Monday
Oct202014

Park Avenue Autumn

As a general rule, I don’t believe restaurant spaces are “cursed”. Consecutive failures at the same address are usually attributable to explainable human errors, and not any supernatural intervention.

I might just have to revise my view if Park Avenue Autumn (and its three seasonal cousins) fails in its new home, which has seen four restaurant concepts in four years, all from the same ownership group, Alan and Michael Stillman’s Fourth Wall Restaurants. The company has a strong record of populist success (Smith & Wollensky, Quality Meats, Quality Italian), everywhere but here.

In its original home, almost forty blocks north, this restaurant lasted twenty-two years, first as Park Avenue Café, and starting in 2007, as Park Avenue what-have-you, with the name, signage, décor, servers’ uniforms, and menu changing with the season every three months. That lasted six years, before losing its lease at the end of 2013.

After General Assembly quickly flopped earlier this year, the Stillmans decided to re-launch “a more casual, accessible version” of their Park Avenue concept. Design firm AvroKO is on hand once again with a modular décor, which evokes the current season with pitch-perfect precision, but within a matter of days, can be swapped out for the next. It might be too Disney-fied for some tastes.

By the end of its run uptown, Park Avenue Season had matured into a solid two-star place: I liked my second visit (in 2011) quite a bit better than the first (2007). The restaurant was usually full at prime times. But that was in a much smaller space, and in a neighborhood where the locals don’t wince at entrées averaging in the mid-$30s.

Located at a comparatively dead spot on Park Avenue South, the massive floor plan worked to the disadvantage of Hurricane Club, Hurricane Steak, and General Assembly, the first three concepts the Stillmans tried here. In this cavernous labrynth of connected rooms, the charm of the original Park Avenue hasn’t quite survived. Meanwhile, the promise of a supposedly “more casual, accessible” restaurant does not apply to the bill: it’s as expensive as ever. (The online menu is posted without prices—a strictly low-class move.)

Zene Flinn and Benkai O’Sullivan are co-executive chefs. Flinn was with the team uptown, and the menu here is very much in the same spirit as the original, with most of the dishes inspired by the season. It might almost be called old-fashioned, with appetizers $15–19, entrées $19–38 (almost all over $30), and side dishes $10. The downtown crowd might be disoriented in a restaurant with no sharing plates, “large format” dishes, or tasting menus.

The ten-page wine list (available online with prices—such a concept!) doesn’t offer many bargains, but it is not unfairly priced in relation to the food. The 2004 Château Berliquet was $76, a shade over two times retail, and the sommelier decanted it—always a nice touch.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Oct142014

Botequim

Marco Moreira and Jo-Ann Makovitzky, the husband-and-wife restaurateurs, have not exactly rushed to expand. After opening the upscale French restaurant Tocqueville in 2000, they waited seven years to move it down the street, so they could launch the Michelin starred sushi den 15 East in its former dining room.

That was it for another six years, until they opened The Fourth, an all-day American brasserie in the new Hyatt Union Square, which landed with a thud. The critics mostly ignored it, and that may have been an act of kindness. Reviewing for the Daily News, Michael Kaminer said the restaurant felt like it belonged in an airport: “everything feels vetted by committee, from office-suite décor to a meek menu with just enough Food Network flourishes to excite out-of-towners.”

Makovitzky later told the Village Voice that the bi-level space was too large. Over the summer, they turned the basement into a month-long Brazilian pop-up called Botequim (Portuguese for pub), which was successful enough to take over the space permanently. Mr. Moreira, the chefly half of the duo, is from Brazil, so it is perhaps a bit surprising that he waited so long to showcase the cuisine of his native land.

Thereis much to admire about Botequim. The strong wine list (unfortunately not online) offers a heavy dose of Portuguese and South American wines not often featured at New York restaurants. (We were pleased with the 2010 Quinta do Carmo: $47.) The menu is modestly priced, with most appetizers $15 or less, and most entrées in the $20s.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Oct072014

Paulaner

It’s hard to screw up a beer hall, but Paulaner nearly failed, opening in November 2013 and closing just five months later for “renovations”. Evidently, the original décor “felt too much like an Applebee’s and needed a stylish kick in the pants.”

Successful second acts are rare in the restaurant business, but there are solid names behind the revamp, which opened in May under new management. Wolfgang Ban (of Seäsonal, Edi & the Wolf, and The Third Man) and Stephen Starr vet Markus Tschuschnig are co-owners. The executive chef is Bavarian Daniel Kill, from Kurt Gutenbruner’s chain of Austrian restaurants (Wallsé, Blaue Gans, Café Sabarsky, The Upholstery Store).

I never visited Paulaner v1.0, but the redesign doesn’t seem that dramatic (see the before and after photos on Eater). Still, it is a clear improvement. Photos on the walls have been ditched, leaving bare brick. Tables are now a darker wood. The long center aisle of the dining room is now taken up with communal tables and wooden benches. At the edge of the room, a row of rectangular tables is replaced with half-moon shaped booths.

The restaurant remains affiliated with the German beer of the same name. At the back of the restaurant, there are two huge copper and stainless steel fermenting vats imported from Germany. Beers brewed on-site are served unfiltered and unpasteurized.

The menu is inexpensive, with starters (appetizers, cheeses and sausages) $9–14, entrées $14–23, and side dishes $5–7. Portion sizes are ample, as you’d expect in a German restaurant. There’s a modest wine list (all $10 a glass). Cocktails are $11; beers $5, $7, or $13, depending on the size. When was the last time you saw food and alcohol this cheap, at a place run by a Michelin-starred chef?

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Oct072014

Michelin New York 2015 Ratings

The Michelin New York 2015 ratings were announced last week. We’re back with our annual tabular listing of stars won and lost over the ten-year history of the Guide.

The Michelin Guide offers the best single list of New York’s best restaurants, mainly because the list is updated annually. Most of the city’s professional critics review a restaurant once, within its first year in business, and do not return for many years, if ever—even if the restaurant has changed substantially.

To give three examples from the 2015 Guide, Aquavit was promoted from one star to two, under its new chef, Emma Bengtsson. The NYT displays Sam Sifton’s 2010 review under former chef Marcus Jernmark. Saul lost its Michelin star after moving to the Brooklyn Museum. The NYT displays Pete Wells’ 2007 review, when Saul was in a much smaller dining room in Boerum Hill. Lastly, A Voce Columbus lost its star after losing its chef, Missy Robbins. The NYT still displays Sam Sifton’s 2009 review, when Robbins was there.

Similar examples from earlier years are abundant. The NYT still displays Frank Bruni’s 2007 review of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Perry St. Michelin took away its star in 2011, after Mr. Vongerichten’s son Cedric took over the kitchen. The NYT still displays William Grimes’ 2002 review of Vongerichten’s Jo Jo. The restaurant lost its Michelin star for the second and final time in 2010.

We don’t think the Michelin inspectors are more competent at reviewing restaurants than the city’s other professional critics. They’re just more nimble.

In the 2015 Guide, there are no new three-star restaurants, three promotions to two stars (Aquavit, Blanca, and Ichimura), and fifteen new one-star restaurants, most of which opened within the last year or two. Picholine got its star back, after a year’s absence. There were no restaurants starred out of nowhere, after many years unstarred, such as Caviar Russe and Telepan in the 2014 Guide.

Particularly notable demotions include Daniel (three stars to two); Annisa and Oceana (one star to zero), both of which had been starred for nine consecutive years, since the first Guide.

Starred restaurants that have never had a New York Times review of any kind, include Andanada, Caviar Russe, Danny Brown, Juni, and ZZ’s Clam Bar.

A summary of changes and a ten-year tabular listing are after the jump.

Click to read more ...

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 ...