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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Tuesday
Jan272015

Duet Brasserie

The all-day chameleon restaurant is a familiar idea, with pastries and omelettes at breakfast, salads and sandwiches at lunch, and fine dining at night. This is the formula that Balthazar nailed, and many others have copied.

This is also the plan at Duet Brasserie, which opened under the radar in late fall 2014, in the old Centro Vinoteca space, a spacious corner lot where Barrow Street meets Seventh Avenue South. The address is on Barrow, but most of the footprint faces onto Seventh.

Most of the downstairs dining room is dominated by floor-to-ceiling French doors, which will open in good weather, presumably with a sidewalk café, but the charmless view onto lower Seventh Avenue is not much of a selling point. Neither is the room itself, which is bisected by display cases showing off the ample selection of baked goods, protected under glass in harsh lighting more suited for a retail bakery.

The publicity photos show an elegant upstairs room, with white tablecloths and a custom-made Swarovski crystal chandelier. That room wasn’t in use the night we visited—a very slow Christmas eve, which attracted only a few customers. Instead, we were seated downstairs, where Duet Brasserie feels like a diner.

If only they charged diner prices. On the French-inflected menu, starters are mostly $12–28, entrées $32–48, side dishes $9–14. There’s also a $75 four-course prix fixe. The website shows a $200 ten-course tasting menu, but the staff did not offer that to us (nor would we have taken them up on it).

The chef here is Dmitry Rodov (his wife, Diana, is the pastry chef). His stated aim is to serve “home cooking, beautifully presented,” and this is generally the case, but many less expensive restaurants do the same, as well or better. The chef needs to prove he can operate a restaurant where no entrée is below $32, and at this he fails.

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Monday
Jan192015

Tuome

If it wasn’t for critics and restaurant guides, who’d ever find a place like this? Nestled mid-block on a dark East Village side street between Avenue A and Avenue B, it’s hardly a spot that attracts much random foot traffic. A popular ramen shop is next door, but who’d know about that either?

But here we find one of the best new restaurants of the year, and better yet, not from any of the recycled names and restaurant empires that command most of the media ink in New York. The chef here is Thomas Chen, an ex-pat of Eleven Madison Park and Commerce. “Tommy” was his childhood name, which morphed into Tuome (“tow-me”).

I don’t want to jinx the guy, but if the early reviews are any guide, Chen in ten years could have himself a hot little empire like David Chang, Mario Carbone, or Andrew Carmellini. Just you wait. Or maybe he’ll stay behind the stove at his namesake spot, and turn it into a Michelin star restaurant. Who knows? Those are heady expectations to put on a chef from whom we’ve had one meal, but I’ll go out on a limb, and say the potential is there. What Chen does with it is up to him.

Chen does this in an unassuming double-storefront, decorated not very originally, with exposed brick, old knick-nacks hanging on the walls, and somewhat uncomfortable wooden chairs facing tables that are a bit too close together. But it’s charming in an East Village-y kind of way.

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Tuesday
Jan132015

Birds & Bubbles

It’s not exactly an obvious combination, is it? Fried chicken and champagne?

Obvious or not, that’s the value proposition at Birds & Bubbles, the peculiar and yet oddly compelling restaurant from the home cook turned chef, Sarah Simmons.

The restaurant is on an uncharming Lower East Side street, in a narrow subterranean space that was previously an appropriately named restaurant called Grotto. The hours suit the clubby neighborhood nearby, with a 2am closing time Thursdays through Saturdays.

The backstory in brief: Simmons was a retail strategist who started a supper club in her apartment, cooking the soul food she’d grown up with in South Carolina. After winning Food & Wine’s Home Cook Superstar award in 2010, she started City Grit, a so-called “culinary salon,” where guests buy tickets to dinner. Originally an extension of Simmons’ in-home supper club, nowadays she cooks there only occasionally: visiting chefs prepare most of the meals.

Simmons knows her stuff. I liked the food at Birds & Bubbles a lot. It’s Southern comfort cuisine, and does not blaze any culinary trails. But the chicken’s really enjoyable, the bread and side dishes well above anything you get at the average poultry joint.

Unfortunately, the wine menu looks like it parachuted in from another planet, or at least another restaurant. It consists mostly of champagnes over $100 a bottle, with only a few sparkling wines in the $45–65 range and a handful of cheap, uninteresting still wines you probably don’t want.

If you order cocktails or bubbly by the glass, as we did, the costs quickly mount up: dinner for three was over $200, including tax and tip. That’s an awful lot for a meal whose centerpiece is fried chicken served in a stainless steel bucket. The food menu is inexpensive, with salads, appetizers and soups $5–13, mains $17–24, and side dishes $9.

For a group, the Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner ($55), which we ordered, offers a good cross-section of the menu: a whole chicken, a bread basket ($12 if purchased à la carte), and your choice of three side dishes. You don’t have to eat chicken: there’s a crawfish étouffée, shrimp & grits, a steak, and so forth. But you don’t order the salmon at Peter Luger, do you?

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Tuesday
Dec302014

The Clam

 

When Gabe Stulman and Joey Campanaro opened The Little Owl in 2006, they surely never imagined the multitude of restaurants such an unassuming little place would beget.

Anywhere in the Village, you’re never more than about five minutes away from one or another of their properties, all somewhat resembling each other in their commitment to straightforward, rustic, gut-busting cuisine, served in casual, comfortable dining rooms that appeal to a neighborhood crowd.

They’re actually not partners anymore. The pair split up in 2008, with Stulman starting up his “Little Wisco” empire, Campanaro retaining The Little Owl and their second restaurant together, Market Table. But you’d hardly know they ever disagreed, given the similarity of the restaurants they now operate separately.

Stulman is up to six restaurants. Campanaro has been slower to expand, opening The Clam, his third, earlier this year with his Market Table partner, chef Mikey Price. You’ll get no prizes for guessing the concept: it’s a seafooder, with the menu relying heavily on a certain bivalve mollusc.

They’ve got a terrific location, a spacious corner lot with broad, picture windows and the de rigeur exposed brick that no downtown restaurant can do without. Yet, there are white tablecloths, previously thought to be the kiss of death at a neighborhood spot, and—shock!—no one seems to mind. The restaurant has been solidly booked at prime times. It took me almost eleven months to get a reservation.

No matter what, you’re probably going to be eating seafood here. A couple of the entrées are sops to landlubbers (a half Bell & Evans chicken; a braised shortrib), but to choose these is to miss the entire point of the restaurant. Whatever you order, you’ll start with one of the terrific warm parkerhouse rolls (above right).

The menu is in five confusing sections: “iced delicacies” (what most people call a raw bar), appetizers ($13–19), entrées ($25–31), side dishes (“eight dollars each”), and then the perplexing part: “house specialties” ($13–24), not clearly delineated as starters or mains, linked only by the fact that they’re all made with clams.

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Monday
Dec222014

Le Jardin Bistro

How did I miss this it? A French bistro as cute as Le Jardin was on Cleveland Place for 15 years, and I never noticed.

It closed in 2010 to make way for John Fraser’s pop-up What Happens When, followed by The Cleveland, which tried out three chefs in two years and finally closed after a dispute with the landlord.

Meanwhile, Le Jardin’s original owner, Israel Katz, found a business partner and re-opened Le Jardin in an old townhouse on Avenue C, or perhaps I should say, “Rue C.”

A lovelier spot for a rustic French bistro would be difficult to imagine. On the ground floor, there’s a bar and an enclosed patio. Most of the seating is up a flight of stairs, where there’s a spectacular bi-level dining room with an open kitchen, distressed brick walls, and a functional fireplace, which was roaring the evening we went. Past a set of French doors, there’s an enclosed candle-lit garden, which is open all year.

If you’re looking for the ultimate charming third-date spot, put Le Jardin at the top of the list.

The menu is taken from the French bistro playbook. There is nothing original, but if you love this cuisine, you will want to order all of it. Prices are so modest, you could stay all night and have dinner twice. Appetizers are $5–12, mains $14–22. For dessert, cheeses are $4 each, sweets $9.

The all-French wine list offers nine choices by the glass, fourteen modestly-priced bottles ($42–69), and and ten “cru & back vintages” soaring up to $750 for a 1989 second-growth St. Julien. We were happy to order at the expensive end of the regular list, a 2009 Hautes-Côtes de Nuits ($69).

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