Tuesday
Sep302014

Mulino a Vino

At Mulino a Vino, the new Italian wine restaurant in Chelsea, there’s good food hiding behind a really dumb gimmick:

Here, the wine comes first. Diners select their bottle or glass from a list of 50 options divided into nine categories like white-light, red-medium, and red-full, before they see the dinner menu.

I checked multiple news stories, to make sure one website didn’t get it wrong. Sure enough, all the pre-opening publicity describes it that way.

Nevertheless, this is not what the restaurant does. When you sit down in the quiet subterranean dining room, the staff distributes both the food and wine menu. You are not told to choose the wine first, and food afterward.

Vestiges of the original concept remain. On the wine list, the reds and whites are sub-divided into light, medium, and full, with descriptive headings like “dry, powerful, flavorful, and intense,” and followed by a list of “suggested pairings.” Hence, you are invited to think about foods that pair with a particular class of wines, rather than the opposite. This isn’t entirely practical, as the list of dishes in the printed menu doesn’t quite agree with the separately printed food menu. Here lies the path to confusion.

There are fifty bottles on the list, and all are available by glass—even the $2,000 Masseto or the $600 Sassicaia. The staff use the Coravin liberally (that’s the device that can pour from wine bottles without uncorking them), even on inexpensive names that wouldn’t seem to call for it. There’s plenty at the lower end, for those who prefer it: a 2011 Sangiovese (left) was $40.

A serious chef is in charge: Davide Scabin of Combal.Zero, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Torino, Italy. He is not moving here permanently, and the publicity does not suggest how often the menu will change—if ever. For now, the the staff left behind is executing his concept with skill and precision.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Sep222014

Huertas

What does a restaurant have to do to get reviewed in this town? Huertas in the East Village has been open for nearly six months, and the only professional review I can find is by Robert Sietsema in Eater: three stars.

Our sample size is smaller than Sietsema’s, but we share his enthusiasm: Huertas is shout-from-the-rooftops good. Imagine a Basque Torrisi Italian Specialties, as it was originally, before the Torrisi sensation went viral.

You might have predicted success, when a couple of Danny Meyer alums are in charge. Chef Jason Miller has worked at Chanterelle, Gramercy Tavern and Savoy, before joining the opening team at Maialino, where he was sous-chef. After leaving Maialino, Miller did an apprenticeship in Northern Spain—hence the Basque connection. His partner and General Manager is Nate Adler, who was beverage director at both of Meyer’s Blue Smoke locations.

Huertas is two restaurants in one. In the front room, there’s a bar and high-top tables where you can order a variety of pinxtos ($4–12 each, passed around dim sum style), cheeses, cured meats, and larger plates (raciones).

In the 24-seat back room, there’s an astonishingly good deal: a reservations-only five-course prix fixe menu for $55 (a few months ago, it was $52 for four). It changes daily, and if you book on OpenTable, they email it to you in advance. Wine pairings, which are generous, are an additional $30.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Sep162014

The Simone

For at least a decade, the Adult White Tablecloth Restaurant in New York has suffered from media neglect. Open one of these, and the critics are likely to say, “No one eats like that any more.” The exceptions are rare, and usually have big names behind them, like Michael White or Daniel Boulud.

So imagine my surprise when The Simone—an expensive, totally retro, white tablecloth restaurant opened on the Upper East Side—and Pete Wells awarded three stars. Yes, the Upper East Side, where most critics seldom go, and which Wells has repeatedly disparaged, as if it were a foreign nation.

You’ll find more fifty-somethings than thirty-somethings at The Simone, which is just fine by me. I do get tired of being lectured about “the way we eat now,” when I never tired of the the way we ate before. There’s something refreshing about an old-fashioned restaurant. The Simone shows that the format still has plenty of life, when it’s done right.

The chef, Chip Smith, serves straightforward, French-inspired fare. After moving to New York from North Carolina, he cooked briefly at Le Midi near Union Square, a restaurant I found promising, but limited in its ambitions—bearing in mind that no entrée rose above $28. At The Simone, entrées are in the $30s and $40s, and Mr. Smith can do what he wants.

His wife, Tina Vaughn, writes out the frequently-changing menu in a voluptuous, cursive script. There are no tasting menus, snacks, side dishes, seafood towers, sharing plates, or large-format specials; the format is appetizer, entrée, dessert. The End. When was the last time you saw that?

Click to read more ...

Monday
Sep082014

La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the “restaurant story of the year . . . the explosion of casual restaurants with good—I mean, really good—wine lists right out of the gate.” Our visit to Racines NY prompted that comment, but I also had another spot on my mind: La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, which opened at around the same time, not very far away.

Both take advantage of NYC’s sudden love affair with French cuisine, which seemed so terribly out of fashion just a decade ago, as Frank Bruni came off the plane from Italy and administered the last rites. Six months ago, when the Torrisi boys (both of Italian descent) announced they were opening Dirty French, it was like Nixon going to China. France had permission to be cool again.

(I’ve been writing about a French comeback for at least six years, only to realize I’d been premature. I don’t recall any recent French opening that elicited the kind of heavy breathing that accompanies a Torrisi project, like Dirty French. If there’s finally an inflection point, this could be very well be it.)

But I digress. La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels is a mini-chain of three wine bars—Paris and Seven Dials in London have the other two. Just like Racines, there’s a Michelin star chef in charge of the food: La Chassagnette’s Armand Arnal. You’ll note I didn’t say, “in the kitchen.” This feels like a consulting job. The menu is timid, and has barely changed in four months.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Sep012014

élan

For David Waltuck, it has been a long walk in the desert. His beloved Chanterelle, once a four-star restaurant, closed abruptly in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession. Who’d have thunk he’d spend the next five years on forgettable consulting projects, before finally opening his own place again?

His new restaurant, élan, is a double palimpsest, with echoes not just of Chanterelle, but also Veritas, the last restaurant in this space, also felled by the financial crisis. Give Waltuck at least this much credit: he closed Chanterelle with his reputation intact, instead of spoiling what he’d achieved with a failed re-vamp, as the Veritas owners did.

If you remember Chanterelle at its best, it’s hard not to be melancholy that such a wonderful place can no longer exist. But its charms came at a price: $95 prix fixe, and that was in 2006, the last time I visited. You needed an occasion to go there. Heaven knows what it would be today for comparable quality—certainly not the kind of restaurant where you could just pop in for a quick bite after work.

At élan, there’s no amuse bouche or petits fours, no cheese cart or service brigade. But you could drop in a couple of nights a week without breaking the bank. The cuisine is ambitious for the price, carefully prepared, and like no other in town. Waltuck’s French technique borrows liberally from Asia (“General Tso”), Greece (moussaka), and middle Europe (sauerkraut). Some items are just unclassifiable (foie gras lollipops). Starters and appetizers are mostly in the $14–19 range, main courses $27–33, side dishes $8.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Aug182014

Blenheim

When a restaurant announces that it’s “closing temporarily,” it’s usually done-for. So I promptly crossed Blenheim off my to-do list when opening chef Justin Hilbert was canned, and the restaurant shuttered, after a month in business.

Blenheim escaped the usual fate of such establishments—and recovered brilliantly, in fact—when Tribeca’s Le Restaurant closed, and the Michelin-starred chef Ryan Tate became a free agent. A couple of weeks later, Tate was in, and Blenheim had recovered from the dead. Full disclosure: I wasn’t a fan of Le Restaurant. I must’ve caught it on a bad day, as no one else disliked it as much as I did. The food at Blenheim is terrific.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Aug112014

Racines NY

If there’s a restaurant story of the year, it’s the explosion of casual restaurants with good—I mean, really good—wine lists right out of the gate. I’ve mixed feelings about the claptrap ambiance of such places, but if the wine selection is good enough, the other sins are nearly forgiven.

Welcome to Racines NY, with a two-letter suffix to distinguish it from the original Racines, which opened in 2007 on the Boulevard Montmartre in Paris. Practically all of the pre-opening press describes it as a wine bar. With its ample selection of offbeat wines by the glass, you could be very happy if you came here only to drink.

But the owners prefer the term “neo-bistro.” The chef, Frédéric Duca, is straight off the plane from Paris, where he earned a Michelin star at L’Instant d’Or. He serves a tightly-edited and frequently-changing menu of just five appetizers ($14–18), four mains ($31–38), and three desserts ($10–12).

Hardly a restaurant opens these days without a separate list of bar snacks, seemingly for noshers who don’t want to commit to a full meal; or, more cynically, a ploy to lure diners into ordering an extra course. Racines goes the opposite way: the only item really suitable for snacking is a cheese course ($18). Exactly what the lithe, 108-pound starlets sipping rosé at the bar are nibbling on is a mystery I leave for another day.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Aug042014

Barchetta

These days, the usual career path of successful chefs is to open a second restaurant, and then a third; in fact, to keep going until the public says “Enough already!” And sometimes even past that. See the dictionary entry under “English, Todd”.

Not so, David Pasternack. Despite the accolades rained upon his Hell’s Kitchen Italian seafood restaurant Esca, the chef has been surprisingy slow-footed about growing his personal brand. Aside from the short-lived Bistro du Vent (2005–06), Pasternack has resisted expansion in New York. (I don’t know for sure, but you’d have to think there’ve been offers before now.)

Pasternack finally got the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse, partnering with LDV Hospitality (Scarpetta, American Cut) to open Barchetta (“little boat”) in the space that was last home to Alain Allegretti’s La Promenade des Anglais. This site has had trouble holding onto restaurants. Located in West Chelsea, close to Tenth Avenue, it is not convenient to mass transit. It needs to make a passionate case for our attention.

The immediate impression is that this is a cheaper and more casual version of Esca: an Esca without tablecloths. At the flagship, you won’t find an entrée for less than $30; here, they hover mostly in the $20s. Servings of crudo, the Italianesque sashimi that Pasternack introduced to New York, are similar to those served at Esca, but a couple of dollars less. You can order spaghetti with lobster at Esca for $30, or fettucine with lobster at Barchetta for $28.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Jul292014

Decoy

Decoy opened in mid-May in a former laundromat below Ed Schoenfeld and Joe Ng’s hit Chinese restaurant, RedFarm.

There’s a faux mysteriousness about the project: the website is just a landing page, without so much as a menu, hours of operation, or really anything except a phone number and social media links. It doesn’t take much googling to find out everything you’d want to know about Decoy, so why the deliberate obfuscation?

In many ways, Decoy is just an extension of RedFarm. Call the phone number, and the RedFarm staff answer. Show up for dinner at RedFarm, where they don’t take reservations, and they’re liable to send you downstairs to Decoy’s ample bar, to cool your heels during the epic wait.

Decoy itself takes reservations (I already like this place better), and the menu is different. For $65, a party of two gets a whole Peking Duck, two small plates from a list of 13 choices, and one rice or side dish. Larger parties receive extra courses from the à la carte menu, in addition to the duck.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Jul282014

The Black Ant

The Village Voice wrote recently of a “Mexican Food Moment” in New York City, including The Black Ant (La Hormiga Negra), a new restaurant in the East Village from the same folks behind Ofrenda across town.

It certainly does seem that there are a lot of new Mexican restaurants lately—and not merely the cookie-cutter TexMex kind that serve standard-issue burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas, and the like. For a while, it seemed like every other chef was opening a gourmet taco joint.

The focus here is inventive dishes inspired by chef Mario Hernandez’s native Oaxaca. The website declares on its landing page, Cocina de Autor—referring to the chef as “author” of a cuisine—which would sound pompous if written in English, but seems to describe this restaurant exactly.

True to the name, there are a number of dishes with dehydrated edible insects shipped from Mexico: a guacamole made with ant salt; a tortilla topped with fried grasshoppers; a side order of crickets. Ant salt even appears in several of the cocktails. Several bloggers have reviewed and photographed these items (here, here, here). We weren’t about to go near them.

Fortunately, if you’re insect-averse, there’s plenty to enjoy. There’s a variety of smaller plates in various categories that serve as appetizers ($8–14), entrées ($22–27) and sides ($6), most not exactly resembling anything I’ve ever sampled in a Mexican restaurant.

Click to read more ...