Tuesday
Oct022012

Michelin New York 2013 Ratings 

The Michelin New York 2012 ratings were announced this afternoon. As always, we’re back with our tabular listing of the stars from 2006 (the first year) to the present. To summarize:

Promotions:

There were none.

Demotions (not counting closed restaurants):

I know of no specific changes at any of these restaurants, but Laut and Veritas (post-renovation) seemed like dubious stars anyway, so perhaps this is just the guide correcting itself.

Starred in First Eligible Year:

All of these places received favorable reviews from one or more major critics, with the curious exception of Hakkasan. That one’s a head-scratcher.

Older Restaurants Starred for the First Time:

Aquavit got a new chef in 2011 (Marcus Jernmark); Torrisi remodeled and launched a new tasting menu. Lan Sheng has been around since late 2009, but it’s an off-the radar spot, and perhaps the inspectors have only just now caught up to it. That leaves the deserving 15 East, which opened in 2007 and has been a favorite of sushi-hounds ever since.

As always, the Asian restaurants—those added (Hakkasan, Lan Sheng), those still there (Jewel Bako), and those still inexplicably missing (Ayada, SriPraPhai, Sushi Yasuda)—will spark the most controversy. The rest of the list makes some sense, even if you or I would choose different places.

The full list is below. See the end of the post for the color key.


Restaurant
20
06
20
07
20
08
20
09
20
10
20
11
20
12
20
13
15 East               *
Adour       ** * * * *
Ai Fiori             * *
Alain Ducasse ***              
Aldea           * * *
Allen & Delancey       *        
Alto       * ** **    
Annisa * * * * * * * *
Anthos     * * * *    
Aquavit               *
Atera               **
Aureole * * * * * * * *
A Voce Columbus           * * *
A Voce Madison   * *   * * * *
Babbo * * *          
Blanca               *
BLT Fish *              
Blue Hill     * * * * * *
Bouley ** ** **   * * * *
Breslin, The           * * *
Brooklyn Fare           ** *** ***
Brushstroke             * *
Café Boulud * * * * * * * *
Café China               *
Café Gray * * *          
Casa Mono         * * * *
Convivio         * *    
Corton         ** ** ** **
Country   * *          
Craft * *            
Cru * * * *        
Daniel ** ** ** ** *** *** *** ***
Danji             * *
Danny Brown           * * *
Danube ** * *          
Del Posto   ** ** ** * * * *
Dévi   * *          
Dovetail           * * *
Dressler     * * * * * *
Eighty One       * *      
Eleven Madison Park         * * *** ***
Etats-Unis * * * * *      
Fiamma (Osteria) * *   *        
Fleur de Sel * * * *        
Gilt     * ** ** ** ** **
Gotham Bar & Grill * * * * * * * *
Gordon Ramsay     ** ** ** ** ** **
Gramercy Tavern * * * * * * * *
Hakkasan               *
Heartbreak             *  
Insieme       * *      
Jean Georges *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
Jewel Bako * * * * * * * *
JoJo *   * *        
Jungsik               *
Junoon             * *
Kajitsu         * ** ** *
Kyo Ya       * * * * *
Kurumazushi   * *          
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon     * * * * **  
La Goulue * *            
Lan Sheng               *
Le Bernardin *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
Laut           * *  
Lever House * *            
Lo Scalco *              
Marc Forgione         * * *  
March *              
Marea         * ** ** **
Masa ** ** ** *** *** *** *** ***
Minetta Tavern         * * * *
Modern, The * * * * * * * *
Momofuku Ko       ** ** ** ** **
Nobu *              
NoMad, The               *
Oceana * * * * * * * *
Perry St.   * * * *      
Per Se *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
Peter Luger * * * * * * * *
Picholine * * ** ** ** ** * *
Public       * * * * *
Rhong-Tiam         *      
River Café         * * * *
Rosanjin             * *
Rouge Tomate         * * * *
Saul * * * * * * * *
Scalini Fedeli *              
Seäsonal         * * * *
Shalizar/Shalezeh         * *    
SHO Shaun Hergatt         * * **  
Soto         * ** ** **
Spotted Pig * * * * * * * *
Sushi Azabu         * * * *
Sushi of Gari   * * * * * * *
Tamarind Tribeca             * *
Tori Shin             * *
Torrisi Italian Specialties               *
Tulsi             * *
Veritas * * * * * * *  
Vong * * *          
Wallsé * * * * * * * *
WD~50 * * * * * * * *

 

Color Key:

Green: Restaurant promoted, or starred in first year of eligibility
Yellow: Restaurant demoted, but still has at least one star
Red: Restaurant demoted, and now unstarred
Gray: Restaurant closed, moved, or opened too late in year to be rated

Monday
Oct012012

83½

Note: The Skeen curse continues. 83½ closed (briefly) after just 4½ months in business. As noted in the comments (below), it has re-opened with a different chef, Will Foden, who is serving an Italian menu.

*

I’m gonna try to write this post without making a bunch of Ryan Skeen jokes. It’s not easy. The chef has been linked to ten projects since 2008, many of which failed quickly (either the restaurant or Skeen’s involvement). In early 2012, he sat for an interview with Grub Street, clearly aware of his reputation for job-hopping. Taken individually, each failure has a logical explanation. Taken together, there is a shitload of them.

Welcome to Skeen Project #11, 83½, named for the restaurant’s location, halfway along 83rd Street between First and Second Avenues. The place has been open less than a month. Skeen hasn’t quit yet.

No one who knows Skeen’s history would predict a long life for this place. But at least it’s a lot different than most of his recent projects: a brand new, small dining room with 42 seats, where he’s the executive chef, and no one else’s culinary ego is competing with his.

Of course, there is still an owner to contend with, Vincenzo Mangiafridda Jr., who owns Gino’s Pizzeria next door. We weren’t sure if it was Vincenzo or his son who was perched at the bar on a recent Saturday evening, chatting with Ryan in the open kitchen and surveying the scene.

The one-page, focused menu is in four sections: Starting Course ($16), Sea Course ($17), Pasta Course ($18), and Large Courses ($27). But for one dish with a $5 supplement (the rack of lamb), every dish in a category costs the same.

This layout might prompt over-ordering. The server didn’t push that at all, though he did point out that some tables order a pastas—of which there are only two—as a mid-course to share. There are just five entrées, and the kitchen was no longer offering two of them when we arrived a shade early for our 10:30pm reservation.

Given Skeen’s reputation as a meat-hawking chef at Resto and Irving Mill, it may be a bit surprising that about half the menu is seafood, and most of the meat offerings are timid. Is Skeen channeling the Upper East Side, trying to prove he’s settled down, or something else?

The wine list isn’t long, but it’s fairly priced in relation to the food, and it featured a number of producers unfamiliar to me, many of them labeled as organic or biodynamic. At $50 (about 2½ times retail), the Torbreck 2009 Cuvée Juveniles (above right) had a rich, full-bodied flavor.

 

A Tea Beet & Goat Cheese Salad ($16; above left) was…well, a beet salad. A Liege Salad ($16; above right) was as close to the old Skeen as the menu got, a delightful soupy mix of escarole, arugula, chopped pig’s ears, and a poached egg.

 

If you’re going to offer just two pastas, there’s full credit for making one of them such a dandy as the Sepia Bucatini ($18; above left) with chili, sea urchin, lemon and basil.

But I was quite disappointed in the Rack of Lamb ($32; above right), the only dish on the menu that carries a supplement. Served off the bone, the lamb didn’t have much flavor, and it was swimming in a watery swamp of bitter greens.

The space doesn’t appear to be perversely designed to amplify the ambient noise, but noisy it was, until the crowd thinned out later in our meal. The dining room is modern, stylish, and attractive, although the tables are close together. The servers are smartly dressed and knowledgeable, a cut above what one often finds at new restaurants these days. This isn’t their first rodeo.

I’m sure 83½ will attract some of the Skeen curiosity seekers, the way it attracted us. The introductory menu doesn’t qualify as destination cuisine, but as Skeen finds his equilibrium perhaps it will become more adventurous. The advantage of a small space is that the menu doesn’t have to be full of crowd-pleasers, as long as he can keep 40-odd seats full.

Less than a month in, 83½ is promising, but perhaps not yet at its full potential. It will bear watching, along with the chef’s mercurial temper.

83½ (345 E. 83rd Street between First & Second Avenues, Upper East Side)

Food: Upscale American cuisine
Wine: A short but worthwhile list of wines, many organic or biodynamic
Service: A strong point, especially for a restaurant this new
Ambaince: A small, stylish dining room with an open kitchen; a bit too loud

Rating
Why? A promising menu with some soft spots, but well worth watching

Saturday
Sep292012

Del Frisco's Grille

A stripper once told me I ought to check out Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House.

I never got around to it: I avoid national chains (there are nine Del Frisco’s), and the reviews were mixed. The Robs at New York Magazine loved it; Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton the opposite.

The steakhouse has a little brother, Del Frisco’s Grille, in four cities with a fifth on the way. You can order steaks there too, but the menu is broader, more casual, and less expensive. Full disclosure: we visited at the publicist’s invitation and did not pay for our meal.

In New York (one of two cities that has both a steakhouse and a grille), the two places are close by, on opposite sides of Rockefeller Center. From local businesses and business travelers, to Radio City, Top of the Rock, and holiday shoppers, there’s a steady flow of visitors with disposable income.

Del Frisco’s Grille isn’t, strictly speaking, a steakhouse, but it very well could be. It has a muscular, distinctly masculine décor. The space was bustling on a recent Thursday evening, with what looked like a mostly young, after-work crowd that skewed single and available, especially at the bar.

The menu is divided into nine categories, many of them with dumb names like “Food to Fight Over” (appetizers and bar food), “Ruffage” (the word “salads” wasn’t available?), “Knife & Fork” (as if we’d eat the rest with our hands?), or “Lil’ Somethin’ Somethin’” (side dishes).

Who are they’re impressing with such gimmickry? It just screams “suburbia,” and reinforces the perception of Del Frisco’s as not really serious.

Well, I’m not going to tell you that it’s destination cuisine—it’s not, and you wouldn’t believe me if I said otherwise. But for what it is, the ingredients at Del Frisco’s Grille are a cut above the norm at such places, and the food is prepared well.

The menu is a mix of items dictated by the corporate office and others adjusted to local custom. The chef, Scott Kroener, who has been here since the restaurant opened a year ago, serves the chain menu and introduces his own recipes, within the confines of a prescribed template.

Broadly: the salad and appetizer-like items are in the $9–18 range, entrées $19–44, sandwiches $16–19, and sides $9–12.

 

  

The Crabcake ($19; above left) is unorthodox: all lump crabmeat without breading, inside a moat of cajun lobster sauce. The Ahi Tacos ($18; above center) are made with tuna tartare, avocado, and a spicy citrus mayo. Cheesesteak Eggrolls ($15; above right), with chili sauce and honey mustard, are surprisingly good.

If I could order again, I’d choose the Cheesesteak Eggrolls, and yes, that surprises me. My girlfriend would probably choose the tacos.

  

Bacon-wrapped scallops (above left) in a vinaigrette dressing were an off-menu special. The chef said it’s one of his favorites, but it wasn’t one of mine. But I did very much like the Heirloom Tomato and Burrata salad ($18; above center). If that’s typical of the other salads, it could easily be a shared appetizer. Bread rolls (above right) were served warm, and the butter was soft, the way I prefer it.

  

Del Frisco’s wet-ages most of its steaks, which could explain why it’s not considered a top-tier steakhouse in this dry-aged town. The chef has added a dry-aged bone-in New York strip to the menu (above center). It won’t challenge Minetta Tavern, but it can give most other places a run for their money. We also sampled a wet-aged specimen, the filet ($44; above left), which like most filets was more tender but less flavorful than the strip.

Both steaks were a bit over-seasoned with salt and pepper, an objection the chef is aware of, and which has been mentioned in some online reviews. I am not sure why he keeps doing it. All three sides (above right) were capably done: the Truffled Mac & Cheese, the “Spinach Supreme”, and the Asparagus (all $12).

  

The desserts were top-notch. You’d need a big appetite to finish them. I couldn’t really choose between the Nutella bread pudding and coffee ice cream with caramel sauce (above left), the Crème brûlée cheesecake with apple cinnamon compote (above center), or the cocnut cream pie with white chocolate shavings (above right).

The space is a bit louder than I’d like, though I’m sure it’s to many people’s tastes: raucous restaurants exist for a reason. We received the white glove treatment, so I can’t comment on the typical service experience.

The cocktails, mostly vodka-based, are sweeter than my preference. I liked best the Del’s Derby (Maker’s Mark, muddled orange, mint leaves, simple syrup, soda). There’s also a 700-bottle wine list, which we didn’t explore.

Del Frisco’s Grille isn’t really part of New York food culture, and doesn’t really try to be. It’s a national chain, designed to deliver reproducible upscale comfort. The best indication of its potential is the dry-aged bone-in New York strip, which is the local chef’s idea, and is not on the corporate menu. Order that, and the heirloom tomato salad, and you could be happy here.

Del Frisco’s Grille (50 Rockefeller Plaza, 51st Street, between Fifth & Sixth Avenues)

Tuesday
Sep252012

The Pitch & Fork

Note: Pitch & Fork closed. The space is now a Mexican restaurant called Epazote.

*

On the Upper East Side, where the restaurant scene has been quietly improving, welcome to The Pitch & Fork. It’s not destination dining, but another solid option in a neighborhood that the media always considered dining-deficient.

In truth, the media perception of Upper East Side dining was always more myth than fact. East of Third Avenue, the residents are younger, edgier, and far more likely to be single. They’ve all gotta eat. Restaurants up here still struggle to pull crowds from outside the neighborhood, but many of them do solid local business.

That appeared to be the case on a recent Saturday evening at The Pitch & Fork, which opened in late June. There’s a small outdoor café, a dark tavern-like dining room, and a quiet outdoor garden (where we ate), which supposedly will be open year-round.

The man in charge is Jacques Ouari, whose clutch of restaurants includes Jacques Brasserie at 85th & Third and Jacques 1534 in NoLIta. The menu here offers French-accented pub fare, where burgers, hot dogs and ribs could share the table with moules frites and steak au poivre.

Soups, salads and appetizers run $7–16, main courses $15–26, side dishes $6–7. The wine list is not much of a draw, but you’ll find something acceptable. The bottle of red Zinfandel pictured above was $53.

Not many restaurants serve a platter of Schaller & Weber choucroute these days, so we ordered that. It comes in two sizes ($16/$22), and the larger of these was more than we could finish, a bounty of bockwurst, weisswurst, frankfurt, pork belly, sauerkraut, and potatoes.

 

A very good poached Brook Trout ($22; above left) was stuffed with spinach, shallots, and wild mushrooms. But under-seasoned Roast Chicken ($21; above right) had a flat, mushy taste.

Some of the servers here are a bit shaky on the finer points (where to put silverware, how to pour wine), but they were attentive enough, and the outdoor garden is lovely. I’d like to hope that chicken was an anomaly, as otherwise the Pitch & Fork is a pleasant spot.

The Pitch & Fork (1606 First Avenue between 83rd & 84th Streets, Upper East Side)

Food: French-accented American pub fare
Service: Informal but sufficiently attentive
Ambiance: A bustling tavern with a quiet outdoor garden

Rating:
Why? Another solid option for the area, but not noteworthy enough to travel for

Tuesday
Sep182012

Angolo Soho

Note: Angolo Soho closed in November 2013 to make way for a branch of T-Bar Steakhouse.

*

Angolo Soho, yet another new Italian restaurant, feels like the last fifteen of them. Or the last fifteen dozen. You’ll have a pleasant and inoffensive meal there. I’ve no serious complaint about anything we were served. I’ve also no serious reason to go back, nor to recommend it.

Lusso, a similar place, already failed here, back when the address was known as 331 West Broadway. (It’s now 53 Grand Street.) The photo posted in my 2010 review is not far off from what Angolo Soho looks like now. The bones haven’t changed much, except the bar area (not pictured) is a bit brighter. In between, the space was a Southern spot called South Houston, which also quickly failed.

The name is not particularly helpful: Angolo is Italian for corner, though it might be confused with an African nation. Internet searches turn up a far better known restaurant, Piccolo Angolo (“little corner”) in the West Village, not far away. It is amazing how often people name their restaurants without google-testing them first.

Michael Bernardino, the chef, has decent Italian cred., having worked at Villa Pacri (executive chef), ’inoteca, and Dell’ anima (both chef de cuisine), but he didn’t stay long at any of them. His most recent assignments were at Resto and Cannibal (not long there either).

The menu is straightforward mid-priced Italian, with antipasti $10–17, primi $14–19, secondi $24–32 (not counting an out-of-place aged ribeye for two, $130), contorni $7, desserts $6–9. There’s also a selection of cheese $7 or a house-made stracciatella for $13, or charcuterie $9–18.

I didn’t take a copy of the cocktail list or take notes, but we had two pretty good cocktails at the bar. The mostly Italian wine list is not long, but it’s fairly priced in relation to the restaurant. A 2007 Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva was in the neighborhood of $50.

 

My girlfriend started with a straightforward Arugula Parmigiano Reggiano salad ($10; above left). Trippa alla Napoletana ($15; above right) had a faintly satisfying crunch, but it seemed to me that the chef was trying to conceal slightly rubbery tripe in a sea of tomato sauce.

 

You’d expect the former Cannibal chef to make a satisfying Pork Chop ($32; above left), and this double-cut specimen was beauty, though a hair less tender than I would have liked. Tagliatelle Bolognese ($18; above right) with parmigiano reggiano was competently done.

In only their second week, some of the staff are still feeling their way, but they were friendly and attentive. The bread service (pictured at the top of the page) is perfunctory and ought to be improved. The restaurant was about 2/3rds full on a Thursday evening, which isn’t bad at all for a new establishment. I just wonder whether the place is compelling enough to keep drawing that kind of crowd.

Angolo Soho (53 Grand Street at West Broadway, Soho)

Food: Modern Italian; good enough for what it is, but not distinctive
Ambiance: A bright Soho street corner, wooden tables, brick walls
Service: Friendly and attentive

Rating:
Why? Not well differentiated from the city’s many dozens of good Italian restaurants

Monday
Sep102012

Rafele

I almost made the mistake of not visiting Rafele, a Neapolitan restaurant that opened in April. It’s getting harder and harder to get excited by yet another rustic Italian spot. Yet I’m glad we went: It turns out Rafele is pretty good.

The name is a shortened version of Raffaele Ronca, the chef and owner, who was the chef at Palma; and before that, the now-closed Bellavitae.

There’s a broad frontage and an outdoor café on a not-so-charming stretch of Seventh Avenue South. The casual 65-seat dining room is decorated with the usual Italian knick-knacks, and there’s a wide open kitchen with a brick oven, used mostly for rotisserie meats, though there are pizzas too. The room ought to be a little less bright.

The menu is not overly long, with about half-a-dozen choices of antipasti ($11–16), insalate ($12–14), primi ($16–18), secondi ($25–27), and contorni ($7). The Filosofia, printed at the bottom, is practically de rigeur these days—the usual commitment to work with local farmers, markets, and purveyors.

We reserved on OpenTable but decided eat at the bar, where we started with a bounty of breads with eggplant spread (above right). We drank wines by the glass; but for the record, there’s an all-Italian four-page list, with plenty of options at $50 or less—our benchmark for this type of place—with a few Super-Tuscans at the high end, should you want them.

 

Polpettine, or meatballs ($13; above left) were excellent, a veal-and-beef mix in a light tomato sauce. Cavolfiore, or cauliflower ($13; above right), billed as a salad, is served warm, with blackcurrants, pignoli nuts, and bread crumbs. It was a startlingly good dish, not like anything I’ve seen before.

 

 

Branzino ($25; above left) was grilled whole and filleted in the kitchen before serving. If it can’t claim any particular distinction, it was everything you want this simple dish to be.

A wonderful Galletto, or organic chicken ($27; above right), came from the aforesaid wood-burning oven, which imparts plenty of flavor, along with a coating of herbs and roasted mushrooms.

We got to chatting with the chef, who sent out an order of semifreddo on the house (two flavors: pistachio and coffee with hints of chocolate).

With new Italian places opening weekly, it’s hard to say where Rafele fits in the dining hierarchy. I won’t make grand pronouncements, but I’d go out of my way to dine here again.

Rafele (29 Seventh Avenue South at Morton Street, West Village)

Food: The cuisine of Naples, very well executed in a casual setting
Wine: An all-Italian list, 4 pages of selections, in a wide price range
Service: Sufficiently attentive—at the bar, at least
Ambiance: Modern rusticity; an open kitchen; and a broad vista on Seventh Avenue

Rating: ★★
Why? There’s a glut of Italian cuisine, but to call it a neighborhood spot is to underrate it.

Saturday
Sep082012

Jeanne & Gaston

Jeanne & Gaston is an under-the-radar contemporary French bistro on the southern edge of Chelsea. It’s in the upmarket casual idiom that, for Italian cuisine, has become so common that another one opens every week. But as it’s French, Jeanne & Gaston is a far scarcer breed, and therefore worthy of some attention.

This is the second restaurant for chef Claude Godard, whose first spot, Madison Bistro, opened in 1998. The two places are extremely similar, though the careful eye might detect a few slightly edgier dishes at Jeanne & Gaston (named for the chef’s grandparents), which opened in December 2011.

Budget-conscious diners will smile at either establishment, where the three-course prix fixe is just $40, with about a dozen choices of both appetizers and mains, and half-a-dozen desserts. (A few items have $2–3 supplements.) If you prefer to order à la carte, most appetizers are $13, mains $26, desserts $10.

The menu offers a mix of classic French bistro cuisine, specialties from the chef’s native Burgundy, and a few of his own inventions. It is very good for the price point.

The restaurant’s hidden ace is a delightful 40-seat outdoor garden with its antique sculptured limestone fountain, cloistered between two residential buildings and closed off with a wood fence. You should by all means dine there if the weather permits. And if not, there is always the 32-seat dining room, which is charming and unobjectionable, but could be faulted for a lack of personality.

We dined at the publicist’s invitation and did not pay for our meal. The chef served a five-course tasting menu with portion sizes adjusted, for which I believe he ordinarily charges $55.

 

Baguettes (above left) are made in-house and were served warm. The charcuterie plate (above right) came with prosciutto, garlic sausage, and chicken liver mousse. I’d give it a pass next time, as cured meats of comparable quality are available all over town.

 

The dish of the evening was the Napoleon (above left), which the chef says is his own creation. It was certainly new to me: a tower of wafer-thin pasty discs with crabmeat salad sandwiched in between and an avocado mousse around the edge of the plate.

I also enjoyed the sea scallops (above right) with “Tarte Tatin” Provençale. The scare quotes are on the printed menu, so I assume irony is intended, perhaps because tarte is usually a dessert.

 

The chef serves Duck Magret (above left) at both of his restaurants. Uptown, he serves it with potatoes; here with vegetables tempura and a mango emulsion. “Magret” refers to the force-fed ducks that produce foie gras, so you know it will be fatty and flavorful. I was not fond of the vegetables, which were a hair too greasy.

We finished with a duo of desserts (above right), a chocolate soufflé and the chef’s interpretation of that old classic, the floating island. You won’t go wrong with either one.

The price point at Jeanne & Gaston is both a strength and a limitation—the latter because there’s only so much you can do for forty bucks. But. Seriously. Forty bucks for three courses or $13/$26 for appetizers and entrées à la carte? If it were served in a garage in Brooklyn, they’d be lined up out the door.

Jeanne & Gaston (212 W. 14th Street between 7th & 8th Avenues, Chelsea)

Monday
Sep032012

Ken & Cook

Note: There is a new chef at Ken & Cook as of January 2014: Hido Holli, who returns to New York after 13 years in France.

*

When you hear that Restaurant Such-and-Such is opening in a space that doubles as a nightclub, your immediate reaction is: This cannot end well. The failures are so numerous that it is hardly worth mentioning them.

Usually, I don’t bother visiting such places, but I was intrigued by Ken & Cook, which has been inviting bloggers for partly comped meals: The Pink Pig has already weighed in (favorably), and I saw another blogger there who, I assume, had been lured under similar circumstances. I’m not in the target demographic (and neither is The Pink Pig), so I have to guess that they are trying to make a case for the food as a stand-alone proposition.

You’d expect it to be at least competent, with two guys running it from Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s stable: managing partner Artan Gjoni and chef Richard Diamonte, both formerly of Mercer Kitchen (admittedly, not JGV’s best spot).

Actually, the food is far more than just competent. At times, it’s even impressive. It won’t get a Michelin star, and you won’t be celebrating your anniversary here. But for a place where most of the entrées are sub-$30, it’s enjoyable indeed. Among the five dishes we ordered there wasn’t a dud, and there are a couple I’d be eager to order again.

The menu is vaguely half-American, half-Italian, in sections labeled 1st Course ($13–17), 2nd (pastas, $19–23), 3rd (most $18–28, with steaks and lobster a lot higher), and side dishes ($3–8). There’s also a raw bar and a variety of cheese and charcuterie selections, almost all Italian.

The three-part structure might encourage over-ordering, but the pastas are large enough to be entrées, as the server (to his credit) pointed out.

The cuisine is not challenging. You could write the menu yourself and guess three-quarters of it: beet salad, steak tartare, linguine with clams, pork chop, wagyu burger, chicken, côte de bœuf for two ($95), mac & cheese, and so forth. All that is left to the chef is to prepare it well, and that he does.

 

The mixed cheese and charcuterie platter ($26; above left) and the beef tartare ($16; above right) are excellent ways to start.

 

A tender Wagyu flank steak ($26; above left) was served with pesto, asparagus, and almond.

Linguine with clams ($19; above right) is beyond cliché, but this was one of the better examples of it that I’ve tasted in a long while.

The pairing of salmon ($26; right) with corn and bacon is not one I’ve encountered in the past, but it worked extremely well. It was the best dish of the evening.

 

Desserts were comped, and as they’re not listed online I can’t give prices or precise descriptions. I believe they were a fruit and nut parfait (above left) and warm sugar-coated beignets (above right).

It’s a late-arriving crowd at Ken & Cook. The room was nearly empty at 6:45pm on a Wednesday evening, but practically full at 9:30, when we left. The space is right out of the Keith McNally playbook, with backlit subway tile along the bar. On a nice evening, there are wide French doors that open to the street. Once the weather turns, and those doors are shut, we suspect it will be quite loud in here.

Service was on the slow side, especially the wait for the entrées after the appetizers had been cleared. This is not a good sign, as we were known to the house, the restaurant has been open for four months, and it wasn’t their busiest evening. Perhaps it’s best to order a bottle of wine, and come with companions you don’t mind talking to, because you’ll be talking and drinking for a while.

The half-life of club–restaurants is notoriously unpredictable, but if Richard Diamonte remains chef at Ken & Cook, there’s a good chance the food will remain worthwhile.

Ken & Cook (19 Kenmare Street between Bowery & Broome Streets, NoLIta)

Food: Italian-inflected American cuisine, consistently good
Service: friendly but slow
Ambiance: McNallyesque

Rating: ★
Why? A nightclub cum restaurant, far better than most others in the genre 

Thursday
Aug302012

Sofia Wine Bar

Nearly six years ago, I had dinner at DeGrezia, which just might be the city’s best Italian restaurant that no one writes about. This week, I had dinner at Sofia, which just might be the city’s best Italian wine bar that no one writes about.

The two spots share the same block and the same founder, Tommaso DeGrezia. Tommaso sold his share in the restaurant in 2001. With his wife, Toni, he opened Sofia in 2009.

If you were led into Sofia blindfolded, and asked to guess the location, you’d probably think downtown—perhaps the East Village. It has that familiar, rustic Italian bric-à-brac look without being derivative. And with just 38 seats in two rooms, it feels like it belongs in a residential neighborhood, not a townhouse a block away from midtown.

Toni DeGrezia designed the space herself (it was formerly an art gallery, which she owned). The larger front room (above) sports an L-shaped bar, a few tables, and broad French windows facing the street. The windowless back room, where we were, seats just 12. It gets loud when full, as the sound bounces off the exposed brick walls and has nowhere to go.

Espcially striking is a hand-sculpted limestone replica of the Bocca della Verità (“mouth of truth”), a Roman relic from the 1st century AD. Legend has it that if you put your hand in its mouth and told a lie, it would be bitten off. Do that here, and you might get burned by the votive candles inside.

These days, there’s no rhyme or reason to the amount of food a wine bar may offer: it can range from a handful of snacks to practically a full menu of appetizers and entrées. Sofia is smack in the middle, with pizza as the only real main course, aside from a lasagne that’s served on Sundays.

A daily housemade pasta will be offered starting in the fall. In the meantime, you can certainly put together a meal several times over from the raw bar, and various meat and cheese platters, hot and cold starters, and panini.

Wine’s the point, and it’s a strength here, with an international list of 200 bottles, many of them from boutique producers. The printed list shows about 70 wines by the glass (most $12–15), though with daily specials that number can rise to 100, and I am told the list changes monthly. There are also around 25 exotic beers, none of which we sampled.

I visited at the publicist’s invitation and didn’t pay for my meal. We asked the server to pair wines with the food, which he did extremely well. I won’t try to describe the wines or to reproduce his explanations of them, but the labels are shown below.

Most items on the menu are in the $12–20 range (some a bit more), desserts $6–12. The cuisine is home-style Neapolitan and Sicilian classics, nothing revelatory but most of them well made, and all from organic ingredients. Shared appetizers and a pizza would run about $60 for two people, which is a fair price for the neighborhood. Food is served on charming distressed pottery china with a fleur-de-lis pattern on the edge.

 

We started with the vegetarian lasagne (above left), in what was described as a Neapolitan style, not as thick or as heavy as that dish typically is. Tomatoes and house-made mozzarella ($12; above right) were excellent.

 

Stuffed mushrooms ($14; above left) with prosciutto, Pecorino Romano, and sour cream, were the best dish of the evening. But meatballs in tomato sauce ($12; above right) seemed too routine.

 

I skipped the Eggplant Crostini ($12; above left), as I don’t like eggplant, but two of my tablemates found it under-seasoned and over-cooked. The Pizza Margherita (above right) was wonderful. It sported a thin crust, just slightly floppy at the center, with a rich, smoky flavor. It’s offered plain, as here, for $14, or with a variety of toppings, most of them either $3 or $5 each.

 

Spinach and artichoke dip ($14; above left) was terrific; Cannoli ($5 for two; above right) were just fine.

If Sofia Wine Bar wants to raise its profile, it ought to begin with the antiquated website, which has a food menu without prices and no wine list. For an establishment where wine is the point, this is a sad state of affairs. In the meantime, you’ll just have to take my word for it that a visit here will amply reward the investment of your time.

Sofia Wine Bar (242 E. 50th Street, slightly west of Second Avenue, Turtle Bay)

Tuesday
Aug282012

Prandial

 

Note: Prandial closed in August 2013, after a year in business. My doubts about its viability, expressed in the review below, turned out to be well-founded.

*

Prandial, which opened about a month ago in the Flatiron District, is my kind of restaurant. It has a serious chef in the kitchen, a legit. wine list, tables a generous distance apart, white tablecloths, and solicitous service.

So it’s a pity to report that the food was not very good on a recent Saturday evening. Here’s hoping the kitchen’s performance was atypical, perhaps a late-summer swoon, with the chef out of town and farmhands in the kitchen.

The chef, Pierre Rougey, was an instructor at the French Culinary Institute and earned a Michelin star in France, so presumably he knows what he is doing. I don’t know to what extent he is present here, or merely writing a menu for others to execute.

The owner, Mark Stern (formerly of the now-defunct “Village”) is presumably motivated to get it right, because he actually owns the space (previously the soul-food restaurant Justin’s, which closed in 2007). He spent a pretty penny on the renovation, a striking post-industrial dining room with an antique bar and back-lit subway tile.

So far, diners aren’t flocking here. On a Saturday evening, albeit in late August, it was at best one-third full.

“Prandial” may not have been the best name, as the word is unfamiliar to many. (“What’s ‘pran-dye-uhl’?” was overheard at the bar.) And the restaurant’s slogan, printed beneath the logo — “relate to your meal” — is rather silly.

The proffer is American cuisine, purportedly with French technique. It’s inexpensive for the neighborhood, with a focused menu of ten appetizers ($9–15) and the same number of entrées (most in the $20s).

The wine list, dominated by the U.S., France, and Italy, runs to about half-a-dozen pages, with plenty of options below $50 and even a list of half-bottles. It’s a remarkable selection for a casual restaurant, especially a brand new one.

 

I might have liked the Pan Crisped Smoked Skate ($12; above left) with arugula and a fried quail egg. But the egg was slightly overdone, and not runny enough; and the whole contraption sat on a bizarre, chalky-green pancake.

An Artichoke Salad ($12; above right) was too cold, giving the impression of having been prepared earlier and allowed to sit in the fridge.

 

A hunky double-cut Pork Chop ($24; above left) was tough and dry. I ate less than half of it. If they’d only not overcook it, the pairing with spaetzle and Brussels sprouts would be promising. This left the Duck 2 Ways ($24; above right), with confit leg and pan-seared breast, as the evening’s only successful dish.

If the kitchen could catch up to the wine list, Prandial could be a worthwhile spot. But in the life of a new restaurant, there isn’t much time to fix such things before the crowd moves on. They’d better hurry.

Prandial (31 W. 21st Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, Flatiron District)

Food: American cuisine with (supposedly) French technique and uneven execution
Wine: An impressive list for such a new, inexpensive spot
Service: Friendly, solicitous, and efficient
Ambiance: A smartly-renovated, spacious, post-industrial dining room

Rating: ★
Why? For the wine list; benefit of the doubt to the food, which needs to improve