Monday
Sep102012

Rafele

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday
Sep082012

Jeanne & Gaston

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Monday
Sep032012

Ken & Cook

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday
Aug302012

Sofia Wine Bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Tuesday
Aug282012

Prandial

 

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday
Aug252012

Mint

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Monday
Aug202012

SriPraPhai

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday
Jul282012

Pier NYC on Roosevelt Island

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Wednesday
Jul252012

Pete Wells and the Two-Star Restaurant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday
Jul242012

Rosemary's Enoteca & Trattoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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