Sunday
Jun102012

Móle

The successful Móle Mexican restaurant family now has its fourth and most ambitious sibling, with a lavish new space on the Upper East Side.

The chef (Guadalupe Elizalde) and her husband (Nick Cervera) have built this little empire over a period of twenty years, starting with the humble Taco Taco, which opened in 1992. The first Móle (in the West Village) came in 2007, followed by branches on the Lower East Side, in Williamsburg, and now the new Móle across the street from the place that started it all, Taco Taco, which has since closed.

I visited with my family on my own dime a couple of months ago (although the owner knew who I was, and gave us the best table in the house), and again later on, at a dinner hosted by the publicist. This review is based on a composite of the two visits. Prices shown are from the regular menu.

There’s a broad selection of Mexican classics: nachos, guacamole, enchiladas, tostadas, tacos, burritos, chimichangas, quesadillas, and so forth. You can eat heartily and inexpensively, as almost every entrée is $22 or less.

The two owners now have four kitchens and four dining rooms to look after, and quality sometimes suffers. Two dishes were common to both visits. One was better the first time; the other was better the second. Appetizers generally fared better than entrées.

The food menu runs to five pages, which is probably too long. It’s hard to make so many things consistently well, especially when the chef can’t be in four kitchens at once.

None of the four Móles has had a professional review that I can find, but on various websites there are multiple reports of poor service, which I clearly cannot judge, as I was known to the house both times I visited. (Móle’s Zagat service rating is just 18, which is not a great score.)

 

Fresh Guacamole ($10 small; $15 large) is made tableside, although we saw this bit of theater only on our first visit. You’ll be asked if you want mild, medium, or spicy. We asked for medium both times, but on the second visit it didn’t have much “pop” at all.

  

Sopa de Tortilla ($8; above left) was one of the best dishes on either visit. It’s an intensely spicy tomato soup with strips of crisp blue corn tortilla, cheese, sour cream and onions.

Huitlacoche is a black fungus that grows on corn: the word is derived from cuitla, which means “excrement” or “rear end.” Anyhow, it features prominently in Mexican cuisine, though most American restaurants don’t serve it, as it looks gross. At Móle, they serve it wrapped in crepes ($12; above center) slathered in a creamy poblano sauce, so that the diner doesn’t actually see that the corn is black. (See Wikipedia for examples of other preparations, the likes of which I haven’t seen outside of Mexico.)

Tostada de Tinga ($10; above right) is a flat tortilla with bean spread, spicy shredded pork and onions, topped with lettuce, sour cream, and cheese.

 

Neither of two entrées impressed us. Perhaps the chef erred by sending out two items that were so similar. Pescado a la Veracruzana ($22; above left) is flounder with tomato, onion, olives, capers and shrimp; Bisteck a la Mexicana ($21; above right) is skirt steak with tomato, onion, jalapeño and cilantro. In both, the saucing and accoutrements were too heavy-handed, and we got very little flavor from the flounder or the steak.

 

Móle poblano is a complex sauce with about 20 ingredients, including chili peppers and chocolate. The restaurant serves it on two dishes, the Enchiladas de Mole Poblano ($22; above) and the Chicken en Mole Poblano ($22), which we didn’t have the chance to try.

The owner says that the sauce, which isn’t easy to make well, comes from the chef’s mother, who ships it to New York from Mexico. The first time we had it, the taste of chocolate was overwhelming. The second time, the flavors were in better balance. (The right-hand photo is a good illustration of typical portion sizes, as opposed to the tasting portions in most of the photos.)

  

It’s truly a family affair at Móle, as the chef’s sister is responsible for desserts. We loved the Pastel Tres Leches (above middle), a white cake drenched in three kinds of cream. The Belgian chocolate cake (above right) was also quite good. A crème caramel flan (above left) was fine, but you’ll find better examples elsewhere in town.

At the bar, there are around 100 tequilas and mezcales. Most are $14 or less and suitable for pairing with dinner. There’s also a pretty good cocktail list, including the ridiculous “Sex in a Mexican Prison” (tequila, cranberry juice, lime). What the ingredients have to do with the name is beyond me, but I ordered and enjoyed it, which I suppose is the point.

I haven’t been to the other Móles, but I believe this is the largest and most lavish of the quartet, although no one would call it fancy. The dining room seats 75, with an additional 20 outdoors in good weather. It was doing brisk business both times I visited—once on a weekday, the other on a Saturday.

The kitchen swings and misses at times, but you can put together a solid, inexpensive, and enjoyable meal here.

Móle (1735 Second Avenue between 89th & 90th Streets, Upper East Side)

Tuesday
Jun052012

Perla

 

I’ll admit it: I went to Perla with a poison pen in hand, ready to hate the place on the slightest provocation. I was annoyed by the presumption of its hideously over-priced wine list and its self-serving no-reservations policy.

Why go at all? The reviews were rapturous, and the chef, Michael Toscano, had impressed me at Manzo, where he cooked a meat-centric menu for Mario Batali and the Bastianiches at Eataly.

Two dinners later, I’m a fan. More than any restaurant since Locanda Verde, Perla has rustic Italian cuisine nailed. And unlike Locanda, the chef—at least for now—is in the kitchen, and not distracted by running other restaurants. And what else is there, quite like Perla? Peasant perhaps?

As I’ve noted in the past, Italian restaurants are the most over-saturated genre in New York. Perla isn’t the best one, but in the niche it occupies—casual, rustic, and hearty—it is just about perfect.

The managing partner, Gabe Stulman, has become reigning savant of “The Way We Eat Now.” Just 31 years old, he has opened six restaurants in six years, and has yet to fail.

Stulman hated that his first two places, The Little Owl and Market Table, took reservations:

Little Owl really became its own beast. As it got more attention from reviews and stuff, it turned into the kind of place where you had to make dinner reservations a month in advance, which started bringing in a different crowd. Who plans where they’re going to eat dinner a month in advance? Tourists and people who have assistants to book things for them. It wasn’t a neighborhood place anymore with real regulars. It’s hard to tell friends who stop by that they’re going to have to wait two hours and you can’t even offer them a barstool to wait on. I realized I wanted a change.

(He had a nasty split from his Little Owl partners; one gets the sense that there’s more to this story.) Not taking reservations has become practically a religion to him:

I like no reservations way more. There’s less expectation and there’s less sense of entitlement from the guest. I think that when people make a reservation a month in advance, there is more of a sense of an expectation of the meal or, ‘this shit better be awesome and you better live up to that.’ That’s an awesome challenge and I embrace that, but with no reservations it’s way more casual and, I think, more fun.

He told The Times, “The less accessible you make your place to a wider audience…the more accessible you make it to a local audience.” This is a dodge, and surely Stulman knows it. The restaurants are packed because they’re destinations. No single restaurateur could open six restaurants in six years in a few blocks’ radius, and survive on local diners alone.

High-minded justifications for not taking reservations often wither when reality sets in. Having never failed, Stulman hasn’t confronted this possibility. But it would be nice if he’d just admit that the policy is more for his convenience than the customer’s. In an otherwise glowing review, Pete Wells called him on the hypocrisy of it. From the man who complained that his friends had to wait two hours to get into The Little Owl, what do we have?

Currently only six tables can be reserved; the rest are first come first served, a policy that is easier to take at an ambitious bar than at a restaurant where you are encouraged to order antipasti, primi and secondi, and where a roast chicken for two costs $65.

Dining at Perla takes a significant commitment of time and money. The restaurant should make a reciprocal commitment, rather than force customers to stand around near the bar — not at the bar (stools are reserved for dining at peak hours), but near the bar. By 8 p.m. the mob gets thick and the wait can be two hours.

You wonder how much he’s losing? From 4:30pm till about 7:00, there are empty seats at Perla. Those who’ve heard about the punishing waits may be staying away, not realizing that the place is wide open and available.

It must be noted: Perla’s informal rusticity is only skin deep: dinner will easily run you $100 a head, and it could go much higher than that, depending on how much you drink.

Leaving aside Stulman’s nauseating sanctimoniousness, he hires good people. Many of the staff are fellow University of Wisconsin grads (he even calls his four-restaurant empire “Little Wisco”). They’re all friendly, gregarious, and eager to please.

The menu is in the standard four parts (antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni). It changes frequently, and prices are edging up: just two weeks ago, the most expensive pasta was $21. Today, it is already $25. The entrée average is around $30; soon, it will no doubt rise.

 

But the food is great. On my first visit, I started with the Tramezzini ($8; above left), a snack resembling a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, with foie gras, pistachio mint jelly, and cherry jam. Crostini (above right) with ricotta, honey, and black pepper, were on the house. (The usual bread service is a country bread with olive oil.)

 

I then ordered two dishes that Pete Wells raved about (and has saved me the trouble of describing), the Vitello Tonnato ($16; above left) and the Guinea Hen ($28; above right). Both are wonderful.

 

On a second visit, we started with a simple salad of Field Greens ($14; above left), followed by the Cavatelli with Duck Ragù ($25; above right), onto which the server shaves flakes of frozen foie gras. (The chef, it must be noted, has a foie gras fetish: it shows up in numerous dishes.) I didn’t get much foie taste: perhaps I got fewer of the shavings than Wells did, but the dish is fine without it: hearty, rich, and bursting with flavor.

 

Beef Tongue ($24; above left) is close to the bottom end of the entrées, but the chef does a brilliant job with it. The tongue tastes like a very rich pastrami, with textural contrast from a crisp, oaky char on the edge; but te bed of cannelini beans on which it was served contributed little. We finished up with a serving of Fiore Sardo ($5; above right), a hard, funky sheep’s milk cheese, along with a shared glass of the intense house-made ginger grappa ($13).

The staff splits dishes and even drinks without complaint: for instance, the tongue was presented on two plates, the grappa in two glasses, even though we’d ordered just one. I ordered an inexpensive red wine (a 2006 Odoardi), practically the cheapest they have, and the server nevertheless decanted it, a courtesy most places reserve for the expensive end of their wine lists.

The space is lovely for what it aspires to be, with wooden beam sealings, brass fittings, soft banquettes, an exposed kitchen, and a wood-burning brick oven. There’s a drinks bar at the front and a “chef’s counter” at the back, where I sat both times, and would again.

Perla, in short, is a restaurant about which it is impossible to complain, even if it damn well ought to take reservations.

Perla (24 Minetta Lane near Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Village)

Food: Rustic Italian
Wine & Spirts: Some good stuff here, but bargains are hard to come by
Service: Friendly, gregarious, eager-to-please
Ambiance: A cozy, sun-drenched, casual Italian spot

Rating: ★½

Sunday
May272012

Lamb Dinner at Roberta’s

Until a few weeks ago, I figured I’d never make it to Roberta’s, Bushwick’s little pizzeria that could. Sam Sifton gave it two stars, and everything I’d read suggested he was right.

But Roberta’s had conditions I was unwilling to live with: a trip to a neighborhood where there is nothing else of interest to me, for a likely one to two-hour wait at most normal times. Reservations are accepted only for an acclaimed tasting menu (served on uncomfortable benches) that’s offered to just eight people a week.

I was eager, but not that eager.

Then Roberta’s launched a series of theme dinners, one per month over the summer, starting with lamb. Served in the outdoor garden, these are open to about 35 people, with tickets sold online. (Click on the image for a larger copy of the menu.)

Just like a concert, you’ve got to be really sure you can make the date, but the price was remarkable: $95 per person including service, tax and tip, for five courses plus paired wines.

I’ll cut to the chase: the food and service were exceptional for the price. I still wouldn’t trundle out here without a reservation. With one, it was a most enjoyable evening.

We arrived a bit early and had drinks in the outdoor Tiki Bar (above).

The outdoor garden (above left) is a post-industrial junkyard, scattered with planters (above right). You’re led to believe that the chef is growing his own produce, but is he? Given the volume at Roberta’s, could such a small garden really supply much more than just a minimal amount of what they consume?

It poured for most of the day. Had the weather not cleared up, dinner would have moved inside to Blanca, the new event space next door, which could be the sign of where Roberta’s is headed. There’s a restroom in there with a fancy heated toilet seat, and a sleek, modern kitchen, and counter seating on plush bar stools. It’s everything the original Roberta’s is not.

I asked about the use of that space. “It’s all part of the Roberta’s empire,” a server said.

Anyhow, the rain abated, so they stuck to the original plan. Dinner was served in an outdoor tent, with two long tables, wooden benches, and burlap taking the place of placemats. Chef de cuisine Max Sussman (above left) cooked in an outdoor oven while legs of lamb twirled on a spit, and another cook worked in a smaller tent nearby (above right).

The food was all very good. We started with Pea Soup (above right) with morels and sunflower oil.

Then came breaded Lamb’s Tongue (above left) with watercress, locust flower, and capra sarda (a goat cheese) and a Garden Salad (above right) with aged gouda, radish, and snap peas.

Lamb Shank (above left) with yogurt and pickled ramps was a bit of a letdown. But Leg of Lamb (above right), served family-style, had a rich, smokey flavor imparted from the roasting spit, with roasted poatoes, broccoli rabe, and garlic flatbread (below left).

Dessert, a cucumber mint gelato (above right) was just fine, but seemed phoned in.

The beverages included five wines of the sort you might choose for a summer patio dinner: none great, but all good enough for the occasion. For the price I cannot complain, especially as the pours were unlimited.

This wasn’t a typical Roberta’s dinner, but it certainly conveyed a feel for what all the fuss has been about. The food and service were great, but dinner ended past 10:00pm, and the subway ride home took an hour and a half.

“Next time, we need to order a car service,” my girlfriend said.

Roberta’s (261 Moore Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn)

Food: Rustic Italian-American cuisine
Service: Not fancy, but attentive
Ambiance: A post-industrial junkyard

Rating: ★★
Why? It’s a pain to get here, but there’s nothing quite like it in New York

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