3 Musketeers Hot Cocoa with Marshmallow

France, I love you, but you’re not exactly known for your strange candies and treats. While green tea pastries and a menagerie of macarons can be found almost anywhere, they lack spin-offs of classic American products a la Japan (with the ignoble exception of the Croque MacDo) and such, find me longing for Twix’s sugar cookie and caramel apple releases this fall.
Luckily, after reaching out to Mars, they sent an early release of their 3 Musketeers Hot Cocoa with Marshmallow minis, an exciting addition to their 2012 winter line. It’s definitely a candy I’ll be stocking up on before I’m surrounded by Haribo and Nestle Lion bars! And hopefully, gummy Eiffel Towers, too, if sixth grade memory serves me correctly.

The chilly confection comes in 25-calorie minis and will later be released in a regular sized 2.13 oz. bar as well. This tastes more like cocoa with marshmallows than you’d expect- the milk chocolate enhances the bittersweet flavors in the nougat, a puffier, airier example than the regular bar. In appearance, nothing differentiates it from the regular 3 Musketeers bar. I would have liked to see some marshmallow pieces or a stronger visual cue toward the wintry theme. The texture is squashy with a firmness and bounce to it suggestive of a marshmallow, but has a density more akin to marshmallow fluff. The flavor is creamy and satisfying, and even incorporates some of the powdery cornstarch and sugar notes of marshmallows melting into a mild bittersweet cocoa flavoring. One or two bites was really satisfying.

I wanted to test the integrity of the marshmallow filling, so I popped a few into the microwave to see if the texture was more than just the power of suggestion. Whoa! Within fifteen seconds in the microwave, one of my candies was obliterated and working its way down the side of the bowl. I’ve seen videos of the regular bars having similar results, but in these, the toasted marshmallow flavor was even more intense after it melted. It hardened up into a very crispy treat! I think this is a successful snack, even if it doesn’t radically reinvent the wheel, and offers a seasonal twist far better than differently colored packaging or the ubiquitous winter mint flavoring.

Todd English’s Tuscany at Mohegan Sun, Uncasville, CT

What do you get when you have three friends, four hours of sleep, one shower, two beds, and three massive hangovers? The answer is brunch at Todd English’s Tuscany at Mohegan Sun. The restaurant beckoned to us from beneath the waterfall and the glowing Chihuly sculpture and after a night of Krispy Kreme, we couldn’t say no to their hearty breakfast specials.

The restaurant has an inside and an inside-outside part to it, with a balcony by the waterfall. We sat out by the water and perused the menu. Three things stuck out like sore thumbs (and by that, I mean that I bullied my two guests into ordering them so I could sample everything), the castagnaccio pancakes, Tuscan smoked pork, and breakfast risotto.

Miss Love ordered the castagnaccios, pancakes made with chestnuts and pine nuts, a rosemary honey mascarpone and pecan-fig jam topping, and chestnut syrup. The pancakes were very fluffy and not too dense with the nuts mixed in, diner-style pancakes with a chewy crust sweet flavor. With the toppings, the powdered sugar seemed superfluous, but the flavors were able to shine through in each element. The mascarpone sauce was our favorite, but the pecan notes got lost in the jammy fig flavors. 

None of us knew what to expect from Dillinger’s dish, the Tuscan smoked pork and apple pierogies. I thought it would be more of a shredded, Mexican-style pork with Italian flavors, and Miss Love expected a thinly sliced charcuterie meat. Imagine our surprise to see the huge slabs of roasted pork shoulder, smoky and tender. There had to be at least a pound of meat there. Needless to say, it was tough to finish! The crispy pork, flavored with rosemary and a sweet smokiness, came with a side of apple pierogies, another fascinating menu item. The pierogies were hearty, but tasted a little like fried apple pies with a sweet filling. It would have been nice to see the Italian flavors transcend to this side as well, perhaps  with an apple, sage and fontina filling? It was still a very clever dish.

However, it was my breakfast risotto that visually stole the show and baffled us all. The moment I saw it on the menu, I knew I wanted it. And oddly enough, the most unusual dish seemed to be the most healthy of them all. After all, it’s not every day that you get to order maple-glazed lobster, steel cut oats, and cranberries. Atkins meets Bellagio? It was a quirky dish, to say the least. To its credit, everything was cooked perfectly, despite the risotto not being…well, risotto. And I love lobster, and I love oatmeal. I’m just not sure that I love them together. The sweet, buttery flavors of the lobster clashed with the underseasoned oats, creamy on their own but seasoned with little more than a dusting of scallions and the cranberries were nowhere to be found. I wanted to like this dish, but it just didn’t come together as I thought it would. I would have liked to see more zest, more seasoning- a maple, sage, and brown sugar Arborio risotto with soy and sugar-glazed lobster and scallions with toasted pine nuts. It had the potential to be exciting, but came off as over the top without exceeding expectations.
I definitely want to try Tuscany again- I’m a huge fan of Todd English’s other restaurants and am pleased to see him set up in Connecticut. And I think that this brunch menu has massive potential but needs some tightening up. Perhaps they do a better savory spread. In any case, it was a hearty breakfast to start the day with, and we appreciated the extra flair and class in the design.

Vista Lounge Opening Party at Mohegan Sun, Uncasville, CT

What a weekend. Miss Love, Dillinger, and I drove down to Mohegan Sun, New England’s largest casino, for an evening of food, fun, and a killer opening party to celebrate their new bar, the Vista Lounge. Vista lounge and dance club officially opens on July 28th (this weekend!) but we were invited to a party featuring Jenny McCarthy as a host, along with a pumped dance floor and a selection of delicious cocktails to try. 

We arrived famished and, after checking into our sweet hotel room, ran down to Pepe’s for a quick bite to eat before the party. This was technically Miss Love’s official New Haven-style pizza deflowering, so we had our fingers crossed for an authentic experience. Honestly, I don’t know how they did it, but this pizza was perfect. It was exactly like the kind you’d get in Wooster Square, minus the lines, annoying tourists, and surly service. Witchcraft, I tell you. That, and a killer brick oven. Crispy and charred on the crust and bottom, with a bubbly, thin crisp and a bounty of homemade toppings. This is what all pizza aspires to be. I’m a Pepe’s fangirl, but god, it is so obvious why this is the best pizza in the world.

Obviously, there was an endless fountain of Foxon Park on tap, too. Ah, Connecticut. These are the things that I love. The pie we split, sausage and summer tomato, doesn’t come slathered in their spicy, sweet tomato sauce, but the roasted tomatoes and anise-spiked sausage are absolutely worth getting.

And then we changed into our party clothes and requisite party tee and headed to the dance! The new lounge looks amazing. Spanning two floors of secluded nooks, private blackjack tables, bar stools, and alcoves, all centered around a massive dance floor and blanketed by a functioning planetarium, the power and noise belies its intimate size. Oh, and Jenny McCarthy was there. She, however, was extremely popular and in demand from people taller and louder than I, so the best photo I managed to wrangle of her was a photo of someone else taking a photo of her on their iPhone. Watch out, Diane Arbus, I’m ‘a comin’ for yooooou!

The club was rocking and bopping and pumping and grinding well into the evening while the world gambled at our feet. We were kings and our libations, dessert-themed and surrounded by endless bowls of chocolate. A few notable potables: the Vista Signature Cocktail, with prosecco, lillet, Pama, Solerno, and lime juice. This was my first brush with both Pama, a pomegranate liqueur, and Solerno, but I suspect we’ll be seeing more of each other. This was zesty and not too sweet, with a lively bite and gentle effervescence. We also loved the melon cosmo, though the tart cranberry threatened to overwhelm the melon vodka.

And of course, the dessert martinis. Martinis in that they’re served in a martini glass, dessert in that they’re sweet and sexy and go down easier than actual cake. The salty chocolate-covered pretzels went well- perhaps a little too well, with the chocolate cake martini, a balanced example of the fatal attraction that vodka and chocolate have. Pictured above is the Tiramisu martini, with a butterscotch kick like an amped up coffee.

The party was wonderful, filled with decadent snacks (birthday cake-flavored chocolate-covered Oreos! Homemade turtle candies!) and great music. Halfway through, we found that we were in desperate need of food to balance all the drinks we’d been having.

And what better treat to indulge in than Krispy Kreme? At midnight, the store was still pumping out fresh, glistening doughnuts for all. We brought a selection back to the room- another first for Miss Love! Clockwise from the top: key lime pie, a freshly fried glazed doughnut, chocolate with chocolate cream, strawberry jam with sugar, and two marshmallow-creme filled. So perfect.

This new Key Lime doughnut was silky and tangy, with a wonderful spiced streusel topping.

We stopped back at the party to enjoy a few more drinks and then decided to take a swim, because, hey, there’s no better time than 1AM to do some laps, right? What we didn’t know was that we’d unknowingly wandered into another dance party in the pool area, filled to the brim with guys in suits and girls in bridesmaids dresses. With our t-shirts, repurposed gym shorts, and sandals, it was like a scene out of Pulp Fiction. (“You guys look like…what do they look like, Jimmie? “Dorks. They look like a couple of dorks.”) We took a seat in the hot tub and let the party come to us.

Finally, after some thirty-odd people jumped into the pool in their clothes, we were all herded out. The next logical thing to do was to have a snack. So we made brunch reservations, ate the last of our doughnuts and pizza (somehow over 9,000 times better cold) and slept, ready to meet the new day three hours later, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Find out what we did with our hangovers tomorrow! Hint: it involved lobster for breakfast…

Thanks again to Mohegan Sun for having us to photograph and write about the party. They went above and beyond and let us stay the night, comped our food, drinks, and hotel, and showed us a great time. I was so excited to do this and can’t wait to come back!

Wendy’s Son of Baconator

Lately, I’ve been hitting the bulk of my burger bucket list scores. There was the Big Mac back in November, and the Wendy’s Flatbreads earlier this summer. And today, I finally checked another sandwich off the list, a veritable one-two punch to the heart: the Baconator and Son of Baconator. Recently, Wendy’s unveiled the pint-sized burger as a smaller counterpart to the original bacon-heavy sandwich. I was given the opportunity to try the two sandwiches side-by-side and see which sandwich reigned supreme.

If you haven’t had the Baconator, it’s worth a try. While the $6.49 price tag and 940 calories of bacony, beefy goodness may deter some, it can be approached carefully if you split it with a friend or whack it into a few meals. In its most perfect form, it’s a pure umami-bomb, with a wonderful sweet flavor from the ketchup and mayo, and an intense savory foundation from the beef, bacon, and cheese. The bacon is thick, crispy, and salty, and the bun is solid without being too dense or crumbly, sealing everything together neatly. Unless your burger artist has a heavy hand with any of the condiments, it’s bound to be an indulgent treat, albeit daunting at first. However, its shortfalls lie in the balance of flavor: the 1/2 lb. of beef threatens to overwhelm the ingredients, and teeters on the brink of indulgence vs. greasiness. It’s too flavorful to really taste the remaining ingredients, and the monolithic flavor causes it to fall flat.

And then there’s the Son of Baconator. Like most parent-child relationships, the son exceeds where its predecessor stumbles. In this sense, the Son of Baconator fills the greasy, delicious shoes of its dad with finesse. Where the Baconator lacks balance, the Son plays the mediator, trying, and succeeding to please both parties. Scaling down the beef to 1/4 lb. in two patties offers more crunch and surface area for crispy end bits (!!!) and lets the cheese melt into the crannies. Neither the patties in the Baconator or Son were overcooked or dry and both sandwiches were liberally seasoned.  

The 2:1 ratio of bacon to 1/8 lb. of meat in Son works much better than the 3:2 in the double Baconator. This burger is delicious and indulgent without the regret, although the 700 calories push this into a treat category for me rather than an every-day favorite. All in all, this is one Wendy’s family member I’d definitely check out again.

Hunt’s Snack Packs Bakery Shop Frosted Sugar Cookie Pudding

Any product with the tagline “pack in the fun” is good enough for me. Or so I thought. Incidentally, that’s my proposed porn star motto if the lucrative world of food blogging somehow doesn’t pan out. Recently, I had the opportunity of a lifetime. The fates aligned to allow me two hours in a Walmart Supercenter with Miss Love in Westerly, Rhode Island, and I took it upon myself to scrutinize the grocery shelves and revel in the bevy of all that the Walton monarchy has to offer for limited-edition, Supercenter-exclusive foods. One of those foods was this bizarre pudding, proclaiming “NEW!” but sitting, all canisters dented, on the clearance shelf. Hunt’s Snack Packs Bakery Shop Frosted Sugar Cookie Pudding, fear not. There’s a home for you here.

You’re probably asking yourself two things right now: Jess, why did you just slap a bunch of unrelated, meaningless, individually capitalized words up there and why does the Hunt’s website look like it was designed by a C++ student in community college with Dreamweaver circa 2002? I can answer them both with a single response: No. Just…no. I can best attribute all of this to keyword spamming. The pudding somewhat resembles a run-of-the-mill frosted grocery store sugar cookie, provided that said cookie had been partially digested and left out in the sun for a few days. It’s liquidish, I guess. I’m also extremely disappointed that the box portrays sprinkles but leaves them out of the actual product.

Hunt’s pudding snacks have always struck me as a little less creamy and a little denser than other commercial pudding snacks, not quite living up to the luxuriously fatty Kozy Shack and subpar to sugar-free Jell-O with more sugar. Approximately 52 calories’ worth of sugar, in fact. Each 100-calorie cup has 13 grams of sugar, making the “sugar” in frosted sugar cookie pudding aptly named. There are supposedly two layers to this but they meld together too easily and come out pallid and bland-looking on the spoon. Even regular vanilla pudding often looks pleasantly off-white and, if you’re lucky, has vanilla bean specks. This is sunblock in color and in scent with a blobby, plasticky consistency. I’m guessing that the top layer was originally whipped or frothed to appear more frosting-like, but it was fragile and had reduced to a sad, filmy ooze on top of the cookie-flavored pudding bottom. It tasted greasy and flavorless, like Pond’s cold cream topped with sugar.

The bottom layer kind of tastes like a sugar cookie, but more like the individual components before they’re mixed than the end product. There’s a cornstarch-heavy wet texture and a floury aftertaste, and the pervasive, omnipresent sugar at every turn. With the viscous frosting, it’s appalling. Our gluttonous cat wouldn’t touch it, and this is an animal who regularly drinks out of the toilet bowl and tries to see what curtains taste like. Don’t bother trying this.

The Generous Pour at the Capital Grille, Chestnut Hill, MA

We had an awesome time last night at the Chestnut Hill Capital Grille, where the restaurant is in the thick of its second year hosting the much-lauded wine event, The Generous Pour at their locations nationwide. The three month event debuted last year with smashing success, featuring a selection of red, white, sparkling, and dessert wines curated by Master Sommelier George Miliotes that diners can add on to their meal for an extra $25. We were invited to come and try all the wines over dinner last night. This is definitely an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

The selection of nine wines, valued at over $750 at retail price, are not your typical Napa, Bordeaux, and Washington reds, although the list does include some of those. Dancing a fine line between traditional and exotic, we were pleased to see some wines from unexpected locales pop up, like a Western Slovenian Rebula white wine and a South African late harvest Semillon. None are wines that I’ve ever tried or owned, so it was fun to get that type of variation along with dinner rather than just buying a whole bottle of wine. And when they say generous, they mean generous- these aren’t small sips of wine we’re talking about! The pours varied from 2 to 4 ounces depending on the varietal and our server always made sure that we had something to drink, explaining the flavors, pairings, and information about the wine as she went along.

Our favorites included the 2008 Simcic Rebula from Western Slovenia, an austere, shimmering white wine with the full-bodied tannic rush of a red wine and the grace of a white. With a blanched almond and bitter orange zest flavor and almost Amaretto-like finish, this was a curious and clever wine to go along with our appetizers. We also enjoyed the 2009 Chateau du Pin, a classic example of a French Bordeaux, alongside our steaks and sides. It cut the richness of some of the flavors and amplified the smoky, meaty ones in the best possible way.

We started dinner with an amuse bouche of house-cured smoked salmon on a toast point and a few appetizers. Miss Love chose the lobster and crab cakes and I enjoyed the prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella with tomatoes. I was pleased to discover that the mozzarella is not only made in house, but prepared every two hours to ensure that the cheese is at its absolute freshest when it is served. It was with that in mind that I wished that the cheese’s natural flavors had not been so blanketed by the proscuitto. Although delicious and crispy after a quick stint in the broiler, it smothered the cheese with its salty, spicy flavors. This was still a unique appetizer and I really liked that it was served warm and melty.

The lobster and crab cakes were thick and meaty, with large chunks of claw and tail and buttery crab. You might be wondering what that yellow sachet is at the top of the photo. It’s a lemon covered in cheesecloth fabric to squeeze onto the crab cakes without getting citrus oil on your hands. A very nice touch. The crab cakes interacted well with the spicy corn slaw, a zippy relish served on the side, but the tartar sauce was a little salty. We loved the generous portions of the cakes and felt that they had a great flavor.

Miss Love ordered the filet Oscar, a 10 oz. filet mignon with lump crab meat, asparagus, and Bearnaise sauce on top. The steak was perfectly cooked, with a thick sear on the outside and a sweet, aged flavor. The crab meat, dusted with a little paprika, was the perfect counterpart to such a velvety cut of steak.

My steak was an absolute showstopper. If your eyes are bigger than your stomach, please order the Delmonico. Capital Grille’s Delmonico is a bone-in aged ribeye, one of my favorite cuts of steak, weighing in at a whopping 22 ounces. Perfectly marbled and cooked, this was delectable and savory, especially with the Kona rub and shallot butter on top. I’m normally a steak purist, but this was a great add-on. The rub was thick and peppery and created a great crust on top, and the butter just added to the richness of the meat. I loved it all.

We shared a skillet of the restaurant’s famous lobster mac and cheese on the side, an oozing, ooey-gooey, cheese-laden dish with massive chunks of lobster. It had to be at least 30% lobster meat. It was extremely rich alongside the steak, but the flavors were delicate and savory without being too overbearing. Definitely one to share.

For dessert, we shared an order of the coconut cream pie and a slice of the chocolate hazelnut cake. While the dessert list is decidedly safe in style, the quality is off the charts. The desserts are made daily on-site, a trait that was indicative in the coconut cream pie. It was fresh, fluffy, and not too sweet, with a salted coconut graham crust, a creamy coconut pudding base, coconut whipped cream, housemade coconut caramel sauce, and pieces of toasted coconut on top. Cocoverload! I couldn’t stop eating this. It was one of the nicest steakhouse desserts I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy. The giant, crispy coconut cookie on top was a tasty and flashy garnish. This was my favorite dish of the night. Miss Love’s chocolate hazelnut cake was also wonderful, with a gritty, nutty flavor and crispy toasted hazelnuts on the side. With the 2006 Kanu Kia-Ora, a nutty, honeyed wine in itself, it was the perfect pairing.

This was a wonderful meal and we were so glad to have the opportunity to check it out. I highly recommend this pairing, as it’s a great value and a wonderful way to step outside of your oenological comfort zone. The dinner was excellent, and the selection of entrees and appetizers are sure to please all palates. Thanks again to the staff at the Capital Grille and their PR team for facilitating our review, and we hope to come back very soon!

Oreo Coconut Delight Fudge Cremes

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the grocery store! I stopped by my local supermarket last night after a walk around town now that the weather has cooled down. Motivated by hubris and a strident feeling of douche-awesome stalking around the bakery section in a tank top, I decided to stroll by the cookie section.They can’t hurt me,” I thought, “Now that I have calves of steel and buns of terror. It also helps that I forgot my wallet at home.” Of course, then I walked by the Oreos, only to do a double take halfway through the aisle. Coconut Delight Oreo Fudge Cremes! How very tropical. How “staycation” of Oreo to model their latest cookie after such a popular poolside beverage flavor. Seeing no notice of it online, merely a tantalizing “coming soon!” banner on the Oreo headquarters homepage and some blogger’s grainy iPhone photo only served to further tempt me. Obviously, I drove back to the grocery store a half hour later, coming home with groceries consisting of 40% Oreo-related content and 60% zero-calorie beverages. I do it for the kids.

Well, luckily, I won’t be ruining my sculpted physique any time soon with these. They’re solidly mediocre, on par with an $11 specialty drink at Chi-Chi’s or an $11 specialty dance behind a Hooter’s. I was initially a little worried about this flavor combination with the Fudge Creme. As I’ve lamented before, half the cookie and twice the mockolate coating does not a balanced snack make. In this case, it’s the same scenario. Would the coconut cream filling be tastier in a plain Oreo cookie? Possibly, but we’ll break it down further. The cookies smell off-putting, in a fake butter, stale popcorn artificial way. That’s the first strike. In flavor and texture, they suffer from the same imbalance of the Birthday Cake Fudge Cremes, yet lack that addictive canned frosting flavor that kept us coming back. The second strike? They’re bloomed! These are brand new and they’re already suffering from the poor quality of their outer shell.

The coconut filling is where this really fell short of expectations. These have been out for about a week, maybe even less, and the coconut is already muted and mild, with a mere hint of creaminess and toasted flavor. Were these sourced from a Taiwanese warehouse? Something doesn’t add up. These carry a very specific memory for me- once, my ever-thrifty grandmother bought two boxes of Girl Scout cookies and decided the package was superfluous. She stored the Trefoils and Samoas in a mutual Tupperware and forgot about them for six months. Half a year later, the Trefoils had a gentle infusion of coconut, not enough to significantly alter the flavor for the better, but gave them a noticeably strange hint of tropical ass. These cookies are similar- dull, sweet, and wholly synthetic.
These are the same way, reminiscent of Samoas, yet bland and overly sweet. Both the delicately salted chocolate cookie and the fruity coconut are drowned in a sea of awful coating. Seasonal flavors are a treat to see and these will do in a pinch if you’re housebound, but the waxy chocolate coating makes these pretty unappealing.

Bratwurst, Jalapeno, and Caramelized Onion Potstickers

I hate summer. There, I said it. I’m allergic to the beach and catch burns faster than Snooki catches STI’s. The only person more miserable on a boat is Tommy Lee Judd post-Double Jeopardy. The irony of spending over 75% of my childhood summers on boats and at beaches is not lost on me. But now I’m a grown-ass woman! I can fast-forward to any damned season that I want. And today, I decided that I wanted autumn to hurry up and get here already. So for lunch, I made Miss Love a boatload of homemade dumplings, filled with bratwurst, jalapenos, caramelized onions, and topped with a spicy mustard sauce. And they say July is a summer month.

If you haven’t made homemade potstickers before, take it from an authentic Jewish, American white woman whose only contact with Asian heritage involves casual hookups: these are easy and worth your time. I cheated a little and got premade dumpling wrappers from a local Asian grocery. They tasted fresh and were easy enough to make that in retrospect, it seemed silly to make the dough from scratch. If you have access to these wrappers, I highly suggest you pick some up. They’re hardy and thaw quickly for easy preparation.

To make the dumplings, we combined a few of our latest and greatest favorite ingredients- I’d had the good fortune to receive a selection of Gold’n Plump chicken sausages earlier this week, as well as a tangy, sticky mustard sauce simply named, “That Yellow Sauce.” I’m addicted with this. I’ve been slathering it on top of all of my favorite foods. Mixing those together with some of Gordy’s Thai basil jalapenos, picked up at the Fancy Food Show, and chopped caramelized onions yielded a sweet, savory filling with a wonderful lingering spice.
Bratwurst, Jalapeno, and Caramelized Onion Potstickers
Ingredients (makes 18-20 dumplings)
2 3oz. uncooked bratwurst sausages, taken out of casing
2 tablespoons chopped jalapenos
2 tablespoons of spicy mustard
4 tablespoons of chopped caramelized onions
18-20 dumpling wrappers
1. Mix together ground bratwurst, jalapenos, mustard, and caramelized onions. If you’d like, you can do this the night before you make the potstickers so the flavors have more time to blend together.
2. When you’re ready to make the potstickers, place a teaspoon of the filling in the center of a dumpling. With your fingers, wet the edges of the wrapper and draw them together, pinching and sealing the edges so that the filling doesn’t leak out.
3. Place the filled dumplings in a greased pan on medium-high. Cook until the bottom is brown and crispy. Pour 1/3 cup of warm water in and steam on medium-high for five to six minutes, tossing the dumplings as needed. When the water is evaporated, lower the heat and simmer until fully cooked. Serve with a garnish of onions, mustard, and hot sauce.

These are easy to customize and create and can easily be frozen for later snacking. I’m planning on trying these with spicy brisket and shredded chicken next.

Pampano, New York, NY

Did you know that there are nationally recognized food holidays for every day of the year? I have no idea who compiled these or designated specific days their foods. Everyone knows that it’s a terrible idea to eat ice cream in mid-December. I can also imagine that it would just suck to have your birthday on a day saddled with a food that you abhor. Happy birthday, Jimmy. I was gunning for July, but you just had to be born on June 17th. Enjoy your fresh veggies and thank your dad! Honestly, it would be bad. Good thing I like corned beef hash and chocolate milk. Another thing that I love: ceviche. To celebrate June 28th, ceviche day, I was invited to Pampano in New York City to try out their housemade ceviche and some of their other tasty bites.

The restaurant, a beloved Richard Sandoval favorite, is a beachy high-rise sandwiched in an unassuming area of the city, with a cool, white interior and minimal exterior for outside dining, sparsely decorated with palm fans and colorful metal fish. The restaurant specializes in contemporary Mexican and Spanish cuisine. We started off our dinner with two drinks, a grilled pineapple mojito and a mojito martini. Both were visually appealing and had fresh ingredients front and forward. I would have preferred to have a little more of a grilled, char flavor to the pina mojito, as that was a unique way of preparing the ingredients. So it was a bit of a letdown to have that subtlety overwhelmed by the rest of the ingredients. It was still delicious, and balanced the booziness with a sweet fruit juice and herbaceous twang.

The mojito martini sounded and tasted interesting, with white rum, mint, a red grape, and lime. The flavor was classic mojito, fresh and minty, but the lime and grape gave it a different twist. I’m not sure what was martini-like about it other than the visual element, but it was a fun drink. We started our meal with chips and guacamole, both freshly made and warm. The chips were very thick and crispy, perhaps a little too thick, but very hearty and filling before the meal. The guacamole, prepared spicy per our request, was thick and creamy without being heavy or monolithic in flavor. It was a solid example of a perfect dip.

We were unusually swayed by the appetizers more than the entrees- with many restaurants, there’s an even split between the two, but the entrees looked somewhat staid for our tastes, so we opted to whack up a bunch of appetizers between us. Being that it was ceviche day, we started with a fresh ahi tuna, pear tomato, cilantro, serrano pepper, and ginger cucumber broth-laced ceviche. It was one of the best I’ve ever had both in and out of a restaurant. Tender, fleshy pieces of tuna doused with the spicy broth and thin slices of pepper and tomato. The flavors were electrifying and zesty, with a warmth from the ginger and serrano. All of the elements really complimented the mild, buttery fish. Fantastic on both plantains and fish- this is definitely one to order for the whole table.
Our second appetizer was the cured hamachi with tamarind sauce, fried quinoa, and cilantro, flavors that mingled and blended effortlessly together. The fish, another tissue paper-like, masterful example, was delicately adorned with condiments. The quinoa’s earthy, crispy flavors, almost like micro french fries, and the sweet tang of the tamarind really made the dish. This is another one to keep an eye on if you’re craving fish. The delicate flavors are a real treat. With this, we enjoyed two huge glasses of the house sangria, pictured above. Both were robust in flavor with a colorful melange of fruits bobbing around inside. They were perfect in the heat of the night!

Continuing our forays into fish, we decided to try the lobster empanada. It was delicious, with an ingredient list hitting all of our sweet spots- roasted pineapple jalapeno salsa, chipotle sauce, and pickled red onions. The onions and salsa did little to cut the richness of the pastry, filled with cheese, spices, and formidable, yet yielding chunks of lobster, but it was a sumptuous dish.

Our final savory appetizer was the trio of filet mignon tacos, with tomatillo salsa, cilantro, and a healthy scoop of the aforementioned rich guacamole. While in many restaurants, filet is used as a gimmick to increase the price tag and prestige, the simple and unadorned flavors let the meat speak for itself. Chef Martinez knows his way around beef as he does fish. The beef was a perfectly seared medium rare. The sweetness of the condiments, fresh corn tortillas, and lime drew out the flavors expertly. This fresh take on classic Mexican street tacos, also simply dressed with onions, sauce, and cilantro, is a great version.

From there, we split two desserts. The pastel de elote, a warm corn cake painted with a bright swirl of hibiscus sauce and a scoop of housemade coconut ice cream, was a real showstopper and our favorite dish of the night. Bright, contrasting flavors that all melded together seamlessly. A bite of each of the three components was like being on the beach. The sharp, almost bittersweet flavor of the sauce was a ravishing treat.
Our last dessert was a coconut panna cotta with yuzu marshmallows and an airy tuille on top, garnished with fresh mint. This was a fun and palate-cleansing dessert to end our visit on, as its fun, eclectic set of flavors really emphasized what we felt Pampano was all about. The homemade marshmallows were squishy and citrus-heavy, with a zesty bitterness to offset the sweetness.
This was a great meal. It was interesting to walk downstairs from the hushed, formal dining room into the bustle below. If you’re enjoying Pampano’s tacos in their underground taqueria downstairs, I highly recommend getting dinner upstairs for a change of pace. It’s a versatile and clever restaurant to check out with friends or a partner and one that I know we’ll definitely be back to.

Spindrift Water Raspberry Lime

When it gets especially hot here, we like to joke that the cats turn into cheap, waxy chocolate due to their tendency to melt into puddles on all surfaces when it’s above 65 degrees, only to solidify when they find a cool spot or air conditioning. Luckily, our superior evolutionary benefits (sweating!) and supply of awesome sodas prevent us from melting away. One of the most recent breakout brands we’ve added to our libation portfolio is the increasingly awesome Spindrift. It was wonderful to see them at the Fancy Food Show and sample their latest line of drinks, Spindrift Water.

Billed as an adult alternative to soda, Spindrift joins sophisticated drinks like Izze, Hot Lips, Hint, and Ayala, to create a light, refreshing version of the drink we all love to hate on. You won’t find Coke here, though I’d love to see what they could do with such an iconic flavor profile. Instead, they’re trying out three new flavors of ten calorie “water” with fruit pulp mixed in. We tried them all, and loved the Raspberry Lime the best. This was perfect on a 98 degree day.

The soda has a more austere, less rich feel than the standard Spindrift but with the same boldness in flavor and fruit-forward acidity. This one has a delicate, floral aftertaste, with all the tart, bright flavors of raspberry in a less concentrated form. I was surprised that the lime didn’t make as much of an appearance, but it still offered a zesty, somewhat bittersweet counterpart to the fruit. It’s definitely a drink to come back to repeatedly, as its subtle flavors make each sip pleasant and curious. For ten calories, you could do a lot worse! This offers artisanal flavors and a rustic texture with the bits of fruit pulp that remind me of homemade sodas.