Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bits & Morsels

Bi Cuon Vegetable Rolls at Baotique. Tofu, bean thread, vermicelli, herbs and soy dipping sauce.

by Erin Frankel

Rao's. There is no menu, no photos, no names to be mentioned, and you’ll most likely never get in. But, in the rare case that you do, it will be the experience of a lifetime. In its 115th year, with only eight tables and one seating per evening, Rao's is still the most exclusive restaurant in the city; renowned for serving local clientele, most of whom have reserved the same booth for the same night of the week year after year. These tables are owned like prime real-estate by New York City’s elite. If you want to come to Rao's before 2013, it’s all about who you know here, and to date, the only exceptions have been made for Presidents.

From the minute you enter the small, charming restaurant, the staff makes you feel like you are in the warm presence of close family and friends. The restaurant is old school to the core and nothing has changed one bit. The dark wood booths and tables remain intact, the Christmas wreaths are still hanging in March, the jukebox is playing the Four Seasons, and photos of celebrities and politicians sitting in your same seat face you as you get ready to begin your meal.
I couldn't take photos on my trip to Rao's, but fortunately for this column, JH has lent us his snaps from a few years back of his "so simple but so good" meal (a friend gave JH a reservation for a table of four and he invited DPC and two other pals to join).
One of many walls of photographs. Table lamp made from Rao's marinara sauce.
The legendary jukebox.
The cuisine here is Southern Italian and it's all about comfort and quality. Frank Pellegrino sits down at the table, chats for a bit, and then describes what’s on tap for the evening. No menu. No prices. The food comes out family style and has the look and taste of your Italian grandma’s dishes.

As for the perennial favorites, to start, the famous seafood salad, which comprises calamari, shrimp, crabmeat and lobster is lightly seasoned with lemon and olive oil. The mozzarella in the tomato and mozzarella salad is creamy, smooth, and fresh. The roasted red peppers starter has the perfect acidity. And as for my favorite, the fried mozzarella is lightly fried, smooth, firm, and cooked perfectly inside. The Ruffino Chianti Classico from 2005 was suggested. It was light and crisp and a lovely accompaniment for the appetizers.
Mozzarella in Carozza and roasted red peppers.
A plate of orecchiette and penne.
The meaty meatballs.
Italian cheesecake with a scoop of coffee ice cream.
I think you get the point.
The pastas. The homemade arrabiata and bolognese sauces were perfectly balanced and coated each pasta shell ever so delicately. We also tried the meatballs. Just meat, lightly cooked. Delicious.

As for the main course, we had the shrimp scampi and the restaurant’s namesake dish, the lemon chicken, both of which we devoured.

We finished our dinner with an assortment of ice cream and cheesecake — a very sweet ending to a peerless dinner.

Rao's remains one of the city’s best kept secrets.
Baotique. Given the rate that Michael Bao's Bao Restaurant Empire has mounted in New York City, it’s getting harder and harder to keep track of all of his venues. Now that he has taken over St. Mark’s Place with small, casual Vietnamese sandwich shops, it makes sense that he take a more grand approach to his venture into Midtown, most evident in his newest restaurant, Baotique.

Baotique is opulent, almost pompous. From the moment you walk onto the red carpet of the covert space set deep inside an unidentified building that houses the new Covet Lounge, you are greeted by a beautiful hostess who brings you to a massive, extravagant, windowless room that is somehow both intimate and trendy. The exotic, sophisticated menu reflects the vibe.
Chef/owner, Michael Bao. Chef de Cuisine, Chase Tinio.
Together, the experienced Michael Bao and his young, entrepreneurial Chef de Cuisine, Chase Tinio, fuses modern worldly flavors into traditional Vietnamese cooking techniques to breed fresh, innovative, and creative tastes.

The baby-faced 27-year-old Chase Tinio explained that he likes to take his guests out for a ride on a gastronomic journey where they try to decipher the flavors as they consume every bite ... when at the end of each bite, everything makes palatable sense.

For instance, take the famous Pad Thai dish. Traditionally, Pad Thai is cooked using rice noodles. However, at Baotique, Chase uses cuttlefish, sliced thinly and garnished with Vietnamese pickled radish and some toasted peanuts. Chase notes quite appropriately that the absence of the traditional noodles elicits curiosity and intrigue from his diners.
A look inside Baotique.
The majority of the dishes are a playful take on the traditional Vietnamese dish. Chase adds modern, worldly flavors to both the Wok-Seared Beef Fillet (Bo Luc Lac) with the addition of a watercress salad, avocado and some cherry tomato concasse finished with marinated onions; and the Foie Gras Duck Fried Rice, which is a twist on the Asian fried rice. Here Chaise uses flavors from France, China, Thailand, and Vietnam all at once.

In Baotique, Michael Bao and Chase Tinio exhibit the belief that dining is more then the experience of just eating. The flavors and textures of the food along with the ambience should engages all of the senses and should keep you on the edge.
Crispy Crab Spring Rolls. Cha Gio pork, shrimp, jicama, lime fish sauce.
Wild Mushroom Crepe. Bach Xeo Nam Chanterelle, seasonal, mushroom, tofu, soy dipping.
Chile Black Cod. Ca Nuong Chao manila clam, sweet pepper stew, preserved lime puree.
Cuttlefish's Pad Thai Style. Muc Xal "no noodle" duck egg, chives, peanut.
Sear Sea Scallop. Xo Diep radish parsnip puree, chinese bacon, xo, curry sauce.
137 East 55th Street
Oficina Latina. Can’t make up your mind? You want Mexican, Dominican, Brazilian, Argentinean, and maybe even Ecuadorian? No problem. I came across the new Nolita spot that delivers it all. Welcome to Oficina Latina.

Oficina Latina, one of the more interesting openings in the heart of the more posh area of Nolita has replaced Nikki Cascone’s now-deceased 24 Prince. Italians Paolo Votano and Francesco Sforza’s Latin American joint is quite the oxymoron, starting with the name. Oficina Latina literally means “Latin Office,” but this urban shabby-chic industrial space is anything but corporate.
Inside Oficina Latina.
Ginger lychee mojito. Avocado-cilantro margarita.
The vintage-inspired white washed beams, brocade wallpaper, rustic tables, and floral upholstered seating is both trendy and intimate. The miscellaneous furniture Paolo and Francesco scored at the Brimfield Antique Show is eclectic and invites all types of parties. You will find large lively groups seated at long wooden tables close to the bar, and intimate dates in the back at small candle-lit tables or curled up on one of the comfy, handsome couches by the fireplace.

The menu is a hodgepodge too with small dishes summoned from different Latin American countries. Chef Abraham Trinidad links each tapas with its country of origin. Some must-haves on the menu include the sauteed shrimp from Chile; the crispy, spicy grilled octopus from Ecuador; the Arepas from Venezuela; the white rice with spicy pork and bacon topped with a sunny side up egg from the Dominican Republic; the grilled imported provolone cheese from Argentina; and the meatballs from Mexico.
Vegetales Y Frutas a La Parilla belize. Grilled mixed vegetables and fruits on a skewer.
Ensalada De Aguacate. Avocados, hearts of palms, cucumbers.
The Latin American inspiration also translates to the extensive rum and tequila collection. Former bartender Paolo Votano constructed a pan-Latin cocktail list that includes over 100 different varieties of rum and tequila and delicious (and incredibly strong) seasonal cocktails. Currently on tap for the season is the ginger lychee mojito, ginger/tangerine margarita and my favorite, the avocado-cilantro margarita, which is both spicy and sweet; and incredibly filling.

Overall, this new dark, sexy Latin American tapas joint is the perfect mélange for any temper, flavor and size.
Arepas de Pollo Y Aguacate Venezuela. Two grilled corn cake filled with chicken avocado salad.
Tostones Guyanas. Deep fried green plantains, queso fresco, spicy sauce.
Pincho De Atun Y Pera Ecuador. Grilled tuna skewers with pear, bell pepper and onion in mixed herb salsa.
Arroz Con Chorizo Y Camarones Colombia. Rice with shrimp and chorizo.
Pulpo A La Parrilla Ecuador. Grilled octopus with cilantro dressing served on a potato and celery salad.
Hamburguesa. 8 oz. freshly ground angus beef topped with grilled poblano peppers and Uruguayan gouda cheese on a toasted brioche bun served with a small green salad.
Camarones Al Ajillo chile. Sautéed shrimps in extra virgin olive oil and garlic.
Oficina Latina
4 Prince Street
Photographs by Erin Frankel.
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