Monday
Mar122012

The End of the Star System

Last week, the Los Angeles Times stopped awarding “stars” in its restaurant reviews. I’ve decided to do the same, but with a twist.

Unlike the LAT, I am still going to rate restaurants—in my own way (see below). Ratings are still meaningful, and I believe that consumers both expect and value them. But the existing stars are too laden with baggage to be useful any more.

The Problem

Although the LAT’s decision precipitated mine, the underlying issue has been on my mind for several years. The LAT explained it this way:

Starting this week, The Times will no longer run star ratings with our restaurant reviews. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, star ratings are increasingly difficult to align with the reality of dining in Southern California — where your dinner choices might include a food truck, a neighborhood ethnic restaurant, a one-time-only pop-up run by a famous chef, and a palace of fine dining. Clearly, you can’t fairly assess all these using the same rating system. Furthermore, the stars have never been popular with critics because they reduce a thoughtful and nuanced critique to a simple score. In its place, we’ll offer a short summary of the review.

There are also thoughtful comments from Huffington Post and preciently, a couple of weeks earlier, from Toqueland’s Andrew Friedman. Personally, I do not think the stars are any more difficult to apply than they were five, ten, or twenty years ago. They’ve always suffered from several problems.

First: a luxury restaurant is usually a candidate for three stars, but a disappointing luxury restaurant gets two; perhaps one or zero if it’s really bad. Conversely, a small neighborhood place usually gets one star, but it can get two if it’s exceptional. So the two-star level is a collision point, where you could find anything from SHO Shaun Hergatt to Parm.

Second: in the age of Yelp, most people are conditioned to think that if a restaurant gets one star, there must be something pretty badly wrong with it. Sometimes that’s true. But there are also some really good restaurants that have received one star in The New York Times—restaurants that the critic very clearly liked (despite some limitations), such as The Spotted Pig and Imperial Palace.

Compounding this problem, a number of critics use the same system nominally, but apply it in very different ways. Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton awards zero to four stars, but to him two stars is “good, reliable,” while one star is “fair.” At The Times, two stars is “very good,” while one star is “good.” Time Out New York awards one to five stars (never zero), so one star there is terrible.

Third: there is an unwritten rule that some types of restaurants just cannot get three stars, no matter how good they are. Pete Wells’s threespot for Il Buco A&V may be an attempt to change that—we’ll have to see—but for the most part only fairly luxurious, expensive restaurants even get the chance for three stars.

Finally: the star rating, at least as practiced by The New York Times, takes price into account. Restaurants sometimes get docked a star for being too expensive (in relation to perceived value); others get a “bonus star” for offering an exceptionally good deal. But this system is open to manipulation. Time and again, restaurants have raised their prices after receiving a rave review. The rating remains available years later on the paper’s website, even after the bargain prices that contributed to it are no longer offered. (I wrote a blog post decrying this practice a couple of years ago.)

These problems have been around for a very long time—perhaps forever. Because there are such heavily ingrained views about “what a three-star restaurant must be,” any attempt to redefine the system while still awarding stars, is doomed to fail. What’s needed is a different system entirely.

The New System

I am going to classify NYC restaurants in the following way:

Extraordinary: One of the best five to ten restaurants in the city; a restaurant that has it all. A transcendent experience, one of the world’s best. Worth a trip to New York in its own right.

Category Killer: A restaurant that aces its category, on its own terms, and without comparison to restaurants in totally different genres; the best, or very nearly the best, of its kind in NYC, without any serious weaknesses or omissions.

Critic’s Pick: the restaurant does something out of the ordinary, something that makes it better than the average place you can find in just about anywhere in town; a place worth traveling to—assuming the cuisine and ambiance fit your mood, tastes, and price point; a minor destination.

Neighborhood Spot: if you’re in the neighborhood, it’s nice to know it’s there. Worth considering if you’re in the area.

No Recommendation: Not recommended; I wouldn’t go back.

Simplistically, there are five levels, just as there were before, from four stars to zero. But these ratings no longer carry the same meanings. If you believe (as Sam Sifton did) that Motorino serves the city’s best pizza, then you can rate it a “Category Killer,” even though Sifton gave it just one star in the old system. (I have not reviewed Motorino.)

Even when I was awarding stars, I tended to think of restaurants in a hierarchy, as above. A two-star restaurant had to be a destination in some sense, while a three-star restaurant needed to be a destination in every sense. But time and again, I was frustrated by the need to maintain fidelity to what the stars had traditionally meant. Thus, I’ve assigned “Category Killer” status to The Spotted Pig and Minetta Tavern, even though I never would have considered giving them three stars.

The top rating—but only that one—retains its old meaning. Since there are no more stars, I’ve replaced it with its synonym, “Extraordinary.” This level has remained relatively pure over the years. Four-star restaurants have practically always been luxurious and very expensive, and there have never been many of them. I could envision a system where the city’s best hot dog stand gets four stars, because it’s the best that a hot dog stand can ever be. But no professional critic has ever come even close to doing that.

Over the years, I’ve gradually moved away from taking price into consideration. I am now making it explicit: ratings do not take price into consideration. I always state in my reviews what I paid for the food at the time. You can decide for yourself whether the restaurant is offering a good value. Price and value are dependent on too many factors that a critic can’t assess. Of course, if I think I overpaid or got a terrific deal, I’ll still say so. It just won’t affect the rating.

I’ve never made a distinction between rated restaurants and “$25 & Under,” as The New York Times does. But it is worth noting that this system can work at all price levels. Restaurants are rated against the Platonic Ideals of themselves. Shack Shack could be a Category Killer, if you believed it was the ideal burger stand. (That’s just a hypothetical; I haven’t reviewed Shake Shack, but the last guy who did wasn’t impressed.)

There can be more than one Category Killer of the same kind, but there can’t be too many. If you think that twenty sushi restaurants are Category Killers, then none of them are. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve given no steakhouses that status (unless you count Minetta Tavern as a steakhouse—which I don’t). There are a number of steakhouses that I recommend, but none that really stands sufficiently apart from the others.

This new system clearly does not eliminate subjectivity. No doubt more chefs think they are operating Platonic Ideals of their restaurants, than actually are. But at least this system articulates specific criteria for the ratings, eliminates price as a factor, and does not purport to measure wildly different establishments on the same numeric scale.

The Transition

RedFarm is the first review published on the new scale. It’s a Critic’s Pick.

Starting today, I will gradually convert my old reviews to this new system. I have hundreds of reviews accumulated, so this will take some time. I am not going to update the reviews of restaurants that have closed. And if I reviewed the same place multiple times, I am only going to update the most recent review (the one linked from my ratings page).

The Restaurant Index page now shows all the restaurants I’ve reviewed in approximately their final positions, but I am still adjusting them. (For reference, the old ratings are available here.)

It is possible that, after doing this for a while, I will find that this solution isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But the ratings described above correspond reasonably well to the way I believe critics ought to think about restaurants. It’s a system that I believe can work, and that other critics could use—not that I am holding my breath.

Monday
Mar122012

RedFarm

I was put off by the lines—the promise of an uncertain wait for one of the few communal seats. That’s why I didn’t visit RedFarm after it opened last August.

I’d liked the dim sum of the talented chef, Joe Ng, at Chinatown Brasserie. It was everything RedFarm isn’t: a big-box place that takes reservations and de-humanizes the cuisine, but was pretty darned good, for what it was—way back in 2007.

Then Pete Wells gave it two stars, and if he’s a critic of limited range, I’m pretty sure he gets casual Chinese: his review of Wong, in early January, was right on the money. So I was ready to give RedFarm a try.

At 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, all 45 seats were packed, and the host quoted a wait of forty-five minutes to an hour. He offered to take a phone number and text me when a spot opened up (there is no waiting space at all), but I didn’t want it that much. A couple of evenings later, I had better luck. But even at 5:30, there were only about three seats free. That’s how popular RedFarm is.

 

Shrimp and Snowpea Dumplings ($10; above left) might be taken as typical of Chef Ng’s knack for dim sum. They’re not merely cute (with little “eyes” staring back at you), but colorful (the skin is transluscent) and bursting with flavor.

The Creekstone Farms prime dry-aged ribeye steak ($39; above right) is marinated overnight, and served sliced, with crisp french-fry sized mini-spears of asparagus. It isn’t as thick or as musky as the better steakhouses serve, but it is better than you expect it to be.

This isn’t the right way to dine at RedFarm, although it’s the only way I had time for. The dishes are all designed for sharing. Go with three friends. Entrées and rice/noodle dishes are in a wide price range ($15–39), likewise the starters ($6–19) and dim sum ($7–19). Average it out, and you’re likely to spend a lot less per person on than the $49 I did.

Although the décor is bare-bones, it doesn’t feel cheap. What may seem that way is merely a stylistic choice. But it’s a style not designed for comfort or elbow room. Most of the seating is at communal tables; there are a few 2- and 4-person booths. Expect to be very cosy with your neighbor. But the staff are attentive and knowledgeable, within the confines of the format.

The beverage options are fairly limited, with about fifteen bottles of wine and seven beers, but there’s a full bar. Of the three cocktails I tried (all $12), I best liked “Le Club Hot,” with silver tequila, lime juice, agave nectar, jalapeño, and mint.

By the end of the meal, Chef Ng had recognized me, or at least guessed that I was going to be writing about the restaurant. He spoke to me at some length about his forays to the greenmarket, his quest to serve the perfect steak, and so forth. I humbly suggested he do the same with a pork chop.

Although restaurants of this ilk, with their no-reservations policies and cramped seating, are much associated with the younger generation, diners at RedFarm were in a wide age range on the night I visited. It takes patience to dine here, and a willingness to forego many of the standard amenities. So far, people seem to feel it’s worth it.

RedFarm (529 Hudson Street, south of Charles Street, West Village)

Cuisine: “Innovative, Inspired Chinese Cuisine with Greenmarket Sensibility”
Service: Very good, within its limitations (no coat check, reservations not taken)
Ambiance: Bare-bones chic; cramped; not the most comfortable

Rating: Critic’s Pick

Monday
Mar122012

Fiorini

   

Among families in the restaurant business, it is hard to find a starker contrast than the Arpaias: the under-publicized Lello; and his glamorous, photogenic daughter Donatella, who is often in the news, a fixture on the Food Network, and is seldom out of mind at her restaurants—because most of them are named after her.

But we never would’ve heard of Donatella, had it not been for her father, who has quietly put together a four-decade career at a series of upscale, old-school, classic Italian restaurants. He has closed a few, but they’ve all had multi-year runs, mostly successful, and without an outright failure. His current flagship is Fiorini, named for a monetary unit in nineteenth-century Tuscany. (Another Arpaia, Donatella’s older brother Dino, runs nearby Cellini.)

The few professional reviews of Fiorini are overly fixated on price. New York says it’s “Italian…aimed at the expense-account set.” Time Out says it’s “a neighborhood restaurant in a neighborhood with money to burn,” with “steep prices.” Menupages gives it five dollar signs ($$$$$), the same as Per Se. Zagat says “it’s ‘on the short list’ for ‘adult’ locals who don’t mind that checks are ‘a bit steep.’”

Time for a reality check. Antipasti and salads at Fiorini are $9–14, pastas $19–23, entrées mostly $24–30 (only two veal dishes surpass that amount). That’s about the same as you’ll pay at the city’s better known two-star Italian restaurants, such as Peasant, Locanda Verde, or Spigolo (to name a few), and no one has ever referred to those establishments as expense-account places.

And of course, you can easily pay far more than that for Italian cuisine in NYC, including some restaurants that are worth it (like Del Posto or Marea), and many that are not (like Nello or Harry Cipriani).

I would classify Fiorini as a bargain, assuming you’re in the market for what Mr. Arpaia is selling: very good traditional Italian cuisine in a comfortable, elegant, but slightly old-fashioned midtown dining room. This, to be fair, is a product that most of the city’s professional critics do not care for, which is why the prices grab their attention, when at any number of identically priced but more fashionable restaurants, they do not.

Full disclosure: I dined at Fiorini at the publicist’s invitation and did not pay for my meal. The kitchen sent out a nine-course “tasting menu”—a format the restaurant does not normally offer—consisting mostly of smaller-sized portions of dishes from their regular menu.

 

1. Polpo Ai Ferri (above left; grilled Mediterranean octopus, tomato, caper berries, olives, arugula, red onions). This was one of the better octopus dishes I’ve had in a while.

2. Burrata (above right; creamy imported mozzarella, roasted peppers, asparagus, prosciutto di Parma). This was some of the softest, sweetest burrata around, and I liked the textural contrast with the prosciutto.

 

3. Bucatini alla Matriciana (above left; San Marzano tomato sauce, imported pancetta, onions, Pecorino Romano).

4. Risotto ai Frutti di Mare (above right; Super fino arborio rice, jumbo lump crabmeat, diver scallops, ocean shrimp, calamari, seafood broth).

The reduced portion size didn’t quite do the two pasta/rice dishes justice; in particular, I couldn’t really make out all of the ingredients in the risotto, though the bucatini were pretty good.

 

5. Pesce Spada Livornese (above left; grilled swordfish, imported olives, onions, capers, and tomato sauce). The swordfish had a terrific smoky flavor, but in the smaller portion size was a bit too dry.

6. Cappesante (above right; pan-seared diver scallops, caper berries, lemon, white wine, fresh parsley). This was the best of the savory courses, aided by the plump, juicy scallop, with wonderful contrast from the caper berries and a candied apricot on the side.

7. Petto D’Anatra (below left; pan-seared duck breast with Bartlett poached pears in a dry vermouth sauce). This was a beautiful, rich portion of duck, though the sauce was not as memorable as the one given the scallop.

 

8. Zucotto (above right; three chocolate and passion-fruit mousse cake).

9. Baba (below left; sponge cake, hint of rum, Marsala wine, Mascarpone cheese custard).

10. Plate of Biscotti (below right).

The desserts were exemplary (and were served in full-size portions). I especially liked the Zucotto. I haven’t many examples for comparison, but I finished all of it despite not being a chocolate lover. The Baba was just fine, but it’s hard to avoid comparisons with Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, where they brought around a cart with a dozen aged rums to choose from. It’s no fault of Mr. Arpaia that Fiorini can’t duplicate this. Here, they supply the rum on the side, and you decide how much to add: I poured in the whole glass, unapologetically.

 

As I have noted in past reviews, old-school upscale Italian is the most over-represented cuisine in the city. Even if this were not an invited review (with all of the freighted conflicts it brings), it would be difficult to articulate precisely how this restaurant sets itself apart from others of comparable quality. I’d need to spend a month eating Italian every night, before I could tell you that, so I’ll leave you with the following:

A meal here may give the impression of a trip in the wayback machine, given the trends in contemporary dining. But for old-fashioned Italian elegance there are few better than Lello Arpaia.

Fiorini (209 East 56th Street between Second & Third Avenues, East Midtown)

Wednesday
Mar072012

The Pete Wells Wars

Last Update: March 7, 2012

Pete Wells, the latest New York Times restaurant critic, has been in the saddle for two months. How’s he doing?

Early Assessment: Wells is being extremely lenient on casual restaurants, but he has his knives out for upscale ones. Shake Shack got a star, despite inconsistent burgers and terrible fries. Parm got two stars, when it is basically a $25 & Under sandwich place. Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria got three stars, when it is in essence a slightly over-achieving neighborhood trattoria/grocery.

But Crown received one star, in a review dripping with contempt for its affluent clientele. Jungsik received just two stars, along with some condescending comments about Korea.

Wells’s grade inflation has doomed his tenure from the very start. One star supposedly means “good” in the NYT star system. In a world where Shake Shack (with all its faults) gets one, and Parm gets two, nobody will ever feel good about a one-star review, ever again.

We will have to wait and see whether Il Buco A&V’s three-star review was just a mistake, or if he intends to start handing out three-star reviews like Christmas candy. (This post will be updated periodically.)

The table after the jump shows every starred (or star-eligible) restaurant review that Wells has filed, his rating, and what I consider to be the “correct” rating. Those Wells over-rated are highlighted in red; those he under-rated are highlighted in green.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Mar062012

Geisha Table

Geisha Table, a new jewel-box izakaya on the Upper West Side, bears out the maxim that good things come in small packages.

You wouldn’t expect that from the proprietors, the Serafina Restaurant Group, who run a chain of forgettable Italian restaurants (ten outlets in New York and four other cities) and a mediocre French one, Brasserie Cognac.

Nor would you expect it if you’d visited the original Geisha on the Upper East Side, which opened in late 2003, and to which Amanda Hesser of The Times awarded one star. It was a big-box place, too crowded for its own good. Not even a former Le Bernardin sous-chef, with the Ripper himself consulting, could make it memorable. (I visited once, pre-blog.) The original Geisha is closed for now, while it readies “sleek new digs next door.”

Meanwhile, they’ve opened this adorable little izakaya, not at all in the mold of its predecessor (except that it’s still mainly Japanese). It has just 23 seats, all of them at the bar, a counter in back, or a communal table. It won’t attract the glam clientele that was the main appeal of Geisha on the East Side. The food actually matters here.

The menu features sushi, sashimi, rolls, yakitori, tempura, oysters, a few prepared entrées, and a generous listing of blackboard specials that changes frequently. Most individual items are under $15, and many are under $10; a chef’s sushi/sashimi selection is $25 or $45. It is probably better to just let the chef choose (as we did); nothing here is particularly expensive.

Disclosure: the staff recognized me, and our food bill, about $60 for two before tax and tip, was perhaps half of what one would ordinarily pay. For the alcohol we paid full freight.

 

Sweet corn tempura (above left) was as light as popcorn. This appeared to be a standard amuse bouche that went to every table. A black truffle tuna “sandwich” (above right) must have been a chef’s special—I can find no such item on the standard menu. It was one of the cleverest dishes I have had in a long while.

The chef’s choice sashimi platter had over a dozen items on it, all in pairs. We were charged just $45 for this, and I’m sure it is normally at least double that. Japanese trout (the pink fish in back), deep fried shrimp heads (on the right), and uni (in front) were the most memorable items for me, but it was all very good: one of the most varied and entertaining sashimi omakases I have had in quite a while, and certainly the best at this price.

 

We then switched to yakitori, including octopus (above left), chicken thigh (above right), and braised short rib (below left).

 

The chef finished with a deep-fried ball of pork belly (above right), which was insane.

Geisha Table is a single room, carved out of a larger space (formerly The West Branch) that is a 140 seat branch of Serafina. You can enter through the main restaurant on Broadway, or through a less conspicuous separate entrance around the corner, on W. 77th. Despite the shared management, they seem to have little in common. Reservations aren’t taken, but on entering a hostess offers immediately to check your coat, a trick the hostess in Serafina couldn’t manage.

The only drawback here is the seating: inflexible wooden stools, about eight inches in diameter. I felt a loss of circulation in my derrière about fifteen minutes into the meal. For an overweight person, it would be torture. But otherwise, Geisha Table offers a welcome escape from the city streets. It isn’t quite authentic, but in many ways it comes close. The service was wonderful, but I was recognized: you would like to think it’s the same for everyone, but I cannot say.

The executive chef here (Richard Lee) has the same title at Geisha on the East Side. It remains to be seen how he’ll cope with the dual assignment when the sister restaurant re-opens. But Geisha Table’s lilliputian proportions are a hedge against reversion to the mean. When you’re that small, it’s a lot harder to lapse into serving a mediocre product.

In some Tokyo neighborhoods, there’s an izakaya on every street corner, or at least it seems that way. In Manhattan they’re far less common, and I don’t remember finding one as good as this.

Geisha Table (2178 Broadway at 77th Street, Upper West Side)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: *
Overall: **

Monday
Mar052012

Dovetail (remodeled)

News that Dovetail had remodeled yet again brought me back last week, where I hadn’t been since a disastrous “Sunday Suppa” in 2008.

I’ve been a fan of chef John Fraser since he was at Compass. His short-lived pop-up, “What Happens When,” served one of the best meals I had in 2011. But neither of my Dovetail visits quite lived up to the three New York Times stars or the Michelin star it currently holds.

The space was remodeled in 2009 (photos here, here), gaining a new 16-seat bar area, twenty new seats in the dining room, and an expanded wine cellar. But it still resembled the original décor (left), with exposed brick and no tablecloths.

Last month, Dovetail closed again for a week. This time, they’ve gone all-in for elegance: there are crisp white tablecloths, and no more brick. It finally looks like a three-star restaurant.

That makes Dovetail more endearing, though it would no doubt have been a demerit when Frank Bruni and Adam Platt reviewed it four years ago. Its reputation assured, Dovetail no longer hedges its bets.

The current menu is in four sections: appetizers ($20–34), vegetables ($17–34), entrées ($37–48), and desserts ($10–16), with about half-a-dozen choices per category. Yes, that’s expensive if ordered à la carte. There’s a four-course $85 prix fixe, but you can order just two courses (as we do in most restaurants, and did here), and contain the damage.

I can certainly do without such pompous moralizing, as: “The chef recommends that you order four courses.” Yeah, duh. Of course he does. If you offer a carte, don’t act disappointed when diners use it.

 

Dovetail has always served a trio of amuses bouches (above), and although I failed to take note of them, they were excellent—as they’ve always been.

 

From the vegetable section came a compelling starter: cured carrots, chicken feed (sic), and a soft-boiled egg ($18; above left). I wouldn’t serve it to a hungry football team, but it is larger than it appears in the photo.

Braised lamb ravioli with saffron, olives, and peppers ($24; above right) were also quite good, if a shade less novel.

 

Swordfish ($37; above left) with clam chowder, chorizo, and thyme, was the evening’s most impressive production, as beautifully cooked as it was to look at. (Fraser does have a high quotient of ingredients to the square inch.)

But it seems there is always one dud at Dovetail, and this time it was Sweetbreads ($46; above right) with heirloom potatoes, bacon, and truffles. It takes chutzpah to charge $46 for sweetbreads. They really have to be good. These were just average, and and the truffles didn’t add much flavor.

The dining room was not very busy, but we dined relatively early on a Saturday evening, and then left for a show. Our upselling server did a fine job, once he was past trying to sell us into four courses. 

The 24-page wine list has magnums of 1959 Château Latour at $11,000; yet, they’ll happily sell you a recent Beaujolais Nouveau at $30. The sommelier showed not a hint of dismay that I ordered it. The server could learn from her. That Beaujolais isn’t an anomaly, either. Whatever your price range, you can do business here.

In 2008, appetizers at Dovetail were $11–18, entrées $24–34. You could order at the bottom or the middle of that range, and walk out with an excellent mid-priced dinner. At its current, much higher prices, Dovetail can no longer claim to be an over-achieving neighborhood place. Fraser wants a second Michelin star.

At its best, Dovetail lives up to its billing. Fraser is a talented chef: the effort and craftsmanship in his best work elevate this restaurant over most of its peers. But at these prices, the duds (even if rare) are harder to excuse.

Dovetail (103 W. 77th Street at Columbus Avenue, Upper West Side)

Food: **½
Service: **½
Ambiance: ***
Overall: **½

Wednesday
Feb292012

Minetta Tavern

I’ve written about Minetta Tavern before (here, here), and as far as background goes, I have little to add. I keep wondering if quality will suffer, given that it is perpetually packed and could probably float on reputation for years to come.

In four visits, I’ve only sat at the bar. Walk-in tables are never available at the hours I’ve gone, nor is it reservable at the times I want to eat. But the bar is really just an extension of the dining room: most people seated there order food.

The food remains excellent. If they’re capable of serving a bad dish, I haven’t seen it yet. The main menu is fairly static—except for the prices, which keep going up—but there is a printed specials menu that changes reasonably often. On a Monday evening a couple of weeks ago, everything we ordered was from that menu.

At $18, a Brussels Sprouts salad (above left) was no bargain, but despite the humble-looking photo, it’s studded with bacon and egg, a dream of a dish.

 

Sea Bass ($36; above left) seems to be the default fish that every restaurant must offer (having apparently replaced salmon and swordfish). This version of it was just about perfect.

But the dish I’ll remember for a long time was the Calves Liver ($34; above right), so thick and hearty it could be a steak, with a charred skin as if it were a steak. This was the best liver dish I can recall, anywhere.

The formula here remains what it was: deceptively simple things that they knock out of the ballpark. Our food bill was $88 for two entrées and a shared salad. Most of the entrées are above $30, but you can eat for less. The Minetta Burger is still just $17 and worth every penny; the Tavern Steak, at $26, although it is not the best steak they serve, still puts many other places’ steaks to shame.

Wine will plump up the bill, no matter what you do. It’s a good diverse list, but with very little below $60 a bottle.

There are a lot of Minetta dishes still on my bucket list — I’m still looking for an occasion to try the côte de boeuf for two (now $134), and the roasted bone marrow looks incredible. That’s for another day.

Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal Street between Bleecker & W. 3rd Streets, Greenwich Village)

Food: ***
Service: **
Ambiance: *½
Overall: **½

Wednesday
Feb292012

Goat Town

When Pete Wells, restaurant critic of The New York Times, wasted a review slot last week on Shake Shack — an over-exposed chain that is not a restaurant, has been reviewed before, is not very good, and would remain perpetually packed no matter what he said — it raised an obvious question: what is not getting reviewed?

Submitted for your approval: Goat Town.

I don’t want to overstate the case for Goat Town. It’s an earnest, casual American bistro in the familiar farm-to-table mold, somewhat resembling the Brooklyn restaurant that its chef and owner came from, The General Greene. Almost every neighborhood has one now; across the river, they’re on every block.

But it plays the game well, is not entirely derivative, hasn’t been much reviewed (except for Sietsema in the Voice), and it offers at least one good dish you don’t find everywhere. In other words, it beats Shake Shack on every count, and by a wide margin.

The menu fits on a single sheet of paper. It’s inexpensive by today’s standards, with appetizers $5–14, entrées $17–26, side dishes $5–7, and desserts $5–9. From the beginning (late 2010), there has always been a goat dish on the menu, though there’s a double ententre in the name Goat Town: it’s the original meaning of the word Gotham, a long-forgotten insult coined by the writer Washington Irving.

 

If you want Bread & Butter (above left), you have to order it and pay an extra $2. I get the idea: it doesn’t break the bank, and that way they don’t send out unwanted bread that will go to waste. But for two bucks I thought they could have made a more bountiful presentation.

My son and I both ordered the Smoked Goat ($23; above right), served here with braised white beans and a parsley salad. I failed to re-orient the plate, so the photo shows mostly greens and beans. I can assure you the goat is there: two generously portioned loin chops, resembling lamb, but with a more pungent taste.

I always assumed that goat is frequently used in stews because it would be too chewy, but this goat was just fine, making a strong case that this meat doesn’t always need to be served in cubes with heavy curry sauce.

 

A side of Brussels Sprouts ($7; above left) was a bit sad looking, but the kitchen did very well by Roasted Carrots ($6; above right).

And a shared Coffee Caramel Sundae ($9; left), with coffee ice cream, a chocolate brownie, pecans, ice cream, and caramel sauce, was excellent.

The restaurant has a beer and wine license, but they make some worthwhile cocktails despite that limitation. The Abbott ($9), with white wine, Cocchi Americano, bitters, and lime, was ample and refreshing.

Goat Town takes reservations. We were able to walk in at around 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday evening, though that is early for the East Village. An hour or so later, we would have had to wait.

The décor is attractive for purpose, with a long bar along the left-hand side of a narrow space, leading to an open kitchen in back. Tables are made of reclaimed wood, with booths made of subway tile. Despite appearances, it didn’t get unbearably noisy. Service was fine.

Goat Town isn’t a destination, but it’s a good realization of its genre and well worth a visit if you’re nearby.

Goat Town (511 E. 5th Street, east of Avenue A, East Village)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *

Monday
Feb272012

Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria

 

Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria (“IBA”) doesn’t deserve the three stars Pete Wells of The New York Times gave it a fortnight ago, but you already knew that. It just might be the single craziest Times review of the last decade—and there have been some howlers, believe me.

What’s sad is not that IBA is overrated. What’s sad is that a good, earnest “neighborhood-plus” restaurant is now getting hammered with crowds it cannot handle, who arrive with expectations it cannot possibly meet.

Of course, it is also sad that the Paper of Record thinks believes IBA is in any respect comparable to Babbo or Marea, Italian restaurants with three deserved stars; or that it is in any respect superior to Lincoln, which has just two; or Osteria Morini, which has one.

This is not to take anything away from what owner Donna Lennard has done, which is to create a cute Italian market (an alimentari) with a pretty good sandwich shop by day (when they don’t run out of stuff—which seems to happen a lot), and an endearing (if crazily crowded) Trattoria by night.

The market came first: they sell cheeses, salumi, olive oil, chocolates, and the like. Then came the restaurant. It was clearly part of the plan all along: there is a bright, open kitchen in the back, and there are two bars. But stools and tables (several of them communal), surely as many as the law allows, have now been crammed into almost every nook and cranny. Plan on getting to know your neighbor really, really well.

It’s a three-meal-a-day operation, and the market remains open all the while. Kim Davis of The Times says serve the best porchetta sandwich in town. But presumably it’s mainly the dinner menu that got them three stars. (Click on the photo, above left, for a larger image.)

It’s heavy on appetizers (an even dozen of them, $12–18), pastas (a half-dozen, $17–21) and salumi (various prices; assortment for $32). There are just four secondi ($29–38)—and one of those, the spit-roasted short ribs ($38), is actually an order for two, though the menu fails to so state.

The bread service (above right) is pretty good, but not quite deserving of critic Wells’s near-orgasmic description. It’s made in in-house and a tad fresher than you’ll get most places, but hardly anything to change your life. I was actually a bit more addicted to the bread sticks. [Addendum: After I wrote this, the head baker asked me to come in for a bread tasting, where I had quite a bit more than the simple ciabatta shown here.]

 

House-cured salt cod fritters ($12; above left) are a decent snack; certainly a few steps better than Mrs. Paul’s.

I had set my hopes on the aforementioned short ribs (above right), not realizing that it was a dish for two. Plenty of restaurants would charge the same ($38) for a solo portion, so after being properly warned by the server, I went ahead and ordered it anyway. It’s the whole short rib, tender and luscious, with a garnish of olives, celery, walnuts, and horseradish, and—so says The Times—peppercorns and coriander seeds. It is awfully salty. That, more than the size of the portion, is why I stopped eating it halfway through.

 

On a second visit, I tried the Fried Rabbit ($15; above left). A leg, thigh, and “wing” are coated in an appealing bread crust with black pepper, honey, and lemon. Paccheri ($21; above right), with braised oxtail, greens, and parmigiano, was far less impressive. The pasta was too chewy and not warm enough.

IBA’s sister restaurant, just-plain Il Buco, to which I haven’t been, opened nearby in 1994. It received one star from Ruth Reichl—which in those days was a compliment. The food boards say that the dishes in common are a bit better at IBA, but the original looks like a more charming space: it doesn’t double as a grocery, and they haven’t shoehorned in quite so many tables per square foot.

The service is better than you’d expect: they take reservations (good luck getting one right now), check coats, and seat incomplete parties. I walked in on a Wednesday evening at around 5:45 p.m., fifteen minutes before dinner service, and was seated at the bar as soon as the dining room opened. The following Monday at 6:00 on the dot was also just fine. Both times, less than an hour later, it was packed. It is all they can do to keep up, but I hesitate to blame them: I doubt even they thought they were building a three-star restaurant.

Pete Wells said that IBA reminded him of a mythical Italian village. To me, it felt like an obvious product of Manhattan, not that that’s surprising: most Manhattan restaurants do; funny how that works. A diner asked to order appetizers, and he’d see about primi or secondi later on. “I’m sorry,” the server replied, “but Chef prefers to receive your entire order at once.” Try and find an Italian restaurant in Umbria where they’d say that.

The wine list, which fits on one sheet of paper, is limited to about eight producers (not all of them Italian), with half-a-dozen wines from each of them. Prices by the glass are reasonable (disclosure: one was comped), but the bartenders don’t offer you a taste before pouring.

With its extensive in-house baking and curing program, IBA clearly has more going for it than your average neighborhood Italian place. For now, it is a destination restaurant, and as the owners have been around for nearly two decades, you can figure they’re here to stay. But just like Eataly, a space that is trying to be both a grocery and a restaurant is not ideal at either one.

Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria (53 Great Jones Street west of Bowery, NoHo)

Food: Enjoyable but uneven and over-priced modern Italian cuisine
Service: Hectic
Ambiance: A market and a restaurant combined, to the detriment of both

Rating: Neighborhood spot
Why? Compelling at times, but too flawed and uneven to be a critic’s pick

Wednesday
Feb222012

Lowcountry

Note: Lowcountry closed. The space is now called Louro, under the same ownership, with chef David Santos.

*

Whenever there’s a chef change at a restaurant I’ve reviewed, I always make a note of it. I might not get around to a re-review, but at least it remains in the back of my mind.

I did make it back to Lowcountry, which has a new chef, Oliver Gift, as of January 2012. Much of the background of the restaurant remains the same, so I refer you to my October 2010 review for details.

The cuisine is still Southern U.S., but with more traditional menu headings: appetizers and mains, rather than the irritating “small” plates and “large.” Prices have crept up: whereas entrées were formerly $19–23, they’re now $19–30, with an average around $25. Some former apps are now served as larger and more expensive mains, but Lowcountry remains a low-to-mid-priced restaurant by today’s standards.

We thought the Lowcountry Sampler ($16; above) would be a good way to sample the appetizers. You get two bacon deviled eggs, two mini crab cakes, a bit of Benton’s country ham, and a scoop of leek dip with house-made chips. It is all unobjectionable, but equally unimpressive.

 

Last time, Shrimp & Grits with Andouille Sausage (above left) was a $14 appetizer; it’s now a $20 entrée. But what it seems to have gained is a bowl full of soupy grits that overwhelmed the shrimp and sausage.

Arctic Char ($24; above right) was considerably better, despite an overly precious plating that is really out of place for the restaurant. Char is a delicate fish, and the kitchen has mastered it, served on a bed of red quinoa.

In keeping with the Southern theme, there is an extensive bourbon list. We had a couple of bourbon-based cocktails that were strictly of the backyard barbecue variety, the sorts of unstudious drinks you wouldn’t mind if a buddy served them on the back porch.

The restaurant was not doing much business on a Sunday evening; I have no idea if that is typical. Service was fine, as you’d expect under those circumstances. The new chef has worked at some impressive places (Commerce, Blue Hill at Stone Barns), so I thought he might have plans to elevate the cuisine. He may yet, but so far that is not the case.

Lowcountry (142 W. 10th Street between 6th & 7th Avenues, West Village)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *