I See the Light

Forgive the corny titles I subject you to on a regular basis; I can’t help myself.

I spent a late night/early morning finishing Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and upon reading the last page, I felt like this author’s words made a light within me burn brighter. I didn’t sleep a wink as my mind wouldn’t let go of the characters, the imagery, the intricacies of the story that made this book so precious. I found myself highlighting so many passages that I wanted to commit to memory, so thought-provoking and emotive they were as to leave me referring back to them even before I finished reading this book in its entirety. All the Light We Cannot See is a work of art.

“I have been feeling very clearheaded lately and what I want to write about today is the sea. It contains so many colors. Silver at dawn, green at noon, dark blue in the evening. Sometimes it looks almost red. Or it will turn the color of old coins. Right now the shadows of clouds are dragging across it, and patches of sunlight are touching down everywhere. White strings of gulls drag over it like beads.
It is my favorite thing, I think, that I have ever seen. Sometimes I catch myself staring at it and forget my duties. It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.”

All-the-Light-We-Cannot-See

Chosen as an Amazon.com book of the month for May 2014, the site’s review is:

Does the world need yet another novel about WWII? It does when the novel is as inventive and beautiful as this one by Anthony Doerr. In fact, All the Light We Cannot See–while set mostly in Germany and France before and during the war–is not really a “war novel.” Yes, there is fear and fighting and disappearance and death, but the author’s focus is on the interior lives of his two characters. Marie Laure is a blind 14-year-old French girl who flees to the countryside when her father disappears from Nazi-occupied Paris. Werner is a gadget-obsessed German orphan whose skills admit him to a brutal branch of Hitler Youth. Never mind that their paths don’t cross until very late in the novel, this is not a book you read for plot (although there is a wonderful, mysterious subplot about a stolen gem). This is a book you read for the beauty of Doerr’s writing– “Abyss in her gut, desert in her throat, Marie-Laure takes one of the cans of food…”–and for the way he understands and cherishes the magical obsessions of childhood. Marie Laure and Werner are never quaint or twee. Instead they are powerful examples of the way average people in trying times must decide daily between morality and survival. –Sara Nelson

The same thought crossed my mind before I made the purchase: do I really want to read another WWII story? However the synopsis and reviews convinced me to go through with it. Thank the literary gods that I did! This has easily become one of my best reads of the year for the way Anthony Doerr’s vision has burned these words, characters and feelings into my brain and heart.

“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

Spoken in French over a transistor radio with Claire de Lune playing in the background? Magical.

Hard of Hearing

I’ve been on a reading binge a of late, sacrificing hours of YouTube watching and my DVR’d shows are collecting dust in my queue. However I’ve been rewarded with some really good literary escapes, another of which I will briefly share with you, as I have another book on deck of which I’m itching to delve.

Not even five minutes ago, I finished reading The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, by German author Jan-Phillipp Sendker.

AHH Cover

A poignant and inspirational love story set in Burma, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats spans the decades between the 1950s and the present.  When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion that will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains.

Once again, the synopsis made me cringe, due to how sticky-sweet and corny it sounded. I decided to give it a try anyway because I enjoy writers from other countries, I like reading of tales set in lands other than my own from time to time, and I also feel that non-native English speakers use the English language quite differently and are able to express themselves in unexpected, yet greatly welcomed, ways–their perspectives on universal experiences, truths, emotions come to life differently on the page and on the screen, and I love it (usually, but definitely not always).

Beautifully worded, this book attempted to tackle the subjects of familial and romantic loves in a somewhat fantastical way. Unfortunately my heart was slightly more detached than I would have liked and thus caused my enthusiasm to wane over the past few days. The story was good, the characters were even better, however I just feel (even now as I write this) that something just didn’t quite hit the high note–especially for the fact that the author never addressed his love, or possible lack thereof, for his children, namely his daughter Julia who made the physical and emotional journey to uncover her father’s mysteries. Disappointing. The bones of all the characters were strong, as was the premise of the story; however, for all the talk of hearing heartbeats, mine was just a murmur.

On to the next tome.

MM Goes to CO-OP Food & Drink: Can I Be on This Board?

After the major letdown of Hotel Chantelle the previous week, Marissa and I were hoping upon hope that CO-OP Food & Drink (located in the Hotel on Rivington on Manhattan’s Lower East Side) wouldn’t be another Maverick Monday disappointment. The menu, once again, seemed very promising; we’d wanted to go for a very long time because of their unique offerings and restaurant.com provided us with the opportunity. For US$4.00, I bought a gift card worth US$25.00 to put toward our meal—what a steal! Here’s what the website has to say about the dining experience they try to provide:

Located on the ground floor of Hotel on Rivington in NYC’s Lower East Side, CO-OP Food & Drink is based on the co-operative principle of bringing together different services and products under one space for everyone’s benefit. Under the leadership of Executive Chef Victor Startek, they bring… together different ingredients, flavors and cultures that reflect the diversity that is the Lower East Side.

This philosophy allows guests to enjoy a variety of plates such as the Tuna Tuna Yuzu Sushi Roll (w/ spicy tuna, tuna, avocado & yuzu dynamite sauce), Shredded Pork Belly Tacos (w/ Ancho BBQ, Smoked Creama, Beets), Fried Chicken Biscuits (w/ ranch & pickled jalapeno aioli) and Miso Cured Salmon (w/ peanut sauce, watermelon radish & pickled celery root). In the spirit of a co-operative, most of the dishes are designed to be shared family-style through multiple courses.

Even so, we didn’t get our expectations up too high…until we entered the dining room, that is. (The bar is nice too, by the way.)

The artwork! The wooden table running the length of the dining room! The plush black leather booths and black chandeliers! Everything in the room was noteworthy—decadent and rustic at the same time. What a great juxtaposition and balance the designer created with the ambience and décor—Marissa was so impressed that after our meal, she booked the long table for her annual holiday dinner. While simultaneously perusing the faces in the portraits covering the wall and picking the dishes we wanted to try, our excitement quickly grew. Here’s what we ordered from their eclectic menu:

To Share
Co-Op Roll – spicy tuna, rock shrimp tempura, serrano peppers
Taco Flight – spicy shrimp (with bacon and blue cheese cole slaw), market fish tacos (grilled fish with avocado and red cabbage)

Marissa
Fish Curry – tile fish, red curry, brown rice, tofu
Kiwi Caipirinha – Leblon cachaça, kiwi, lime juice

Me
Miso Cured Salmon – peanuts, celery root, watermelon radish
Kiwi Caipirinha – Leblon cachaça, kiwi, lime juice

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To start, the drinks (Kiwi Caipirinhas) were lovely—just sweet, tart, and strong enough to whet our palettes for the sushi roll, which was good, but not good enough for me to be effusive. The fish tacos on the other hand, were phenomenal, and I’ve had my fair share of fish tacos. Light and refreshing, they were simply cooked and seasoned; each ingredient stood out yet didn’t compete with their counterparts. We loved these and gobbled them up seemingly without breathing! Too bad the spicy shrimp taco gave us the opposite effect. The blue cheese was so pungent that it overpowered the bacon, which in turn, overpowered the spicy shrimp; there was just too much going on at the same time that it completely missed the mark. We wished we had ordered more fish tacos to erase the memory and taste of this misfortune.

We needn’t have worried though, because our main courses were divine! Marissa’s fish curry was neither too rich in consistency nor was it too heavy in coconut flavor or spiciness. Although served steaming hot, the fish wasn’t overcooked sitting in the curry sauce and the curry itself was silky. My miso-cured salmon—which I was afraid would be too salty—was amazing as well. The salmon skin was wonderfully crispy and not chewy in the slightest. The meat was perfectly marbled and cooked just right; moist, fork tender and flaky, the salmon melted in my mouth like a savory candy. The Mavericks were in fish heaven and the accompaniments were like harp strings playing celestial music. I could wax poetic about my salmon alone, however I think I’d be banned from the blogosphere so I’ll spare you all the adjectives.

The only thing missing to round out our experience and meal at CO-OP was dessert, but alas, the pastry chef had embarked on another career path and was no longer making her unique concoctions that I was so dying to try. That’s ok though; because we were so happy with the meal overall, I believe we will return for more, and by then dessert will be back on the menu.

Cheers, CO-OP! You have restored my faith in trendy food.

MM Goes to Hotel Chantelle: Let Me Tell…

…how awful this experience was for us. Usually on our Monday evenings, the Mavericks like to go for nighttime constitutionals before hopping on their respective trains home. (I’ll switch back to the more unpretentious 1st person now.) Since we’re so often on the Lower East Side, we usually pass one restaurant/bar that we’ve put on our list of places to dine, Hotel Chantelle, because it has what reads like a fantastic menu. We finally got our opportunity to dine on the rooftop one lovely Monday evening when the weather was perfect and we were both tightly wound from personal/career life and needed a break.

Upon entering the establishment, it looked like a dilapidated Parisian hostel. Keep walking and you encounter bamboo against walls painted with UV splatters enhanced by black lights—cliché, but whatever. All of a sudden this dark hallway opens up to a lovely rooftop bar and restaurant with white tiled floors and dark iron and wood accents and décor. This atmosphere seemed more promising and lent a little more hope as we perused the menu. Unfortunately, after having considered our options several times over, we still hadn’t been offered any service. Twenty minutes into waiting and still no one came to check on us! When we finally flagged a waitress down (mind you, we were about to get up and leave until we got her attention), we were greeted with curt responses, major attitude, and no apology. Would the food be worth this treatment? Here’s what we ordered:

To share
Deviled Egg Tasting – lobster & caviar / maple bacon & jalapeno / smoked salmon caper crème fraiche

Me
Kale Caesar Salad with Poached Lobster – crisp kale, shaved parmesan, garlic bread croutons, classic Caesar dressing
White Truffle Pizza – ultra-thin crust pizza, fresh sheep’s milk ricotta, mascarpone & goat cheese,
sautéed mushrooms, arugula, white truffle oil, shaved parmesan

Marissa
Snow Crab Claws – half dozen snow crab claws served warm, drawn butter, mustard aioli
Pan Seared Branzino – pan roasted filet of Mediterranean sea bass, topped with warm sautéed kale, capers, olives, baby tomatoes

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I’m going to keep this review short and sweet because I refuse to waste any more time on this place, so here’s the rundown: The deviled eggs were so mediocre, I would’ve been better off just hard-boiling some eggs on my stovetop and eating them plain, straight out of the shells. Marissa’s crab claws=basic and slightly overcooked. My salad, however, was possibly one of the best kale salads I’ve ever tasted, and my lobster was perfectly poached! This was Hotel Chantelle’s only bright moment, believe you me, because Marissa’s branzino and the accompanying sautéed veggies were so salty she could only eat the baby fillet. I tried a tiny morsel of it and almost spit it right back out onto the plate. The ocean isn’t as salty as that dish. My pizza was a crumbly mess, but tasted alright; definitely not anything to write home about—I’m mad I’m writing about this whole experience on this blog, honestly. OH! And to add insult to injury, our lovely waitress double charged Marissa’s credit card and it took forever and a day to dispute.

This place needs to be condemned, along with the waitstaff.

Maverick Monday Goes to Pão: This Is Not a Love Song…

…however, dear Reader, consider this a love letter of sorts to the owner and chef at Portuguese restaurant Pão, for regaling the Mavericks with the best of our Monday culinary excursions thus far. A bit spoiled by the authentic Portuguese fare I’ve feasted upon during my years in Miami, I did not expect such an all-around fine dining experience from this remote locale near Gotham City’s Holland Tunnel. Yet from the moment I stepped foot into this culinary sanctuary, a feeling that something special lay in wait portentously settled in my soul.

The worn, thickly varnished dark wood décor, stark white walls and tablecloths, and the billowing curtains on the open floor-to-ceiling trellis windows made one feel as if no longer in gritty Manhattan, but rather in old Lisbon itself, at a neighborhood haunt run by your good friend from down the street whose family came part and parcel with the cozy little bar, the little one doing homework, undisturbed by her father’s hearty greetings to newcomers and old alike. Next to the bar is a lifelike portrait of an apron-clad man wielding a knife in one hand and that day’s fresh catch of octopus in the other. This man looked quite familiar however, as if I had just glimpsed his visage mere moments ago; ah, my eyes failed me not! It was the chef in Pão’s very kitchen, painted by one of the wait staff years ago (he’s on the website’s homepage as well). This knowledge further solidified the good energy emanating from the restaurant’s pulse. We could only hope going forward that the cuisine would be just as fortifying for our bellies as the atmosphere had been for our hearts.

Our trusty friend, Groupon, provided us with two three-course meals accompanied by a bottle of wine of our choosing—I selected their green wine option which is specific to Portugal, therefore the obvious choice. Crisp, refreshing, just sweet enough and not too dry, our perfectly chilled bottle of Octavo Vinho Verde was just the thing to whet our appetites. Here is what Marissa and I ordered from our lovely and helpful waitress:

Marissa
Vieiras em Tomatada com Porto – Sea Scallops on Tomato Compote with Port Wine Syrup
Pargo com Espuma Batata – Snapper with Whipped Potatoes in a White Truffle Oil
Arroz Doce – Homemade Rice Pudding

Me
Salada de Polvo – Baked Octopus in Garlic/Parsley Vinaigrette
Bacalhau à Bráz – Sautéed Cod with Egg, Onion & Straw Potatoes
Arroz Doce – Homemade Rice Pudding

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In order to accurately assess our experience, we sampled each other’s dishes and were not disappointed in any way by any course.

The Courting Stage: Since the owner told us his scallops were voted one of the best in city, we simply had to test his word—his testament proved true. Firm, succulent and fresh, they were sublime in texture and taste. The tomato compote was refreshing and light; it paired well with the port wine syrup which tempered any possible tartness, yet wasn’t too sweet in and of itself. The baked octopus (I was compelled to order it after staring at the chef’s portrait on the wall) was equally divine; perfectly grilled and seasoned, it was firm, meaty and emitted just the right amount of oceanic essence. Paired with the lovely green wine, we Mavericks were falling in love with Pão rather quickly, and were ready to fall even deeper with our entrées.

Marriage: Marissa’s snapper was light and flaky, simply grilled atop truffled airily whipped potatoes. The dish was so fine and elegant that it stroked the palette like French silk. Pão was definitely no stranger to the nuances and subtleties that comprise truly fine dining without gilding the lily. I chose the bacalhau because it’s a very traditional dish that an authentic Portuguese establishment should always create perfectly—a litmus test of sorts. The chef did not let me down; it was truly delectable. The dish smooth, mellow and moist, not too salty, and the straw potatoes (think of shoestring fries) provided just enough crunch. Rather than pile all of the potatoes over the top, the chef married them into the dish with the cod, egg, and onion—a marriage made in heaven, believe you me. What God hath joined together, let NO man put asunder!

Ever After: The rustic arroz doce summed up the entire meal in its simple and unadorned beauty. Again, they win with their subtle use of fine ingredients; tiny bits of orange peel mixed into the velvety dessert gave each bite a burst of citrusy flavor that tempered the richness of the pudding itself. The cooking of the rice was timed accurately so it wasn’t spineless, yet not too firm that it hurt to chew. Spiced just right, we couldn’t be happier…until the owner complimented us with two glasses of smooth port wine and even smoother kisses to our cheeks. What a splendid ending to our evening.  Brava, brava!

You have captured our taste buds, our bellies and our hearts, Pão. I think of you fondly and anxiously await our next reservation. Until then I am…

 
Yours truly,
The Vickylicious

Maverick Lundi Va à L’est du Village

Monday had the Mavericks dining at Le Village in the East Village with another amazing Groupon perk. This deal piqued our interest because, although a French restaurant, its menu had mostly vegan and vegetarian items of which Marissa and I were curious to sample. On the website, Chef/Owner Didier P. of La Sirene fame says:

“Hand on the kitchen, I want to do a ‘complement’ of my 1st Bistro with a lot of Vegan/ Vegetarian options. No processed tempei, seitan or even soy!
  However, you can come with your friends regardless if they aren’t Vegetarian, I have few dishes (Appetizers and Entrees) which are with meat.
  That’s the difference with ‘Table Verte’ It will be a bistro ‘meat Friendly.’”

French cuisine is known for its sumptuous dishes that luxuriate the palette with rich and lusty flavors and textures. Would vegan/vegetarian fare massage our taste buds similarly? According to reviews from previous patrons and a 2014 OpenTable.com Diners’ Choice Award, yes. The unapologetically carnivorous being that I am, I had my doubts, but was still excited nonetheless; I had a feeling this meal would be more suited toward my mostly pescatarian comrade. Our Groupon deal included 2 appetizers, 2 entrees and 2 desserts. Marissa bought a bottle of wine from the bar next door (no corkage fee at Le Village, by the way). Here’s what we ordered at this BYOB, mostly meatless bistro:

Me
Pate de Campagne (duck) – served w/ cornichons, Dijon mustard and puff pastry
Choux-Fleur Roti – roast cauliflower head w/ sautéed greens, sweet potatoes, quinoa red bell pepper coulis
Banana Brulé (The Banana pudding, French Style) – French pastry cream, Nila style cookies, caramelized sugar coating

Marissa
Royans Ravioles a la Crème – fresh little French raviolis stuffed with Comte cheese, garlic, parsley, cooked with heavy cream and truffle oil served in a cast iron cocotte… Sensual!
Coq au Vin – red wine, bacon, onion, mushroom bouquet garni. Stewed chicken, classic and rustic!
Minute Baked Vegan Seasonal Tart (apple) – served with coconut sorbet

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The pate was served warm in a ramekin, accompanied by a smooth Dijon mustard, a few cornichons, and 4 light and flaky puff pastry straws. The pate was flavorful and moist, but a little too firm in texture for my liking, possibly due to overcooking (it seemed shrunken in the little ramekin). Marissa’s ravioli were tiny and delicate looking, but were packed with rich flavor yet not too salty. Our appetizers were good, but the real test was the entrée portion of our meal. I like cauliflower, but I’ve never had an entire head of it for my meal; needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive. And when our lovely waitress set it in front of me, I was flabbergasted. It really WAS an entire roasted head of cauliflower! It was so huge that all I could think was, “This better be good because there’s so much of this thing!” Thanks to the veggie gods, it was pretty good; nutty, moist, firm yet not too crunchy that it felt raw, the Choux-fleur Roti was the only cauliflower I’d had at a restaurant that wasn’t soaked in cream, cheese, or butter, and/or wasn’t mashed like potatoes, and I enjoyed it! Marissa’s dinner could have been richer in flavor, but the chicken was smoky tender. Coq au Vin is a sexy dish, and although Le Village’s didn’t quite make the grade, it was a worthy effort. Dessert however, was another story aptly called “Yum, Yum, Yum!” The Banana Brulé was a delectable hybrid of crème brulée and a soul food banana pudding, replete with Nila wafers. Thinking that there was no way an apple tart could outdo that sweet treat, I was totally mistaken. This was no ordinary apple tart, for it was grilled, not baked! The dough was flaky, buttery and crispy, all with a charcoal grill taste—YUM!

Verdict: Le Village won’t convert me to vegetarianism, and I prefer to indulge in my carnivorous ways elsewhere, but the presentation, service and most of all the desserts, were noteworthy.

On to the next food adventure!

MM Goes to Mancora

Can we safely say that Groupon and Maverick Monday are BFFs? I’m beginning to think so because we scored another great online deal that treated us to Peruvian fare in the East Village (EVill) — $20.00 for $40.00 worth of food and drinks. Couple that with getting there in time for happy hour made the world a better place, even if only for a few hours and only for the two of us. So, eastbound and down we went to Mancora, known to be a neighborhood institution for quality food at decent prices.

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Named after Máncora, a town and beach resort in the Piura Region, in northwestern Peru,
“Mancora Restaurant and Bar takes you on a journey straight to the heart of the Inca Empire. Take the trip aboard plates of our fresh, authentic cuisine served up in a warm, friendly atmosphere. The comforts of a home-cooked meal meet adventurous flavors in every dish…Drawing on traditional staples from Peru and Spain, Mancora Chef Enrique Peraldo puts a contemporary spin on the classics. For the past 12 years at Mancora, Chef Peraldo has been dedicated to cooking his personal recipes for adventurous New Yorkers. Each dish is pleasing to the eyes as it is the taste buds, presented as tasteful culinary offerings to woo the American palate. Experience each one, from the richly flavored Pescado a lo Macho, a baked fillet of red snapper topped with seafood sautéed in a creamy sauce, to the popular Pollo a la Brasa, rotisserie chicken that arrives golden and crispy on the outside, but juicy and tender on the inside…”
With a description like that, I struck steak from my mind and went straight for the snapper. However before I go into the review, here’s what the two of us ordered:

Me
Pulpito a la Parilla – grilled baby octopus with panca sauce
Pescado a lo Macho – Baked fillet of red snapper topped with seafood sautéed with creamy sauce, served with rice

Marissa
Ceviche de Pescado – Sliced red snapper or shrimp marinated in fresh lime sauce with cilantro and red onion
Parillada de Mariscos – Mixed grilled seafood with panca sauce, served with rice or salad

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The rundown: My octopus appetizer was grilled perfectly; it was neither rubbery nor did it taste burnt. It was simply grilled without any seasoning except a pinch of salt, which adequately brought out the flavor of the ocean; the accompanying panca dipping sauce was good, but didn’t have enough punch to it (panca is a pepper). Marissa’s ceviche was light and fresh, but my taste buds told me there was something missing flavor-wise (the same feeling I got with the panca sauce). Not in love, however not disliking the offerings so far, I was still excited for our entrées. Again, everything was cooked spot-on and presented like beautiful seafood cornucopias, shiny shells and all. I would have loved my dish if it weren’t for the panca sauce again; this was one time I think salt and a little more seasoning could’ve done the trick (and mind you, I’m not a fan of salt). Also, my snapper fillet was too small and its flavor and texture was no match for the robustness of the shellfish. Marissa’s seafood mixed grill was saucier than expected, but tasty, well-seasoned and timed to perfection. We both finished everything on our plates.

Although Mancora didn’t exactly hit any high notes, the fare was decent. If given another Groupon deal, I’d go back and try the steak and get the grilled baby octopus again—that was the meal’s highlight for me. Now would I think to return on my own? Probably not, given that there are myriad restaurants to try in this food mecca, so many that we decided to venture someplace else for dessert! On our usual after-dinner constitutional, we went to the EVill’s location of Odd Fellows Ice Cream Co., where you can satisfy your cravings of savory and sweet at the SAME DAMN TIME! Thanks to the owner/creator’s pregnant wife’s cravings of “fried chicken, grilled cheese sandwiches … and salty-flavored ice cream,” Odd Fellows was born as well as their baby! Even though they were sold out of a few flavors by nightfall (I wanted to try their PB&J with Toast and Cornbread flavors), the glutton in me couldn’t order just one scoop, so I had one of Thai Iced Tea and another of Miso Cherry—AMAZING! I also sampled Chorizo Salted Caramel (don’t know how to feel about it, both good and weird) and Burnt Marshmallow (yum). Marissa had Thai Iced Tea as well. This place is perfection, especially if even Marissa, who doesn’t like dessert, loved it just as much as I did.

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Thumbs to the side for dinner. Thumbs sky high for dessert!