Balvanera: One of New York City’s Best New Restaurants of 2014

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“Balvanera takes its name from a historic ‘barrio’, or neighborhood, of Buenos Aires where poets, musicians, and creatives once convened.”

—from Balvanera’s website

Our second visit in as many months has already convinced us that six-week-old Balvanera is one of the very best new informal restaurants to open in Manhattan this year.  It’s not likely that our remarkable dinners here, during which we cumulatively ate our way through half the menu, could have been a fluke.  Certainly not with Gael Greene’s and other raves creating the kind of insider buzz that is bringing in chefs like Aldea’s George Mendes to check out the simple but passionate cooking of chef-owner Fernando Navas, an alum of the kitchens at elBulli, Nobu, and Samba Brands Management (of Sushi Samba fame).

And yet there were several tables open last night when we left the restaurant after an early dinner.  Our theory?  It’s partly the same reason we thought we’d never even bother visiting Balvanera: We’d read in Laura Catena’s wonderful book Vino Argentino (2010) that the typical portion size at an Argentine meal is 16 ounces(!) of meat per person.  (Woof!)  And with Americans having decreased their per-capita meat consumption over the past five years  (with future declines predicted), meat-driven cuisines appear to be declining in popularity in turn.  We certainly weren’t interested in checking out what we’d mistakenly thought might be “yet another steak joint.”

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Meredith Boyle and chef-owner Fernando Navas at Balvanera

But while the flavor influences at Balvanera may be Argentinian, the spirit and execution here are lighter and definitely more produce-driven (with several vegetarian options), perhaps “more reflective of women’s sensibility,” suggests the restaurant’s very masculine chef-owner Navas, whose girlfriend Meredith Boyle brings gracious hospitality to the front of the house several nights a week. “We are proud of all of our dishes here, but especially the variety of vegetable-based dishes we offer,” he says.

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Left: Empanadas Caseras / Center: Papas Rotas / Right: A Chocolate Dream

As well he should be. The omnivore friend we met at Balvanera last night deemed Navas’s empanadas (we’d ordered the ones with sweet corn, roasted red pepper, provolone, and aji amarillo; 2 for $8) the best he’d ever had. We’d tasted the wonderfully crispy Papas Rotas (served with roasted garlic aioli and pimento; $5) last month, so logic deemed we didn’t need to try them again — but our hearts felt otherwise. They were even better last night.

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Fava Y Ricotta Tostadas: Housemade Soft Cheese, English Peas, Lemon Vinaigrette

The Tomates y Fresas salad of heirloom tomatoes, fennel, strawberries, arugula and arrope reduction ($16) turned tomatoes into the fruit our grade school science class taught us they were — while in Navas’s hands, the strawberries found new soulmates in the savory ingredients in this tart but balanced salad.  Added to the menu since our last visit, the Fava y Ricotta Tostadas (made with housemade soft cheese, English peas, and lemon vinaigrette; $11) proved to be our favorite fava dish of the season.

We shared the Setas Salteadas ($18), happy to dig into a bed of barley blanketed with meaty yet silky king trumpet, blue foot and shiitake mushrooms and a poached egg, just as our omnivore friend enjoyed his dish from the other side of the menu.

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Zanahoria al horno: Roasted Carrots, Queso Fresco, Oranges, Escarole, and Pepitas

We might dub the past year to be “The Year of the Carrot,” having tasted as many extraordinary carrot dishes as we have at Eleven Madison Park (Daniel Humm’s carrot tartare), Narcissa (John Fraser’s carrots Wellington), and Public (Brad Farmerie’s roasted carrots with cauliflower couscous).  We’d definitely add Navas’s Zanahoria al Horno, an enchanting tangle of flavors and textures ($10), to that all-star list.

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Iced Mate: Brewed Yerba Mate + Lemon + Honey + Sugar

Later last night we were still planning to put finishing touches on the keynote speech we’ll be delivering at the International Food Bloggers Conference (IFBC) this coming weekend in Seattle, so we skipped the wine list in favor of Balvanera’s refreshing house summer drink: Iced (Yerba) Mate, which is flavored with lemon, a dash of honey, and a hint of cane sugar, and garnished with a husk cherry, large blackberry, and three slices of lemon. We ordered seconds, along with a dessert to share: a creamy nearly-room temperature chocolate cloud that seemed a cross between a mousse and a ganache, perfectly balanced by a bit of fruit salad and citrus sorbet.

Service at Balvanera is warm and welcoming — maybe because the dining room is serviced by the able and personable husband-and-wife team of (bartender) John and (server) Maren, native Minnesotans who just moved to New York with their Midwestern sweetness intact.  We love that these happy couples are adding their homey touch to this corner of the Lower East Side — which we hope more guests will soon treat themselves to the pleasure of experiencing while supporting this outstanding newcomer.

Balvanera is at 152 Stanton Street (near Suffolk), on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. 212.533.3348. www.balvaneranyc.com

Pizza at Marta Crackles with Flavor

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The secret's in the sawdust (laced with dried herbs), which helps fire Marta's pizza ovens via a century-old tradition

The secret’s in the sawdust (laced with dried herbs), which helps fire Marta’s pizza ovens via a century-old tradition

Danny Meyer & Company’s latest addition to the Union Square Hospitality Group Marta has been on our radar since the day it was announced, but with pressing deadlines through yesterday, we weren’t able to attempt to make it into the three-day-old restaurant until today.  Our initial idea of getting there at noon today wasn’t working out, so — not finding an open table on OpenTable.com — Karen called shortly after noon (when the hotel transferred her to the restaurant) to make sure the restaurant would be taking walk-ins, and was assured Marta was.  She also asked about the somewhat confusing language on the website that “*The kitchen will only offer Pizza from 3:30 – 4:30 pm.”  We definitely wanted pizza, so did that mean we had to get there during that one-hour window?  No, she was told, but if we wanted to eat during that one-hour window, all we’d be able to order would be pizza.  Got it — thanks so much.

Despite the torrential downpour that was in full force in Manhattan this afternoon at 3 pm, we managed to make our way to Marta before 3:30 pm — when we were stunned to be told that the restaurant wasn’t serving any food at that time, pizza or otherwise.  “But we called…” we protested.  “Not sure who gave you that information…” the restaurant replied.  One person after another asked the next up in the Marta hierarchy who continued the denials, until one asked if we wished to speak to the restaurant’s general manager.  We did, and sat down in comfortable seats to wait.  Finally, we were told that we would be able to order pizza, and that the restaurant was glad that they’d be able to serve us.  We were glad, too.

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Savoring Indian Summer at the Union Square Greenmarket

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“The perfect weather of Indian Summer lengthened and lingered, warm sunny days were followed by brisk nights with Halloween a presentiment in the air.”

—Wallace Stegner, Remembering Laughter

Indian summer is a magical time of year for food lovers. Is it summer? Autumn? Summer? Autumn? While you can still find the peak of season’s corn and tomatoes, sometimes right alongside them you’ll already spy the first of fall’s apples and squashes.

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Upper left: Richard Giles of Lucky Dog Farms Lower right: Farmer James Van Houten

The Union Square Greenmarket has kept us happy with naturally sweet and juicy peaches, plums, and berries all summer long. But despite the fact that Labor Day has come and gone, summer’s not over yet! And in fact, NOW is when the market is reaching its annual peak, as you can see from the images in this post which Andrew shot there this morning between 9 and 10 am.

We hope all New Yorkers will treat themselves by paying a visit this month.

Union Square Greenmarket is located at 16th Street between Park Avenue South and Broadway, and open from 8 am to 6 pm on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. www.grownyc.org

Note:  We’ll be signing copies of our new book THE VEGETARIAN FLAVOR BIBLE at the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturday, October 18th from 11 am – 2 pm, and hope to see you there!

Our new website KarenAndAndrew.com goes live Sept. 12, 2014

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Left: Rachel Cunliffe / Center: Our new website upon its launch / Right: Stephen Merriman

Welcome to Day One of our new website at KarenAndAndrew.com being live!

Credit for this beautiful creation goes to the gifted sister-and-brother team of Rachel Cunliffe (above, left) and Stephen Merriman (above, right) of Cre8d Design, who worked tirelessly on its creation until we were not only pleased but ecstatic.

We’re thrilled to have a forum where we can be in closer touch with our readers across North America and around the globe, and look forward to your active participation.

So take a look around at what Rachel and Stephen have created for us, read about some of our latest flavorful adventures, and let us know what’s on your mind by posting a comment.  We’ll look forward to responding to as many as we can!

Delicious wishes,
Karen & Andrew

Celebrating anniversaries (ours and theirs!) at Gotham Bar & Grill

Two weeks ago today, we celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary (and, btw, the 22nd anniversary of signing our first book deal) at Gotham Bar & Grill, slipping in just days before the restaurant retired its summer Greenmarket vegetarian tasting menu. Gotham Anniversary Collage After surprising us with a welcome glass of Lantieri Franciacorta rose we’d actually been craving ever since our last visit to the restaurant at lunch in May, wine director Heidi Turzyn paired our courses with a succession of lovely wines. They included glasses of master sommelier Christopher Bates’ alluring Element Winery Cabernet Franc to accompany the mushroom course below – which proved a perfect pairing.

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SWEET CORN BALANCES MUSHROOMS + HAZELNUTS’ EARTHINESS

We loved how successfully Gotham integrated vegetables into the dessert course, expanding our fandom of the concept way beyond carrots, pumpkin, and sweet potato.

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DESSERT OFFSETS BITTERNESS OF DARK CHOCOLATE + ARUGULA WITH BEETS

Gotham Bar & Grill is celebrating its anniversary, too – its 30th, in fact, which we found inconceivable given that the restaurant is looking, tasting, and feeling better than ever. Now if only we could convince chef-owner Alfred Portale to bring back the Greenmarket vegetarian tasting menu and give it a permanent spot on the dinner menu….It’s so impressive, we’d expect it would be bringing in customers for three decades to come. Continue reading…

On Labor Day, fond memories of a restorative break from work in Maine

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The two of us have long been — shall we say — “vacation challenged.” All right, we are downright “day-off challenged,” typically finding it more pressing to get that next project done rather than to lose a day’s work to sheer pleasure. Despite the acclaimed work of our dear friend energy expert and bestselling author Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project chronicling how important it is to lead a balanced life with regular time off to “oscillate” (a Schwartz-ism) or “sharpen the saw” (a Covey-ism), it just doesn’t typically work out that way for us.  We’re more likely to barrel through 12-plus-hour workdays, and occasionally spend a few days recovering after meeting a big deadline.  What can we say? We love what we do.

Fortunately, on those occasions when we finally do take a few days off, we’ve discovered wonderful places that really know how to carry out an intervention – magically providing a week’s worth of relaxation and restoration in just a few days. Last year at a lunch at hosted by Relais and Chateaux at DANIEL in New York City to introduce the newest members of the organization, Andrew met the owners of the Camden Harbour Inn in Maine, who were so charming we’d kept the prospect of a New England getaway in mind ever since.

Finding a sweet spot in our schedules between deadlines, we decided it was time to make our first road trip up to Maine from Manhattan. As New Yorkers, we actually enjoy long drives with peace and quiet and a little blue-sky time for brainstorming, so six or seven hours in a car did not deter us. Best of all, we found an irresistible last-minute online bargain for our mid-week stay on the hotel’s website, so we booked a couple of nights immediately.

Though it turned out that the Inn’s Dutch owners Raymond Brunyanski and Oscar Verest were away during our stay for their own off-season R&R, we could not have been in better hands. Taking one step into the lobby after a warm greeting, our NYC-minute life slowed down to CHI’s pace: “Your massages are scheduled, your room is ready — what time would you like dinner?” The entire team at the CHI is plugged in, and every member earned our respect and affection with their gracious hospitality throughout our visit.  (Oh, and as we were visiting off-season, upon check-in we were very kindly upgraded to the best available room.)

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One of the things we especially love about the CHI is its design sensibility. The owners maintain the bones and charm of this 100-year-old inn while updating it with a modern design aesthetic.  From your room outfitted with sleek furniture and crazy-lush accessories, you’re able to access unparalleled views of the harbo(u)r in all its splendor.

The Inn’s restaurant Natalie’s features the cooking of husband-and-wife team Chris Long and Shelby Stevens. They have serious big city chops, with Long having spent time at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and Stevens at DANIEL in New York. The dining room is overseen by GM Bart “Look-Up-Gracious-In-The-Dictionary-And-You’ll-Find-His-Picture” van der Veldon, who spent time working in Europe and at the Fairmont Battery Wharf Hotel in Boston. Natalie’s also has a great bar and cocktail program with a separate menu if you want something more causal but just as enjoyable.

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Two of NYC’s Best Options for Vegetarians/Vegans

When we’re craving that fine mix of comfort, nourishment, and indulgence, we find that Candle Café East more often than not is just what we’re both in the mood for. Take, for example, this afternoon, when we popped in for lunch and found all three served up in spades.

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EMPANADA SPECIAL SERVED OVER A BED OF GREENS WITH PICKLED ONIONS AND TOFU SOUR CREAM

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OUR FIRST TASTE OF CANDLE CAFÉ’S FAMED AZTEC SALAD, WHICH THEY CAN’T TAKE OFF THE MENU

When Candle’s Executive Director Mark Doskow stopped by to say hello, we were still floored to have just tasted one of the best salads we’d ever had anywhere – one that near-miraculously managed to hold our interest through every single forkful with its balance of “bi-color quinoa, black beans and corn, topped with spiced pumpkin seeds and barbeque grilled tempeh, served over mixed field greens with toasted cumin vinaigrette.”

By the time we got home, Candle Café East had Tweeted us: “Also @KarenAndAndrew, look what @CNTraveler had to say about the Aztec Salad,” which linked to an August 28th piece by The Coveteur titled “The Best Vegan and Vegetarian Restaurants in New York City” that included Candle Café (natch) and the line “Their Aztec Salad has become a must-have meal every time we’re in the city.” Now it’s on our must-order list, too – plus we almost invariably pick up one of their addictive oatmeal-date bars to take home for dessert or breakfast.

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