Salad Sandwich, served on Amy's famous Golden Raisin Semolina Bread.  It was a bit of sweet and a bit of spice, all wrapped up in a mighty good sandwich.

Alice's BLT and Curried Chicken Salad Sandwich

The final tier offered a selection of cookies and a choice of sweets.  Although we could have had chocolate mousse or a lemon-fruit tart, we went with the mocha chocolate chip cake.  We both only had room for a bite of cake before we wrapped up the rest to go!  It was SO much food!  You definitely get your money's worth!  Come here with a huge appetite, and definitely bring your friends :)  Oh, and PS, there were men dining here too (albeit with women, but still), so I want to be clear there is no "girls only" rule!  Tea is universal, and so is Alice's Tea Cup!

Jean's "not-yet-but-soon-to-be-famous" Mocha Chocolate Chip Cake with Assorted Cookies


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