top 100: gordon ramsay at the london

IMG_1444Gordon Ramsay‘s noxious, narcissistic television persona might put you in the mind that he’s more clown than chef, but the man and his various entrepreneurial gambles collectively boast an impressive 14 Michelin stars, considered by many to be the ultimate benchmark in the hospitality industry. (To wit, there are only four 3-star restaurants in all of the UK, one of which is Ramsay’s flagship.) The bad boy of British cooking might be an unbearable bore, but his cooking is the real deal – even if Gordo is rarely seen in any of his kitchens these days. His first, and so far only, foray into the hyper-competitive world of New York fine dining was greeted with bemused detachment when he arrived with yet another eponymous restaurant inside the former Rhiga Royal, newly christened as The London hotel. Who was this Glasgow footballer-turned-chef come to teach New Yorkers about French food, the foodie demimonde decried. The reception – to be kind – was cool. Yet despite the collective ennui of my neighbors, I must give Ramsay some props. As fine dining it’s all too pretentious, let’s just get that out of the way. The presentation may be classically – and meticulously – French but the complexity of flavor doesn’t always hit the mark. And neither does the suffocating ambiance, which feels more like a temple to Ramsay’s unmitigated ego than one dedicated to dining. But that doesn’t mean the food isn’t often delicious, because it is. The secret is counterintuitive to how Ramsay see himself: treat his dining room as a relatively casual pre or post theater dinner spot. Get there early or late and order off the prix-fixe menu; it’s fantastic and a relative bargain. The simpler the plate, the better, like a perfectly poached hen’s egg over artichokes and basil puree. Or crispy skate wing with roasted fennel. Ramsay is at his level best when he’s humble with his ingredients, proving that sometimes less really is more. Does anyone dare to try and tell that to the chef himself?

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top 100: torrisi italian specialties

torrisiBuzz can be a great thing for any restaurant that’s finding its sea legs, but it really puts the kibosh on the element of surprise. Since opening in the spring of 2010, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone’s homey Torrisi Italian Specialties has been greeted with the kind of lavish praise that has helped make it one of the tougher tables to procure in this city. (It doesn’t help matters that the slip of a dining room seats only about 20 diners at a time.) Which is why I found myself having dinner recently at the ungodly hour of 5:30pm. On a Saturday, no less. Naturally I arrived with expectations. In a city littered with half-assed Italian restaurants, the promise of something revisionist, or just plain properly executed, gets a man salivating quicker than you can say red sauce. I wanted to love Torrisi. Moreover, I wanted Torrisi to love me for loving them. But the feelings of Sunday supper evoked by storefront windows hung with lace-curtains and an elegant, old-school script end outside the door. Despite the kitschy charm of warm wood interiors set off by mismatched china, it’s business as usual inside. (Perhaps there is something to be said about the downside of success.) That’s not to take anything away from the food, which is delicious and lovingly executed – just imagine your good luck to have an Italian Grandma with a degree from culinary school – but the hipster wait staff is efficient to the point of being brusque, it not downright condescending. Feed the myth, Torrisi: where’s the old lady in her sauce-stained apron? The four-course tasting menu varies seasonally, and I expect now that spring has sprung the chefs will be taking full advantage of baby this and baby that, but I hope for your sake the warm, made-to-order mozzarella is a constant. A puddle of barely-set cheese, drizzled with olive oil, it’s like slurping primordial soup. Earthy, silky, and bubbling with the beginnings of fermentation, it’s intoxicating to say the least. Three more appetizers arrive in succession – you have no say in the matter – and while pleasing, they’re not nearly as hypnotic as the mozzarella: blackened tuna with eggplant; crisp, savory potato millefoglie; and oddest of all, a grilled Boar’s Head sandwich with pickles that reminds me of a concoction I might have dreamed up as a child. Fusilli in a dirty duck ragu is a toothsome pasta course, not nearly as rich or as heavy you might expect, but wholly satisfying. (And properly portioned, thank heaven – enough to sate, not stuff.) Both choices of entrée were winners: country pork muffaletta served with roasted and pickled variations of cauliflower, and monkfish in a zippy pepper marinara with shellfish. For dessert, it’s hard to pass up a rainbow cake, which, though not extravagant, provided just enough sweet to round off the meal in that particularly almond-flavored, Italian way. For the quality of the cooking Torrisi’s $75 set menu is a bargain, plus the wine list is equally reasonable. God knows I’ve had much lesser meals at three times the price. And for all my griping about sitting down to dinner before the sun sets, there was an upshot: I made it to Midtown for an 8pm curtain with nary a hitch.

made to order mozzarella

potato millefoglie

fusilli dirty duck ragu

country pork muffaletta

monkfish, pepper marinara

rainbow cake

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savoir faire savings

Just over a year ago when Voyage Privé first entered the US market there was – at most – a handful of flash-sale sites.  Since then the flash-sale phenomenon has taken the internet by storm – especially when it comes to travel. With so many new sites popping up, it leaves you wondering what’s so special about the ones that got there first? For one, Voyage Privé is the only members-only travel flash sale site to offer a flexible cancellation policy – so there’s no need to sweat about buyer’s remorse the day after. Even better, a Best Price guarantee promises you can rest easy:  there is not a better deal to be had anywhere. Period. With discounts of up to 75% off a dozen or so travel deals per week, European-based Voyage Privé is a fantastic way to shop entre nous for high quality travel – and I do mean quality: save 62% on a stay at The Millennium Hotel London Mayfair, up to 57% off at The Pavilions in Phuket, and 56% aboard the m/s Paul Gauguin, including air fare. Sure you’re locked into certain dates, but a little flexibility turns into significant savings when money-saving deals are constantly sprouting up. Yet buyers beware: sales are here today and going, going, gone tomorrow. Hesitate at your own expense.


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lucky sevens

If a trip to China has always seemed too expensive, I’ve got good news: China Spree Travel has put together a weeklong Beijing-Shanghai itinerary available throughout January and February for just $777 – an almost ridiculously economical way to visit two of China’s major tourist attractions.

The “Tale of China’s Two Greatest Cities” package includes round-trip, non-stop airfare from San Francisco, internal flights from Beijing to Shanghai, fuel surcharges, six nights accommodation in a 4-star hotel, daily American buffet breakfasts, and airport/hotel transfers. (A $99 government-imposed tax is not included. And you’ll need to tack on another $200 to fly from NYC.) Hotel accommodations include the new Beijing Huabin International Hotel, a 10-minute walk from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and the Crowne Plaza Shanghai, which is conveniently located in the French Concession.

Rich in imperial treasures, Beijing has been the capital since the 15th century. Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City – a 9,999-room compound where 24 emperors ruled for 500 years – and the Summer Palace with its marble boat and garden are just a few of the highlights.  Cosmopolitan Shanghai is China’s cultural and financial center.  Once called the “Paris of the East,” it’s a pulsing example of the new-moneyed, Western-thinking China – with a skyline to rival the Big Apple’s.

China Spree calls this “free-style travel,” which means you are free to do whatever you like whenever you like: no buses packed with seniors, no rigid itineraries, and no flag waving tour guides – though less intrepid travelers (or anyone looking for a local’s perspective) can book any number of affordable day tours, too.

For more information visit www.chinaspree.com or click HERE.

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