Sunday
May102015

Hiatus

Last week, my wife and I took possession of this beauty, a 3-story Tudor in Pelham, New York. We haven’t moved yet: the place is badly in need of renovation, which’ll happen a lot more quickly if our stuff isn’t in the way. We still own our NYC co-op, which is in contract, and won’t close until July or August. We intend to get every last day of city living that we can.

But now seems as good a time as any to put the blog on hiatus—a step I’ve been considering for a while. I’ve posted 1,010 restaurant reviews in just over 11 years, which averages out to nearly two reviews per week, for roughly a decade. That’s an awfully long time. In recent months, it has felt more like a burden, and less of the joy it originally was.

Of course, that burden was entirely self-imposed: this blog has never accepted advertising. No one’s livelihood—and certainly not mine—depended on its existence. Yet, having created this tiny franchise in my little corner of the Internet, with a very small but nevertheless appreciative (and appreciated) core of loyal readers, for a long time I felt obliged to keep it going.

But my free time over the next several months will be increasingly taken up with a complex renovation, moving house, getting to know a new neighborhood, and a quite different lifestyle than I’ve been accustomed to. Something needs to be edited out, to make room for all that, and the blog is it.

If our impending move to the suburbs provides a convenient excuse, I might have reached the same decision in any event: the sense that food blogging had run its course (for me) was lingering in my mind even before we started house-hunting, although it certainly intensified after that. I think I’m going to enjoy dining out for its own sake, as it used to be: no more photos, no more “writing the review” in my head as I eat.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the pleasure of dining out, which I love as much as ever. My wife and I intend to keep up our weekly Manhattan “date nights” (usually Wednesdays). I still work in the city, and Pelham isn’t all that far away—one of the reasons we chose it. (Pelham to Grand Central: ~35 minutes. A Train to 42nd Street: ~30 minutes.)

Will the blog return after we’re settled in our new home? Surely not with the frequency it has been, and perhaps not at all. As I write this, I’m feeling like I won’t miss it.

Monday
May042015

Limani

Until 2004, I was not familiar with Greek seafood restaurants that hawk fish by the pound, until the Post’s Steve Cuozzo called them out for the practice—with characterisic bile. Soon after, I fell in love with Thalassa, despite an admittedly confusing price structure that was exactly what Cuozzo had complained about.

Alas, the broader public didn’t share my admiration for Thalassa. A few years later, during the Great Recession, they switched to fixed-price entrées, and haven’t gone back. Other restaurants of its ilk have been more successful, including Estiatoria Milos in Midtown, which has survived good times and bad, despite final bill that is as punishing as it is unpredictable.

Limani, a newcomer in this genre, sailed into town last November. The staff are pros at this, as there’s a sister Limani in Roslyn, NY, and much of the senior staff has worked for the Milos chain at some point.

They’ve certainly nailed the atmosphere: 8,000 square feet of Aegean fantasy, with white seats, white marble tile, sheer curtains, and a reflecting pool that changes its hue on a cycle from blue to violet, and back again.

The booths look luxurious, but on both my visits we were seated at a cramped two-top near the open kitchen. And then you realize, for a luxury restaurant, it certainly is loud in here.

 

I haven’t been to Milos, but the service style at Limani corresponds to everything I’ve read about it, as well as how it used to be at Thalassa before they switched out the menu. Before you order, your server escorts you to the fresh fish station, where the day’s catch is arrayed on ice—most of it imported from the Mediterranean. Prices are posted, generally by the pound, leaving you guessing as to how much that pretty red snapper will set you back. Only after you’ve chosen a specimen is it put on the scale, and the damage assessed.

There are standard appetizers and salads, with prices printed on the menu, although not shown online. My recollection, though, was that the non-fish items were fairly priced, for a midtown luxury restaurant. There are a handful of meat entrées, but if you order any of these, you’re missing the entire point of the restaurant.

Anyhow, with ordering out of the way, you’ll get a basket of warm bread and a bowl of olive oil for dipping (above right).

 

On both visits, we knew a large whole fish was coming, so we didn’t order large appetizers. An order of Gigantes (large baked beans; $12; above left) was mediocre. A Romaine salad ($15; not pictured) was okay. On the whole, it’s better to stick with a seafood starter. Scallops on the half-shell ($12; above right) were terrific.

 

Whichever whole fish you’ve chosen, it’ll be brought to the table and portioned while you watch. On my two visits, we tried the Fagri ($86.86; above left) and the Red Snapper ($90.82; above right). Both were sufficient for ample helpings of fish for two. As you can see from the photos, there’s not much difference in the preparation style from one to another. But the kitchen does a lovely job—as they should when whole fish are the entire premise of the restaurant.

You pay handsomely for the privilege. The prices aren’t insane, given the provenance of the ingredients, but you could spend less elsewhere. On the other hand, according to Pete Wells’s recent review in the Times, you’ll pay a lot more at Milos for the identical species. As the fish are served à la carte, you’ll probably want a side dish or two. Like the rest of the menu, they’re a bit pricey at $12 each, but as I recall, both that we tried (asparagus; cauliflower & broccoli) were exemplary.

The online wine list, like the food menu, is without prices, a really deplorable state of affairs. It skews mostly white, as you’d expect, with a handful of Greek bottles and many more from other regions. As I look back on my receipts, it seems I chose the identical item both times (a Domaine Bizet Sancerre), as I found the rest of the list too expensive.

I was surprised that Wells bothered to review Limani. He gave it just one star (for him, that’s a pan), and it didn’t really cry out for a review: most of his competitors ignored it, as they generally do with expensive Midtown restaurants that break no new culinary ground. As Frank Bruni once pointed out, there is little reason for a review that simultaneously calls attention to a place you otherwise wouldn’t have heard of, and then tells you to avoid it.

I would make a case for Limani. It’s not perfect: the room is too loud (for my taste), and the non-fish options aren’t strong enough, in relation to the expense. The online menu and wine list ought to include prices: for what they’re charging, they can afford that. But the imported fresh fish are Limani’s core competency; this, it executes beautifully. If you’re looking for a fancier night out, and can afford the prices, you’ll probably go home happy.

Limani (45 Rockefeller Plaza, 51st Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues)

Food: Greek seafood, most of it served by the pound
Service: Very good, as it should be at these prices
Ambiance: A luxurious blue-and-white Aegean atmosphere; a bit too loud

Rating: ★★

Monday
Apr272015

The Milton

On the official NYC taxi map, the Upper East Side ends at 86th Street, aside from a small sliver near Central Park, which extends up to 110th Street. The rectangle bounded by 86th, Madison, 110th, and the East River, is (supposedly) Spanish Harlem.

Those are the traditional borders, but the streets north of 86th are starting to look more like the old Upper East Side. Indeed, most sources now consider anything up to 96th Street to be part of that neighborhood. Gentrification will only accelerate as the Second Avenue Subway gets closer to completion. (The latest ever-changing due date is the end of 2016, but it is sure to move again.)

The Milton is typical of the dining and drinking establishments taking root in the upper Upper East Side, where rents are low enough to attract a younger crowd. The owner, Tomas Maher of 13th Street Entertainment, talks up the space’s “downtown vibe”. This neighborhood isn’t yet secure in its own skin, so the proprietors have to compare it to someplace else.

The chef, David Diaz, came out of the same ownership group’s Brasserie Beaumarchais in the Meatpacking District, but the two places couldn’t be less alike. The cuisine at The Milton is out of the gastropub playbook: like the owner, a fusion of Irish, English, and American styles. Appetizers and salads are $9–16, side dishes $7, mains $12–28 (but only two of them north of $18).

It’s not a particularly long menu, with just eight mains and no announced specials. It will be interesting to see if it changes seasonally. Otherwise, The Milton isn’t a gastropub. It’s just a pub: a good one.

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Monday
Apr202015

Javelina

Tex–Mex cuisine has always had a lowbrow reputation outside of its home territory, much as barbecue did a generation ago. You could visit these places for fun and sustenance, but the cooking was never taken seriously.

Javelina aims to change that. It’s the first local Tex–Mex joint I can remember where you actually knew the name of the chef: Richard Caruso, who’s been at Rosa Mexicano and Hill Country. Pat LaFrieda is on hand to supply the beef for all those tacos and enchiladas; or, if you prefer to have your beef naked, there’s a 28-day dry-aged cowboy steak for $38.

As the modern trend requires, there’s a large-format dish, the Parrilladas Mixtas, essentially the fajita platter of the gods, with six proteins (lobster extra) and abundant side dishes, costing $65 for two or $125 for four. But most of the food clocks in at much lower prices. No other item on the two-page menu is more than $25, and portions are generous.

The restaurant is named for a kind of wild pig that roams the wilds of Texas. A stuffed specimen is on display above the bar, and you can see from its sharp teeth that this isn’t an animal to be toyed with.

They take reservations, and you might need one. On a Wednesday evening, there was no chance of getting seated before our 7:45 booking, and the bar was packed too. We cooled our heels at the quiet Italian trattoria next door: Javelina might be the best thing that’s happened to them in years. On a recent evening, Eater’s Ryan Sutton waited 90 minutes for bar seats, got nothing, and gave up.

Once you get in, the sound level is punishing: those brick walls and hard surfaces turn the dining room into an echo chamber. Is it worth the trouble? Not as far as we could tell. We found the food like most of the city’s Tex–Mex: acceptable for what it is, but not worthy of the destination status that diners are conferring on Javelina in its early days.

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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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