Yerba Buena (New York)– 23rd Avenue A between Houston and 2nd
Nestled in the heart of the East Village (they have a West Village location as well), you might easily miss this gem of a restaurant barely larger than my one-bedroom condo. The scene is intimate and warm – appropriately vibrant for a “cocina Latina,” or self-described Latin kitchen.
The restaurant was packed at 9pm on a summer Saturday, however they immediately showed us to our table, honoring our reservation time. The stellar service continued as our waitress struck the perfect balance between attentive and respectful distance.
I was immediately thrilled to find my favorite Peruvian cocktail, a Pisco Sour, front and center on the menu. They made it correctly with egg whites and bitters, which they used to spell “I (heart) YB” on top of the froth – nice touch. My group started the meal with a delicious salmon ceviche, which did not disappoint as a light flavorful appetizer. For my main course, I was torn between an entrée or multiple smaller plates, but ultimately decided on the small plates in order to sample a greater variety of options. I ordered a salad with tomato, avocado, jicama and greens. In addition, I eagerly consumed the tilapia fish tacos with a chipotle-mango slaw and didn’t hesitate to split a second order with my friend. The two dishes were mind-blowing. The ingredients were fresh and the flavors a mix of spicy and savory. To top off the already perfect meal, we ordered two desserts, because who can decide between Tres Leches and a fudgey chocolate cake with mint ice cream? Tres Leches is one of my all-time favorites, but both deserve equal kudos for a sweet ending to our meal.
The only minor black mark for the night was when our waitress politely asked us if we were ready to give up our table after we had paid the bill and were lingering in conversation. Luckily, we were ready; otherwise we might have felt more put off. But given the size of the place, it’s understandable they needed to turn tables.
Overall, this restaurant gets a glowing review among a world of New York City options. Great for an intimate date or a night on the town with friends, I promise you won’t be disappointed.
10 Degrees South (Atlanta, GA) – 4831 Roswell Road NE
I’ve never travelled to South Africa (it’s one of many destinations on my list) and perhaps that fact enhanced the intrigue of this restaurant, especially given it’s nondescript exterior in a less-than-culturally diverse part of the city. I could no longer ignore the countless verbal and written reviews of this restaurant that were nothing but stellar.
My initial impression upon arriving was disappointment in the ambiance. The dark grey walls and furniture blended together with the low ceilings to create an overall drab appearance. My friends and I were seated in a quiet corner of the restaurant, which felt isolated…until it wasn’t. As soon as other parties were seated around us, the noise reverberated off the walls enclosing our section of tables and suddenly the conversation with my friends elevated to a mild yell and all of us were straining to hear each other.
While this backdrop was not what I had hoped for, the service and food more than compensated. Our waiter was extremely attentive, especially when it came to the wine list. The restaurant has an extensive selection, however we were unfamiliar with the mostly South African options, thus we needed some direction. The waiter happily helped us choose based upon our unique tastes and brought us samples to ensure we were happy before committing – and we were not disappointed! (I ordered the Bayten Sauvignon Blanc, by the way)
Now onto the food…we all ordered appetizers ranging from the safari salad to the garlic roll (a fancier garlic bread). The most flavorful small plate, however, was the Bobotie Spring Rolls – with sweet ground beef curry and served with a chutney sauce. While I’m not a big fan of fried food, these rolls are worth the investment. They were light and crispy, with a perfect touch of sweetness to balance the taste of the beef and curry. For a main course I split the Peri-Peri Chicken with my friend, which was a good choice since the portion sizes are large. It was served with basmati rice and what I believe was a sweet chutney (although different from the spring rolls). The chicken was tasty, but nothing compared to the vegetable curry that my other friend selected (she is vegan by the way, and although the menu is heavy on the meat, there are definitely options for the non-meat eating diner). The flavor was so incredible that I couldn’t help but scavenge a good portion of her meal as well. I would come back and order the vegetable curry in a heartbeat.
Finally dessert! I have been hearing about the restaurant’s famous Di’s Delight for years now and even though the description on the menu wouldn’t normally draw me in (a warm fruit sponge cake), I had to find out what all the fuss is for. And because one dessert couldn’t possibly be enough for three of us to split, we also ordered the raspberry white chocolate cheesecake. Both desserts were delicious, but Di’s Delight truly lived up to the hype. The warmth of the cake and cold vanilla ice cream made for an amazing combination with a flavor that’s truly indescribable (pictured in the photo below on the right). All I can say is GO try it! I’m not even a huge fan of cake but if you like sweets it cannot be missed.
My overall impression of 10 Degrees South is positive. The entire service and food experience compensated for the lack of “zest” in terms of an interior. Once the restaurant filled up by 8:30pm, I felt a new vibrancy to the atmosphere – like a bunch of family gatherings marked by lively conversation and laughter. I should caveat that by mentioning that not unlike most Atlanta restaurants, we were basically closing the place down at 11pm when only one other group lingered at their table. This is more of a mark against the city and location than the restaurant itself, however, and I plan to return – hopefully before I make it to South Africa itself.
La Cevicheria (Cartagena, Colombia) – Calle Stuart 7
Anthony Bourdain knows his food. I trusted him simply from watching his Food Network show, No Reservations, but I trust him even more now that I’ve actually tried one of the restaurants he visited and endorsed on the show. In true Anthony Bourdain style, he picks restaurants that are “off the beaten path” and not your typical tourist spot. And this is exactly how I’d describe La Cevicheria. A small corner restaurant located near the outskirts of Cartagena’s old town, you would easily miss it if you weren’t looking closely. A few small tables sit out front, but given the heat, my travel partner and I opted for an inside seat. The restaurant is simply decorated with white-washed walls and wooden tables. I seem to remember a wood-sculpeted mermaid hanging on the wall as well, but I was so hungry at the time I really couldn’t focus on anything but the menu.
The menu itself is a red laminated fold-out that shamelessly promotes it’s feature on Anthony Bourdain’s show on the back page. The options range from soups to sandwiches to larger dishes – all casual and fit for either lunch or dinner. I started by ordering the house white wine (which always makes me a bit skeptical when there is only one option), but I was pleasantly surprised that it had the dry crisp taste of any sauvignon blanc that I would typically order or buy for myself. And since we were at a cevicheria, I ordered a fish-only ceviche dish (for those who are not familiar with ceviche, Wikipedia describes it as a seafood dish popular in the coastal regions of the Americas, typically made from fresh raw fish marinated in citrus juices and spiced with ají or chili peppers). The menu didn’t provide much of a description so I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
While we waited eagerly for our meals to arrive, the waiter served us their version of chips and salsa – plantain chips and a mango dipping sauce. It was a delicious combination of sweet and salty, and was not so heavy as to spoil our appetite by the time the food was ready. In fact, our dishes came out very quickly compared to South American standards (in my experience it’s slower than I’m accustomed to in the U.S.). My first impression when the waiter set the plate in front of me was how beautiful it appeared with it’s mix of colors and textures (see photo below). But that didn’t stop me from digging right in.
This was truly one of the most flavorful meals in my memory. The fish, as is typical of ceviche, was cubed and centered on the plate, mixed with red onions and lime. The main attraction was surrounded by sweet and salty tostones (fried flat plantains) covered in an avocado spread; some lettuce and tomato; a few roasted red peppers; a dollop of mashed yams; and crispy, salty corn kernels. Finally, the entire meal was adorned with more lime to squeeze over the plate. Separately, the various components of the meal might seem random, but together the flavors mixed impeccably – so much so that I couldn’t decide what to combine in any given bite.
Overall the dish was light. I didn’t leave feeling too full or weighed-down. I had room for dessert but the options were limited and not worth investing in, in my humble opinion. Plus I had been eying the gelato shops we passed on the way to the restaurant. The food was so amazing that my travel partner and I actually returned for lunch two days later. While the whole experience wasn’t your top-quality service and ambiance, the food spoke for itself and cannot be missed on any trip to Cartagena.
Ituzaingo Resto (Mendoza, Argentina) – 1548 Ituzaingo St.
In celebration of one of my best friend’s impending wedding, my friend and I took advantage of being on the same continent and travelled to Mendoza, Argentina – the Napa Valley of South America – where we reveled in the incredible food and wine for an incredible four days. I had never heard of the concept of closed door dining before, but my friend encountered it in her research prior to the trip and enthusiastically booked us at one of Mendoza’s highest-rated “Puertas Cerradas” restos: Ituzaingo.
Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical at first. The whole idea of a pseudo-secret restaurant in someone’s home with no menu felt a little too mysterious. If we had not met another couple outside when we arrived at the door, we might have even turned around to go home. Ituzaingo street was not what I would define as “sketchy,” but it was not particularly inviting either. We knocked on an unmarked, inconspicuous wooden door on a dark street about a 10-minute drive from the center of Mendoza. No answer. We knocked again. I saw thin red rope hanging down and I pulled it thinking, “I’ve got this figured out.” Still nothing. Finally, the man in the couple standing next to us tried again, giving the rope another solid tug and alas, the bell tolled! A couple of geniuses we are…
From the moment we walked in the door, I knew this was going to be a special evening. The “restaurant” was the home of the lovely host, Gonzalo, although he didn’t make he appearance until a few minutes later. A butler/server of sorts ushered us into the living room of this beautiful loft, with tall brick walls, arched doorways, and eclectic artwork scattered throughout. Cozy couches, expansive Persian rugs, and jazz music filled the space and created a warmth that made us feel immediately at home.
While we sat mingling with some other guests that had arrived – among them two Brazilian couples and another couple, the woman from Russia and man from Argentina – we were served a welcome cocktail paired with the first course: a shot glass sized, cool gazpacho. Next came the Japanese soup spoons filled with a heart bite of classic ceviche, as good as any that I ate in Peru. Our pre-dinner courses were rounded out by hot, fresh meat and cheese empanadas that literally melted in our mouths. As we enjoyed the starters, our host Gonzalo arrived, accompanied by his adorable Boxer and her litter of puppies. It was like something out of a movie…He brought the puppies upstairs since they were a little too rowdy to join the dinner fun, but he quickly re-emerged to meet his guests and ask what brought them to his not-so-secret restaurant.
Gonzalo is the type of person to whom you immediately feel drawn and willing to open up. He shows genuine interest in each of his guests, and he engages everyone in a way that makes them feel like they have been friends for years. He has a fantastic wine collection (he is in the biz), and even though wine in not included in the price of dinner, he does not make you feel pressured to buy any (although of course we did!) As a side note, my friend emailed Gonzalo a few weeks later to ask him about his playlist of music that evening to help her develop her own wedding playlist. Of course he remembered her and emailed her back with all the information.
After this pre-dinner warm up was over, we were invited to choose a table to start the main culinary event (there were around10 tables set up for groups of varying sizes). We were served a delicious salad with fresh greens, pears, walnuts and goat cheese. Then came what else but the meat…it is Argentina, of course. It was marinated in the most amazing brown sauce, which tasted slightly sweet and slightly salty, and dressed with a mango salsa over the top. Of course this was served with fresh warm bread, which despite the large quantity of food already consumed, I could not resist. The scene was just too picture perfect when Gonzalo’s dog decided to lie down under our table as our third dinner companion.
Finally it was time for dessert, which also did not disappoint. Gonzalo continued to circulate the room to chat with his guests, and ensure they were satisfied with the food and wine. My friend and I even met a wine-maker Alesandro who was a frequent guest and friend of Gonzalo. He joined our table and we were entertained by his story of fleeing Italy after a familiar “falling out”, and starting his own winery called El Hijo Prodigo, which translates to The Prodigal Son (http://www.prodigowinery.com).
The whole evening could not have been more perfect. My friend and I just marveled as various other guests continued to arrive at different times throughout the evening – and mind you, this is Argentina so it was late for our standards to be coming to dinner (our reservation was at 9pm). An adorable couple sat down for dinner around midnight when we were winding down our meal, and we watched as their 7-year-old son/mini-me of his father played happily with his toy trucks. This just does not happen in the U.S.! I still have no idea what was planned during the night and what was not, but I suppose the magic was in the mystery.
Overall this was the best meal we ate in Mendoza (including the fabulous meals on the two wine tours we took), and we spent roughly $65 a piece, which included the bottle of wine we purchased. If you are heading to Mendoza, make sure to reserve your spot asap because not only is space limited, but so is time. Gonzalo plans to go back to medicine and leave the hosting gig, at least for now.
Ma Cuisine (Salta, Argentina) – Espana N0 83
Discreetly nestled on a small side street on the edge of downtown Salta, Ma Cuisine humbly sits waiting to be discovered by the curious traveller or local passerby with a discerning palate. While described as a mix of Argentinian and French cuisine, there really is no defining the eclectic influences of Ma’s food.
The experience begins when you traverse the discrete door on the dark and quiet end of Espana street, a good seven blocks from the bustling main square. The ambiance is charmingly simple: one room with less than ten tables, which all sit within easy reading distance from the chalkboards hanging on the wall listing the menu of the moment. Entradas (appetizers), Principales (mains), and Postres (desserts) – about 5 options each. Oh, and an impressive wine list which included the Tannat from boutique winery Nanni that my father and I had just tasted in Cafayate (Salta’s wine country) two days earlier.
We started with the curried chicken skewers as an appetizer (and the Tannat of course!). The curry was subtly “infused” or marinated into the chicken and it arrived with a side of chopped vegetables in a creamy sauce that surely must have included mayonnaise, although it was disguised with some “gourmet” spicing. I also cannot forget to mention the miniature, warm bread rolls with a subtle “I’m not quite sure what it was herb” that practically melted in my mouth. I could have used some olive oil and salt (my favorite way to consume bread), although I am afraid if I had it, I never would have had room for the dinner.
For his main dish, my dad ordered the chicken, stuffed with bacon, goat cheese and basil. It came with a side of glazed carrots and sweet potatoes, which could have been dessert in and of itself. The flavor was rich, yet light and not overbearing, and it had me practically licking his plate for him! I ordered a Catalan salad, which consisted of warm and tender chicken over the top of a bed of lettuce, avocado, corn tomato, almonds and an incredible sweet dressing that was also light and enhanced the already delightful mix of flavors created by the ingredients.
Throughout dinner, the service was attentive, especially for Argentinian standards. I am not sure if it was a function of the small and manageable crowd (we must have been no more than four tables of diners), or just the waiter himself, but he always seemed to be available at the right times despite sneaking in some reading in between table runs. The chef himself, who I understand from my reading lived and worked in France for 10 years, actually brought dishes to our neighbors’ table and circled the room to ask each table how they were enjoying their food…always a nice touch.
Despite having already spent a good part of a gluttonous week touring Buenos Aires and Salta, my dad and I could not resist ordering dessert: the Chocalate Delicia. With a name like that, how could anyone resist, really? What arrived at our table was nothing less than heaven in a dish. It was a warm brownie-inspired confection layered with liquid chocolate and whipped cream. It was accompanied by a side of coconut ice cream, whose cool smooth texture perfectly complimented the thick chocolatey goodness that dominated the plate. This simplistic description truly cannot do it justice, but trust me when I say that as a real dessert aficionado, this one tops my charts. I reluctantly shared the dessert with my dad, although I could have easily finished one off myself (and that does NOT mean it was small…note the picture below!).
If I had another night in Salta I most surely would have insisted that we return to the lovely Ma, although perhaps the experience would not have been replicable. Judging by the Trip Advisor reviews, however, it seems I am not the only one with that idea and many travelers did indeed return for more. If I ever find myself in Salta again, I will most definitely bee-line it back to this little gem!
Lasai (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)– Rua Conde de Iraja 191, Botafogo
Rio de Janeiro, host to the recently concluded World Cup, has stepped up its game (literally) on the dining scene. While I’ve travelled to the city numerous times and always eaten well, nothing has come close to my “contemporary Brazilian” experience at Lasai – which was only enhanced by the amazing company of a dear friend who invited me there to celebrate my birthday (thank you Heidi!).
Tucked away discreetly in an old house on a quiet street in Rio’s Botafogo neighborhood, this farm-to-table locale may be easily missed by the undiscerning eye. Owned and operated by chef-hostess power couple, former banker Rafael Costa e Silva and Texas-born Malena Cardiel have truly created a gem. The concept is a sixteen-course menu (yes, as in 1-6) that will excite your taste buds with twists on more common ingredients as well as totally new and creative ones. Apparently, there is also a smaller menu with around five to seven courses, but I recommend going with an appetite and relishing the full experience. The plates are small enough that you do not leave feeling uncomfortable, and you cannot help but appreciate how they are artfully prepared. I personally loved most of what I tried, although a couple of plates left more to be desired. I suppose that rating 2 out of 16 as slightly less than phenomenal in my book is not a bad average, though! Regardless of your judgment of the taste of the food, you can rest assured that it is as fresh as it comes. Both of the restaurants’ menus are composed daily from in-season produce from the chef’s own gardens and select list of friends and producers. When you arrive, the hostess is also considerate enough to ask about any food allergies or aversions.
Our evening began when the hostess whisked us upstairs to the second floor, decorated like a modern living room with cozy couches and chairs. There is also an open sky deck with views of the Corcovado statue, although unfortunately our rainy evening did not permit us to sit outside. Immediately, a waitress took our drink orders and the culinary adventure commenced. After about 30 minutes enjoying our cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, my friend and I were guided downstairs to our table. We sat at the chef’s table, with an amazing view of all the action in the intimate kitchen. In fact, it looked more like an artists’ studio as the staff expertly crafted each plate with total care and perfection. As each was served, the friendly sommelier presented a different pairing of wine from various countries around the world.
While Lasai is pricy, it is worth every Real. Some of the more memorable dishes I enjoyed included an egg fried over easy with a foam-like texture to the egg white and warm, dense bread just out of the oven for dipping. I also loved (to my surprise) a wonton-wrapped piece of oxtail meat with a sweet sauce dribbled over the top. As I mentioned previously, the menu changes to accommodate seasonal ingredients, so no one experience is like another. Be sure to make a reservation in advance because the restaurant fills up due to its limited hours and capacity, and get ready for a truly incredible evening!
Alloy Bistro Gourmet (Miami, Florida) – 154 SE 1st Avenue
Although I have lived in Miami for over two and a half years and enjoyed countless, exquisite dining experiences, Alloy Bistro is the first to inspire a local blog endorsement. When most outsiders picture Miami, the predominant images are those of the white sand beach, chic clubs and beautiful people dining at exclusive, can’t-get-a-reservation-for-a-month locales. Alloy is none of the above. In fact, the restaurant’s simple and understated air in the heart of an underwhelming (to put it nicely) downtown Miami is what contributes to its sophisticated charm.
Tucked away down a narrow alley amidst closed and gated storefronts, Alloy welcomes you with an intimate outdoor courtyard surrounded by two other restaurants: Greek and Brazilian spots with a similar nonchalant vibe (and by the looks of them, great food as well!). My friend and I sat outside despite the muggy August heat and we were greeted by a lovely Italian waitress who had arrived in Miami no less than two weeks prior. Call me a romantic but there is something authentic about a restaurant with servers who can actually speak to the food they are serving.
My friend and I started with a bottle of Italian rose and couldn’t resist the basket of warm French bread. This was further complemented by one of the best burrata salads I have ever tasted: surrounded by a burnt eggplant tapenade and garnished with spinach soaked in basil and truffle oil. The combination melted in my mouth and opened my palate for the main event. I ordered a beautifully simple dorade fish filet, covered in a chopped tomato and olive salsa. I could not resist a side dish (actually on their appetizer list) of roasted cauliflower resting over a basil and feta cream sauce. The flavors perfectly complimented the fish and I practically licked the plate clean. For the grand finale, we quickly gave into the temptation for a heavenly dessert consisting of cool chunks of dark chocolate, frozen raspberries and dollops of crème. It was the perfect mix of light and indulgent.
I love being surprised by the unexpected, and Alloy fit the bill. It’s lightyears away from the Miami scene that your average tourist/spring-breaker is here to experience, but that is what makes it so special. I am so jazzed to have found my new culinary secret in this crazy, confused city – oh, and it is right around the corner from another hidden gem of a jazz lounge called Le Chat Noir if it happens to strike a chord.
1826 (Rosewood Hotel – San Miguel de Allende, Mexico) – Calle Nemesio Diez 11
Root Down (Denver, CO)– 1600 W. 33rd Avenue
Sud 777 (Mexico City, Mexico)– Blvd. de la Luz 777, Alvaro Obregon, Jardines del Pedregal
Dos Palillos (Barcelona, Spain) – Carrer d’Elisabets 9