Culturesplosion.


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Meatstravaganza at Picnic Garden!

It’s hard to believe we’re almost two months into 2012. DH and I started off our new year with a seemingly ridiculous resolution to complete a 30-day vegetarian challenge, just to see if we could do it. As a result, January went by in a whirlwind of tofu, egg, cheese, and various vegetable matter. We avoided restaurants during that month for the most part, lest we be disappointed by the various menu options which we could not consume, so perhaps we saved some money. Upon completion, however, I wasn’t sure what we really had to show for it, other than a burning desire to consume meat. Meat. MEAT.

Unsurprisingly, February has become a bit meat-centric. We marked the completion of the challenge with a victorious visit to HILL COUNTRY BARBECUE MARKET (map!) where we stuffed our faces with beef brisket (lean & moist varieties) and pork spare ribs, 1 1/2 lbs total.

Time to dig in.

The barbecue was flavored very well, but a bit too salty. The free bread that came with our meat helped balance it out, but our tongues were kind of done by the end. I would love to just have a sandwich next time.

Meanwhile, we had been eyeing another contender for our post-vegetarian stint, but decided against going right away because it was a bit far. Like, Flushing, Queens far. And so, PICNIC GARDEN (map!), home of an unbelievably glorious concept called the ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT-KOREAN-BBQ had to wait for another day…

…but that day finally arrived this past weekend! Let the hedonistic meat-consumption begin!

You could smell the meat grilling from 2 blocks away...glorious for visitors, probably terrible for the neighbors.

We first discovered the existence of all you can eat Korean barbecue joints while we were in Los Angeles (yes, in between all that healthy eating, ha!), and had resolved to find a similar experience on the east coast. Manhattan’s Koreatown does not offer this kind of deal, based on our highly scientific Googling, so the choice was to trek to either Queens or New Jersey. The Queens location was closer and more accessible by public transportation, so off we went.

And goodness, what a mess the traveling was. Attention, all ye internet readers, check the train schedules! We decided to take the LIRR (which would have arrived closer than the subway 7-train), but managed to miss BOTH the departing and return trains by 5 minutes, and they only run once an hour on the weekends. Whoops. Uh, time for some loitering around Penn Station? Once we did get on the train, it was a 20-minute ride, plus a 4-block walk in the snow to finally get to the restaurant.

But it was totally worth all the trouble.

By now, we were desperately hungry and hoping to still be able to catch the lunch price ($23 per person on weekends, something significantly higher for dinner). We were quickly seated by a very efficient hostess/waitress/meat-cutter, who turned on the grill at our table and then left us to go pick out the well-marinated animal parts which would soon be charred to deliciousness in front of us.

THE BUFFET. BUFFET OF MEAT. And other delicious things.

For what is basically a meat palace, the name “Picnic Garden” might not be the best description of the offerings available at this restaurant. It rather makes me think of laying on a checkerboard blanket and eating watercress sandwiches. That thought, however, was quickly dashed.

The big ticket items. Galbi, short-ribs, spicy pork, and other meaty glories.

I liked this setup even better than our experience in Los Angeles, where you had to ask the waiter to bring you more meat. Here, you pick and choose exactly what you want, and there is no shame in going back for seconds, I mean, fourths. There is also a variety of prepared ban-chan side dishes (mmm, good kimchi and potato-egg-apple salad), rice, and soups (the seaweed soup is out of this world, slurp slurp slurp), which I thought were terrifically tasty and just as worthy of merit as the beef/pork/chicken/seafood.

The aroma is swoon-worthy. Come on, cook faster!

The waitress kept good attention to our table and cut up our meats into bite-sized pieces as they cooked, stopping by every once in awhile to give them a little stir for even grilling. When they were done, we made our little lettuce wraps and heartily munched with satisfaction.

Just look at that. Not my fault if you lick the screen.

Several rounds later, we were pretty much stuffed to the brim. We polished everything off with some fresh orange slices, and finished just in time for the end of lunch. For about $50 total before tip, that was a great value.

Word of caution, as iterated by many voices on the internet, YOU ARE GONNA SMELL OF MEAT WHEN YOU’RE DONE. Oh yes, the smell will linger for hours, reminding you of the glory that was your meal, and causing all your friends with noses to froth with jealousy that they didn’t get to go. Or you’ll just smell like some meaty weirdo around strangers.

Heeding those words, we wore easily washable clothes which we knew would go straight into the laundry once we got home, and brought a garbage bag to stuff our winter coats into. It feels a little weird to go to such lengths, but those tiny drops of meat grease will splatter, and the aroma will soak into your coats, so better to bag than having to head to the dry-cleaners.

And after you’re done, you can go across the street to this place:

PUPPIES PUPPIES PUPPIES

I like how the PUPPIES x3 are bulleted. And were there ACTUAL adorable little doggies inside? The answer is yes.


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The Village TeaRoom + Formosa: Gems of almost-upstate New York

Sometimes, the noise and craziness of NYC gets to be too much and a short getaway becomes necessary. When this happens, DH and I take a train ride on Metro-North and head up to the leafy glory of Dutchess and Ulster counties. When we get there, what else do we do but eat?

First stop upon arrival, FORMOSA CUISINE (map!) for some fab Taiwanese food.

Don't let the clip art deter you. There's good food here.

Located across the road from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, this restaurant has a pretty unassuming exterior, but there’s quality where it counts. Inside, the Asian-styled wooden decor, complete with ceramic pagoda tiles above the bubble tea bar area, is clean and cozy.

Try everything.

They have an extensive menu, but for the uninitiated, I highly recommend sampling the “Taiwanese Deli” selections on the first page, which has a number of popular Taiwanese staples. Here’s a rundown of my favorites:

Popcorn chicken with crispy basil!

Omelet with scallion pancake

Homemade Taiwanese style sausage

Steamed small minced pork buns (aka soupy dumplings!)

Oyster omelet (a gooey treat for the adventurous!)

I also really like a couple of traditional dishes from the main menu:

Taiwanese beef stew noodle soup

Taiwanese style mei fun. Sooo delicious.

And finally, we can’t forget the sweeties:

Strawberry, mango, and ice cream over shaved ice. This was an insane dessert, enough for 4 people.

ICE CREAM bubble tea. Maybe I just don't get out enough, but I've never seen this selection even in NYC. And there are duckies on the cup! Bonus points!

The prices are incredibly reasonable so you can try lots of different things, and it’s perfect for those who want good food on a budget. I can see why the place is popular with the college kids, but it’s a terrific spot for anyone.

Not content to stick to the east side of the Hudson, we make our way by car across the Mid-Hudson Bridge and head north to New Paltz. There, we stop at THE VILLAGE TEAROOM (map!) for some light fare and a good cuppa!

Tucked away from the street a bit, it's alll about the country farmhouse style...

Cute chalkboard drawing near the entrance. This is a popular place among the locals for afternoon tea.

Also right near the entrance. CAKES! And wait, what is that in the corner...?

....OMG, IT'S A HONEYBEE CAKE! Ok, we're eating that later.

We are seated upstairs, which I imagine is a good place for private events, and we happen to have the area all to ourselves! The waitress, who is super sweet and probably has calves of steel after running up and down those stairs all the time, happily explains all of our menu questions. We decide on the Ploughman’s Lunch (Cabot Sharp Cheddar, Organic Multi Grain Bread, Cornichons, Stone Ground Mustard, Seasonal Fruit, Lamb Pie, Plate of Cookies & a Pot of Tea) and choose the Lapsang Souchong tea.

All this for $16! I love non-city prices. Also, it seems silly to get excited over mustard, but that was some REALLY GOOD mustard.

The lamb pie, also amusingly called a "dingle pie", is perfectly spiced and very tasty. I would come back just for this.

The tea, with a great smoky flavor, goes perfectly with the savory food. We even get a little hourglass timer at our table to make sure the tea steeps long enough before drinking. Too cute!

And of course, we finish up with some of that awesome cake:

Bzzz! The bees are made of chocolate with almond wings. Genius.

Meanwhile, as we munch and sip away, a slight warm breeze drifts in through a side door and I hear the faint chirp of birds outside. I am feeling some serious relaxation, just what I was looking for! This is terrific.

After all this eating, we also stop by the WATER STREET MARKET (map!) for a little stroll to walk off some calories. There is a great antiques shop there, full of fun curiosities, but we also enjoy visiting a shop called “The Cheese Plate” to buy the obvious (mmm, aged Canadian cheddar).

There are more good places to share, but I’ll have to save that for another post. In the meantime, if you ever want a break from the city madness, just hop on the train and you’ll know where to go!


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A Quick Stop at Birreria!

As I have already expressed my total adoration of all things Eataly in the past, there’s not much more I can add to my impression of BIRRERIA (map!) other than it lives up to the Eataly standard.

Located on the rooftop of this great food palace, it is definitely worth a try, even if only for the ambiance. Not so much a “beer garden” as a “big lovely space where good beer and food is served,” I found the place comfortable and spacious, with excellent views and refreshing air circulation (proper air circulation is very important!). On a weekend afternoon, it is a good place to relax a bit with friends.

The elevator entrance is appropriately tucked near the beer section on the ground floor, where a hostess greeted us. Following knowledge gleaned from the internet and its masses, we asked for a table rather than just standing at the bar, which would supposedly lead to a shorter wait time. Bingo! We went up almost immediately.

Humor in the elevator.

When we got upstairs, there was a bit of minor confusion with the upstairs hostesses (how many hostesses does this place need?), who were still trying to figure out how to use their new iPad seating chart program. I thought the fancy technology was a little unnecessary, but after a short delay, we finally made it in to the “big room”.

It’s definitely a well-designed space, full of beery love. We settled in and ordered some drinks and nibbles:

Eataly India Brown Ale (brewed with maple syrup!) on the left, Dogfish Head Festina Peche (berliner weisse with peaches) on the right. Yum!

3 cheese: Ricotta Fresca, Piave, Tallegio. With honey for dipping!

Mmmm....mortadella.

There were other appetizing things on the menu, but we could only stay for a brief while. Having recently looked at the drink menu, it appears the beer selection is constantly rotating, so we look forward to returning and trying something new!

Oh, and the gelato downstairs. Gotta go back for that too.


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I’m Obsessed With Xi’an Famous Foods

It’s true. I can’t get enough of this place. Once a humble little shop in a Flushing food court, this unique Chinese food joint totally went modern, moved into a small but incredibly convenient St. Mark’s place location, and caught the eye of everyone (including Anthony Bourdain, who featured it on his No Reservations show).

I kid you not, the food at XI’AN FAMOUS FOODS (map!) is just magic. This is not hole-in-the-wall stuff, no no no. These are staple dishes of Shaanxi cuisine, featuring a northernwestern Chinese style of cooking. (Xi’an, where the famous terra cotta soldiers are located, for point of reference, is the capital of Shaanxi province). As someone who’s grown up on Cantonese cuisine, this was an amazing revelation. I’ve been begging DH to keep going back with me over and over again, and despite the constant repetition, he hardly ever says no. Thank goodness.

Here’s the usual rundown:

From the Astor Place subway stop, we head east, past the stretch of St. Mark’s full of sunglasses shops, yogurt stands, and greasy kids. We make our way almost to 1st avenue, and the burgundy doorway greets us.

Ta-daaaaa! People will peer inside, wondering if it is good. Have no doubt, it is.

If we’re lucky, there won’t be a line out the door. Lunchtime, dinnertime, and that strange 9:30 p.m. weeknight stretch when all the sad and exhausted white-collar workers are finally released from the office tend to make this place PACKED. Otherwise, this little 12-seater space is pretty manageable. My rule is: bring a date or bring a friend, just don’t bring your whole family.

A tiny shop with a big selection. What will it be?

Since the number of seats are severely limited, there are signs everywhere notifying patrons of the seating etiquette. In short, order first, THEN sit. If someone tries to claim a seat beforehand, they will incur the wrath of veteran customers. (The glare of their laser-beam eyes are physically palpable). Thankfully, the shop clerk is totally on top of it, and will politely but firmly inform offenders that they need to order first. I think everyone gets yelled at the first time, and then everything is fine from then on. And everyone WILL keep coming back.

Onto the food! I get everything “mild”, which is the perfect spice level for me. There are options to choose the level of spiciness when ordering (cash only!), and all the dishes are easily coded by letter and number.

Liang Pi Cold Skin Noodles (A1)

I will get this dish every.single.time. Oh, the texture, the chewiness of the noodles and gluten pieces, the perfect blend of cold temperature but spicy flavor. I never want it to end. It’s like doing your taste buds a favor for being so good to you all these years.

Spicy & Tingly Beef Hand-Ripped Noodles (N2)

The second dish will always be one of the “hand-pulled noodle” dishes. I don’t think it’s necessary to get the “in-soup” variations since the noodles and sauce alone are already pretty excellent, but that’s just me. The “spicy and tingly beef” is my favorite, but I will also alternate with “Spicy Cumin Lamb” (N1) (who doesn’t love cumin??), “Stewed Pork” (N4), or the amusingly-named “Concubine’s Chicken” (N6). These noodles are insanely good. The texture, different from the Liang Pi ones but just as good, are firm with the perfect amount of chew but also tastes light and fresh. Of course, it pairs amazingly well with the flavorful and tender meat.

DH and I will get these two dishes and share them. We also split one Stewed Pork Burger, which is just enough food to make us full but not uncomfortably stuffed.

Majestic stewed pork, protected by the bun...

Say AHH! The temptation to devour it in one bite is strong.

The bun is kind of like a grilled bing or mantou, faintly sweet and chewy, which is perfect for soaking up juices from the stewed pork filling. For $2.50 each, it’s a pretty filling item and makes an excellent side dish.

Finally, I have to give credit to the drink. Xi’an Famous Foods serves, among the usual water, sodas, and even jasmine tea, a great “Sour Hawberry Tea” which is the best liquid to wash down spicy food. It’s kind of like raspberry iced tea, only 100 times better. Prior to trying it, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a hawberry! So I’m eating well, AND learning new things.

Ask the cashier, and s/he will poke a hole in the sealed top for you to fit a straw.

For some reason, whenever we eat here, we are always RAVENOUS, so as soon as the food comes, we totally tear into it like wolves. No talking, just eating. It’s tasty carnage.

And even with all the sauce, all the spice, and all the grease, we will NOT be thirsty or totally salt-bloated later. That’s when we know this is real honest-to-goodness food; totally the opposite of questionable lo mein loaded with msg.

And the best part, aside from the food itself, is that all of this only sets us back around $17. Did you read that? $17!!!. So there is no excuse not to give this place a try. Maybe I will see you there.


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Osteria Morini: Beautiful Pasta On A Lazy Weekend Day

Ah, spring, a time to toss off those heavy coats and walk around the city with arms freely swinging. It is a good time to visit SoHo and check out OSTERIA MORINI (map!).

After a good long sleep, I woke up thinking “today I shall eat some pasta for lunch.” Of course, it couldn’t be just any pasta. This had to be excellent nothing-is-going-to-ruin-my-weekend pasta! My visits to Porsena and Eataly have spoiled me, but then again, is well-made, non-sticky pasta really so much to ask for? Osteria Morini had been on my radar for some time, so I figured this was the day to try it. Why hello, OpenTable, is there a table for 2 available? Yes? *Click-click* We’re on our way.

I sense greatness beyond these doors...

Osteria Morini is the lovely project of chef Michael White, who the NYTimes has aptly described as plotting his dominion through pasta. He’s also the food-master behind the restaurants Marea and Ai Fiori, both of which I would like to try someday. While Marea and Ai Fiori are a bit more expensive and haute, Osteria Morini is a charming little spot that is incredibly accessible, especially for lunch.

..."almost everything — the terra-cotta floor tiles, the farmhouse beams on the ceiling, the cast-iron front door, the gelato case — has been imported from Italy." Wow. That's dedication.

So now that we’re here, what are we eating?

Bufala mozzarella, grapes, rosemary oil, housemade sapa.

It’s amazing how just a few grapes can transform a dish. They were small bites, but each one was precious.

DH's dish: Stracci - wide ribbon pasta, braised porcini mushrooms

Look at those delicate folds. The mushrooms were just great. This stracci has also been featured in NY Magazine’s 101 pastas list (I want to eat my way through all 101), and I can see why. You can taste the love.

My dish: Tagliatelle - thin ribbon pasta, ragú all’ antica

I guess it was a ribbon pasta kind of day, but both of these dishes were amazing. This was the pasta that had been on my mind ever since I woke up. Ah, those perfectly textured carbohydrates, that flavorful sauce. Success!

So you can imagine our disbelief when the guy sitting in the next seat looked over at my plate and sniffed to his mother across the table: “Hmrph, that’s just pasta with meat sauce.”

O_O

I kept silent as if I didn’t hear him, but oh man…who put Kraft parmesan in his underpants? JUST “pasta with meat sauce”?? (And what kind of person audibly comments on strangers’ meals in restaurants?) I felt kind of sorry for the ravioli he was eating.

Still, I was enjoying my coveted nothing-is-going-to-ruin-my-weekend pasta, and it was strong enough to withstand even being insulted. I savored every bite, had a latte, and proceeded to have a fabulous weekend.

Go visit Osteria Morini. I hope you won’t have to sit next to that guy, but even if you do, know that nothing can spoil your meal when the food is that good.


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The Breslin + Porsena: dimly-lit tasty lamby things

Let’s clap our hands for good lamb dishes! I confess that I am picky about my “baaaa!!” meat. For me, it needs to be fresh, well-seasoned, and paired with a good drink. Thankfully, the following two restaurants totally met the criteria.

I went to THE BRESLIN BAR & DINING ROOM (map!) with fav restaurant buddy recently and we decided on the “chargrilled lamb burger with feta, cumin mayo & thrice cooked chips.” Seeing it on all our neighbors’ tables helped us make up our minds, and we weren’t disappointed. So tender, so tasty:

I bleated with jubilation at the first bite.

Accompanying our meal were a side of broccoli with aged cheddar (wow, it should be a crime for vegetables to be this delectable), scallops with yogurt & mint vinaigrette (ahhh, the taste of the sea…), and a prime serving of some cheesy bruschetta thing (I forget the name, argh!) that was such a treat because it didn’t taste like a brick of sawdust like 99.9% of other examples I’ve eaten:

Soft and tasty, like a delicious pillow.

We ended with the brioche donuts with spiced maple butter, chocolate sauce, and caramel sauce. We had more sauce than there were donuts to dip! I was tempted to behave in an un-ladylike manner and just lick those sauce dishes clean:

Donuts donuts donuts

I must also take a moment to sing extra praises of the drink I discovered here to accompany my meal, and then returned to the Breslin soon after to have again. Behold, the Bitches Brew (mescal, tomato juice, fresh lime juice, spices, topped with beer):

Two for one!

I’ve never had a beer cocktail before, but now I’m a fan for life. If you like Bloody Marys, beer, and well-made cocktails in general, this is the drink for you. As the picture shows, it is accompanied by a can of Tecate beer for top-up (quite a nice deal for $12 total), and the slow transition from mezcal taste to beer taste makes for an excellent experience. I seriously heart this drink. Of course, what better to pair it with than more thrice-cooked chips. Om nom nom.

I was the prettiest potato....

As a final note, this place has really fun pig-themed decor. The restaurant is connected to the Ace Hotel next door, and you have to pass through the trendy hotel lobby to get to the bathroom. Everything is very hip and happenin’ and it’s a cool people-watching sort of place. Try not to dress like a hobo, unless it’s an ironic hipster hobo.

Onto the next! My visit to PORSENA (map!) was a rare example of solo dining, and I loved every minute of it.

Hello, hello! Would you like some awwwwwesome pasta?

Located in the old Village Mingala burmese restaurant space (which I had frequented in the past and really liked, so I was glad it got replaced by something good), Porsena has been noted for its excellent pasta, and I thought it was worth a visit. I arrived after the dinner rush and was seated right away. My waiter was attentive and cordial, and started me out with some bread and olive oil and a nice glass of colle moro red wine. I ended up choosing the “anneloni con salsiccia e rape” (ring-shaped pasta, spicy lamb sausage, mustard greens) as my entrée and it was fantastic!

More lamb at its finest.

The spicy lamb sausage packed a big punch of flavor, and the mustard greens were a nice contrast for the carbs. I rounded out the meal with a dessert of panna cotta and pistachio-chocolate bark and left feeling incredibly satisfied.

Notably, just a few days ago, I saw that New York Magazine chose the anneloni dish as the representative for Porsena in its “Pasta Porn: 101 of America’s Most Delicious Noodle Dishes” list. I am glad the NYMag peeps agreed, as this was some gooood pasta! Porsena is a candidate for many return trips, absolutely.


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M. Wells: Reason #2 to Take the 7 Train

As a current Manhattanite, I am pretty clueless outside of the home borough. I am figuring out Brooklyn at a respectable pace, with the various street names becoming more and more familiar as I trek out to eat new delicious foods. But Queens? Up until this point, my destination has only ever been Flushing to get choice dim sum or other good Chinese cuisine. That’s a long ride.

Thankfully, M. WELLS is just 2 stops from Grand Central! (map!)

A brilliant disguise! You'd never know they serve fois gras in there.

Hooray for Long Island City! There is no excuse for not taking the subway to this gem of a restaurant. It is probably a longer ride to Union Square from GCT, and the Hunters Point stop is right next to the restaurant for additional convenience. My aforementioned cluelessness led us to get off at the Vernon Blvd/Jackson Ave stop accidentally (oops!), so we had to walk through a semi-creepy and desolate block from the other direction, but all in all, it is really not difficult or scary to get to this place!

Once you’re inside, it’s like night and day. The retro diner decor makes you feel like you’re in a bygone era:

So many people! So much energy! So much food!

We had a bit of a wait since we were part of the mass wave of people following the footsteps of NYTimes’ Sam Sifton and the just-published Time Out New York review, but it wasn’t too bad and the hostess (who I think was the co-owner Sarah Obraitis, or least an amazingly good doppelgänger) was very nice, thanking us for our patience. I think we did ok without a reservation, but I highly recommend getting one since they only serve dinner on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays right now. Given the number of people coming through the door, it seemed tough for the restaurant to get everyone a seat at the exact reserved time, but those people were, of course, given priority once seats cleared up.

In the end, we got nice counter seats, and I actually recommend these over the booths/tables because you get to see the open kitchen action up-close. We chose a couple of cocktails, which I absolutely loved Loved LOVED. The menu descriptions are simple, but the taste and presentation were tops. High class yet casually fun.

There was the J.F.K. Harris (white rum, lemon juice, sugar, mint, red wine) in a coca-cola glass:

I'm a sucker for density-column type drinks. It's tasty science!

And the M. Gibson (gin, dry vermouth, brine, orange bitters):

If you like dirty martinis, this is the signature cocktail of your mothership.

I need to try the rest of the cocktail menu. They were created by Zachary Gelnaw-Rubin at nearby Dutch Kills, so there’s a good standard at work here.

Onto the food. Deciding what to eat was agonizingly difficult. Everything looked really good. We decided to go with their Queens Clam Chowder, which was served in a huge tureen (maybe too huge, a small baby can probably take a bath in this thing!). Luckily, it contained about 3 servings, perfect for two hungry people.

*SLURP*chew*chew*chew*

We didn’t get it with the optional fois gras (extra $10), which was for the best because the soup was quite rich already. I’m starting to think I’m some kind of salt whiner, but the flavorful broth was a tad bit too salty in my opinion. The stuff IN the soup, however, was a totally different story. As someone who constantly suffers the indignity of barely-there clam bits in most of the chowders I consume in restaurants, this dish was like winning the clam lottery. The clams were BIG, PLENTIFUL, and FRESH. Did I just see a whole piece of mussel in there too? Oh my god.

Then we had the escargot and bone marrow, which was absolutely decadent:

I wish we had 5 of these...

As we ate, the speakers piped in some choice tunes. I never thought I’d be eating a dish of this level while listening to Snoop, but somehow it just worked.

Not wanting to have to be carted home in wheelbarrows, we finished up by splitting a slice of coconut cream pie, which was absolutely the right choice.

Can you handle my coconuttiness??

Ahhhhh! It looks so simple and benign, but once you dig in, it just hooks you. Not too sweet, not too gloppy puddingy, a crust that doesn’t overwhelm the cream, and just the right amount of whipped creme.

Stomach: What are you doing taking photos? Pie in mouth now!

We left feeling quite satisfied, but before walking out the door, what did I do?

I made a reservation for next week.