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Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas folks! Hope you all found exactly what you were hoping for under the tree. Enjoy the day!


Friday Foodporn: Trois Pommes

Looking for a hilariously festive Christmastime dessert? Look no further than Trois Pommes Patisserie's homemade chocolate whoopie pies and red velvet twinkies. Wash one of these suckers down with some eggnog and you're guaranteed to get a good night's sleep. 

Trois Pommes Patisserie, 260 Fifth Avenue Brooklyn NY 11215. 718-230-3119.


Know Your Bartender: James Menite, Fornino

When restaurateur Michael Ayoub opened a branch of Fornino earlier this year on Fifth Avenue between Garfield and Carroll it cemented that stretch of Fifth's reputation as a real restaurant row. Simple grilled pizzas, pastas, and antipasti are served in an upscale yet comfortable setting for a reasonable price, and its long marble-topped bar has a reputation for great drinks and is full from open to close. It's been even more difficult to snag a spot there since one of New York's top mixologists, James Menite, started tending bar, though. 

Born in Bay Ridge, where he still lives, Menite has served as bar manager at Terrence Brennan's cheese temple Artisanal and spent the last 4 1/2 years at PorterHouse, chef Michael Lomonaco's restaurant in the Time Warner Center. He's won national bartending awards, does consulting for vodka and rum companies, and judges national contests (just last month he judged the Don Q Rum Competition in Puerto Rico). He's been featured on The Cooking Channel's Food(ography), and is also a champion for bartenders' insurance, serving as Director of Bartender Relations for the U.S. Bartenders' Guild's New York chapter. 

He's been friends with Ayoub for 25 years, and when presented with the chance to cut his commute down to 12 minutes and develop a cocktail program for a great local bar, he jumped at the opportunity. He's in the process of designing an entirely new cocktail menu (which should launch next month), and is excited about bringing top-notch, world-class cocktails to a neighborhood spot like Fornino. He can be found behind the bar there every night except for Tuesdays and Sundays.

HPS: What first got you into mixology?

James: I was actually working for a telephone company as a 9-5 guy. I was moving up in the company, but I really didn't like it. I saw Dale DeGroff on a TV show. He was so happy doing what he was doing. I gave my two week notice, and went into Becco, on Restaurant Row, and lied and said I'd been bartending for years. They stuck me behind the bar; my first night was a Saturday night. I learned quickly. I wound up becoming the maitre d' there for a while, but I really missed being behind the bar. So I went to Artisanal to be a manager, and they were really looking for a bar manager, so I went behind the bar and that's where I stayed. I love it back here. I'm good friends with Dale now, too.

HPS: How long have you been the bartender here?

James: I've been bartending here for two months. 

HPS: What's your favorite aspect of the bar here?

James: The people that I meet here. I'm really a Brooklyn guy by nature, so it's nice to come back. I haven't bartended in Brooklyn in about 15 years. It's 12 minutes on the train, which is a big difference from trying to get to Columbus Circle.

HPS: Is there a Happy Hour here?

James: We're working on that, actually. We might do a happy hour from 5-7 with some special bar items. It's best to wait until after the new year to start things like that, I find. In January I think people are looking for new options. 

HPS: What's the strangest drink order you've ever received?

James: One time someone asked for gin, cranberry juice, and milk. Not sure how the milk comes into play there. Virgin mojitos are always weird, too. It's basically sugar, water, and mint. That's one of the few I say no to. I've actually been asked for that about ten times!

HPS: If you could have a drink with one person from history, who would it be?

James: It'd probably be George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They were pretty interesting guys. They owned the two largest distilleries in America! They'd do whiskey, rye, and rum, and I'd like to talk to them about how drinks came into play during that time. It'd be interesting to see where cocktails really fit into the whole revolutionary thing. 

The other person would probably be Jerry Thomas. He's basically the father of the cocktail. He's kind of a crazy character. He died 125 years ago, and he wasn't doing things that differently from what we're doing now, which is pretty amazing. But he did get away with using fire a little more than we could now.

HPS: In your repertoire, would you say there's one drink that you really pride yourself on, that you'd make for yourself when you have the whole bar to yourself?

James: I love my Manhattans. That's probably my favorite cocktail. When made right, It's a beautiful drink. I really enjoy making an Old Fashioned, too. I really like the classics. My cocktail lists are usually all original, but I really enjoy the old traditional ones. 

HPS: Are there any classic drinks from the past that you'd like to see come back into vogue?

James: I'd love to see fizzes come back, especially gin fizzes. It's a delicious drink. It's an easy drink to make, too, you can make it at home. It's just spirits, egg white, and a little sugar, and if you proportion it right it can be really special. Sometimes places add a little club soda; I don't do that. It's a year-round drink too, and you can use basically any spirit.

HPS: Which drink have you made the most frequently here?

James: The Fornino Negroni, by far. I wanted to play with it. It's a drink that a lot of people are afraid to play with, but we use Amaro instead of Campari, Solerno, which is a blood orange liqueur from Sicily which I think is really underused, Tanqueray, which has a nice juniper flavor, orange bitters, and a fresh peeled orange rind on top.

HPS: Are there any bottles here you haven't ever touched?

James: No, actually. We run the gamut. Right now we just have the standard stuff, although we're looking to do more of a scotch whisky program in January. But we sell pretty much every thing here. I even have a Midori cocktail, and another one with Galliano. I want to bring back Galliano, it's actually a really good herbal liqueur. It's misused. It's funny, people think it's Italian but it's actually from Holland. 

HPS: What drink in the new cocktail program here are you most excited about?

James: There's one called The Brooklyn that I'm a big fan of. It's got Absolut Brooklyn, sweet vermouth, orange juice, Galliano, a little absinthe, and either cherry or orange bitters, I haven't decided yet. They're all going to be within the ten dollar price range, too, I think that'll be good for the neighborhood. I'm really excited for this new program. It should be up by the first week in January.

HPS: If you weren't tending bar, what other profession would you be interested in?

James: I'd probably like to do something in health care. Not necessarily a doctor, just something where I could help people. I really enjoy that. I like taking care of people. Come to think of it, that's probably why I love being a bartender.

Fornino Park Slope, 254 5th Avenue Brooklyn NY 11215. 718-399-8600.


Open for Business: Soigne Restaurant and Wine Bar, 486 6th Avenue

When Anthony Marzuillo and JoAnne Braganza met while studying Culinary Arts at New York Institute of Technology, they knew that some day they'd open a restaurant together. After school they went their separate ways (Anthony to Aureole and Capitale, JoAnne to a gig as a freelance pastry chef), but four years later, in 2006, they came together to start a catering company called Soigne, which is French for "to take care of," and kitchen slang for a VIP guest.

The catering company was a huge success, and provided them with the resources and inspiration to finally open up that restaurant. After months of searching for the perfect location in Williamsburg, Carroll Gardens, and the North Slope, they settled on the quiet corner of Sixth Avenue and 12th Street, in the space formerly occupied by the well-liked if overpriced Magnolia, and got to work. 

The result of their labor, Soigne Restaurant and Wine Bar, opened last Saturday. So far, the results have been promising. Marzuillo knows that in order to succeed in such an off the beaten path spot, they'll need to provide locals with not just a destination, special occasion spot, but a place where they can feel comfortable and become regulars. "This isn't a fine dining establishment, it's casual elegant," he told me. "I'm not sure how word got out that we were going to be super-expensive, but our emphasis is on high-end modern American cuisine that's also affordable."

Sous Chef Kevin Noccioli Jr, Executive Chef Anthony Marzuillo, Pastry Chef JoAnne Braganza
The food is all locally sourced, and the menu changes almost daily according to what's fresh and in-season. Several items, such as the burger with aged cheddar, bacon-onion relish, and truffled fries, will be permanent. The most expensive item currently on the menu, a grilled NY strip, is $24. On the well-curated wine list, most bottles are under $25. JoAnne crafts the $7 desserts; standouts are a melting brownie tart and fresh donuts with a trio of dipping sauces.

Brunch is served on the weekends, and a $27 three course prix-fixe menu is available on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. For the little ones they offer a "Petite Appetite" menu, a three-course prix-fixe with smaller portions but similar fare, for $12. There are two mixologists on staff, and the rotating beer selection always features local selections like Kelso and Sixpoint. 

There are 40 seats in the restaurant and 11 at the bar. They could have added a lot more seating, but chose to provide guests with room to relax and be comfortable. "People may be confused by the French name, because the food is American," says Anthony. "But we really believe in the soigne philosophy, that each guest needs to be treated like a VIP. We're here to make people happy." That philosophy seems to be working: several locals have already showed up multiple times.

Soigne Restaurant and Wine Bar, 486 6th Avenue Brooklyn NY 11215. 718-369-4814.


Then & Now Thursday: Christmas in Grand Army Plaza

The history of displaying public Christmas trees in New York City began in Madison Square Park in 1912. The festive spirit caught on like wildfire, and by the 1920s just about every park and public space in the city decked out a tree with lights and ornaments around the holidays. Prospect Park's first Christmas tree, a 40-foot spruce, was lit in 1920 with 600 bulbs, and by 1926 the tree chosen was ten feet higher and boasted 1200 lights. 

The tree was moved out of the park and into the above position in Grand Army Plaza in 1934 (about where the JFK memorial is now), thanks to mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and in recent years it's gone up directly under the arch. 

In 2006 and 2007, the arch's tree was completely artificial, but stunning nonetheless with 600,000 LED lights that glowed in a patchwork quilt of colors. Due to improper storage the tradition never took off, and this year's tree is of the more standard variety.