A very happy 29th birthday

On Thursday, I turned 29. To some, this might not seem like a big deal birthday. But to my surprise it was quite possibly my best yet (and this is coming from someone who likes to make every birthday a fairly big deal). I feel completely spoiled by all the celebrations I was treated to over the past week and can't thank my friends and family enough for helping me give the last year of my twenties such a warm welcome. And without further adieu, here's a rundown of the week's food-filled festivities.

Wednesday, September 6: S’mores Pizza at Food Network

Whenever your birthday rolls around at work, you know that you’re going to be called into some sudden meeting where your co-workers will find stuff that you suddenly need to meet about while other co-workers will scurry around, trying to gather a whole slew of people together to catch you off guard with a cake, cupcakes, donuts, ice cream sandwiches or some other sweet treat -- at my particular place of employment, we like to get creative!

This year, I'm happy to report that my co-workers managed to completely surprise me with an enormous s'mores pizza from Chocolates By The Bald Man, Max Brenner, a new chocolate emporium in Union Square. Still hot since it had just been assembled and baked in Food Network's kitchens, it was topped with bits of melting chocolate and golden brown mini marshmallows, perfectly crunchy on the outside with a soft gooey center. I’d been “surprised” with Buttercup Bake Shop cupcakes, banana cake from Billy’s Bakery and a fruit tart from the French Oven Café in Chelsea Market for the other three birthdays I've celebrated at Food Network, but this sweet treat was definitely the best, and most unexpected, one yet.

Wednesday, September 6: Dinner at Salt

Daniel knew he’d be sharing me with lots of friends and family over the next few days, so on Wednesday night, we settled in for a romantic dinner a deux at Salt, a small, cozy SoHo spot. Remembering how delicious the English pea and asparagus risotto with lamb’s lettuce was the last time I was there, we began our meal by splitting an order, the dish just as bright, beautiful and creamy as I remembered, the plump, fresh peas sticking out like polka dots in the soft sea of risotto.

For an entree, I ordered the escolar with a summer vegetable fricassee in an herb broth (which unfortunately was very similar to the risotto -- had I known, I might have opted for something a bit different), while Daniel after some slight deliberation went with the whole grilled Dorade Royale in a balsamic reduction, corn on the cob with chile and lime, and a summer tomato salad. He, who doesn’t throw around food compliments lightly, must have said five times during the dinner how impressed he was by everything at Salt. He also enjoyed how nothing needed to actually be salted, which may explain why the salt sampler that I remembered from my first visit was not on top of our table this time around.

Having overdosed on some chocolate chip cookies with crystallized ginger that I made Labor Day weekend, I proudly told Daniel that we would not be ordering any dessert. We had a full week of gluttony ahead of us, and after that s’mores pizza, I was truly hoping for some dessert detox. Since I recently got a new camera phone (which Daniel used to take the picture above), I was playing around with that when he went to wash his hands after our meal. How I didn't put two and two together I have no idea, but once again, I was completely surprised when a chocolate cake arrived at our table, studded with slivered almonds and covered with cascading chocolate. After making a wish and blowing out my candle, I dug in, cutting the rich, intense flavors with bites of tangy crème fraiche gelato.

Thursday, September 7: Lunch at The River House Tavern

On the day of my actual birthday, I woke up with the sun streaming in my bedroom window, a welcome relief from the gray skies and non-stop rain we’d been subjected to all week long. Still full from our dinner at Salt, Daniel and I started our morning with big glasses of fresh squeezed OJ before opening some presents including a new camera to help me take better food photos.

After snapping a few shots and realizing that I really will have to read a dreaded instruction manual from beginning to end, I was off to Westport, CT to see my friend Courtney, her husband Eric, and mom Lynn at The River House Tavern for lunch. Sitting in the sun along the Saugatuck River, we sipped glasses of champagne while devouring my all-time favorite summer sandwich –- a lobster roll in a toasted hot dog bun. Again I tried to tell my three dining companions that I would not be partaking in dessert since I had dinner plans that evening, but before I could say another word, a brownie sundae was ordered, which actually turned out to be a blondie sundae (even better), and my plans for a dessert detox were postponed once again.

Dinner at Wallse: Thursday, September 7

Every year for my birthday, my Mom, Daniel and I try a new restaurant we’ve never been to in the city. Last year it was Po on Carmine Street, the year before that Gramercy Tavern on East 20th. This year, I had hoped for Per Se, but ever-practical Daniel informed me that we'd be saving that for a really big birthday – maybe 50 if I’m lucky? – so I made two reservations, one at Buddakan, the trendy Steven Starr spot known for its flashy clientele and sexy ambiance, and Wallse, an Austrian restaurant on W. 11th that I remembered Tim and Judith once raving about.

As the date drew near, I decided that I’d rather spend my birthday in a neighborhood I love (the West Village) with food I normally don’t have the opportunity to eat (wiener schnitzel and spaetzle), rather than in a loud, flashy spot that also happens to be situated right next door to my office. I’d save Buddakan for a "Brooklyn Girls Night Goes to Manhattan" edition or some similar occasion.

Perhaps in an effort to be more responsible in my older age, I arrived early (7:27 to be exact), a record of sorts, since I’m usually always running 5-7 minutes late on any given day. I joined Daniel, the promptest man I’ve ever met, at the bar before ordering a blueberry lemon drop, the special cocktail of the evening.

My mom, the promptest woman on earth, arrived at 7:30 on the nose and after studying the menu for quite some time, ordered herself a peppery margarita sans the spicy sugar rim. When we were led to our table, I couldn't stop staring at the stunning painting of Wallse’s chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, the deep, dark shades of blue and black completely hypnotic.

The service at Wallse was slightly cold and indifferent at times, but rather than waste time focusing on that, I’ll tell you about all the delicious dishes we sampled.

Daniel and I split two appetizers, the first being soft, succulent scallops with figs and a spicy arugula salad followed by spaetzle with braised rabbit, mushrooms, peas and tarragon, the German-style pasta buttery and rich in flavor, yet light and fluffy on the tongue.

My Mom and I each ordered sea bass with wild mushrooms, black truffle shavings and a Riesling sauerkraut, both suckers for the sweet German wine we love to sip by the glass, while Daniel selected a skate special. My new camera definitely got quite a lot of use, though low lighting made it difficult to photograph everything.

For dessert, Daniel immediately chose the Salzburg nockerel, an Austrian style souffle with a very stately name. I selected the dessert special of the evening, a peach tart with a citrus sorbet, and my Mom decided to experiment with a Viennese iced coffee with espresso ice cream, vanilla cream and coffee “strudel."

Of the three, we all liked my tart the best, its light, flaky crust paired perfectly with the thin slices of sweet peach. Our only complaint was that the sorbet was too acidic, causing it to clash a bit with the warm fruit. A good ol' scoop of vanilla would have been better.

The Salzburg nockerel was also quite good, the souffle’s sweet scent completely intoxicating when it arrived piping hot at our table.

Though the actual taste of sugary egg whites became redundant after a few bites,
warm, roasted huckleberries being held captive in the bottom of the dish helped counter the sweetness with warm, tart bursts.

The Viennese Coffee, though interesting in its presentation, tasted a bit too bitter for all of us. A few extra spoons of sugar would have helped perk it up.

The “strudel”, fat cigarette shaped concoctions constructed out of phyllo dough, were daintily displayed on the dessert platter, though the flavors were quite bland.

After we thought we couldn't eat another bite, a plate full of chocolate covered almonds dusted with cocoa powder were delivered with our check, offering some final shots of sugar. My mom, never shy about her love of leftovers, loved the almonds so much that she asked our waiter for a to-go box to take the remainders home. Expecting him to find this request absurd, we were pleasantly surprised when he brought us a big plastic carton full of the addictive treats, perhaps in an attempt to apologize for some service snafus we'd encountered throughout the evening.

Friday, September 8: The US Open, a tomato tart and champagne

After leaving Wallse on Thursday night, I received a phone call from Nina offering me two US Open tickets for the next day. I first called Olivia, a friend that I'd planned to spend all day Friday with to confirm that she in fact does like tennis before accepting the tickets.

Our wonderful day included a surprisingly good (though completely overpriced) chicken, spicy cashew and pineapple salad at the tennis center, some scoops of Ben & Jerry's for dessert, and two fantastic semi-final matches. On our long subway ride home, I remembered that I still hadn't sampled a bottle of champagne I recently bought for my first Wine Blogging Wednesday which Olivia and I decided to pair with a homemade tomato tart. But you’ll have to wait until September 13 to get all the details about that!

Sunday, September 10: A Brazilian Birthday BBQ

Every year, Daniel and I host an all-you-can-eat Brazilian BBQ with meat from Rio Bonito in Queens, one of few places that sells picanha, a specific cut of beef revered in Brazil for its velvety flavor.

Daniel and I hosted the first one for his birthday 5 years ago in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park since our apartment at the time lacked any outdoor space. The second year, rain threatened to cancel the churrasco, but since we'd already bought about 30 lbs of meat, we had no other choice but to host the event at home, with Daniel using a small hibachi grill on the fire escape out our bedroom window. Our apartment smelled like meat for weeks, but how could we let that picanha go to waste?

Luckily, the last few have been in our current apartment which has a big backyard, perfect for carnivorous feasts such as these. While meat is the main attraction each year, which Daniel expertly prepares, we decided to kick this one up a notch with a keg of Six Points Cream Ale (brewed in our very own borough) Daniel's black-eyed pea salad, and a slew of side dishes from our friends.

We had Karlyn and Doug’s “You Won’t Be Single for Long Penne Vodka Sauce” (a Rachael Ray recipe that they tweaked by adding in sausage), Judith’s tasty shrimp skewers, Courtney’s veggie and hummus platter, Karen’s summer tomato salad (using Emeril’s Kicked Up Tomato Salad Recipe without the cheese), Renata’s cherry tomato, mozzarella and basil pasta salad, Ola’s tomato, mozzarella, basil and pine nut salad, and Amanda and Jeff’s perfectly portioned tinfoil packets of the sweetest corn on the cob I’ve had all summer.

In the drinks department, Kim and Keith arrived on their adorable plum-colored Vespa with about 3 cases of non-alcoholic beverages (of which about 2 3/4 cases remain), while Olivia whipped up a jalapeno-infused vodka drink, sweetened with a simple syrup. Since lots of you who were at the BBQ have asked for the recipe, Olivia was nice enough to send it along. You can find it at the bottom of this post, along with info on all the restaurants I've mentioned.

And then there were the sweets. In addition to a Devil’s Food Cake with Vanilla Buttercream Icing that Daniel baked from scratch for me, we had three tins of Allison’s cookies (chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin chocolate chip, and chocolate peanut biscotti), Sara’s toffee blondies, Alyson’s peanut butter chocolate squares, and Jason’s exotic summer salad. I, and practically everyone else at the party, sampled all of them, in between slices of sausage, chicken and salt-kissed meat of course.

As usual, Daniel spent the entire afternoon behind three blazing grills, using skewers and other sharp objects to cook and slice meat like a madman while crowds of our friends surrounded him, watching in awe as he worked his way through this year's record-breaking 50 lbs of meat. He's the true star of this BBQ, and without him, we'd be munching on burger and dogs year after year. Not to mention that this particular BBQ was also celebrating the recent completion of his MBA, but I don't think he received a single break the whole day. I, and the 50 people he fed that day, don't know how he does it, but we couldn't be more grateful. Maybe next year, he'll let someone be his sous chef, or -- gasp -- we'll have it catered? I guess we'll have to wait and see...

Tuesday, September 12: Tired, full and coming down with a cold

So, here I am, five days after my birthday, happy that the celebrating is over since, but still smiling from my absolutely wonderful week. I feel blessed to have such wonderful friends and family, all of whom are as obsessed with food as I am -- almost, at least. Thanks for making the past 28 years of my life so amazing and here’s to many, many more fun feasts.

Chocolates By The Bald Man, Max Brenner
841 Broadway
New York, NY

58 Macdougal Street
New York, NY

River House Tavern
299 Riverside Avenue,
Westport, CT

344 West 11th Street
New York, NY

Jalapeno Lime Ricky
Three cups water
1.5 cups sugar
4-5 jalapeno peppers
8-12 limes
Ice cubes
Cilantro sprigs (optional)
Club Soda (optional)

To make the simple syrup, mix the water and sugar in a saucepot.
Bring to a boil, then let cool.

Halve the jalapenos and remove most, but not all of the seeds. Then
chop them into thin slices. When the simple syrup has cooled for
several minutes, add the jalapenos. Let the mixture infuse in the
refrigerator anywhere from 3 hours to overnight. The longer you
infuse, the more pronounced the jalapeno flavor will be.

Meanwhile, squeeze all the limes into a pitcher. When ready to
serve, mix the lime juice in with the simple syrup. Serve individual
glasses of vodka, ice and the syrup mixture (about 2-3 parts syrup to
one part vodka, depending on how strong you want the drink). Garnish with cilantro sprigs. If you want a bit of a lighter drink, add club soda as well.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

and what a delicious afternoon it was. one of my favorites was the tomatoe salad... i believe karen made it... and the amazing cookies that alison made. but surely the best was all the mouth-watering meats off the grill.


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