A Quiet Birthday Pasta Extravaganza

I find myself being drawn to low-key birthday celebrations more and more every year. All I wanted this year was to have a very good pasta dinner with my boyfriend and his niece who's visiting from Copenhagen. I chose Angelini Osteria because of their specialty dish–linguine with Santa Barbara sea urchin, a favorite of mine–and also because it's small, family-owned, and anti-trendy. 

Everything we ordered was fantastic and reminded me so much of the osterias I dined at when I traveled to Italy years ago. During my first visit to Milan, I remember that a friend recommended we meet for dinner at "one of the best restaurants in the city". Like a typical New Yorker, I dressed to the nines, thinking it would be a glitzy and glamorous place. Instead, I found myself at a discreet restaurant in an alleyway where I stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the locals who were quietly dining in their cashmere sweaters and loafers. 

It's been some time since I've gotten dressed up like I used to. This past Thursday night, I wore an oversized black cashmere sweater (a birthday gift from my beloved earlier in the day), black leather pants, and simple black suede strappy sandals. I find that there's a certain elegance to feeling comfortable.

We all shared the linguine with sea urchin–which appeared as a special on the menu, the lasagna, and the bombolotti all'amatriciana. I forewent wine for water the entire evening. For dessert, there was a hefty serving of tiramisu with a candle on top. The waiters sang "Happy Birthday" to me in their charming Italian accent. By the time I blew out the candle, my birthday wish had already come true.

 

Danish Birthday Cake

AAMANNS-COPENHAGEN
3 Laight Street bet. Sixth Avenue & Varick Street
212.925.1313

*Please note that this cake was special ordered.


"American birthday cakes are over-the-top and full of sugar," my Danish boss told me randomly in conversation, "In Denmark, when I was growing up, my mom would bake a traditional Danish birthday cake for me. It was shaped like a man and it would be decorated with licorice and candies." 

It was then that I knew that we had to surprise him with a Danish birthday cake for his birthday. The only problem?  I couldn't find a Danish bakery in Manhattan. One would think that you could find anything here! Thankfully, though, I recalled him mentioning a new Danish restaurant in TriBeca called Aamans-Copenhagen which seemed as good a starting point as any. So, I rang them up.

"Hello, would it be possible for me to order a traditional Danish birthday cake? It's the one that shaped like a man with all the different candies on top... We'd need it by 5 p.m. tomorrow. WHAT?! Oh nooooo... There's not enough time? Sigh. Thank you anyway." 

Don't worry—this story has a happy ending. I called them back.

Turns out, there's another traditional Danish birthday cake that's easier to whip together. It's a two-layered vanilla cake (a thinner, denser, and less sweet version) that is slathered with fresh whipped cream and filled with fresh strawberries. Red and white like their beloved national flag. Actually, it's also decorated with tiny paper Danish flags on toothpicks that are punched into the cake. Yes, they sure do love their flag! The cake has this loose, handmade quality that makes it look super special. 

My boss was shooting that day at Pier 59 Studios. As it wrapped, we wheeled the cake on set, birthday candles lit and all, with three buckets of champagne and bigger Danish flags. Everyone waved their little flag and sang "Happy Birthday." For a man who doesn't easily get surprised, we totally got him.

The cake was heavenly. I think it must've brought back a lot of memories because he had three slices. 

*This cake was special ordered at $8.00 per person. The one pictured above was made for 10 people, but it was definitely plenty for about 15 or 20 who just wanted a taste to take part in the celebration at the end of the day.

 

The Price of Menudo

A bowl of menudo from Rico Mac Taco in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

On my last day in Mexico, Angel, the head concierge at Casa Velas, took me downtown Puerto Vallarta to a local place for menudo. It is, hands-down, my favorite thing to eat in Mexico. In the twelve-plus years that I've lived in New York City, I haven't been able to find it here, so when I'm in Mexico, I feel like I have to have it as frequently as possible.

Restaurants usually prepare one large stockpot of it in the morning on a first-come first-serve basis. It's known across the country as a quintessential hangover cure, thereby making it a popular breakfast dish. Even though he didn't have to be at work until three in the afternoon, Angel drove to the hotel in the morning and picked me up at nine a.m. We took a drive downtown and sat down at at Rico Mac Taco, an open-air, 24-hour corner spot that Benny the bartender had recommended. Angel had never been there nor heard of it, but I could tell by its slight rinky-dink look that we were in store for a good meal.

The waiter carried out two piping hot bowls of menudo, along with its traditional accoutrements: chopped white onions, minced jalapeños, dried chiles de arbo in oregano, and fresh limes. (In Mexico, they add torn fresh mint leaves instead of cilantro, but they didn't have mint when we were there.) There was also a basket of fresh, warm corn tortillas.

Angel held a tortilla in one hand, and, with a swift, graceful movement with the other...Ta-da! It was as tightly rolled as a cigarette and ready for dipping. The broth was rich with flavor, soothing yet lively, and the tripe was soft and tender. If you need to wake up after a night out, this is better than coffee. To Angel's delight, it was served with a complimentary sope, a small, thick cake of fried masa, topped with green salsa, chopped onions, and a flurry of pungent crumbled queso fresco.

"You can tell that it's freshly made by hand," he said, pointing out the hand-pinched edges. The exterior was nice and crisp while the interior remained dense and mealy. He later said that it was his favorite part.

I had heard that it was he had worked on his 30th birthday, which was the day before and was supposed to be his day off, so I told him that it was my treat.

After breakfast, we strolled along The Malecon and went to a large flea market at the end, which I don't think I would've found on my own, where he bought me a friendship bracelet. He then dropped me back to the hotel and went home to get his uniform ready for work. I went onto the plane later that afternoon, touched by Angel's graciousness. That bowl of menudo ended up being worth so much more than fifty pesos.

Fried Chicken with Friends

I've long held this fantasy of having a fried chicken birthday dinner with friends at Popeyes, but, instead of subjecting my dearest friends to my low-brow whimsies, I decided to have a gathering at Peels instead. It truly was more of a gathering than dinner party—just a few of my closest friends coming to the same place at the same time to share a meal together. Super low-key, but felt nice to be in everyone's company. (I, of course, ordered the fried chicken, as shown above.) Maybe it's a testament to turning 31, but, instead of going out afterwards, I couldn't wait to curl up on the sofa and watch SNL on DVR.

Birthday Beignets

My birthday isn't until this Saturday, but my boyfriend took me to an early birthday dinner last night at Annisa. I don't think he could've picked a better restaurant: it was elegant, but low-key; modern yet romantic. A Michelin-starred restaurant located right in the neighborhood, who knew? 

This was one of the nicest dinners I've had in years. The stunning 5-course tasting menu ended with a warm bundle of butterscotch beignets, served with a side of frozen bourbon milk. Imagine freshly fried beignets, crisp and golden with a dusting of powdered sugar, bursting with smooth, melty salted butterscotch sauce once you pop them in your mouth. Heavenly.

*Find out what my favorite dish from the tasting menu was by clicking here.