Sunday
Jul082012

The Purple Fig

Note: After a brief late-summer closure in late August 2012, the Purple Fig re-opened in September with a “more simple” menu. We liked our visit (when the original menu was still available), but the consensus of most other reviewers was negative.

By December 2012, the space had reverted back to its former name, P. D. O’Hurley’s. That experiement lasted less than three months, before the restaurant was seized by the marshall, presumably for non-payment of taxes. The space was closed as of June 2013, but the 70-year-old Emerald Inn is expected to relocate there.

*

You’ve got to give credit to the team behind The Purple Fig, the cute new French bistro on the Upper West Side. Nothing they’re serving, nor the style in which they are serving it, is remotely fashionable. So they’ve opened this new restaurant for the best possible reason: because they believe in it.

But one must ask where the customers will come from. It’s too fancy to bring the kids, not quite good enough to be a destination, not edgy enough to attract a younger crowd, a tad too far from Lincoln Center to be an obvious pre-theater place, and too expensive to be a neighborhood standby.

After you subtract all the potential guests I’ve just excluded, are there enough remaining to make a go of it? I hope so. The Purple Fig, though not yet great, is promising. In a town where new French restaurants are scarce, you want to root for every one.

Prices, for this location, are a bit dear, with appetizers $9.95–20.95, entrées $23.95–36.95, and side dishes $5.95. Every price ends in “.95,” an outdated and unendearing conceit.

The chef, Conrad Gallagher, was last seen in New York at the now-closed Peacock Alley. A rendition of the Purple Fig in Dublin won him a Michelin star.

Calling it a “modern bistro,” he serves an eccentric menu, with concoctions like: Deep Fried Soft Duck Egg with Polenta, Soft Blood Pudding, Frisée Salad with Prosciutto, Lemon Oil Emulsion.

That’s just one dish. Most others feature similar long lists of ingredients. And you wonder: How’s that going to work?

One might begin with that old standby, the “Goats [sic] Cheese Salad,” served here with wild rocket, confit tomatoes, toasted garlic, pumpkin seeds and marinated figs ($9.95; above right).

Here, the goat cheese sits atop a tiny puff pastry, instead of being integrated into the salad. I don’t consider that an improvement, though I must report: my girlfriend loved the dish.

 

I much admired a Goose Liver Parfait ($12.95; above left), with fig marmalade, spinach salad, apricot compote, and hazelnut aioli, served with perhaps the best brioche I’ve ever been served with this type of dish (above right), so thick and hearty it could have been French toast.

 

My girlfriend and I had the same entrée, the Roasted Muscovy Duck Breast ($26.95; above left), with poached figs, butternut purée, lentils, a quail egg, and green apple salad. She liked it far better than I did. The duck was fine enough, but the lentils tasted bitter, and the dish felt like a pile of unintegrated ingredients. I wasn’t fond (and have never been fond) of the blob of baby food shaped like the point of a spear.

The chef has a fondness for figs: quite inadvertently, they figured in all three dishes we ordered. I guess the place has “fig” in the name for a reason.

The kitchen sent out a plate of the French Fries with Truffle Aioli (normally $5.95; above right). I assumed they came with the duck or were comped, until they appeared on the bill—removed, in all fairness, after I pointed out the error. I’m glad I didn’t pay for them, as they were soggy and not warm enough.

The wine list, as at many new restaurants, doesn’t have much personality. Running to just a page, it’s a list of safe, unremarkable bottles, with no geographic or thematic unity. It isn’t even majority-French. I suspect a consultant put it together.

The space is smartly decorated, in a purple motif that isn’t at all obtrusive, but with its white tablecloths and dim lighting, the space feels fancier than it needs to be. The dining room was about half full on a Friday evening. A handsome long bar wasn’t occupied at all.

Some early message board reports complained about the service, but two months in those issues have been rectified. The staff (most speak with French accents) now seem on top of their game. Aside from the one dish billed in error, we had no complaints. The restaurant is a work in progress, but good enough to be worth a second visit a few months from now.

The Purple Fig (250 W. 72nd St., west of Broadway, Upper West Side)

Food: Modern “eccentric” French
Wine: A generic unfocused list; adequate, but could be better
Service: Mostly very good
Ambiance: An upscale spot that feels fancier than it needs to be

Rating: ★
Why? Not destination cuisine, but worth keeping an eye on

Tuesday
Jun262012

Má Pêche

It’s a bit sad to watch David Chang’s team at Má Pêche fumble their way around. Chang’s Momofuku restaurants in the East Village practically defined their era in the mid-aughts. They remain crowded and popular today.

It hasn’t gone as well in midtown, where Chang was tone deaf to a clientele comprised of mainly tourists, shoppers, and business travelers, in a neighborhood that hardly anyone considers a nightlife destination.

If it were a standalone place, Má Pêche would be closed by now. But it’s in the Chambers Hotel, which guarantees a captive audience. A hotel without dining is considerably less useful to prospective guests, and it would take many months to build a new restaurant. I’m sure the Chambers would be loath to see it go. Nevertheless, I’ll be surprised if Má Pêche is still around in five years.

Chang has re-tooled Má Pêche several times since it opened in 2009, but nothing has quite done the trick. There’s a regular parade of offers and special deals, to say nothing of constant infotising on Eater.com. And yet, the place was half empty at 7:00pm on a recent Saturday evening. It doesn’t look good.

It’s hard to itemize all of the changes, or when exactly they took place. Reservations and dessert are now available (they weren’t originally). The huge X-shaped communal table has been broken up into several smaller ones. On a prior visit, a hostess insisted that I sit at the counter, even though the tables were almost all empty. Now, no one sits at that counter.

Paul Carmichael replaced founding chef Tien Ho in October 2011. The menu started to drift away from Ho’s faux Vietnamese, and by April 2012 it had evolved to “American cuisine” (menu left; click for a larger version).

If this is American, it’s not any particular idiom you’ll recognize. Chang has long claimed to serve “American food” at all of his restaurants. It has never really been true, except in the loosest sense.

Remnants of the former approach remain. There are still chopsticks at every table, even though they’re not needed for any of the food, and they’re hardly usable for most of it. You’ll have to ask for silverware.

The menu is divided into several categories: “Raw” ($15–18), Small Plates ($13–18), Large Plates ($29–32), “For Two” ($40, $75), and Vegetables ($10–14). The server rather unhelpfully suggested 1½ to 2½ dishes per person, which is a rather wide range of the amount of food and what you’ll pay. We erred on the lower end of that range.

Portions are rather dainty, and a couple might even be considered insulting.

 

Half-a dozen oysters (above left) were $20. A sliver of cheese (above center) was $6, and so were bread and butter (above right). That butter was a superb specimen, one of two kinds offered. They could serve it at Per Se. The bread, warm and crunchy, was wonderful, and seconds came out without extra charge. But in the context of the prices here, it should come with dinner.

 

Trout ($15; above left) and Soft Shell Crab ($18; above center) were small but acceptable portions. Duck ($32; above right) was downright offensive, with just three modest slices. It was all pretty good, but portioned for a health spa. A solo diner could have placed our order, and gone home hungry. Our party of three shared it, with no indication from staff that it was on the light side.

Servers are generally more casually dressed than the customers. In fact, there seems to be no staff dress code at all: t-shirts, torn cutoff jeans, you name it. I don’t personally care what the staff wear, but the approach here doesn’t quite fit the neighborhood.

And at a restaurant where the bill can easily soar above $100 a head, can’t they do better than a stack of DIY paper napkins on each table? What’s with serving martinis in juice glasses? Even the server couldn’t help but be embarrassed: “Sorry, we don’t have martini glasses.”

Service was eager and friendly—but not fast, attentive, or competent. We were warned that plates would come out family style. The oysters, bread, cheese, and trout, appeared with alacrity, but we waited about 30 minutes for the last two plates, as our order was stuck behind a “large format” dinner (10 people, $450, for lamb, chicken, and veggies).

We were ignored for long stretches: plates weren’t promptly cleared or replaced. No one noticed we were ready for a fresh round of drinks. When we finally ordered those drinks, they didn’t come out until we were done eating. There didn’t seem to be any hierarchy in the dining room: you’ll give your order to one server, and then another asks again.

For all that, there are the bones of a good restaurant at Má Pêche. This was my fifth visit, and if it lasts long enough I’ll probably go again. The food, although overpriced, is pretty good. Poor service can change with the day of the week, and the staff clearly want to be helpful, when they can and know how to do so.

I don’t have much hope for Má Pêche. It looks like David Chang is just phoning it in.

Má Pêche (15 W. 56th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)

Food: An American/Asian mash-up with excellent American-sourced ingredients
Service: Eager but inattentive and poorly organized
Ambiance: A striking, high-ceilinged dining room; casual, perhaps to a fault

Rating: ★
Why? Food is better than the West Midtown average, although over-priced

Tuesday
Jun262012

Shake Shack

Remember Marilyn Hagerty, the Olive Garden reviewer from Grand Forks, North Dakota? The piece went viral, as foodies lampooned her fawining praise for such a mediocre restaurant.

The newspaper then sent her to New York to review—yes, Olive Garden again—and also Dovetail, Crown, Le Bernardin, and even a lowly hot dog stand.

Anyhow, she also visited Shake Shack. Turns out she’s not the country bumpkin that the original review suggests. Her capsule critique: “the meat was slightly better than Burger King.” (I mean, if you were the critic in Grand Forks, what would you review.)

Shake Shack, the lowliest of Danny Meyer’s restaurants, now has 15 locations in five U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and the Middle East. It is indeed slightly better than Burger King.

At most reasonable mealtimes, expect to wait about 15–20 minutes, and it could very easily be a whole lot more, depending on the location — I visited the Times Square branch, at the corner of 44th Street and Eighth Avenue, at around 6:40pm on a Monday evening.

I’d heard the fries are poor, so I ordered just a cheeseburger and a vanilla milkshake.

The burger is cooked to order. Both the patty and the bun are thicker, fresher, and heartier than most fast food. But both are too greasy—or were on this occasion.

The shake is rather small by fast food standards, and not thick enough. It’s rather odd that the shake ($5) is more expensive than the cheesburger ($4.05).

This is a Danny Meyer joint, so the service is pretty good, bearing in mind that it’s fast food. If you think of Shake Shack as a slightly better Burger King, perhaps it’s worth the wait if you must have a burger.

When the line snakes around the block, I’m not convinced it’s worth it.

Shake Shack (300 W. 44th St. at Eighth Avenue, Times Square)

Food: burgers, fries, shakes, and such; even wine
Service: Danny Meyer does fast food
Ambiance: Danny Meyer does fast food

Rating: ★
Why? It’s fine if you must have a fast-food burger and the line isn’t too long

Monday
Jun182012

Calliope

Note: Calliope closed in April 2014. A restaurant called Contrada, has replaced it. The review below was written under founding chefs Eric Korsh and Ginevra Iverson, who left the restaurant in January 2014 in a dispute with owner Eric Anderson. Once that happened, the restaurant had lost its reason to exist. Korsh is now the chef at North End Grill.

*

Calliope is a cute restaurant with a terrific head start. It’s on a lively East Village street corner, and some smart, knowledgeable people are behind it. The chefs, husband & wife Eric Korsh and Ginevra Iverson, come from the Waverly Inn and Prune respectively. Their partner, Eric Anderson, comes from Prune as well.

The space was formerly Belcourt, and I can’t think of any good reason why it failed—except that the chef, Matthew Hamilton, went on to greener pastures. The space hasn’t changed much, and didn’t need to: it was already the perfect bistro spot.

The cuisine is vaguely in the French style, but except for a few (Provençal tomato tart, Tête du Porc) it’s all in English, and much of it could be on any menu in town. In the restaurant’s early days (it’s just three weeks old), the chefs clearly don’t aspire to challenge the audience. It’s bistro cuisine done well.

The prices are right, with snacks and appetizers $6–14, entrées mostly in the $20s. Only the ubiquitous dry-aged strip steak, at $32, is above that range. The wine list is also fairly priced, with plenty of bottles below $50: we ordered a 2008 Barbera d’Asti for $47.

 

They were out of that Provençal tart, but the server recommended a fine warm octopus salad (above left) at the same price ($10; normally $14). There was not quite enough of the promised white anchovy, but fingerling potatoes and celery more than kept up the bargain.

There was a bit of France in beef tongue ($9; above right) with sauce gribiche, sweet white onions, and lettuce mache.

 

Whole grilled turbot ($27; above right) is a large portion that two can easily share, as we did. Deboning it was a bit of work, but well worth it, especially for the rustic, smoky skin. There is no cheese course as yet on the printed menu, but the kitchen did a damned fine job of improvising one at our request ($10; above right).

We sat outdoors on practically the perfect evening. The restaurant was a shade over half full at 9:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening: we walked in and were seated immediately. Service, in the familiar casual East Village style, was pleasant and correct.

The current menu is a bit timid, but in the restaurant’s infancy you can hardly blame them: better to build an audience with solid food, well prepared, at a good price. That’s exactly what this is. I would certainly go again.

Calliope (84 E. 4th Street at Second Avenue, East Village)

Food: Solid French-inspired (but not too French) bistro cuisine
Service: Casual, friendly and correct; typical of the neighborhood
Ambiance: The perfect bistro; not much changed from the Belcourt days

Rating: ★
Why? Not really adventurous, but a very good deal from two very good chefs

Monday
Jun112012

Isa

 

Note: While I was composing this review, Eater posted that owner Taavo Somer had fired the whole kitchen staff at Isa. The former sous chef tweeted that they’re “Turning something special into another grilling, burger, pizza joint.” There was no sign anything was amiss when we dined there on Friday, but by this morning the restaurant was temporarily closed.

Anyhow: the review is nearly done, so here it is: an ode to the Isa that was.

*

If it seems that every restaurant these days is a copy of something else you’ve seen, I have a one-word retort: Isa. By turns wonderful and strange, it is the most remarkable restaurant I have visited in quite a while.

You’ll note I didn’t say best. Some of the food we tried didn’t quite hit the mark. But enough of it did, and none really resembled anything we’ve seen. Isa is special.

I’d love to go back, but it is quite the hike, about fifteen minutes’ walk from either of two Williamsburg subway stations (Marcy Avenue on the J/M/Z, or Bedford Avenue on the L). At least it takes reservations, unlike most of Brooklyn. Most nights, you can get in before 8pm without much trouble.

Isa (Estonian for “father”) is the brainchild of Taavo Somer, the design guru behind the restaurants Freemans and Peels, and the dive bar, The Rusty Knot, all in Manhattan.

“They must have chopped down a forest to build this place,” my girlfriend said. There’s wood everywhere, but it is all very comforting, welcoming, and stylish. We dined in the sun-drenched room on the corner lot at Wyeth and S. 2nd Street. Next door is an open kitchen with a wood-burning brick oven.

The chef, Ignacio Mattos, comes from Uruguay via the Italian restaurant Il Buco, where he was executive chef for five years. But he’s doing something completely different here, in a style that has been called “Primitive Modern,” with some apologies to the so-called New Nordic style seen at places like Acme and Frej.

The chef sat for a lengthy interview with Eater, and after reading it you’re still not sure what he is trying to do.

The menu, which changes frequently, is the model of economy, with nine starters and snacks ($7–17), two entrées ($28–29), and two desserts ($11). A three-course prix fixe is $55. If you order à la carte, bread (above left) costs $4 extra, but you should have some. Baked in house, it’s some of the best restaurant bread I’ve had in a while, and the butter is so soft it could be cream.

The menus themselves are so artistic that it’s worth reproducing them in full:

 

And the drinks menu too:

 

Don’t look for those menus on the website, isa.gg, the most useless restaurant website I’ve seen. The “.gg” top-level domain corresponds to Guernsey. What that has to do with Isa is beyond me.

 

We ordered à la carte. A salad ($14; above left) was a triumph of plating, with the ingredients arranged like a house of cards. Salads are often boring, but this one was pretty good, with peach, fennel, mulberry, and almond vinaigrette.

Pig tails ($10; above right) couldn’t have been more opposite, a symphony of cartilege and fat slathered in caramel. An appetizer is about as much of it as anyone could tolerate, but it really needs to come with warm towlettes, as it’s not a knife-and-fork type of dish.

 

The photo doesn’t give a good view of the Hanger Steak ($29; above left): there’s more of it than you can see. The steak itself was just fine, but nothing special. The interest chiefly came from a potato and marrow soup served inside a hollowed-out onion. At least, that’s what I thought it was.

I wouldn’t order the Mackeral again ($28; above right). There’s a decent amount of fish there, beneath little turnip discs, but it had a rather leaden flavor, partly redeemed by the slightest hint of smoke.

*

Well, given the news at the top of this post, that’s all she wrote for Isa, an intriguing if not-quite-perfect restaurant that seemed to have so much potential.

Isa (348 Wyeth Avenue at South Second Street, Williamsburg)

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