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Restaurant Week: Ai Fiori

Anyone familiar with my blog probably knows how much I love the Altamarea Group and their restaurants – whether it is the Michelin-starred Marea or the affordable Osteria Morini (I still miss The Butterfly and Costata!). I finally crossed Ristorante Morini off my To-Do List this Restaurant Week, but I always make room for a RW lunch at Ai Fiori, one of my all-time favorite restaurants.

This year, I went with my cousin and her boyfriend (Who I’ve turned into Ai Fiori lovers!) and my mom. Compared to the very first time I had a RW lunch at Ai Fiori, its popularity has grown immensely! We arrived on time, but had to wait a few minutes for our table. We all opted to do their Restaurant Week menu, which doesn’t really change – a fact I am forever grateful for because I love their RW menu so much! We all opted to go with the same exact choices – despite the fact that the menu has 3 appetizer, 3 entrée, and 2 dessert options. I suppose this makes it extremely easy for our waiters!

For our appetizers, we opted for the Zuppa di Zucca, or chilled zucchini soup with Calabrian chili, lemon, and basil seeds. I’m always a fan of their chilled zucchini soup – it’s perfect for a hot summer day since it’s so light and refreshing!

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For our entrees, we all chose the Pollo Arrosto, or pan-roasted chicken with summer beans, Vidalia onions, and guanciale. Ai Fiori’s roasted chicken is, by far, one of my favorites. It’s tender, moist, and perfectly seasoned. I wish the portion sizes are a little bit bigger because it’s so tasty that I want more!

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For our dessert, we went with the Torta di Olio, or olive oil cake with Chantilly and mixed berries. I am a huge fan of olive oil cakes – when done right – and Ai Fiori definitely does it right! The cake is super soft and has just the smallest hint of fragrance from the olive oil. I really liked the use of tart berries and raspberry sorbet to bring out the natural flavors of the cake.

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Service was attentive enough – I can understand that they’re not super busy during the RW lunch rush. I never felt neglected by any accounts. I cannot wait until next season to have this delicious meal again!

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Restaurant Week: Distilled NY

For every Restaurant Week season, we try to do one family dinner as well as a family brunch since meeting for lunch during the weekday is next to impossible. This season, I decided on Distilled NY, since it’s on the Soho area and had a very interesting menu. We’re always up to trying something new, so a restaurant that advertises itself as a “New American Public House” definitely fits the bill! Their brunch menu ($29 per person) features 3 options for starters, entrées, and desserts. Although one of those desserts is an alcoholic “nightcap”!

Since we were a group of three, we decided to order a bunch of items and share them so we could try as much as we can. For starters, we opted for an order of their biscuits and two orders of their Distilled Wings. The biscuit comes with orange marmalade and whipped honey butter. The biscuit wasn’t heavy or crumbly at all, which I quite liked. The Distilled Wings, however, stole the show. It’s modeled after Korean chicken wings with a gochujang glaze. It’s served with Point Reyes blue cheese, which really hit the spot. I highly recommend ordering their wings – despite the messiness!

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For our entrées, we ordered one of each item on the menu – French Toast Waffles with banana foster; Country Fried Duck with a French Toast Waffle, smoked chili maple syrup, and whipped honey butter; and the Smoked Salmon Scramble with salmon roe, chives, and a mini baguette.  All three entrées were very good – the French Toast Waffles were perfect for someone craving a sweet dish. The bananas were perfectly caramelized.

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The Country Fried Duck was very moist and tender. The smoked chili maple syrup contrasted nicely with the saltiness of the fried duck. I think this was my favorite entrée out of them all – it was hearty and savory. The skin of the fried duck was super crunchy and crispy!

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The Smoked Salmon Scramble was also quite delicious – the salmon and salmon roe were very fresh – not fishy at all. The scrambled eggs were creamy and practically melted in our mouths!

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For dessert, they ran out of their Lemon Bars, which we were really looking forward to. We ended up ordering two of their Banana Bread and a S’mores. Turns out, since the S’mores is on their regular menu, you get half a portion – which I thought was a bit stingy of them. It’s not our fault that you ran out of the Lemon Bar! Both desserts were good enough. If I wasn’t so full from the previous dishes, I’d have definitely enjoyed the Banana Bread more since I’m a sucker for whiskey in cakes and breads.

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Service was attentive and our dishes all came out in a timely manner. When we arrived around 1pm, we were seated right away. The dining room was mostly empty with a 2-3 couples and one large group. When we left about an hour and a half later, the inside dining room was mostly full! Definitely come early or make a reservation on OpenTable!

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Restaurant Week: Ristorante Morini

Ristorante Morini has been on my Restaurant Week list for a while – but like all other Altamarea restaurants, they only offer lunch so I would definitely need to wait for a summer Friday to go. Located in the Upper East Side just steps away from Central Park, Ristorante Morini is quiet, unassuming, but a true gem in the Altamarea Group. We arrived a bit early for our reservation but they sat us anyways. We opted to sit on the upper level, which was brightly lit with natural light and perfect for some food picture-taking!

Their Restaurant Week menu offers 3 options for both appetizers and entrees and 2 options for dessert. There is also a nice selection of wine pairings by the glass available for a $10 supplement. I’m never disappointed with any of the wine pairing options for an Altamarea restaurant so I opted for a glass of their Rosé, which was very refreshing on the hot, muggy day – a perfect Rosé for the summer!

For our appetizers, we both opted for the Quaglia, or grilled quail with creamy farro and radish and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar.  I quite enjoyed my appetizer – the quail was tender and juicy. The farro was creamy and soaked up the flavors of the balsamic vinegar and quail very well.

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For my entrée, I opted to go for the Pork Lion, which features slow-roasted pork loin with a summer peach marmalade and pancetta. I am a sucker for anything with summer peaches so I was instantly drawn in, despite my original plan to try the pasta since I love Altamarea pasta dishes. The pork lion was cooked thoroughly but not tough at all. The peach marmalade and pancetta paired really well together since it was sweet and salty at the same time with each bite.

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My mom ordered the Orata, or grilled sea beam with stewed leeks, gem lettuce, and bagna cauda. I think I might have liked her dish better than mine! The sea beam was very well cooked – almost melt-in-your-mouth tender. I particularly liked the bagna cauda, which is similar to a creamy cheese sauce or fondue, since it gave the fish a more “wet” mouth feel.

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For dessert, we both decided on the Tiramisu, which was presented in a slice of layers of lady fingers soaked in amaretto and espresso and topped with marscapone mousse. The tiramisu was phenomenal – slightly sweet but mostly bitter and fragrant from the espresso. I wish there was more!

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Service was attentive without being intrusive. Our courses arrived in a timely manner and were very well paced. I will definitely be back outside of Restaurant Week to try out their pasta dishes and other desserts!

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Smorgasburg

In the years past, I’ve always made my annual Smorgasburg visit in early May – to beat the heat and the crowds. This year, since I was waiting for my cousin and his niece, we didn’t end up going until mid-June. If you’re going anytime during the summer months of late-June, July, or August, be sure to wear a lot of sunscreen and go early! In the earlier months of April and May, it doesn’t begin to get crowded until closer to 1:30/2:00. But in the summer, you definitely need to go at 11:00am to beat the crowds and the lines!

We walked around a little bit before I settled on what I wanted to try. My first order of business was Big Mozz Sticks for their fresh, made-to-order mozzarella sticks (4 long sticks for $8.00). Last year at Smorgasburg, Big Mozz was serving these delicious freshly made mozzarella bombs with pesto on the inside. Their new product this year did not disappoint at all. The mozzarella was gooey and cheesy and the mozz sticks just felt fresh and light – nothing like pizzerias at all.

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My second order of business was to finally try the chicken wings at Dan & John’s Wings, which has been a Smorgasburg regular for years now. I ordered their boneless wings (5 pieces for $8.00) with mild sauce since I’m not a huge spice person. The wings were crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside – a perfect combination.

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To combat the growing heat, I had one of my two usual drink vendors – Brooklyn Soda Works (my other being Kelvin Slush). I’ve had their blueberry soda before so this time I opted to try the Cherry Vanilla ($5.00), which was delightful. It kind of tasted like if you mashed a Cherry Coke and a Vanilla Coke together, which is awesome because they’re my two favorite flavors of soda.

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After we finished chowing down on the savory goodies, we moved onto the dessert portion of our trip. First up, gai dan jai, or egg waffles. Gai dan jai is a childhood staple for many Chinese kids, myself included. Back when I was younger, they used to be everywhere in Chinatown. Now there’s probably one stand on Canal Street and my favorite little old man cart on Grand Street (he’s only there on odd days now). So when the egg waffle cone craze started, I was super excited! I’ve had Eggloo, so I knew I had to try Wowfulls. We had their Wowfulls Creation ($9.00), which features Matcha Green Tea Gai Dan Jai with white chocolate chips inside and your choice of vanilla ice cream or their crazy ice cream. It’s all topped with mocha, green tea Pocky, and a drizzle of your choice. We opted for the fruity pebbles dust. The end result is this crispy egg waffle with delicious ice cream in the middle. The mochi was soft and the waffle was perfectly made.

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I also made a pit stop at Baonanas before we left. Baonanas sells “light and fluffy puddings”, according to their banner. I do have to agree – the puddings are, indeed, very light a fluffy. I opted for the double scoop ($7.00), because it allowed me to pick two flavors. They let you try one and I opted to try their Lychee Rose flavor. It was pretty good – but I also wanted to try their banana, which is their signature and most popular. I felt that both were tasty – but the Lychee Rose was definitely lighter and less sweet.

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All in all, I think it was a very successful Smorgasburg visit. We’ll be back in September to give some of the other places a try – I especially want to try the new kids on the block – Jianbing Co. for their Shanghai-inspired street food.

 

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How To Plan Your Trip To Japan

Planning my trip to Japan took a better part of 6 months – from the date I finally committed and booked my tickets to the date of departure. I didn’t plan every single day of those 6 months, but I did read up quite a bit. Japan is definitely not one of those places where you just take a plane there and wing it – although I’m sure tons of people do it that way. I’m a planner and a list-maker. It just makes me feel better to know that I won’t land in a foreign country (even one as safe as Japan) and not have anywhere to stay or not know where to go.

Two of the most invaluable resources that I used to plan my trip were –

JapanGuide.com – Japan Guide is free, up-to-date, and very informative. There are a bunch of day and half-day plans on the website that is very useful for first-time travelers.

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Fodor’s Japan Travel Guide – Fodor’s has always been my travel guide of choice – it’s easy to read, colorful, and offer great tips about the culture and etiquette with an abundance of general useful information.

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And now, I’ll walk you through the steps that I took in planning my 2.5 week trip to Japan.

Step 1: Pick where you want to go – Japan is much like America in the sense that going from one city to the next could take 1 hour or it could take 10 hours. Decide on which region or cities you want to visit.

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From JapanGuide.com: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e623a.html

Step 2: Pick when you want to go.

The best times to visit, in my opinion, are:

  • Spring from March – April for Cherry Blossom Season
  • Fall from late September to late October for Fall Foliage Season

The winters are harsh and cold and the summers are hot and humid – very similar to the weather on the East Coast/Mid-Atlantic area of the USA. I knew I didn’t want to go during these times because I get enough of that bad weather back home!

Step 3: Decide where you want your home-base to be – you don’t want to be packing up your luggage and traveling to another hotel, AirBnB, or hostel every 2-3 days. It’s a hassle as well as time-consuming.

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For me, I picked a central location in Tokyo (Shin-Okubo area inside Shinjuku) and for Osaka/Kyoto, I picked one of the two and traveled using the train to get to the other.

Step 4: Decide what you want to do. I found the most logical method was to divide Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto into location pockets and then look up the attractions in each pocket. This way, you don’t waste your time taking the train to and from different areas. Take some time to get to know each area and find what interests you. You don’t necessarily need to follow the “Must-See” lists because they might not fit you.

For example, to block out my two days in Kyoto, I spent one day exploring Western Kyoto and the second day exploring Southern and Eastern Kyoto. It’s definitely “doable” to try to do all of Kyoto in one day, but you won’t get to truly explore if you’re jumping from block to block to block.

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http://www.francejapon.fr/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/france-japon-kyoto-map-carte-10.gif


Step 5:
Think about all the tickets you’ll need to buy or reservations you’ll need to make in advance. A lot of places only take reservations or sell tickets 30 days in advance – be aware of your dates and when you’ll need to make reservations. For example, the onsen I visited in Hakone only took reservations for private rooms 30 days in advance.

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Hakone Yuryo, private room #3 – book 30 days in advance via email or phone.

Step 6: And lastly, just have fun! Go with a plan so you know you’ll do the things your heart is set on doing. For me, the Studio Ghibli Museum, Tokyo Disney, and Shirohige’s Cream Puff Factory were a MUST (and none of them disappointed at all). But also give yourself time to explore and discover – have a list of things or areas that can be of interest, but don’t feel pressured to get to them all. You won’t see it all. Just think of it as a reason to return!

 

 

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Japan Round-up: Kyoto Edition

And here is where I segway into the Kyoto portion of my round-up! Our favorite meal was an accident. I had bookmarked Arashiyama-Yoshimura Restaurant, located right on the river in Arashiyama, a district in the western district of Kyoto, for their soba. When we arrived at the restaurant after an energetic walk up to see the snow monkeys at Arashiyama Monkey Park (which I highly recommend!), the wait was 2 hours. Discouraged, we realized that their tofu restaurant had only a 30 minute wait. It was probably the best accident of our entire trip. The tofu meal was astounding – the tofu was soft and fresh and the whole meal just felt clean and light. The ambiance is also very calm and soothing – we were seated right next to their little outdoor garden and we felt like we were dining in the countryside.

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Another Kyoto highlight is the food stalls leading up to Fushimi Inari Shrine, known for its beautiful orange/red torii gates. Each gate is a donation to the shrine and there are over a thousand to date.

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I had some of the best taiyaki from a food stand along the path to the shrine. While the owner of the stall was a bit cranky, his taiyaki was top-notch – probably because he refused to make more until he sold out his previous batch. It meant the wait time was a bit longer than your usual taiyaki stand, but it also meant delicious, super fresh taiyaki.

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If you explore the Gion area in Kyoto, you’re bound to notice that matcha soft-serve is a big thing. But what’s even better is matcha soft-serve with little cakes on the bottom! We stumbled onto this little store than specialized in omiyage specific to Kyoto – but they also sold soft-serve as well as certain cakes to eat on the spot. We opted for this delicious vanilla-matcha twist soft-serve on top of their matcha sponge cake. Divine! Perfect after a long hike through the streets leading up to Kiyomizu-Dera temple!

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The thing with Osaka and Kyoto is that everywhere you go, there will be so much good food to eat – especially in the areas surrounding the major attractions. Sometimes, I think the food stalls on the side of a temple is more appealing than the restaurants! Don’t be afraid to walk up to a stand and try something new – you won’t be disappointed!

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Japan Round-up: Osaka Edition

And now onto the second half of my trip to Japan – Osaka. Osaka is part of the Kansai region of Japan, which is further south than Tokyo is. Osaka is pretty much, in my opinion, very similar to Tokyo. It’s a big city with a very sophisticated train system and lots of residents. We stayed in the Namba area in Osaka, which is very close to the main dining area of Dotonburi.

In Osaka, one of the best meals we had was at Matsusakagyu Yakiniku Yokocho, located in the heart of Dotonburi, Osaka’s famous eating street. Matsusakagyu Yakiniku specializes in Matsusaka beef, a special kind of beef from the suburban area of Matsusaka city. Matsusaka beef, known as black-haired Wagyu, has a high fat-to-meat ratio and is considered one of the three big beefs, along with Kobe beef and Omi beef. We went with the Premium Course (7,800¥ per person) that featured their famous Matsusaka Marbled Beef Sushi and 4 different parts of Matsusaka beef. The beef itself practically melted in our mouths! The price is a big steep, but it is well worth being able to try such a delicious type of beef.

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Another one of our best meals in Osaka also featured beef – but Kobe beef this time. Located inside Namba Station is New Kobe, a tiny restaurant where customers sit around a counter and are given individual pots for shabu shabu. This was our last meal in Osaka before returning home, so we decided to go big and order their A5 grade Kobe Beef Shabu Shabu set. The meat was phenomenal! Usually with fatty beef, there is some residue when you eat it after cooking it in the broth. But there wasn’t any at all – the beef went down super smooth and the fat-to-beef ratio was out of this world.

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Anyone visiting Osaka should pay a visit to Kuromon Ichiba Market – or the kitchen of Osaka. This market runs down several streets – and then branches off to several side-streets as well. There is so much to eat that you literally cannot eat it all! There’s a lot of fresh seafood being grilled right on the spot as well as seafood that you can eat raw. You can even have them crack open a fresh uni for you to eat on the spot! And of course, don’t forget the Taiko-Manju, or drum-shaped sweets with red bean paste on the inside!

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If you don’t have time to take a trip to Kobe to have some Kobe beef, there are a few spots in Kuromon Market that will grill up Kobe beef for you on the spot to eat. We went to Maruzen because they have a tiny counter for you to sit and eat. The Kobe beef was phenomenal! We didn’t use any type of dipping sauce – just their special salt. The beef melted in our mouths – but wasn’t as fatty as the Matsusaka beef from Matsusakagyu.

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Another highlight of Osaka was eating all the street food from stands that pop up around major tourist attractions. At Osaka Castle, we had some of the best takoyaki. It felt more authentic than the shops in Dotonbori, who are cranking out takoyaki in faster than you can even say the word takoyaki! The soft-serve from tourist attractions are also top notch – do not skip out on that!

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