Friday
May252012

Union Square Cafe

 

Has it really been 20 years since I visited Union Square Cafe? I’ve a vague memory of lunch there, about that long ago. It’s been on my revisit list since forever, but was never readily bookable at times I wanted to go.

Reservations have loosened up a bit: recently, I was able to book midweek at 6:45pm on ten days’ notice. I don’t recall ever being able to do that.

You really do need to try Union Square Cafe. On any fair reckoning, it is one of the most influential New York restaurants of the last quarter-century. If it had accomplished nothing else, it would deserve a place in the pantheon for launching the career of restaurateur Danny Meyer, who was 27 when it opened in 1985.

There were stumbles then: a one-star review from Bryan Miller in 1986. Meyer persisted, replacing the opening chef (Ali Barker) with Michael Romano, winning three stars from Miller in 1989. By 1999, William Grimes re-affirmed three stars, noting that although the place was still “hugely popular…It’s not the food that’s setting off the stampede.”

When Union Square opened, it was one of the first, and the best, of a new breed that Bryan Miller called ”international bistro,” in reviewing the restaurant in 1989 in The New York Times and awarding it three stars.

Union Square has not changed, but the world has changed around it. Michael Romano, the executive chef and part owner, does what he has always done, and done very well, which is to turn out jazzed-up bistro and trattoria fare with utter consistency. What looked like a flashy sports car a decade ago now seems more like a midsize Buick cruising in the center lane at a precise 65.

Ten years later Frank Bruni knocked it down to two stars. There were too many blunders; the food wasn’t consistent enough. But he still found, as one does at every Danny Meyer restaurant, “staff so seemingly genuine in their yearning to accommodate you and their contrition when they can’t that Danny Meyer…must be giving them either Method acting classes or major pharmaceuticals. Maybe both.”

It would be foolish to expect Union Square Cafe to change very much. At some point, a pathbreaking restaurant becomes a tradition in itself. This restaurant has earned that.

It could still clean up its act. I don’t know many places that serve a $13.50 cocktail, with a straw still in its sealed paper sheath. A restaurant of this caliber shouldn’t be serving any accessory in its factory wrapper. When I ordered a glass of wine to follow up, the server failed to bring it, because she didn’t notice I’d finished that cocktail, even though considerable time went by.

We ordered two appetizers to share; only one came. Realizing their mistake, the staff served the second appetizer with the entrées. (To be fair, it was taken off the bill without prompting.)

The cuisine is difficult to classify. The website calls it “American … with an Italian soul, using fresh ingredients from the local Greenmarket.” Miller’s first three-star review called it “Northern Italian” cusine, flat out.

Over the years, the Italian influence has mellowed, aside from the pasta section of the menu. Most of the appetizers and main courses could be found in any seasonal American restaurant, though descriptive Italian words pop up here and there. In the service and ambiance, Union Square Cafe doesn’t resemble an Italian restaurant at all.

Prices are not expensive, for a restaurant that had three stars until quite recently. Snacks are $4–7, appetizers $10–19, pastas $16–19 (small portion) or $26–29 (large), entrées $27–35, side dishes $8–10. I’d call that the “upper middle” price range for Manhattan. The menu changes daily, and the website (every time I checked) displayed a current one.

Appetizers were weaker than the main courses. Asparagus Tempura ($19; above left) sounded like a good idea, but when you throw in lobster, seared pork belly, and ramp vinaigrette, it’s at least one ingredient too many. The asparagus were good, but the lobster was slightly rubbery, the pork belly a bit chalky.

From the snacks portion of the menu, we ordered the Pig Ears ($6; above right) as our second appetizer. This was the item that didn’t come out on time. I liked the tarragon mustard, but the ears themselves were in a cloying sauce that tasted like soy. We didn’t bother to finish them.

I was impressed with both entrées. Pork shoulder ($27; above left) was in a honey-balsamic glaze, with ramp polenta and spring slaw. I’m not positive what accompanied the Trout ($27; above right), as the online menu has since changed, but the fish itself was lovely.

The beverage list runs to 33 pages; wines are mostly French, Italian, and American, priced from the mid-$40s to the thousands. There is something here for almost every budget.

The attractive tri-level space would be considered a bit old-fashioned if it opened today, but I doubt there are any complaints from the clientele, which skews slightly older than average. There is a younger crowd at the bar, where a full menu is available. The décor deftly straddles the line between formal and casual. Whether it’s a special occasion or an average night out, you can feel at home.

The service, so eager to please, fumbles at times — or did on this particular night — but Union Square Cafe remains worthwhile, and could still teach its many imitators a thing or two.

Union Square Cafe (21 E. 16th St. between Broadway & Fifth Ave., Union Square)

Food: American Greenmarket with Italian influences, mostly very good
Service: As accommodating as can be, if a bit sloppy at times
Ambiance: A civilized, adult restaurant; would that there were more of them.

Rating: ★★
Why? Still one of the best of its kind, after all these years

Tuesday
May222012

Back Forty West

 

It was hard not to be a little bit sad when chef Peter Hoffman closed Savoy last year after a 21-year run. The neighborhood, once considered remote, was now overrun with tourists. The restaurant’s farm-to-table cooking, once pathbreaking, was now replicated on almost every block.

Yet, Savoy remained uniquely charming, especially on a winter evening with the upstairs fireplace roaring. Though never really formal, Savoy felt like a special night out. There were always better restaurants than Savoy; none had made it irrelevant. But Hoffman bowed to the inevitable: facing a rent increase, he needed a concept that would turn tables, attract walk-ins, and wouldn’t be dependent on destination diners.

His casual place, Back Forty, in the far East Village, supplied the template: a more laid-back version of the same cooking style; reservations not taken. It worked on Avenue B, so he kept the name (with “West” attached), which meant he wouldn’t get professionally reviewed. I’m not sure if that was a plan or a miscalculation.

The space doesn’t really look that different from what I remember (and what photos show) Savoy used to be. The website sports all the haute barnyard buzzwords that Hoffman pioneered before the rest of us had heard of them: locavore, farm-to-table, responsibly sourced, greenmarket, in-season.

But the menu is a lot different, with snacks under $10, and only three dishes above $21. Soft-shell crab and ramps appear, so you know it’s seasonal (and you would’ve been shocked if it hadn’t been). A grass-fed burger at $12 looks like a steal, until you realize that’s without cheese or fries (each another $2).

Then you look at the wine list, and your heart sinks. What there is, is not very good, or far too expensive. Among a dozen reds, there was nothing I trusted below a $60 2005 Rioja (not great), served in juice glasses. Are real wine glasses, even the cheap kind, really unaffordable?

The menu invites confusion, with categories labeled “Breads”, “Hands”, “Spoon & Ladle”, “Fork”, “Fork & Knife”, and “Spoon”. Everything in the last category is clearly a dessert (including cookies, which I can’t imagine eating with a spoon). But every other category is a mish-mash, as I was soon to learn.

From the “Fork” category, Grilled Kale & Escarole Salad ($14; above left) was straightforward and very good, with creamy parmesan dressing, white anchovies, fried capers, and crispy chickpeas.

Also from the “Fork” category: Smoked Bits Baked Beans ($8; above right). But this turns out to be a side dish, as I suppose I should’ve guessed, when the server asked if I’d prefer to have it with my entrée. Yet, on the bill it’s printed as an appetzier, so apparently the staff is not sure. Anyhow, it was not very satisfying, and I couldn’t really detect much flavor out of the burnt ends that were supposed to be there. The dish was mostly just beans and tomatoes.

There seems to be an on-site smoker, and the kitchen makes good use of it. A sliced pork chop special ($28; above left) shared the plate with polenta, chickpeas, and grilled shrimp. It’s a bit audacious to serve pork so rare, but it was excellent, with a rich, charcoal flavor. Chicken ($20; above right) also came out of the smoker, and was just as skillfully done.

The restaurant was busy but not full on a Saturday evening, which makes me wonder if they ought to start taking reservations. We were willing to give it a shot, and were seated right away, but I wonder how many people aren’t coming, because they don’t want to risk an uncertain wait?

Although Back Forty West no longer has Savoy’s charm, it’s a pretty comfortable place, by today’s standards. The lights upstairs are kept low, the music isn’t loud, and there’s still that fireplace. The service is not very attentive, but if it takes a while to flag someone down, you probably won’t mind lingering here. If only they’d get the wine program into shape.

Back Forty West (70 Prince Street at Crosby Street, Soho)

Food: Casual American locavore
Service: Slightly inattentive, but acceptable
Ambiance: Laid-back, but not loud, and there’s still that fireplace; date spot

Rating: ★
Why? No longer unique, but still worthwhile

Monday
May212012

Brooklyn Winery

We usually plan our meals with some deliberation—old-fashioned, I know. But our visit to Brooklyn Winery recently was entirely impromptu and thoroughly worthwhile.

The space is right out of the Williamsburg playbook:

The wine bar is designed predominantly from reclaimed materials, including a decorative wall made from barn wood, World War II ammo boxes standing in as wine racks, vintage industrial lighting, and beautiful 1940s wallpaper. The bar itself is clad in wood reclaimed from church pews, and topped with zinc.

It’s splendidly renovated, with an attractive bar, communal tables, a garden, and upstairs several secluded rooms with coffee tables and comfy sofas. Next door is a small-batch winery. They’ll eventually be sold on tap at the bar, and I believe for purchase to take home by the bottle.

There are about 35 wines by the glass ($8–15), an eccentric international list that’ll take you off the beaten path. We were headed elsewhere afterward, but enjoyed a glass of the Grüet Brut Rosé from Albuquerque, NM. Next time, we’ll need to stay longer.

The food menu offers a variety of antipasti ($3–5), more substantial appetizers or small entrées ($7–15), and desserts ($7–8). A really good Duck, Pistachio, and Dried Cherry Pâté with crisp bread (right), which two could easily share, was just $5.

You can’t miss Brooklyn Winery. Although it’s on a side street, the name of the establishment is painted in big block letters on the side of the building, visible from Driggs Avenue. It’s a cliché to write about the unpretentious wine bar—do they ever claim to be anything else?—but on a brief look, Brooklyn Winery seemed to be the real thing.

Brooklyn Winery (213 N. 8th St. between Driggs Ave & Roebling St, Williamsburg)

Food: The kind of snacks you want with wine
Wine: 35 wines by the bottle/glass, inexpensive and off-the-beaten-path
Service: Good
Ambiance: The same distressed chic you find on every block but well done

Rating: ★
Why? The good selection of inexpensive, unusual wines

Monday
May142012

My Moon

My Moon is a big-box restaurant that feels like it belongs in Hell’s Kitchen, rather than in Williamsburg, where most dining is on a much smaller scale.

There’s a large outdoor garden, leading to a converted brick-clad factory dominated by soaring double-height ceilings. There are booths on either side of the room, with strange curved walls, tilted at an angle that envelops you.

Do the crowds ever flock to this place? At 7:30pm on a Friday evening, we were practically the first to be seated. By the time we left, past 9:00pm, it was a bit busier but nowhere near full.

What opened in 2007 as a Turkish restaurant is now Spanish. The new chef, Ivan Vilches, claims to be an “El Bulli protégé.”

“We’re currently playing with smoke,” he told The Brooklyn Paper. “We smoke a sea bass carpaccio on oak in front of our customers… The waiter lifts the crystal bell that covers it, and the smoke billows out. It’s a lot of fun.”

We saw that dish come out at another table. It does indeed make a striking impression, at least visually. Alas, nothing we ordered—nor saw at any other table—was as interesting. Did we order wrong?

On the menu, there’s a long list of tapas (mostly $5–9), appetizers ($9–19), entrées ($19–25) and side dishes ($4–6). The server pushed boatloads of food, leaving us unsure how much to order. We’d had a snack elsewhere, so we decided to start with six tapas, and see how that went.

One tapa never appeared, which is just as well. The food wasn’t impressive, and I wasn’t dying to have any more of it.

Bread (resembling focaccia) came out warm. Wrapped dates ($6; above right) with almonds and bacon didn’t have much flavor.

The next two courses were the best. Grilled Squid ($7; above left) with parsley and garlic oil was on the bland side, but well prepared. Garlic Shrimp ($7; above right) had a strong, spicy kick.

The so-called Bomba Meatball ($6; above left) was bizarre, consisting of more potato than meat. A Peas and Bacon appetizer ($16; above right) was too salty, and flecked with ham that was too tough.

The wine list offers about two dozen bottles, most priced from $30–45, though selected without much apparent rhyme or reason from France, Argentina, Spain, and California. But I would sooner re-order the Luzón Crianza 2008 from Spain ($40) than re-try the forgettable food.

If you get one of the booths, this isn’t a bad spot to hang out and drink. In one corner of the large dining room, a DJ keeps the music going, but if it’s not my cup of tea, at least it’s not too loud. After we were seated, the server clearly hadn’t cottoned to the fact that we wanted to take our time: it seemed like he was circling back every 3½ minutes.

In all fairness to the new chef, he has been at My Moon for only a short time. Perhaps his best work is yet to come. But if he’s taking the cuisine in a more experimental direction, I’m not sure the big-box space lends itself to the project.

My Moon (184 N. 10th St. between Driggs & Bedford Ave., Williamsburg)

Food: Modern Spanish
Service: Perhaps we didn’t get the best server
Ambiance: Distressed industrial chic on a large scale

Rating: Not recommended
Why? After five years, this restaurant hasn’t found its soul

Sunday
May132012

Le Comptoir

Note: Le Comptoir closed in June 2013 due to a dispute with their landlord.

*

The dining revolution in Williamsburg has largely passed me by, though I am hoping over time to rectify that.

I am not sure how revolutionary it really is, when so many places seem interchangeable—from a design standpoint, at any rate. I think the last ten Williamsburg restaurants I’ve read about could borrow the space at Le Comptoir with no change of décor. It’s as if the whole neighborhood was designed by the same firm.

The food is another story. The cuisine at Le Comptoir is rustic French, an under-represented genre in Brooklyn. No one seemed to care whether it looked French, but the food is pretty good for the price.

I’ve misplaced my receipt, but I recall a brief and somewhat over-priced wine list, which partially offsets the inexpensive menu, organized by food groups (poissons, legumes, viandes, charcuteries & fromages), instead of the usual appetizers and entrées. Nothing is over $20, except for a New York Strip steak ($29).

 

Bearing that in mind, we were quite pleased with Herb Crusted Tuna ($15; above left) with baby arugula & almond toasted pesto and white bean hummus; Pan Seared Scallops ($15; above right) with a parsnip purée and bbq reduction; and a large helping of Brussels Sprouts ($8; below left) with parmesan, balsamic, and brioche croutons.

 

That wasn’t quite enough, so we finished with the cheese board ($14; above right).

The restaurant wasn’t at all busy on a Sunday evening. We were seated at a large booth facing the open kitchen. I’m not sure if the menu changes often enough to sustain interest over repeated visits. Otherwise, it’s the sort of place I’d visit all the time, if I lived nearby.

Le Comptoir (21 Grand St. between Roebling St. & Driggs Ave., Williamsburg)

Food: Rustic, casual French
Service: Just fine; unremarkable
Ambiance: Distressed chic, like seemingly everything else in Williamsburg

Rating: ★
Why? Good, competent food at a very good price

Saturday
May122012

Maison Premiere

 

Maison Premiere, which opened in 2011, is a wonderful cocktails-and-shellfish bar in Williamsburg, cleverly designed—like so much in the borough—to look a lot older than it really is.

Of course, like so many Williamsburg storefronts, it’s repurposed from earlier, grittier times. You’re never quite sure what was always there, and what was brought in merely to look distressed.

The exterior is barely labeled and unassuming, like a lot cocktail spots these days. Even knowing the address and cross-street, I walked right by it, at first.

Then you walk in and see this gorgeous old-fashioned marble-topped bar with antique taps, backed by ceiling-height shelves stocked with spirits.

The theme is New Orleans, with almost 30 kinds of absinthe and a variety of cocktails featuring it. You don’t like absinthe? There’s an impressive array of bourbons, rums, whiskies, grappa, bitters, fortified wines, juleps, and so forth. Cocktails are skillfully done, running $9–13, generally a few dollars less than comparable fare in Manhattan. There’s a handful of wines, which are beside the point.

The food menu consists almost entirely of chilled shellfish, including 33 species of oysters—the most I recall anywhere in the city. There’s also chilled clams, crabs, lobster, an arctic char ceviche, and two kinds of gumbo. Seafood platters are $35, $80, or $140. We had the smallest of these to go with our cocktails: a half-lobster, shrimp, clams, and two kinds of oysters.

The place is so nice that you wish there were hot entrées to complement all of that shellfish, but in the niche they’ve chosen to occupy, the variety is remarkable. There’s no question it’s a hit with the neighborhood. Even at 5:00pm on a Sunday, it was about half full. I imagine that it gets swamped later on. In addition to the bar, there are tables in the back, and an outdoor garden in good weather.

Maison Premiere might be one of those rare bars that is worth a trip in its own right. It’s certainly worthwhile for a stop before dinner (as it was for us) or to relax after it.

Maison Premiere (298 Bedford Ave. between South First & Grand St., Williamsburg)

Food: Cold shellfish exclusively, but an impressive variety
Spirits: A broad range of domestic absinthes, rums, and whiskies
Service: Courteous, but a bit slow
Ambiance: A page out of old New Orleans

Rating: ★★
Why? For the wide variety of oysters and the absinthe-based cocktails 

Monday
May072012

Al Mayass

The New York Times fall restaurant preview issue had a Glenn Collins puff piece about “foreign” restaurateurs aiming to succeed in New York, headlined by Dr. Miguel Sanchez Romera, whose eponymous Romera was one of the quickest flops on record.

Let’s fervently wish better luck to the second restaurant that Collins named, Al Mayass, imported from Lebanan, but run by Armenians and serving the cuisine of both nations. The original Al Mayass opened in Beirut in 1997, with branches today in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Qatar, Riyadh, and now New York.

After much googling, I’m still not sure what the name means. The website says, “The essence of Almayass is best described ‘…when the hanging leaves dance to the rhythm of delicate breeze.’” The logo resembles a falling leaf, so perhaps that’s what it means.

The restaurant also has a tagline, credited to George Bernard Shaw. You’ll see it in the vestibule and on the menu: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” Thanks, guys, for clearing that up.

They spent $2 million on the build-out of a space that had been vacant for eight years; but they neglected to spend much outside. The entrance is so inconspicuous, I walked by twice before finding it.

A web search brings up the international Al Mayass site, almayass.com, one of the worst designed restaurant websites I have ever seen. It may take you a while to find the right site, almayassnyc.com.

Fortunately I was persistent.

Once you’re inside Al Mayass is lovely, with a spacious and elegant 80-seat dining room that could double as a modern art gallery. There’s a comfortable, but fung shui-challenged lounge: you have to pass through the back of the restaurant and take an abrupt u-turn to reach it.

Small plates, or mezzes, make up the bulk of the menu. There are about four dozen of them, divided into two groups, hot and cold, in a price range from $4–17 (but most around $8–15). There are about ten entrées ($22–34), most of them kebabs of various sorts.

When the mezzes outnumber the entrées four to one, it comes across as a signal to skip the entrées, and so we did. Five of the mezzes was about the right amount for two people—perhaps even a shade more than we needed.

There are fourteen wines by the glass and around a hundred by the bottle, mostly international, but including a few Lebanese ones. You can spend under $40 or hundreds. A 2007 Barolo was a bargain at $70. At first the staff said they were out of it, but then the manager found a bottle, for which I was charged just $38.

The bread service (above left) included pita and crackers with a dipping sauce. The first of our mezzes was the Soujuk Almayass ($11; above right), an appealing Armenian beef sausage canapé served cold, and topped with fried quail eggs.

Suberg ($8; above left) is an enjoyable oven-baked homemade cheese pastry. Sarma ($9.50; above left), or grape leaves, wrapped with rice and vegetables, were about average.

The Queen’s Delight ($16; above left) offered sliced filet mignon, sautéed in a sweet & sour cherry sauce that made more of an impression than the meat did. Mantee Traditional ($15; above right) consists of large ravioli filled with ground meat and a yogurt sauce, topped with sumac, a shrub frequently used as a spice in Greek cuisine.

Gael Greene visited Al Mayass on opening night — why on earth does she keep doing that? — and found slow, inattentive service. Our visit came a few weeks in, and we had the opposite problem. The five mezzes came rather quickly, and all at once, which is hardly the best way to appreciate them. The food seemed to me about average, though I think it would have made a better impression if it had been presented at a slower pace.

To Al Mayass’s credit, the food is relatively inexpensive, and the dining room is both quiet and comfortable. Business wasn’t bad on a Thursday evening, although it was not full. If they could only get the hang of pacing a meal, Al Mayass could be very good.

Al Mayass (24 E. 21st St. between Broadway & Park Avenue, Flatiron District)

Food: Traditional Lebanese/Armenian, with an emphasis on small plates
Service: Friendly but too fast
Ambiance: A comfortable, upscale, modern room with tablecloths

Rating: ★
Why? We’re not persuaded it’s a destination, but worth a look if you’re nearby

Sunday
May062012

Blue Smoke Battery Park City

Blue Smoke, Danny Meyer’s barbecue joint, now has a second Manhattan location, sharing a building in Battery Park City around the corner from Goldman Sachs with his other new restaurant, North End Grill.

The new location feels a bit smaller than the original Blue Smoke, in the Flatiron District. (The earlier restaurant also has a club attached, Jazz Standard.) The Flatiron outpost takes reservations for parties of all sizes; here, they’re taken only for parties of 6 or more. Flatiron transferred my bar tab; this one did not.

My view of Blue Smoke hasn’t changed much from when I reviewed the Flatiron restaurant. It feels a bit corporate and inauthentic, because it serves a mash-up of multiple regional barbecue styles, not really nailing any of them. In compensation for that, you get the excellent Danny Meyer service, and a better beverage program than almost all barbecue places.

We loved the Grilled Oysters with Spinach and Toasted Breadcrumbs ($8.95; above left), though it is a bit annoying that such a readily sharable dish comes with an odd number of oysters.

There are three kinds of ribs: Kansas City spareribs, Memphis-style baby-backs, and Texas Salt-and-Pepper beef ribs. A sampler of four, four, and two respectively, is $38.95 (above right). The Texas ribs, with their meager allotment of beef on the bones, were disappointing. My girlfriend liked the smaller, more dry, Memphis ribs the best; I had trouble deciding between those and the larger, saucier K.C. ribs.

There’s an abundance of sides, and I wish we’d had the appetite for more of them. The cornbread ($3.95; below left) was just fine.

I checked in on foursquare when I arrived, as I do at many restaurants, and by mid-meal a manager type came over to say hello (sent by Danny Meyer himself). Now, many restaurants check social media, but I haven’t often been noticed while the meal was in progress; usually it’s the day after. Finding me here took some sleuthing, as I hadn’t given my name. It says a lot about Danny Meyer’s attention to detail, when they go to the trouble at a barbecue place that doesn’t take reservations.

A warm strawberry rhubarb pie (above right), for which we weren’t charged, was excellent. I’d drop in again just for that pie.

There’s an excellent list of whiskies, bourbons and ryes; more beers on tap and by the bottle than you’ll get around to trying; and even a short but reasonable wine list. I had a fine Sazerac at the bar ($9) and an inexpensive Montepulciano at the table ($40).

The neighborhood—really, any neighborhood—is better with Blue Smoke in it. The crowd is a mix of Wall Streeters and young families. The restaurant was doing a good business at 7:30 p.m. on a weeknight, but wasn’t completely full. Blue Smoke will be a hit, make no mistake about it.

Blue Smoke (255 Vesey Street near North End Avenue, Battery Park City)

Food: Corporate barbecue with some good accompaniments and great dessert
Service: Danny Meyer’s strong suit
Ambiance: What you expect a barbecue place to be

Rating: ★
Why? There’s better ’cue in the city, but I’d be here all the time if I lived nearby

Sunday
May062012

Le Cirque

There’s a tradition at Le Cirque not quite like any other in town. Sirio Maccioni, the patriarch of the family business, still holds court, as he has done since 1974, and before that at the fabled Colony, which once defined elegant high society dining in Manhattan.

Ironically, Mr. Maccioni conceived of Le Cirque as a more hip, casual alternative to The Colony. As William Grimes explained, in a New York Times obituary of Jean Vergnes, the restaurant’s founding chef:

Le Cirque, as the name implied, would dispense with the fussiness of the old-style haute cuisine restaurants and incorporate some of the pizzazz that Mr. Maccioni had observed at Maxwell’s Plum, Warner LeRoy’s wildly popular restaurant for swinging singles.

Today, with The Colony and others of its ilk long gone, Le Cirque is practically the last surviving example of the very formality that Maccioni had sought to replace. Once progressive, it is now the old guard.

Le Cirque is now in its third location, and as of four months ago, under a new chef, Olivier Reginensi (left). To be exact, he is Le Cirque’s ninth executive chef—so the website tells us—the rare example of a restaurant that wants to remind you how many names have passed through the kitchen’s revolving door.

It’s an impressive list. At a 35th anniversary dinner in 2009, the chefs who came back to cook included Alain Allegretti, David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Iacopo Falai, Craig Hopson, Michael Lomonaco, Pierre Schaedelin, Pierre Poulin, Dieter Schorner, Alex Stratta, Bill Telepan, Jacques Torres and Geoffrey Zakarian (see photo below).

If you expand the list to include those who’ve worked for a chef who formerly worked at Le Cirque, you’ve got a Who’s Who of the NYC culinary universe, including many who now cook in idioms far removed from the classics Le Cirque is best known for. What the city’s dining scene would have been, without Le Cirque, is difficult to imagine.

Management realizes there’s a delicate balancing act between playing up the old tradition and developing a new one. As a Eater.com reported when Chef Reginensi was appointed:

The Le Cirque team is hoping the new push will bring the brand to new diners while reminding current and former clients that they haven’t been put out to pasture. “It will show people this is not your dad’s Le Cirque any more.” says Carlo Mantica, Le Cirque’s co-general manager.

The perception that Le Cirque is strictly old-school is difficult to efface, so pervasive has it become. By today’s standards, it is comparatively formal, with one of the most expensive à la carte menus in town, and jackets required in the main dining room. (The adjoining café is less formal and less costly.)

How to attract a new generation? Sirio’s three sons, who now run Le Cirque and its sister restaurants day to day, are alive to the problem. The hipsters dining on park benches in Bushwick won’t be coming here anytime soon. But the recent success of premium menus at places like Brooklyn Fare and Atera, to say nothing of the continuing appeal of the traditional four-stars, shows that there are still plenty of diners willing to spend big in restaurants.

Mauro Maccioni invited us recently to sample Chef Reginensi’s new menu as his guest at the chef’s table, just inside the kitchen. All of the usual caveats about a comped meal apply: we experienced Le Cirque as few do. Restaurants can adjust the service for VIPs, but the food is what it is—and at Le Cirque it’s excellent.

The cuisine has always been difficult to classify. Its roots are French, but the owners are Italian, and a spaghetti primavera is a fixture on the menu. And there is ample room for a chef’s individual expression on the flesh of the restaurant’s classic French bones.

 

The amuse bouche (above left) was a tweak on traditional escargots, with Burgundy snails, parsley, and croutons, baked in tiny, half-eggshell ceramic bowls. Here they’re lighter and sweeter than usual, and not as garlicky.

Then came a duo (above right) of very good octopus with white bean and tomato confit; and a langoustine on a bed of spring vegetables (carrots, snow peas, leeks, and red peppers).

 

Next came a very rich rabbit porchetta (above left), similar to a roulade or a ballotine, mixed with vegetables, one of the more technically impressive dishes on the menu. We were also quite pleased with asparagus (above right) with a poached egg and morel mushrooms.

 

I believe we were served two pastas, one of which we neglected to photograph. Fresh peas, ricotta gnocchi, and morel mushrooms (above left) were wonderful, even if the morels were repeated from the previous course.

I also made note of ravioli stuffed with vegetables, braised romaine lettuce, prosciutto, and mozzarella. It was difficult to make out all of those ingredients, but it was the hit of the evening: “like eating oysters,” my girlfriend said.

Sole Florentine (above right) was another techical achievement, with spinach, crayfish, and a red and white sauce unfamiliar to me, which the chef described as a sauce cardinal.

 

Duck (above left) was comparatively pedestrian and slightly overpowered by olives, though the pairing with turnip was better than I would have expected.

Romina Peixoto, Le Cirque’s first female pastry chef, deserves to be better known. Baked Alaska (above left), was flambéed tableside. This was followed by Rhubarb (below left), a lemongrass panna cotta, pistachio financier, and rhubarb sorbet; and a Tropical Vacherin (below right), with mango sorbet, pinapple forzen yogurt, tropical cilntro salsa.

 

 

We concluded with an embarrassment of petits fours, the last of these presented in a small upholstered jewelbox.

Some of my readers will no doubt believe that a comped review is compromised—although I’ve been here twice before on my own dime, and also to the same owners’ Italian place, Osteria del Circo, so clearly this is cuisine and an atmosphere I am predisposed to like. Those who find Le Cirque old-fashioned, may fail to appreciate how many careers it has launched, and just how progressive it originally was.

Keeping Le Cirque in the conversation is a tall order. I’m glad I can watch as a fan.

Le Cirque (151 E. 58th Street between Lexington & Third Avenues, East Midtown)

Monday
Apr302012

The NoMad

You’ve got to hand it to Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, chef and restaurateur of the city’s hottest new restaurant, The NoMad: they know how to make an entrance, whether it be the Goodfellas-inspired promo video, or the publicity machine that generated eleven Eater.com posts in a nine-day span.

Humm and Guidara are the team behind Eleven Madison Park, which Frank Bruni elevated to four stars in 2009. The pair later bought out restaurant’s former owner, Danny Meyer, after they signed onto the NoMad project without their boss in tow. Meyer no doubt recalled a similar split, when Tom Colicchio opened Craft without him, while remaining the absentee chef at Gramercy Tavern: it was bound not to work in the long run, and this time Meyer chose not to delay the inevitable.

It’s news whenever a four-star chef opens a new place, but I don’t recall anything quite like the breathless coverage here. One month in, The NoMad is packed every evening, at almost any hour. It sets up gargantuan expectations that the restaurant might struggle to meet in the long run, after the excitement dies down and the chef is once again spending most of his time at the mother ship.

The NoMad is a major opening, no question about it. Although it lacks tablecloths, everything about it screams luxury. One of its five rooms, the Atrium, is “inspired by the great courtyards of Europe.” Another, the Parlour, is a “stately room featuring dark oak furnishings, richly textured fabrics and over 100 pressed antique herbs.” Yet another is an “intimate cove [with] the original fireplace imported from a great French château.” Or if not there, the “fully curated, two-level library connected by an original spiral staircase imported from the South of France.”

The staff, dressed in crisply pressed suits, look the part. Under GM Jeffrey Tascarella’s direction, they put on a well-choreographed show. I should note that Mr. Tascarella recognized me as soon as I arrived. I’d like to assume they do the same for everyone, but I can’t vouch for that: a couple in front of me was quoted a 45-minute wait to be seated for drinks in the library, whereas they accommodated me immediately. (At the bar, revelers were stacked three deep.)

The house cocktails ($15) are outstanding, including two of the best drinks with brown spirits that I’ve had in a long time, the Satan’s Circus (rye, chili-infused aperol, cherry heering, lemon) and the Old Alhambra (Islay scotch, vermouth, sherry, creme de cacao).

Like many a hotel restaurant, The NoMad will be serving three meals a day, plus (I assume) room service, which gives the owners many more meals over which to amortize their investment. Nevertheless, dinner is expensive here, with snacks $8–16, appetizers $14–24 and entrées $22–39. Only the vegetarian mains are under $30: Eater has already made its share of jokes about the $22 carrot entrée.

Breads, baked in-house, change daily. A flat mini-bread fried with fingerling potatoes and spring onions was as good as anything of its kind that we’ve had in a restaurant this year.

 

We started with one of the snack items, a rich Beef Tartare ($16; above left) with cornichons and horseradish, with crisp slices of toasted brioche to spread it on.

The house sent out a “Grande Plateau des Fruits de Mer,” normally $24 per person. I didn’t note the components, but it was far more impressive than your usual seafood platter, in that most of the items were composed, and were not just raw shellfish on the halfshell.

 

The kitchen also sent out two mid-courses, which I think were variants on the two vegetarian entrées on the normal menu: asparagus with button mushrooms; carrots and parsnip. These were the two best dishes we had all evening.

  

A whole chicken for two ($78) is the restaurant’s signature dish, the only large-format item on the menu. The whole bird is presented tableside (above left), then sent back to the kitchen for plating (above right).

It’s an impressive technical achievement, with truffle, foie gras, and brioche under the near-blackened skin. But just like the duck for two at Eleven Madison Park, one can’t help feeling that what comes back is rather meager, especially at the price.

There’s a whole Chowhound thread about the inconsistencies in this dish, which I wish I’d read in advance, as I might not have been so keen to order it. I didn’t really taste much foie gras or truffle. The chicken itself wasn’t bad, but the accompanying fricassee of dark meat (above) was not very pleasant at all. A few days later, we had the fried chicken at Peels, a much more satisfying dish that costs only $21.75.

We dined in the luxurious Parlour, which struck me as a much nicer space than the other main dining room, the Atrium, which is louder, and in which the tables seem closer together. There is much on this menu that I’d love to try. The chicken was a disappointment, but also an anomaly, as we loved everything else we tried.

The next evening, we dined at Café Boulud, which like The NoMad, is the next peg down the scale, below a four-star chef’s flagship. But whereas the former is small, quiet and understated, The NoMad is massive, brash, and a little exhausting. Messrs. Humm and Guidara must, of course, choose their own path, but it will be interesting to see if all of this excitement is sustainable.

The NoMad (1170 Broadway at 28th Street, NoMad)

Food: A focused Euro-American menu, just a notch below luxurious
Service: Crisp, correct, and attentive
Ambiance: An over-the-top dining palace, without the tablecloths

Rating: ★★
Why? Humm is a great chef, and there’s nothing in NYC quite like The NoMad