Category Archives: Chef

Dina’s Best of 2017

As 2017 ends, it’s a time to reflect on all the delicious meals and treats I had this year.  I had some firsts this year that have become favorites:  pupusas,

pasteis de nata (Portuguese egg custard tarts),

pasteis de nata

adjaruli khachapuri (a Georgian boat-shaped bread filled with sulguni cheese and topped with an egg and butter)

and hot pot. 

hot pot at Good Harvest

It was a year of great food with the exception of two disappointing meals, one at one of those cheesy (pun intended) fondue restaurants that served mediocre cheese and another at the much-acclaimed Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina.  I had high hopes for Chef & the Farmer, especially since I lived in southeastern North Carolina for a number of years and know its farming history, but it turned out to be up there with my Dovetail experience a few years back as one of the worst restaurant meals I’ve ever had.  Regardless, I ate well this year, especially on my New Jersey pizza tour. 


I declared Star Tavern in Orange, NJ, and Brooklyn’s Coal-Burning Brick-Oven Pizza in Hackensack, NJ, as the best overall pizza in New Jersey with Papa’s Tomato Pies in Robbinsville, NJ, having the most traditional and flavorful crust. 

ice cream

I did a best ice cream in New Jersey tour too.  My favorite ice cream was from 

  1. Denville Dairy in Denville, NJ–the creamiest soft-serve ice cream.
  2. Magnifico’s in East Brunswick, NJ–best cherry-dipped cone.
  3. Cookman Creamery in Asbury Park, NJ–delicious vegan options.

I discovered Calandra’s Bakery and returned to my childhood with delicious pepperoni bread as well as many other great pastries.

There was a lot more, but these stand out as the most memorable of the year.


Bucatini all’amatriciana in Honor of Italy’s Earthquake Victims

Last week, the Italian town of Amatrice was preparing for the 50th anniversary of sagra, its food festival to celebrate its famous dish, bucatini all’amatriciana, when a devastating 6.2 earthquake hit, destroying much of the city and killing 291 people.  A number of restaurants and chefs, including Jamie Oliver, are serving the local dish and donating a portion of the cost to the Italian Red Cross to help the victims.

Bucatini all’amatriciana is made with a tomato-and-bacon-based sauce with red chili, topped with pecorino romano cheese.  The bacon used is called guanciale, and it is a locally made bacon using the pork cheek, or jowl.  The fat is rendered from the bacon and used as the base of the sauce.

Of course, this is Italy, so there are different ways of making the sauce.  Some recipes add olive oil, onion, garlic, wine or basil.  These particular additions are usually made to “cut the fat,” as the guanciale can impart a gamey, fatty taste.


Some substitute pancetta or bacon for the guanciale, but that’s only if guanciale is not readily available because all these products are different and will change the dish.  Some use a different pasta besides bucatiniBucatini is similar to perciatelli, which my family uses.  These are used interchangeably today, but I have seen them as two distinct pasta shapes in old cookbooks.  Some think spaghetti is a reasonable substitution but scoff at using a short pasta.  But there are reasons for using a particular pasta, such as how the sauce adheres to it.  Because tomatoes were not grown in the area, canned tomatoes are used.  (Before tomatoes arrived in Italy, the dish was made white, or in bianco.  The tomato-less version is called alla gricia.  Some think the dish only started having tomatoes after World War II.)  Finally, it is essential to use pecorino romano cheese and not parmigiano reggiano because the former is a sheep’s-milk cheese, which is from the local area with its history of shepherding, not cow’s-milk, like the latter.

I made bucatini all’amatriciana this weekend from the recipe in La Cucina:  The Regional Cooking of Italy by the Italian Academy of Cuisine.  Luckily, I found guanciale and got it cubed, which is how it is typically cut for this dish.  I substituted perciatelli for the bucatini, since I already had some.  Really, you can do what you like because the resultant dish will be delicious no matter how it is prepared.  The only criticism of mine would be that I used a lot of sauce, but this is how we like it.


In addition to bucatini all’amatriciana, I made farro all’amatriciana with some farro I got from my cousin in Italy.  The farro recipe comes from Savoring Italy by Robert Freson.



Giovanni Rana Pastificio & Cucina in NYC

I tend to avoid Chelsea Market/Meatpacking restaurants because, for the most part, they are a bit touristy.  Although now and again, I do visit them, and Chelsea Market itself for some of the stores there.  When an acquaintance from Milan told me that Giovanni Rana ravioli was good ravioli, I had to try it.  Ravioli in the United States has been pretty disappointing.  What is available commercially in the grocery stores isn’t very flavorful, and the ravioli are small.  I tried a few of Giovanni Rana’s store-bought ravioli, and I really liked the cheese “delicato” ravioli.  So I was excited to try his NYC restaurant, Giovanni Rana Pastificio & Cucina.  The restaurant has a large, rustic dining area with wooden tables and pots hanging from the ceiling.  The space was not so intimate, but on the plus side, with a lot of seating, there was no wait on a busy weekday for lunch.  Our waiters were friendly.  The focaccia and olive oil were good.


We came purely for the ravioli, so we didn’t order antipasto or anything else.  I ordered the Quattro Formaggi Ravioli, Walnut Pesto.  This dish was delicious.  I really like the walnut pesto.


My friend got the Truffle Mushroom Ravioli, Black Truffle Butter.  This dish was also very good.


I would recommend dining at the restaurant because the preparation of the sauces for the ravioli is very good.  So even if you make the ravioli at home, unless you are a chef, it is nice to have an expert hand making the sauce.

Poole’s Diner

I have been wanting to try Poole’s Diner for a long time.  I’d been to Beasley’s, one of Ashley Christensen’s other Raleigh restaurants, and I thought the food there was very good.  I got fried chicken and waffles.  It was delicious–and I don’t even like fried chicken.  However, I was not crazy about the uncomfortable seats and the chalkboard menus.  Poole’s has the same chalkboard menus but normal seating.  We got here early, one of the first customers, and we waited until the restaurant officially opened.  We were seated quickly then and the dining room took no time to fill up.  I did notice that, despite the fact that we were one of the first people there, food kept coming out of the kitchen and going to other tables while we waited for our order.

We started with the pimento cheese appetizer.  Both of us thought it was a little hotter than we like pimento cheese.


Of course, we got the famous mac and cheese.  I really liked it.  I love a creamy mac and cheese.  My friend was hoping for a more traditional mac and cheese.  But I think the blend of Jarlsberg, Grana Padano and white cheddar is fab.

Poole's Diner macaroni and cheese

We also got the root vegetable au gratin, and maybe it was because of the mac and cheese, but I wasn’t tasting the au gratin part very much.


I got the special of the night, a pork chop with escarole and bread pudding.  The pork chop was a tad dry, which is better than undercooked pork which I sometimes get when I order pork chops.  I liked the escarole.  The bread pudding tasted a bit like Thanksgiving stuffing.


For dessert, we shared a chocolate church cake with hazelnuts.  This cake was great.  If you like rich chocolate ganache, you’d love it.


Stick With Me Chocolate Bon Bons

chocolate bon bons, chocolates, Stick With Me, bon bons

Someone loves me very much and bought me Stick With Me chocolate bon bons for Valentine’s Day!  Stick With Me is a Nolita chocolate shop owned by Susanna Yoon, whose resume includes head chocolatier at Per Se as well as pastry cook at Cafe Boulud.  Her specialty is hand-shelled chocolate.  After sampling this box of beauties, I can say that I have a new favorite chocolate in New York!


It is so hard to find that perfect balance in chocolate–taste and beauty.  Some very delicious chocolates are often nothing more than boring brown.  On the other hand, some fancy chocolates with colorful designs and intricate shapes can be quite average in taste.

chocolate bon bons, Stick With Me, chocolates, bon bons

Stick With Me creates that perfect balance of aesthetics and flavor.  It was truly a delight to savor each shiny orb.  My favorite was the wild strawberry, a sublime blend of creme fraiche, wild strawberry and white chocolate ganache.  A close second was yuzu, with such a lovely burst of fresh citrus.  Lest you think I only like white chocolate, the dark chocolate raspberry rose came in third.  I liked the pronounced rose flavor with a hint of raspberry.  There is no doubt that these wonderful flavors are the work of an expert hand.  Sea salt caramels run the risk of being too salty or not salty enough.  Yoon’s have just the right amount of salt, and the liquid salted caramel is a refreshing and fun variation of salted caramel.  The speculoos s’more has a homemade marshmallow atop crushed speculoos cookies. The kalamansi meringue pie is an adorable chocolate.  As you can see from the cross section, it has graham cracker pie crust on the bottom topped with a layer of custard pie filling and a dollop of meringue.  If that is not the cutest chocolate ever….


If you cannot tell from my enthusiasm, my box of 24 bon bons was gone gone quite quickly.

Standard Foods May Be Standard But It Is Far From Ordinary

Standard Foods is the perfect name for this Raleigh restaurant by former Herons executive chef Scott Crawford. All the foods here are locally sourced, whole foods. And there’s a market attached so you can purchase them to cook at home. Kudos to you if you can cook them with an expert hand like this chef. I’ll stick with dining at the restaurant.

My friend and I started with smoked pecans from the snacks section of the menu. I guessed they would have some kind of seasoning on them. But they tasted like they had been cooked in a smoker. They are so wonderfully addictive.

smoked pecans

We ordered a turnip and apple salad from the small plates section. Is this the first time someone is writing that a turnip salad was absolutely delicious? But this one is. All the elements, including the creamy dressing and cheese, work well together.

turnip and apple salad

We followed with a nice, slightly sweet butternut squash ravioli.

butternut squash ravioli

The roasted chicken breast and leg cooked in duck fat with mushrooms and carrots is a very generous large plate. The chicken breast was cooked perfectly. The leg was very rich. We shared this dish, so it worked out well for two. The carrots had a delightful sweet glaze.


The potato puree arrived in adorable Le Creuset cookware. I really liked this very smooth version of mashed potatoes.

potato puree

The sopping bread was a very nice multigrain bread from Boulted Bread.

Boulted bread

For dessert, I got the sweet potato cheesecake, a deconstructed version of cheesecake with these caramel popcorn pieces and a creme fraiche. Divine! Just wish the serving was bigger!

sweet potato cheesecake

Recap of Best of the West 2015

The Smith, gnocchi, white truffle

Toasted ricotta gnocchi with white truffle cream from The Smith

Last weekend, I attended Best of the West, the third and final night of New Taste of the Upper West Side, the annual food event celebrating the chefs and restaurants of the Upper West Side.  It was a beautiful evening–though not clear enough for Manhattanhenge, but perfect for the festivities going on under the tent as the sun set and the stars twinkled above the upper Manhattan sky.


This year’s event featured 44 restaurants and many wineries and breweries, serving up tastes of their best dishes and drinks.


I wish I could’ve tried all of the options, but I did my best to eat my way around the entire tent.

The food is definitely the highlight of the evening, and I was happy to try the offerings.

Bromberg, The Ribbon

Chopped liver on rye crackers from The Ribbon



Chicken & watercress dumplings from RedFarm


Ed's Chowder House

Skuna Bay salmon sliders with pickled pepper relish & aioli on a Martins potato bun from Ed’s Chowder House


Cesca Enoteca & Trattoria, stracciatella

House-made stracciatella served over fettunta with a spring rhubarb compote and fresh mint from Cesca Enoteca & Trattoria


Sysco Metro NY

Chilled shrimp over farro salad from Sysco Metro NY


Cesare Casella

Cesare Casella salami station

My vegetarian friend was also happy, as there were a lot of options for vegetarians.  In fact, some of my favorite dishes of the evening were vegetarian ones.  The chipotle grilled seitan with corn salsa and avocado mousse from Candle Cafe West was a delicious favorite.

Candle Cafe West, seitan

Chipotle grilled seitan with corn salsa and avocado mousse from Candle Cafe West

The barbecued turnips, avocado, pumpkin seeds from Dovetail was delicious as well.  Our vegetarian favorite was the toasted ricotta gnocchi with white truffle cream from The Smith (and yes, we did have seconds!).

For the sweet tooth, there were a number of options–from classics like brookies at Alice’s Tea Cup and  banana pudding

banana pudding, Magnolia Bakery

Banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery

and whoopie pies at Magnolia Bakery to beautiful pastry creations like Driscoll strawberry parfait verrine from Jacques Torres

Jacques Torres

Strawberry parfait verrine from Jacques Torres

and strawberry tiramisu from Jean-Georges.


Strawberry tiramisu from Jean-Georges

The dessert standout was the salted caramel macaron spiked with Remy Martin Cognac 1738 from Mille-Feuille Bakery.  Oh, boy, did this have a kick!

Mille-Feuille Bakery, Remy Martin, macaron

Salted caramel & Remy Martin Cognac 1738 macaron from Mille-Feuille Bakery

Best of the West offers a VIP option where doors open an hour earlier, as well as offering other perks like a gift bag of goodies and a private lounge area.  I like the VIP option because it is less crowded and there are no lines to wait to try the food.  Also, the VIP hour gives you a better opportunity to meet your favorite chefs for a photo and chat.

Lauren Scala, WNBC “Today in New York” host was MC and hosts included Anne Burrell, chef and host of Food Network’s “Worst Cooks in America”

Anne Burrell

Anne Burrell in the VIP lounge

and Marc Murphy, chef and host of Food Network’s “Chopped.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the entertainment.  As you walked through the tent, you were greeted by glamorous beauties on stilts


and a corde lisse artist a la Cirque du Soleil.


A DJ spinning great house, dance and techno music divided the night with Joe Battaglia and the New York Big Band for a night of Dina music heaven.  Some folks danced, especially as the night wore on.  And of course, the night ended–too soon–with the band’s rendition of New York, New York.