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

Friday, March 23, 2012


It has been a week of worldly food adventures and I have stayed away from my computer too long. Alas, I come to you, dear reader, with a post about my week's dalliances.

On Tuesday, it was down to TriBeCa for Jewish food, Kutsher's, an import from the Borscht Belt. It's a quirky, often fun take on Jewish classics: crispy latkes served with creme fraiche and caviar; pillow-light meatballs in brown gravy; a pickle platter of sours and half sours and green tomatoes; airy halibut gefilte fish, not suspended in gloppy goo. A take on a traditional Jewish meat platter is a thing of beauty, with fatty duck pastrami, chalk-less chopped liver, soft tongue, and even softer corned beef. Served with brown mustard and rye, it reminded me a little too much of deli lunches set forth by my paternal grandmother, back when we all still congregated at her plantation in New Jersey.

A matzo ball soup was light and fluffy, nothing at all like the sluggish specimen my own grandmother makes. But entrees took a less enticing turn. A roast chicken for two was depressingly dry (and in this respect, maybe the restaurant nailed my family's home cooking dead-on). Kreplach were gummy and filled with walnuts, a contrasting texture that I couldn't seem to make work. Duck schmalz fries were a gimmick and tasted like regular fries. The black and white cookie sandwich served for dessert was rock-hard, closer to shortbread than the yellow cake I love so much. A rainbow cookie ice cream sundae was strangely gelatinous, appealing only to me and not to the rest of my dining crew. But a chocolate egg cream brought our table back to 1950s New York and the soda fountains that have long since stopped pouring. So at least that was a resounding success.

My Wednesday meal could not have been more different from Tuesday's. At Kajitsu, the vegetarian Japanese restaurant in the east village, I ordered an eight-course tasting menu, known as this month's Tanenoko Special. Think you can't be satisfied by vegetables alone? Think again. The meal was mostly stunning, undone only by one clunky course. Plum sake to start was cold and sweet and served on ice. Coasters were made from tiny slips of paper, or embroidered pucks of cloth. A carafe of a junmai daijingo came in a cold metal pourer with delicate etched glasses and, later, green tea arrived in handmade ceramic pots.

We started with a salad of spring vegetables--fiddlehead ferns made their first seasonal appearance--in a salty soy gelee. It was delicate and beautiful and important tasting. So, too, was a kohlrabi soup with a grilled patty of something unidentifiable. Creamy and rich, it made the absence of meat unimportant. Next: a bento box of contrasting items. Here, a piece of smoked taro on a skewer. There, a single Brussels sprout with bean paste. Spring scallions and white wood ear mushrooms in a mustard miso, served over a lime. A plum dipping sauce. Magnificent.

Our soba course was springy and chewy and perfectly seasoned. On the side, we were offered scallions and wasabi paste and three perfect bamboo shoots, still toothsome and fried in hot tempura batter. Our "main" course was an unfortunate misstep: phyllo-wrapped gluten with no taste or texture; a weird-tasting worcestershire sauce; tasteless grilled cabbage; snap peas over a deplorably underseasoned parsnip puree. The plate's only star was a mix of glass noodles and mushrooms and leeks cooked in a corn husk.

But a clay pot rice dish brought us back to center, with its sheer delicacy. It was studded with bamboo shoots and accompanied by one of the finest tastes of the evening, an umami-filled red miso soup with mushrooms and a tiny side of pickled Napa cabbage and daikon. Dessert was a mochi filled with red and white bean paste and wrapped in a strange and interesting pickled cherry leaf. Then, tiny candies, one in the shape of a cherry blossom, the other not identifiable, served with two hot mugs of frothy green tea. It was a breathtaking meditation on the importance of putting vegetables in a starring role.

Kutsher's TriBeCa
186 Franklin Street
New York, NY 10013

414 East 9th Street
New York, NY 10009

Monday, March 12, 2012

Going Dutch

Much to my surprise, The Dutch, Andrew Carmellini's SoHo hotspot, actually had a table for two available around 7 on Sunday night. The man certainly does know how to create a buzz. Wine list: adequately priced. Service: forgettable. Food: delicious, but way too much for what you get. Take, for example, a delicious fried oyster bun, served with mayonnaise and lettuce. Five dollars, and the thing isn't even a little bit shareable. A plate of chicken wings? Nine dollars. For three wings.

But about those wings... They were crispy and delicious and spiked with honey and dill. They reminded me entirely of southern fried chicken and not at all of the Buffalo variety. In a larger serving, I would have happily eaten this chicken for my main meal. But alas. No such option exists.

Peel and eat shrimp were sweet and salty and just barely cooked--I've never had better. A plate of French fries didn't disappoint, either, and a juicy medium-rare pork chop was lathered in smoke and spice and sugar atop a bed of baked butter beans and bacon. Say that sentence twice. It was the kind of chop that impels you to pick the bone up and chew through until everything is gone.

But what I really wanted more than anything--what everyone hails as the holy grail of The Dutch--was the pie. I ordered lemon meringue. The curd was good. The meringue was cloyingly sweet. I liked the addition of poppy seeds, but the crust was anything but fork-tender. Bad batch? I have to believe that the pie itself was not the best example of what the place turns out; if it is, I have serious concerns about critics everywhere.

And then there was the bill. Way high for an incomplete meal. Chef, isn't it still a recession?

The Dutch
131 Sullivan Street
New York, NY 10012

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sunset Pig

Back to northern California, this time for a full week. After A. picked me up from SFO, we drove directly to the Mission for pizza and French pastry. At Delfina, we ordered a sausage and red onion pie, which was pleasantly crisp and nearly as good as the best Neopolitans we get in New York. A plate of roasted cauliflower was lacking some texture, owing to mise-en-place that had been held for too long, but the roasted flavor--nutty, nearly charred--redeemed the textural issues. Warm marinated olives, bathed in oil and heated lemon zest, made for a perfect non-appetizer. Minutes later, we walked down the block to Tartine Bakery. In the past, I have only hit Tartine at night, and by then they are always out of their famed croissants and cakes. But not today. In fact, the case was even filled with open faced crostini with ham and cheese and local asparagus, a perfect lunch for someone who hadn't just eaten. Instead, we ordered a double pain au chocolat, so named for its size, roughly the size of a human hand. It was flaky and buttery and piped with just enough chocolate, a perfect example of pate feuilletee done right.

For dinner, it was off to the venerable Zuni Cafe. A fritto platter was little more than hyped-up onion rings with the occasional flash of fried fennel, but the light batter and accompanying lemon wedge could do no wrong. So, too, with the pillowy gnocchi and crunchy Caesar salad; at Zuni Cafe, it is okay to order the dish you would most likely see anywhere else. Chicken for two really should have been billed as chicken for three, but never mind. It was moist and crisp on the outside and brightened by a vinaigrette that soaked into torn baguette under the bird. The pork chop we ordered, as a result, fell to the wayside, nearly uneaten, though we plowed happily through a tier of salty shoestring fries. For dessert, a play on ile flotante--moist meringues--and a chocolate cake did not last long.

By sunset the next night, I was up in Napa Valley, where I stopped in for dinner at Michael Chiarello's Bottega in downtown Yountville. My "onion soup" was mushroom dominant and complimented by a sunny-side-up hen's egg. It was surprisingly inspired, as was a pasta course of bucatini with whole prawns. I ate the sweet heads, too. I shared a spring risotto--asparagus, spring onions--with a thin paillard of lamb as well as a fun take on chicken marsala. Mushrooms were the theme of the night, appearing in nearly every course. Ricotta donuts, in folded newspaper, arrived hot and were gone before the check appeared.

Then, it was time for lunch at The French Laundry, where we were escorted into a private stone room with a window to the wine pull. Two amuse bouche: gougeres and salmon tartare coronets. And then the parade began. A bowl of caviar, garnished with flowers and candied kumquat, masked a perfect bone marrow custard beneath. Our salads of hearts of palm were garnished with cucumber, red ball radish, avocado, micro mizuna and a black sesame puree. Cobia was a thick fillet, cooked medium and served with conch, a warm corn fritter, celery leaves, and a tomato cream. The largest sea scallop I have ever seen nestled against radishes, beets, Nicoise olives, and poached baby fennel. The duck may have been my favorite, with a full half inch of fat atop a sous-vide puck of meat, a flawless ball of sauteed spinach stretched taut, sunchoke cocottes, and a mandarin orange sauce. By the time the veal, a thick filet with a short rib raviolo on the side, arrived, I was too full to finish the carrots or black trumpet mushrooms bathed in Sauce Bordelaise. Cheese stuffed with truffles was nearly overkill, though I ate it all, including the fried potato croquette and pickled ramp. Sherbet, made from yogurt and served over pomegranate seeds, honey, and granola, was satisfying and reminiscent of breakfast. And dessert in the theme of Meyer lemon, with Oregon huckleberries, poppy seed ice cream, and a brown sugar custard, brought just enough acid to the table to prevent me from feeling the weight of my own excess. Finally, our server brought a coffee semifredo with foamed milk on top and a plate of beignets. To go, she packed six different chocolates and three tins of sugared shortbread.

But by dinner time, I was ready to do it all again, so my friends and I headed to Redd Wood, the new Napa pizza place. Can a person really ever get too much pizza? Or wings, for that matter? We did order wings, of course, big fat ones that were a good Buffalo replica (very very spicy, crisp, doused in Frank's Red Hot), even if they came without the requisite blue cheese and carrot sticks. Flash fried Brussels sprouts were very delicious, but fat spears of asparagus swimming in oil and mint and lemon juice and marked with the appropriately dark remnants of a grill, were not to be outdone. Bucatini in red sauce with guanciale made me remember how much pork fat adds to a dish. And the pizza? For California, it was surprisingly good: crispy, chewy, etc. We got a plain pie, my nod to the pizza gods, as well as a white one with sausage. For dessert, we indulged in a butterscotch semifredo with whipped cream.

Pre-race day brunch took place in downtown Napa at the Oxbow Market, where we found the Kitchen Door, a restaurant tucked into the back. I ate McDonald's style fries--my favorite--and a livery, crunchy, salty and sweet duck banh mi. Back in Carneros, we ate an early dinner at Farm: a half portion of the Maine lobster risotto with al dente kernels of rice, and a full portion of chicken, over butter beans.

When the race was over, all bets were off. I went directly to the Boon Fly Cafe for fresh donuts, each the size of two half dollars. Then it was off to ad hoc, Thomas Keller's family style joint in downtown Yountville. The menu is set and changes nightly and on this particular night we were treated to a salad of warm butter beans with escarole and bacon, a rack of pork over mushrooms and skinny asparagus, and creamy polenta with a bacon and tomato compote. A cheese course came with pickled fennel and then, for dessert, the largest tiramisu I have ever seen, served in a cast iron serving dish. The meal, in its layered simplicity, may have been my favorite.

On our way back from Calistoga the next afternoon, we stopped for California burgers (lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and special sauce), a half bottle of Shafer Merlot, a Cherry Coke and garlic parsley fries at Gott's Roadside, where we sat at picnic tables in the sunshine. And then, for our final Napa Valley meal, it was back to Yountville for bone marrow in a grenobloise sauce and a rib-eye for two over trumpet mushrooms and a baked macaroni and cheese at Bouchon. For bistro fare, it does the trick, but only if you're willing to fork over a pretty penny in the process.

Back in San Francisco, with twenty-four hours left of west coast fun, I hit up Mission Chinese, where, in my excitement, I vastly over ordered. Tiny clams in black bean and garlic sauce were pretty and perfect. Spicy cucumbers slicked in oil provided requisite crunch and cooling. The food was spicy--even fatty pork belly needed a thin cucumber salad beneath it and a dish of tofu skins and bacon benefitted from the chewiness of pan fried rice cakes. Cumin lamb came on the bone, and scented the entire dining room. A rich soup of brisket and broth and wide noodles was simple and sumptuous. Crisp chicken wings came in a light dusting of star anise. It was a winning meal, by every stretch of the imagination and left us with just the right amount of leftovers. For dessert, we trekked to Humphry Slocombe for Vietnamese coffee ice cream and brown butter ice cream with butterscotch and amarena cherries.

In the morning, before my flight, I took one final trip to the Mission for Dynamo Donuts, one chocolate rose (like a perfect specimen of the northeastern classic chocolate glazed donut) and an apricot cardamom. The donuts are small enough for a two-per-visit indulgence. The diet starts now.

Delfina Pizzeria
3611 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Zuni Cafe
1658 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Bottega Napa Valley
6525 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

Redd Wood
6755 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

Kitchen Door
610 First Street
Napa, CA 94559

The Farm at The Carneros Inn
4048 Old Sonoma Highway
Napa, CA 94559

Boon Fly Cafe
4048 Old Sonoma Highway
Napa, CA 94599

ad hoc
6476 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

Gott's Roadside
933 Main Street
St. Helena, CA 94574

Bouchon Bistro
6534 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

Mission Chinese Food
2234 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Humphry Slocombe
2790 Harrison Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Dynamo Donuts
2760 24th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Friday, February 24, 2012

Empellon, Redux

Alex Stupak, doing his due diligence in the NYC restaurant scene, has already opened his second Mexican outpost. His first solo spot, (Stupak was once the venerated pastry chef at both Alinea and Wd-50) Empellon Taqueria, opened last year to rave reviews. This reviewer ate there early, on a rainy Tuesday night, and found it lovely if a little expensive for souped-up tacos. Empellon Cocina is a truly different experience, a high end take on low brow Oaxacan food, plated in a palpably two-star way. The food is small, precious, and a little too proper for the neighborhood, the dregs of the east village on first avenue. But with some misses, it seems clear that this place will be a hit in the future.

Chicharrones with a tomatillo and caper salsa were actually still crackling when they arrived at the table and thin planes of masa with accompanying salsas--creamy, spicy, and not at all what I expected--were true to both the roots of the cuisine and Stupak's high star ambitions. Ruby red shrimp with a masa cracker, micro greens, and a lovely cream reminiscent of pimento cheese may have been the highlight of our evening, a sure crowd pleaser and loads more satisfying that a later pork dish. Billed as a "queso," but served cold and with no real trace of cheese, the thin slices of hazelnut-fed pork tasted best when wrapped in hot, fresh, flour tortillas.

An empanada oozed yellow egg when cut open over chorizo and sweet potatoes; the dish was called a gordita, but it was small and not at all fat, as the word means in Spanish. Manila clams with puffed beef tendon (a bit too similar to those earlier chicharrones) arrived swimming in a sauce best described as the bathtub for a perfect Buffalo wing. Spicy and rich, it cleared our sinuses and prepared us for the ribs we had been expecting.

But... no ribs! Our expeditor brought skirt steak instead. We had corrected our waiter once before, when he had double checked our order and repeated steak back to us. No, ribs, we said. We sent the steak back. Our waiter blamed the mistake on us. "You said you had a nut allergy and the ribs are covered in nuts, so I thought you meant the beef ribs." Except that there were no ribs in the beef dish, and he hadn't mentioned anything about nuts in the ribs in the first place (I'm pretty sure he made this up to buffer the blow of his mistake). We ordered duck on the fly as a replacement and it came out a few minutes later, nicely cooked and in the company of sliced avocado and baby potatoes. But it was not the sticky ribs we had expected and, indeed, ordered.

In that vein, our waiter was an example of what not to do. He recommended dishes before we even had the chance to ask, and the items he pointed to all hit the highest price point on the menu. His suggestions, too, were not always what I would have chosen and I didn't really feel like I needed his input, anyway. The drinks took forever to arrive and for a while I was convinced that he had forgotten my margarita or my Mexican Coke inspired drink sweating at the bar. When I opted for that margarita, by the way, I felt like I was disappointing him, since it wasn't one of the drinks that he suggested I order. It was too much pressure with too little reward.

Desserts were too conceptual and too savory for my liking. This happens often in fine dining establishments, where a pastry chef wants to tread the line between salty and sweet. But a chocolate cake had meant one thing in my mind and another thing when translated on the plate, a dry jelly roll of sponge cake with too many sesame seeds. Empanadas were thin and dry and filled with a dehydrated pineapple that reminded me of healthy candy.

There are kinks to be worked out, of course. I hope, for one, that our eager beaver waiter is eventually put in his place and stops blaming his mistakes on the guests. In the meantime, I'll wait for the critics to catch up before I hit Empellon again, even though I know it will likely rise to the occasion.

Empellon Cocina
105 First Avenue
New York, NY 10003

Monday, February 20, 2012

The New Three Star Is The Old Two Star

I'm not sure what it means these days, the vaunted three star rating handed down to a restaurant from the powers that be at The New York Times (most recently, those "powers" are the provenance of one man, Pete Wells). Three star used to signify a certain dining dignity, a certain excellence not only of food but also of service. It used to connote white tablecloths and, on a good night, crystal. Not these days. I wasn't disappointed by the actual food at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, the most recent recipient of a fine three star review, but I was disappointed about what such a review means for the future of restaurants. The plate of in-house cured meats that arrived at our table was subtle, nuanced, slick with soft fat, and quite possibly the best plate of such that I have ever enjoyed outside of Europe. My agrodolce cocktail lived up to its namesake, both sour and sweet. The chewy, dense, full-flavored bread that came--only after we asked for it, of course--was rich with raisin and whole grain and ten times better than the best of the saltless Tuscan varieties.

But a server who delivered our charcuterie could not name the meats on our plate and it took an inordinately long time for said cocktails to arrive at said table. We asked for share plates twice and finally they arrived, but by then we were mostly done eating the things we had so carefully ordered. A server kept asking, "are you still working on that?" even when there was still visible food on our plates. She might as well have told us that she had been cut and wanted to go home.

For me, baccalao missed the mark. I got nothing but flaky fish beneath the flaky exterior, as opposed to the milk/cream/salt cod mixture I was expecting. And baked eggs, taken a minute too far in the oven, were overrun by shavings of bottarga that turned the dish into a fishy mess. Not so with the slick spaghetti with bottarga, though, which was a complete marriage of texture and taste. Also perfect was the porchetta sandwich--roast pork, crisp skin, chewy bread, salsa verde, and a side of pickled carrots. And desserts, generally not the highlight of any Italian meal, were surprisingly impressive. A bitter orange polenta cake kept its moisture from a nearby scoop of amaretto gelato and a roasted pear tasted better with a scoop of creme fraiche gelato. I was happy, too, that I had splurged and ordered a separate cup of salted caramel gelato, as creamy and unctuous as it is on the streets of Umbria.

The food is delicious; about that I have no question. But does the elevation of peasant food to three star cuisine do anything for New York restaurants that David Chang hasn't already? To that I offer a resounding no.

Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria
53 Great Jones Street
New York, NY 10012

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Surprise of the Year

I am so frequently let down by New York restaurants that a genuinely delicious experience often sends me reeling. Twice now in the past two weeks I have found elusive culinary grandeur in humble Italian roots. Two weeks ago, it was Il Buco on Bond Street. This past week, I found a similar transcendent experience at Maialino.

Maialino divorces itself from the pomp and circumstance that is the Gramercy Park Hotel, where the rustic, full, and comfy restaurant lives. If the hostess takes you toward the back, know that you are in capable hands and are heading to a row of low, linen-backed banquettes, which make a person feel like she is eating in someone's really nice and comfortable Restoration Hardware-outfitted apartment.

Immediately, cheesy and crispy breadsticks arrive, along with crusty bread that is nothing like the saltless version offered up in Tuscany. Maialino has a wide selection of charcuterie, and on the night we were there they were offering a recently cured bresola, thin sliced-beef that usually has the consistency of rubber tire. But not at Maialino, where the careful plate came with olive oil and lemon juice and salt--nothing more. The tender beef, more akin to a lovely roast than an old steak, required no more frill than that.

A plate of fried things included brains, sweetbreads, and artichokes. Artichokes, rarely my favorite, sang through the light batter and bright squeeze of a lemon. Brains were regrettably gooey and undersalted and reminded me why such things should only be served at their best (I was brought back to a memory of eating them fried in a wine cellar in Spain). But sweetbreads redeemed the plate.

Then a pasta duo, one with a starchy sauce of salt and pepper and cheese and one of stuffed shells with Italian sausage and deep green kale. The plates are small enough to keep a calorie count intact and encourage sharing in favor of ordering other dishes on the menu. We wiped our plates clean, breathless by the time our final course--the restaurant's signature suckling pig--came out. Pressed under the weight of a crispy shingle of skin, the meat was tender and juicy, complimented by a side of crispy Brussels sprouts.

We attempted two desserts, donuts with apple glaze that were delicious if ordinary, and a bread pudding made from chocolate croissants. The latter stole my heart, as did so many things at Maialino.

2 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10010

Friday, January 27, 2012

Happy Italian

For years, I have been meaning to eat at tiny, rustic, romantic Il Buco on Bond Street. But the place almost never has a reservation available. So imagine my surprise when I snagged a prime table during the busiest part of the evening, one half of a communal table under shelves of ceramic bowls and hanging copper pots. It might be one of the loveliest dining rooms in New York, with its dim lighting and candles and Tuscan feel. I remembered a trip to a ski chalet in the Valley d' Aosta and bowls of warm polenta. One of the greatest compliments I can pay Il Buco is that it took me back to Italy.

But then, the food. I had limited expectations, but a mackerel crudo blew me away. It was salty and spicy and thick, without even a tinge of the fishiness that mackerel so often imparts. It arrived on a puree of sunchokes. We cleaned the plate. Ditto for a creamy burrata with paper-thin persimmons and a juicy Mangalista pork sausage over toothsome white beans with mushrooms.

Then: a handmade pasta with thick strands of rabbit and parsnips that tasted exactly like my mother's chicken soup, in the best way possible. The noodles came just al dente, the rabbit rich and earthy. I would go back for seconds, but Il Buco's dinner menu changes nightly.

Porchetta did not disappoint, either. Sliced thin and served with a plume of crispy skin, we ate through the tangle of salty Swiss chard and the accompanying beans with as much gusto as the meat itself. The first time I saw porchetta was at an open Tuscan market, where a man sold it sliced directly from the pig and where, in the summer sun, I ate that meat with my hands from a wax paper wrapping. Il Buco was an experiment in recreating my fondest Italian memories.

Finally, the creamiest panna cotta I have ever eaten arrived, decorated with a splash of balsamic vinegar. A grape cake with creme fraiche and almonds tasted of a holiday cake my grandmother used to make. For these things, I would go back again and again.

Il Buco
47 Bond Street, #1
New York, NY 10012

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Terrible Twos

Well, maybe not terrible. But not great, either. I hit the East Village twice this week, once for a pricey meal at Hearth and once again for a steal at Apiary, even though we splurged on wine. At Hearth, we ordered a massive charcuterie board for a staggering $45, but most of the offal offered was a little too livery for my taste. By the time my delicious quail appetizer arrived--over a vinegary bed of grains--I was almost too full to enjoy it. A spatlese riesling to begin left me wanting more great wine, but a premier cru Burgundy disappointed, as did a dormant 2000 Bordeaux suggested to me by an enthusiastic sommelier. My main course--a selection of meats of which I can only clearly recall a smooth and lovely tongue--was too rich and ineptly composed. I couldn't figure out how to eat it or what to compare it to, besides a hard-up pot au feu. I had wanted the spaghetti and meatballs; next time, I'll go with my gut.

Donuts were average. I left very disappointed and a little broke. Apiary broke my heart a little less. Our seven-course tasting included a bright and clean tranch of hamachi, served with micro greens and hearts of palm. But, like so many of the following courses, it was undersalted. Hake had a perfect crust and came in a creamy pool of razor clams and potatoes and bacon. Papparadelle with rabbit and tomatoes and basil was toothsome and satisfying, even if it defied the season a little (who garnishes with fresh basil in January, anyway?). Sweetbreads, though overcooked, came bathed in a sticky, salty, and sweet sauce and over a fine puree. Duck was perfectly cooked, but the accompanying cabbage had no seasoning whatsoever.

A composed cheese plate offered three cheeses, fruit bread, and a trio of honeys. It was nice, sure, but a little basic for a full course of seven. And the chocolate lava cake was reductive, as was the overwrought and chewy apple puff pastry provided at meal's end.

But Apiary has an enviable wine list, something it has in common with Hearth. Both lists can bring a person closer to Bordeaux with some funk and age than any of New York's other prize places. A 1982 Prieure-Lichine was actually in our price range, believe it or not. And so we escaped tough puff pastry on the back of old Bordeaux. Next time, maybe I'll stick to the bars at both haunts.

403 East 12th Street
New York, NY 10009

60 Third Avenue
New York, NY 10003