Friday
Dec072012

Whym

Note: Whym closed in late 2013.

*

Whym is “A Restaurant,” as both the outdoor sign and the credit card receipt remind you. I’m glad they cleared it up. Just in case you wandered in, and thought it was a shoe store.

Actually, there’s no chance of confusion. Whym is exactly what it appears to be: a comfortable, informal, stylish New American dining spot. It’s in a good location, within walking distance of Lincoln Center, and on the edge of gentrifying Hell’s Kitchen.

Open since 2006, Whym sits blissfully outside the culinary conversation, devoid of any media attention. It’s one of those acceptable, functional restaurants that the city is full of, neither objectionable nor especially praiseworthy.

For a family dinner before a show, Whym fulfilled its purpose. Most of the food was good, or good enough, and a family of five got out for $264 before tip (that was with two of us not drinking alcohol).

The cuisine at Whym is in the upscale comfort food idiom, with prices that all end in “.95”. I thought they only did that in the suburbs. Appetizers, soups and salads are $6.95–12.95, entrées $14.95–27.95, side dishes $6.95–8.95, desserts $7.95–9.95. There’s a good selection of vegan and gluten-free dishes.

  

Artichokes ($11.95; above left) were panko-crusted and pan-fried, tasting a bit like a vegetarian fried calamari. The arugula leaves that come with it were dry, and needed some dressing. I heard murmurs of approval from the crew that tasted the Butternut Squash Ravioli ($11.95; above center), but I didn’t try it. Pulled Duck Sliders ($12.95; above right) had a satisfying tang, but shouldn’t have contained bones.

  

Wild Mushroom Cavatelli ($20.95; above left) could have used some salt and were a shade too mild, the table said. But Thai Linguini ($22.95; above center) got the seal of approval from those who tried it. Maple Blackened Salmon ($23.95; above right) was just fine.

  

There was a Duck Breast special with sweet potato ($24.95; above left), which my son loved. I didn’t expect a Pork Chop ($25.95; above center) to be pounded flat. For almost the most expensive item on the menu, this undistinguished specimen was a disappointment. I was much more fond of the garlic-scallion mashed potatoes underneath it.

A side dish of so-called Sexy Mushrooms ($7.95; above right) was just a side of mushrooms (three kinds) with almonds in a mascarpone cheese sauce: a good dish, but the sexy angle entirely eluded us.

 

A trio of sorbets ($8.95; above left) included plum, coconut, and mango-banana flavors. The S’mores-wich ($9.95; above right) was by unanimous agreement the best thing on the menu, a terrific dessert with chocolate ganache, graham cracker crust, and melted marshmallows.

The space is arguably over-decorated, but the booths are comfortable, and the space is not loud. It was about two-thirds full on a Saturday evening. The service, like the prices, felt suburban, but was certainly good enough.

Whym (889 Ninth Avenue, north of 58th Street, Hell’s Kitchen)

Food: New American comfort food, unadventurous but mostly successful
Service: Like an upscale suburban place
Ambiance: Comfortable, modern, and not loud

Rating:
Why: A deservedly below-the-radar spot, good enough for a family outing

Monday
Dec032012

Cómodo

How can you not just smile and be pleased at the success of a restaurant like Cómodo?

It grew out weekly dinners that the newlywed owners, Felipe Donnelly and Tamy Rofe, hosted in their TriBeCa apartment, starting in early 2010. Soon it was a full-fledged supper club called Worth Kitchen. By 2011 the health department caught on, and they had to close shop.

But a full-fledged restaurant was always the goal, and with a little help from Kickstarter, they finally have one—and in a lovely location, too, on the edge of Soho in the former Salt space. It’s a typical downtown dining room, with exposed brick walls, a bustling bar, and closely-spaced bare wood tables.

In a well-run restaurant, there are hundreds of things that just happen in the background, and the average diner never notices them until they’re not done right. At Cómodo, you never get the sense that the owners were amateurs a year ago. For a couple that was throwing once-a-week home dinner parties, Donnelly and Rofe have made the transition with remarkable ease.

The cuisine is Latin American, not exactly fancy, but a step up from comfort food. I gather it changes regularly. As of last week, there are seven appetizers ($10–17), six entrées ($17–28) and three desserts ($7–11).

I neglected to photograph the bread service, which came to the table warm, in a little paper bag, with soft butter that contained spackling of toasted almonds and sea salt. The overall effect was like a Ritz cracker.

 

A Brussels Sprout Caesar Salad ($10; above left), shaped like an over-size hockey puck, was the least successful dish we tried, as a garlic parmesan dressing obscured the flavor of the Brussels sprouts, and we didn’t detect much of a Caesar salad flavor either. (It looked better than the over-exposed photo shows.)

Roasted Cauliflower Gratin ($12; above right) was quite a bit more successful, sort of like a macaroni and cheese, with cauliflower replacing the macaroni.

  

Braised Berkshire Pork Shoulder ($24; above left) was excellent, and a much heartier portion than the photo suggests. It came with trumpet mushrooms, greens, and a huge helping of mashed potatoes (above center) with a surprisingly smoky flavor.

Duck Breast ($28; above right) was pretty good, but I hardly touched a wedge-shaped serving of quinoa sprinkled with butternut squash and smoked mozzarella. Next to the regal duck, it felt like a humble afterthought.

 

Flourless Chocolate Cake with passion fruit sauce ($11; above left) brought the meal to a strong conclusion, along with a small plate of petits fours (above right).

Aside from one minor glitch—really, not worth mentioning—service was better than you’d expect at such a casual spot. We didn’t sample the wine list, but they make a terrific Sangria. You won’t go wrong if you stick with that.

The restaurant was practically empty at 7:00 pm on a Wednesday evening, but by 8:00 it was nearly full. Aside from a Hungry City piece in The Times over a month ago, there hasn’t been much press coverage, so they must be getting good word-of-mouth. As of today, you can add me to the fanclub.

Cómodo (58 MacDougal Street between King & Houston Streets, Soho)

Food: Hearty, upscale Latin American cuisine
Service: Surprisingly polished
Ambance: A crowded, but not oppressively loud, downtown dining room

Rating:
Why? Food a shade below destination level, but in another year it might get there

Tuesday
Nov272012

De Santos

De Santos is one of those West Village restaurants built to look like it has been there forever. The building is an 1800s townhouse (and former speakeasy) that the likes of Janis Joplin, Edward Albee, and Bob Dylan once called home. Jimi Hendrix played in the downstairs lounge (now called the Janis room); Warhol hung out there, or so they say.

All of that pre-dates the restaurant, which opened in 2008 with an Italian theme, since revised. The current chef, as of about a year ago, is Angel Vela, a Pastis and Waverly Inn vet. He serves a mid-priced contemporary American menu, with starters and salads $12–16 and entrées $18–29.

Technically, De Santos is a mini-chain with three Latin American owners and outposts now and/or forthcoming in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico City, Rio, and Buenos Aires. But the chef here seems to cook his own menu, and I can’t imagine a space quite like this one in any other city.

The dining room has a vintage rustic look, with a bit of taxidermy here and there. The main dining room seats 80, with another 40 on an enclosed patio and 40 more downstairs. An outdoor garden was closed when I visited. They serve weekend brunch and dinner every night till 11:00 pm or midnight, although the bar stays open until 2 or 3 am.

I visited with the publicist and didn’t pay for my meal. There were four of us at the table, which allowed us to sample a wide swath of the menu. Prices shown below are from the menu on the website.

 

We started with the Garden Salad ($15; above right), which offered a thick pile of arugula, avocado, and feta cheese, with balsamic dressing.

 

The chef’s main weakness is that he uses too much truffle oil. Fortunately, it was barely detectable in the so-called Truffle and Lobster Macaroni and Cheese ($22; above left), an excellent dish. We also loved the luscious Tuna Tartare ($16; above right) with avocado and soy ginger vinaigrette.

 

Roasted Salmon ($26; above left), with dill sauce and Greek salad, was quite a bit better than restaurant salmon usually is. But scallops (above right; not listed on the menu) were ruined by a heavy-handed shower of truffle oil.

 

A New York Strip with Béarnaise sauce ($26; above left) was surprisingly good for a non-steakhouse restaurant, but the fries would have been far better without—you guessed it—truffle oil. The Grilled Pork Chop ($24; above right), with couscous, sautéed greens and mustard sauce, is a winner, and far larger than the photo does justice to. For the price, it may be the best dish on the menu.

 

I was worn out by now, or rather my stomach was, but the desserts seemed pretty good: Crêpes with dulce de leche and toasted almond ice cream ($8; above left) and Chocolate Lava Cake with strawberry sauce ($10; above right).

The restaurant was not very busy when we started, at around 7 pm, but the bar and main dining room had mostly filled up by about 9 pm on a weeknight. Obviously, I can’t comment on the service, as we were known to the house.

If you visit De Santos, a couple could easly share the Lobster Mac & Cheese, the Pork Chop, and a dessert. You’d go home happy and your wallet wouldn’t be much lighter. De Santos is an attractive place, well worth dropping in if you’re in the area.

De Santos (139 W. 10th St. between Greenwich Ave. & Waverly Pl., West Village)

Monday
Nov262012

Maysville

I’ve long since given up on making it to all of the great Brooklyn restaurants I read about. Most of them don’t fit into my schedule, are too far away, don’t take reservations—or all of the above.

Char No. 4 is one of those places: mention whiskey, and you have my attention. But I haven’t made it over there, and I’m not sure I ever will. Thank goodness there’s Maysville, a new restaurant from the same owners. It takes reservations and I can walk there after work. Sounds good so far.

The two restaurants are similar: Southern cuisine, with more whiskeys in stock than you’ll try in a lifetime. The owners wisely hired a separate chef, rather than trying to run two places with the same staff. Kyle Knall, an Alabama native and former Gramercy Tavern sous chef, runs the kitchen here.

The menu is concice: raw and chilled seafood platters, plus half-a-dozen appetizers ($12–16) and an equal number of entrées ($23–28). It’s largely free of clichés. There’s nary a fried chicken or barbecue rib platter in sight, though they’d surely be best-sellers if the chef offered them.

In fact, although I wouldn’t call the meny edgy, there’s really no bail-out dish for the unadventurous customer that most Manhattan restaurants have to accommodate. If you check back in six months and there’s still no basic green salad or cedar-plank salmon on the menu, then you’ll know the strategy has worked.

The bread service consists of small cornbread muffins (above left). Three of us shared an appetizer, the Brussels Sprouts ($12; below right) with crisp pig ears, quail eggs, lemon and buttermilk dressing. This dish was so good, we were still talking about it three days later.

 

Coincidentally, all three of us ordered fish entrées. I tried a bit of each one, and they were all just about perfect, especially at these prices. I’d order any one of them again: the Striped Bass ($26; above right) with mushrooms, squash, and crab; the Grilled Sturgeon ($27; below left) with roasted cauliflower, capers, and veal jus; and the Whole Smoked Trout ($24; below right) with watercress, charred red onions, and pickled mushrooms.

(If we’re being picky, I could have done with a bit less of the watercress leaves, which smothered the trout. They were easily shoved to the side, but I didn’t need that many of them.)

 

The meal rounded off with a bit of peanut butter candy (right).

I arrived before my guests to find the bar packed, probably with an after-work crowd. It thinned out considerably at about 8:00 pm, so we decided to eat at the bar, where service was just fine. I drank only cocktails, mostly re-interpretations of bourbon-based classics.

The name, by the way, is inspired by Maysville, Kentucky, which is said to be the birthplace (or one of many birthplaces) of American bourbon. The restaurant would probably be a destination for its bottle spirits alone, even if the food menu were no more than potato chips.

When you add a chef who knows what he’s doing, you’ve got a winner.

Maysville (17 W. 26th Street between Sixth Avenue & Broadway, Flatiron District)

Food: Southern-inspired, not at all cliché, and very well done
Service: Professional, competent, and friendly
Ambiance: Smart casual, dominated by a 60-foot bottle wall behind the bar

Rating:
Why? Every dish we tried was excellent; plus a first-rate whiskey list

Monday
Nov192012

Pig and Khao

Pig and Khao is the first solo venture for Top Chef alumna Leah Cohen, who is better known for shagging fellow cheftestant Hosea Rosenberg than for her performance on the show.

Cohen is actually a better chef than that. A CIA grad and former chef de partie at Eleven Madison Park, she opened Centro Vinoteca in the West Village with Anne Burrell, and was later promoted to executive chef. She left the restaurant in late 2009 and spent a year in Asia.

This new restaurant, in the old Falai space, is a partnership with Fatty Crew, the outfit behind the various “Fatty” restaurants (Crab, ’Cue). The food may be Cohen’s, but there’s Fatty DNA all over the place, from the casual no-reservations vibe, to the cocktail program and even the china.

The cuisine is nominally Filipino (as is Cohen on her mother’s side), though like most “Fatty” restaurants, it’s a mash-up of so many different Asian and American culininary styles that it really isn’t authentically anything.

The whole menu, including the cocktail and wine list, fits on a single sheet of paper. It’s dominated by small plates ($9–15), with just three proper entrées ($24–28), a few sides ($4–8), and a couple of desserts ($8). Cocktails are inexpensive ($10); along with beers, they vastly outnumber the wines (just five choices).

But none of this is necessarily a drawback. Especially at a new restaurant, I’d rather choose from a dozen items the chef thinks she can nail than from many dozens she can’t.

Sizzling Sisig ($12; above) is a legitimate Filipino dish, with chillies and pork face. The whole egg on top may be Cohen’s idea, as it’s not mentioned in any of the online recipies I checked. It’s served on a cast-iron skillet, still frying as you eat it. This is one of my favorite dishes of the year.

 

Curry Lamb Ribs ($24; above) are grilled at a low heat for many hours. They pull off the bone easily, then you wrap them in whole wheat pancakes with beets and yogurt. This is another terrific dish.

I visited quite early on a Friday evening—I was practically the first customer—so I was well taken care of. Cohen was in the house, but working mostly downstairs in the prep kitchen. She did make two brief appearances, wearing a thin red t-shirt with the words “Pleasure Dispenser” printed across her chest.

The space is attractively remodeled, and more casual than in the Falai days. It isn’t a large restaurant, especially with the backyard garden closed in colder weather. For a solo diner, a seat at the chef’s counter is the way to go.

The two dishes I ordered may be the best ones: I had the advantage of reading early reviews and heeding their recommendations. We’ll have to see if the chef has more arrows like that in her quiver.

Pig and Khao (68 Clinton St. between Rivington & Stanton Sts, Lower East Side)

Food: Flipino cuisine, liberally interpreted
Service: Casual, but just fine for what it is
Ambiance: Right out of the Fatty playbook

Rating:
Why? A couple of excellent dishes, but menu and beverage program need to grow 

Monday
Nov122012

Center Bar

When chef Michael Lomonoco signed the contract to open Porter House New York at the Time-Warner Center, he agreed not to open any other restaurants for a certain number of years—five, I believe. It was a substantial commitment, especially in a genre (the steakhouse) that doesn’t offer much compass for originality.

That commitment finally expired, but Lomonoco’s second effort remains close to home: Center Bar, a lounge and small-plates restaurant on the fourth floor of the Time-Warner Center, just steps away from Porter House.

The photo above, taken from the website, shows Center Bar in broad daylight when no one is around. The one below shows Center Bar as you’re likely to find it in the early evening—say, at 7:30 pm on a Friday. It’s an after-work, shopping, tourist, and perhaps pre-concert crowd, but not many of the latter. Reservations aren’t accepted, but we waited only about 20 minutes for a table.

The design team has done the best they can with the space. Admirably, in fact. But unlike Per Se and Masa, located on the same floor, you can’t go inside and forget where you are. There’s no escaping that you’re in a shopping mall, albeit a very upscale one.

The menu consists entirely of small plates suitable for sharing. Aside from caviar ($95; American sturgeon with blini), the plates range from $11–21, and a party of two will need four to six of these to make a full meal. There’s also charcuterie ($5 for one; $22 for a platter) and cheese ($5 for one, $24 for a platter).

 

The Foie Gras Parfait ($18; above left) was excellent. A few tiny Lincoln log-shaped pices of toast were nowhere near enough, but the staff quickly produced more, when asked. A Red Romaine Salad ($14; above right) was competently done, but we found only two of the promised anchovies.

 

Halibut ($17; above left) is an especially good deal, nearly entrée sized, served with tapenade, lentils and a Moroccan spice dust. I’m not sure if the Wagyu beef ($21; above left) is worth it. Although rich and tender, as Wagyu should be, you get only five small slivers of meat, which comes out to $5.20 a bite.

The house cocktails are decent, though on the expensive side, ranging from $15–22. I would avoid the Maxim ($19) with Ketel One vodka and wasabi-caviar stuffed olives, which came with no caviar that I could detect. (Earlier, the staff delivered the wrong cocktail, for which I wasn’t charged.) The wine list is minimal, but I suspect they have use of the Porter House wine list, for high rollers who may wish to indulge.

Aside from the cocktail snafu, the staff are on top of things in Center Bar’s early days, but your server may disappear for long intervals. There was no attempt at upselling and the plates came out in a reasonable sequence, neither of which you can count on at a “small plate” restaurants.

The food here is generally competent. It will probably stay that way and might even get better, if the experience of Porter House is any guide. At the price, you have plenty of better options for a full meal in the neighborhood. I’d visit again for a drink and a snack.

Center Bar (10 Columbus Circle, Time-Warner Center, Fourth Floor)

Food: Small plates, attractive and usually pretty good
Service: Generally good, but perhaps more servers are needed at busy times
Ambiance: An upscale hotel lobby, transplanted to a shopping mall

Rating:
Why? A lot better than your average shopping mall

Monday
Nov052012

Barraca

 

Note: Jesús Núñez has left Barraca and its sister restaurant, Melibea. Alex Ureña has replaced him.

*

I was a big fan of Gastroarte, chef Jesús Núñez’s avant-garde Spanish restaurant near Lincoln Center. But his work there was too edgy for the neighborhood, and critics found his cooking uneven. Earlier this month, Núñez re-surfaced at Barraca, where he doesn’t challenge diners as much—and if he did, would probably find a more receptive audience.

It’s your typical attractive downtown space, with dark wood tables, bright blue seats, wood pillars, timber beams, and exposed brick. Miraculously, on a Friday evening it was not as loud as such places usually are, even though the 80-seat dining room was nearly full.

The menu fits on one sheet of paper, featuring a dozen tapas ($6–12), a similar number of salads and vegetable dishes ($6–12), cheeses and charcuterie ($12–32), six varieties of paella ($19–27), just a few entrées ($23–30), and four desserts ($7–9).

The paellas take about 25 minutes, and in the meantime the server suggested six tapas to share. I’d say that’s on the high side, unless you’re quite hungry; we ordered four.

  

The tapas are the chef’s best work: the Croquetas ($9; above left; top); Esparragos (White Asparagus) with anchovies and vegetable vinaigrette ($7; above left; bottom); Albondigas, or meatballs, in a vegetable sauce ($10; above middle); and a spicy Setas Alajillo, a stew of sautéed mushrooms in a garlic sauce with pork sausage ($10; above right).

Paellas are served for a minimum of two people, but the kitchen will prepare different varieties of paella in a large skillet with a cast-iron divider between the two halves. (I’ve seen some photos with the skillet divided in three.)

We tried the Paella Roja de Carabineros (several varieties of shrimp and prawns in a shrimp stock) and the Paella de Tierra (chicken, rabbit, pork belly, pork ribs, string beans and fava beans), $27 and $23 respectively. We found both too salty and greasy, and the rice at the bottom lacked the right crusty crunch. In the Paella de Tierra, the various meats were mostly indistinguishable, aside from the pork belly, which stood out (as it always does).

The Coca de Chocolate ($9; above) was one of the more unusual desserts we’ve had in a while, a crisped tortilla covered in chocolate, topped with berries and cream. We’d certainly order this again.

The wine list is not extensive at this point, but we did well with a 2006 Rioja Riserva for $46. Service was fine, and if only the chef could get the paellas in order, this place would be just about perfect. Still, there is much to enjoy here, and I suspect it will only get better.

Barraca (81 Greenwich Avenue at Bank Street, West Village)

Food: Inventive tapas and paellas, mostly well prepared (especially the former)
Service: Casual and just fine for what it is
Ambiance: Attractive garden-variety West Village casual

Rating:

Friday
Nov022012

SD26

Note: Owner Tony May sold SD26 in March 2015. The new owners expect to remodel the space, and re-open it under a new name. In three visits to SD26 and its predecessor, San Domenico, I never had a wholly satisfactory meal. In this, my final review, I gave it zero stars. For an appreciation from someone whom I respect, check out The Pink Pig’s closing retrospective.

*

Remember SD26? Yeah, we’d forgotten it too.

I won’t rehash the whole background (see my 2009 review). In brief: faced with a $600,000 rent increase on Central Park South (in the space that’s now Marea), restaurateurs Tony and Marisa May (father and daughter) moved their downtown, to 26th Street at Madison Park.

What had been the somewhat stodgy, old-school, and not-very-good San Domenico, became the trying-to-be-hip, and still-not-great, SD26. Sam Sifton gave it one star in The Times. Some liked it better, but I don’t recall any outright raves. The chef left. Eater.com put it on deathwatch.

Three years after the move, and two years post-deathwatch, SD26 is hanging on, perhaps even thriving. It’s a Saturday evening, and the bar is thumping: a really unplesant place, where you struggle to get a bartender’s attention, and frankly you wouldn’t want a drink there anyway. The dining room is far more appealing, and well on the way to a nearly-full house, with a crowd of all ages. If the owners’ plan was to broaden the customer base, they’ve succeeded.

I called Massimo Vignelli’s interior design “stunning” last time I was here. I retract that. On a second look, it strikes me as a dining room designed by committee, one that cannot decide exactly whom it is trying to please. Some tables have tablecloths; others don’t. Some have chairs with backs; others don’t. Many of the design elements clash. It’s not a terrible room, but if I’d spent $7 million on it (as the Mays did), I wouldn’t be happy.

We ordered the five-course tasting menu at $85 per person.

 

The bread service is a highlight at this restaurant, with four kinds offered; we had the focaccia (above right).

 

The food came rather quickly, delivered by servers who were in such a hurry that they twice forgot to describe the dishes they’d just dropped off. I believe the first appetizer (above left) was a Sweet and Sour Mackerel, which we rather liked. Fettucine with lamb ragu (above right) had an appealing spicy kick.

 

Sea bass (above left) was poached, and served in a soup with zucchini, cous cous, tomato, and spicy broth.

A wheel-shaped serving of rabbit (above right) was a substantial failure, both dry and flavorless, with root vegetables that we could barely taste, and not much helped by an asparagus purée. It was a disappointing end to a meal that was, until that point, going well.

 

Dessert was just fine, a tartina (above left) with orange sauce and chocolate ice cream, followed by petits fours (above right).

Prices here are basically in line with all of the city’s top-tier Italian spots, except for the four-star Del Posto, which is in a league of its own. Otherwise, for similar amounts of food, you’ll pay about the same at Marea, Ai Fiori, Babbo, Lincoln, Felidia, or Ciano, within a few dollars.

But I’ve never visited SD26 or its predecessor, San Domenico, without experiencing at least one severe fumble—in this instance, the terrible rabbit dish served near the end of our tasting menu. All restaurants make mistakes, but there’s a pattern here. SD26 is capable of turning out great food, but you cannot count on it.

For its price point, the service is acceptable but not particularly good. We spotted Marisa May, but not Tony. She visited a number of tables, but apparently only those where she knew the diners. (She lingered quite a while at those tables.)

The wine list is a bright spot, running to hundreds of bottles. The iPad wine list functions better than the no-name electronic gizmo they had last time I visited, and the sommelier provided better service than any of the various captains and runners who rushed by our table. You could spend thousands, but the 2009 Valpolicella Superiori to which she steered us, at just $60, was excellent at the price.

I’ve written before that upscale Italian is the most over-represented genre in the city, having supplanted what upscale French used to be. If there were a French restaurant like SD26, I’d fret about its inconsistency, but I’d still consider it essential. There is no need to do that for Italian cuisine. There’s at least a half-dozen other places in town with nicer dining rooms and more consistent food, at about the same price.

It’s a pity that Tony and Marisa May can’t get their act together.

SD26 (19 E. 26th Street at Madison Square Park)

Food: Modern Italian cuisine that’s excellent, except when it isn’t
Wine: The highlight, a list hundreds of bottles deep
Service: Too sloppy, considering the price
Ambiance: A high-gloss modern over-thought room, designed by committee

Rating: Not Recommended
Why? So many others in its price range are more reliable

Friday
Nov022012

La Marina

I don’t often write about restaurants in my own neighborhood, as very few would interest my readers: if you don’t live nearby, you wouldn’t go.

La Marina, at the Dyckman Street pier, is the rare Washington Heights/Inwood restaurant that gets mainstream media attention. Mayor Bloomberg attended the opening ribbon-cutting ceremony. Beyonce and Jay-Z were spotted there in September, and earlier in the summer, Leonardo DiCaprio. I don’t know if those visits were “procured” or genuine.

The Dyckman Street marina was once a place where the wealthy kept their yachts, back when Washington Heights was considered “out of town.” The area lost its luster long ago. Parking is free, but if you walk from the subway, you face several distressed blocks that have seen better days, to put it nicely.

It took took the owners five years to develop this new hotspot, which occupies 75,000 square feet and supposedly seats 500, although a server said they had thousands on some summer evenings. Next year, they’ll add a marina with 22 slips, but there’s already a restaurant, two bars, a lounge, an open pavilion, and a small beach. There are spectacular views of the George Washington Bridge and the Pallisades.

The photo above (from the website) is what the dining room looks like, though by the time we visited in early October, the outdoor dining season was over. The windows were closed, and there was a live band at the back of the room.

The named chef, Pierre Landet, is also the executive chef at Cercle Rouge, a decent French brasserie in Tribeca. His abilities seem largely wasted here, where the short, bland menu is phoned in: steak, salmon, a burger, a caesar salad. That’s not much more to it.

Service glitches abound. Though reservation times on OpenTable were wide open on a Saturday evening, we waited 30 minutes for our table. We ordered a dozen oysters to start; they never came. Want to speak to a server? Even waving one’s arms vigorously in the cavernous room is not sufficient to attract attention.

There’s not much to the wine list. What there is of it, is over-priced and not very good. Most guests here drink cocktails.

 

Steak Frites (above left) and grilled salmon (above right) were acceptable specimens for a neighborhood spot. But there’s nothing else here I want to try, nor would I care to endure the lackadaisical service.

La Marina (348 Dyckman Street at the Hudson River, Washington Heights)

Food: A minimal, phoned-in menu
Service: Not diligent; lackadaisical
Ambiance: Beach club meets nightclub, with great river views

Rating: Not recommended
Why? The food is clearly an afterthought here

Monday
Oct292012

Hakkasan


Hakkasan is a restaurant practically designed for the New York critics to hate. It’s the tenth branch of an international chain, and the critics seldom have much love for imports. Parts of the menu could almost be considered arrogantly expensive: Peking Duck with Caviar, $295. And it’s built in a “big box” style that hit its apogee in the early aughts, but is now very much passé.

Critics be damned, Hakkasan opened on the eastern edge of Hell’s Kitchen. Damn it, they did. Adam Platt of New York awarded no stars, calling it “Ruby Foo’s for Rich People.” The Post’s Steve Cuozzo gave half a star, calling it “all wet.” Pete Wells of The Times gave it one star, complaining that “prices are too high for extremely restrained portions of food that is, in too many cases, about as interesting as a box of paper clips.”

Then there’s Michelin, the tire man, which gave it one star—the equivalent, on their scale, of two or three stars on the other guys’ systems. The original Hakkasan in London is starred too. I was there six years ago, and for the most part enjoyed my meal.

Here in New York, Hakkasan is a hair too expensive for what it is, and the dining room feels like a Meatpacking District attrocity gone haywire. But the food is very good.

Prices are skewed by a handful of trophy dishes for hedge fund babies and oil barons. Scratch those from the list, and you’re left with prices that are certainly dear, but not downright crazy. Dover Sole in XO Sauce is the most expensive of the “normal” entrées. It’s $46, but you’d pay about that much at any serious restaurant.

Not counting a few outliers, soups and appetizers are $9–26, with most $20 or less. Meat, fish, and poultry entrées are generally in the range of $24–39, with vegetarian and tofu dishes $14–21 and rice dishes $9–18.

We began with the dim sum platter ($24; above), which got a shout out in The Times last week (and even Pete Wells had liked it). According to the published menu, you get two apiece of scallop shumai, har gau, prawn and Chinese chive dumpling, and black pepper duck dumpling. We didn’t take notes, but found the selection as enjoyable as it was colorful.

(There are several other dumpling assortments offered, but you can’t pick and choose from individual varieties, as you can at a traditional dim sum parlor.)

 

The kitchen did a first-class job with a sumptuous braised Maine lobster with noodles in a so-called (slightly spicy) Royal Supreme sauce ($31; above left). The Pipa duck ($32; above right) is in essence half of a Peking Duck without the pancakes or plum sauce, with a crisp skin and luscious layers of fat.

The bill for two came to about $200 before tip, including wine—not a bargain, but the food was well above run-of-the-mill Chineese food. I didn’t look at the wine list, but cocktails, in keeping with the evening’s theme, were well made, but a couple of dollars above par: order the smoky Negroni ($17).

The service is not as coddling as it ought to be at these prices. A host walks you to a seat at the bar, but getting a drink ordered and delivered is too much of a hassle. Service isn’t bad at the tables, but the staff’s attentiveness befits an establishment charging only half as much.

The clubby space isn’t my cup of tea, but the music isn’t so loud that it precludes conversation. The food is compelling, and worth a try if you don’t mind the tariff.

Hakkasan (311 W. 43rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, Hell’s Kitchen)

Food: Modern Chinese cuisine, skillfully prepared, but at a cost
Service: Good enough, but it ought to be better
Ambiance: A clubby space that would have been chic ten or twelve years ago

Rating:
Why? The food is worthwhile, even if the space isn’t my taste