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

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)