Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bits & Morsels

At Empellón: Long Island duck with fingerling potatoes and Tinga Poblana, roasted tomato, chorizo, chipotle

by Erin Frankel

I was first introduced to Lebanese food when I was barely a teenager and used to visit Juliet’s family where her Tata (grandmother) would make us Labné. Fifteen years later, we are still on the prowl for the best Labné in this city.

Labné is strained yogurt sprinkled with herbs and olive oil. It is an indispensable condiment that should be eaten with anything and everything at a Lebanese restaurant. Since our beloved Byblos burned down, with high hopes Juls asked me to try Naya.

Naya translates as “new” in Arabic, which is fitting since this restaurant is going for an uber-Modern look. The space is a narrow hall, ten feet wide, with white washed walls and “backlit” hieroglyphics. All this to presumably conjure up visions of contemporary Beirut. It's a little much.
Inside Naya.
What the restaurant lacks in (too much) décor, it definitely makes up in food. The cuisine is upscale and sophisticated. Classic Lebanese dishes are revived with a modern approach. Some of the hot and cold mezzes take an interesting detour in flavor and texture, including the Pan-Seared Halomi cheese and tomato, topped with a mild pomegranate sauce and a spicy walnut and red pepper muhammara version of the traditional Lebanese baba ghannouj.

However skillfully Naya achieves an updated spin on the country’s cuisine, the restaurant still remains true to some traditional Lebanese staples. The Fattoush salad topped with small crunchy pita and sumac lemon-vinegar maintains the rooted light, refreshing texture and flavor; the three cheeses within the phyllo wrapped rekakat is deep fried to perfection; the fried kibbe (Juliet’s favorite and an established dish in her Tata’s home) is nicely crisp on the outside and juicy within; and of course, Naya’s rich Labné is classically thick and seasoned beautifully with mint and olive oil.
Clockwise from top left: Fried Kibbe (beef dumplings stuffed with minced beef and pignoli) with Labban; Labné (strained yogurt topped with mint and olive oil); Grape Leaves; Rekakat (blend of three cheese wrapped in phyllo and deep fried); Spicy walnut and red pepper muhammara; Baba Ghannouj.
Fattoush salad with small crunchy pita and sumac lemon-vinegar. Chicken shish taouk (breast of chicken cubes marinated in garlic & lemon served with garlic sauce, spicy red sauce & rice).
Naya Mezze & Grill
1057 Second Avenue
Empellón: A Preview Dinner. This week, former wd-50 pastry chef, Alex Stupak, traded one gastronomical experiment in pastries for another in contemporary Mexican, with the opening of Empellón, his first solo endeavor. Given his cutting-edge culinary background at wd-50, it is only fitting that Stupak’s first Mexican venture is anomalous. The 30-year-old chef and his wife, Lauren Resler, former pastry chef at Babbo, innovatively twist classic Mexican dishes with peculiar elements. Although Stupak doesn’t stick to any particular region or method, he receives most of his inspiration from Oaxaca, where he found a complexity of vegetable, fruit, and herb fusions that had never been introduced to Mexican cuisine in the states. His menu highlights fruity and spicy additions to the chilled seafood appetizers, rare ingredients and flavors to tacos, and exotic elements in his entrees.

Experiment number one: Stupak's Mariscos. The scallops are dressed with pineapple, salsa campachana, and habanero, which, in its unlikely combination, lend a fruity and zesty flavor to the fish. A favorite on the menu, the red snapper ceviche, is paired with a fresh and exciting vegetable and fruit combination of beets and guava puree.
Scallops with pineapple and salsa campechana habanero, epazote, shellfish broth.
Octopus with sesame, parsnip and salsa papanteca chipotle, sweet spices, piloncillo.
Red Snapper ceviche with beets and guava puree.
Maine shrimp with puffed amaranth, cucumber and peanut-red chile salsa.
Experiment Number two: Stupak's tacos. Virtually all of his tacos are made with uncanny components and spices, but the combinations are fun and engaging. A variety of his inventive taco concoctions include beer braised tongue with bacon, lamb barbacao with salsa boracha, and my favorite, the crispy Yucca with habanero ketchup.
Crispy Yucca tacos with habanero ketchup.
Fish tempura taco with cabbage and lime mayonnaise.
Lamb barbacoa taco with salsa borracha pasilla oaxaquena, orange juice, mezcal.
Experiment Number three: Stupak's mesa dumplings with poblano chile and Maitake mushrooms. I can't remember ever seeing dumplings on a menu at a Mexican restaurant, which is why I absolutely had to order this. The inclusion of the Japanese-influenced Maitake mushrooms with the classic Mexican poblano chile makes this one of the more creative dishes on the menu.

However incoherent the menu looks, I can agree with the chef in one respect: when we are hungry, we both choose what we love the most ... Mexican.
Masa dumplings with poblano chile and Maitake mushrooms.
230 West 4th Street
What else I ate this week:

Fredi Sandwich Bar. On my walk home one day, I noticed a new cute sandwich shop in Union Square called Fredi. The small shop is cozy and the entire menu is creative and fairly priced. One of the best picks on the nicely conceived Italian menu was the grilled chicken with a delicious combination of aged Gruyère, caramelized onion, and creamy sweet honey mustard on foccacia. A perfectly crisp, juicy sandwich.
Grilled chicken with a delicious combination of aged Gruyère, caramelized onion, and creamy sweet honey mustard on foccacia at Fredi Sandwich Bar.
This week, I also tried Caliu and Spasso, both of which recently opened on Hudson and Perry Street.

Caliu (557 Hudson St., 212.206.6444) is the first small traditional Spanish tapas joint from former Peruvian Boqueria chef de cuisine, Franco Barrio. Given his background at two of New York City’s most well renowned Spanish institutions (both Boqueria and Casa Mono), I had high hopes for Caliu. Barrio creates a reasonable menu of seasonal, local ingredients, however, I found the small portions small and many of the dishes too salty. The best item on the menu is the sea scallops, complemented with Idozabel cheese and sprinkled with Txakoli.
Buñuelos De Calabaza: sweet butternut squash fritters, peppered maple yogurt.
Datiles Con Beicon: bacon wrapped dates, valdeon cheese, almonds.
Ensaladita Rusa: baby golden beets, fingerling potatoes, seasonal vegetables.
Vieiras De Playa: sea scallop, idiazabal cheese, txakoli.
Paella Caldosa: traditional paella, chickpeas, house-made chorizo, cockles, prawns.
Spasso (551 Hudson St., 212.858.3838) oozes with charm and style. Not surprising, since it follows the lead of its predecessors, Dell’Anima and L’Artusi, owner Bobby Werhane’s other two modern Italian date spots in the West Village. Spasso occupies a large, airy space with floor to ceiling walls, which, in the spring, will open up to allow cafe tables to spill onto the street. However, even in the winter with the windows down, the room has an accommodating vibe, enriched by the high ceilings, white washed brick walls, and open kitchen.

Ricotta strascinari with braised duck leg and smoked scamorza.
At 10pm on a Tuesday evening the restaurant was packed, so I knew the food would be good. Like Dell’Anima and L’Artusi, Spasso specializes in small Italian plates and presents a menu with a similar organization: a selection of cured meats and cheeses, homemade pastas, and an exquisite selection of meats and fish as secondi.

We started with both the crispy eggplant aracini with whipped housemade ricotta and roasted tomato, and the charred octopus with cucumbers, yogurt, and mint.

Though, these were only forerunners to the more starchy, satiating dishes like the ricotta strascinari with braised duck leg and smoked scamorza; and my favorite, the maccheroni di busa, a pork ragu della nonna complemented with goat cheese and fennel fronds.

As for the entrée, our server recommended we pair the house red wine with the trout saltimbocco wrapped with prosciutto and sage.

With the crowded bar, chef's table, and a buzz of buoyancy, hopes are high for Spasso.
Crispy eggplant aracini with whipped housemade ricotta and roasted tomato.
Charred octopus with cucumbers, yogurt, and mint.
The maccheroni di busa: a pork ragu della nonna with goat cheese and fennel fronds.
The trout saltimbocco wrapped with prosciutto and sage.
Photographs by Erin Frankel.
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