Monday
Jul212014

Bacchanal

Years from now, perhaps the early twenty-teens will be called the VeriCru diaspora. Veritas and Cru, perhaps the two best wine restaurants the city has seen, both expired in 2009–10, victims of the Great Recession.

(For the history buffs out there, I do realize that Veritas re-modeled and somehow soldiered on until 2013. I prefer to remember Veritas as it was conceived, not the watered-down replacement that tried and failed to replace it.)

Since then, we’ve seen openings like Pearl & Ash and Charlie Bird, where great (but not “VeriCru” epic) wine lists pair with good (but not great) food in drastically pared-down rooms. To me, it seems odd to pair a $250 Brunello with a $29 roast chicken, in a room where you can barely hear yourself talk. But if you want it, you can have it. Veritas and Cru had it all; these places do not.

Welcome to Bacchanal, the latest entry in the genre. The pedigree is obvious, starting with the chef, Scott Bryan, who opened Veritas (lasted eight years there), consulted a bit, spent five years at the mediocre Apiary, and is now back in his element.

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Tuesday
Jul152014

Bâtard

Bâtard-Montrachet is a grand cru appellation of Burgundy, producing wines of 100% Chardonnay. A bastard is “a contemptible, inconsiderate, overly or arrogantly rude or spiteful person.”

Both are applicable at Bâtard, the latest restaurant in the hallowed space that was once home to the beloved Montrachet, and more controversially, Corton. The constants at all three establishments have always been excellent cuisine, Burgundy-centric wine lists, and owner Drew Nieporent, the mayor of Tribeca, who also owns nearby Nobu and Tribeca Grill.

The list of chefs who cooked at Montrachet reads like a culinary Who’s Who. As they left one by one, to pursue other projects, Nieporent kept replacing them, holding onto three New York Times stars until the very end. Montrachet finally closed in 2006, re-opening two years later, named for another Burgundy appellation (Corton), with a much larger kitchen and the talented but difficult chef, Paul Liebrandt, at the helm.

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Tuesday
Jul082014

The Gander

 

Four years after Recette charmed the West Village, chef Jesse Schenker has expanded to more upscale digs at The Gander, which takes over the space that briefly hosted the doomed Alison Eighteen.

I thought Alison Eighteen would last longer. It turns out the goodwill accumulated at Alison on Dominick and her Hamptons restaurants did not travel with her to the new location.

I mention this, because Schenker may have to overcome similar challenges. The restaurant is on a charmless, lightly-traveled block. The newly-remodeled space is attractive and comfortable, but so was Alison Eighteen.

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Tuesday
Jul012014

Heartwood

The remains of Donatella Arpaia’s once-formidable restaurant empire continue to crumble. Her mediocre pizzeria, Donatella, closed in January after a shade over two years in business.

Heartwood opened recently in the same space. The pizza oven imported from Naples still dominates the open kitchen, decked out in a sober terra cotta, rather than Donatella’s blinged-out gold plating.

Ms. Arpaia remains a partner here. There’s an impressive list of other names involved, perhaps too many: Mark Fiorentino, a former bread-maker at Daniel, is in charge of the pizzas. Bradford Thompson (ex. Lever House, Miss Lily’s) writes the rest of the menu. Nick Mautone (ex. Gramercy Tavern, Eighty One) runs the front of house.

Put those folks together, and you get a restaurant designed by committee, with menu categories like: Snacks, Bowls, Salads, Pizzas, Proteins, and “Grains and Veggies”.

It’s priced for a recession we are not currently in, with appetizer-like plates $11–14, entrée-like plates $22–26, pizzas $14–21 (they are easily sharable), and side dishes $8. Unfortunately, many of the dishes read better than they taste.

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Monday
Jun232014

Chez Jef

Note: Chez Jef closed in July 2014, as expected, for a re-vamp. It is expected to re-open in fall 2014.

*

Earlier this year, Mathieu Palombino (of the Motorino pizza chainlet) closed his indifferently-received Bowery Diner, replacing it with a French pop-up, Chez Jef.

The re-do was modest: the “Diner” sign remains, with most of its neon letters no longer functional. A few red-and-white checked curtains are basically all that stands between the former diner and a cute little French bistro, with the words “Chez Jef” stamped on the butcher paper that covers ever tabletop.

In February, Palombino told Eater.com that he intended to run the pop-up “for two to three months.” Four months later, it’s still there, although the customers are not: we practically had the place to ourselves on a Wednesday evening.

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Saturday
Jun212014

EXKi

EXKi is a fast-casual restaurant with an environmental conscience, serving a vegetable-centric menu with primarily organic ingredients, free-range chickens, and recipes free of additives or preservatives.

The name is short for the French exquis, meaning exquisite. That’s a lot to live up to.

The first EXKi opened in Brussels in 2001, eventually expanding to 77 restaurants in five Western European countries. Their first New York outlet is number 78, with another planned for later this year, and surely more to come if the concept succeeds.

Pret A Manger offers a good template for what EXKi could become, if it takes off.

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Tuesday
Jun172014

Chicane

Good casual French cuisine in New York has been on the upswing in recent years, but it’s still nowhere near plentiful enough. Italian restaurants and steakhouses with phoned-in menus open with regularity, but a new French restaurant almost always feels special.

So it’s a pity that Chicane, which opened two months ago in Soho, is such a miserable example of the genre. It is not merely that the food was mediocre on the night we tried it: even good restaurants have off nights. But when fries are thick and mushy, it’s a sign that our visit wasn’t an anomaly: whatever else they do, French restaurants have to ace the frites in moules frites.

There are abundant signs that the idea isn’t well thought out. The South of France is the nominal theme at Chicane (named for a twisting section of track on the Monaco Grand Prix). But just a few dishes on the menu are captioned as specialties of that region. Many of the others, if they are French at all, could be found anywhere.

The chef, Andres Grundy, hails from Queens, not exactly a Monte Carlo suburb. He has worked at some very good restaurants at least briefly: Daniel, Le Cirque, Aquavit, Bouley, Daniel, Montrachet, Raoul’s (all in New York), two-star La Broche in Spain, L’Arpège in Paris. Since 2009 alone, he has been at Clio in Boston, then back in New York at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Insieme, the Hotel Williamsburg, and now Chicane. By 2015 at the latest, I suspect he’ll be somewhere else.

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Monday
Jun092014

Cagen

We’re in a Japanese moment. In roughtly two years as New York Times restaurant critic, Sam Sifton could find just three Japanese restaurants to review, and one of these was a wholly unwarranted demotion of Masa from four stars to three.

In two and a half years, Pete Wells has already reviewed nine Japanese restaurants, and there are probably a few he has missed. Some of this is preference—Wells clearly likes sushi better than Sifton does—but that doesn’t fully account for it. If you love sushi, there’s never been a better time than the last couple of years.

No discussion could be complete without mentioning the newest four-star restaurant, Sushi Nakazawa. Each reservation date opens at midnight, exactly 30 days in advance. Counter seats are gobbled up in about 3 seconds: I’ve never seen one available. Table seats are a bit easier to get—only a bit—but for that kind of money I’m not settling for the second-class version.

In the meantime, you won’t do badly at Cagen, which opened last year in the East Village space vacated by Kajitsu, which moved to midtown.

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Monday
Jun022014

Après

Note: Well, that was fast. Après closed just nine days after our visit, and before I got around to hitting “publish” on this review. Après wasn’t busy, and we thought it needed to get customers—pronto. That didin’t work out for them. We still think chef Mazen Mustafa is a talent who’ll be a success somewhere else, and so, for the record, we’re happy to recognize his all-too-brief tenure here. After a renovation, the space re-opened as Unidentified Flying Chickens.

*

Remember Apiary, the East Village restaurant with Scott Bryan, the former Veritas chef, in the kitchen? We gave it zero stars in 2009, and Eater deathwatched it in 2010, a judgment they reversed in 2012.

Turns out they had the right idea but the wrong sell-by date. Bryan left in April 2014, Apiary closed in May 2014, and after a brief renovation, it reopened as Après with chef Mazen Mustafa, Paul Liebrandt’s former top lieutenant at both Corton and The Elm.

Owner Jenny Moon was smart to recognize that a new name was far more likely to be reviewed than a new chef under the previous name. Aside from that, she changed very little. The outdoor signage uses the same typeface as before, allowing the letters ‘a’ and ‘p’ to be re-used. (I am just kidding: the sign appears to be new, although the typeface is indeed the same.) Inside, Après’ décor is extremely similar to the generic Lower Manhattan upscale casual I remember at Apiary.

Mustafa serves recognizably Liebrandtish cuisine, and if it’s not quite as good as his mentor’s best work, it is considerably less expensive than any Liebrandt restaurant in recent memory. On an à la carte menu with no clear division between appetizers and entrées, there are eleven items priced between $14–24; desserts are all $9.

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Tuesday
May272014

General Assembly

For about 10 minutes in 2010, it looked like Tiki Bars were going to make a comeback. Hurricane Club was the glitziest of them all, a 250-seat behemoth that could’ve put Tahiti out of business. If it had worked.

By mid-2013, it was called Hurricane Steak and Sushi, and by late 2013 it was kaput. What must’ve been the most expensive AvroKO design concept ever was hauled out to trash, and replaced with another expensive AvroKO design concept called General Assembly.

The bright, airy space is an Art Nouveau revival. The cuisine is either “a market-driven grill” or “a bistro with . . . French and Italian influences.” It’s a crowd-pleaser without a point of view. Craig Koketsu, the corporate chef at Fourth Wall Restaurants, has long since proven that he can run a competent kitchen, and he does so here. If there are no revelations on the menu, there are no weak spots either. It won’t enter the culinary conversation, but most diners in its target demographic will go home happy.

During our visit, the restaurant was subjected to one of the few forms of legalized terrorism, a visit from the Department of Health. For the record, GA’s predecessor, Hurricane Club (with the same operators), earned an “A” grade a year ago. A repeat visit in January netted just 2 violation points. Three of its four sister restaurants currently have “A” grades; one has a “B”.

Despite this exemplary record, an inspector shut down the whole restaurant between 6:00 and 8:30pm on a Friday evening. No parties were seated. At the bar, the staff tossed all of the prepared sodas and syrups, apparently as a precautionary measure. Wine and beer were served on the house, while they awaited the all-clear. After a couple of hours, runners brought out canapés, free of charge. I was determined to support the restaurant, but by then many parties with reservations gave up and left. General Assembly passed its inspection, but I’ll bet the visit cost them $10,000 or more in lost business and food/drinks both given and thrown away.

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