Wednesday
Nov192014

By The Hudson

Restaurant names often tell you very little. What do you know, really, about The Simone, Charlie Bird, or Cherche Midi, from their names alone? In contrast, By The Hudson (BTH) makes its value proposition abundantly clear: it’s a room with a view.

Actually, that sells it short. Chef Lusianie Otero’s “Amer-ibbean” cuisine surpassed my expectations, but when a restaurant is named for its location, it’s the location that they’re selling, so let’s discuss that for a moment.

BTH is located at the far western tip of 125th Street, underneath the Riverside Drive viaduct. Tall picture windows on two sides offer gorgeous views of the Hudson. Two other restaurants share the block, but don’t have the scenery: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and Harlem’s Floridita. The famed Cotton Club is a block away; Fairway Market is just up the street. Another restaurant with a view, Hudson River Cafe, is four blocks north.

Still, the walk from the subway feels a bit bleak, especially after dark. That’ll change, eventually. Columbia University plans to build seventeen buildings over the next quarter-century on the superblock bounded by 125th Street, 133th Street, Broadway, and Twelfth Avenue. Several are already under construction. You can’t help feeling that in five or ten years, this area will be barely recognizable.

With all of the ongling construction in the area, BTH’s timing seems to be pretty good. But the space facing the water (formerly a diner) had been vacant for seven years before BTH opened in September, so I guess it wasn’t an easy sell. The neighborhood clearly has bright prospects, provided the restaurant survives the long winter.

The restaurant is evidently still deciding how best to market the cuisine. Florence Fabricant’s Off the Menu teezer described it as “American, with hints of Italian,” but the chef hails from Puerto Rico, and our server called it “Amer-ibbean.” Osso Buco is the only dish that immediately screams Italian, and there’s a heavy dose of the safe, recognizable standards that many places serve: Shrimp Cocktail, Caesar Salad; Steak & Fries, and so forth. But where the chef does insert her personality, the dishes have a recognizably Caribbean tint.

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Monday
Nov102014

M. Wells Steakhouse

What a strange trip it’s been for M. Wells. Our story begins in 2010, when chef Hugue Defour and his wife, Sarah Obraitis, took over a diner in Long Island City, turning that forlorn Queens neighborhood into a destination.

Defour came to New York from that insane Montreal restaurant Au Pied do Cochon, where you’ll find a whole pig’s foot stuffed with foie gras; or a hunk of foie gras on a buckwheat pancake ladled with maple syrup. (We’ve been twice, and would happily go again.)

M. Wells was very much in this spirit, with its meatloaf for four, plates of veal brains, and “seafood cobblers the size of throw pillows” (said Sam Sifton, who awarded two stars).

It was never quite a fully-formed restaurant, as dinner was served only three nights a week: the small kitchen apparently couldn’t handle any more. Still, those three nights were enough to turn Long Island City into a world pilgrimage site. Then the landlord got greedy, and after just a year in business, M. Wells was forced out.

The following year, Defour and Obraitis opened M. Wells Dinette, a lunch-only restaurant located inside MoMA PS1, a branch of the Museum of Modern Art located in a former schoolhouse, just a few blocks away from the former diner. Pete Wells gave it two stars.

The Dinette was just a snack to tide us over for the main event, M. Wells Steakhouse, which opened in late 2013 after nearly two years of planning. Naturally, it’s in an improbable location: a former auto body shop that is unrenovated and totally unmarked. By now, this is all schtick: luxury apartments have sprouted up everywhere you look, including right across the street.

Inside, the 80-seat dining room is a smart mash-up of old and new. There’s plenty of exposed brick and garage doors made of corrugated metal, but chandeliers hang from the old industrial ceiling, and servers are smartly dressed in black vests and ties. Unobtrusive nick-nacks remind you of times long past, such as an old-fashioned ice box, used for bar storage.

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Monday
Nov032014

Claudette

Claudette arrived in Greenwich Village several months ago, as welcome as a burst of sunshine after a rain storm. It’s a lovely Provençal bistro, in a city that can never have enough of them.

This is the third act for co-owner Carlos Suarez (Bobo, Rosemary’s). Wade Moises, who runs the kitchen at Rosemary’s, has come along for this venture as executive chef, along with chef de cuisine Koren Grieveson, who spent over a decade at the respected Chicago restaurant Avec.

I liked the food Rosemary’s, but it’s loud and perpetually packed; at the bar, you can barely move. I feared that Claudette would be more of the same, but it turns out to be surprisingly civilized. Suarez has created a warm, inviting room. There aren’t a ton of tables. The ample marble bar attracts a dinner crowd, not a party. It does get a tad loud, but not punishingly so.

This address has not been kind to restaurants, but there is nothing wrong with the location. I vaguely recall a place here called Washington Park, years ago. The reasons for its demise escape me, but it later became Cru (felled by the recession), and then the short-lived Lotus of Siam (a terrible idea, doomed before it began). Claudette ought to last a while.

The menu is fairly brief, but it appears to change frequently. There are choices in four categories, with headings printed in French, but the dishes described entirely in English. There’s a quartet of salads under du Jardin ($8 each; $30 for the set); six Hors d’Oeuvres ($13–18), nine Entrées ($22–34; or grilled ribeye, $46); and four Garnitures, or side dishes ($8).

A few dishes are lazy: that Pat LaFreida ribeye that seems to find its way onto every menu in town; a hanger steak, just because; a cavatelli for diners who want a recognizable pasta option. But mostly, the chefs stick to their chosen Provençal and North African theme.

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Monday
Oct272014

White Street

Can someone find the right restaurant for Floyd Cardoz? Perhaps White Street is the one, but I am not so sure.

Cardoz first came to widespread acclaim with Tabla, the modern Indian restaurant he opened with Danny Meyer in 1998. It got three stars from Ruch Reichl right out of the gate. We thought it was still in top form the first time we tried it, in 2006.

But by then, Tabla had fallen off the city’s culinary radar. Meyer and Cardoz must have recognized that: by 2009, the formal dining room menu was discontinued, which only put off the inevitable. Tabla closed in late 2010.

Just over a year later, Cardoz re-appeared in another Meyer place, North End Grill in Battery Park City. We liked it, and so did most critics, but it built up a reputation as an expensive cafeteria for Goldman Sachs next door. Once again, the chef was doing respectable work, totally off the culinary radar.

Cardoz left North End Grill in April 2014, saying that he wanted to open another Indian restaurant in New York. By July he’d changed his mind, or perhaps had it changed for him by investors who couldn’t make the numbers work. So White Street was announced, promising “American [cuisine] with global touches.” Those investors include Dan Abrams and Dave Zinczenko, backers of John DeLucie’s The Lion, a precedent that hardly inspires much confidence.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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