Monday, May 7, 2012

For The Land And Sea Faring

Wednesday night found me at Torrisi Italian Specialties, finally, over a year after the buzz-y place opened.  Reservations are now accepted, which meant getting through the hallowed doors is easier, though I got mine--an unfathomably early 5:30--on OpenTable.  The dining room is small and meant to resemble an old Italian home, I think, with lace drawn curtains and old, mismatched plates in varying patterns that could have appeared at my grandmother's dinner table had my grandmother been inspired by things less Liberace and more Fred Astaire.  The menu is fixed, with a series of snacks leading into a pasta course, a meat course, and a cookie course.  The night we were there, and additional dessert special ran for $10.  We had to order it.

Mozzarella, house-made.  A perfect pillow glazed with olive oil and accompanied by two crusty heels of garlic bread.  Then an oil confit of mackerel, hot and cold, savory and sweet.  Sweetbreads came grilled, in my favorite incarnation, over giardinera, Italian pickles.  The acid cut perfectly through the fat of the veal.  Our last snack course: tender fermented broccoli rabe in a feather light robe of tempura batter, bitterness be damned.

Pasta was a clever take on pasta e fagiole.  A fresh linguine in broth arrived with cannellini beans, pork belly, ham oil, and kale.  I could have eaten three more bowls.  Ditto for my fish, breed unknown, which came swimming in a tomato broth with unshelled mussels.  Duck was sliced very thick and cooked skin on and though it and it's accompanying tender were perfect, the hearts were slightly overcooked.  I overlooked the detail because the coconut almond tart, topped with meringue and reminiscent of the best Almond Joy I ever had in childhood made up for any of the meal's indiscretions.  So, too, did a cookie plate of a tiny cannoli that did not betray its ricotta, a rainbow cookie, and a few other perfect confections.

The next afternoon, it was on to lunch at glossy Oceana, where I sat at the bar with a bottle of Aligote and enjoyed a decent lunch.  A beet salad was woefully undercooked ("I like my beets with texture," my companion said, but this was a technical error).  Even though I don't like beets, I appreciated the combination of orange supremes and beet wedges on the plate.  Hiramasa tartare, with just a hint of hot pepper and cubes of pear, was more successful--a clean, well-executed dish that I would eat again.

My soft shell crab entree was fine.  Just fine.  The crust didn't stick quite right and the pineapple salsa didn't have enough creaminess to adhere to the crab.  A side of ramps were cut so small as not to resemble ramps at all.  Alas.  A final plate of cookies satisfied my sweet tooth--the standouts were a coconut macaron sandwich stuffed with chocolate and a soft iced lemon cookie.  Good for lunch, but no brain busters here.

Torrisi Italian Specialties
250 Mulberry Street
New York, NY 10012

120 W. 49th Street
New York, NY 10020

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Trip To Long Island... City

It's farther than you think to traverse Queens. I guess that's why I do it so infrequently.  On Friday night, after a hot yoga class, my friend and I sought sustenance on Vernon Boulevard, a tricky endeavor these days.  We ended up at Alewife, a new breed of beer bar.  You can take your draft beer to go, for one, making for a truly enlightening experience (my friend selected a draft with the not-so-subtle name Arrogant Bastard to bring back to her arrogant bastard of a boyfriend back home).  For two, they serve delicate, local food.  The service may have been off tempo--did all the small plates need to arrive at the same time?--but the food showed surprising depth and clarity.

A quartet of meatballs, billed as soup dumpling meatballs, indeed spilled forth with juice like the Chinese variety and tasted Asian enough, though they were quite surely made from meat and not dough.  Littleneck clams were slathered in onion and a green pesto and came over an addictive grilled bread that was both crunchy and soft, owing to the broth beneath.  Soft shell crab, tempura battered, hit all the right notes: salty from the batter, sweet from the pickles, creamy from the aioli, bitter from the roasted turnips.  Grilled asparagus with brown butter may have had a little too little of the condiment (gasp!), but who can really complain about asparagus this time of year?  Maitake mushrooms drowned in whole butter, anyway, and more than made up for it.

A thick cut salmon tartare with creme fraiche would have been perfect if only it had been better seasoned. Shisito peppers--three hot ones in our bunch!--made up for that egregious lack of salt.  A final concession to spring came in the form of grilled ramps, a crispy hen egg, yuzu, and brown butter.  Cravings satisfied, I still think I will miss them when they are gone.

5-14 51st Avenue
Long Island City, NY 11101

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Nordic Feast

Don't get me started on the impossibility of getting into Acme. Say you have a reservation on a Sunday evening, procured, pre-Times-review, through Open Table. Say you show up to this incredibly hip NoHo spot, only to have a snotty, well-dressed host tell you that the restaurant is closed for a private party. No apology. No delicacy. They might as well throw you out onto the streets.

Say, by way of response, you write the restaurant a nasty email, complaining about the indelicate way in which you were treated, the snottiness of said host, the lack of professionalism inherent in the kind of restaurant that wouldn't even deign cancel out their reservations on Open Table when a private party is booked. And say, as apologetic salve, the restaurant responds by sending you a $200 gift certificate in the mail, along with an invitation via the General Manager to dine whenever you please. You might be inclined to doubt whatever it is you'll find behind said restaurant's flashy doors.

So I was not taken aback last night by the half hour wait, despite my eight o'clock reservation. I was not taken aback by the gorgeous and slow-moving bartender who mixed my drink, grudgingly, in eleven minutes. I wasn't taken aback by the cute-but-dumb server, or the expeditor who dropped dishes without explaining what they were. Acme is more scene than restaurant. The meal my brother and I ordered probably exceeded any gluttony previously seen in its glossy dining room.

But the food mostly made up for the annoyingly sceney vibe. Foie gras with langoustines blended the buttery texture of liver with the silkiness of shellfish, helped along by a hint of white walnut. A bison and sweet shrimp tartare, served atop spears of endive, was clean and bright and cut into beautiful ribbons. A strangely unbalanced "duck in a jar"--a confit of livery meat topped with inadequately pickled vegetables--was redeemed only by charred bread, but a dish of littlenecks and seared scallops and sweet pea shoots swimming in just-cooked barley made me wonder why more chefs don't use the grain in everyday dishes. We wiped the bowl clean.

Heirloom carrots, colored black and red, arrived draped in lardo. We wondered why a person would ever want to eat a carrot any other way. Hand cut pasta tangled with ribbons of root vegetables and draped in brown butter outdid every bad version I have ever eaten.

There was another savory course to come: braised pork cheeks (a little dry, but saved by a plated sauce) and poached chicken with fried poached eggs in a garlicky jus. French fries with "oyster mayonnaise" tasted like completely ordinary, though delicious, fries, but a pommes puree with smoky lardon and fried shallots called into question the raison d' etre of every other plate of pommes puree. Why don't they all have bacon, after all?

Donuts--the new New York trend--were fine, if ordinary and served with a caramel cream and applesauce. Tres Nordic. But a beer custard--sweet and salty and lined with a disintegrating layer of cake beneath the soup and cream--stole the show. It sounded weird, but in her one show of servitude all evening, our waitress pointed us in the right direction.

9 Great Jones Street
New York, NY 10012

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Classic Revisited And A Trip North

Walking into the Palm on Friday evening harkened an older era, one where waiters happily delivered steaks in butcher coats, where dark-paneled rooms and pedestrian American cabernet sauvignon by the glass was de rigeur. These days, steakhouses are sleeker, and with the emergence of the Bloomberg law, which states that restaurants with more than one outpost in the city must list the calories next to each menu item, the Palm has the character-less feel of a chain restaurant. Did you really need to know, for instance, that your wedge salad weighs in at a preposterous 960 calories, over 100 more than the boneless rib-eye?

Probably not. Such issues do not detract from the quality of a barely-bound giant crab cake, served with a tart and sweet salad of pineapple and mango and a spicy mayonnaise. Calories be damned; the bone IN rib-eye is still worth every one of its nearly 1200 calories, owing largely, I think, to the thick deckle of fat that surrounds the marbled meat. Wild mushrooms (calories? You don't want to know) are bathed in vinegar and salt, a sort of agrodolce take on a normally creamy classic. But with those three delicious items alone, along with a nine ounce glass of mediocre cab and a tiny onion roll with cold butter, I blew my calorie budget for two days. I didn't look at the dessert menu. It would have been too scary.

Hudson Hil's, in Cold Spring, New York, couldn't have been more different. The tiny white clapboard restaurant, with a wraparound porch that looks out onto Cold Spring's Main Street, facing the Hudson, features local meats and grass-fed beef. One side of the restaurant has a liquor license and the other does not, so we had to wait for a table on the boozy side to vacate before we could order our barely tippling Sunday afternoon bellinis. A pressed grilled cheese sandwich on toothsome French bread played the line between sweet and savory: aged gouda, thin-sliced apples, fig compote. A rueben on rye was delicate in its balance of corned beef, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing. In the damp spring air, surrounded by fresh bloomed trees and a population emerging from winter, the sandwiches approached perfection.

The Palm Restaurant
250 W. 50th Street
New York, NY 10019

Hudson Hil's Cafe and Market
129-131 Main Street
Cold Spring, NY 10516

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Garment District Dinner

The NoMad. Will Guidara and Daniel Humm's latest joint foodie project. A dark bar leads to a formal host stand, where a maitre'd with an anemic sense of humor takes my coat and leaves me to fend for myself to meet my guest: through the carpeted dining room, into the back bar, and back into another room aptly called The Library, where books line the walls of a dark-paneled room. Instantly, it's a scene. Ben Leventhal of Eater saunters in; the black-clad cocktail waitress will not let us sit at a table for two, since tables "with books on them" are reserved. Except, it's a library. There are books everywhere.

Cocktail lists come in books, but the system is flawed, with pages sticking out every which way. Cute idea, if you can make it work. Cuter is the mythic bottles of booze, hiding in fat books on The Library's walls. Find one, and it's yours, but it's gauche to look with so many people staring into cocktails.

We are exported back into the dining room, which feels empty and full at the same time. Too many staff members. Too few diners. Too many people tripping through the room and knocking our chairs. We order a three course meal: two snacks, a seafood tower, and an entree for two with another appetizer in lieu of a side. Snacks arrived in seconds, thin pastry cigars stuffed with sweetbreads and a rillette jar of beef tartare with brioche squares. Our wine came. Seconds later, the seafood tower--a staggering $25 per person--came, too. It was, perhaps, the star of the evening. Uni in a sweet gelee with a brunoise of apple hit all the right notes, as did a clean oyster with a similar apple garnish. The fat from cubed hamachi was cut by shaved fresh white horseradish. King crab benefitted from lemon and lobster benefitted from just a hint of mayonnaise and fresh tarragon. A scallop shell played host to a chopped raw scallop with crunchy accoutrement.

But we still had another bottle of wine to tackle and food was coming with a surprising ferocity. And so we tacked on an additional course, which arrived shortly after our bread service, a soft and salty onion and potato flatbread. Next, tagliatelle with more king crab and perhaps a bit too much butter, mitigated only by a salad of chiffonaded sugar snap peas with pancetta and parmesan.

Then the entree arrived, a whole chicken brought for us to see first--lacquered brown skin, and a plume of fresh herbs. Minutes later, the chicken reemerged as a butchered, plated thing, a breast apiece, a smear of truffled pommes puree, three spears of white asparagus, and a medley of morels and chicken thighs in butter for us to share. A bone marrow appetizer, topped with croutons and anchovy paste, provided the heft necessary to sop up all that spare fat.

We reached the end and ordered dessert, a weird if impressive rumination on milk and honey (milk ice cream with honey, crisp meringue) and a peanut butter bar that brought to mind a sophisticated s'more. NoMad is still negotiating sea legs--uneven service, an abruptness when it comes to pushing food out--but the food itself isn't the problem. Nor should it be.

The NoMad
1170 Broadway
New York, NY 10001

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Sometimes, The Service Undoes The Food

As was the case last night at a very drawn out--if very delicious--meal at Rouge et Blanc. It is the kind of dining room that a person might want to spend three or four hours in, yes, but not the kind of dining room that a person would want to wait three to four hours for dishes to arrive in. There is a difference. The restaurant was nearly empty, peppered only with the occasional guest and a strange oenophilic manager who spent most of service eating his dinner at the end of the bar, which, presumably, he did not have to wait for.

It started out with promise: grilled ramps and baby onions and shisito peppers with the briny tang of soy; cubes of pork fat with a sweet daikon sauce; a bubbling cauldron of tofu and ground chicken in what tasted like a really good hot and sour soup. But then, the space between dishes got larger and larger. Where was the Vietnamese sausage, we wondered? An hour later, the loose packed meat arrived on licorice sticks, with a cool glass noodle salad. It was good, but we were too hungry in its presence. Another hour passed before our noodles--thick like tagliatelle and in the company of a sunny side up egg, a half of a lobster tail, and three pucks of pork belly--finally arrived. Our wine was nearly gone and I had lost the wind of enthusiasm from my sail.

Dessert was a brilliant pairing of a seared mini lobe of foie gras (a tad undercooked, but at least it arrived within the hour), vanilla ice cream, cocoa nibs, grilled apples, and quince. I wasn't sure if it would make sense until I ate it.

It really did make sense, but our lapse in service and harried waitress who came to our table always a beat too late to explain our food did not.

Rouge et Blanc
48 MacDougal Street
New York, NY 10012

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Japanese Home Style

Family Recipe, an LES project spearheaded by Chef Akiko Thurnauer, may be one of the best small plates joints to pop up in Manhattan. Small plates restaurants normally force me to a.) overorder and b.) overspend, but Family Recipe required no such sacrifice. We were a table of four and ate a wide cross section of the menu without overindulging. And all this for sixty dollars a person, alcohol included.

I will overlook the somewhat negligent service for now, given the fact that the one working waitress (I get it; it's a Monday night) spoke parsed English and struggled to keep her tables cleared and fed. In fact, an oversight on her part bought us a free bottle of Valpolicella, sent out gratis for our troubles. Anyway, the fun, tasty food made up for lapses in service. Chicken wings were salty and crispy and came with tiny spears of celery and a creamy pink sauce. Battered and fried okra and shisito peppers with salt and lime provided ballast without too much bulk. Delicate lobster dumplings came with cracked peanuts and soy sauce and a swipe of mustard and pork buns, reminiscent of the Chang variety, approached perfection with a side bowl of Kewpie mayonnaise.

Then came pan fried shrimp over corn and rice cakes in curry, somewhere between the texture of risotto and a rice krispy treat. Pullman toast on the side of a plate of Prince Edward Island mussels with nori and a rich, buttery sauce sopped up whatever was left over. Pork ribs were meaty, sticky, salty, sweet. And kobe burgers came with a tiny bowl of potato chips. Everywhere, competing textures helped the meal to its acme. Even dessert--a coconut rice pudding with a bruleed sugar crust--was made more complete with textural contrast. I don't know much about Chef Akiko's family heritage of recipes, but the food she puts forth, right down to a carafe of sake sangria with watermelon and strawberries, is soul-satisfying.

Family Recipe
231 Eldridge Street
New York, NY 10002

Monday, April 2, 2012

Chicken Parm

All too often, the hype of a New York scenester spot turns out to be nothing more than ordinary. Nothing is a bigger turn off than a restaurant that doesn't take reservations, thus forcing me to spend valuable time waiting on line to get in. Such is the world of modern dining. But, scenes be damned, I was determined to check out Parm on Mulberry, since I'm probably one of the last food people in New York who can say that I haven't eaten at a Mario Carbone/Rich Torrisi restaurant. Or, hadn't, until last night.

We had to get there at five and cram ourselves into the impossibly small nook between bar and door on a rainy Sunday evening, just to prevent the inevitable flood of people coming in off the street. It's the same tactic I employed at Mission Chinese in San Francisco a few weeks back. For our troubles (and to help bide the time of our wait until the restaurant officially opened), we were rewarded with hot pepper poppers, a teeny amaretto sour and an equally teeny Mulberry daiquiri--named not only for the street in residence, but also for the jam blended into the cocktail. The poppers, stuffed with cheese and rice and accompanied by some pinkish mayonnaise, were just what we needed to stave off hunger.

Then, the witching hour arrived and we were miraculously shown to a table. We ordered thick, deluxe garlic bread, less garlicky than cheesy but totally acceptable given the accoutrement of soft ricotta, fresh basil, and tomato sauce. It was a miniature "make your own pizza" experiment. Six littleneck clams, baked with breadcrumbs and butter and lemon, did not disappoint, nor did a trio of little bowls filled with vegetables: rich mixed mushrooms in a bright vinaigrette; toothsome asparagus with softened croutons; and clean pickled vegetables (cauliflower, radish, onion, fennel, and red pepper).

But we had come for the parm.

The first, eggplant on semolina, offered all of the textures and flavors we remembered from Italian joints growing up, minus the excessive portions. Chicken parm, crisp but not oily, came blanketed in soft mozzarella and nestled next to a towering cube of baked ziti with more of that fresh ricotta. The special of the evening, simply called Chinese (we ordered one to go, illegally, it turns out) began with crunchy wontons dipped in duck sauce and hot mustard and ended with boneless pork spareribs and pork fried rice with homemade sweet Italian sausage.

The icing on our literal cake, save for the liter of Italian wine that came to us in a straw-bottomed Chianti bottle, was a three-tiered ice cream version with competing flavors of strawberry, chocolate, and pistachio, all tucked between layers of crispy cookie (think Carvel for inspiration) and frosted with that familiar and fondly remembered white ice cream icing. We didn't need to be convinced; we finished the whole slice.

248 Mulberry Street
New York, NY 10012

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Jealous yet? You should be. Somehow, in the furor of the restaurant's opening, I managed to snag what will be one of the Most Difficult Reservations to Score in New York, right alongside Brooklyn Fare, Masa, Momofuku Ko, and Per Se. All of these restaurants have one thing in common: size. When the maitre'd at Atera takes you into the dining room, with its slate kitchen backsplash and lofted wooden window boxes filled with mosses and poured concrete bar that surrounds the kitchen in an unpredictable square, you will notice every detail. That's the point. Unlike Momofuku Ko, the stools you sit on at Atera have comfortable leather backs; unlike the rock-and-roll spirit of Ko, you won't feel threatened that a chef will have a meltdown at any given moment and start yelling as you eat. That sort of thing just doesn't happen at Atera, where Portland-imported chef Matthew Lightner ("Hi, I'm Matt," he says to each guest, hands outstretched) creates a playful-yet-serious dining experience for his guests. "It's okay to get a little messy," he tells me as one of my snacks--I'll get to that later--explodes before me. How refreshing to see a kitchen without even a tinge of the New York angst to which I have become accustomed.

The snacks? They come in waves, reminiscent of the ones I once ate on a darkened patio overlooking the sea in Roses, Spain. Crispy sunchoke skins with an unctuous, creamy filling; carrot fruit leather with an exploding orange filling; foie gras "peanuts"; quail eggs that turn instantly to mayonnaise in the mouth; crackers that look like home shingles; tiny lobster rolls on toasted meringue; a razor clam in an edible shell; dried lichen; and, finally, the season's star, fried ramps. There is an earthiness to everything presented us and a lack of pretension in the absence of such things as caviar or oysters or gelee. Through a haze of focus, the kitchen never forgets to check in on us, a cordiality I won't soon forget.

Next it is on to our actual courses. Many of the dishes follow a trajectory of complimentary temperatures and textures. We eat yogurt with a disc of frozen beet and freeze-dried fruit and edible flowers. Diver scallops, raw and in ribbons, arrive squeezed between planks of cold sorbet and light buttermilk meringue. Chopped raw fluke in a sea of plummy, sticky barbecue sauce, is garnished with more flowers.

A bread course--the first of two--comes on a wooden board with a perfect miniature stick of butter at its side. The bread is a salt-crusted rye and the butter alone is worth remembering. I would never have expected to leave a meal remembering squid, after a traumatic incident with the mollusk years back in Croatia, but it is impossible not to like Atera's take on it: chewy, translucent pieces of it rise high above a tube made to resemble the body of the animal. In truth, that body is made from lardo, which melts into the actual squid and is softened by the sweet and saline squid broth adorning the plate.

Then, more bread, this time a pork fat basted dinner roll with a very thin slice of pork chop that nearly disappears into the rock on which it is served. From there, we take a turn towards sweet for a moment. A slow-cooked puck of sweet potato with brown butter makes me hate every other version of the vegetable that exists in the world. A charred beet root, more closely resembling a rescued piece of charcoal from a Weber grill, bathes in trout roe and an uni emulsion. For the not-so-intrepid fish eater, this dish may be a hard one to swallow.

A thin and sweet helping of skate danced with seaweed and nasturtium leaves and fried beef tendon in a chicken bouillon, kind of like an inspired take on pho. It was a little on the large side for so late in the meal, and so I left a little uneaten so that I could continue onward to my squab, aged and the gamiest that I have ever tasted (even more so than the duck press at Daniel) and decorated with sweet and savory pear crisps. Our last savory course--so sad!--is a compressed rectangular lamb collar with root beer foam and chicory leaves. It reminds me of Texas barbecue in the best possible way.

And then we are on to dessert. First, a bergamot sorbet in a cookie dough shell made to look like a rock (it's very convincing). Next, a parsley root "split," with candied pieces of the root and meringue and banana ice cream. It hits all the high notes of dessert: sweet but not cloying; textured; chewy and smooth at the same time. My favorite dessert is next to last, a composition called charcoal. Our server comes with goat cheese ice cream and a brick of black cake that he cracks in front of us, releasing a magnificent cold smoke. The cake is a type of meringue, I think, and the ice cream has the funk endemic to all good cheese. It is just right to set us in the mood for the sweetest of our desserts, a candied oak leaf with wintergreen and brown butter. Finally, a box of moss is slipped before us, housing a single truffle made to look like a black walnut. Inside, we find our last surprise: decadent caramel.

Get there if you can.

77 Worth Street
New York, NY 10013

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Cafe this time. The scene is vastly different from that of Daniel: a bustling, busy dining room with men in suits at every available table. Our server bills it as a "neighborhood restaurant," but that's probably only applicable if you own an 8 million dollar townhouse on Park. Which, I determine by a quick glance around the room, some of these guys do.

Our amuse bouche is a tiny, hot arancini filled with black truffle. It does its job. Bread service, like that at Daniel, is precocious and I convince myself to stick to just one roll this time around. Spring has finally sprung, which means ramps and white asparagus and snap peas. I start with an appetizer of thick white spears with a scotch egg and creamy unpasteurized cheese. A take on Hollandaise, our server tells us. Another appetizer of artichoke tortellini was as delicate as the version served ten blocks downtown. A midcourse of foie gras torchon was a minor misstep--too much liver and too little accompaniment. It begged for something more crunchy than the measly helping of rhubarb batonettes and pistachios that dotted our plates.

An entree of truffle-stuffed squab was crispy and delicate and medium rare and came with two tiny empanadas filled with ground offal. The highlight of a duck entree--a breast over black rice--was a confit leg in a rich sabayon. It could have functioned as its own appetizer. Roasted radishes with sugar snap peas were bathed in a sauce that also tasted a lot like Hollandaise.

A cheese board was fine, with no real memorable touches. What was memorable, though, was a dark chocolate mousse with brandied cherries. I could have skipped the rum bananas and the gratis almond biscuit with raspberries and mango entirely. It was a precious meal, and from the looks of things, the Upper East Side appears to be doing quite well, indeed.

Cafe Boulud
20 East 76th Street
New York, NY 10021