MENU: RESTAURANT WEEK

This is not actually a menu, sorry.
This is not actually a menu, sorry. // WEEKEND

Restaurant Week allows Yale students to stick their noses in the air and play at being Ruth Reichl or Pete Wells. We only wish the following were written exclusively in rhetorical questions (Were you struck by how far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are? Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?). WEEKEND reports.

IBIZA

// BY EMMA SCHMIDT AND  KIRSTEN SCHNACKENBERG

This past Tuesday night, we found ourselves in Ibiza. Unfortunately, not the Ibiza in chic, exciting Spain — but New Haven’s Ibiza, a “very special Spanish restaurant,” according to the restaurant’s fairly dated website.

We arrived a few minutes late for our 8:30 reservation and were shuffled to the bar to await our table. After a few frustrating inquiries (and longing looks at the food of the patrons next to us), we were seated just before 9:00.

Our first picks of the evening were the grilled shrimp salad with avocado and the butternut squash soup. You’ll note that neither of these dishes seems particularly Spanish.

Looking back, the main issue with our meal was that we did not have any traditional Spanish cuisine, or even hints of Spanish flavor. The third aperitivo offered was a stew with chorizo, called Fabada — none of these dishes scream Spain!, do they?

The contrasting textures of the salad, between the warm shrimp and creamy avocado, were delicious. Mixed with baby greens and a light vinaigrette, it was a tasty way to start the meal. The soup, meanwhile, was less hearty than a normal butternut squash soup, and a strong undertone of lemon contributed to its tasting a bit like spa water. Not the best start to a meal, guys.

While waiting for our main dishes, we enjoyed the “toasty bread” (a phrase from the ever-eloquent Kirsten), a lightly salted focaccia with high-quality olive oil, and surveyed the other diners. “Who actually eats here during the week?” Kirsten asked. We noted the multitude of businessmen and peered at the rare student in the mix.

Not long after the aperitivo piqued our appetites, our meals arrived: mushroom risotto with oysters and hanger steak. The steak, cooked perfectly medium-rare, was tender and juicy. It came with a potato confit and a chimichurri sauce — “too much sauce for me,” Kirsten exclaimed. But the risotto was underwhelming. Risotto is known to be a dish for which the right amount of time is absolutely essential. Given that Restaurant Week results in such increased volumes of diners, we’re not sure why a chef would choose to make risotto. Risotto involves constant stirring and watching, until the grains of Arborio rice are bursting with liquid and flavor; the rice in the risotto at Ibiza was not quite cooked, but was instead mixed in with a soupy, creamy sauce, presumably to cover its inadequate preparation.

Our meal ended with the chocolate truffle cake, a small rectangle of chocolate mousse with some crunchy chocolate pearls on top (we were confused and intrigued by the weirdness of these pearls). It was a very ehhhh end to our meal, nothing worth finishing or writing home about. By this point, waiters were hurrying us along as they began to clear off the tables around us. Our Ibiza experience had come to a pretty obvious, pretty underwhelming close.

It’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy our meals — we did. We just weren’t wowed; we didn’t experience any particularly Spanish cuisine. After the meal, we checked out Ibiza’s normal lunch and dinner menus. We were not so surprised to find that none of the dishes from the Restaurant Week menu, except for that one undercooked risotto, exist on either.

The idea of Restaurant Week, it seems, is to expose diners to a restaurant at which they might not otherwise consider eating. But if restaurants like Ibiza, choose to dumb down their signature cuisine and offer crowd-pleasers that are not particularly expensive to make, we’re left with less of an incentive to go during this particular week — why not go on a normal week and just share a couple of dishes to be cost-conscious? We’re eyeing the grilled octopus salad and the rabbit.

ISTANBUL CAFE

// BY TAOTAO HOLMES

You feel like you’re about to enter a lair. Confronted by a deep red curtain cascading from ceiling to floor, you tuck your iPhone away and cautiously part the heavy cloth. You are in the heart of Istanbul.

Within, candles flicker and wineglasses glint upon intricate mosaic tabletops. Elaborate chandeliers suffuse the room with a dim, dreamy light, while white curtains drawn over the windows block out the harsh concrete edges of Crown Street. Sitting here in Istanbul Cafe, it’s impossible not to relax your shoulders, exhale your anxieties, and forget about where you just were or where you’re soon going.

Artfully arranged on decorated platters, the food is rich, nuanced and authentic to its roots. It is also served in liberal portions. The waiter, when not taking orders or delivering dishes, surveys the tables from behind the bar, which pulses furtively in partial shadow.

The appetizers are satisfying all on their own. The Mücver, a vegetable fritter, is crispy and golden on the outside before melting in your mouth, the zucchini soft and perfectly unctuous. It is part-potato pancake and part-baked zucchini, but more carefully flavored and crafted than either. Slather some Ispanak Ezme — a smooth, luxuriant spread of spinach and garlic — on chunks of bread, torn from a soft, freshly baked slat cradled in a wicker basket. The cool of the spread on the warmth of the bread wakes up your taste buds and deepens your cravings.

The salads are light and delicate, the Coban a toss-up of cucumber, parsley, onion, mint, vinegar and olive oil, and the Green Salad a gathering of red cabbage, lettuce, feta cheese, and a few other fine friends.

For your entrée, you might go for the Sultan’s Delight. Sitting here like a sultan, it only makes sense. Your choice of lamb, chicken or vegetables arrives marinated in tomato and creamy smoked eggplant. The cubes of lamb are succulent and slightly chewy, hidden within a mélange of roasted peppers. As classic as this Ottoman dish is touted to be, my hands keep returning to the bread which, throughout the meal, somehow maintains its softness and a lingering warmth.

Istanbul Café is an underappreciated asset, a lovely, hushed alcove in the harsh cold and concrete of New Haven. For vegetarians, the menu, filled with dishes centered around spinach, eggplant and hummus, is a relief from scouring for Caesar salads and veggie burgers at your typical American joint. The waiter is quiet and genteel, his speech slightly accented, and exhibits a genuine concern for the quality of your meal. The prices, too, are reasonable, with $7 appetizers and $16 entrees.

As for a finish, go for the Kazan Dibi. It’s like flan, but edgier, cool and sweet on the tongue. It balances on the tightrope between heavy and light so often sought by desserts but so rarely accomplished. Perhaps to balance the sweetness, order a cup of Turkish coffee or tea, thick and strong and served in porcelain cups.

Stomach smug, anxieties settled, I part the curtain once again and step back into the New Haven night air.

116 CROWN

// BY DEVIKA MITTAL 

Even if you have been at Yale for a while, it’s unlikely that you’ve heard of 116 Crown.

Known only by its street address, 116 Crown is a swanky dinner-only spot tucked relatively far away from Yale’s main campus. However, do not mistake its obscurity within Yale circles for a lack of quality, for the restaurant is nothing but interesting furniture pieces in an upscale well-lit bar.

Arriving 10 minutes before official hours (5 p.m.–2:00 a.m.), I was seated promptly by a smiling server. Even though the restaurant was empty, I found myself enjoying the calm music and the lack of activity in the space. Since the restaurant transforms into a lively bar at night (for those fortunately over 21), I was happy to get a chance to relax and focus just on the food.

Looking at their Restaurant Week menu, I wasn’t sure whether I was disappointed by the lack of options for each course or excited by the prospect of deciding within the options — all of which seemed promising.

I decided to go for crispy ravioli, a hanger steak and a chocolate mousse.

My first course, the ravioli, was rather underwhelming. This may be in part because I had completely failed to register the word “crispy” in its name. Instead of a delicate blend of meat and pasta, I got three tiny ravioli pieces, each of which was fried to oblivion, effectively destroying the taste of the stuffing. The only real flavor in the dish came from the apple compote that accompanied. Reminiscent of packaged baby food, it added nothing to the dish and left an unappetizing aftertaste. The dish in its entirety left me dissatisfied and yearning for something more refined. However, despite this unexciting start, the night was to hold many surprises.

The first of these was the hanger steak. Although it was served lukewarm, the dish’s multiple layers of taste came together beautifully. The onions were roasted and caramelized, the tomato-based romesco sauce provided a hint of flavor and the steak itself was cooked and seasoned well. However, what separated this hanger steak from the others I’ve had was the accompanying polenta. An airy blend of Spanish cabrales, cheese and corn, it was fitting companion to the meat.

The pièce de résistance of the menu, however, had been saved for last — the dark chocolate and hazelnut mousse. A mixture of hazelnut grain, chocolate and flour provided a base that was both chewy and crunchy. This was complemented by layers of fine dark chocolate mousse and whipped cream. The concoction was topped with chocolate shavings and hazelnuts, leaving a lingering taste of coffee. If I could sing its praises across New Haven, I would. Really.

Overall, I left happy that I had made the trek. Although I was sporting a hefty backpack and had committed the ultimate social faux pas by coming unfashionably early, the staff was very nice and did not look down at me snottily. The bar, tantalizingly out of reach, was well-stocked. The lighting and the music were fitting, and most of the food was delicious. So if you’re like me and you love food, ditch the usual Zinc or Barcelona and try this one instead. I promise the chocolate mousse will not let you down.

Note: The mousse and the hanger steak are only part of the special menu for Restaurant Week and are not available during the rest of the year.

116 Crown is only open for dinner, Tuesday to Sunday.

ZINC

// BY BAOBAO ZHANG

To begin with, I am somewhat risk-averse when it comes to restaurants. I avoid them unless a date, Grand Strategy or the Yale Daily News pays the bill. For someone who survived in New York on a $40-a-week grocery budget, spending $35 on a single three-course meal seems prodigal. Every single cent of that meal must be worth it.

Although the News reimbursed me for my Restaurant Week dinner at Zinc, I stepped into the restaurant with some trepidation. My meal at Zinc did not disappoint. It satisfied but did not amaze me. In short, my experience at Zinc proved to be pleasant but not impressive.

I prefer shrimp to soup, salmon to chicken, and sorbet to ice cream. But I ordered what readers would most likely try from the Restaurant Week menu. Squash soup, grilled chicken and apple crisp with gelato are all safe options. But they provide a great reference point for evaluating the quality of a restaurant, because we have been eating these dishes week in and week out in our dining halls.

It would be unfair to compare dining hall squash soup to Zinc’s first course. The latter soup has a creamier consistency and a more natural color. I happen to enjoy food more towards the mild side. But if you’re adventurous and enjoy winter soups packed with flavor, this is probably a bit bland for you.

The entrée — grilled chicken, creamed spinach and garlic mashed potatoes — is a structurally complex dish. Two pieces of chicken rest upon a bed of mashed potatoes that rest upon a pile of creamed spinach. By slicing away the skin of the chicken in contact with the potatoes, the chef avoided the common mistake of soggy chicken skin. Simply genius.

Unfortunately, the crispy skin on the top piece of chicken proved to be bitter. I tasted hints of peppercorn every third bite. Furthermore, the meat of the bird lacked moisture. I had better grilled chicken at formal hall in Pembroke College, Cambridge, where poor, young Spaniards staff the kitchen. Maybe the eurozone crisis forces people to become better cooks.

On the other hand, the mashed potatoes and spinach tasted superb. Swimming in a creamy sauce, the potatoes reminded me the first time I tasted mashed potatoes in America. Not exactly Proust’s madeleine, but sentimental nevertheless. Likewise, the spinach — soft but still brightly green — reminded me why spinach is my favorite vegetable. I ate all the spinach. My mother would be proud.

Finally, I enjoyed a lovely apple and cranberry crisp topped with vanilla gelato. Unlike the red goop you find in the dining hall, this dessert actually has flavors beyond corn syrup. The bright sweetness of the gelato melting into the sour fruit creates an ideal mixture.

Was the three-course meal at Zinc worth the full $32 (minus tax) I paid? Not exactly. But it was a satisfying experience I could not have achieved in a Yale dining hall or my own kitchen. If you just got a job offer or want to celebrate your first-month dating anniversary, go to Zinc. But if you’re flat broke and single like me, buy some ingredients, go to your college kitchen and make a nice dinner for your friends.

OAXACA

// BY JULIA ZORTHIAN

A combination of factors — living over a block away, having at least one Mexican food night a week at the Yale Daily News building, and never quite knowing how to pronounce the name — kept me from ever visiting Oaxaca Kitchen Bar & Restaurant before Tuesday night. But I started hearing some Oaxaca hype from friends, so made my way to 228 College St. with mounting anticipation for what I heard was some excellent guacamole.

When my friend and I entered the darkened restaurant, my eyes were drawn to a large green lizard that was lit up behind the bar. While my Connecticut upbringing doesn’t quite make me an expert on the authenticity of Mexican ambiance, the lizard, paired with the warm lighting and rustic, reddish-brown decor, seemed festive enough without being too tacky.

We were seated at a table for two by the front window, and surveyed the menu. Once I got past the crazy fonts, all of the items looked exciting, inexpensive and unlike the standard Yale Dining Mexican entrées (I forgot what a tofu-less menu looked like). I was tempted by the Barbacoa taco and the mole rojo on the Restaurant Week prix fixe menu, but ended up choosing a molé tamale to start, chile rellenos at the recommendation of the waiter, and tres leches cake to finish. Maddie ordered the necessary guacamole and two chicken tacos, as well as the complimentary rice and beans to round out the feast. We were soon presented with crispy house-made chips and a red and green salsa, so the meal was off to a promising start. Maddie and I agreed that the green salsa had a bit more kick than the red, but both were light, smooth and not too overwhelming.

Soon el molcajete, the large stone bowl of guacamole, arrived at our table, and though we only appreciated the artfully arranged tortilla chips for about four seconds before digging in, they were a welcome addition. The guacamole itself was colorful and fresh, with chunks of avocado and tomato to give it texture and a hint of lemon adding to the expected guacamole flavor. There was also way too much for two people, but for a $10 dish there should be enough for a group.

The pollo con mole y tamales de queso, which was a tamale of corn dough, soft queso fresco, cilantro-whisked white balsamic and maldon salt served with traditional mole sauce was the most visually stunning dish of the night, though it came with the entrées so I suddenly found myself surrounded by dishes. The filling, which we ate out of the surrounding corn leaf, didn’t have a lot of flavor in itself, but the mole (a chocolate and poblano pepper-based sauce) was memorably flavorful and well-spiced without using too much chocolate and tasting like a dessert. The dish as a whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

The chile rellenos was made of poblano peppers and baby spinach with a sweet corn and queso fresco filling, surrounded by salsa ranchera. The salsa stood out as having a nice kick and a complex roasted tomato flavor. The dish was warm and gooey on the inside from the cheese, with a fried outer coating that didn’t add much except another physical layer to the dish. There were a lot of flavors going on when I managed to fit pepper, spinach, cheese, corn and salsa in one bite, but they worked together well and amounted to a nice departure from the classic taco/burrito meal that’s so available on Wall Street. The black beans and rice dishes that came with the meal (upon request) completed the entrée spread, and led to a good amount of mixing the dishes.

Our waiter forgot the tres leches cake at first so it was all the more rewarding when, topped with a ton of whipped cream and a chocolate tuille, the spongy cake arrived. The cake was light and fluffy without being too sweet, and came sitting on top of a pool of the condensed milk — a nice surprise for a cake that is so often served dripping in the stuff.

While following the Restaurant Week menu led to a huge meal, it would also be possible to stop by for only two tacos for a pretty inexpensive $6 meal that includes chips, salsa, rice, beans and tortillas for no extra charge. The major drawback of the Restaurant Week menu is that the $32 dinner charge is actually more expensive than ordering the three courses on their own. So don’t worry that Restaurant Week is over — the year-round menu is the real reason to go.

 

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