Mario Batali comes to town with Tarry Lodge

Rye, New York

Readers of this blog know of my respect for Bobby Flay, whose show, Throwdown!, is one of my favorites. But what of those other Iron Chefs? Not wanting to neglect them, and upon hearing that Mario Batali had set up shop in Port Chester, we set out to visit Tarry Lodge last night.

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The lodge itself is over a 100 years old; it once housed a speakeasy and then, for more than 50 years, was a local, family-owned Italian restaurant. A fire gutted the place in 2005, the building went on the block, and Batali, along with his partner Joe Bastianich, bought it. They completely renovated the place, and today — with its carrera marble bars and subtle modern design — almost resembles a chic Italian-style inn.

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My Grandma had never heard of Batali, which means she also didn’t understand why we could only get a reservation at 7:45 p.m. on a Monday. When we arrived, the restaurant was packed and the bar bustling, but we were greeted promptly and brought to our table on the first floor. The ambiance and decor meant nothing if the food didn’t taste good — so we placed our order and got to the matter at hand.

First up was a prosciutto, tomato, mozzarella and arugula wood-oven baked pizza. It had a thin crust and was generously covered in delicate slices of prosciutto. There was a bit much sauce, but it certainly gave a similar pizza at Cafe Milano, which truly is amazing, a run for its money.

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Our appetizers were up next; we split servings of the eggplant caponata, marinated calimari and a gorgonzola, walnut, cranberry salad. The eggplant was cooked perfectly — not too mushy — and we thought the flavors of the seafood dish worked well together.

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On Monday nights, Tarry serves up a Lobster al Diavolo special; it’s a 1-pound lobster with a spicy marinara sauce over a bed of linguine with shrimp and clams. The presentation was great and the sauce was delicious; but lobster in a shell served over pasta was difficult to eat. And the cracker wasn’t much help. A bib might have been nice, too.

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Still, the flavor was solid and the serving size was just right. Last, we split a super-rich chocolate “cupcake,” with a scoop of pistachio ice cream and crystalized citrus. Exactly 1/4 of a piece was just the right amount of sweet to finish the meal.

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All in all, Tarry Lodge is solid. Perhaps the best part of our meal were the small antipasti — mixing and matching, one could literally just have a dinner consisting of them. The contorini of grilled asparagus with sheep’s milk ricotta was also delicious.

The wine menu, drawn from Italy, perfectly complemented the meal. And Tarry’s prices were surprisingly reasonable, with appetizers under $10 and entrees around $20.

Seems like my boy Bobby Flay has some competition from Mr. Mario.

Oprah’s favorite chocolate chip cookie

Rye, New York

I’m on a mission to taste the best of the best. I’ve recently knocked pad thai and hotdogs off the list — although not in the same sitting. This afternoon, it was on to dessert, which could mean only one thing: chocolate chip cookies at Levain Bakery.

The New York Times said that Levain may have “the largest, most divine chocolate chip cookies in Manhattan.” Zagat declared them number 1 in their “cookies” category this year. At last count, over 230 people had offered up rave review on Yelp. And even Oprah has paid a visit.

We followed our noses to West 74th, as the intoxicating smell of freshly baked cookies wafted down the street. If it weren’t for the crowd gathered outside, it would be easy to walk right by Levain — which sits in a tiny subterranean space down a flight of stairs. Inside, a team of bakers man their Kitchen-Aids, pull sheets out of the oven and work frenetically to replace the tasty treats as fast as they’re being eaten up.

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The signature chocolate chip walnut cookie was $3.75. But it was a monster — more like a scone — and basically the equivalent of three normal sized cookies. Still warm, it was gooey, crunchy and rich; the middle was a little undercooked. In other words, just perfect.

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Lesson: Never doubt Oprah when it comes to baked goods.

A birthday at Magnolia

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Last night, as a belated birthday present, Charlotte took me for dinner at Magnolia Grill. This critically acclaimed spot in Durham has won a laundry list of accolades: the 11th best restaurant in America (Gourmet), best chef in the Southeast (the James Beard Foundation) and best pastry chef (Bon Appétit).

Our reservation was for 9:15 p.m., but when we arrived about a half hour early, the hostess promptly seated us. The interior has a nice Southern bistro feel to it — the peach walls are offset by dark wood floors and a comfy red banquette. A pig sculpture sits in a window.

While looking over the menu, we had a strong whiskey apertif and some warm, freshly baked bread. What makes Magnolia so delicious is the seasonality of its dishes — this is not a menu that changes weekly or monthly. In fact, chefs Ben and Karen Baker change it daily.

First up were our appetizers. Mine was a trout salad with roasted macadamia nuts, slivers of Granny Smith apple, chopped parsley and dried currants. It was topped with a light horseradish cream sauce that contrasted with the smokiness of the fish and sweetness of the fruits. Charlotte opted for the sweet potato bisque with Carolina shrimp and a ginger-Meyer Rum Chantilly. “Creamy, sweet with a hint of spice,” she said. “Amazing.”

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Next were our entrees. My grilled Berkshire pork rib chop was cooked perfectly. It sat on a bed of southern greens (with hunks of ham) in a creole mustard jus. Charlotte’s cornmeal-crusted Snead’s flounder in Meyer lemon-olive oil sauce with toasted pistachios, fingerling potatoes with escarole & pickled sultanas was “delicious.”

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For dessert, we split a piece of chocolate angel food cake with a chocolate ganache, freshly whipped cream and a crystallized citrus glaze.

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We’ve had dinner at some of the most highly reviewed restaurants in this area — including Elaine’s, Crook’s Corner and Lantern. Magnolia Grill, however, really takes it to the next level. The food was delicious yet unlike at some other spots, didn’t make us feel like we needed to be rolled out of the restaurant in a wheelbarrow.

The service was prompt and professional. Our waitress “saved” Charlotte the last piece of flounder and even helped us figure out where in D.C. we could score a bottle of her favorite wine.

Needless to say, we’ll be back.

Of hikes and hotdogs

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Although there was a slight bite in the air, we didn’t have a cloud in the sky this morning. After so much rain here recently, we had to get outside and take advantage of the weather.

But, where to go?

A Google search helped me find a comprehensive listing of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill hikes on Trails.com. It was in alphabetical order — and the first, the American Tobacco Trail, caught my interest. The ATT is a “rails to trails” project, in which old railroad tracks are converted to relatively flat hiking, biking and equestrian paths.

It was about a 25-minute drive through the rolling countryside, but we found the entrance in Apex, parked and then hit the trail, passing swamps, forests, cantering horses and, this being North Carolina, the occasional driving range (“Watch for golf balls next 300 yards,” read a sign).

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With the sun bearing down, we pushed on and triumphantly reached the 3-mile marker. On our return, we passed a timid turtle that seemed to have lost its way.

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To celebrate our achievement and negate any positive health benefits associated with the 6-mile trek, we drove to downtown Raleigh for a visit to the Roast Grill. This tiny joint was recently featured on Man vs. Food, as host Adam Richman set a new record by wolfing down 17 of their classic hotdogs smothered in chili.

The line snaking onto the street was our first indicator that this dinky, simple place that has been around since 1940 — and today is run by George Poniros, the original owner’s grandson — knew what it was doing. The Grill has just one item on the menu: its hotdogs, which are charbroiled on a burner and then covered with onions, some mustard, a simple slaw and top-secret chili.

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The dogs were burned nicely on the outside, plump and juicy on the inside. Buns were steamed warm. The chili was the perfect consistency and texture, onions added an additional bite while the slaw cooled it all down.

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The real beauty, however, might have been the simplicity of it all. There’s no ketchup available here. Nor fries or onion rings.

Just simple, and delicious, hot dogs.

The best pad thai in America

Washington, D.C.

One of my favorite shows on television is Throwdown! with Bobby Flay. Each episode, Flay identifies a chef who makes the best specialty food — from buffalo chicken wings to muffalleta sandwiches — and then challenges him or her to a “throwdown.” It pushes Flay to step outside of his grilling comfort zone while allowing some unknown, but highly qualified local cooks, a shot at beating an Iron Chef (on Food Network, no less).

A couple weeks back, Flay visited Thai Basil to take on Chef Nongkran Daks during a pad thai throwdown. As a fan of spicy, southeast Asian foods, this episode was one of my favorites. So, when we learned that Thai Basil was actually in Chantilly, Virginia — about a 25 minute ride from D.C. — we knew where we’d be having lunch today.

Thai Basil sits in an unpretentious strip mall not far from Dulles Airport. The decor inside is simple; a couple of conical hats line the walls, local newspaper articles boasting the restaurant’s accolades sit beneath the glass tabletops. But we hadn’t come for the atmosphere; we had come for the pad thai. After a couple of appetizers, including Som Tam, a crispy shredded papaya salad with spicy chili-lime dressing, we geared up for the real deal: the shrimp pad thai.

We agreed that the noodles were cooked perfectly and the sauce was a delicious balance of sweet, sour, spicy and tangy. The lime added a nice citrus flavor and the peanuts and bean sprouts offered some additional texture. Served with a hot sauce sampler, it was just perfect.

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I’m no restaurant critic, but I’ve ate at my fair share of Thai restaurants — including those in Thailand. And, I’ve got to say, Nongkran knows what she’s doing.

Her pad thai is the best I’ve had.

Hot dogs from a vending machine?

Washington, D.C.

Photo by Marc Zawel for Express

The venerable vending machine has come a long way from its days as a dispenser of caffeinated beverages and sugary snacks to D.C’s office workers. First, there was the arrival of high-tech machines at Dulles International Airport that allowed flight-boarding commuters and travelers to purchase Apple iPods and accessories with the swipe of a credit card.

Now, Alexandria-based LHD Vending Systems has its eyes set on a new and unusual, product: freshly grilled hot dogs.

Love ’em? Hate ’em? My taste test verdict in today’s Express.

Where urban luxury meets suburban blandness

Washington, D.C.

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Eric Ripert’s WestEnd Bistro, located inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel at M and 22nd street NW, has had all the makings of a D.C. hot spot since opening last November. There’s a celebrity chef, trendy $13 cocktails, locally sourced dishes — and views of an Exxon gas station?

Check out the latest in today’s Express.

Reflections on the Holy City

Charleston, South Carolina

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I’ve finally got a couple of minutes to jot down some thoughts on a great trip down to Charleston over Labor Day weekend. After an early morning flight there on Saturday morning, we were met with some overcast skies – but nothing that brunch at Hominy Grill and some shopping at M. Dumas & Sons, the preppiest, most amazing store I’ve ever walked into, couldn’t take care of.

After a quick nap, we geared up for cocktails at Social, before a fantastic dinner at Slightly North of Broad, locally named the Restaurant of the Year. SNOB had an awesome grilled peach salad, with arugula, walnuts, a hunk of goat cheese and a maple vinaigrette. It rivaled the main entrée, a sautéed squab breast with cheddar cheese grits and asparagus.

Post-dinner, it was time to visit the Silver Dollar, for a Playboy.com bar review. It was a true dive bar, packed with college kids. The owner, Steve, and his dedicated staff, took good care of us all night before we headed back to our room at the downtown Holiday Inn.

The next morning, after a quick and tasty breakfast at 39 Rue de Jean, we met with the world-acclaimed concierge, Kevin McQuade. He did not disappoint, offering a great walking tour that brought us through the Charleston historic district (but not before some shopping diversions on King Street — again) and then along the Battery and White Point Gardens, with views of Fort Sumter and the harbor.

We checked into our new hotel, the gorgeous Charleston Place, hit the gym (needed it) and took a swim, before changing for dinner at Coast (try the lobster and shrimp penne dish). Afterwards, on the suggestion of our pal Kevin, we met for Ed Macy’s ghost tour, which, believe it or not, wasn’t as cheesy as it sounds.

We got up early on Monday morning for an 8-mile run across the Cooper River Bridge (still hurting). Next, with the sun shining, we gathered the cooler for a couple hours at Folly Beach. And then, there was nothing like a barbecue feast at Sticky Fingers (had to grab a bottle of the Carolina Sweet sauce) to cap off a fantastic weekend.

I’ll post photos and a link to my bar review here as soon as I’ve got a chance.

The revolution grows

Washington, D.C.

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According to market research firm comScore, the Revolution Health Network had the seventh highest percent increase in unique visitors on the Internet from June to July of this year. In June, our sites had 3,047,000 unique total visitors versus 4,014,000 the following month, marking a 32% increase.

In other news, I’m heading out of town for a weekend of beaches, bar reviews and good grub in Charleston, South Carolina (above, one of the city’s main drags, Broad St.). But not before dinner tonight at Agraria.

I’ll have a full report next week.

1789: A true D.C. dining experience

Washington, D.C.

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When you think of Georgetown, you’ve got to think of 1789.

It’s really the quintessential restaurant here in D.C., housed in a renovated 19th century Federal house whose walls have been lined with historical prints and tables filled with Grandma’s china. Unfortunately, the surroundings and great food don’t come cheap, which means it isn’t every day that you get to visit. Luckily, it’s August, which also means that no one is around the nation’s capital and restaurants are desperate for business. Thus, our trip to 1789 on Saturday night.

As part of a summer offer, you’re entitled to an appetizer, entrée and dessert for $36. Considering main courses average around $30 bucks, it isn’t a bad deal. My veal short ribs starter — with grilled corn, smoked paprika and pickled ramps — was fall off the bone delicious. It was followed by yellow fin tuna, seared to perfection over a bed of arugula, piquillo sweet peppers, botarga and fennel. Dessert was a valhrona chocolate truffle — basically a hazelnut chocolate cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. All washed down with a glass of white wine,  it was near perfection.

Too bad we won’t all be back there again until next summer.