Tuesday
Apr142015

La Gauloise

You know that French cuisine has made a comeback, when classic bistros are opening at a faster rate than I can get around to trying them. I know, I know: it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.

Welcome to La Gauloise, the latest from Georges Forgeois, whose Gallic mini-chain also includes Cercle Rouge, Jules Bistro, Bar Tabac, Café Noir, and Le Signe Vert.

Forgeois also has The Clarkson, which feels like the answer to the old SAT question: which of these things is unlike the others? It’s a straightforward American bistro, albeit decorated (like all of his other places) with French nick-nacks that Forgeois picked up over 25 years of antique-hunting at flea markets.

Anyhow, The Clarkson had an extra dining room that wasn’t getting enough use, so Forgeois turned it into a separate restaurant. The two establishments are physically connected, sharing both rest room and kitchen space, but this isn’t immediately apparent, until you see staff passing back and forth between them, through a swinging wooden door.

La Gauloise feels like one of those little family bistros that you’d find on hundreds of Parisian side streets, with a small bi-level dining room, yellow pressed tin walls, and what feels like a staff of about three people. Not that it needed more, at least on a Friday evening in early spring, with only about four tables occupied and a couple of more patrons at the bar.

The location isn’t ideal. The West Village loses a lot of its intimate charm as you cross Seventh Avenue, headed West. The nearest streetcorner is dominated by The Clarkson, and the building is draped in scaffolding. You’re not going to notice La Gauloise unless you’re looking for it. (Perhaps it’ll be easier to spot once the weather gets warmer, and the outdoor tables come out.)

The chef is Rebecca Weitzman, formerly of ’inoteca and Cercle Rouge. (She also won an episode of Food Network’s Chopped in 2010.) She does double-duty here, continuing to look after the kitchen at The Clarkson. Her menu breaks no new ground: it’s practically all French classics, with appetizers mostly in the low-teens, mains in the mid-20s. It’s all capably prepared, but nothing we tried was especially memorable.

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Monday
Apr062015

Contra

Economists have their own ways of measuring the end of a recession. I have my own: how long does it take to get into a hit restaurant in New York?

Contra opened on the Lower East Side in October 2013, and it took till March 2015 for me to get a reservation. Now, I’ll admit: I didn’t work at it desperately. With dogged persistence, I surely could’ve gone sooner. But at the pace I was willing to work—something less than desperation—it took almost eighteen months for a reservation to appear, at a time I was willing to go.

The concept was daring for late 2013: a $55 five-course set menu from two chefs most people (then) had never heard of. Apparently they never got the memo: that’s not The Way We Eat Now. Diners want sharable small plates, to order either a short snack or a multi-course degustation at their whim. Or, do they? Contra was willing to bet the opposite.

Of course, the fixed-price menu is what every kitchen would love to serve: planning is so much easier when every cover will be the same. But most places don’t open with that format; they adopt it later (if at all), after their reputation is secure. For an unproven restaurant, the fixed cost of entry is supposed to be off-putting—even where, as here, it isn’t really that high.

Contra did it anyway, the rave reviews rolled in, and the rest is history. Last week, the restaurant finally got around to raising its prices. Thursdays through Saturdays, the price will be $67 for 6–8 courses. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the original five-course menu will be a hair less expensive than before, at $53. (You can order à la carte at the bar.)

The chefs here are Jeremiah Stone, who worked at Rino in Paris and Isa in Brooklyn; and Fabian von Hauske, whose CV includes the obligatory fifteen-minute stint at Noma, plus Faviken in Sweden and the pastry department at Jean-Georges. Stone looks after the savory courses, von Hauske the bread and desserts.

According to the staff, the menu changes every few days, if not more often, depending on the available ingredients and the chefs’ whims. Theeir style is very loosely “New Nordic,” although the website (not very helpfully) describes it as “Contemporary New York cuisne.”

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Monday
Mar302015

Hunt & Fish Club

I should have looked at the address. I would’ve noticed that Hunt & Fish Club is right at the edge of the Theater District. Dinner on a Wednesday evening was going to be: absurd.

That’s an understatement. In the congested bar, I could barely move. Just getting a drink took twenty minutes, and that was with a friend of the house who took pity, using his pull to get the head bartender—and apparently the only one with a clue—to notice me.

The Post had a story about that bar: “the city’s latest haunt for… beauties fishing for rich husbands.” My friend-of-house buddy for the evening assured me it’s all true. And some of the ladies there seem to be—how shall I put it?—same-day rentals.

I thought the bar would clear up after 7:30, when the theater crowd heads off to the shows, but they kept coming in waves. A host assured us repeatedly that our table would be ready “in a few minutes,” while others who arrived after us were getting seated.

This went on for an hour past our reservation time. (To their credit, they were comping the drinks by now.) Finally, we were shown to a table: it must’ve been the worst in the house. We refused to accept it. We were then left standing at the edge of the dining room (“please don’t lean on the artwork”) for another ten minutes, before they finally found another.

The money men (a financier and a hedge-fund mogul) poured $5 million into this place. There’s bling everywhere: 55,000 pounds of marble, a 40×20-foot chrome chandelier, bars on two floors, and 180 seats in three dining rooms on two floors, designed by the artist Roy Nachum, whose paintings adorn the walls.

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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.

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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

Note: This is a review under chef Francis Gabarrus, who left the restaurant in April 2015, after just four months. We liked his work, but felt that his classic French menu clashed with the history of the space and wouldn’t be embraced by the neighborhood. His only professional review came in The New Yorker, one of that publication’s rare pans.

*

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.

What’s curious is that they didn’t change the name. There wasn’t much left in the Happy Ending franchise when it closed, and whatever brand equity it still had, was decidedly not invested in French comfort food. A fresh start might’ve been a better bet.

One could make a long list of New York bars and restaurants that are deliberately difficult to find. Sometimes, it’s part of the game. The original location of David Chang’s Momofuku Ko was unmarked, but Chang was already on the way to culinary sainthood: he wasn’t depending on walk-ins. It doesn’t work so well for a new French restaurant that cries out for validation.

The 61-seat dining room reminded Eater of a “1970s basement,” but the windowless space is nicer than any basement of my acquaintance, with its white tablecloths and artwork curated by gallerist Max Levai. (The basement where the “happy endings” formerly took place is apparently now a dance club; we didn’t check that out.)

The bar has its act together: they mad a terrific Gibson ($13). The wine list is not online, but it struck me as a shade over-priced. A bottle of the 2012 Domaine Faiveley was $65.

The food menu is French in style, but a number of these dishes could be served anywhere: mac and cheese; chicken soup; Tuscan chopped salad. It isn’t terribly expensive, with eight small plates ranging from $8 (mixed olives) to $25 (charcuterie), and seven entrees from $19 (mussels or a pork belly sandwich) to $36 (an 8 oz. filet). Sides are $7–9.

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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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