I always whine that there's nothing to eat in the area around where I work, up on "The Avenue" near Central Park. Sure, we have Delmonico Gourmet Market (55 E. 59th St.), which makes a mean panini, and Oxford Cafe (591 Lexington Ave.), which is pretty awesome for sandwiches. Still, there's a gaping hole in my lunchtime eating repertoire. It's either standard deli fare like Delmonico or Oxford, the fast-n-greasy stuff like Five Guys or Pop Burger, or it's a sit-down banquet that cleans out your (attractive faux snakeskin) pocketbook.
I had almost reached the point of gnawing on leather purse straps at Coach to quell my hunger when my faith in Midtown East's restaurants was restored by my lunchtime experience at Tao (42 E. 58th St.) on December 17. I think my life has been changed forever, and some of my long-held beliefs about my own food habits were challenged over the course of two hours.
If you've ever been anywhere in Midtown, you know that $25 will get you approximately one and a half cocktails or the leg of one of the giant stuffed animals in the window of F.A.O. Schwartz. At Tao, however, $25 is money well spent on their prix fixe lunch menu, which comes to a random $24.07. For that price, diners choose from a list of appetizers, a list of entrees, and three possible desserts.
To celebrate the upcoming holidays, two co-workers and I trudged through the gross streets with our boss for an early afternoon lunch. The place had been bought out for a private party beginning at 2 p.m., so we chose an earlier time slot for our reservation. Yes, that's right, lunch reservations. When we entered the restaurant and battled our way through the hordes of people waiting for a table at 12:30 p.m., I immediately understood why.
The space is cavernous, with a large stone Buddha gazing placidly across the main room. At his feet is a waterfall and a pool filled with large, live fish, and directly in front of it is a table with a glass top above a basin full of red rose petals. Mood lighting and exposed brick walls added to the atmosphere, and we speculated that the vast restaurant now dotted with tables was once a theater, or perhaps a church.
We were immediately led upstairs, and the second floor was a balcony of sorts that only covered half the space of the first floor. We had a beautiful view of the Buddha waterfall from above, and were seated next to a huge full bar. When my boss ordered champagne for the table, I knew this would be much better than I could even have imagined.
I was right. At first I was annoyed with the extraordinarily slow service (this isn't brunch, after all) but decided to cut the place a bit of slack considering its huge size. The staff was gracious and helpful, pouring our champagne for us each time we required a refill and even agreeing to box up my messy dessert...but we'll get to that later.
My boss and one of our colleagues each chose Bamboo Steamed Vegetable Dumplings as an appetizer, while my other co-worker and I went for the Peking Duck Spring Rolls with Hoisin Sauce. (Note: According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoisin_sauce) Hoisin Sauce is generally made with water, sugar, soybeans, white distilled vinegar, rice, salt, wheat flour, garlic, red chili peppers, and sometimes sweet potatoes. To me, it tasted like BBQ sauce done RIGHT). The pastry shell was flaky but didn't fall apart, and the guts of the roll didn't ooze out when I held it in the death grip of my chopsticks. The duck was savory and delicious, and everything was the perfect temperature (I usually find things are too cold rather than too hot, but perhaps that's just me).
I ventured a taste of the sauce served with it (I didn't catch what it was, exactly) but it wasn't very extraordinary. A tiny taste of the other accompanying condiment, spicy mustard, revealed that it was both very good and very spicy, to the point that tears came to my eyes. This after a teeny lick from ONE PRONG of my fork. I don't think I've ever felt that spicy hotness all up in my nose before, but this time I definitely did!
I'm ashamed to admit that I wolfed down all three spring rolls, but I'm even more embarrassed to say that I'm not very familiar with pad thai. Horrifying, I know, but I usually end up ordering something really random at Thai and Asian restaurants (SEE: Railroad Fried Rice at Klong on St. Mark's Place) and I remember next to nothing about any pad thai experiences I may have had in the past. Today, however, is a day I will remember for a very long time.
Served in a blue and white china bowl with slim base that allowed it to stand a good six inches above the table, topped with sprouts and a leafy green garnish, was heaven in food form: chicken pad thai. I wound the paper-thin noodles expertly around my chopsticks as though I wasn't the most awkward person in the world when it comes to foreign utensils. That pad thai and I were made to be together. Tao didn't skimp on the large pieces of white-meat chicken, and every few bites I would get the delicious, unexpected surprise of a peanut or sprout.
I knew dessert was coming, so I asked them to wrap my pad thai for later and (not that this makes or breaks a restaurant) they presented it to me in one of those nice, reusable plastic cases with a lid AND a paper shopping bag with woven handles. This place was classy indeed.
Now, to the best dessert of my life.
I could take an entire post just to talk about this dessert, but I digress. My co-worker B seemed somehow upset that she and I had ordered the same appetizer and meal, so when it came time for dessert I graciously requested Banana Bread Pudding rather than ordering the same thing she chose, Zen Parfait (which included layers of my one true love, chocolate). I wasn't really into the Banana Bread Pudding, so I was pleasantly surprised when it came out with a rather elegant presentation. The pudding, which didn't really have a pudding consistency, was bright banana-yellow and topped with what I later discerned to be crumbled shortbread cookies and black seeds a bit too long and narrow to be poppy seeds (the identity of these seeds remains a mystery for now). Two pieces of fried banana wrapped in dough roughly the size, shape, consistency and appearance of miniature corndogs rested on top.
I actually asked my co-workers if they would be embarrassed if i took a picture, and their response was to laugh uncomfortably. Such is my dedication to SPF that I later wielded my camera phone when they weren't paying attention. Hopefully I'll be able to figure out how to upload that soon so you can all share in my joy.
It's important to mention at this point that I actually hate both pudding and things that are flavored to taste like bananas. I like actual bananas, but for some reason things that are pretending to be bananas freak me out. Like my father, I also don't enjoy "slimy" foods that are sweet, like pudding and jello, and have no real substance behind the sliminess. I was skeptical at best of the pudding, but like a trooper I raised the spoon to my lips.
Taste. Explosion. Banana, but not fake banana. Real banana, with that hint of shortbread and something like coconut or vanilla. I'm not really sure. I was blinded by love. I dug deeper. Layered inside were hunks of pound cake and chunks of banana. The consistency wasn't as creamy as pudding, but it wasn't quite solid either. It was amazing. My stomach was bursting from pad thai and spring rolls, but I couldn't stop shoveling it in.
I turned my attention to the fried bananas. I broke one open the doughy exterior easily with my spoon, savoring the fried-but-not-greasy shell and the still-warm piece of banana within. Mixed with the pudding, the bananas convinced me I was finally convinced that life could not get any better. The best part was that it wasn't served in a dinky pudding cup. This was a heaping, cereal-sized bowl. Did I mention $24.07 prix fixe? And yes, I asked them to pack it up for me in another reusable plastic container (how economical!). More than half of that bowl is currently waiting for me to claim in our refrigerator at work, and I'm counting the seconds until I can once again treat my taste buds to banana goodness.
So basically, when all was said and done, I put in $30 for my meal, which I have the fortune of eating in two sittings. I don't know about you, but I'm one of those people who does a Cost Per Wear Analysis of clothes (the list price of the item divided by the number of times I expect to wear it is the actual price...it's very bad for my bank account). I apply a similar philosophy to food. If I get two meals out of it, I get to divide the price by two. So the moral of this story is: go to Tao for $15 and have amazing banana explosion in your mouth.
Too many MMMMMs to even bother with...
Sneaky phone photograph hopefully coming soon!
Update: The aforementioned photograph is below: