Two Manhattan Bests

As you know, I usually keep a northern exposure to most of my restaurant reviews. New York City already captures so much of the attention when it comes to food writing in our state, and I like to shine my spotlight on points a little more bucolic. But I spent a couple of days in NYC with Big Hungry Melinda this past week, hitting up one new best and one I’ve been eyeing for nine (9!) years, so I’d like to share those experiences, in case you have a jaunt to the big city coming up on your agenda.

And how cute did we look at Upper East Side's Ophelia?
Frenchette is a greater France area restaurant in Tribeca that snagged Eater’s Best New Restaurant accolade in 2018, and is on James Beard’s shortlist this year. I say greater France area, because while the food is French-influenced, it’s by no means traditional, and Lee Hanson, wildly famous for City classics like Balthazar and its celebrated fries and the Minetta Tavern burger, is a chef adept enough to twist regional European cuisine into whatever he likes and still be successful. BTW, I have to fan girl for just a moment here: I have been spotting Lee for decades popping up on Food Network and Travel Channel food shows, and he came out with his kitchen staff for a post-lunch meeting at the table RIGHT NEXT TO OURS while we were there. I managed not to make direct eye contact or ask for a photo, and I am exceedingly proud of myself for not bothering the man while he was working.

ANYWAY, the food is bonkers here, and you should go. But beyond that, the first thing I want to talk about is the service, which, despite an incredibly busy late-Friday afternoon lunch rush, was friendly, easy going, and attentive. We didn’t ring up a particularly high check, and our waitress still treated us like we were someones. That was nice.

Let’s start with the lobster in curry butter sauce, because it was bomb. The lobster was tender and sweet, and the sauce bathing the whole thing was complex yet subtle, warm and rich without overpowering the shellfish. This is not the dish to order if you’re famished – it was only about four bites and served with a tiny carrot and fennel salad – but I was lucky enough to drag some of Melinda’s fries through the extra sauce pooling in the lobster sauce, and called myself satisfied.

The roast chicken with maitake mushrooms was a more classic French dish, and that chicken had had a proper spa day before it came to our table. She was tender and juicy, with crisped, seasoned skin, and she had been bathed in a jus so deep and rich, it was difficult not to tip the entire bowl straight into my mouth. Actually, there was a trencher of bread under the chicken soaked in the jus and Melinda didn’t even get a bite of it. I annexed it for my own mouth. Fries dipped in that sauce were another good idea I devised, and if there comes a day when using your main dish’s sauce as a fry delivery mechanism isn’t acceptable in restaurants, I may have to give up dining out.

Those fries were no slouch, of course. This is the guy who used to cook at Balthazar, remember. He does not screw around when it comes to potato management. They were double-fried, salted and served with a very light aioli, though I mostly skipped that in favor of soaking the frites in all the other sauces on our table. We got a big bowl of them, and I would choose that again, they were so good.

For dessert, Melinda ordered sorbet, and I actually didn’t grab a bite, because mine was so good I was distracted. I had the PARIS-BREST A LA PISTACHE, which I only noticed this instant is meant to share. That probably explains why I wasn’t able to eat more than half: IT’S FOR TWO PEOPLE, YOU PIG. Hahahaha. Like I even care.

The important information you need to know about this big donut that’s crispy on the outside but as light as angel food cake on the inside is that it’s filled with caramel sauce and pistachio cream that gush out into your mouth with each bite and force you to audibly groan, which is only okay because Frenchette is so bustling, no one can hear you embarrass yourself.

So, if Frenchette is the best new restaurant in New York – and I have a strong suspicion, given the social media love it's received lately from the likes of Andrew Zimmern and Eden Grinshpan, that it will be – then what’s the long-simmering love I also hit up? Well, almost 10 years ago, Alex Guarnaschelli was on The Best Thing I Ever Ate waxing poetic about French toast made with actual chocolate cake at Norma’s at The Parker NYC. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since. Lo and behold, The Parker was next door to the hotel we stayed in this visit, The Viceroy, and it was ever so easy to slide right over there last Saturday morning for brunch.

Now, I didn’t order French toast, and I regret it. I always hesitate before going sweet at breakfast time, and because of this, Melinda won brunch wars with her berry French toast. The slab of brioche this dish was centered around was roughly the size of Queens, and while the flavor was rich, it wasn’t heavy at all. Raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries were strewn all over the place, and yet, the sweetness was kept at bay to stunning effect. It was epic and delicious - basically the epitome of what French toast should be. 

I asked our lovely waiter if I should get the foie gras French toast or the artichoke benedict, and he steered me wrong. You know, he was a slim fellow and I should have been smart enough not to trust a skinny. The truffle porcini sauce on top of my eggs and pile of vegetables was delectable – silky and sexy, with all the umami flavor mushrooms should bring to the party. But it was completely thinned out by poached eggs, artichoke hearts that weren’t very well trimmed (I got a couple bites of choke), and a moat of sauteed bell peppers, spinach, and small diced potatoes with no seasoning on them.

This dish needed texture, it needed seasoning, and most of all, it needed a carbohydrate vessel worthy of soaking up the masterful sauce. An artichoke heart is not an English muffin, Norma. It’s not even a piece of toast. And a tiny diced potato with no seasoning and no caramelization is just sad. I know this breakfast emporium has better dishes, and I felt gypped by this one.

This banana orange smoothie was yummy, tho

So I didn’t live out all my Food Network-born fantasies at Norma’s, but if I return, I will be a sadder but wiser girl, and order better. Never trust a skinny waiter when breakfast is on the line. I think sweet is the way to go here, Hungries.

So that’s my tale of two bests. We had a terrific time in The City, and I finally saw Hamilton! Not only was it more than anyone bargained for, but The King, Lin-Manuel Miranda, popped out onstage after the curtain call to say hi and I almost died of happiness. You don’t always get what you want to eat in the big city, but when Lin-Manuel graces you with his presence, you’ve won no matter what. How lucky are we to be alive right now?

That's it this week from Big Hungry Shelby: always hungry; never thirsty.  


BHS Grouper Guide: St. Pete Beach Eats

We made our second trip to St. Pete Beach, in Florida, a couple weeks ago, and I learned a lot about myself. Okay, okay, what I really learned is that, on vacation, I am a person who mostly wants to not do my hair and eat beer-battered grouper several times a day. Near the end of our week in paradise (which St. Pete Beach totally is - the sign on our hotel said so!), Shawn asked me to rank all the grouper I'd eaten from best to worst, and the idea for this post was born.

But first, an honorable mention: Castile Restaurant, in the Hotel Zamora, on the bay side of Gulf Boulevard, was our Valentine's Day destination. The ceviche, butter-poached shrimp, and ricotta donuts with pistachio creme anglaise we indulged in there were some of the most developed, delicious dishes of our trip. Castile is a big step up from SPB's typical beach bars, but you should check it out when you visit. Butter poaching is my new standard in shrimp cookery.

5. PJ's Oyster Bar - Beer battered grouper sandwich

I loved this massive slab of flaky, moist fish encased in a beer-forward golden crust served on a toasted kaiser roll with some lettuce and a lemon wedge, but the fries alongside were ice cold. Moreover, Shawn's grilled grouper sandwich was over-seasoned, the fish just tasting salty. PJ's came recommended from a lot of the online research I had done about SPB, but it's pretty dingy and dated inside. It makes my top five, but comes in last on the list.

4. Sea Critters Cafe - Sauteed grouper with key lime butter sauce, rice and black beans

Another run-down restaurant recommended by a bunch of blogs and sites I assume are paid for by local businesses, Sea Critters has seen better days. The bathrooms were a mess, and the service was slow and not particularly gracious. The conch fritters were nearly burnt, and my grouper was overcooked. Though the rice and beans were flavorful and tasty, the rice also was overcooked, the key lime butter sauce plopped on top of my fish tasted neither of lime nor of butter. The only thing bringing this place in above PJ's is location - eating waterfront is always a treat.

3. Crabby Bill's - Beer battered grouper platter

We had a big group dinner at Bill's our last night of vacation, and I got so excited for my last batch of grouper, I forgot to take a photo, but it was delicious. In accordance with the beach prophecy, Bill's is shabby and the carpet badly needs replacing, but the food there is legit and really well priced. My grouper was cooked and seasoned perfectly, and the garlic butter shrimp we fell upon like hungry cavemen as an appetizer was groaningly good. Also, our waiter, Winston, was funny and charming, and if we had each had probably two more cocktails, we may have invited him to an impromptu after-party, we liked him so much.

2. Mad Fish - Grouper and shrimp in tomato caper sauce over risotto

This was the most delicate preparation of grouper I ate all week, and unlike our other contenders, Mad Fish is a delightful venue in ship shape. This renovated diner is slightly upscale, the service is friendly and upbeat, and the vibe is chill but swanky. The tomato caper sauce, by rights, should have overshadowed the seafood in my dish, or the parmesan in the risotto should have clashed, but instead, the acidity in the sauce smoothed out the richness of the cheese and made a marriage between it and the tender grouper and shrimp.

Special mention for Mad Fish, because it also served up our favorite dish of the whole trip: drunken island shrimp, which you are a fool if you miss on your next trip to St. Pete Beach. The blackened shrimp in a wine and cream sauce with some lemon juice and some heat was so good sopped up with an entire basket of slightly sweet, crusty Cuban bread, we almost went back again the next night. This dish belongs on a whole other list - top five dishes I've eaten this year.

1. Dockside Dave's - Beer battered grouper sandwich and onion rings

Dave's, in Madeira Beach, is a similar dive to some of the other spots on this list, but the food here is so good, you could be sitting in the middle of an actual dump and not care. Plus the service is faster than you can imagine. The onion rings were breaded in-house, and the breading actually stuck to the onion after your first bite, a rarity in the homemade ring game. They were well-seasoned without being downright salty, and had the sandwiches not been so incredibly resplendent, we might have eaten the entire basket.

The grouper sandwich was a champion, taking all other grouper sandwiches to fish school (get it?) and teaching them lessons on juiciness, flavor, and lack of grease. The fish was a huge, thick cut, and the batter was fried in the perfect temperature oil, rendering it robustly crunchy without holding on to the grease. It was served on a squishy white roll with romaine lettuce, and big squeeze bottles of ketchup, tartar, and cocktail sauce are brought to your table, but you won't need them, because this fish is everything you've ever needed, right on a bun. Let the truth of this fish set you free, my friends. Let your bun runneth over!

Ahem. So, uh, that's what I have to say about the grouper options in St. Pete Beach. Don't even come at me talking about The Hurricane in Passe-A-Grille, because that place is filthy and its fish is a greasebomb. But if you have other suggestions I might have missed, please do weight in! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!


Big Hungry Scacciata

A couple weeks ago, I was craving something cheesy, but wanted something more than pizza. I remembered an old episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives where a guy made a large-format calzone that was sliced up into squares like a sandwich for service, and I thought: bingo.

Put on some stretchy pants, and join me for the step-by-step! Preheat that oven to 450.

Start with a pound of pizza dough from the store, and roll it out into as close to a rectangle shape as you can. Drape what will be your bottom half on a sheet tray, with the other half off the side.

Layer on provolone cheese and salami. I used sopressata this time, which is really robust. Genoa is milder, if that's your preference. 

Next up, layer on vegetables that you like. I used jarred roasted red peppers, black olives, and (gasp!) canned mushroom slices because we had some leftover from something Shawn made last week. If you like artichoke hearts, use 'em! If you hate olives, leave them out! I would just go with something not too watery for the veg, so you don't mess with the moisture level in the delicate ecosystem of your scacciata.

Prosciutto and sliced mozzarella will round out your chief ingredients, and then I sprinkle on a little dry basil and garlic salt, for oomph.

Now it's time to tuck all those delicious babies in for the night. Pull the other half of the dough on top, and crimp all the way around so your delicious cheese doesn't bubble out while cooking.

Egg wash is a good idea. Why? Because it gives a sprinkle of pecorino romano cheese something to grab onto. Like a salty, funky hug!

Poke a steam escape hatch in the top and slide that scacciata into the oven for 18 minutes. Heat up a little cup of marinara for dipping in the meantime. Try not to drool once you start to smell this wonder of gastronomical innovation.

Fetch it from the inferno, slice it into quarters, and behold:

Big Hungry Scacciata

  • 1 lb Pizza dough
  • Packages of sliced provolone, mozzarella, prosciutto and salami
  • Jarred roasted red peppers
  • Sliced black olives
  • Sliced, canned mushrooms
  • Dry basil and garlic salt, to taste
  • 1 egg
  • 2 T Grated Pecorino Romano
  • Marinara sauce
  1. Preheat oven to 450
  2. Roll out pizza dough on a floured surface into the biggest near-rectangle you can manage; drape half on, half off a cookie sheet.
  3. Layer six slices provolone, then salami, then vegetables to taste, sprinkle with basil and garlic salt, then top with prosciutto and finally, six slices of mozzarella. 
  4. Fold top of dough over the ingredients. Crimp edges to seal.
  5. Brush with beaten egg, sprinkle with romano cheese, and poke a small hole in top to vent. 
  6. Bake for 18 minutes, until golden brown. 

Enjoy this easy dinner this winter with your fam, and tell them Big Hungry loves them!


The Sounding Joy

What’s your favorite sound of joy at the holidays? Is it the carols playing in the shops? The squeal of delight when a tiny tot finds her heart’s desire under the tree? Or the contented moan of a colleague biting into your famous Christmas cookies?

I’ve always loved the line “repeat the sounding joy,” from Joy to the World. It is a time of year to find joy in unexpected places, and repeat it to those around us. If you have foodies on your gifting list to whom you’d like to repeat some joy, I have you covered again this year with my gift list.

I am one of those people who can totally take violence in a movie or TV show, unless that violence is of the stabbing/cutting variety. I have an unreasonable fear of cutting myself, even though my knife skills are pretty good. Chalk it up to an early job at a bagel shop and some pretty nasty cuts on the line, I guess. So this BladeBrush from Joseph and Joseph would make a terrific stocking stuffer for me. It allows you to really scrub your knives with a solid piece of plastic between the blade and your hand, rather than a sponge or dishcloth.
I’ve waxed poetic about the delicious attributes of DiBruno Brothers’ Black Lava Cashews to you before, and to satiate my hungry heart, those mad geniuses have cooked up a new treat using them this year: the Black Lava Cashew Dark Chocolate Bar. I can’t even image how good those buttery, salty flavor bombs are going to be enrobed in high quality, bitter dark chocolate. Mine are on order already, but you can (and should!) get yours now.

Confession: I received an Instant Pot last year for Christmas, and I’ve only used it twice. I’m not sure it’s my jam. I have a big one, and by the time the pressure’s built up in that sucker, it doesn’t feel quite so instant. But then Williams Sonoma came out with this line of Instant Pot sauces and starter kits this year, and I’m hoping to try some out and that they’ll make this whole thing feel easier. I have my eye on the carnitas sauce and the tortilla soup starter.

If your giftee loves Harry Potter AND eating (like me!), you might want to go for the Solemnly Swear appetizer plates from Pottery Barn. They were on my list this year, and I can’t wait to feast from them. I love that they’re Harry Potter-themed, but not obviously for kids. There’s some sophistication to the spell these will put on you.

If you want to help someone make their kitchen elegant AND festive, you can’t go wrong with Kate Spade Christmas kitchen towels. I’ve already gifted this set, and more are on their way as the season progresses.

I’m mad for tomato salt. Well. There’s a sentence I’ve never written before. Listen, salt infused with dried tomato powder is good for many dishes, but the flavor punch it gives plain white rice really makes my skirt fly up. I found some made by Saltopia, and it’s going in some of the holiday baskets I’m making for folks this year, so I thought you might want some, too.
I always give you a cookbook to buy, yes? This year, I love Chrissy Teigan’s Cravings: Hungry for More, which I received for my birthday, but what might be even cooler for the Gen X foodie you love would be the Beastie Boys Book – part memoir, part cookbook, with illustrations and playlists that will make your beloved’s next kitchen romp so much edgier.
So that’s my list, Hungries! I hope you find that elusive gift for the food lovers on your list right here, and I hope you repeat the sounding joy whenever and wherever you can this holiday season, whether than means baking treats for your office, making snow angels with your kids, or snuggling up with a hot toddy by the fire. As for me, I’ll be watching enough Hallmark movies to give myself a toothache. Happy Holidays!