Blossom

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I hope your weekend is filled with all sorts of deliciousness, hopefully in the form of special desserts! I will not be in the city over the holiday, so no brunches this weekend. However, I will be leaving you with this fabulous find from last weekend. If you have foodie family members in town, I highly recommend it!

One of my favorite neighborhoods is the Upper West Side, home to the American Museum of Natural History and a plethora of cafés and clothing stores. One such charming café is Blossom, located on Columbus Avenue at 82nd Street, where we went for brunch before the holiday frenzy. Blossom, a vegan restaurant, is a short walk from both the heart of Central Park and the 79th Street stop on the 1 train.

Blossom is as warm and pretty as the name suggests. Inside the restaurant is all bright and colorful, and the murals on the wall suggest nourishment, growth, and other plant-related metaphors. The hardwood floors and the plush seating also adds a touch of elegance—this is not a barefoot-and-dreads sort of place. Though the restaurant is small, the high ceilings and the reflective surfaces add depth and space.

Everyone who works at Blossom is really friendly—like Trader-Joe’s-level friendly—and they also have great hair. The great thing about Blossom being a vegan restaurant is that everything is dairy-free! Whenever I go to Blossom and tell the waitstaff about my allergies, they sort of just laugh and point this out. How liberating is that? They have a few nutty items, but those are incredibly easy to avoid. (NOTE: The ice cream at Blossom is from Lula’s Sweet Apothecary, a wonderful vegan ice cream place that unfortunately uses cashew milk as their main dairy substitute. I myself am not allergic to cashews, but if you are, please be aware!)

Even though it was around 1 PM when we went, they still let me order the stuffed French toast, which is amazing. French toast is one of my favorite foods to make and eat, but ordering it at a restaurant is usually a no-go, because of all the butter and milk that goes into its creation. Other exciting things on the menu were soy bacon cheeseburgers, milkshakes and pancakes—all things I can never order at a regular restaurant. All the options were overwhelming, so I reverted to the wonderful French toast that I’ve had before.

Whenever I make French toast at home, it’s mostly just a mess of bread, eggs and sugar. Blossom’s version of French toast consists of thick, practically cake-like bread, stuffed with raspberries, strawberries and “cream cheese,” which gives it a much more intense and complex flavor and texture. The portion size is pretty perfect, right down to the syrup and the side of fresh fruit!

The other Blossom customers were young and trendy, which is typical for the Upper West Side, and not everyone was a vegan. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a vegan to love Blossom—you just have to be open-minded. Even Bear fit in rather well with the whole scene.

Because Blossom has such beautiful plates that all seem really delicious, I would recommend getting a few things to share between friends. Usually I refrain from sharing food at all, mostly because of cross-contamination, but Blossom has zero risks of dairy contaminants! Plus, the ability to be adventurous comes very rarely for us food allergy folks (see The Full Story) and Blossom is an especially safe place, unlike so many other restaurants in the city.

Blossom is a delicious delight, especially when paired with a pretty walk in Central Park or a trip to one of the many nearby museums after brunch. If you are looking for a classy brunch this weekend, Blossom is it. On this day full of gratitude, I am grateful for all the wonderful family, friends, and of course, food in my life! I hope you all have a safe and scrumptious holiday!

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Dallas BBQ

I will confess, I have always been a believer in chain restaurants. Standardized ingredients means standardized safety. So a couple nights ago, when I went out to dinner with my cousin, I was happy to see that Dallas BBQ reinforced my beliefs. The branch in Times Square is located conveniently across from the Times Square station, which connects the 1, 2, 3, N, Q, R, A, C, E and 7 trains, and situated between 7th and 8th Avenues.

Most New Yorkers hate Times Square, because it is the ultimate tourist destination. It seems to be perpetually daytime there, with ridiculously expensive Starbucks and ridiculously glittery billboards. Even the McDonald’s has a marquee! However, Times Square is also the theater district, and so whether you’re a “real” New Yorker or not, you’ll probably end up there sooner or later.

I have never actually been to any restaurants in Dallas, but I’d imagine that Dallas BBQ is a little closer to those in Las Vegas, or somewhere off the side of the I-5 in California. The entire vibe of the restaurant feels like being on the set of Grease and Dreamgirls simultaneously, while also traveling through the Wild West. Bear fit in well with his letterman’s jacket.

The music I heard during the evening included Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” while reliefs of running horses à la Spirit decorated the walls. In classic chain restaurant fashion, the paper placemat menus keep options simple with BBQ standards like pulled pork, ribs, and fried chicken.

The waitress was very comfortable with allergies and immediately ruled out the breaded items. She suggested the salads with a non-dairy dressing, as well as the ribs or rotisserie chicken—both of these, she knew, were cooked without butter or milk. (NOTE: The French fries are made in peanut oil. I myself am not allergic to peanut oil, but if you are, please be aware!)

Often when I eat out in the city, I become a “convenient vegan,” opting for a vegan meal instead of a meaty one, mainly because of the lack of dairy. However, I actually do eat meat and I’m always baffled as to why meat must include cheese, butter, cream, etc. I decided to order the Bar-B-Q Baby Back Ribs, perhaps the meatiest and most non-vegan meal possible. Also, ribs are something that I just don’t get that often.

When our food came, I was happy to see that our waitress had kept the cornbread on a separate plate—it comes with the ribs. The ribs were a little shorter than I expected, but, of course, they were balanced out by a huge pile of French fries. Dallas BBQ also serves their soft drinks in enormous goblets, so an impulse ginger ale (not pictured here) complemented the heap of saucy food. Obviously, the food was not meant for a connoisseur but as far as standard meat-and-potatoes meals go, I was pretty happy.

Dallas BBQ seems to attract a rather diverse group of diners, which may be partially due to the nature of Times Square itself. The huge multi-level establishment contained, among others, a group of foreign exchange students and many young professionals after hours. Because the restaurant sits near so many theaters, I would imagine the pre- and post-show crowds filter in as well.

The portions were large enough that I could take home half my plate, which made an easy lunch a couple days later. While I, like many others, try to avoid Times Square on the basis of principle, it is comforting to know of a safe restaurant there, for when friends and family come to visit. Dallas BBQ is a good place to take grab a bite, before seeing a show, meeting a friend, or running away from all the neon signs and the flashbulbs. Plus it’s nice to have a place to fill the BBQ-shaped hole in my life, for those sporadic days when I feel like eating a rack of ribs and pile of fries.

Community

It’s gray and rainy here in the city, so yesterday was the perfect morning to get some warm brunch at Community Food and Juice! I’ve been to Community a few times now, and it feels a little bit like restaurants back in California, with lots of natural lighting and organic menu options. Located on Broadway, between 112th and 113th Streets, Community is the trendy place to meet friends for a casual meal around Columbia. Even better, they feature “seasonal, local, organic food whenever possible,” as stated on their website and evident in their food. If you’re coming on the subway, it’s just a little bit of walk from either 110th Street or 116th Street on the 1 train.

The atmosphere in the restaurant is full of light and life. Elegant lamps hang from the high, unfinished ceilings, accompanied by ceiling fans. Different pockets of the restaurant blend together, including the bar and the open kitchen. Community has both individual tables for small parties, as well as communal tables, much like you might see in many European restaurants, although without the discomfort. On sunnier days than today, outdoor sidewalk seating is available, and according to their website they also have private dining space.

The menu boasted many several delicious looking options and I opted for the Country Breakfast—eggs, carrot hash browns, ham and a biscuit. I explained to the waiter about my allergies, and he suggested substitutions such as the biscuit for the seven-grain vegan bread. I also substituted the maple sugar cured ham for bacon, a personal preference. He was more than happy to inform the chef and make the substitutions. I have only ever been to Community for brunch and I tend to maintain a regular order at a lot of restaurants for comfort, so I can assure you that the Country Breakfast has been consistently safe.

The eggs were perfectly fluffy, but not as fully cooked as I myself might have made them—although I tend to prefer them slightly browned. The bacon was perfectly crispy as were the carrot hash browns (a Community special, barely pictured here). My favorite thing about brunch at Community, however, is the toast and jam. It seems so simple, but because I am not allowed to have a toaster in my apartment, I miss toast a lot! Plus, the jam at Community (is it raspberry?) is so delicious with regards to flavor, texture, and color that I frequently eat the leftovers with a spoon!

community (food)

When our food came, I was so hungry that Bear bear-ly managed to snag a solo shot with the remains of my delicious brunch.

I had enough (as you can see) to take home a second brunch, which is arguably the best kind of brunch! Not to mention, our waiter wrapped it up for me in a cute little box and a brown paper bag! The ending to brunch was a little rushed, as yesterday was a weekday and I had to get to class, but I can’t wait to come back and try some other dishes. I’m particularly intrigued by the B.E.L.T. and their rice bowls. Though outside was a little chilly and damp, Community is always a relaxing place to get some a little fresh air and fresh food!

Bear Makes Brunch: Fall Break

Let’s face it: sometimes you just want to stay home. I know I do. The weather is getting crisper, just like the leaves. New York can be an absurdly expensive city that you can’t afford. Plus, thanks to Sandy, my favorite neighborhood (Union Square) is a little un-brunch-able today. However, instead of wallowing in misery, take this sunny Saturday to make brunch at home, like I did!

Saturdays are the perfect day to make brunch, especially in the fall. Sleeping in means waking up at the perfect time for both breakfast and lunch, and after starting the day with some warm and delicious food, anything feels possible!

If you’re not very skilled at cooking, don’t worry. I’m not exactly an experienced chef, but going out is scary (see The Full Story) and getting to know your kitchen will make you feel a lot safer. This meal is a one-skillet-stop on the brunch train, and there are a lot of ways to make it a more gourmet meal, if you are so inclined.

In terms of grocery shopping, I generally get all my groceries at Trader Joe’s. I grew up near one of the original Trader Joe’s, and I love them! The branch on 72nd and Broadway is friendly, organized, healthy, and relatively inexpensive. Plus, they rotate a lot of products seasonally so there are always new treats available! For this particular brunch, I picked up some eggs, their frozen shredded hash browns, arugula, and chicken breasts.

The eggs are easy. Crack them, whip them, cook them. Eggs are so universal, and yet so personal. I personally like mine scrambled with salt only, but it’s incredibly easy to customize for friends, roommates and guests! If you want to get really fancy, this is an opportunity to show off your omelet skills.

scrambled eggs

Trader Joe’s also has these great shredded hash browns that are a no-brainer to cook. Heat some oil and spread out the raw, pre-cut potatoes evenly. Add the desired salt and other condiments. After about five minutes or so, flip them and cook the other side. Voilà! Drain them on paper towels. Again, if you want to add some variations, I’ve seen shredded carrots make their way into these things.

Because I felt like brunch should include breakfast and lunch, I also added a salad to go with it. The best part is that it only has two ingredients: chicken and arugula! Salad intimidates me, so I tend to stick to really basic ingredients, but other add-ins of choice would have been avocado, dried cranberries, Mandarin oranges, or other fruity options.

Grilled chicken is notoriously easy to make, and it is very versatile for several meals. Simply slice chicken into strips and coat with salt and pepper. Cook for a few minutes on both sides. If you cut into your chicken, and it’s raw in the center, it’s not done yet!

Arugula is one of my favorite greens for a salad, along with baby spinach. If you are like me and you dislike eating a lot of green foods like vegetables, you may like arugula. It has a very unique and complex taste that makes it much more interesting than any lettuce. Plus it has a cool shape, which gives it instant bonus points on the salad scale. Add a little balsamic vinaigrette and it gets even better!

I topped off the meal with a honeycrisp apple and a big glass of orange juice, true to my California roots. With the temperature dropping and exams coming up, it’s the perfect day to curl up with brunch, a book, and Bear. Happy Fall!

Pisticci

Last Saturday, before Sandy hit the city, I had the opportunity to go check out a restaurant to which I had never been before: Pisticci. The cute little Italian restaurant is tucked away on La Salle, just off Broadway. Being a few blocks up from Morningside Heights, the restaurant was a short walk away from campus. If you’re hailing from a little farther than Columbia, the nearest subway stop is 125th Street on the 1 train.

Inside, Pisticci is all charm and warmth. Orange-and-black paper chains were up for Halloween and one of the walls had a library façade à la my high school’s production of Beauty and the Beast. There was a lot of space in the restaurant’s multiple rooms and the general atmosphere was family-restaurant-meets-Italian-getaway. We were actually there for dinner, and as Pisticci doesn’t take reservations, there was a little bit of a wait. Although we were offered an alternative seat at the bar, we declined for a corner table near the windows.

The cold tap water was served from mason jars into elegant glasses, and the menus had giant sunflowers on them. The waitress ran off some specials and I told her about my food allergies. When I asked if there were any dishes that were easy to prepare without dairy—Italian food is always tricky—she said to let her know which dish I thought I would like, and she would ask the chef directly.

Pisticci prides itself on authentic Italian food, and many dishes were listed in their original Italian. The options were not overwhelming, but there was a wide range of antipasti, pasta dishes, and main entrées. According to their website, all the food is made fresh and from scratch, which explains the mysterious Italian-food-aromas wafting around. I asked if the maltagliati could be done without the ricotta, and she assured me it could!

Olive oil and bread came out, but I’m sorry to report that I was not able to get an ingredient check on the bread. The couple next to us was skeptical about the bread containing dairy, but as I told them, you can never be sure with severe allergies. The pasta, however, was great!

Maltagliati, according to the Internet, is a type of pasta made from leftover scraps of making actual pasta. This particular version looked like scraps of lasagna pieces that didn’t quite make the cut (haha, cut). The sauce was tomato-based with wilted spinach and shredded lamb, and was slightly spicy with a great texture. The portions were well suited for a nice meal out, but not enough for leftovers or a very hungry bear. However, such an appetite could be satisfied if you decide to add in some appetizers or some dessert.

Unlike most restaurants in Morningside Heights, the crowd consisted of less Columbia students and more neighborhood families. Students were still there in their Halloweekend costumes, but parents came with children for family dinners and professorial types seemed to be enjoying an evening off. All in all, the atmosphere was very relaxed and comfortable.

Pisticci was a great first restaurant for the Brunch with Bear team and they were very accommodating without incident. I would be interested in going back to check out some of the other dinner dishes, the sorbet options, and the brunch menu!