Tuesday
Mar242015

mŏkbar

We’re in a Ramen moment—no doubt about it. In the Times, Pete Wells filed a massive Ramen survey a year ago, and no doubt half-a-dozen more slurp shops have opened since then.

If Wells had written a few months later, perhaps he’d have included mŏkbar (“eat bar”), which specializes in Korean ramen, hearty soup with Japanese noodles and Korean flavors. It occupies a diminutive stall in Chelsea Market, opposite a taco stand. Like many ramen bars, there’s not a ton of room—and what there is, fills up at peak times.

Mŏkbar is the improbable brainchild of Esther Choi, a New Jersey-born twentysomething of Korean descent, who went to Rutgers as a pharmacy major, got a corporate job, hated it, and went to culinary school.

The usual ending to such stories is a lifetime of dicing carrots in anonymity, but Choi persevered, finding steady work as a buyer for Food Network and as a sous-chef at La Esquina.

When a fried chicken stall went out of business at Chelsea Market, Choi jumped at the chance, beating out dozens of other chefs, including more established names, for the right to open her little Korean ramen concept.

Choi decorated the place herself, adorning it with antique kitchen utensils, jars of pickled kimchi, and little wooden signs handpainted in Korean.

There’s not a lot of cooking space, but Choi has use of a prep kitchen deep in the bowels of Chelsea Market, where her pork- and chicken-based stocks simmer for up to thirty hours, and she custom-ferments several different styles of kimchi.

The dinner menu starts with Anju (eight to choose from, $6–16). These are Korean small plates, often shared, and usually consumed with beer or soju (a popular Korean alcoholic beverage).

Then come the ramen (about eight choices, $13–14). We sampled only the hot ramen dishes, as our visit was in the dead of winter, but cold ramen is offered in the summer, as well.

Full disclosure: I visited with the publicist and another food blogger, which gave me a chance to sample more of the menu than I ordinarily would. However, I didn’t pay for the meal.

The chef makes terrific dumplings ($7; above). On the typical platter, half are vegetarian (cabbage, tofu, kimchi) and half pork. As a confirmed carnivore, I was surprised to find I liked the vegetarian dumplings a shade better: they seemed more distinctive, less repetitive of others in town.

 

You’ve probably never before had Disco Fries ($12; above), served with kimchi, ramen broth, cheese curd, and nori. Far too messy to eat by hand, they work best with chopsticks. I’d like the fries to be more crisp, but otherwise it’s a worthwhile dish.

The hit of the appetizers is the Ho’ Cake ($6; below left), a crisp pocket of browned flower filled with pork belly, and, you guessed it, a kimchi dipping sauce on the side. This is the dish that could make the chef famous. There’s a YouTube video showing how it’s made: remarkably complicated for a six-dollar item.

 

The present menu divides the ramen dishes into two categories: “brothy” and “saucy”. The “brothy” option seems (to me) more reminiscent of what you’d find in a Japanese noodle shop. The Kimchi Ramen is an example of this ($13; above right). It features a classic kimchi broth with braised pork. There’s a YouTube video for that, too.

 

The others we tried were of the “saucy” variety. I was drawn to the Black Ramen ($13; above left), made with black beans, bacon, pork belly, cucumber, daikon, and scallions. This dish started out well, but I must say I grew tired of it about halfway through. I had only a taste of the Spicy Tofu Ramen ($13; above right), with pork and tofu sauce, spicy garlic paste, minced pork, and a poached egg. This was the spiciest dish we tasted, and one I’d happily try again.

The portions are ample: I don’t think I could have finished any of these ramen bowls, even if we hadn’t started with appetizers.

This small restaurant is an impressive first effort for a young chef who has never run her own business before. As mŏkbar approaches its one-year anniversary, it seems to have attracted a loyal following. It was busy, though not full, on a cold Tuesday evening. Prices are modest enough to encourage repeat visits. I look forward to seeing what the chef can do on an even larger stage.

mŏkbar (75 Ninth Avenue between 15th & 16th Streets, Chelsea Market)

Tuesday
Mar242015

King Bee

In recent years, Southern cooking has made only a slight dent on the New York restaurant scene. Marcus Samuelsson’s The Red Rooster is probably the most conspicuous major success. I struggle to name many others.

I can’t really pinpoint a reason for that. Most restaurants, of course, are imitative—all of those nearly-identical farm-to-table restaurants, for example. Perhaps all that’s needed is a break-out hit that others will then strive to replicate. (I suspect Samuelsson’s place is seen as a product of his celebrity, and doesn’t lend itself to copying.)

Welcome to King Bee, which features the Southern cuisine known as Acadian, which traces its roots to the 17th century, when French Canadians settled in what is now Louisiana, and France controlled the midsection of North America from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Mississippi Delta. (The Canadian Maritime provinces and portions of northern Maine were once called Acadia.)

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Tuesday
Mar172015

Florian Café

 

A few weeks ago, one of Pete Wells’s reviews in the Times drew this plaintive comment: “Why can’t restaurants just serve regular food anymore?”

(That restaurant was Semilla, where your only option is a $75 mostly-vegetable tasting menu, with concoctions that some diners might find eccentric, like beets with bone marrow, or a cabbage sandwich.)

The comment was misguided: most NYC restaurants do serve what I assume was meant by “regular food”. They just aren’t as likely to get reviewed. For good or ill, critics exist to make news. The more straightforward the menu, the less there is to say about it.

That commenter would probably be happy at Florian Café, assuming he didn’t mind the prices, where you’re paying for more than just the “Spontaneous Italian” cuisine the website promises. You’re also getting walls decorated with imported Italian mosaic tiles, a white marble antipasto bar, and several larger-than-life cast bronze nudes in provocative poses. The owner himself, Shelly Fireman, made those statues, so you’re not allowed to dislike them.

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Tuesday
Mar102015

Knickerbocker Bar & Grill

Knickerbocker Bar & Grill is one of those restaurants you walk by, year after year, and think, “I really ought to try that sometime.” You would have had plenty of chances to say that: the Knick has been on the same Greenwich Village street corner since 1977, remarkable longevity in a town where five years is a long run for a restaurant.

Knickerbocker has an old-skool look (Hirschfeld caricatures, vintage advertising posters) that would seem kitschy if it debuted today, but after almost forty years, they’re entitled. It’s alleged to be a celebrity haunt, though we didn’t spot any.

It’s a very good second-tier steakhouse. You won’t see it on any top-10 lists, as they serve U.S.D.A. choice beef, not prime—priced accordingly. Their signature dish is the t-bone, served like a Luger porterhouse, pre-sliced in portions for one, two, or four guests.

There’s also a 48-ounce long-bone ribeye ($85), along with humbler cuts (filet, shell steak, skirt steak), and a full menu of non-steak dishes. Every non-steak entrée is below $30, appetizers generally in the mid-teens.

There’s live jazz on Friday and Saturday evenings, starting at 9:45pm, for which there’s a whopping $3.50 cover charge. I think you can afford that. They must take it seriously, as the website lists the featured acts (different each weekend) for the next two months.

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Monday
Mar022015

Happy Ending

To clubhounds of a certain age, Happy Ending isn’t a French restaurant. It’s “a Lower East Side nightspot that specialized in sloppy, Tao Lin fever dreams of emaciated 20-somethings mugging for party flicks.”

The original Happy Ending closed in 2013, but the website lives on, with photos that give a pretty good idea of what was going on there. Before that, it was a massage parlor called Xie He Health Club, and perhaps you can guess what the “Happy Ending” referred to.

The space is under new ownership, and quite curiously, they’ve installed chef Francis Gabarrus, who had a Michelin star in France at La Ville Stings, and also spent time with Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, and Thomas Keller.

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Monday
Feb232015

Cafe Clover

 

One website called it a “farm-to-nutritionist-to-table restaurant.” That nutritionist, according to the pre-opening press, is Mike Roussell, Ph.D. His name isn’t on the website, but his presence looms large at Cafe Clover, which opened recently in the West Village.

The chef here is David Standridge, formerly of Market Table and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. You’d think, with that pedigree, his menu wouldn’t need an editor. And yet:

“Unlike a health food restaurant that starts with a healthy perspective, I start from a delicious food perspective and then try to eliminate unnecessary calories and also try to make things more healthy,” Standridge, says, of the Café Clover concept.

To do that, he creates the menu and then gets a full nutritional analysis from Dr. Roussell, who will report on things like if a dish has too many calories or carbs, and then send Standridge back to the kitchen to tweak it.

The result is as joyless as it sounds: a cuisine that is clinically executed and hopelessly dull. Do we really want a restaurant where every dish tastes like a nutrition lecture?

Restaurants have struggled on this West Village street corner, most recently home to 10 Downing and La Villette. But there’s nothing wrong with the neighborhood, as El Toro Blanco is still packing them in, on the same block. If Cafe Clover fails, I’d blame the concept, not the space.

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Monday
Feb162015

Mapo Korean BBQ

A couple of months ago, Pete Wells published a survey of a dozen Korean restaurants in Queens. Most are well past the No. 7 train’s Eastern terminus. It takes a car, an L.I.R.R. train ride, or a long walk to reach them—in other words, a schlep. One day last month, we decided to give one of them a try: Mapo Korean BBQ.

It’s no wonder that Wells chose this place as one of his anointed dozen: the place has a sterling reputation. Robert Sietsema, who probably knows this cuisine better than anyone who is not Korean, chose Mapo for his first review on Eater.com, awarding three stars.

Among the grillable meats (which are the whole point of the restaurant), there are just four options. We chose the same dish that Wells ordered, the marinated kalbi, or short rib.

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Tuesday
Feb102015

Bowery Meat Company

Every chef wants a steakhouse. What’s not to like? Steakhouses are expensive, popular, and predictable.

Once they’ve sourced the beef, there’s not that much difference in what two properly-equipped kitchens will do with it. And yet, people flock to designer steakhouses as if the chef’s name mattered.

Mind you, I don’t deny that there’s room at the margins for a chef’s personality to shine. But a great steakhouse is mostly about the steak. There’s hardly any other restaurant with entrées in the $50s and $60s that is so likely to succeed, and where that success depends so little on the chef’s contribution.

So that’s why we’ve had such establishments as Arlington Club (Laurent Tourondel), Craftsteak (Tom Colicchio), V Steakhouse (Jean-Georges Vongerichten), Charlie Palmer Steak NY, American Cut (Marc Forgione), and now Josh Capon’s Bowery Meat Company.

These places aren’t fool-proof, as Colicchio and Vongerichten learned. But you’ve got to try really hard to foul up a steakhouse. Craftsteak and V Steakhouse failed because the two chefs over-thought them. If they’d just opened normal steakhouses, those establishments would probably still be with us today.

Josh Capon has made no such mistake. Bowery Meat Company is straight out of the celebrity-chef steakhouse playbook, with enough creativity to distinguish it from the national chains and Luger clones, but enough of the familiar features that meat-&-potatoes carnivores will expect. The comfortable décor features low lighting and plenty of dark wood trim: if Capon fails, Wolfgang could take it over, and he wouldn’t need to change a thing.

Capon made his name with seafood at the Soho standout Lure Fishbar, where he also serves a killer burger so successful that it morphed into its own restaurant, Burger & Barrel. There’s nothing that screams “steak savant” in his background. He’s doing it because the market will bear it.

For a designer-label New York steakhouse, the prices are surprisingly sane, though still not cheap. Steaks and chops will set you back anywhere between $29 (hanger steak) and $55 (NY strip) for one, $110 and $144 for two. There’s a small selection of pastas ($19–24) and non-steak mains ($29–34). Starters and salads are $15–21, side dishes $10. The one constant across Capon’s restaurants, the burger, is $22.

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Tuesday
Feb102015

Bara

 

David Chang’s Momofuku empire now spans a dozen restaurants in three countries. But how many restaurants outside of that empire are run by chefs boasting “Momofuku vet” on their bios? I’ve lost count.

One thing’s for sure: it’s a brand that chefs want on their resume these days, and it’s the calling card at Bara, which opened in the East Village in December, boasting two Momofuku alumni. Chef Ian Alvarez worked at Noodle Bar, and later at French Louie in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. GM Kyle Storm worked at Má Pêche, and later ran the bar at French Louie.

The website notes coyly that “the word bara has many meanings,” without stating any of them. Apparently, it literally means “rose” in Japanese, but it is also short for Barazoku, a Japanese gay men’s magazine that shut down in 2004; or more generally, Japanese slang for a genre of homoerotic media. There are a few other meanings: bara means “bread” in Welsh, “coffin” in Italian, “puddle” in Serbo-Croatian, and “mainland” in Swahili. But if you Google the term, the gay context dominates the search results, so this must be the the one that was meant, for reasons that aren’t at all clear. I was unaware of this until I looked it up.

The restaurant claims to be a mash-up of the Japanese izakaya (a drinking establishment that serves food) and the Parisian wine bar. Frankly, it doesn’t remind me of either. It’s just a casual local restaurant that fuses the two cultures, starting with the place setting: silverware and chopsticks, a combo we’ve seen before. Very little of the food really requires chopsticks, so their presence is mainly to set a mood.

The compact (and inexpensive) menu, which changes daily, features about a half-dozen apiece of “1st” ($6–12) and “2nd” ($18–22) courses, with four sides ($2–9). Many of the dishes could easily be imagined at a Momofuku restaurant, with their eclectic mix of local and Asian ingredients, and predominantly Western cooking techniques.

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Tuesday
Feb032015

Bar Primi

I’m still not sure if Andrew Carmellini truly wanted to be the king of middlebrow restaurants, or if he just stumbled on them by accident.

That’s not meant as an insult, though I’m sure it sounds like one. Carmellini’s restaurants are places where we could eat well every day, which is a good thing, because we have to eat every day. He has nailed the genre.

For now, he apparently has no appetite for destintion dining, and he used to be very good at that too. I wonder if he misses it?

Anyhow, welcome to Bar Primi, which isn’t a bar (though it’ll russle up a terrific cocktail if you ask for one). It’s named for the middle course of a traditional Italian meal, the primi. It’s as if a traditional Italian restaurant had lopped a page off the menu: it ends with the pastas.

Ryan Sutton, Eater’s restaurant critic, apparently had no sense of irony, when he wrote:

Leave it to Carmellini, Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom, the team behind Locanda Verde, Lafayette and The Dutch, to give New York what it wants, which in this case is a late night pasta parlor where you and a buddy can eat and drink well for about $120. Bar Primi is essentially doing for Carmellini & Co. what Parm is doing for the Torrisi boys: it provides an entry-level Italian experience that can still excite fans of the group’s more expensive brands.

It’s not a crazy idea. Americans have an indistinct relationship with the pasta course: it can serve as an appetizer, or it can be a meal in itself. Very few, in my experience, actually order it as a middle course, between an appetizer and an entrée: it’s just too much food. Still, the menu at Bar Primi is a bit disorienting. It feels like two-thirds of a restaurant, and despite Sutton’s protestations, not exactly cheap.

For the sops who must have secondi, there’s a rotating line-up of them—one per day—and sometimes an extra announced special. Or you can have roast beef, Italian peppers, provalone and arugula on a hamburger bun, which is dubbed “the sandwich,” as the restaurant serves no other. We didn’t try it, but we saw a specimen at another table: it looked terrific.

The bulk of the menu consists of little snacks, or piccolini ($9–14), antipasti ($14–17), and two groups of pastas, traditional and seasonal ($14–22). That sandwich is $16, and the few secondi offered are $23–33.

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