WRITTEN ON February 3rd, 2010 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Appetizer, Nuts, Salads, Side Dish, Vegetarian

One of my favorite things about New York City is that it affords its inhabitants the ability to be completely spontaneous.  There’s no driving, no worries about parking or the mall lot being too full.  Your choices are not Applebee’s or Chili’s, by default (though I’d go Chili’s all the way, there).

You might wait a while for a table somewhere, but to me, that’s part of the fun.  It’s when the best people watching occurs.  When you covertly check out what the lucky seated few are eating and narrow down your selection. When you make friends with the bartender and decide to forgo a table and eat at the bar. Basically, it’s in those spontaneous, just for the hell of it decisions that the magic happens. You stumble upon something new, and it changes your life (or your palate, at least).

Last weekend, while out wandering, we made one of those split-second decisions.  We were starving.  It was 4:00, and we had late-dinner plans.  What to do?!  Neither of us were in the mood to just grab a slice.  We wanted ambiance, we wanted wine, we wanted…we wanted something upscale and expensive, dammit, and we weren’t afraid to admit it.

We looked around and realized we were one block from Gramercy Park.  It dawned on us.  Casa Mono. One of those places that’s best in the off hours anyway (before the riff-raff arrives). It’s my favorite of the ever burgeoning Batali franchise, by far.  It’s tiny, a smidge too warm, and chock full of color.  The service is just aloof enough to make you feel like you’re in Madrid somewhere (not that I’d really know), munching on olives and drinking Tempranillo by the jug-full.

We made our way into Casa Mono and sat at the bar, each choosing our favorite vino (which they ever so generously pour by the cuarto, a mini-carafe).  Since it was late in the afternoon, we went kind of light.  Artichokes, goat cheese croquettes, Iberian ham (which, incidentally, makes prosciutto di Parma taste like deli meat). But it was the salted almond and beet salad that was the game changer.  The perfect mix of salty and sweet, and full of texture.  We sat back, gazing out the window at the passers by: an art student making sketches, a bum singing merrily while jay-walking across the street, a perfectly coiffed mom pushing twins in a stroller while talking animatedly on her cell phone.

Maybe it was the wine.  Or maybe we were just really hungry.  Or, maybe, just maybe, we were sensing that our time in this beloved city is drawing to a close (more on that later, I’m getting verklempt).  Whatever it was, that old magic definitely happened that day, and New York has never felt more like a dear old friend.

Color me happy

Beet and Almond Salad (makes 2 individual salads)
8 small beets, wrapped tightly in foil
1 cup creme fraiche
1 bunch chives, chopped
1 tbsp lemon zest
2 handfuls raw almonds
1 handful baby arugula
Olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350.  Wrap beets tightly in foil, place on a baking sheet.  Bake in oven until soft, about 1 hour.  Combine creme fraiche, zest, chives and season with salt and pepper.  Cover and chill. Remove beets, set aside to cool. Meanwhile, toss almonds in a drizzle of olive oil, season with salt, and spread on baking sheet, bake until fragrant, about 7 minutes.  Rough chop almonds, set aside. When beets are cool enough to work with, peel (the skins should rub right off.  They may dye your fingers so if you want to use a tea towel to rub skins off, go for it). Chop beets roughly into chunks and toss with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper.  In individual dishes, spread half of the creme fraiche mixture, top with beets, then almonds.  Finally, top with a large pinch of arugula.  Drizzle with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

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