Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bits & Morsels

Brisket sandwich on rye at Octavia’s Porch.

by Erin Frankel

My mother was pleased when I told her I inadvertently spent my Friday night “Sabbath dinner” at New York City’s first and, arguably only, Global Jewish restaurant, Octavia’s Porch.

The name “Octavia” originates from the venerable passageway in Rome’s old Jewish Ghetto, which is fitting since the owners and chef (24 Prince team Brad Grossman and his wife and top chef alum, Nikki Cascone) are both half Jewish and half Italian.  Nikki expressed her intention to introduce a new cuisine to the hodgepodge of diverse cultural fare of New York City.

In preparation, Nikki and Brad traveled all over the world to research unique and inspirational Jewish dishes from North Africa to Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and South America to name a few.

Gefilte fish on steroids at Octavia’s Porch.
Think of Octavia’s as your grandmother's home (and cooking) with an upscale makeover. The two rooms, both adorned with gold-colored walls, low lighting and dark wood seating, demonstrate a more posh adaptation of the traditional Eastern European home.

Nikki’s food takes a modern approach to familiar Jewish staples. Nikki artfully replaces the standard bread and butter starter with some challah and honey butter. I recommend sharing some of the shmears to start — in particular, the salmon-sour cream, the white bean-lemon, and the mushroom-sesame.

A number of appetizers on the menu pay special attention to the many assimilated Jewish tastes and flavors. Nikki fills her potato knish with wild mushrooms and potatoes and flavors it with a beer mustard; and garnishes the quinoa with South American flavors including pumpkin seeds, haricots verts, marinated with a light citrus soy sauce.

Moving on to easily the most polarizing of Jewish dishes: gefilte fish. Nikki miraculously softens her version with a lime and fresh horseradish seasoning. Trust me, it's nothing like your bubbe's.
The bar at Octavia's Porch.
Wash everything down with signature cocktails like the Bourbon Apple or the L.E.S. Martini, an innovative twist on the traditional martini replacing olive and olive brine with homemade pickles and pickle brine. Everyone will be inclined to schlep here for the sweet and radical desserts. Try Hannukah’s Jelly Donuts now made with peanut butter and, the best dessert drink I believe I’ve ever had, the boozy chocolate egg cream (egg cream spiked with chocolate vodka).

Octavia's Porch
40 Avenue B
Egg Cream. L.E.S. Martini, made with Hendricks gin, house made brine & pickles. Bourbon Apple Cocktail.
Homemade challah bread.
Three shmears: salmon-sour cream, white bean-lemon, and mushroom-sesame.
Quinoa with pumpkin seeds, haricots verts, marinated with a light citrus soy sauce.
Peanut Butter & Jelly Donuts.
What else I ate this week:

Mexican Brunch. My West Coast friends have nourished Mexican food snobbery, harboring the notion that I won’t ever find “legit “Mexican food in New York. Well I can arguably say that Hecho en Dumbo (354 Bowery, 212.937.4245 — a Bowery transplant from its former DUMBO location) may produce the most authentic Mexican food this city has to offer. Simple techniques and light ingredients are evident in all of the reasonably priced dishes here.

I come here for dinner quite frequently and finally tried the brunch this past weekend. If you aren’t a morning person, you’ll find plenty of mouth-watering dishes to get your day started on the right note. My recommendations are the grilled steak short-rib tacos, the Huevos Estrellados “Lucio” ( fried organic eggs with French fries and sprinkled with Berkshire Chorizo), and my favorite, the Migas Nortenas-scrambled organic eggs with onion, tomatoes and strips of tortilla, lightly spiced with chile jalapeno. I recommend you washing it all down with one of the refreshingly piney mezcal or tequila cocktails on the menu. This is all an ideal brunch alternative to your standard eggs and Bloody Mary Sunday morning routine.
Hecho en Dumbo's interior.
The bar.
Pescadillas Puerto Escondido.
De Santos (39 W 10th Street, 212.206.9229) is an old favorite of mine. It's hard to pass up an inviting staff, cozy, intimate ambiance, and reliable food. However, as of last week, De Santos has hired a new chef, Angel Velo (from The Waverly Inn and Kenmare), who brings a Mediterranean twist to their traditional Italian cuisine.

The cuisine here mimics the décor: rustic but refined. For dinner, you will start your meal with some complimentary hummus. Then, for the appetizers, go for the restaurant’s signature spicy popcorn shrimp and the buffalo carpaccio. The pastas are made daily and are worth exploring; my favorite being the spaghetti combined with wonderfully rich and delicious Bolognese sauce.
The vibe at De Santos is good for brunch or dinner. The exposed brick dining room, vintage hardwood floors, dim lighting, beautiful backyard garden, and festive music make this a flexible spot.
Chef Velo has added two Mediterranean-influenced entrees to the menu: A perfected pan-seared scallops with porcini truffle risotto and a grilled Atlantic salmon with fresh couscous in a light saffron broth (prepared with the finest mild ingredients).

He has also enhanced the brunch menu, which I sampled over the weekend. I sat in the enclosed garden in the back with a large group, and we tried almost everything our waiter recommended. Newest additions and must-tries include the Omelette Peperonata with herb sauteed peppers and pancetta, and the deliciously sweet crepes.
Pan-seared scallops with porcini truffle risotto.
Grilled Atlantic salmon with fresh couscous in a saffron broth.
Spaghetti Bolognese.
Crab salad.
Omelette Peperonata with herb sauteed peppers and pancetta.
The Kobe Beef Burger.
Eggs Benedict.
Banana and Nutella crepes.
There are plenty of Southern-inspired restaurants popping up all over the city, but the really good ones are few and far between. As far as quiet and more upscale restaurants go, Southern comfort cuisine is even more of a challenge. However, LowCountry (142 W. 10th St., 212.255.2330), a fairly new Southern ‘soul’ restaurant, provides a niche for your fried food fix in a relaxed yet refined setting. Lowcountry references the coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina and the food clearly epitomizes that here.
Table in the back with a bookshelf full of vintage-inspired books.
Start with the creamy pimento deviled eggs and firm and lightly battered fried pickles. Then I suggest the fresh Iceberg Wedge Salad, which is showered with a rich and tasty deviled egg dressing. As for the entrees, the spare ribs were evenly cooked, tender and not terribly fatty and the cornmeal-dusted catfish was perfectly filleted in a crisp, Old-Bay spiced batter and polished with a deliciously sweet chow roumalade. Wash all of this down with a glass of good Bourbon for a deliciously genteel Southern ‘soul’ experience.
Pimento Deviled Eggs.
Iceberg Wedge Salad with Tomato, Applewood Bacon, Deviled Egg Dressing.
Beet & Pear Salad: Field Greens, Goat Cheese, Candied Pecan Mustard Vinaigrette.
Fried Pickles.
BBQ Baby Back Ribs with Pimento Macaroni, Hot Pepper Slaw.
Cornmeal Dusted Catfish with Carolina Red Rice and Beans, Chow Chow Remoulade.
Skirt Steak with Creamed Brussels Sprouts, Parsnips & Baby Shitakes, Pickled Mustard Seed, Onion Ring.
Follow NYSD Dining on Twitter.