Friday, December 16, 2011

Brooklyn Rustic

These places are opening all over now: local, sustainable, rustic, small. The restaurant is tiny and equipped to handle minimal crowds. We lucked out in scoring a three top right when we came in.

Cocktails are delicious, if a little too small. A tart, red drink tasted like sour cherries or currants, or a mix of the two.

A crispy kale salad was filled with crunch and salt and sweet (and a noticeable tang of fish sauce), but was, regrettably, overdressed and beginning to wilt. A cauliflower soup was thick and rich and bettered by candy sweet Nantucket bay scallops.

Veal sweetbreads a la meuniere was my favorite dish of the night, perfectly cooked and crispy outside with a grenobloise and crunchy romaine lettuce on the side, along with a caesar-y dressing. Pici with mushrooms and pea shoots brought me back to Tuscany and I could have used a bigger plate. But linguine with crab, though fine in its execution, didn't bring much to the table.

Desserts were kind of a failure. A fennel panna cotta was overrun by lemon rind that provided too much texture in a grainy, gross kind of way. A pear clafouti was overcooked and beaten to death by cinnamon cream. Next time, I'll go for the standard chocolate caramel tart.

255 Smith Street
Brooklyn, NY


The dining room is large for a four-star, with a raised platform around the perimeter featuring Grecian columns. A cocktail at the bar came with a round ice cube filled with flower petals. Nice touch.

We were VIP-ed.

A six-course tasting menu was actually twelve, since my companion and I each chose one of the two options. A duck liver terrine with marcona almonds, apple confit, and a glazed date was a perfect example of foie done well. A mosaic of duck and parsnip with poached quince and Champagne grapes was an equally well-conceived match. The dishes came with a Prum Kabinett Riesling from the Mosel.

Then: a trio of tuna (tartare with caviar, cured with compressed celery, en confit with anchovy dressing and a small puck of white anchovy); a delicious cured fluke with shiso and beets and an edamame coulis that was too difficult to eat. With it, we drank a Gruner Veltliner from Domaine Wachau.

A sea scallop, crusted in Buddha's hand and pine nuts meshed well with the accompanying celery mousseline. Artichoke and squid ink raviolini--neither a favorite ingredient of mine--surprised me with their character, delicacy, and depth. The wine pairing, a white Chateneuf-du-Pape from Chateau Monpertuis, was a small failure in pairings, overriding the delicacy of the food.

A white truffle course! Tiny pasta pockets stuffed with porcini mushrooms in a cream sauce with a quarter ounce of truffles shaved on top. We drank an impressive 1993 Heredia white Rioja.

Bacon wrapped swordfish was next, with spaghetti squash and cipollini onions. It wasn't my favorite; I felt a poached monkfish tail with toasted cashews worked better. A single vineyard Copain Pinot Noir from Sonoma was a lovely pairing.

Four Story Hill Farm squab may have been my favorite dish, cooked medium rare and served with a crisp top skin and sunchokes. With it, we enjoyed a pretty little Barolo from Sperino Lessona.

Our main courses underwhelmed me. A duo of beef (short rib and tenderloin) with chanterelles and cauliflower was ordinary. A veal plate of cheeks, sweetbreads, and tenderloin disappointed me entirely; the sweetbreads were woefully overcooked. But we drank with these my favorite wine of the evening, Chave "Offerus" Cornas from the Rhone.

Four desserts were next: apple, pineapple, chocolate, and coffee. They were fine, but better were the Chateau Pajzos Tokaji and Rivesaltes that we drank with them. Petit fours included chocolates and warm madelines. And then the night was over.

It was an impressive spread and, in some ways, more manageable than dinner at per se. Alcohol portions were too big, and I had to get out of my own way a few times. My memory is not as clear as it should have been. Alas.

60 East 65th Street
New York, NY 10065

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Chinese Two Ways

It started on Sunday night with a trip to Chinatown's Peking Duck House. This venerable duck spot is always crowded, never has reservations available, and allows patrons to bring their own wine (Riesling and Burgundy for us). Really, there is only one thing that you must get here: Peking duck (duh!).

Soup dumplings were a misstep, with a flavorless filling and an over boiled dumpling wrapper. Chinese broccoli--closely resembling broccoli rabe--in oyster sauce was good enough, fulfilling the need for something green. But the real star was the duck, carved away from our table and brought back in clean, lacquered slices. It was fatty and chewy and crispy and arrived with a julienne of cucumber and scallions, along with thin pancakes and hoisin sauce. We ate the whole duck.

Later in the week, I had a dumpling craving that required satisfaction and so found myself at the recently renovated (but still dirt cheap) Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers Street, where a truly overabundant meal set me back twenty-five smackers--and where I should have shown restraint and ordered less. House special dumplings, pork and shrimp, came in a crisp, pan seared package. Shrimp and pea shoot numbers were in a thinner, gooier rice paper wrapper, equally delicious. Vegetable dumplings were the size of hacky sacks. Shrimp filling wrapped in bacon came deep fried and impossibly crunchy. Rice rolls--one with vegetables and one with beef--surprised us with their incredible texture and depth. A pork bun the size of two adult fists gave way to chunks of real, toothsome pork. And turnip cakes with Chinese sausage and dried shrimp were crisp outside and soft inside, a welcome departure from that old stand-by, scallion pancakes. I never even made it to the fried crab claw, which came with shell intact (a minor turnoff, to be honest). The evening's only real disappointment was a plate of "sweet and sour" spare ribs, more closely resembling a withered, soggy tonkatsu.

But for dumplings, well, it's worth the trip.

Peking Duck House
28 Mott Street
New York, NY 10013

Nom Wah Tea Parlor
13 Doyers Street
New York, NY 10013

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Surprisingly, Paul Liedbrandt's highly recognized TriBeCa haunt was nearly dead on a recent--though rainy--Wednesday night. The dining room is spare anyway, in varied shades of white, so the emptiness feels even more obvious when the place isn't full.

Corton strives to be a four-star restaurant, but sometimes it misses its mark. Service is scattered and servers don't know the answer to obvious questions (like where their proteins come from, for instance). Utensils were often ill-suited for the task at hand (and I had to use my butter knife to scoop the sauce from one small bowl, left spoonless). My wine glass was near empty until a sommelier deigned notice. A series of amuse bouche--pastry filled with Sauce Mornay; a warm croquette; an egg custard with black truffle gelee that needed salt; a weirdly smoked quail egg; and a successful albacore tuna skewer with charred lime--underscored the ambition of the evening, even if they didn't all work.

Our first course of a puck of foie gras wrapped in beet, was dainty and beautiful, but not the best I've ever had. A course of monkfish was admirable cooked and sparely plated, with an accompanying warm oyster laced in foam and a lentil and onion soup.

A Wagyu beef course was a painting in black: a circle of beef crusted in black toasted brioche; a black oval of sunchoke; black truffle sauce on the plate; a square of short rib in more brioche; charred sweet onion; and a side of potato with a melting sauce inside.

Next: a gorgeous sesame custard with concord grape sorbet that surprised me in its elegance and restraint. Caramelized sesame on top offered the necessary crunch. Finally, an apple composition arrived, puff pastry filled with apples and a side of white coffee ice cream. It might not last forever in my dessert memory, but it was nice while it lasted, as was the parade of final notes: pate de fruits; chocolates; and macarons. I held court with a perfect glass of 1982 Coteaux du Layon.

The food is good, if a little too conceptual for its ilk. We'll see if it grows or shrinks with age.

239 West Broadway
New York, NY 10013

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Rose Water

It has inhabited a space on the corner of Park Slope's Sixth Avenue for over a decade and so, on a rainy autumn Tuesday, I finally went. The room is intimate and spare, bolstered by a lovely little protected patio that, in summer, provides plein air seating. I started with a surprisingly deep dry sherry--to find a restaurant that even serves a dry sherry as an apertif is a minor victory--and followed with a half bottle of Willamette Valley pinot noir. Half bottles! Sherry! Such sophistication does not exist in my own home borough. (And both, by the way, should be de rigeur in today's changing restaurant climate.)

We shared two appetizers, a by-the-book but competent pork belly, served with a cabbage and apple slaw and a fried triangular pasta--trenne--with a duck ragu. The pasta had the crisp consistency of good French fries, nothing to complain about (fried pasta is kind of an inspired idea, by the way). Next, a chicken with crispy skin but a little too little breast moisture; thick cut duck cooked a perfect medium rare; and a side of completely addictive fried Brussels sprouts served with an equally hedonistic mayonnaise. Why eat Brussels sprouts any other way?

Dessert did not disappoint; apple slices arrived in a thick, crisp batter and with cream cheese ice-cream and caramel. Perhaps it wasn't the most original meal out there, but there's a reason Rose Water has overcome the New York test of time.

Rose Water
787 Union Street
Brooklyn, NY 11215

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Next Momofuku

Ok, not really, but it does seem like Asian small plates with a Korean bent are all the rage. Danji, a minimalist space with 30 something seats in midtown west, fits in just fine. Aside from the wait, which wasn't nearly as long as that over at RedFarm, service was pleasant enough. I started with a beverage of watermelon-infused tequila and a background heat I couldn't identify. On one side of their menu, Danji offers traditional Korean fare; flip the sheet and arrive at a group of selections entitled "modern." Both sides do the country justice.

A riff on steak tartare, complete with a jardinere of daikon radish and perfect cubes of fatty meat, comes with the requisite quail egg yolk. It doesn't disappoint. Neither does a salad of chewy whelks, arugula, and red onion, paired with a tangle of buckwheat noodles, all cold. A trio of kimchis--Napa cabbage, daikon, cucumber--though tasty, left me wanting more. No, really. It just wasn't enough food.

That was the theme as a whole, actually. Bulgogi sliders, so rich they actually dripped fat, came in a tiny duo. I could have crushed five more. Crispy, spicy chicken wings came five to a plate. But bacon paella (a bit of a misfire, actually) with a fried hen egg was enough for two people and then some. Too much fat in the skillet prevented the rice from assuming the caramelization endemic to a good paella.

Still, the food is worth the hunger pains. And anyway, you can always order more.

346 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Spanish 101

Walking into Tertulia in the west village, I see an old, familiar face: Frank Bruni. The former Times critic who had once haunted me in New York restaurants sits one table away from me in Seamus Mullen's newest haunt, across from the unsurprisingly rotund Michael White. Let the party begin.

Tertulia is billed as a play on an old Spanish cider bar, but diners will be just as happy drinking cold and clean manzanilla sherry, or room temperature, nutty oloroso as they will be drinking funky, geuze-style cider. The food is equally appealing. A selection of cured meats did not include the old standby Jamon Serrano (you have to order that separately), but it did include a funky an unctuous selection of cuts from different parts of the pig, some lean and some fatty. Pan con tomate was just as toothsome and satisfying as it is in Barcelona. Croquetas seep with a warm bechamel of ham and quince paste.

The restaurant has only been open for lunch a few days and counts among its lunch time specials sandwiches of all competing kinds. We ate a mushroom and goat cheese version, with pine nuts and spicy pickles and a side of house made potato chips. Rice cooked on the plancha is the perfect combination of creamy risotto and crunchy socarrat, filled with tender snails, ribbons of oyster mushroom, and shards of Spanish ham.

Because the plates are small, you might feel inclined to keep eating; we did. As our closing number, we chose a plate of fried piquillo peppers--some mild and some debilitatingly hot--as well as two open faced toasts topped with a creamy crab salad. The crab is the perfect antidote to the intermittent spice of those salty little peppers. Verdict: get there if you can.

359 6th Avenue
New York, NY 10014

Monday, October 24, 2011

Modern Chinese

I can forgive the unacceptable wait at Redfarm last night, only because the dumplings were so damned good. The drinks, even for a Chinese restaurant, were a little too sweet--watermelon rum punch that tasted more like a Jolly Rancher; a shiso cucumber martini with too much simple syrup--and by the time our food came we were famished. But still, small plates were an inescapable success. Shrimp and pea shoot dumplings in a thin, steamed skin tasted more of fresh peas than anything else. I mean that as a compliment.

Soup dumplings rivaled those of Joe's Shanghai, whopping, steaming, and filled with pork and broth. Shumai shooters, over a hot orange soup, tasted mushroomy and rich. Smoked cucumbers with sesame seeds almost tasted of meat, they were so rich. A Katz's pastrami egg roll, served with spicy deli mustard, was a Jewish fantasy--Chinese and butcher shop wrapped up into one, hotdoggy treat. A special of pork wrapped around rice, negimaki style, came with stewed and sweet tomatoes and concord grapes. Crispy beef with lotus root and sliced onions was salty and sweet and impossibly crisp, like the best version of General Tso's you've ever had. The only small plate failure came in the form of crisp crab and pork dumplings. They looked good enough, small battered pucks with mayonnaise eyes added on by a playful kitchen. But they maintained their shape from an internally intact crab shell and the pieces of pork were large chunks of fatty belly. We could have passed on the whole thing, even the curry broth dipping sauce.

As for entrees, by the time they came we were ready to throw in the towel. A selection of sauteed mushrooms with baby bok choy was light, delicate, and lovely. A richer platter of lamb and asparagus won my vote for best in show. Fried rice included corn and bean sprouts and snow peas and goji berries, but I had no room left once it arrived. Desserts were throwaways--a lackluster jelly roll with "creme fraiche" whipped cream that tasted only of regular cream; a poached pear over out-of-season fruits. Save room for extra dumplings, instead.

529 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

per se

It is everything you expect, and more.

Canapes of salmon coronets, onion-infused cream cheese, and gougeres filled with Sauce Mornay.

A hollowed egg with custard and black truffles.

Keller's famous oysters and pearls: tapioca, Island Creek oysters, white sturgeon caviar.

Bread service: two types of butter, five types of salt, pretzel bread, miniature San Francisco sour dough loaves.

Garnet yams wrapped in something crispy and served with compressed apples.

Torchon of foie gras, quince poached in wine, micro mache, a never-ending arrival of warm brioche.

Long Island striped bass wrapped in swiss chard, a perfect pommes puree.

A slightly overcooked (my one gripe) kanburi with tiny carrots, cucumbers, and a pickle emulsion.

Butter poached lobster with equally buttery pumpkin porridge, butternut squash, tart cranberries.

Four Story Hill Farm rabbit, salsify, soft farmer's cheese.

Elysian Farms' lamb--one piece, bone-in--with bitter and sweet endive, navel oranges, and lamb jus.

A cheese course served with tomato marmalade, cornichon, roasted eggplant.

Huckleberry sorbet with Swiss meringue and red wine granite.

S'mores deconstructed and served with peanut butter mousse, pucks of marshmallow, and caramel ice cream.

Bitter orange and chocolate composition with quenelles of ice cream, chocolate mousse truffles, and bergamot as far as the eye can see.

A purple cow of vanilla genoise, concord grape soda, and grape sherbet.

Beignets with coffee semi-fredo.

Chocolates--Arnold Palmer, curry, balsamic vinegar, chocolate mousse, tamarind-pineapple, and so many others that I have since forgotten them.

A tiered box of fudge, caramels, and truffles.

Buttered popcorn ice cream bonbons.

Mocha brownies to bring home.

It was near perfect. Get there if you can.

per se
10 Columbus Circle
New York, NY 10019

Friday, October 14, 2011

The King of Fish

If I had any sincere doubt about whether or not Le Bernadin deserved four stars--or about whether or not Eric Ripert remained the confirmed king of the sea--I doubt no longer. Last night's four course dinner (ten people, two grand, thank you very much) blew all us little fishies out of the water. It is an occasion restaurant, as marked by the fact that we ran into not one but two other tables of culinary school grads. And it is a restaurant for the wealthy, as marked by the fact that a very famous comedian couple sat in a corner banquette, sharing wine and looking deliciously unkempt.

Thanks to the tip off from a friend, the restaurant began our meal with a gratis magnum of champagne. The dining room is larger than a lot of four stars (per se has sixteen tables and Jean-Georges is the kind of precious, carpeted room that makes people afraid to speak loudly), though smaller than Del Posto. It is carpeted, as is tradition in these kinds of places. It is filled with warm and sophisticated touches--a flowing wall pattern resembling the ocean; a seascape mural at the restaurant's rear; white orchids on the tables and in large standing vases. It is a hospitable, warm room, if not one that is terribly memorable.

And then: the food. An amuse bouche arrives of poached golden and red beets, wrapped in tiny burritos filled with goat cheese and a puck of tuna tartare and a bowl of lobster knuckle in some kind of emulsion. It points to the luxury of the meal and made even this beet hater a convert.

A raw course of black bass, sliced green grapes, celery, and olive oil packed crunch and punch. It was sweet and savory, silken and crunchy. A foie gras and tuna carpaccio arranged in the shape of a fish was equal parts decadence and allure. Striped bass with crispy artichokes reminded me that raw fish can be powerful in its excellence.

My langoustines arrived next, bathed in a salty, sweet beurre blanc and garnished with various mushrooms and cubes of foie gras. I preferred it to an admittedly well-executed crab cake with potato chips. My entree stole the show--crispy black bass with a mushroom reduction as rich as duck stock, served with a plate of spicy pickled cucumbers. A poached halibut in beet broth rivaled my fish, as did a soft and steaming striped bass with Thai inflections. The meat dishes ordered by two in our party did not measure up to the rest of our meal. One would do best to stick with the sea at Le Bernadin.

Then: dessert. Pre-dessert was a pot de creme of chocolate, layered with caramel and custard and salted cream in a hollowed egg with a demitasse. Panna cotta with figs was a textural dream. A comped mango cheesecake was the best of its ilk and a composed plate billed as apple cinnamon brought me back to an autumn fair ground. Petit fours of chocolate and pate de fruits and a tiny pate a choux filled with cream reminded me that in four star restaurant every touch matters.


Le Bernadin
155 West 51st Street
New York, NY 10019

Friday, September 23, 2011

Boulud Is Back

Walking into Boulud Sud on the Upper West Side is like walking into any three or four star establishment of the late 90s and early 2000s. The room is quiet, filled with patterned banquettes, carpeted, and dotted with the oldest dining crowd in recent memory. The only people in my age group were being taken out to eat by their parents.

That didn't bode well for my wallet.

Actually, the menu is conceptually brilliant, divided into seafood, vegetables, and meat dishes. Every category has a series of small plates, appetizers (which might as well be called "slightly larger small plates), and entrees, all priced accordingly. This means that you can skate by without ever ordering a main course, which I took advantage of, instead ordering six small dishes, a side, and two desserts.

But the service left something to be desired. Before our server had even taken our drink order, our first four dishes had arrived at the table. Once I ordered a drink, ten minutes elapsed before the server came back to report that they were, in fact, out of the cocktail. After our final courses were cleared, we waited twenty minutes for dessert menus and another twenty minutes after our menus arrived, waiting for our order to be taken.

Nonetheless, the food was largely impressive. A take on a Greek salad was crisp and clean, speckled with fresh oregano. A plate of hummus, babaghanoush, and falafel came with thin, wafter crisps and a spicy mayonnaise. The bread that came gratis was two kinds of focaccia--one with black olives--and a crispy, fatty flatbread that went perfectly with our harissa marinated mussels, cooked out of the shell in a brunoise of tomato and carrots. Duck legs were wrapped in phyllo pastry and atop a sweet and thick date puree.

A rabbit porchetta, weirdly served cold, lacked flavor (as did the sad, underseasoned market carrots that accompanied it), but the blue prawns, head on, made up for that misstep. The prawns were perfectly cooked and seasoned and the heads were crunchy--I ate all four heads. Broccoli rabe was another disappointment, but dessert, when it finally arrived, was a dinner atonement. A grapefruit sorbet came in a hollowed grapefruit with halvah and segments of the fruit. Our second dish featured sweet and tangy plums over squares of a soft cinnamon cake that resembled, in texture, the fluffy inside of a sourdough loaf. It was a delicate and lovely end to a long meal.

Boulud Sud
20 W. 64th Street
New York, NY 10023

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Before last night, I had never sat down to a full, multi-course, Japanese kaiseki meal. But I landed a reservation at Bouley's new TriBeCa hot spot, brushstroke. Ten courses, three hours (the courses moved a little too fast for my taste, a persistent NYC problem). We ordered an extra course, just to be cute.

Our meal began with outstanding cocktails--muddled red grapes in liqueur for me, and kiwi in green tea foam for my dining companion. Next, our first course, a Hassun, or seasonal appetizer: skewered, gently smoked salmon cube; gooseberry; turkey liver pate; Japanese berry; mushroom in sesame oil. A kabocha squash soup--undersalted, I felt--came next, with maitake mushrooms and toasted pumpkin seeds.

Then: a sashimi trio that could have come right from the ocean. Perfect, pink tuna. Toothsome fluke. Clean, sweet Spanish mackerel.

A remarkable chawan mushi, or Japanese egg custard, with uni and black truffle broth.

A nearly inedible duo of sardine sushi on rice, so fishy that after one, I pushed my plate away.

For a palate cleanser, a beautiful yin and yang of cold onion puree, beet puree, stewed onions, and onion crisps, which reminded me, in the best way possible, of Lipton's onion soup.

Poached lobster in a clam and edamame broth with a scallop dumpling did not disappoint, and neither did slick and fatty pork belly, marinated in pepper and served with malanga yam puree and ponzu. Our rice courses were a hit and a miss. Stewed wagyu beef over rice was an epic success, redolent of brisket and accompanied by a soothing red miso broth and salty cucumber and cabbage pickles. But a crab and mushroom hot pot was underseasoned, with overcooked crab and nearly nonexistent mushrooms. The pickle side included a dried fish pickle, which I wasn't expecting and which left a horrible fish aftertaste in my wearied palate.

Dessert? Awe inspiring. A quenelle of vanilla-soy ice cream arrived with toasted buckwheat and hit all the necessary notes of savory and sweet. Ditto for the soy milk custard, finished with green tea and a rich, hidden caramel at the bottom of the bowl. Crispy, delicious rice paper candy came as a petit four, along with frothy and warm green tea. It was a remarkable finish to a mostly remarkable meal.

30 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10013

Friday, August 26, 2011

Lyonnaise Birthday

I went to Lyon, initially, to see an old friend from my BLT days who is now the lead chef. But he was out of town on vacation. That was fine. It was a birthday celebration regardless, with plenty of meat to go around. Duck wings--three of them--arrived with a sticky, salty glaze, just as addictive as the smaller, more precious Buffalo variety. A charcuterie platter featured chewy beef salami, lamb pate, country pate, blood sausage, spicy mustard, grain mustard, pickled cauliflower, and cornichons. Onion soup was everything we wanted and more--a crouton thick with cheese and bone marrow, a broth with beef and onions and strings of braised brisket. And a truffle inflected hot dog, served with sauerkraut and mustard on a soft pretzel, was a meal in and of itself.

Entrees were a little less uplifting. A special of mussels and French fries was not only woefully undersalted but also a little too redolent of the ocean. They smelled and tasted a little old, regrettably. Steak tartare was a true winner, salty and creamy and filled with capers that popped in the mouth. But the bechamel on a baked dish of macaroni and cheese wasn't quite the soft and supple creamy I craved.

And even though I found the mission fig tart for dessert a little dry, an ice cream sundae, threaded with toasted coconut clusters and sour cherries, made up the difference. We got a lot for our money and if I happened to live in the West Village, I might find myself stumbling in every few nights for a plate of those wings and a hot dog.

118 Greenwich Avenue
New York, NY 10011

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Return to Flushing

Flushing rarely disappoints. This time, I headed out for Hunan food at Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan. The room is noticeably smaller than most of the banquet hall dining rooms of outer Queens, the food just as potent. I took a tip from Sam Sifton and ordered what the Times recommended, with some deviation from the rules. Marinated wood ear mushrooms were slick and salty and chewy and bright; shards of cucumber came bathed in a vinegar mixture that coated each piece in some kind of miracle emulsion. Even the simplicity of fried pork dumplings astounded us. "These are how dumplings should taste," exclaimed one of my dining companions.

Braised pork Mao-style (you'll see a lot of reference to Mao in this spot, who, according to legend, shared a hometown with one of the proprietors) was really just fatty pork belly in a bright red sauce with baby bok choy. The texture isn't for everyone and harkens trotters, but trotters I can live with, really. Cumin coated lamb was crispy and aromatic and complimented by the leaves and stems of fresh cilantro and more than a few red Thai chiles.

Pea shoots sauteed with garlic were seasoned adequately, which is one of my usual complaints at Chinese restaurants that only serve greens as an afterthought. Actually, these greens tasted more of peas than some actual peas I have eaten.

For the rest of my companions, the evening's piece d' resistance was a whole duck, cooked in a mirepoix of vegetables and served over a bunsen burner, tableside. The waiter picked the braised meat from the bones and left all of it to simmer in a roasting pan. But I found my plate laden with more bones than meat and the addition of caraway seeds was nothing short of overwhelming. It tasted more of rye bread than barbecued duck, which is what it had been billed as. Also, cooked celery gives me the creeps and always has, so I had no particular longing to repeat my duck experience. Next time, I'll order what Sifton recommended: sliced pork with dried turnips.

Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan
42-27 Main Street
Flushing, NY 11355

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Back in Newburyport, I headed over to Enzo, recently opened in the Tannery and boasting a farmer's market menu. Phew, finally. Cocktails ranged from run-of-the-mill (classic Negroni) to inspired (market Bloody Mary with pickled garlic scapes). House foccacia, which I can only assume was made there, was soft and buttery.

Fried olives came in a crispy, cornmeal crust and stuffed with oozing cheese, a nice take. An appetizer of a soft goat and cow's milk cheese arrived with Tokyo turnips and baby arugula and honeyed Marcona almonds, simple, but smart. Bruschetta tasted of the garden: fresh dill, tomatoes, soft cheese, black olives.

Entrees, though well-conceived, were less successful. A dish of fresh linguine with maitake mushrooms was woefully under seasoned. Sea scallops over corn risotto were the requisite sweetness and crispiness, but the risotto was a portion in and of itself, overwhelming the dish.

A brown butter cake for dessert, served with an almond creme anglaise and fresh cherries hit all its marks, even if a chocolate pudding lacked enough starch to form an actual pudding, as opposed to a thick sauce.

Because the product is good, Enzo might overcome its issues and grow into itself. I certainly hope so.

50 Water Street
Newburyport, MA 01950

Monday, July 18, 2011


The best kind of bachelorette is the kind where you sit down to dinner with eleven other women--all of whom are wearing ridiculously high heels--for a meal of roast pig.

We were at The Breslin, home of organ meats and pigs galore. First came a caesar salad, hearts of Romaine with a perfect, lemony dressing, fried parsley, fresh croutons, whole anchovies. Sometimes, the simplest dishes are the most satisfying.

It would have been nice to revel in the delight of a well-executed salad but, alas, the staff at The Breslin pushed us too far too fast. Before we had finished salad and sparkling wine, white wine and side dishes arrived, and then red wine, and then a whole pig. All night, servers were clearing plates while other members of our party ate. All night, wine arrived before we had attacked the glass previous.

The pig? Crisp skin, delicate meat, accompanied by a minty green sauce and a sweet red chutney. The head came on a second platter--eyeballs, brains, tongue, ears, and jowls for us to enjoy. But we had no time to complete our feast before the pig had been cleared and ice cream arrived on the table (really, ice cream, for $120?). They packed our pig to go, but without any of the sauces that came with. Duck fat potatoes, crisp and meaty, were the star of the evening, as were salty-sweet roast carrots. Wilted greens I could have done without. And the service? Well, they certainly didn't win my heart.

The Breslin
16 W. 29th Street
New York, NY 10001

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Shopping For The Perfect Pie

Maybe it wasn't perfect, but it came damn close. And I considered us lucky to get a table for three within minutes of entering Rubirosa, considering the crowd. It turns out that our table, hidden in a nook in the front of the restaurant, was oblivious to servers everywhere. Service: D plus.

But really, it was about the food. Rubirosa is the Manhattan branch of a long-standing Staten Island establishment, so it makes sense to go traditional. We ordered two bruschetta, one with mushrooms and pignoli and one with duck and caramelized onions. The bread was grilled and held up to the layer of topping. Even more traditional--and equally satisfying--was a plate of baked littleneck clams, salty and garlicky and complimented by fresh lemon wedges.

The pizza? Oh, the pizza. We ordered a small classic pie with mushrooms and olives (large enough to feed three people; buyer beware) and a small sausage and broccoli rabe pie, along with a side of grilled asparagus to keep things green. The classic pie hit all the right notes--a good ratio of sauce to cheese; ample yet not overwhelming toppings; a crispy crust that was neither too doughy nor too cracker-like. Unlike the pizzas of Lucali's and Keste, both personal favorites (and born of the Neopolitan style), Rubirosa is crispy throughout, reminding me a little of a great pie I once ate at Pulino's.

The sausage and broccoli pie didn't exactly disappoint, but it did come sans sauce, which is never my direction of choice. Bad service be damned; I'd return for another pie any day of the week.

235 Mulberry Street
New York, NY 10012

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Notes On A Long, Drunk Dinner

wd-50. Iconic New York. Our waiter asks us if we have ever heard of the restaurant before. Is he kidding? wd stands for Wylie Dufresne. Wylie hates oysters and spicy foods. He's married to a food editor from The Food Network. He eats raw cookie dough straight from the freezer. Yes, I've heard of it.

Obviously, if you've never eaten at wd-50 before (and I hadn't), it is necessary to indulge in the $140, eleven course tasting menu. First: raw Spanish mackerel with a dried chip of Chinese sausage. The food came out too fast. I didn't even have time to order a glass of Cremant d' Alsace before it arrived.

Next: Everything bagel ice cream with smoked salmon powder, tiny rings of pickled onions, and a shard of freeze dried cream cheese. A weird dish. The salmon was overpowering. I probably wouldn't eat this again.

All night, the pacing was off. I thought back to El Bulli, thirty five courses in eight hours. By that mathematical equation, the food at wd-50 should have taken around three hours, but it took closer to two. The wine took too long to arrive at our table each time. Service was, overall, inconsistent.

But the dishes got better through the progression. Foie gras torchon stuffed with passion fruit gelee was inspired, if filled with too much passion fruit. Cutting into the torchon released a pool of fruit that overpowered the liver a little but still tasted divine.

A soft boiled egg over caesar dressing blew me away. It came with pickled bean sprouts and an edible brown butter egg shell. My favorite dish of the evening followed, noodles made from king oyster mushrooms (and impossibly endowed with a perfectly noodley and mushroomy texture) with pan fried sweetbreads and banana molasses. It was sweet and filled with the tart undercurrent of vinegar and every competing texture in the dish made me want to eat more.

Then: Tai snapper over an onion "tart" (really more of a soft, oniony disk) with a brunoise of cucumber and several jardiniere of Asian pear and a crust of coffee and cashew, all over a smoked tomato sauce. Everything about this dish worked, from the textures (soft, crunchy, silky, crisp) to the flavors (smoky, bright, sweet, savory). The fish was cooked to medium, most likely prepared sous vide and picked up on the skin side. The coffee in the background reminded me of southern barbecue.

A quail dish didn't hit all the same grace notes. The quail, arranged either with meat glue or just pressed together in a torchon, looked a little more rare than medium rare and came with sunchokes that were cooked too quickly--they reminded me of underdone potatoes. But a rectangle of lamb loin (sous vided again), with some kind of grain that reminded me of corn and that the menu only billed as 'red beans and rice,' was addictive. It was a fine note to end the savory courses on.

And then, celery ice cream. It was impossibly green and impossible to eat. We finished ours only because we felt guilty for the waste. If I never have to eat celery ice cream again, that will be fine with me.

Something about the buckwheat quenelle with apricot puree and poached rhubarb didn't work, either. It tasted nearly medicinal. But these two experimental failures were bolstered by one true success, a thick ribbon of soft chocolate with crispy bits of beat and Chinese long pepper, all served with ricotta ice cream. The plate itself looked like the victim of a serial killer, a pastiche of red and brown splattered haphazardly. If we were dubious at first about the integration of beets in dessert, we were easily won over by the spiciness and the subtle vegetal quality the pepper and beet offered up. It was an incredible dessert.

Before we left, we received one final treat: rice krispy balls and cocoa packets. Bite into a ball and release a pool of sticky marshmallow. Bite into a plastic-looking packet of cocoa and release soft chocolate goo. Eat it all together and it offers up a memory of a s'more on a summertime beach.

50 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002

Monday, June 13, 2011

Salty and Fatty

Salt and Fat is an apt name for the fusion restaurant that just opened in Sunnyside because the food served is, indeed, salty and fatty. At the meal's start, a server shows up with a paper bag filled with popcorn cooked in bacon fat. It's a redemptive amuse bouche, the kind that sets the pace for a great meal.

Salt and Fat is mostly small plates, which gave us the opportunity to sample most of the menu. We began with a trio of seafood dishes, a cured yellowtail served with jalapenos, shaved radish, and grapefruit and orange supremes. The fish was clean and complimented by the spice of the jalapeno, but I think I would have felt better about the dish if it had not been so similar to a lobster salad we ordered--poached lobster pieces over a bed of greens with those same citrus supremes. The redundancy was my largest quibble with the menu. Items often bore too much similarity to one another (Korean steak wraps; short rib buns; pork sliders). That lobster salad was good enough (and, for $9, a complete and total steal), though I might not go back on the merit of that dish. Seared scallops with a bright orange accompanying puree was a bigger success. The scallops were cooked perfectly and the salty and sweet from the puree was the ultimate condiment.

Next came the lettuce wraps, hanger steak with pickled daikon on Bibb leaves. They were perfectly seasoned and a little spicy, and I would have eaten more than just one. Then: short ribs on buns with cucumber pickles. The buns were the pillowy, David Chang variety. Something about this dish left me incomplete. It was a little too acidic, or a little too salty. I can't tell which. A smear of mayonnaise or hoisin would have remedied the problem for me. An oxtail terrine was the star of the evening, crispy on the outside and soft in the center and served with earthy Hen-of-the-woods and enoki mushrooms and a salty-sweet sauce. It was a home run in the face of singles and doubles.

Our final trio left me underwhelmed. Papparadelle with a soft egg and asparagus and mushrooms and peas seemed woefully under-seasoned (and lacking cheese!). Pork belly tacos felt redundant in the face of all that meat in wrapping, and they needed more crunch and more acidity. Fried gnocchi with bacon in a bechamel, meant to be a play on macaroni and cheese, was an epic fail. The bacon was too chewy, the gnocchi too soft, the breading a degree too burnt. Unfried gnocchi would have been better.

For dessert, we ordered three ice creams--toasted marshmallow, white peach and jalapeno, and Thai iced tea--as well as a lychee panna cotta with yuzu buttermilk sorbet. The toasted marshmallow ice cream had the consistency of an actual marshmallow and had me wishing the kitchen had sent extra. The Thai iced tea was no real surprise, but it was plenty delicious. But the white peach was too grainy and more closely resembled a sorbet than an ice cream. We had a bite and left it for the kitchen gods. But, oh, the panna cotta! It was the perfect consistency and the perfect brightness, brought completely to life by that palate cleansing sorbet. That panna cotta, paired with the oxtail terrine and the bacon popcorn, might be enough to bring me back to Salt and Fat. Someday.

Salt and Fat
41-16 Queens Boulevard
Sunnyside, NY 11104

Monday, May 30, 2011


It isn't just a bad pun; it's also the name of a hand-pulled noodle restaurant on Bond Street where delicious shochu cocktails and mediocre noodles abound. Order the pina, which goes down easier than any high octane drink really should.

But maybe skip the short rib appetizer, which comes cloaked in white foam (how early 2000s!). The ribs are good, yes, but the foam is distracting and unnecessary. A pork head spring roll--really much more akin to a dumpling or a drunken noodle casing--meets with more success, a fatty, unctuous combination of meat and starch.

The noodles, though? Oh, how they disappoint. Each dish comes with the choice of thick or thin noodles, so we ordered one of each. Thin noodles with pork belly were fine, but nowhere near the nuanced texture of Ippudo. The pork belly was rich, but the overcooked turnips left something to be desired, as did the wan broth. Ditto for the duck, with its overcooked breast meat, thick and boring noodles, and flavorless stock. No roast pork bones to be found in these soups, alas.

Hung-Ry's beer and wine list is broad and interesting, and it might be worth it to stop in just for a snack and a libation. But beyond that, noodles are best procured elsewhere.

55 Bond Street
New York, NY 10012

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In Vino

Veritas. In wine there is truth. In the wine list at Veritas, there is an abundance of high-ticket items. I had to call the sommelier over to direct me towards something less expensive (the lowest item I could find in all of France hovered around $120). Conceptually, I understand having a list with wines on it in excess of $25,000. But no average wine drinker can hope to afford what Veritas brings forth. And it is worth noting that point.

The amuse bouche for the evening was a Taylor Bay scallop served in its shell and garnished with a pepper coulis. It was lovely and fresh and set my palate up for more food. I began with the Ocean and Land, bone marrow and butter-poached lobster, served with a powdered lobster roe. Sadly, my lobster was overcooked and my marrow undersalted. My companion's crudo--salmon belly and Atlantic tuna with pomegranate seeds and grapefruit supremes--was a nicely composed dish, if lacking a little spark.

My entree, billed as a "wooly pig," was a pork loin cooked to medium over a gastrique and a mix of dark pork meat breaded with panko and fried, all over braised butter lettuce and roasted grape tomatoes. It was a beautiful dish, but I felt, once more, that everything lacked a little inspiration. My friend's raviolo--one large piece of pasta filled with short ribs and mushrooms--would have fit better on a winter menu. With spring in full swing, why settle for braised meat? Where were the peas and asparagus and morels and ramps?

I let the waiter talk me out of the strawberry tart and into the doughnuts and toffee pudding. One came with a peppermint ice cream and the other with a ginger lime, neither of which left me with much enthusiasm. Our cheese plate came with almonds, honeycomb, and fruit bread. Snore. I missed Tia Keenan's inspired combinations back from my Casellula days: bacon with white chocolate; lavender; home made fudge.

Overall, dinner left me a little poorer and a little underwhelmed. It could have been better, or at least less expensive. But maybe this is the milieu of the modern American three star restaurant.

43 East 20th Street, #1
New York, NY 10003

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Italian Night

I had wanted to try Ciano since it opened--and was awarded two New York Times stars--last year. The restaurant is known for its northern Italian cuisine along with its different approach to wine drinking; one can order a glass of any wine on the entire list, which can range from the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous as far as price points are concerned. But never mind. The idea is appealing to single diners or those who find themselves in the company of non-oenophiles.

Because my reservation included ten other people, we had a set menu, which is never an accurate reflection of what a restaurant can accomplish. Our appetizer choices included an arugula salad, fresh burata with a pine nut pesto and caramelized onions, and two oversized meatballs redolent of fine short ribs. Both the burata and meatballs were fine and delicate dishes, worthy of any menu.

I skipped the swordfish option entirely and found myself among duck papparadelle and a medium-rare lamb loin instead. The paparadelle was toothy and satisfying, if a little rich for mid-May. I missed the possibilities brought forth with spring's vegetable bounty. The lamb came closer to what one might expect from a spring menu, but the fava beans at the plate's top arrived undercooked and underseasoned. The lamb itself--cooked to a cool center--was surprisingly tough and gamy. And the portions for a tasting menu were far too large to be considered appropriate.

But dessert brought spring to the table in full force, a delicate and complex napoleon of strawberries and rhubarb and minted cream. I would have ordered it again and definitely would have chosen it over the yodel-like chocolate cake and stracciatella ice cream. I found myself underwhelmed at meal's end, possibly a testament to the limitations of a set menu.

45 East 22nd Street
New York, NY 10010

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mmm. Wells.

This is the third time that I have attempted to eat at this restaurant and the first time that I have found success. It helps that a New York Times review forced the Canadian-influenced Long Island City Diner to start taking reservations; we made ours for the bar. The menu at M. Wells changes daily, so it's hard to predict which way the wind will blow on a particular evening. There are large format plates and organ meat feasts and a slew of French-style desserts, all boasting a Montreal heritage. And few of our dishes disappointed.

We began with bone marrow and escargot, which lacked a little salt but spoke to the finest qualities of both fat and snail. A raw tuna preparation came decorated with pickled mustard seeds, an incredibly inspired and balanced preparation. Veal brains grenobloise reminded me of the crunch suckers I once enjoyed in a cavern in Barcelona. I would have liked a touch more caper, but I was happy even without. The dish arrived atop the Time Out New York award. No, I'm not joking.

Next: a soft shell crab club sandwich with bacon and onions and mayonnaise and an ample dusting of smoked paprika. Would spring ever be complete without fried soft shells? The sandwich paled in comparison to the one consumed by our dining neighbors, M. Wells regulars who received, gratis from the kitchen, a foot-tall sandwich of foie gras, meatloaf, fried chicken, veal brains, soft shell crab, and fried grouper. It's not to say our sandwich wasn't near perfect--it was. But how can one look at a sandwich like ours next to a sandwich like theirs?

M. Wells serves a spin on a bibimbap, the Korean rice dish that usually comes cold with chili paste. This version featured oysters on the half-shell, foie gras, raw scallop, gravlax, carrots, cucumbers, and avocado. I wanted the cote de boeuf with soft shell crab, a mammoth rib-eye carved off the bone. M. Wells also serves a peking duck tasting priced at $150 for three courses, but we didn't get that either.

But five courses could not prevent us from eating dessert, a Paris-Brest filled with almond pastry cream and a lemon pot de creme with madelines and, finally, a pineapple upside-down cake. Chef told us to come back as we waddled away from the bar. And yes, I will be back.

M. Wells
21-17 49th Avenue
Long Island City, New York 11101

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Trip to Latin America

Or, more accurately, a trip to Nuela, on W. 24th Street, where Peruvian haute cuisine is alive and well. Nuela opened last year and has done an admirable job of turning Latin American food into high-end art. The room is a vibrant red, sort of reminiscent of the color wash one might encounter in South Beach. It will appeal to some and not others, and sitting by the floor-to-ceiling windows only offers a vista of down-on-its-luck 24th Street. A better bet is probably to sit at the bar.

Before any food arrives, Nuela sends out tiny warm rolls made with yucca flour. They taste like elevated cornbread and come with a salted cream and honey for spreading. Pork belly with cheese-filled arepas and a ramp chimmichurri didn't disappoint, arranged architecturally into cubes and spheres. The short rib empanada, stuffed with a traditional savory-sweet cross of meat and golden raisins, was a success of flaky crust and earthy meat, even if the pie itself--one small serving--was a little too little to be an adequate appetizer.

The ceviches, as expected, stole the show. Blood red tuna came with a charred pineapple marinade and slices of watermelon and French breakfast radish, a spicy and crunchy compliment to all that sweet. Hamachi was served with a black garlic marinade that did not overtake the delicacy of the fish. Our only regret was not opting for the fish of the day, red snapper with chili, lime, and red onion.

Entrees at Nuela are offered in several ways. Some of the dishes are normal, entree sized portions and some are large format options for the table to share. They offer a suckling pig in three sizes--a quarter, half, and whole pig--as well as chicken, porterhouse, and duck. We chose the duck, served hot in a paella pan over rice, sugar snap peas, and market carrots. The manager came over to scrape the soccarat, or burnt rice bits, from the bottom of the pan. A confit of leg and a breast roasted rare accompanied a fat lobe of duck foie gras, not to be outdone by a duck egg, sunny-side-up. It was a transcendent take of an Andalucian dish.

The wine list at Nuela is heavily South American, not really my bag, and expensive for what it is. I found a bargain in a 2005 Shafer Merlot (not normally the type of wine I would have chosen, but supple enough to live up to the food). And I finished my meal with deep-fried cinnamon churros and hot chocolate for dipping, along with a glass of cream sherry, which may be the perfect way to end a Saturday night in New York.

43 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10010

Monday, April 25, 2011

Winner, Winner

Double dinner. I had back-to-back dinner dates for a change. Usually, I am either in the kitchen or ordering pizza to my one bedroom, but not this weekend. On Saturday night, I ventured out west to Cookshop, a haunt I haven't haunted since it first opened a number of years ago. Cookshop was one of those restaurants that did locavore and farm-to-table before it was really cool, so it was interesting to refresh my perspective. The eaters I dined with were hardly adventurous, so we didn't test the limits of the Cookshop kitchen. I wanted the special boudin blanc, and the steamed littleneck clams, and the tongue salad, but instead we got a blistered ramp pesto pizza, tiny biscuits filled with sliced country ham, chicken wings served manchonner-ed and doused in hot sauce and sesame seeds, a butter lettuce salad in green goddess dressing, and two crostini smothered in chunky cheese. The pizza was a standout, reminding me a little of the Franny's pies in Brooklyn. The wings were tasty enough, as were the buns. I could have skipped the boring salad and crostini.

My companions seemed a little put off when I ordered the rabbit milanese, but it tasted the same as any milanese does, a shroud of crunch and fry over a thin piece of barely detectable meat. It was served off the bone and over a salad of wilted greens and a warm, creamy, mustard-heavy potato salad. The three together reminded me of some of the most simple and most satisfying meals I ate in Milan. Dessert was warm and fuzzy, too, though the flavors of the three we chose were a little too closely related. A chocolate and vanilla ice cream sundae was almost ennui-inducing, though tasty. A fluffernutter pie of chocolate and peanut butter tasted a lot like the creamy banana pudding, also filled with peanut butter. I would have opted for the sour cherry sorbet to finish, but my companions had no interest. Cookshop is a place that still puts out tasty food, even if it doesn't push any real culinary boundaries. Sometimes restaurants don't need to.

For Easter Sunday, I went in a different direction, to the ocean at Imperial No. 9, Sam Talbot's chic and sustainable seafood restaurant in SoHo's Mondrian Hotel. My friend from school works in the kitchen and so we, a party of seven, dined like little queens. We ate through the entire menu with the exception of three items, mostly because the kitchen supplemented our order with an abundance of free food. Deep fried oysters in cornmeal and served with strips of fried ham and a sweet tomato relish were a definite winner, as was the restaurant's version of the iconic Marea dish, lardo and sea urchin. At Marea, there is too much to eat in a bite and the weight of the toast obscures the delicacy of the fish and fat. Imperial No. 9 uses a slighter approach, putting less on the plate and using a thinner piece of bread. It's well-executed, even if the idea has been pirated. Raw fluke would have been better without the frozen accoutrement. Cauliflower fritters were gooey on the inside, but they pretty much fell apart as I dipped them in my yuzu sauce. Raw tuna came Hawaiian poke-style, cloaked in sesame oil and mustard oil and served, unnecessarily, with buttery grilled bread. But the flavor of that fine tuna competed too nearly with the pea shoot salad drenched in Miso. In fact, a lot of the restaurant's dishes taste too alike, in one way or another.

Take, for instance, a fantastic dish of Israeli cous cous, cooked creamy and served with roasted acorn squash and an immersion circulator egg. The texture of the cous cous most nearly resembles well made risotto, but the egg was redundant, appearing in nearly the same form in a dish of plancha-cooked shrimp and blue corn grits. That dish was good, too, and probably needed the egg more than its predecessor, since the grits, picked up with maple syrup, edge toward the sweet. Sesame and black vinegar and garlic are everywhere, coating the tuna and the salad and also the plancha-cooked king crab claws. It is heavy-handed at times and lacking the nuance so necessary to preparing good seafood. The best of the fish entrees was seared diver scallops with littlenecks and pork belly, a nod to my own New England heritage. The worst dish of the evening (besides the two foods I dislike: octopus and roasted beets) was a culotte of beef, not particularly tender, lacking sauce, and served with tiny, underseasoned hockey puck potatoes. A spicy cucumber and Napa cabbage kimchi brightened my mood a little, but it was an exact replica of the version you find in Koreatown, and nothing beyond that. Roasted squash and apples were delicious, if a month out of season by now--we should have been far into asparagus and ramps and favas and peas and morels, but those gems were nowhere to be seen.

And by the way, the menu--confusing, expensive, and hard to read. Appetizers aren't separated from entrees and prices reflect no real difference, so you don't know the size of your dish (and dish sizes tend toward the excessively small) until they arrive. A $32 plate of king crab claws would have fed a half of a hungry person. That tuna poke rings in at over $25, as does the uni-lardo appetizer, which we received gratis. The wine list is overpriced but there are discernable bargains, like a $60 bottle of Bethel Heights pinot noir from the Willamette Valley. And cocktails, though not cheap, are tasty enough. I drank the No. 1, a mix of sparkling wine, simple syrup and "cucumber foam." It went down easy, if a little too easy. Desserts, surprisingly, were inspired and avant-garde. Two tiny chocolate tarts with caramel filling and sour cherry puree were a delicate dance of rich and restrained. Frozen lemon tartlets made with fresh edible flowers and graham cracker crusts were perfect palate cleansers after warm and dense chocolate chip cookies and chocolate peppermint cookies. A deconstructed banana pudding was hard to understand but easy to eat, a mix of marshmallow ice cream and flambeed bananas compressed into frozen squares. Salted caramel ice cream arrived in a bowl filled with popcorn powder, just as El Bulli as it sounds. Those desserts game gratis, too, along with glasses of Moscato d'Asti.

We received a thirty percent discount because my friend works at the restaurant and the kitchen took off nearly half of what we ate and drank, so the meal came to an astonishing $100 per person, a steal for what we got. But that price tag doesn't accurately reflect the true cost of eating at Imperial No. 9, which would easily break your bank if you let it. It seems Sam Talbot hasn't quite found his stride yet. The menu needs editing and the flavors need more definition. As for those prices, well, it's SoHo.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

More Tacos

This time, a pricier version. I should have known that Alex Stupak, the former pastry chef for Wylie Dufresne's iconic wd-50, wouldn't play soft ball. Stupak opened his west village taco joint, Empellon, a few weeks ago and the place is hip enough, with white brick walls and Klimt-esque artwork and antique light fixtures. The menu is medium-sized and full of interesting choices--ceviches, sopes, tacos, chicharrones, snacks. Our over-eager waitress upsold us on a fine guacamole with two stellar sauces on the side--one smoky and nearly sweet, the other fiery hot and made with pumpkin seeds. Still, I wish I had more time to check the menu before I agreed to the starter. I would have ordered the chicharrones with capers and olives instead.

Our two appetizers--a sope with fried egg and beans and a Staub cast iron filled with kale and melted cheese--arrived with warm tortillas, a nice touch. Each was delicious and satisfying, if not particularly inventive. Tacos come in trios and so we ordered a lamb barbacoa, which came with green olives and cheese, and a minute steak with onions emincer and fresh cilantro. The tacos were the way I like them--salty, smoky, texturally complex. But at $17 for three, I felt a little ripped off. No native Mexican could ever in good conscience pay such prices for elevated street food.

The pastry kitchen has always been Stupak's home and at Empellon, that tradition continues. Our chocolate flan (a misnomer, since it more closely resembled a mousse than a custard) was adorned with crunchy bits of one sort or another and a spicy cinnamon ice cream quenelle and warm honey. Aside from the truly inspired grapefruit margaritas, dessert was the best course.

230 W. 4th Street
New York, NY 10014

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Taco Taco Taco

Pachanga Patterson has been all over the blogs recently, which is weird, because it's in my neighborhood, which typically shies away from citywide attention. The concept is "Mexican food as made by people behind the line who are hungry after a night of service." Maybe not the most terse description, but hey, it's accurate. Of course, people already know this place, thought it has only been open a few weeks. I ran into the sous chef from Ma Peche, a sign that industry has already caught on.

Here's what they've caught on to:

P & H soda mixers in the cocktails from Anton Nocito at P & H. The hibiscus margarita is delish, if a little on the boozy side. A trio of salsas might not be in season (corn and tomato in March?), but I ate them anyway. Tomatillo had good texture and acidity, while a roasted tomato version coaxed every available molecule of summer sweetness.

I'm surprised by how much I enjoyed a crispy, crunchy, peanutty salad of romaine leaves, fried peanuts, jicama, and pickled red onion. It would have been the perfect salve for the extremely fiery and nonetheless addictive fried chiles with cotija cheese that I ordered with my tacos. Because I can't do anything food-related in moderation, I ordered nine tacos for the two of us. (Note: this is what I consider to be a restaurant misstep; every taco plate comes with three tacos and the menu specifically says that mixing and matching is prohibited. Boo to a lack of variety.)

Moo shu duck tacos actually tasted nothing like moo shu--I was thinking cabbage and mushroom and hoisin--but they did taste strikingly similar to the Ssam Bar pork buns, and I mean that as a compliment. The filling appeared to be a confit of leg, along with lightly pickled cucumber and fresh sliced radish. Berkshire pork tacos were stuffed also with pickled onions and deep-fried pork rinds. Say no more. A taco advertised as "black trumpet mushrooms" was actually portabellos for the evening, a huge disappointment, since the two couldn't be more different versions of fungus. Still, it tasted good. Overall, the restaurant could use to include one meat taco with more meat texture, as opposed to all the slow-cooked stuff it has going on (pork shoulder, short ribs, duck confit). Bring on the tongue!

Dessert was the dark version of Vesta's baby Jesus cake, the Diabolita--same owners, different appeal. The cake is a square of chocolate and spice, served warm with caramel. It isn't a cerebral dessert, but dessert needn't always be so thinky.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


I stopped by Fette Sau in Billyburg last night, but the long line and lack of seating pointed me elsewhere. But when you're in the mood for 'cue, you're in the mood for 'cue, so to South Williamsburg we ventured, miraculously snagging a vacant table at Fatty 'Cue in under ten minutes.

The spot, in aesthetic and execution, isn't so different from Zak Pelaccio's Fatty Crabs, which is to say that the food is spicy, sweet, salty, textured and, above all else, full of fat. The best exemplar of "fat is flavor" comes across in the Dragon Pullman Toast with Master Fat. What is it? Slices of that well-known and pillow-soft bread with grill marks and a salt crust, served with a side of fat drippings from the barbecue. It's like eating the deckle of a rib-eye on toast, if that deckle had been rendered into a dippable liquid. Not half bad, I say.

We ate lamb ribs, off the bone and crisp, with a mackerel aioli, which sounds gross but isn't. Two mammoth pork ribs came with a palm sugar glaze that's stickier, sweeter, and more appealing than the best Texas red sauce. Pork bone broth is basically a rich consomme with sliced crunchy celery. In the context of all this meat, it almost reads like health food. So, too, do the habit-forming black eyed peas, served with the traditional addition of burnt ends and the not-so-traditional slickening of yellow curry. Grilled bacon, leaning towards the fatty, comes with a curry mustard and toast points, a modern take on charcuterie that doesn't feel too haute or out of place.

I would have ordered the crab for a shareable entree, but one of our party members is allergic, so we settled on brisket instead, which didn't disappoint. Fatty 'Cue serves the lean, pink slices alongside the dense, fatty ones. The brisket comes with mayonnaise, chili sauce, steamed buns (Peking duck style), cilantro, pickled red onions, and a bone broth for dipping. It's a rendering of make-your-own pork buns, or a French dip. And it's really, really good. Cutting all that fat with sugar and acid (found everywhere in accompanying sauces and in the vinegar and fish sauce container left on the table for each party's personal use) works so well, one wonders why Malaysian barbecue isn't already a "thing" in the city.

Then again, these treats are probably best enjoyed in moderation.

Fatty 'Cue
91 South 6th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Comfort Me

I'm sort of ambivalent about the comfort food movement. Certainly there are more challenging and original foods out there to make than fried chicken and biscuits. Still, when a hot spot opens in my nabe (a truly rare occurrence), I take notice. Queens Comfort has been building a following all week, with its rakish Williamsburg aesthetic--white wainscoting, chalkboard menus, Stumptown coffee in house and to go, alternative music blasting, cash only. You get the picture. I had to go in.

I sat at the bar, which makes for a comfortable enough brunch. Queens Comfort does their own baking and I had to challenge myself not to eat one of their fresh donuts. I won that battle, but lost others.

My fried green tomato sandwich was a little heavy on the remoulade and a little light on the sweet pepper jam, but I assume they'll find balance after the official week of soft-opening is over. My bread had the coarse texture of cornbread with a tiny bit of the same quality of sweetness. I was aiming for a meat-free morning, which prevented me from ordering the brisket sandwich with horseradish and red onion jam, or the pulled pork sandwich with Stumptown barbecue sauce and slaw, or the fried chicken sandwich with maple butter on a biscuit. The calorie counter in the back of my brain advised against a side of macaroni and cheese, though I'm sure my discipline will only follow me so far. For my family, I brought home three maple bacon biscuits, the last in house.

The staff has advised me that the menu will change and expand in coming weeks. They also plan to delivery and, hopefully, accept credit cards. I'm not sure if Queens *needs* a spot to order a two dollar Mexican Coke, but hey, we have it now. For anyone who was concerned, it should come as a great comfort.

Queens Comfort
40-09 30th Avenue
Astoria, NY 11103

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Eat Here Now

Renee's Kitchenette and Grill. Woodside, Queens. Filipino Barbecue.

There isn't much to see, beyond some communal cafeteria-style tables and a slew of strange gift items marked "twenty percent off." But, oh, the meat.

Order the mixed grill. With it, you'll get pork on a skewer and fatty-tender pork belly and a full chicken leg and thigh and spicy sausage, all doused in a sweet Filipino barbecue sauce. Dip your varied carnivorous pleasures in the side bowl of fish sauce and vinegar, spiced with just enough chile to keep you human. Take some of those spicy pickled veggies--mostly cabbage, I think--and drape them over the modestly delicious garlic fried rice.

Spicy, salty, and sweet, and everything takes a cool respite in a crunchy cucumber, tomato, and hard-boiled egg salad. Eat that, too. Save room for a cool coconut drink with "tropical jello" and toasted rice. It is sweet and likely very bad for you. Saturday only comes once a week.

If the meat doesn't fill you completely, take a jog a few blocks down to Red Ribbon Bakeshop, what my dining partner called, "The Filipino version of Crumbs," where everything is extremely sweet and calorie-laden. I don't know what made the frosting on our angel food cake green, but it was sugary enough to chase down any cravings. I finished the slice of chocolate, too, two layers held together with dulce de leche.

Renee's Kitchenette and Grill
69-14 Roosevelt Avenue
Woodside, Queens 11377

Red Ribbon Bakeshop
65-02 Roosevelt Avenue
Woodside, Queens 11377

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Del Posto

I had only ever walked into the space in daylight, before they even served lunch. It is a cavernous dining room with marble and wide balconies and lush carpet where the tables are. By night, the glow of candles and table side sconces turns the room into a giant Deco-era piano bar (and yes, there is a piano, under the stairs).

Del Posto offers two menus, both price fixed. We chose the lesser of the two, five courses, which has more flexibility; the seven course menu is set in its courses and does not allow for guests to choose their food from the larger menu.

Prosecco arrived within moments. I didn't complain, even though I had already downed a near perfect white peach bellini at the bar. Next, a trio of amuse bouche: gougeres with mortadella; sticky saffron risotto balls; and a clarified chicken broth striated with egg yolk. Then, crusty bread and whipped lardo, an Italianophile's dream spread.

Our 1996 Riserva Barbaresco had been aged in barrique, which I noted to the sommelier. "Do you prefer a more traditional style?" he asked me. I said yes. He told me he would make a note on my reservation so that the next time I have dinner they would serve me something less pronounced. The night was full of comparable attention to detail.

I let the server steer me towards a beef tartare with porcini mushrooms and shaved parmesan when she told me that the kitchen could not produce the goose liver special without almonds (I'm allergic). Her selection won me over, full of crunch and salt and smooth edges. Then came the first of our two pasta courses, a pasta called caramelle, which looked like cellophane-wrapped candy and oozed with gorgonzola and black truffles. A whole wheat spaghetti came with chunks of mirepoix and shaved bonito flakes. The pastas are the star of the whole Del Posto show.

But my lamb--a mixture of leg, t-bone, and other gamier parts--was not to be outdone. Cloaked in a perfect puttanesca, it was the ultimate combination of unctuous fat and tender meat. I still had room for dessert, a butterscotch semi-freddo with candied melon. Every portion served was modest, preventing the post-meal guilt so often associated with four star dining. There was even room to enjoy the final glorious moments of our meal, served in a box grater: a caramel in edible paper, a tiny ice cream bon bon on a lollipop stick, a chocolate truffle, two pieces of candied fruit, and a golf ball-sized beignet filled with citrus cream.

Del Posto
85 10th Avenue
New York, NY 10011

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Thai Style

Before my reservation at Kin Shop, my mother and I made a pilgrimage to Eataly in Gramercy. I call it a "pilgrimage" because that's exactly what it is. We waited in line nearly twenty minutes, pleading our case to two disaffected bodyguards before we were finally granted entree into the most expensive and expansive grocery store I have ever seen.

I won't deny that my tiny, crunchy cannoli was pitch-perfect, nor will I claim nonchalance. Eataly is truly a sight to behold, with its gorgeous fresh pastas, scored breads, fresh fish, and various Italian imported foods. The space, weaved with restaurants and wine bars, is reminiscent of Barcelona's Boqueria, where patrons can shop and eat all in one venue. But price-wise, Barcelona doesn't hold a candle to this New York monstrosity. A small ham that couldn't have weighed more than 3 pounds cost $34.95. Lesson learned: come for the sights and a quick cannoli, but buy your wares elsewhere.

Kin Shop was a welcome relief from the fray. The restaurant has a minimalist feel, in the same genre of momofuku, with blond wood tables and chopsticks in lieu of silver. But the prices at Harold Dieterle's newest hot spot are more in line with tablecloths and china. At the behest of the server, we ordered heavy--and she was right, since portions are fairly conservative--which resulted in a weighty check of over $200 for four people. It isn't expensive by New York standards, exactly, but it isn't cheap, either. Casual dining in the city has retained its cache, but not its price point.

Kin Shop has a deep and interesting wine list, filled with German and French whites with residual sugar, perfect for spicy food. We drank a 1999 Auslese Riesling, well-suited for our creamy bone marrow (which could have used a touch more salt, but never mind), our head-on prawns (no complaints here), our scallops and snap peas in coconut milk (sweet, savory, and full of contrasting textures). Chinese sausage with a soft egg and chopped razor clams was salty and complex, though it would have been better served by leaving the razors whole. Tamarind seared duck breast had been breaded in something light to create this crunchy exterior that was nothing short of addictive. Paper-thin layers of roti had been bound together in clarified butter. I stuffed mine with a cucumber relish that tasted like chopped homemade pickles, an Asian tea sandwich of my own creation. Even a modest dish of egg noodles with Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and a poached egg failed to miss a beat.

And then: dessert. I ordered a root beer float, but instead of the galangal ice-cream that came with the dish, I had mine with Thai iced tea ice-cream, an authentic interpretation of the real thing. Coconut cookies arrived on the house, as did a scoop of icy but refreshing lychee sorbet. It's all pricey for Thai, but worth the price tag.

200 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10010

Kin Shop
469 6th Avenue
New York, NY 10011

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Ocean Life

I have retreated, in my old-ish age, from dinners at fancy restaurants, where I once found myself most at home. But every once in a while an occasion arises--a birthday or otherwise noteworthy and celebratory event--that calls me back into three- and four-star New York life. Last night, such an occasion, my sister's birthday, brought me to Marea.

Despite some service missteps (the wine list arrived in the hands of my sister's boyfriend as a matter of gender consequence instead of my own knowing paws; the expeditors brought our crudo course to the wrong seat numbers; the sommelier, when petitioned by me to recommend a "not crazy expensive" and accessible Barolo pointed to a $190 bottle; the captain placed the check at my right, rather than at the payee's place), the food was, in fact divine.

First, green olive focaccia, slick with oil and salt, and a little cup of squash consomme to clean our palates. That gentle taste prepared us for what came next, the unctuous, fatty, and inspired combination of uni and lardo on charred toast, a marriage of the sea's prizes and the land's. It was like eating a combination of many different butters all at once, one with the tiniest briniest reminder of the ocean. Crudo was simple and clean. In retrospect, I should have ordered a fattier fish, since the rest of the table didn't do the menu justice. I had three perfect langoustines, raw on slices of mandoline-thin cucumber. My sister had the same preparation with sweet Maine ama ebi and red chili, but she found it too slimy. The rest of our table ordered oysters, a bit of a snore, even if the mignonette duo--red and wine vinegars--was tasty enough. In the future, I would go for a pink snapper or a tuna or even a branzino.

My next course was yellowtail, also raw, but adorned with chanterelles and thin slices of seared foie gras. In some ways, I found this course, in its entirety, most successful. My sister ordered Nantucket Bay scallops, which, when ill-prepared, reek of fishiness. But these were candy sweet and matched with bright red pomegranate seeds. The Nova Scotia lobster with fresh burrata sang in its simplicity and was complimented by a bright and impossibly summer-like basil puree. Gnocchi with shaved black truffles, stolen from my brother's plate, were the pillowy things they describe ad nauseum in The Godfather III and not those gummy, overdone monstrosities too often found in Italian joints nationwide. And a mushroom risotto across the table from me played to the virtues of fungus while demonstrating the care and caution it takes to make good rice good.

Next were main courses, which, for me, came in the form of delicate orecchiette in a sweet tomato sauce with even sweeter shrimp, just barely undercooked to maintain their texture. My sister shared her bone marrow and octopus fusilli with me, cooked in a deep red wine reduction and filled with all of the extreme decadence that one might expect from such a dish. She pushed her bone marrow to the side and I happily accepted her discard pile with those twists of pasta that were some of the best textured noodles I have ever eaten. My brother's swordfish, though it wouldn't have been my pick, was a study in well-cooked fish, but I didn't make it much farther around the table than that.

I wasn't expecting much in the way of dessert, as the Italians are rarely known for their sweet tooth, but Marea's pastry kitchen is extremely talented and nimble. My rosemary panna cotta was what I think of when I crave a little milk pudding and a wine reduction and sorbet added sweet to an almost savory concoction. My sister's beautiful white chocolate honey cake came with parisienne balls of grapefruit sorbet on top. Her boyfriend's salted caramel and chocolate cake hit all of the obligatory notes and added an extra punch of cream in the center that reminded me of the best kind of Hostess cupcake.

In the future, I will spend more occasions at Marea.

240 Central Park South
New York, NY 10019