Cafe Frida – Delicious Mexican Food in New York City

November 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

I have found that some of the best vegan meals I’ve had are at ethnic restaurants – specifically Central/South American, Asian, and Mediterranean. I love the many spices and layers of flavor they create in their dishes – always proving to be truly satisfying. While in NYC, we had gone to the Museum of Natural History  on the Upper West Side and after a morning of whales and dinosaurs were completely ravished. I quickly scanned Foursquare to see what was nearby but nothing was looking very promising. We decided to just walk and see what we could find – one of the many joys of New York.

Just a few blocks away we could see Cafe Frida in the distance. It’s bright interior colors and the name itself called my attention. As a former artist, anything mentioning Frida is good by me. Upon entering I knew we were in for a treat. Mexican music bellowed through the speakers as the diners enjoyed their flavorful plates.

The vibrant orange and pink walls coupled with mis-matched chairs and tables created a warm, welcoming environment. We scored a table by the window and got to enjoy watching the New Yorkers pass us by.

Several items on the menu were vegetarian. They had a nice variety to choose from. If you are vegetarian, there were lots of choices. We started with a trio of salsas, but it was almost too hard to just pick three. We landed on the aguacate, pico de gallo, and mestiza. The aguacate was my favorite. It was a smooth creamy avocado salsa with a nice kick from the chile serrano. The chips too cannot be overlooked – slightly thick and golden, they were delicious and I’m afraid to say we finished the whole bucket – well mostly I finished it exclaiming with every bite, Oh my god these chips are so good, as Luis watched the bucket slowly disappear.

Luis ordered a vegetarian meal of chilaquiles. Chilaquiles is a traditional Mexican dish of tortilla chips baked with tomatillo salsa, a green sauce, and topped with cheese and sour cream. On the side was a fried egg and black beans. I was a bit nervous as he ate it since he hadn’t had cheese or eggs in over a month, but he was OK and said it was one of the best meals he has had. That meal may have pushed him to want to be vegetarian instead of vegan but I can say, since returning home he’s had neither cheese nor eggs so he is still trying to be vegan 🙂

I had the vegetable fajita lunch. The lunch was a $12.95 combo (seriously, you can’t beat that in NYC!) for a salad and your entree. The salad was very nice and I think it had some kind of avocado dressing. I’ve seen recipes for this but never thought it sounded good but after trying this, I’ll definitely give it a try at home.

The fajitas were simply delish. An array of vegetables thickly coated in a nice spicy red sauce which gave them tons of flavor. Traditional Mexican rice on the side finished the dish. Needless to say I cleared my plate, even with the aforementioned empty bucket of chips 🙂

If you’re looking for a vegan restaurant in New York City or just good ‘ol Mexican, definitely check out Cafe Frida. If we lived there, I can tell you we’d spend every Friday night there no doubt – I didn’t try the margaritas, but I’m sure they’d go down easy with that amazing food!


A Vegan Oasis – Candle79

October 11, 2011 § 4 Comments

Candle79 is one of the vegan restaurants we scouted out on our trip to NYC last week. I can’t say enough good things about this place – nice staff, comfortable environment, and most importantly, amazingly flavorful and wholesome vegan food! Whether you are vegan or not – I highly recommend checking them out if you’re in NYC.

Overall the meal was fantastic. We thoroughly enjoyed all the options we had and the fact that we didn’t have to worry about what was in them. Portions are a tad on the small side – this is an upscale restaurant so with an appetizer and desert, it is perfect. Pricing was perhaps a bit high, but considering all ingredients are fresh and organic – not to mention delicious – its well worth it! They have a cookbook coming out November 1, and it will likely be my first vegan cookbook I buy it inspired me so much.

The restaurant has a quaint entrance on 79th street on the Upper East Side. The downstairs is pretty contemporary feeling with sleek lines and warm colors. We were seated upstairs in the back which was fine but next time I’m definitely asking for the front upstairs as there were booths and sweet tables by the window.

The meal started with a little treat from the chef. It was a crostini with some type of spread – I believe it was eggplant and artichoke. Whatever it was, it was amazing. I should warn you – these pictures seriously stink! I need to invest in a camera. I hate taking photos with flash but looking back at these, flash may have been better. Sorry.

We were really tempted to order the guacamole timbale as an appetizer as the next table had it. However, given that guacamole is often on the restaurant menus in Orlando, we went with the tri-colored beet salad with endive and almond cheese and kalamata olive vinaigrette. OK, first things first, I’ve never had a kalamata olive vinaigrette before but I will be figuring out how to make it because it was really delicious. I wouldn’t have every thought to pair olives and beets but it worked very nicely. Also, this was my first forray into nut cheeses. This is a common for vegans and I’d yet to try one anywhere. The almond cheese in my opinion tasted almost like a very dense whipped cream – perhaps like a mousse-like creme fraiche. It provided just enough creaminess to the dish to compliment the salty vinaigrette and hearty beets.

Luis ordered an impressive wild mushroom squash risotto. The risotto was drizzled with cashew cream and topped with frizzled leeks. The crispy leeks were a very nice compliment to the creamy, rich but simple risotto. The risotto was just decadent enough to be truly enjoyable but didn’t leave that harsh full feeling once we finished.

I ordered the live zucchini manicotti. The “live” should have warned me this would be a cold dish but it didn’t and I was a tad surprised to take a bite and meet cold food. But despite the lack of warmth – this dish had tons going for it. The zucchini are cut very thinly to roll into manicotti and stuffed with a vegetable portobello pistou. The pistou was actually almost like a tapenade mixed with diced portobellos. The dish is finished with a tomato sauce and topped with a parsley pine nut salad. A perfect bite of all elements was bold and vibrant. I’m definitely going to use this for inspiration at home – I’ve been thinking I can even just buy pre-made tapenade and mix with some mushrooms for a quick fix similar to this.

Last but my gosh certainly not least – dessert. Dun dun dun! Aside from some delicious vegan chocolate chip cookies from the Whole Foods bakery, dessert hasn’t been on my mind in the past three months. But I couldn’t resist the tempting menu. As a mousse lover, I ordered the chocolate peanut butter bliss and boy was it bliss indeed. Chocolate mousse and peanut butter mousse are layered and covered in a chocolate shell and then finished with a tart berry coulis. Honestly all I can say is yum. And this was truly decadent – for such a small little dessert, the two of us couldn’t even finish it.

There’s no doubt we’ll be going back to Candle79 next time we venture to NYC. I’m so glad we found this little gem on the Upper East Side. We almost missed it entirely by trying to eat near our hotel in Midtown. Luckily a quick google search and scan of the yelp reviews confirmed we had to go. As a matter of fact, I just finished Crazy, Sexy, Diet which I was reading while there, and many recipes in the last chapter are from this very restaurant and we almost missed it entirely!

Until next time, I’ll be waiting for that cookbook to come out.

Maggiano’s – A Vegan’s Best Friend

August 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Yup, you read that right. Maggiano’s, the restaurant famed for bowlfuls of creamy, buttery, goodness, served up a delicious vegan alternative for me last night and in one swift bite, restored my faith in veganism.

It has been one of those weeks. I’ve had this cold for a week now, and I’m over it. Tired of being congested, tired of being light headed, and ready to feel normal again. Monday marked the 30th day of my challenge. I wasn’t quite sure what to do afterwards so I kept going…and going…and going. All week I defied the urge to grab a warming cup of chicken noodle soup and I have to say with feeling sick, it was just all in all a hard week to be vegan. At some point, you get a little bored and crave some variety.

But the real challenge came yesterday – yesterday was my mom’s birthday.  Thursday night we decided we would take her to Maggiano’s. Panic struck immediately. What on earth was I going to eat! It wasn’t so much that I thought they wouldn’t have anything – the thing is Maggiano’s very well may be my favorite restaurant. I long for dinners there with creamy pastas and crispy breaded chicken parmigiana oozing with cheese on top. Surely those were out. But could I resist? One look (and smell!) at these and I might cave, and frankly after the week I’d had, these comforts would be more than welcomed. Not knowing what I would decide, I looked up my vegan options on my trusted reference and the outlook was dim.

So the anxiety continued on my drive to the restaurant as I gave myself a little pep talk that went something like this: “You can enjoy a nice salad. Maybe bruschetta without buttered bread and cheese. OK how about a bowl of pasta with a nice cream and butter free sauce.” And it ended like this “You know what, it’s been a good run, good job on 34 days – enough already – order the chicken and be done with it!”

The waiter came by and while deep down I wanted to give up, something told me to give it my best effort. So I explained I was eating vegan to which he said “Wow, that’s hard core” and said he’d get the chef. What followed next was just simply amazing. Sous Chef Matthew Arbuthnot came out to greet the table and presented me with so many options I literally couldn’t decide. He touted the many fresh vegetables back in the kitchen and the infinite possibilities. It sounded too good to be true. I finally said, you pick, and entrusted my evening’s enjoyment to his creativity.

The appetizers arrived and I ate my salad which, while good, was nothing compared to what floated in front of me. I was able to resist most of it but I’ve got to say when I caught a whiff of that crispy, salty, calamari I almost lost it. Given that the Chef was back there attempting to please this very picky vegan kept me from sneaking a bite.

Dinner arrived and I thought here we go. Everything on the table looked – and smelled – incredible. OK, Chef, let’s see what you got. Bring it! And boy did he do just that. Mine was last to hit the table and it was a sight for sore eyes. The platter before me contained so much variety and surprise I felt like a kid in a candy store. He really went above and beyond to ensure a delicious, flavorful, and complex vegan meal. The platter was simply breathtaking. He served up steamed broccolini and spiced grilled zucchini with a bowl of bright emerald green chees-free pesto for dipping. The spiced zucchini had so much flavor it didn’t even need the pesto but I loved it on top of the broccolini and thankfully there was plenty to take home so I’ll be enjoying it with some pasta or on a slice of toasted country bread this weekend – yummy!

Down the center of the platter was a vegetable saute topped with a delicate nest of crispy fried leeks. The mix included chopped asparagus, spring peas, carrots, red pepper and sadly I couldn’t figure out the spice to properly describe. There was definitely roasted garlic and perhaps some white wine? Whatever it was, it was insanely good. The very simple addition of the crispy fried leeks on top made all the difference in the world. I loved the contrast of crunch between the delicate vegetables and the fried  leeks – I will definitely be trying this trick at home.

And last but my god certainly not least, a little ramekin about 3 inches wide and not even an inch deep contained the most delicious sweet and savory corn pudding. That’s right, a vegan corn pudding. No cream, no cheese, and boy was it not missed! I’m still trying to figure out what was in it: corn for sure, leeks, some kind of green – perhaps sage? All topped with crispy herbed bread crumbs. If the whole platter had been this corn pudding – I would have finished it without thinking twice. As I politely used my fork to gather every last bite in that little ramekin and resisted the urge to lick it clean right then and there – the chef came by and said he was making me dessert. Let me just tell you, by this point, while I know my family enjoyed their meal, I was the envy of the table. Their bowlfuls of crispy chicken, creamy pasta, and salty parmesan didn’t have anything on my platter of wholesome deliciousness. My dad even exclaimed after trying everything on my plate that it should be standing menu item.

Now for dessert – I am so disappointed that I cannot accurately describe what followed. He presented a plate that looked like a beautiful painting, a bright sunburst of color. The bottom was coated with a rich marsala blueberry sauce which was like a bright ruby cabernet in color. In the center was a lightly bruleed pineapple topped with the blueberries from the sauce, candied lemon peel, and surrounded by slices of grilled cantaloupe that had been spiced with a hot pepper. He had asked me earlier if I liked spice and when I tasted this dessert I knew why – the cantaloupe was tender and almost melted in your mouth with the earthy smokiness from the grill and the last note on your tongue was a strong hit of the peppery spice. The sugary pineapple provided sweetness while the blueberry marsala cut through it so it wasn’t too much. A bite with all four was heaven.

My only regret of the night? That I didn’t have a camera worthy of taking pictures of the masterpieces I enjoyed. Maggiano’s, and more importantly Chef Matt, you did good and re-inspired me to get creative with my vegan diet! I’ll definitely be returning – as a vegan and of course only when Chef Matt is there.

Update: Check out how I’ve done eating vegan in restaurants since this visit. 

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