Cake, Coffee, & Conversation

•December 24, 2012 • 1 Comment

 

Choco Bolo a small, antique looking coffee shop situated on the corner of Broadway and 69th st., boasting Cake, Coffee, & Conversation is the Upper West Side. From the outside Choco Bolo doesn’t appear to be anything more then a café on the Upper West Side, but it’s expansive windows let people see the true magic inside. It is a perfect replication of a Portuguese, Swiss café on Rue Garrett in the center of Lisbon. The café is furnished with reflective tables, hard cork couches, and mirrors that remind you of an antique merry-go-round in Central Park. Choco Bolo immediately gives you the feeling that you’re sitting in an original 1900’s building, with a combination of soft jazzy music and a rustic theme to the interior. But enough about that; most importantly, Choco Bolo’s values are those of the neighborhood around it. It encompasses the three key factors that when smushed together define my neighborhood. Good food, good drink, and above all (as I would discover), good company.

First some background on how I came to be sitting where I am now, at Choco Bolo. I’m a hot chocolate geek. I’ve traveled around the world, tried hot chocolate in Italy, France, Ecuador, Israel, Spain and tasted some truly excellent drinks. Not to mention a few damn good ones in NYC and Long Island. Thick milk, good chocolate (I’m talking real chocolate, like Valhrona Noir 85% cacao or Scharffen Berger’s extra dark 82% cocao chocolate or a French chocolate like Callebaut. Not Nestle’s ‘chocolate’ powder) and a way to properly whip (a steaming machine, or a patient person with a manual whisker). The latter are the three keys to a killer cup of hot cocoa.

Choco Bolo, opened in November of 2011 by two Portuguese men, Andriano Callé Lucas and Kiko Campos Costa. The café debuted with a new name after its long, controversial previous name, TBCCITW (The Best Chocolate Cake in the World). Choco Bolo was immediately welcomed by the Upper West siders. It fit perfectly. Croissants, cakes, coffee, cookies all displayed beautifully in a glass case, and plenty of room to cozy up and socialize with neighbors. This was the niche Choco Bolo set out to fill. A niche that existed, partly because of the sheer lack of alternative cafés for a late night drink, a weekday breakfast, or a pre-theatre pastry. Thus far Choco Bolo has been extremely successful in filling this niche. It’s often crowded, and maintains a steady flow of customers on weekdays and weekends alike.

I first stopped by in January of 2012 on a cold winter night looking for a warm environment and a cup of hot chocolate. The staff was welcoming, conversational, and the hot chocolate was divine. This isn’t something I say lightly. After a little research and inquiry, with the general manager and co-owner, I found out the secret recipe behind their famed hot chocolate. The process began with melted down Swiss 80% chocolate, which was mixed with heavy cream to form a thick ganaché (also used in their cakes). This dark chocolate ganaché was mixed with whole milk, then heated and steamed until a satisfactory temperature was reached in order to form a union between the thick ganaché and lucid milk. I was in love. I’d found the perfect ratio of people to drink to food.

The coffee shop reminded me of another center piece of my neighborhood, Salumeria Rosi (with a prosciutto speciality, but that’s another story). Both had treated me in a similar manner: respectful, friendly, and warm. One can’t imagine, if you are a fully grown adult, the significance this had for me, a teenager. It wasn’t often I got treated as an equal to my adult counterparts. It wasn’t the usual cold glances, curt attitude, and sometimes downright refusal of service those of my generation are used to. I was served as if I were a friend and respected customer. This is what truly makes places like Choco Bolo and Salumeria Rosi stick out, and the Upper West Side in general.

Respectful, welcoming, warm, gracious, and inviting. At Choco Bolo there is no prejudice according to age. This in itself is such a rarity in the world it’s striking to find an exception. I believe that this is the true definition of the Upper West Side. It isn’t just about good food, and drink, but rather those two and an unwavering friendliness that extends to children, teens and adults. I recall a conversation I had at Choco Bolo with a middle aged couple, about the sad shape of the world economy. There was no acknowledgement that I was only 15 years old and had not even a high school diploma. Rather the conversation went on the way it would between any three human beings. This is the experience I’ve had in general on the Upper West Side. Be it at a coffee shop, a pizzeria, or a fine restaurant like Salumeria Rosi. Where else can a 12 year old kid walk in alone and get served without a question about his ability to pay the check as well as hold a conversation with people many years his superior? (But as I said, that’s another story.)

Back to Choco Bolo. Sitting in the café on a Sunday morning at 10:30 am, Choco Bolo was at its prime. People bustled in and out, sat and conversed while munching on a small snack and downing a few cappuccinos. A family to the left of me could be heard saying, “Wow, this is good.” followed by, “Is this a chain?” The reply to that was simple and straight forward, “No. It can’t be.” Why not? What makes Choco Bolo so unique? Looking around I took a quick survey of the people sitting down. Ages ranged from mid 20s to 80 and above. Nationalities? Too many to count. I heard snippets of conversation in French, Spanish, English, and what sounded like Portuguese.

As I’m sitting observing this small ecosystem, a little old lady walks in. She greets the workers with an endearing, “Hi sweeties,” then sits down next to me and is immediately presented with a large coffee. After a few sips she turns her attention to me. Who am I? What am I doing? Well I’m a student journalist working on an article that was to feature what I imagined to be the center of my neighborhood. She had a lot to say about that. Our subject’s name was Jerri, an 85 year old retired woman who lived nearby and had been a retail manager for her entire adult life. I told her I had a few questions to ask, but she had her own agenda. “They have no idea what they’re doing.” was her first line of our conversation regarding Choco Bolo. “What they’ve got could be a typical Viennese, Swiss café, but they’re wasting the opportunity. If properly managed, this (Choco Bolo) could be NYC’s next Rumplemeyer’s” I replied with the obvious and obligatory, “How so?” Jerri made lots of good points regarding the fundamental challenges Choco Bolo faces. Among her main ones were their lack of a rewards system (for loyal customers), their inability to differentiate regulars from new customers, and their overall terrible service and inexperienced workers (she did tell me who on the staff made the best drinks). Our conversation lasted over an hour and by the time we were finished I came away with one thought. Jerri should be running Choco Bolo.

I left to run a few errands, and returned around 3:00 pm that same day, thirsty for more conversation and, yes, hot chocolate. I observed a steady Sunday afternoon flow of people walking in and out and a variety of people. One pair was having a business interview where both men were dressed in a full suit and tie. A couple next to them were drinking expressos and the woman was nursing a baby. I spoke to Gloria, the supervisor at the café, a young woman of about thirty. She has worked at Choco Bolo since April, and has thoroughly enjoyed her job because of the conversations and people she has met while doing it. She told me that there were three men and six women who worked at Choco Bolo over different shifts. As Jerri had told me earlier in the day, there is a high turnover of workers. We ended our conversation with a shake of hands and Gloria gave me a tired, but friendly thank you for coming.

Focusing mostly on food and drink myself for the longest time, it was quite a shock to me when I realized that I didn’t keep coming back to Choco Bolo because of their hot chocolate or pastries or even for their service. I kept coming back because of the people. I had told myself, since January, that their hot chocolate was above average and that alone was what made this place special. Heck, I told myself that since the beginning of this article. But now I realized how mistaken I was. Choco Bolo’s hot chocolate is delicious and their cakes are quite good, but through many conversations and interactions with other customers and staff, I’ve come to realize that they are the reason why I so dutifully return. I’ve realized that one doesn’t need delicious, highly rated food, or a fancy decor to have a good experience. What one truly needs is human companionship to make the experience interesting and stimulating. This is what we truly desire whether we know it or not. The Upper West Side isn’t just about exotic foods or “world class” cake, it’s about the variety of people and the interactions a person of any age can have with those around him. As I get up to pay my bill Gloria, my new friend, tells me, “This one’s on the house.”

L’Artusi

•December 9, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Heirloom Tomatoes

Situated snuggly in the downtown West Village of NYC is an upscale restaurant that attempts to capture, what I consider, to be (the true) Italy. With a two-hour wait (for anyone without a reservation) on Aug 27th 2010, this restaurant was packed.The entire downstairs layout of L’Artusi is positioned to best see the open kitchen where Gabriel Thompson, the head chef and owner, calmly shouts orders and adds final touches to the dishes ready to be served. The restaurant feels pleasantly packed with tables, a white marble bar and a gray/white striped ceiling. The upstairs dining room (which looks similar to the bottom one) is usually used for private events. The entire restaurant lets off a strong sense of confidence and elegance.

My two companions and I were seated about an hour into our expected two-hour wait at the ‘table of honor’ or the table closest to the hot open kitchen. A frequent, enthusiastic diner at the restaurant took us under her wing and helped us to get seated sooner. Our waitress, an electric, cheery woman, came by and immediately introduced us to the insider’s friendly game of movie guessing that all kitchen members take part in, even including Gabe. She explains to us that whoever sits in these seats helps her out with the movie guessing game. (Although I can’t help thinking that this statement was unique to diners under 25) Of course I’ll go along with it, but not without thinking, ‘Let the games begin.’

Octopus

The menu at L’Artusi is divided into 5 sections or columns, Crudo (raw dishes), Verdura (salads/vegetables), Pasta (pasta), Pesce (fish, cooked) and Carne (meats and chicken). From the Crudo column we choose to order the Dayboat Scallops ($15). As a ‘Verdura’ we order the Butter Lettuce ($12) and Heirloom Tomatoes ($15). Moving onto Pastas I immediately realize what this restaurant’s forte must be. Not only by the sheer number of pasta selections, but from the delicious looking and smelling dishes I am now seeing exiting Gabe’s open kitchen. So from here we pick Fettucine Nero ($19) and Tagliatelle ($18) to start. The next section is Pesce. Octopus being one of my favorites, we order the Grilled Octopus ($15) and leave it at that for the time being. Finally, we reach the last section, Carne. From here we simply order the Hanger Steak ($22) based on a tip from our waitress. The first gruppo di alimenti presented to us was our ‘Crudo’ dish, the Dayboat Scallops. The dish was simple as it should be with thin strips of scallop dripped with lemon and topped with sea salt. The sweet fish was perfect, combined with the lemon, but the salt seemed to distract, and grab my attention leaving me a little overpowered and confused by the multiple flavors at play. Next to come was the Butter Lettuce. It was mediocre and overly soaked with dressing and cheese. Grilled Octopus was well, to say the least, grilled. I had mixed feelings about this dish. Some pieces were burned, tasteless and lost the unique taste octopus usually holds. Others were not overly charred and still held the taste of the sea.

Fettucine Nero

As if right on cue, the first of two pastas ordered, Fettucine Nero, came steaming to our table. I was caught first by the sight of the squid ink pasta and small clams on top. It looked, to be frank, heavenly. (Note: I have a strong bias towards clams) The pasta was a perfect texture and the clams held their own among the spiciness of the overall dish. It was bold and arguably the most memorable part of our meal. The second pasta was the Tagliatelle mixed with “Bolognese bianco”. Combined with egg yolk and shaded a light green color it was thick and very traditional tagliatelle. The Bolognese added the right amount of push to the thick, wide and al dente pasta. It was crafted masterfully so that the bolognese wasn’t simply a ‘sloppy joe’ type of meat, but a much more elegant. After we had finished our pastas we were surprised to receive a light conclusion of Heirloom Tomatoes from the ‘Verdura’ section. The tomatoes were absolutely solid and brilliantly thought out. Combined with sweet watermelon and pancetta the flavors were ‘meant to be’ together.

Olive Oil Cake

Dessert was simple. Olive oil cake made by Gabe’s wife, Katherine Thompson, herself a superb pastry chef. The cake was uniquely delicious. It was moist and clearly held the taste of olive oil. The care and time put into the recipe was apparent and we were hooked. It just was the conclusion a great meal needed.

Info:

228 West 10th Street (Between Bleeker and Hudson) New York, NY 10014

What makes a great restaurant great?

•October 23, 2010 • 1 Comment

 

What makes a great restaurant great? Is it the food, atmosphere, service, decor or the company I’m with? The answer is all of these things mushed into a vat of passion bubbling inside of me.

Firstcomes the food; tasty, delicious and sexy food adds the most important feature to a restaurant’s greatness, igniting a spark in my stomach. Food that takes my breath away and compels even my worst moods to become cheery and sociable. Like a dish I once ate at Le Bernadin, ‘a sour zucchini flower, sweet crab and a woody essence of truffle sauce. Each flavor was a puzzle piece and when they fit together they became a clear picture. It was like flowers, deep within a forest of trees, and sweet smells.’

Secondly, an atmosphere and decor need to match the style of the food to push my restaurant experience to an even greater level of pleasure. I like an atmosphere that welcomes me, the diner, invites me into the flow of amiable conversation. As well as a decor that flirts with the atmosphere, contrasts and works together with it. For example when homey, whole hearted dishes are served in a cute warm restaurant it makes me feel in place, part of something.

When these two ingredients are combined with superb service, the memory of a night out can be imbedded in my mind for weeks. A server who treats me politely can make me feel royal and special. A server should also be conversational and fun. This is the kind of server that makes an okay night out into a night of everlasting laughs and ‘waiter I’d like another, now!’

At last, having friends and family with me completes my experience. Sure you can dine alone, but it adds tremendously to the evening when friends and family are involved. For me, being able to socialize while I eat and drink is a crucial part of my dining experience. Alas, when these ‘elements’ are combined the spark in my stomach becomes a warm fire, fueled by delicious foods, cordial and humble service, friends, family and an overall sublime dining experience.

Fatty Crab

•February 9, 2010 • 3 Comments

Loud, exhilarating, delicious and classy. These are but some of the many adjectives you may use to describe the Fatty Crab to a friend. Everywhere you look it’s a party, the music’s pumping, the people chatting, the waitresses and waiters running.

At 7:30 on a Friday night with 5 other friends and family, I decided to stop into one of the Upper West Side’s most hopping restaurants. The restaurant itself is small and very crowded, but the booths with glossy wooden tables are rather spacious. The menu is divided up into 8 categories: Snacks (includes dishes like Pork Buns), Noodles, Soups, Rice Bowls, Fatty’s Specials and Vegetables. To begin, we order a couple of snacks, the pork buns ($9) and the classic fatty sliders with spicy pork beef patties ($9). After I ordered I headed to the bathroom. Wait, is this the bathroom? No… YES! The interior of Fatty Crab’s bathroom is black with one dark red light and spooky sounds. Mmmm bizarre, but back to the food.

The first ‘snack’ to arrive unannounced at our table was the steamy pork buns. A bite into this intense dish was all I needed. The doughy, sweet outside contrasted beautifully with the spicy flavorful meat inside. Just that little bit of spice added a unique edge to the pork buns. The fatty sliders came almost instantly after the pork buns disappeared. Maybe a little too quickly; I was still thinking about the buns. The sliders were thick slabs of meat on small buns with a spicy mayonnaise sauce spread on top. What can I say, they were messy, but tasty. A little filling, though, for a snack.

Now let’s talk entrees or Fatty’s specials. Char Kway Teow, a $21 noodle dish featuring horfun noodles, shrimp, squid and bean sprouts. Countless flavors overrode my senses; soft doughy noodles with a touch of soy, and fresh seafood including a welcome extra, octopus that was not listed on the menu. Just like the previous dishes, the Char Kway Teow had a hint of spice, adding a kick to the dish. We were next served the Singaporean Black Pepper Mussels. At $16 these mussels were mediocre. Not superb, but not terrible. At a first glance they looked delectable, but after a few mussels I felt like the sauce was wrong and the mussels tasteless. Finally, to end on a good note we had the Fatty Crab Duck. The duck was a combination of 40% duck and 60% fat. The meat was savory and tender while the fat was rich and added a necessary flavor boost. Resting on top of a plain white rice that absorbed the flavor of the duck it was definitely a ‘Fatty Crab Special’. When the duck was gone we all sat back and sighed, feeling like satisfied fat crabs.

Fatty Crab UWS
2170 Broadway
New York, NY 10024
212.496.2722

Truffle Hunt

•December 19, 2009 • 5 Comments

Wine Grapes

Slipping on my pants and shoes quietly so as not to wake up the others, I was excited. I snuck out to the grape vines and began my walk. The overwhelming smell of sweetness and wine was delicious. Along the way I stopped, of course, to eat the violet grapes that swelled on the vines. My first impression was sweetness, then sour, as I bit into the skin. Sweet sticky juice ran down my chin as I finished a bunch. After completing my march down the hillside of vineyards I hiked back up to the 5 star hotel, Il Boscareto, where we were staying for a few days. My head swam with thoughts of the hunt to come later that morning- for the famous White Truffles of Alba!

Truffle Hunt

We drove across narrow roads with row after row of vineyards on both sides. The yellow and green colored leaves on the vines were unbelievable. It was a valley of colors spread out over miles. We pulled into an old stone driveway where our trifulau (truffle hunter) greets us with a wide grin on his face. Of course he speaks not one word of English, so lucky for us we brought along our wonderful Italian guide (and now good friend) Daniela, to help us. We hop into his Jeep and drive aggressively into the woods. Once we reach a particularly hidden trail he lets Jolie out. Jolie, the trifulau’s dog, is six years old and has been trained since she was 6 months old for this very moment. The dog began to dart back and forth with her nose down. She trotted up and down the trail while our trifulau prepared for the hunt. Of course, I’m wearing fancy shoes and jeans instead of dirty pants and a shirt, but he assures me it will do. He pulls out hand-crafted walking sticks and hands them to us without a word. It was self-explanatory; we would be doing extensive hiking.

Jolie Truffle Dog

The hunt began quietly as our trifulau whispered short commands to Jolie.

Jolie was always on the lookout for encouragement such as a,” bravo Jolie!” After 45 minutes of no success, we came upon our first truffle! The minute before, Jolie had stopped and sniffed for longer then usual, causing excitement throughout our group. It had turned out to be nothing. Jolie was trotting around as usual when she just stopped. At first it was nothing, and then she began to dig with a glint in her eyes. The trifulau was yelling at Jolie from a distance, but there was no stopping Jolie. By the time we got to her the truffle had almost entirely emerged under Jolie’s careful digging. Jolie’s master was very careful not to offend Jolie by giving more attention to the truffle then to her. It was intriguing to watch how he completely ignored the jewel lying before his eyes

Simple Truffled Pasta

and concentrated on Jolie and her welfare. Once Jolie was calm he set out digging for the white truffle himself. He latched his ax into the soil and tugged slowly and carefully. As more dirt poured away, a garlicky, dreamy smell arose from the small hole. Then it hit us. With full blast the perfume blew us all away into an everlasting silence broken by Jolie’s squealing and her own attempts to reach the golden truffle. I put out my hand in the ground slowly, and with extreme caution brought out a medium sized truffle. We were thrilled and so was the trifulau. The hunt concluded with our finding two truffles, one weighing 52 grams, and one weighing 23 grams. These truffles were to be used in the meal we had after we got back to the inn/restaurant. As we stepped into the restaurant, which smelled throughout like truffles, our trifulau was applauded by his guests. He went to change as his new role was as host of the delicious meal prepared for us by his wife and proudly served by both of them.

2 Truffles

© 2009 David Fishman

Aroma

•December 3, 2009 • 5 Comments

Aroma Entrance

Aroma is unique. Have you ever heard of a modern comfortable cafe that supplies fast internet and cheery service. No? I didn’t think so. I’m sitting there now in a modern retro styled chair and watching others converse in soft leather couches. Every 10 minutes a polite worker comes around to pick up all trash. Aroma doesn’t nag you to buy anything in trade for internet. They welcome one and all without hesitation. As I am not a coffee drinker I sadly cannot supply you with a review of the coffee, but the hot chocolate I can. It’s not regular hot chocolate. It’s not powder and it’s not diet ‘friendly’, but it may be the best damn hot chocolate I’ve ever had. Aroma makes their own special cocoa out of what I guess is a mix between whole chunks of softened chocolate and crushed chocolate. First they steam whole milk (yes whole milk, you can choose to make it with skim, but it’s not the same), after the milk reaches 140 F degrees they add it to a mug which contains the special cocoa. That’s it. Simple, but greatly delectable. When they hand you the mug they insist that you mix the milk and cocoa well to ensure extreme satisfaction. The creamy milk and nutella tasting cocoa is on the whole irresistible.

Aroma's Hot Chocolate

Not only does Aroma serve beverages, but great sandwiches and pastries. If you’re looking for a way to get out of the house this is it. Bring your computer and relax to the sound of soft conversation around you.

Aroma is located at these locations in the U.S.

145 Greene Street
(corner of Houston)
New York, NY 10012
see map & delivery area
212-533-1094Hours of Operation:
7 Days a Week
7:00 AM to 11:00 PM
161 West 72nd Street
(Amsterdam & Columbus)
New York, NY 10023
see map & delivery area
212-595-7700Hours of Operation:
7 Days a Week
7:00 AM to 11:00 PM
205 East 42nd Street
(2nd & 3rd  Avenue)
New York, NY 10017
see map & delivery area
212-557-1010Hours of Operation:
7 Days a Week
7:00 AM to 11:00 PM

To learn more about Aroma visit their website: http://www.aroma.us/

Rockin’ Guacamole

•October 14, 2009 • 2 Comments

Guacamole

It was a warm, clear, breezy end of summer night, with the smell of ocean in the air, on the coast of Long Island. It was decided, by my cousin and I, that the time had come. Guests were hungry, and the ingredients were sitting there on the kitchen island waiting ready to be used.  I thought of Rosa Mexicano, a popular Mexican restaurant based in New York City, where I had recently dined.  The restaurant has a unique activity performed in front of the diners. There is a table side  cart piled high with chopped tomatoes, white onions, cilantro and jalapino peppers. Oh yeah, I almost forgot the last ingredient:  Avocados. Can you guess what the ingeridants made? Guacamole.

Our plan tonight was to satisfy our hungry guests by making a custom our version of the traditional Mexican dish, Guacamole. I split up the tasks. Tomatoes were assigned to my cousin. Onions to my aunt. The tomatoes had been carefully picked out at a local farm stand (one of many in Long Island) by myself. I picked the cilantro among, many other herbs like parsley and basil, in our backyard garden. The avocados were trickier to find than the other ingredients. After trying 3 supermarkets with expensive unripened avocados we went to a local Spanish take-out place. Scanning the store with our eyes we finally spotted a mesh basket holding three green ripe avocados. Luck seemed to be on our side. Back home, with all the ingredients gathered we started the process of creating the guacamole.

If you follow the technigue used at Like at Rosa Mexicano, the cilantro must be made into a paste. In the restaurant, the cilantro was chopped into microscopic pieces,  then scraped into a stone bowl. A heavy looking, black stone mallet, was used taken from the cart. (I found out later it is called a mortar and pestle)The waiter pounded the cilantro into a pasty substance so it would easily blend into the guacamole. I didn’t have a stone mallet so I placed my cilantro on a chopping board and took a large rock from outside. After cleaning the rock carefully I began to pound the cilantro into a mush much like the one at Rosa Mexicano. Once the paste had been completed it was scooped into a large bowl. Next comes the avocados.

From the Rosa Mexicano waiters, I had learned  how to de-pit an avocado in a stylish clean way. Take a sharp knife and slit a circle around the avocado. Once the circle is completed slowly pull each half of the avocado off the pit. One side should be pit free, but the other still requires de-pitting. Stab your knife into the pit and slowly twist the pit until it’s free of the avocado. Keep the fruit in the skin and glide your knife in small criss crosses around the interior of the avocado. This should make it easier to take the fruit out and mush it. My cousin kept adding more salt (which the quacamole needed) when our backs were turned. With chips in another bowl, we called the other guests and headed outside to the back deck, overlooking the ocean- where the sun had not yet set. With drinks in hand, we shared a delicious guacamole experience. From the rock smashed bitter tasting cilantro , to the farm stand sweet tomatoes and spicy onions, and, of course, the Spanish market avocados,  we shared our own customized guacamole dish. Have fun and try combining different ingredients yourself to get a different taste. For example, I used to use parsley instead of cilantro. The flavor is completely different. The parsley was extremely bitter and absorbed the sweet flavor of the avocado. This time the cilantro complimented the avocado and was only a side flavor instead of taking some the attention like the parsley did. I still like to add lemon. Next time!  I’m ready now to start mashing… or, with summer over and I’m back at school, it may be time to head over to Rosa Mexicano  and watch the waiters do all the work (though to me it would still be more fun to make it myself, with a little help from my friends).

Rosa Mexicano (New York City)-

-Lincoln Center

-Union Square

-First Avenue

 
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