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

Saturday
Aug252012

Mint

 

I was invited recently to a press dinner at Mint, an under-the-radar Indian restaurant in East Midtown. I dined there once, years ago, but have very little recollection of the meal, except that I liked the space and didn’t mind the food.

Whether you’d like the space now is a matter of taste. It’s far more comfortable and pleasant than the average neighborhood Indian spot, but the backlit minty-green interior is very much a product of its age. It may also reflect the sensibilities of its chef and owner, Gary Sikka: a new branch in Garden City is quite similar, except that the dominant color is lavender.

As a civilized place to enjoy classic Indian cuisine, free of the usual decorative clichés, I still like it here.

The menu offers most of the usual Indian specialties: your kebabs, paneers, naans, samosas, tikka masalas, and vindaloos. It also veers off the beaten path occasionally, and is more worthwhile for doing so.

Prices are modest by midtown standards, with soups and salads $6–10, appetizers $7–14, breads and rice $4–8. Entrées are in a wide range, with most in the low $20s, but vegetarian dishes are as low as $12, fish and tandoori dishes mostly in the high $20s, and one lobster dish is $36.

Everything we tried was done well, bearing in mind the context of an arranged visit. The fish and vegetarian dishes, it seemed to me, are the ones where the chef rises above the merely routine. (Prices below are from the menu; we didn’t pay for the meal.)

 

There’s the usual assortment of bread, but for this meal the kitchen sent out the simplest of them, the Roti ($4).

 

We all liked the Vegetable Samosas ($7; above left). I believe the chicken appetizer (above right) was the Malai Kebab ($12), marinated in herbs and spices, more tender and flavorful than that dish usually is.

 

The Aloo Methi Tikka ($9; above left), a spicy potato cake with chickpeas, tamarind and mint chutney, did not make any particular impression on me. But the “Chilly” [sic] Fish ($14; above right) was the hit of the evening, a spicy preparation of black sea bass.

 

The Bombay Masala Pao ($7; above left), a blend of tomato, herbs and spices on bread, could pass for Indian pizza. Fish Tikka Masala ($26; above right), marinated overnight in yogurt and garlic, was another of the evening’s highlights.

 

I’d also heartily recommend the Saag Paneer ($16; above left), a spinach base sautéed with Indian cheese, or the Yellow Tadka Dal ($12; above right), a preparation of yellow lentils with herbs and spices.

 

But Chicken Tikka Masala ($19; above left) was somewhat bland and forgettable, as was a Lamb Shahi Pasanda ($22; no photo).

The lone dessert was a Paneer cheese pastry puff with honey and rose water syrup (above right). I practically never order desserts at Indian restaurants, but my dining companions said that this was a very good exemplar of this well known dish.

If the chef is eager to to raise the restaurant’s profile, he might want to start with the beverage program. The cocktails are mostly sweet, vodka-based “–tini” drinks. The publicist recommended the wine program, but none of the wines on the by-the-glass list included the vintage, which I do not consider a good sign.

Mint is located in the San Carlos Hotel, although it is independently owned. Like any hotel restaurant, it has to offer safe and familiar dishes that can appeal to a wide variety of weary travelers. My sense of the place, on this limited sample, is that the farther the chef gets from the routine dishes that 1,000 other Indian restaurants serve, the better he does. You won’t go wrong here, but the fish and vegetarian dishes are especially worthwhile.

Mint (150 E. 50th Street between Lexington & Third Avenues, East Midtown)

Monday
Aug202012

SriPraPhai

I hesitate to admit that I had never been to SriPraPhai, the acclaimed Thai restaurant in Woodside, Queens, until about a month ago. To those who swear by the joint, this gap in my dining resume might be practically disqualifying. Frank Bruni of The Times gave it two stars nearly eight years ago, and chowhounds were raving about it long before that. Let’s just say I have a long to-do list.

The experts have fallen out of love with SriPraPhai. Not long after the Bruni review, the owners took over the adjacent storefront, doubled in size, and surrendered some of the intimacy that made them so successful. Many of the chowhounders transferred their affection to Ayada in Elmhurst, which remains on my to-do list. Perhaps I’ll get to it before 2020.

We walked into SriPraPhai without a reservation at about 5pm on a Saturday evening, after a Met game. It was not terribly busy, but that would soon change.

The dining room had the cloying scent of leftover soy and garlic. It was a warm evening, and we happily took seats in the outdoor garden.

There are 144 items on the menu, and I’ve a sinking feeling that there’s a wide variation between the best items and the merely routine on any given evening. I did a bit of research before our visit, but the food boards are not in agreement about what to order these days.

 

I had to try the Roasted Duck Salad ($10.50; above left), a dish Bruni loved so much that he ordered it twice. Its charms were lost on us: the duck was cold and soggy. I rather liked the crisp tang of Salted Beef Fried Rice ($8.50; above right), but my son wasn’t fond of it.

 

Drunken Noodles ($10.50; above left) are offered with beef, duck, chicken, or shrimp (our choice), laced with hot chili and basil leaves.. The noodles themselves are a shade on the tough side, but still worthwhile. Sautéed Crispy Pork Belly ($10.00; above right) won’t be to all tastes, as the pork is so dry as to be nearly dessicated, but it was our favorite dish of the evening.

No one would come here for the wine, but to wash down dinner, $9 for a half-liter of the house red is not a bad deal. We weren’t wowed by the food, but at these prices you can over-order and it’ll still feel like a bargain. Dinner for two was $70, including tax and tip. Credit cards aren’t accepted.

SriPraPhai (64–13 39th Aveue between 64th & 65th Streets, Woodside, Queens)

Food: Good, but uneven, authentic Thai food
Service: So-so; not quite able to keep up with such a large space
Ambiance: Not the reason you dine here

Rating: ★
Why? The chowhound crowd has moved on, and I can see why

Saturday
Jul282012

Pier NYC on Roosevelt Island

 

Pier NYC offers a bit of summer fun, in a beautiful location with unbeatable Manhattan skyline views. The food isn’t bad, but it’s beside the point.

Oh yeah: it’s on Roosevelt Island, which I’d never been to. It’s one of those spots that sounds a lot farther away than it is. You can get there on the F Train or via a four-minute ride on the Roosevelt Island Tramway, from Second Avenue and 59th Street.

The island wasn’t always so appealing. Formerly known as Welfare Island (and earlier, Blackwell’s Island), it once housed a penitentiary, a lunatic asylum, and a smallpox hospital. If New York had had a leper colony, it probably would have been there.

It was converted to residential use in 1969, but was not reachable from the Manhattan side until the tram opened in 1976 and the subway arrived in 1989. (A bridge to Queens, opened in 1955, is the only vehicular route to the island; before that, there was an elevator to the Queensboro Bridge.) Originally dedicated to lower and mid-priced housing, recent construction on the island is considerably more upscale.

All of which brings us to Pier NYC, new to the island this summer, from owners Jonathan Hoo, Salvatore Hoo, and Alfonso DiCioccio (pictured above left), who opened the nearby Riverwalk Bar & Grill in 2009.

I guess they wanted some foodie cred, so they brought in well known names to cater the place: Josh Bowen of John Brown’s Smokehouse for barbecue; David Santos of Um Segredo Supper Club for seafood; and Alyssa Gangeri of AllyCakes for desserts.

Catering, really, is what it is. The menu is short and inexpensive, and most of it is made elsewhere.

 

We were invited to an opening party at the publicist’s invitation. We were served a few finger-food samples from the regular menu, probably not enough to judge it fairly.

 

Neither of the two barbecue offerings floated my boat: smoked beef brisket (above left) and smoked turkey (above right), both served on lightly toasted white bread. The regular barbecue menu (pulled pork, lamb sausage, house-made pastrami) sounds more interesting.

 

A rock shrimp roll (normally $12; above left) was a lot more impressive. Order this. If you have room for dessert, the Red Velvet Whoopie Pie (normally $3; above right) is well worth a try.

The one thing they don’t have is a first-rate mixologist. The cocktails are strictly beach stuff, like mimosas, screwdrivers, margaritas, and daquiris, along with a basic list of sodas, beers, and wines.

Pier NYC isn’t a dining destination, but it’s the first Roosevelt Island dining venue I can recall to have received any mainstream media attention at all. That’s progress. But the views are really the attraction here.

Pier NYC (Slightly North of the F Train and the Tramway, Roosevelt Island)

Wednesday
Jul252012

Pete Wells and the Two-Star Restaurant

In case you hadn’t noticed, the New York Times restaurant critic, Pete Wells, likes to give two stars. In seven months on the job, it has become his base rating. Half of his reviews (50%) have been two stars; just 27 percent have received one star:

It wasn’t always this way. Sam Sifton gave one star 44 percent of the time, two stars 33 percent. Eater has a handy distribution of Frank Bruni’s ratings over the course of his tenure. People jokingly called him “Frankie Two-Stars,” due to his fondness for that rating. But he always gave one star more frequently than two. In his final year, he gave one star 45 percent of the time, two stars just 33 percent—about the same as Sifton.

Has there been a sudden upswing in the quality of New York restaurants? I don’t know anyone who thinks so. Wells is just a far easier grader than Sifton or Bruni.

Wells’s reviews are infinitely better than Sifton’s, and his knowledge is superior to Bruni’s. He’s just generous with the stars—or at least, with two of them. (His percentage of three-star reviews is on par with Bruni’s and Sifton’s. He’s filed only one four-star review, Le Bernardin, and I doubt anyone would argue with that.)

In the New York Times star system, one star is supposed to mean “Good.” Wells’s one-star reviews almost never sound good. Although the rating system hasn’t changed, Wells is reviewing as if one star means “Fair.” Sifton, in contrast, wrote quite a few enthusiastic one-star reviews.

For instance, if we consider just Chinese restaurants: Sifton gave one star raves to Imperial Palace, Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan, and 456 Shanghai Cuisine. Wells has given the deuce to Wong, RedFarm, Café China, and Mission Chinese Food. Are those four restaurants really a whole star better than Sifton’s trio of one-star places? I doubt it.

At this point, Wells would need to give one star exclusively for several months straight, just to get back to the ratings percentages of the Sifton/Bruni years. But the inflated ratings of his first seven months can’t be reversed. A sudden shift now would confer a boon on all the restaurants that got an extra star they didn’t deserve.

Perhaps it’s the descriptions of the stars that need to change. Readers are conditioned to believe that one star isn’t a compliment. Ryan Sutton of Bloomberg uses the same four-star scale, but in his system, one star means “Fair.” New York magazine claims that one star means “Good,” but its critic, Adam Platt, follows Wells’s de facto system: his one-star places never sound good, either. For an example, see his review of Mission Chinese Food this week.

On crowdsourced review sites like Yelp, a restaurant has to be really terrible to get anything less than three stars. None of the professional critics are that generous; nevertheless, the public perception is that one star is awful. For instance, the Eater.com headline after Platt’s review came out, was: “Adam Platt is Unimpressed by Mission Chinese Food.” Eater’s summary was accurate: Platt didn’t like the place, although he gave it one star, purportedly meaning “Good.”

Since Wells can’t retroactively re-rate seven months worth of restaurants, and the public will never think of one star as “Good,” perhaps The Times just needs to re-define its ratings. Change the definition of one star to “Fair,” and two stars to “Good,” and Wells’s ratings will make sense.

Tuesday
Jul242012

Rosemary's Enoteca & Trattoria

There’s nothing groundbreaking about a new Italian restaurant from a Maria Batali protégé; happens all the time. Nor is there anything novel about a restaurant with its own rooftop (or backyard) garden.

Put the two together, and you’ve got something I don’t recall seeing before: Rosemary’s. Carlos Suarez (of nearby Bobo) is the owner; Wade Moises (Babbo, Lupa, Eataly) is at the stoves.

There’s a garden on the roof—you can see it poking above the white bricks at the top of the photo above. They won’t let you forget it, either.” Rooftop Garden” is printed on the menu in a prominent spot. The Times reported, “The day’s harvest gets dropped down to the dining room in a basket on a block and tackle.” It’s a gimmick that probably doesn’t improve the quality of the food in any articulable way, but it certainly sounds good.

Less than two months after it opened, Rosemary’s is a hit. At 6:30pm on a Thursday evening, we snagged one of the last two-tops remaining. (Reservations aren’t taken, and incomplete parties aren’t seated.) By the time we left, every seat was taken and the bar was mobbed, mostly with revelers under 30.

You might expect the food to be secondary at such an establishment, but it’s surprisingly good and prices are quite reasonable. Most salads are $12 or less, most pastas $14 or less, most entrées $22 or less. That won’t last. A Porchettina entrée, listed on the preview menu at $19, is now up to $22. And a new section has been added to the menu, with dishes for two that are a lot more expensive.

But the wine list is a revelation, with almost 40 bottles at $40. Over half of them are available by the glass, at $10. (There’s also a shorter reserve list for big spenders.) These aren’t trophy wines: a 2008 Corte Majoli Valpolicella was merely okay, but it wasn’t plonk. And where else in town will you find so much to choose from at $40?

 

An heirloom tomato salad ($10; above left), offered as a special, was an obvious starter at this type of restaurant. To go with it, the server recommended the excellent house-made Mozzarella with basil and olive oil. To mop up every drop, we had to ask for bread, which really ought to have come with it.

 

All the pastas are house-made here and exploit the garden liberally. We loved Cavatelli ($14; above left) with peas, asparagus, and ricotta. Crackling pork skin complemented luscious Porchettina ($22; above right), although the schmear of baby food in the middle of the plate contributed very little.

Between the inexpensive wine list and the inexpensive menu, we ate quite happily at Rosemary’s for $96 before tax and tip. However, there are hidden costs of a meal here. The chairs are a bit uncomfortable, and it does get loud: your ears will take a beating. Servers aren’t quite as attentive as they ought to be.

The good news is that the scenesters now flocking to Rosemary’s will probably move on in a few months, but Wade Moises will probably remain a very good chef. If he sticks around, Rosemary’s could eventually be very good indeed. But I’d wait a while before going again.

Rosemary’s (18 Greenwich Ave. at W. 10th St., West Village)

Food: Rustic Italian meets Haute Barnyard
Wine: Almost 40 bottles at $40, with a smaller reserve list
Service: Competent, but occasionally inattentive
Ambiance: A boistrous, bustling streetcorner spot that gets loud

Rating: ★
Why? We loved the food, but not worth traveling for when you can’t reserve 

Sunday
Jul222012

Paprika

I’ve ranted about the over-exposure of Italian cuisine in New York City. And one might think that Paprika in the East Village is just another neighborhood Italian spot, of which the city has about 80 dozen.

Turns out, one would be wrong. Paprika offers something special. The restaurant had been around a decade or so, mostly below the radar, before the chef/owner, Edigio Donagrandi, tossed out the old menu a few months ago and installed the cuisine of his native region, Valtellina.

No, I hadn’t heard of Valtellina either. It’s a mountainous area on the Swiss border, where the pastas are made with buckwheat, vegetables are pickled for the long winters, and the salads are heavy on dandelion and kale, potatoes and leeks. If any other chef in town is serving the cuisine of Valtellina, I haven’t heard of it.

The restaurant occupies a broad, sun-drenched storefront on St. Mark’s Place. The decor is somewhat bare-bones: wooden tables, white brick walls adorned with farm implements, and a back wall painted paprika red. There wasn’t much of a crowd on a mid-week evening.

The menu is inexpensive by today’s standards, with salads $9–10, starters $11–14, pastas $15–17, entrées $18–25, and side dishes and desserts $7. Portion sizes are generous. The all-Italian wine list runs to about thirty bottles (ten by the glass), many of them off the beaten path, and most below $50.

The publicist arranged our visit and we didn’t pay for our meal. As always, I don’t issue a formal rating in these circumstances.

 

Soft polenta made with cornmeal and buckwheat ($14; above left) is served with three regional cheeses. It’s an unusual starter, better for sharing. The polenta, coarser and grittier than usual, takes some getting used to.

 

We loved the Dandelion Salad ($10; above left) with pickled red radishes, spring onions, and crescenza, a soft Northern Italian cheese. Where I grew up, dandelions were considered weeds. I’ll never think of them that way again.

Bresaola ($13; above left), a salted air-dried beef, originated in Valtellina. I’ve seen it in many Italian restaurants, but not served the way it is here, with pickled oyster mushrooms and red radishes. I loved this combination, but my girlfriend was not fond of it.

 

Beef Crudo ($13; above left) is served on a slice of crusty garlic bread with a chicory salad on the side. I can’t comment on its authenticity, but it looked like an uncooked hamburger patty and wasn’t much more interesting than that.

Pizzoccheri Valtellinese ($16; above right) was the best of the three pastas we tried, and like nothing I’d had before. It’s a buckwheat tagliatelle with Savoy cabbage, casera cheese, potatoes and garlic.

 

Gnocchi ($15; above left) were a close second. They’re hand-rolled and pan-crisped, but perhaps outclassed by the wonderful roasted mushrooms and sage.

We were less enthralled with Buckwheat Lasagna ($17; above right). Again, I can’t comment on the authenticity, but to our taste the dish needed more flavor than braised leeks and casera cheese could supply.

We tried only one of the entrées, but it was spectacular: the Grilled Trout ($23; above). The trout is filleted, spread open, and brushed with a pine nut parsley pesto, spring onions and braised fennel. Then it’s folded back on itself, roasted and charred on the grill. Michael White could put it on the menu at Marea, charge $40, and be hailed as a genius.

 

The two desserts we sampled, Panna Cotta ($7; above left) and Tiramisu ($7; above right) were more conventional. Both are solid renditions of Italian classics, but you’ve had them before.

I can’t remember the last time I visited an Italian restaurant, and had so many unfamiliar dishes. There were a couple I didn’t care for, though for all I know they may be perfect renditions of favorites from the chef’s homeland. But most of the food is top-notch, and it’s hard to think of another Italian restaurant that is so full of pleasant surprises.

Paprika (110 St. Mark’s Place between First Avenue & Avenue A, East Village)

Monday
Jul092012

Mission Chinese

 

Note: Mission Chinese closed in November 2013 after the Department of Health found a major rodent infestation from a nearby construction site. Chef/owner Danny Bowien had hoped initially to fix the problem and re-open, but eventually concluded that the space was un-fixable. In the interim, Bowien ran a much-admired Mission Chinese pop-up at Frankies 457 in Brooklyn, and later at Mile End in Manhattan. As of September 2014, Bowien planned to re-open in the Lower East Side space that was briefly Rosette.

*

You’ve got every right to be skeptical of hyped restaurants, including Mission Chinese Food, which opened recently on the Lower East Side in the old Rhong Tiam space.

Mission Chinese deserves that hype. The food is clever, well made, and inexpensive. The chef, Danny Bowien, is a Korean from Oklahoma. The food doesn’t replicate any of the well known Chinese cuisines. According to the Times, the chef calls it “Americanized Oriental food.”

Among recent openings, perhaps RedFarm is the closest precedent—not that Bowien’s cuisine resembles Joe Ng’s in any but the vaguest way, but they both take Chinese cuisine as a point of departure, cooking with local ingredients and adapting the tradition to their own style.

Reservations aren’t taken, except for twelve seats at and around the bar. At most reasonable meal times, expect to wait an hour or more. I was seated immediately at 5:45pm on a Tuesday evening. By 7:00pm, when I left, standees were already three-deep at the bar, and the line to get in snaked out the door.

(At least there are other useful places in the neighborhood to cool your heels while you wait—an option not available at the city’s other hot new no-reservations Asian joint, Pok Pok NY, on the Brooklyn waterfront, fifteen minutes’ walk from the nearest subway, and not near anything else of interest.)

The restaurant is similar to a sister establishment in San Francisco, making Mission Chinese one of the very rare examples of a restaurant that has succeeded here after first succeeding somewhere else (which is likewise true of Pok Pok NY). New York is not usually so kind to imports.

The place is a bit ramshackle. You go down a few steps, through a narrow corridor, past the kitchen, and into what looks like a back yard with a makeshift roof that they ran out of money to finish properly. What will that porch will be like when the weather turns cold?

But the price is right, with small plates $4–13 and large ones $6–15. The restaurant donates 75 cents from each entrée to the Food Bank of New York City, a remarkable gesture for such an inexpensive place. The same amount from every cocktail sold will go to a different charity each month.

Even the so-called “small plates” are ample. I ordered one of each, and didn’t finish them. I’d like to try more, though I’m not sure when I’ll be able to return at an hour when the wait would be acceptable to me.

The menu continues to evolve: just today, Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton tweeted that there are two new dishes: $10 red braised pig tails & $9 “married couple’s” beef (tongue, heart, tripe, numbing chili).

 

Thrice-cooked bacon ($11.50; above left) is a devilish concotion, with Shanghainese rice cakes, tofu skin, bitter melon, and chili oil. It merits two “chili peppers” on the menu, and the chef ain’t kidding. It’s a hot dish.

Tea-smoked eel ($9; above right) has rotated off the menu as of today, and from the photos I’ve seen the chef makes it a number of different ways. It was served as an open-ended and over-stuffed dumpling filled with eel, and (I believe) pulled ham, celery, and soy. This was actually the smaller of the two plates, but it came out later and offered a welcome contrast to the blistering-hot bacon.

Cocktails, like the food, are clever, amply portioned, and inexpensive. The One-Eyed Jack ($9) is a characteristic example, with Soju (a Korean vodka), Umebashi (a Japanese plum), mint, and mirin (a Japanese condiment). Another, the Michelada, was made with smoked clam juice, chili, szechuan pepper, and beer.

No, these aren’t grandpa’s cocktails.

I arrived just after the health inspector and was warned the food would be delayed. (I didn’t hear what grade they got, but apparently the gentleman left without incident.) One of the cocktails was silently comped, probably for that reason. Aside from that, service at the bar was just fine. I can’t judge how long the food would take on a normal evening.

In New York, you could eat in another Chinese restaurant every day for years, and not run out of new places to try. There are specialist bloggers who have done practically that. For an assessment of exactly where Mission Chinese Food fits in this vibrant and widely varying community, I would refer you to them.

I can only say for myself, that Mission Chinese has some of the cleverest and most enjoyable inexpensive food I’ve had in quite a long time.

Mission Chinese Food (154 Orchard St. btwn Stanton & Rivington, Lower E. Side)

Food: Chinese-influenced, with pan-Asian and American ingredients
Service: Fine for such a casual establishment
Ambiance: A ramshackle back porch

Rating: ★★
Why? Some of the cleverest and most original food I’ve had in a while

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