Monday
Dec192005

Gari (West Side)

In late October, a friend and I had dinner at Gari. The place doesn’t seem to be as crowded as reports after the restaurant first opened, so perhaps the buzz has died down. From the time we arrived (6:00) to the time we left (7:15), it wasn’t full. I do realize that those are early hours for a Saturday night dinner in New York, but we had an opera to catch. If you’re looking for another pre-Lincoln Center option, Gari should be on your list.

We also saw no evidence of the service issues mentioned in some early reports. The staff was helpful, attentive, and efficient. We were also pleased to find that Gari is a rarity among Manhattan’s newer restaurants: a place where you can actually hear yourself talk, without having to shout.

It’s rare that Frank Bruni covers a restaurant so well that there’s really nothing much for me to add, but his two-star review on March 2, 2005, sounded all the right notes. I agree with the two-star rating. We weren’t able to try as much of the menu as Bruni did, but we were most pleased with what we had.

We had the sushi omakase. As Bruni mentioned, the restaurant actively discourages the use of soy sauce, and indeed there is none on the table. Our server made a point of mentioning that none was needed. I’m no expert, but this was some of the best sushi I’d ever tasted. Every piece was unique, and already perfectly seasoned. To dip in soy sauce would have been a crime, and we remained honest citizens.

As others have mentioned, including Bruni, you aren’t going to get out of Gari cheaply. The recommended omakase came with ten pieces each, which wasn’t enough to sate us, so we had three more. None of the sake options was inexpensive, but we settled on a $47 bottle that we nursed through the meal. With edamame and dessert (a fig tart with green tea ice cream), the final bill for two including tax came to over $200 before the tip.

This is sushi on another level of skill and creativity than one finds at most Japanese restaurants. I can’t recommend Gari to people on a tight budget, but if you can afford the prices it’s well worth it.

Gari (370 Columbus Avenue at 78th Street, Upper West Side)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Cookshop

Note: Click here for a more recent visit to Cookshop.

Cookshop has been open for several weeks. There was a good Sunday night crowd in the restaurant last night, but my friend and I were pleased that we could still hear ourselves talk.

The restaurant features a market menu that relies heavily on local produce. The menu is printed on loose paper, and I suspect it is re-done every day. To start, I had the smoked bluefish. My friend had a pizza, which our server warned “is one of our larger appetizers.” Indeed, for many people it would serve as an entrée. We both had the duck main course, an ample portion of juicy medallions with a luscious layer of fat around them.

Main courses are generally between $20 and $30, except for the aged rib-eye ($34); appetizers are generally under $15. The wine list fits on a single page, but is not organized according to any system I could perceive. Nevertheless, I was delighted to find a modestly-priced cabernet that topped off the evening nicely.

I suspect Cookshop will be a hit, and deservedly so.

Cookshop (156 Tenth Avenue at 20th Street, West Chelsea)

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

Postscript: I wrote the foregoing after our visit to Cookshop on October 24, 2005. My gut told me “two stars” when I visited, and about a month later so said Frank Bruni. We returned to Cookshop in January, and our impression then was far less favorable.

Monday
Dec192005

Re Sette

Re Sette is an Italian restaurant (the name means “Seven Kings”) on the edge of West Midtown, in a former 47th St Photo location.

The designer pizzas are a great deal. The Pizza Del Re is composed of fig jam, prosciutto, carmelized pearl onions, and gorgonzola cheese. The shows it at $13, although I recall that it was just $10 when I visited there in early November. Anyhow, at either price it is a great bargain. The crust is thin and crunchy. This odd mix of ingredients comes together in a delightful candied flavor.

The rest of the menu is formulaic. The fancy website’s claims (“A Feast Fit for a King….evokes a time when feasting and merrymaking ruled the day”) seem to me overblown.

Re Sette (7 W. 45th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)

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

Monday
Dec192005

The Old Homestead

Here are two reviews of The Old Homestead (56 9th Ave btwn 14th-15th Sts, in the Meatpacking District). My first visit was in February 2005:

I’ve been taking a leisurely tour of Manhattan’s steakhouses, and last night was the Old Homestead’s turn. The décor, the service, and the menu all scream “old-fashioned steakhouse” — in both the bad and the good connotations of that phrase.

Where the Old Homestead diverges from the stereotype, it’s in their extensive “Kobe” beef selections. (Perhaps their version really is from Kobe, but I suspect it’s the American-bred “Wagyu” beef they’re serving.) You can get a Kobe ribeye for two for something like $150. Also on offer: a Kobe burger at $41 or a Kobe frankfurter (the mind boggles) at $19.

I went for the Gotham Rib Steak ($39), which they say is their signature item. Elsewhere it’d be called a ribeye. The cut of beef was practically a carbon copy of the ribeye I ordered at Wolfgang’s a month or two ago. The preparation was respectable, but not quite as accomplished as at Wolfgang’s: the char was less even, and parts of the steak were a tad overdone. The Homestead added a welcome helping of shoestring fries, which the Wolfgang’s version didn’t have.

At another table, I overheard a couple who are clearly frequent visitors. They ordered the porterhouse for two ($75), which was served just as they do at Luger’s, Wolfgang’s, and Mark Joseph, complete with the familiar tilted plate, allowing the unserved slices to wallow in juice.

The restaurant was not crowded, and there were plenty of servers hanging around. Despite that, the staff was not as attentive as it should have been, and my own server seemed rather bored with his job. I was served a piece of raisin bread that was practically rock-hard, as though it was a leftover from last Friday’s bakery run.

Although it doesn’t get my vote for top steakhouse in the city, the Old Homestead is better than many. I’ll probably be back, but not before trying a few other candidates.

I was back on November 8th, 2005:

I was back at the Old Homestead last night. I wandered in without a reservation. At 8:45pm, there was a fifteen minute wait for a table. The place was packed, and diners were still arriving as I left an hour later.

On this visit, I had the New York Strip, which was perfectly charred and bright red inside, as I’d asked for. Aside from a tiny bit of gristle on one end of the steak, it was a top-quality cut, prepared as expertly as anywhere in town.

The waitstaff look like they’ve been there forever, and they seem bored. I didn’t receive a menu until five minutes after I sat down. I was not offered a wine list. When I asked for wine by the glass, the waiter declaimed as if annoyed, “Merlot, Cabernet, Shiraz, or {inaudible},” as if that were all one needed to know. I chose the Shiraz.

On the plus side, at $36 for the strip and $9 for the glass of wine, I got out of the Old Homestead for several dollars less than one would pay for comparable quality at other Manhattan steakhouses. I didn’t order any sides, but I noticed that most of them were priced at around $7 or less, which is less than the $9–10 that many steakhouses charge.

In a neighborhood where there’s a new restaurant every week, the Old Homestead seems to be just as popular as ever.

The Old Homestead (56 Ninth Ave. between 14th–15th Sts., Meatpacking District)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Shelly's New York

Note: After this review was posted, Shelly’s moved down the street to 41 W. 57th Street. It has since re-branded itself as Shelly’s Tradizionale, an Italian seafood restaurant.

*

Shelly’s New York, located at the other end of the block from Carnegie Hall, is ideally situated for a pre-concert dinner, which I suspect is where much of the clientele comes from. It was packed at 6:30pm on a Sunday night in November, but by 7:45 there was a noticeable clearing-out. With Carnegie booked every night, it’s surprising that dining options nearby are not more compelling.

There’s a lot to like about Shelly’s, including a terrific wine bar, designer martinis, and a large raw bar. My friend and I ordered the porterhouse for two, which was competently prepared, but won’t erase my memories of the better Manhattan steakhouses.

Shelly’s isn’t cheap, but for a steakhouse in Manhattan it is reasonable. For instance, the filet mignon is $38.75; at BLT Steak, a block away, it’s $40. The NY Strip is $37.75, but it’s $42 at BLT. The porterhouse for two is $73, but it’s $79 at BLT. Overall, the steaks at Shelly’s are a couple of dollars lower than you’d find at top-end steakhouses.

The owners, Fireman Hospitality Group, are also behind the Brooklyn Diner, Trattoria Dell’ Arte, Redeye Grill, and Cafe Fiorello. They don’t aim high, but these places have all done well. Somebody knows what they are doing.

Shelly’s New York (104 W. 57th Street at Sixth Avenue, West Midtown)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Trattoria Dopo Teatro

Note: Click here for a more recent visit to Trattoria Dopo Teatro.

The “bow-tie” (named for the street pattern where Seventh Avenue and Broadway cross at Times Square) isn’t known for fine dining. On a Saturday in November, my 10-year-old son and I were getting hungry, and our options were dwindling. Neither McDonald’s nor Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company seemed appealing. He doesn’t eat ribs, so Virgil’s BBQ was out.

In this culinary desert, Trattoria Dopo Teatro was a happy find. Perhaps nyc.com exaggerates when they say that it “has the feeling of a Trattoria that one might find near Rome’s Spanish steps.” Still, it is an attractive setting, located in a landmarked 1875 building. I especially liked the photos of the Italian movie stars that adorned the walls. According to the same site, “The restaurant has a beautiful interior garden, called ‘The Secret Garden.’ It has elaborate mosaic designs, beautiful paneling, a working waterfall, a cigar room and a GRAPPA library.”

Pizza from the wood-burning oven can be heartily recommended. The one I had featured tomato and prosciutto. It was cut in eight slices, but folded back on itself, so that one would eat two slices at a time, sandwich-style. I don’t recall a pizza being served that way, but it worked.

We arrived (without a reservation) at around 4:30pm, at about the time the Saturday matinee crowd were settling in for a post-theater supper. Luckily, we were seated immediately. I should think a restaurant in the Theater District would be adept at getting patrons in and out quickly, but service was erratic.

There is no children’s menu—a fact I wouldn’t ordinarily mention, except that one might expect it in this neighborhood. When I asked about it, the waiter said, “We have pizza and pasta.” My son was perfectly happy to have Penne Marinara (not actually on the menu, but any Italian restaurant can make it), although it came at an ‘adult’ price.

Trattoria Dopo Teatro (145 W. 44th Street, between 6th Ave & Broadway, Theater District)

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

Monday
Dec192005

BLT Prime

Note: Click here for a later visit to BLT Prime, and here for an earlier one.

BLT Prime is the only restaurant in Laurent Tourondel’s empire that’s open on Sundays. I had a BLT craving today [November 20, 2005], so I headed out to the restaurant, arriving at 5:00pm (opening time).

Both BLT Prime and Steak serve a $28 entrée that’s a riff on the familiar BLT sandwich. Here, it’s made with ‘kobe’ beef and foie gras, and served on toasted ciabatta bread. (You’ll find a photo of it at the website of either restaurant.) It’s about the cheapest meal you can have at BLT. I decided to give it a shot. It’s a tasty sandwich indeed, but like the burger at DB Bistro Moderne, a bit of a gimmick. I could barely taste the foie gras, and the beef was nothing special. At the price, I rate it a dud.

I had a couple of other complaints. The BLT sandwich comes with an enormous helping of french fries, but this isn’t stated on the menu. It seems to be the only entrée that comes with a side dish, so I had no reason to expect fries. My waiter happily took my order for a side of potato skins ($7), which left me with twice as much potato as I needed. (Probably four times, actually; either the skins or the fries came in portions far beyond what I could eat alone.) Had I known the sandwich came with fries, I would not have ordered the skins.

By this time in the meal, the server assignments had been re-arranged. My new server came around to ask if everything was alright, and I told her I was a bit miffed that the menu didn’t announce that the BLT came with fries. She remarked, “I would have told you that.”

I was also unhappy with a cocktail called a Tamarind Margarita ($11). It came in about the smallest cocktail glass I’ve ever seen. The drink tasted fine, but one expects a margarita to be a little bigger than that.

On the other hand, the restaurant is generous with extras. When I sat down, the server brought a helping of a wonderful paté and crispy bread. While I was devouring that, one of BLT’s famous popovers arrived. The popovers, first introduced at BLT Steak, weren’t initially offered when BLT Prime opened. I suspect they had some complaints, and now both restaurants have them. (They even provide a free copy of the recipe.) I did not order a dessert, but the kitchen sent out two half-dollar sized hazelnut ice cream sandwiches, which were excellent.

Overall, it was a mixed performance for the restaurant. It is hard to believe that I dropped over $50 for a cocktail, some potato skins, and a glorified BLT sandwich.

Well, despite my misgivings the second time around, I still award three stars based on superior overall performance.

BLT Prime (111 E. 22nd Street between Park & Lexington Avenues, Gramercy)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Django

Note: Django closed in September 2008. It was replaced by At Vermilion, an Indian–Latin American fusion restaurant.

*

A friend and I had dinner at Django on a Saturday night. There were tons of empty tables, both downstairs in the bar/lounge and upstairs in the dining room. I’m assuming the restaurant caters primarily to a weekday business crowd, and its location in East Midtown is ideal for this.

Django is a very comfortable place. The downstairs lounge has huge armchairs, and there is a band playing light jazz in the background. The chairs in the upstairs dining room are equally comfy. This is a place where one can easily relax.

I started with a simple grilled asparagus appetizer, and my friend with a risotto, both of which were out-of-this-world. Neither one is listed on the currently posted, and I’m afraid I can’t report on the other ingredients.

My friend pronounced herself highly pleased with a bouillabase entrée ($29), which includes (per the website) “Yellowtail Snapper, Clams and Lobster Stew, Salsify and Baby Leeks, Spicy Rouille Croutons.”

I decided to try the Ribeye ($35), which is actually a double-entrée of ribeye slices and braised shortribs. Of the two, the shortribs were a bit more successful. The ribeye was fine, but didn’t erase the memory of the better steakhouse ribeyes I’ve tasted.

Our server earned plenty of brownie points early on. My friend likes sweet white wines. I had initially selected a $52 riesling. The server suggested that another bottle costing $2 less would be a lot better, and indeed it was. The $2 is obviously insignificant, but one grows so accustomed to “upselling” that it’s almost a shock when it doesn’t happen.

The setting at Django is romantic, comfortable, and highly recommended.

Django (480 Lexington Avenue at 46th Street, East Midtown)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Blue Hill

Note: Click here for a more recent visit to Blue Hill.

A friend and I dined at Blue Hill on a Saturday night in November. I had the Foie Gras and the Stone Barns Pastured Chicken. The foie was competently executed (if nothing special). You expect ultra-tender chicken from Blue Hill—and you get it—but the dish was spoiled by an overpowering tomato sauce. My friend had the mushroom salad and the lamb. Oddly enough, she too felt that her entrée was spoiled by a sauce that had too much tomato in it.

On the plus side, my friend (who’d never been to BH) found the ambiance enchanting. When she left a third of her mushroom salad uneaten, the kitchen sent someone out to inquire if anything was wrong. (There wasn’t; it was just a large portion, and she was saving room for the main course.) It’s rare anyone will even bother to ask, and we were impressed that they noticed.

IMO, there’s a hole in Blue Hill’s wine list, with not enough choices in around the $40 range. I’m not saying there aren’t any, but they are few and far between. I asked the sommelier for a wine in that range that would go with the chicken and the lamb. She quickly produced a wonderful new arrival (not on the menu) at $38.

Blue Hill remains a friendly place to which I’ll return, but on this occasion both entrées slightly misfired.

Blue Hill (75 Washington  Place between Sixth Avenue and Macdougal Street, Greenwich Village)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Vong

Note: Vong closed in November 2009. The space became a branch of Wolfgang’s Steakhouse.

*

In late 2005, a friend and I enjoyed the tasting menu at Vong ($65) with paired wines ($45). The selections on our tasting menu were as follows:

THE TASTING PLATE
Crab spring roll, tamarind sauce
Prawn satay, sweet & sour chili sauce
Lobster & daikon roll, rosemary ginger sauce
Duck rolls, plumb sauce
Raw tuna and vegetables, namprik vinaigrette
Nino Franco Rustico Prosecco, Valdobbladine

This was a large plate of appetizers, mostly looking like sushi rolls or dim sum. There were four of each item (two apiece), except for the duck rolls (one apiece). We were also each presented with a sauce dish with four compartments, one for each appetizer except the duck rolls, which already had the plum sauce inside. The sauces contrasted beautifully, and all of these items were immaculately prepared. We were delighted with this hefty start to the meal, and it was difficult to wrap our minds around the fact that four more courses were to come.

CHICKEN & COCONUT MILK SOUP WITH GALANGAL & SHITAKES
Rudi Wlest Rhein River Riesling 2004, Rheinhessen

This was a wonderful soup. I didn’t taste much chicken, but the coconut and shitakes were plainly evident.

STEAMED STRIPED BASS WITH SPICED CARDAMOM SAUCE, CABBAGE, & WATERCRESS
Jeanne Marie Viognier 2004, California

This course was less successful. The bass was rather dull, and we were given far too much of the watery cabbage, which added nothing to the dish.

ROASTED VENISON WITH PUMPKIN-LEMON PUREE
AND JUNIPER BERRY JUS
Mas du Boislauzon Cotes du Rhone Villages 2003, Rhone

This was about as good as venison gets. It didn’t taste gamey at all. Two slices were prepared rare, with a wonderful crunchy char on the skin.

WARM VALRHONA CHOCOLATE CAKE WITH
COCONUT SORBET & PEPPERED TUILE
Domaine la Tour Vielle Reserva Banyuls, Banyuls

Is it any surprise that a Jean-Georges Vongerichten tasting menu would end with a chocolate cake? I’m not a big chocolate fan, but this was a dessert no one could pass up. It had a warm exterior and a molten center. Superb.

Overall, the fish was the only course of the five that misfired. The cuisine had Vongerichten’s fingerprints all over it, although one wonders how much time he devotes to Vong any more. (Pierre Schutz is the credited chef de cuisine.) The paired wines were generally well chosen, but I found that after three whites in a row, my tongue was a bit deadened to the red that came with the meat course.

Service was attentive and precise. My only complaint was that our server spoke with such a heavy accent that we could not grasp his explanations of the courses as they were presented. After a while, we just gave up on him. (Thankfully, we were presented with a card listing the menu and the wines, which we kept with us all evening.)

My companion and I felt that the courses came a shade too quickly. At more than two hours, no one would say we were rushed out of the restaurant. Yet, I sometimes had up to half-a-glass of wine remaining when the next glass was presented. Tasting menu courses tend to be small, and you don’t want to be chugging the wine afterwards.

By the time we left, the restaurant was full, and the noise level loud. Much as we had enjoyed our evening, we were more than ready to give our tender ears a rest.

Update:  Eight months after I posted this review, Frank Bruni of the Times issued a rare two-step demotion, downgrading Vong from three stars to one. It seemed a bit punitive to me, but perhaps some readers will dispute the continuing validity of my three-star rating.

Vong (200 East 54th Street at Third Avenue, in the Lipstick Building, East Midtown)

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