Tuesday
Jul082014

The Gander

 

Four years after Recette charmed the West Village, chef Jesse Schenker has expanded to more upscale digs at The Gander, which takes over the space that briefly hosted the doomed Alison Eighteen.

I thought Alison Eighteen would last longer. It turns out the goodwill accumulated at Alison on Dominick and her Hamptons restaurants did not travel with her to the new location.

I mention this, because Schenker may have to overcome similar challenges. The restaurant is on a charmless, lightly-traveled block. The newly-remodeled space is attractive and comfortable, but so was Alison Eighteen.

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Tuesday
Jul012014

Heartwood

Note: Heartwood closed in November 2014. We weren’t impressed, so this doesn’t come as a surprise. The restaurant was tweeting out free pizza deals in October, so it was obviously not doing well.

*

The remains of Donatella Arpaia’s once-formidable restaurant empire continue to crumble. Her mediocre pizzeria, Donatella, closed in January after a shade over two years in business.

Heartwood opened recently in the same space. The pizza oven imported from Naples still dominates the open kitchen, decked out in a sober terra cotta, rather than Donatella’s blinged-out gold plating.

Ms. Arpaia remains a partner here. There’s an impressive list of other names involved, perhaps too many: Mark Fiorentino, a former bread-maker at Daniel, is in charge of the pizzas. Bradford Thompson (ex. Lever House, Miss Lily’s) writes the rest of the menu. Nick Mautone (ex. Gramercy Tavern, Eighty One) runs the front of house.

Put those folks together, and you get a restaurant designed by committee, with menu categories like: Snacks, Bowls, Salads, Pizzas, Proteins, and “Grains and Veggies”.

It’s priced for a recession we are not currently in, with appetizer-like plates $11–14, entrée-like plates $22–26, pizzas $14–21 (they are easily sharable), and side dishes $8. Unfortunately, many of the dishes read better than they taste.

 

The Bibb and Bacon Lettuce Wraps ($13; above left) aren’t “wrapped” at all. You get three fists of Bibb with chunks of soggy maple-candied bacon perched on top. Slices of tomato and stray droppings of smoked pecan sandwich the bacon, but as soon as you touch it the tower collapses. You eat the piece parts, and I suppose the idea is that they’ll be reunited in your stomach.

On this bacon-happy menu, Warm Spinach and Frisée ($14; above right) is a better bet, as the kitchen has mixed the ingredients together, which is how a salad is supposed to work. There’s a poached egg, maple vinaigrette, and house-cured lamb bacon.

 

In the photo, you can’t make out the Heritage Pork Chop ($26; above left), as it’s hiding beneath peach chutney and honey-glzed turnips. It never should have left the kitchen at all. Three meager medallions, cooked off the bone, had been roasted to the texture of dry cereal. If pigs could sue for wrongful death, this pig should.

Pizza was a far happier choice. I’d heartily recommend “When Peter Luger Goes Out For Pizza” ($21; above right), with braised short rib, creamed spinach and horseradish on a charred, thin crust, smoky enough to remind you of a good porterhouse steak.

Duck Fat Potato Wedges ($8; above right) aren’t nearly as compelling as they sound, but they grew on me. You could do a lot worse.

The mostly domestic wine list is short and recent (nothing older than 2011), but fairly priced in relation to the menu. There’s a summery list of slightly-overpriced house cocktails ($15), many with smoky names like the Firecracker Martini (peppered vodka, cucumber, BBQ rub).

Service was friendly, but a bit discombobulated at times: there was a substantial gap between the arrival of my cocktail and Wendy’s glass of wine; another gap between the delivery of my entrée (the pork) and her pizza.

The space is casual, but a little nicer than I remember at Donatella. Sound ricochets off the brick walls and the low pressed-tin ceiling, so be ready for the assault on your eardrums. But the restaurant was full on a Tuesday evening. For a hot summer in Chelsea, this is probably what the neighborhood wants.

Heartwood (184 Eighth Avenue between 19th & 20th Streets, Chelsea)

Food: An uneven menu of American grill standards, salads, pizzas
Service: Casual and discombobulated
Ambiance: Casual and noisy

Rating: Not Recommended (no stars)

Monday
Jun232014

Chez Jef

Note: Chez Jef closed in July 2014, as expected, for a re-vamp. It is expected to re-open in fall 2014.

*

Earlier this year, Mathieu Palombino (of the Motorino pizza chainlet) closed his indifferently-received Bowery Diner, replacing it with a French pop-up, Chez Jef.

The re-do was modest: the “Diner” sign remains, with most of its neon letters no longer functional. A few red-and-white checked curtains are basically all that stands between the former diner and a cute little French bistro, with the words “Chez Jef” stamped on the butcher paper that covers ever tabletop.

In February, Palombino told Eater.com that he intended to run the pop-up “for two to three months.” Four months later, it’s still there, although the customers are not: we practically had the place to ourselves on a Wednesday evening.

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Saturday
Jun212014

EXKi

EXKi is a fast-casual restaurant with an environmental conscience, serving a vegetable-centric menu with primarily organic ingredients, free-range chickens, and recipes free of additives or preservatives.

The name is short for the French exquis, meaning exquisite. That’s a lot to live up to.

The first EXKi opened in Brussels in 2001, eventually expanding to 77 restaurants in five Western European countries. Their first New York outlet is number 78, with another planned for later this year, and surely more to come if the concept succeeds.

Pret A Manger offers a good template for what EXKi could become, if it takes off.

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Tuesday
Jun172014

Chicane

Note: Chicane closed for summer renovations in June 2014. Usually, such closures turn out to be permanent. Sure enough, Chicane closed for good in October. As we noted in our review (below), there were “abundant signs that the idea [wasn’t] well thought out.”

*

Good casual French cuisine in New York has been on the upswing in recent years, but it’s still nowhere near plentiful enough. Italian restaurants and steakhouses with phoned-in menus open with regularity, but a new French restaurant almost always feels special.

So it’s a pity that Chicane, which opened three months ago in Soho, is such a miserable example of the genre. It is not merely that the food was mediocre on the night we tried it: even good restaurants have off nights. But when fries are thick and mushy, it’s a sign that our visit wasn’t an anomaly: whatever else they do, French restaurants have to ace the frites in moules frites.

There are abundant signs that the idea isn’t well thought out. The South of France is the nominal theme at Chicane (named for a twisting section of track on the Monaco Grand Prix). But just a few dishes on the menu are captioned as specialties of that region. Many of the others, if they are French at all, could be found anywhere.

The chef, Andres Grundy, hails from Queens, not exactly a Monte Carlo suburb. He has worked at some very good restaurants at least briefly: Daniel, Le Cirque, Aquavit, Bouley, Daniel, Montrachet, Raoul’s (all in New York), two-star La Broche in Spain, L’Arpège in Paris. Since 2009 alone, he has been at Clio in Boston, then back in New York at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Insieme, the Hotel Williamsburg, and now Chicane. By 2015 at the latest, I suspect he’ll be somewhere else.

Both the menu and the wine list are printed on frayed card stock that is already showing signs of ill-use. Sure enough, the first wine I chose was not available: the list had obviously not been re-printed anytime recently.

The menu is in the four-part format that is the current NYC standard, with “sharing plates and specialties” ($6–10; cheese plate $18), appetizers ($9–19), entrées ($19–32), and side dishes ($7). Those aren’t unfair prices, if only the food were better. Our server’s recommendations were generally the most expensive dishes, and after we’d ordered he tried to upsell us into even more.

 

Barbajuans ($8; above left), the national dish of Monaco, are puff pastries filled with Swiss chard and ricotta cheese. But I doubt the originals are as dry and bland as these. The Pissaladière ($10; above right) was made with a crust so thin that it crumbled instantly. Without enough bread to give it structure, the dish tasted like caramelized onion soup with anchovies and sliced olives lazily sprinkled on top.

 

There seemed to be nothing wrong with Mussels Marinières ($21; above left), but the mushy fries were a textural disaster (or nearly as disastrous as fries can be).

 

Lamb Shoulder ($28; above left) is braised overnight, but the goopy fat in this specimen looked as unpleasant as it tasted. For dessert, a Strawberry Vache ($12; above right) was decent enough.

The 75-seat dining room is decorated in a sunny Monaco motif (plenty of Grace Kelly photos). But the excessive din from the noisy bar, packed two deep, would have marred this potentially romantic spot, even if the food had been better. The bar, indeed, seems to be the scene here, as most of the tables were unoccupied at 8:00pm on a Wednesday evening. There is supposedly a subterranean cocktail lounge in the basement (mentioned in an UrbanDaddy piece), but with no reviews that I can find.

The owners clearly made an investment in this space, but if if they want to serve southern French cuisine, there is an additional investment they ought to consider: a chef from the South of France.

Chicane (430 Broome Street between Lafayette & Crosby Streets, Soho)

Food: Southern French cuisine…sort of
Service: Upsellingly obnoxious
Ambiance: A noisy beach in Nice, waiting for the chef to arrive

Rating: Not Recommended (no stars)

Monday
Jun092014

Cagen

We’re in a Japanese moment. In roughtly two years as New York Times restaurant critic, Sam Sifton could find just three Japanese restaurants to review, and one of these was a wholly unwarranted demotion of Masa from four stars to three.

In two and a half years, Pete Wells has already reviewed nine Japanese restaurants, and there are probably a few he has missed. Some of this is preference—Wells clearly likes sushi better than Sifton does—but that doesn’t fully account for it. If you love sushi, there’s never been a better time than the last couple of years.

No discussion could be complete without mentioning the newest four-star restaurant, Sushi Nakazawa. Each reservation date opens at midnight, exactly 30 days in advance. Counter seats are gobbled up in about 3 seconds: I’ve never seen one available. Table seats are a bit easier to get—only a bit—but for that kind of money I’m not settling for the second-class version.

In the meantime, you won’t do badly at Cagen, which opened last year in the East Village space vacated by Kajitsu, which moved to midtown.

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Monday
Jun022014

Après

Note: Well, that was fast. Après closed just nine days after our visit, and before I got around to hitting “publish” on this review. Après wasn’t busy, and we thought it needed to get customers—pronto. That didin’t work out for them. We still think chef Mazen Mustafa is a talent who’ll be a success somewhere else, and so, for the record, we’re happy to recognize his all-too-brief tenure here. After a renovation, the space re-opened as Unidentified Flying Chickens.

*

Remember Apiary, the East Village restaurant with Scott Bryan, the former Veritas chef, in the kitchen? We gave it zero stars in 2009, and Eater deathwatched it in 2010, a judgment they reversed in 2012.

Turns out they had the right idea but the wrong sell-by date. Bryan left in April 2014, Apiary closed in May 2014, and after a brief renovation, it reopened as Après with chef Mazen Mustafa, Paul Liebrandt’s former top lieutenant at both Corton and The Elm.

Owner Jenny Moon was smart to recognize that a new name was far more likely to be reviewed than a new chef under the previous name. Aside from that, she changed very little. The outdoor signage uses the same typeface as before, allowing the letters ‘a’ and ‘p’ to be re-used. (I am just kidding: the sign appears to be new, although the typeface is indeed the same.) Inside, Après’ décor is extremely similar to the generic Lower Manhattan upscale casual I remember at Apiary.

Mustafa serves recognizably Liebrandtish cuisine, and if it’s not quite as good as his mentor’s best work, it is considerably less expensive than any Liebrandt restaurant in recent memory. On an à la carte menu with no clear division between appetizers and entrées, there are eleven items priced between $14–24; desserts are all $9.

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Tuesday
May272014

General Assembly

Note: General Assembly quickly flopped, and closed in September 2014. The transfer of the same owners’ Park Avenue [name-your-season] concept from its original location (where it lost its lease) has replaced it. This will be the third concept in the space in a matter of a few short years. Park Avenue was a long-term success in its first home, so if it fails here, I have to think the owners will give up on the location.

*

For about 10 minutes in 2010, it looked like Tiki Bars were going to make a comeback. Hurricane Club was the glitziest of them all, a 250-seat behemoth that could’ve put Tahiti out of business. If it had worked.

By mid-2013, it was called Hurricane Steak and Sushi, and by late 2013 it was kaput. What must’ve been the most expensive AvroKO design concept ever was hauled out to trash, and replaced with another expensive AvroKO design concept called General Assembly.

The bright, airy space is an Art Nouveau revival. The cuisine is either “a market-driven grill” or “a bistro with . . . French and Italian influences.” It’s a crowd-pleaser without a point of view. Craig Koketsu, the corporate chef at Fourth Wall Restaurants, has long since proven that he can run a competent kitchen, and he does so here. If there are no revelations on the menu, there are no weak spots either. It won’t enter the culinary conversation, but most diners in its target demographic will go home happy.

During our visit, the restaurant was subjected to one of the few forms of legalized terrorism, a visit from the Department of Health. For the record, GA’s predecessor, Hurricane Club (with the same operators), earned an “A” grade a year ago. A repeat visit in January netted just 2 violation points. Three of its four sister restaurants currently have “A” grades; one has a “B”.

Despite this exemplary record, an inspector shut down the whole restaurant between 6:00 and 8:30pm on a Friday evening. No parties were seated. At the bar, the staff tossed all of the prepared sodas and syrups, apparently as a precautionary measure. Wine and beer were served on the house, while they awaited the all-clear. After a couple of hours, runners brought out canapés, free of charge. I was determined to support the restaurant, but by then many parties with reservations gave up and left. General Assembly passed its inspection, but I’ll bet the visit cost them $10,000 or more in lost business and food/drinks both given and thrown away.

This is not the first time I’ve visited a perfectly safe restaurant during a DOH inspection, and it is not unusual. In 2013, the DOH shut down La Grenouille twice during dinner service (once with then-Mayor Bloomberg present), both times renewing its “A” grade (see stories here, here). These terror inspections at perfectly clean establishments ruin dinner for dozens or even hundreds of people, and impose huge costs on restaurant operators.

Due to the length of our wait, and perhaps because I was recognized, General Assembly comped the entire meal for our party of four. (I couldn’t tell for sure if anyone else was comped.) The online menu does not show prices, and we didn’t receive a bill. As I recall, prices were in line with other Fourth Wall places, with entrées generally in the $20s and $30s, and some steaks above that level.

 

The bread (above left), served warm in a cast-iron pan, was terrific. We started with the Raclette (above right), which came with sliced meats, grilled potatoes, and pickled vegetables.

 

I didn’t try the Sea Bass with avocado, snow peas and shiitake (above left), but our friend seemed pleased with it. Lamb Ribs (above right) were terrific, but the menu failed to state that this is an extremely spicy dish, which I wouldn’t have minded, but the companion who ordered it did.

 

Wendy wasn’t that hungry, so she ordered a soft-shell crab appetizer as her main course (above left), and was quite satisfied. I ordered the duck confit with gingered kumquats and apricots (above right), a good preparation of this classic dish.

  

Three of us ordered desserts. I didn’t note the description of the first two, but my own choice, the lemon–blueberry chiffon ice cream (far right, above) was a fine way to end the meal.

A DOH visit makes for a stressful evening. The staff handled it calmly, keeping us abreast of the situation while we waited, and serving us promptly after it was over. I wouldn’t call General Assembly an ambitious restaurant in any sense, but it offered exactly the kind of experience our guests wanted. It took two hours more than we’d planned, but I’m glad we offered our support while the health department terrorist inspector shut down a perfectly safe restaurant for no reason.

General Assembly (360 Park Avenue South at 26th Street, Gramercy/Flatiron)

Monday
May192014

Beautique

Note: Just four months after opening night, chef Craig Hopson and creative director Frank Roberts left the restaurant, citing “creative differences.” Just a month earlier, a New York Post article described the place as a “playpen for millionaires.” Whether it can retain its cachet without Hopson or Roberts remains to be seen.

*

A high-gloss restaurant opens in midtown, with white tablecloths, glistening chandeliers, a mirrored staircase, a grand piano, rose petal wallpaper, Jean Paul Gualtier fabrics, plush suede seating, and a décor modeled on Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment.

No, it is not 2004. Welcome to Beautique, which opened last month in a subterranean space adjoining the Paris Theater, just behind the Plaza Hotel and steps away from Central Park.

The question here is not whether the chef, Craig Hopson, can run a kitchen worthy of such a luxurious setting. He more than proved himself, first as Terrance Brennan’s chef de cuisine at Picholine from 2003–07, and then at Le Cirque from 2008–12.

No, the question is who exactly will be the core constituency for a restaurant so resolutely contrary to every current trend. I’d love to see it succeed, but I’m not blind to fashion, and cheerleading from this blog doesn’t matter.

The Central Park South ecosystem has not been friendly to restaurants. It’s a place they go to die, or at best, to be forgotten. In the last decade, only Marea has opened in this neighborhood, and been both a critical and commercial success.

If Beautique wants to be taken seriously, a few easy fixes are in order. It certainly looks shady when, less than a month after opening, the online menus are revised to omit prices. They have nothing to be ashamed of. For the neighborhood, it is not really that expensive, with appetizers $14–19, entrées $29–39, side dishes $9, and desserts $12.

On a menu that pretends the last ten years never happened, there’s no tasting menu, no snacks, sharing plates, or large-format entrées for two. Not that I object to any of this, but I can well imagine the critical reaction.

As I recall, the 200-bottle wine list was fairly priced in relation to the food: a 2005 Château du Grand Bos (above left) was $86, a shade under 3 times retail, and the staff decanted it. But why is the list not online? Just because the décor is from another era, does not mean the technology must be.

Frank Roberts, formerly of Rose Bar, is the general manager here. One might assume that he superintends the cocktail program, and it’s a good one (even if expensive, at $19 a pop). There’s a mixture of slightly-tweaked classics (Bellini, French 75) and house recipes.

The appealing bread service (above right) came with hummus, but there was no amuse bouche, which a restaurant of Beautique’s apparent ambitions ought to have.

 

Although everything is capably prepared, there’s not much critic bait on the menu—the sort of dishes that set pulses racing from their descriptions alone. A Crab Flan ($19; above right) is one of the exceptions, with chunks of pork belly in a malt caramel sauce. More typical is a soft-shell crab ($19; above left) appetizer: first rate and technically correct, but you’ve seen it before.

 

You can’t go wrong with the Scallops ($32; above left) with a foie gras sabayon, shitake mushrooms, and turnips in a diablo sauce. A Lamb Mixed Grill ($38; above right) was served five ways, of which three stood out (bacon, sausage, and chop).

 

The pastry chef is Jiho Kim, formerly of Gordon Ramsay at the London. His work here is superb, assuming his Mascarpone Custard ($12; above left) is any guide.

The design by Marc Dizon and Valerie Pasquiou is stunning. You already knew that. There’s a comfortable bar, two dining rooms (we were seated in the smaller “oval room”), a private dining area, and a spacious lounge that was not open when we visited.

Despite the luxury design, the basement space can feel a bit gloomy when empty, as it was on the early side of the dinner hour, on a Wednesday evening. By the time we left, it was a bit over half full, and felt more energetic. The service is a bit retro: I can’t remember the last time outside of France that I was called monsieur, but the staff are relatively unobtrusive. Dishes are presented without the slightest explanation, and that is that.

The decision to open a restaurant that practically ignores contemporary fashion is obviously deliberate. I don’t mind it at all, though I suspect many will. If Beautique wants to revive the service model of another era, there shouldn’t be any half-measures. Put your prices and wine list on the website, and take credit for offering something that no one lately has done.

Beautique (8 W. 58th Street, west of Sixth Avenue)

Food: Old-school luxurious French-influenced cuisine
Service: Polished and unobtrusive
Ambiance: A series of rooms modeled on Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment

Rating: ★½

Tuesday
May132014

Luksus at Tørst

Luksus is the latest beachhead of the New Nordic invasion of New York, joining such standouts as Acme, Aska, Skál, and Atera. All are helmed by chefs who worked (even if only briefly) at the Danish restaurant Noma, No. 1 on the deeply flawed, but much watched, S. Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list.

The 26-seat restaurant is in the back room of Tørst (pictured above), an upscale beer hall in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. While you wait for your table, you can order one of 21 beers on draft (hundreds by the bottle), which are drawn from taps lined up against a marble wall, with wooden handles stained from light to dark, matching the colors of the drinks that come out of them.

The owner, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, has a love affair with beer: he serves no other alcoholic beverage, and the size of his cellar would make many a sommelier flush with envy. The taps are powered by a device called the flux capacitor (named for Doc Brown’s fictional contraption in the Back to the Future series), which can adjust the nitrogen and carbon dioxide mix of each tap, and maintain the beers at any of four different temperatures.

The pint-sized dining room seats just 26, six at a bar facing an open kitchen, and twenty at tiny tables more suited to a cocktail lounge. Finding room for beer bottles, glassware, and a cavalcade of artful plates, is a Rubik’s Cube puzzle that the servers solve adeptly, all evening long.

Chef Daniel Burns serves a frequently-changing tasting menu with no choices, which was $75 last July, but has since risen to $95 after a series of overwhelmingly positive reviews, including three stars from Adam Platt in New York. Curiously, the Times has not yet weighed in.

Both the plating style and the ingredients are instantly recognizable as New Nordic, with combinations of flavors not normally found together, such as lamb sweetbreads with hay gribiche, or a dessert of beetroot and licorice. Root vegetables and flowers are in starring roles, with smoked this or pickled that, Many of these experiments work. Some fail miserably.

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