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: ***

Monday
Dec192005

Capital Grille

Last year, Frank Bruni was underwhelmed at Capital Grille. Later on, the usually dependable Bob Lape of Crain’s awarded two stars, which had me mystified. In September of this year, a vendor had suggested dinner, and I said my preference was a steakhouse. I grimaced when he suggested the Capital Grille, as I presumed Manhattan has much better to offer. However, he was buying, so I kept my thoughts to myself and trudged uptown.

A wet-aged Delmonico (bone-in rib-eye) was done to the medium rare that I’d asked for, but as Frank Bruni put it, “lacking the kind of crisp, charred exterior that would have given the flesh more variation from edge to center.” A smoked salmon appetizer and creamed spinach side dish were competently executed, but unmemorable.

I should add that all three of my companions ordered fillets, which appeared to have the charred exterior that my rib-eye lacked. However, a follow-up visit about a month later (again, someone else’s idea) confirmed my initial impresions.

Capital Grille has a slightly updated version of the classic steakhouse décor (mahogony surfaces, oil paintings). Service was slightly superior to the average steakhouse, including a genial waiter who explained the menu in considerable detail. The restaurant put us in a booth, and for four businessmen it was a bit cramped.

Having said all that, Capital Grille illustrates the maxim that it’s awfully tough for a steakhouse to fail in Manhattan. Despite executing the steakhouse formula with no particular distinction, the place was packed. Its location (practically adjacent to Grand Central) is well suited to weeknight diners who need to make a quick getaway to suburban homes.

Capital Grille (155 East 42d Street near Lexington Avenue, East Midtown)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Flames Steakhouse

Note: Flames Steakhouse closed in November 2007, replaced in the same location by Giardino D’oro. Nick Vulli is still chef/owner. According to Restaurant Girl, belt-tightening on Wall Street led to a decline in lunch business, and the restaurant needed to morph into a less expensive concept. Apparently the excellent dry-aged steaks are still available, but as we define it here at New York Journal, the original restaurant is closed.

*

Here’s a review duet. First, my visit in August 2005:

Flames Steakhouse has opened downtown. They’ve been there for about a month. It’s operated by the same folks as Flames Steakhouse in Westchester County. The menu is identical in both locations. I paid their new digs late last week.

Flames is modeled on Peter Luger, in that their specialty is billed as Steak for One, Two, Three, or Four; and the steak comes pre-sliced, served on a slightly tipped large plate so that the juices will accumulate at the bottom. Like Mark Joseph and Wolfgang’s, they also have a broader menu featuring other meats, fish, and appetizers. There was a long list of daily specials (mostly fish and seafood) that the waiter recited. It always irritates me when a restaurant in this price range cannot be bothered to put its specials in writing, as it is difficult to keep them all in your head.

The website says, “You simply won’t find a better steak than ours anywhere!” That may be true in Westchester County, for anything I know to the contrary, but it is not the case in Manhattan. Their Steak for One was more-or-less comparable to Mark Joseph’s identical offering, and a bit inferior to what I’ve had at Wolfgang’s.

Unlike Mark Joesph and Wolfgang’s, the wonderful Luger-style Canadian bacon isn’t on the menu. Appetizers all seem to be $15.95 or higher, and have in common the ridiculous steakhouse-sized portions that I cannot imagine how anyone with an ordinary appetite can eat. I had a superb New England Clam Chowder ($8.95) and was unable to finish my steak. Flames has the typical steakhouse side dishes. I ordered the creamed spinach, which was extremely watery and practically inedible.

The clam chowder, Steak for One, and creamed spinach came to $70 with tax and tip, which I’m afraid is what you’re destined to pay for a Manhattan steakhouse experience. The décor is rather unmemorable, but one doesn’t go to a steakhouse for the décor.

The verdict on this occasion is that the clam chowder was excellent, the steak was competent, and the spinach was awful. Service was uneven, but I recognize they’re just getting their sea legs. As the restaurant is just one block from my apartment, I’m sure I’ll be trying them again, although I’ll give the spinach a pass next time. At the moment, they’re open Monday-Friday; they’ll be open Saturdays after Labor Day.

It seems no restaurant category is more bullet-proof in Manhattan than the traditional steakhouse, and since 9/11 Mark Joseph has had the field to itself below Chambers Street. I don’t think MJ has anything to worry about, but I suspect Flames will do well in a neighborhood where there isn’t a lot of competition.

And then, on December 8th:

I dropped in again today, mainly because the restaurant is just a block from my apartment. I ordered a ribeye au poivre, which was an off-menu special. It was one of the best pepper sauces I’ve tasted. The enormous ribeye had a bit of gristle, but was nicely aged and flavorful.

I have to wonder at the prognosis for this restaurant. The more recent Bobby Van’s just a few blocks away was absolutely packed (I tried there first). Even the nearby Captain’s Ketch was bustling. Flames was doing a decent trade, but had a number of empty tables—and that on a Thursday evening during the holiday season. Service was friendly and efficient; they wanted to please.

Flames Steakhouse (5 Gold Street near Maiden Lane, Financial District)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Matsuri

Note: Matsuri closed in March 2012. A branch of the club/restaurant Tao will replace it.

*

I dined with a couple of colleagues at Matsuri in early December. While William Grimes was convinced that the sushi was in the upper third, we considered it merely mid-range — which is to say, neither bad nor particularly distinguished.

We ordered a sushi/sashimi platter that was described as a selection for five people, although the three of us went ahead and ordered a bit more after consuming all of that. A shrimp tempura roll seemed the best item on the platter, with honorable mention to some extremely tender tuna belly.

The Times review described the restaurant’s location as Chelsea. Nowadays, one would describe it as “Meatpacking-adjacent,” with the main drag of that clubby neighborhood within spitting distance of Matsuri’s door. The restaurant is lovely inside, and we had a perfectly happy time, topping off the evening with Macallan 18’s (and one of our party with an excellent creme brulee dessert).

But we won’t rush back.

Matsuri (369 W. 16th Street at Ninth Avenue in the Maritime Hotel, Chelsea)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Asiate

Note: Click here for a more recent review of Asiate.

*

A friend had asked where I’d like to be taken out for my birthday. I chose Asiate, where we dined on a wonderful Saturday evening in late November. This must be the most spectacular room in New York City, particularly at night. At one end of the room is a massive wall of wine bottles; on the ceiling, a glass tree-branch scuplture. Most striking are the wraparound windows offering unobstructed long-distance views of the skyline. On a clear evening, as it was last Saturday, we felt like we were suspended in space, looking out on a futuristic fantasy city.

Asiate’s evening menu is $75 for three courses, or $95 for the seven-course tasting menu. We selected the tasting menu with wine pairings at $145. Chef Nori Sugie has been at Asiate from the beginning. His adventurous way with food reminded me of what Wylie Dufresne has been doing at WD-50. He misfired occasionally, but the overall impression was highly favorable. Amanda Hesser’s one-star assassination of the restaurant is a disgrace. Since I’ve been reading the Times, no review has under-shot the true merit of a restaurant by so wide a margin.

The menu was as follows:

Slow Poached Egg, Bonito, Ginko Nut
Ruinart Brut Blanc de Blancs, Reims

This amuse totally misfired. I did eat the whole thing, waiting for the pleasant taste sensation that never came. My girlfriend abandoned it after one bite. It resembled an eyeball suspended in a turd, and tasted not much better than that. I would guess that an awful lot of slow poached eggs have been sent back. Reading our minds, our server advised, “It gets better.” So it did.

Seasonal Tasting Dishes
Strub Riesling Spatlese “Niersteiner Paterberg” 2003, Rheinhessen
Tentaka Kuni “Hawk in the Heavens,” Junmai Sake

This is the set of six appetizers served in a bento box, much written about. The printed menu I took home doesn’t note what they were, but for me the highlight was a candied foie gras that reminded me of WD-50’s treatment of that same dish. There was an oyster suspended in a tangy green sauce. There was a delectable sliver of grilled striped bass. And three other items I don’t recall. We much appreciated the pair of contrasting wines that went with this course.

Caesar Salad Soup
This was totally funky — soup that looked like espresso, but tasted like caesar salad.

Fish of the Day
Zoémie De Sousa Brut “Cuvée Merveille,” Avize

This, I believe, was a black bass fillet, and probably the best single course of the evening. Tender, supple to the touch, and absolutely delicious.

Pan-Roasted Venison Tenderloin,
Braised Shoulder Meatball,
Spaghetti Squash Salad, Butternut Squash,
Bitter Chocolate Beggars Purse, Civet Sauce

Robert Craig “Affinity” 2001, Napa Valley

This meat course had two cubes of venison that unfortunately had both the look and the consistency of marshmallows. The spaghetti squash salad and bitter chocolate beggars purse were rather more successful. After a string of perfectly chosen wines, the Robert Craig “Affinity” was an unremarkable cabernet-merlot blend that was not up to the elegance of the menu.

Sakelees Goat Chees Bavarois,
Beetroot Plum Granite
Roasted Pear Soup, Spiced Cake, Hazelnut Ice Cream

Gosset Brut Grand Rosé, Ay

At this point, we were ready to be wheeled out of the restaurant, after this much food and drink. On top of all this, we were served a birthday cake that was so good it should be added to the menu as a regular dessert.

Our server was highly attentive, friendly, helpful, and professional. We were made to feel as if this was our special evening, as we had wanted it to be.

Asiate is one of the most romantic spots in the city. If Chef Sugie’s concoctions aren’t always hits, certainly enough of them are, and he has my support for serving some of the most creative cuisine in the city. I look forward to returning. And shame on you, Amanda Hesser!

Asiate (80 Columbus Circle at 60th Street, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel)

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

 

Monday
Dec192005

Bobby Van's Steakhouse Downtown

Steakhouses are busting out all over, and no wonder. The format seems infallible. The venerable Bobby Van’s now has a Wall Street location in its stable. The place has been open just a week, and already it’s packed. The new location is designed with an ample bar area, which no doubt will appeal to the after-work crowd.

I had a steak craving this evening [October 20, 2005], and tried the Strip ($39). It was a wonderfully tender piece of flesh, cooked perfectly to the medium rare I’d requested, with a light char on the skin, the way I like it. As I live in the neighborhood, I’m sure I’ll be back. The location serves lunch and dinner M-F, and dinner Saturdays. They are closed Sundays.

Their prices are in the range of other Manhattan steakhouses, but perhaps a dollar or two higher per item. I particularly noticed this with the side dishes, which were $10 apiece. I’ve no objection to paying forty bucks for a steak, but another ten for the fries seems excessive. On the other hand the G&T was only $10, which at a nice restaurant in this town is on the low side.

Service was pretty good, for a place just getting its sea legs.

Bobby Van’s Steakhouse (25 Broad Street at Exchange Place, Financial District)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Upstairs at Bouley Bakery

Note: Click here for a more recent visit to Upstairs at Bouley Bakery, which closed in July 2010.

What happens when you cross three-star food with the service and ambiance of a diner at Grand Central Station? Upstairs at Bouley Bakery is the answer. I persuaded a friend to join me there yesterday evening [September 17, 2005].

We misjudged our arrival time: at 6:45pm, all of the restaurant’s indoor and outdoor tables had just filled up. It’s all very frenzied. “Find a table outside, if you can,” the host du jour advised. When none was available, he reluctantly took our name. There is nowhere to wait—no bar, no lounge. We were advised we could hang out in the bakery, or take our chances and go elsewhere for a drink. (If you’re not back when he calls your name, you’re outa luck.)

Fortunately, we timed it perfectly, arriving back at the restaurant just a few minutes before a table freed up. Once inside, a tighter fit is harder to imagine. Some people’s master bedrooms are larger than this restaurant. We felt rather lucky to have a corner table, which was cramped like everything else, but at least meant that we had the din coming at us from two directions, instead of four. So tightly were we packed in, that our server had to lean over the backs of two other diners’ chairs to speak to us.

My friend and I both ordered the halibut that Frank Bruni raved about. This was uncommonly good, among the top 2-3 fish entrées I’ve enjoyed in New York, at any level of dining. Bouley himself was not in the restaurant, but his team is clearly knows what he wants.

Service was generally acceptable until after we finished the halibut. We waited and waited for our server to come back, before we finally caught her attention to get our check.

Upstairs at Bouley Bakery (130 West Broadway at Duane Street, TriBeCa)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Compass

Note: Click here for a more recent review of Compass.

As part of my effort to catch up on restaurant reviews, here’s a duo on Compass. First, my visit in September of this year:

I last visited Compass during its brief steakhouse phase, enjoying a wonderful rack of lamb on that occasion. The restaurant will still serve you a dry aged porterhouse or a rib-eye, but the emphasis now is on “Creative American Cuisine.” A friend and I looked in on the continuing experiment on Saturday night. She was last there with me three chefs ago, and pronounced the current version a significant improvement.

There is a prix fixe menu at $32 (or $46 with paired wines). It looks like a good value, but the available entrées (chicken, salmon, or hangar steak) didn’t suit our mood, so we ordered ALC. She chose the Gazpacho ($9), I the White Corn and Summer Truffle risotto ($18), a wonderful if slightly watery concoction.

The restaurant calls its ALC main courses “Compositions.” There is also a section of the menu called “Simply Roasted,” which offers mostly steaks (anywhere from $24 for a fillet or $72 for the porterhouse for two); side dishes are extra, at $8. If you order one of the Compositions, I should think the side dishes were superfluous.

Anyhow, I chose the Confit of Halibut, with Baby Squash, Artichokes, Picholine Olives, and Basil Sabayon ($28). She chose the Poached Maine Lobster with Potatoes, Summer Truffles, Leeks and Onions ($33). Both were happy choices, aided and abetted by a terrific Chardonnay on the wine list for about $40.

We concluded with a selection of cheeses ($12), to which the restaurant added a selection of complimentary petits-fours (five apiece). As we were leaving, we were each handed coffee cakes to take home for Sunday’s breakfast—a nice touch usually associated with higher-end places.

Part of Compass’s problem, I suspect, is that it’s an unusually large space for the area. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it full. Here’s hoping that the latest formula will take root and flourish.

And now, my visit of November 5th:

I seem to keep returning to Compass, as it’s one of the better mid-priced fine dining options near Lincoln Center. Last night, I returned with a new friend, and again I was not disappointed.

We both had the $32 prix fixe, which for its quality is one of the better deals at this price point. I started with a salmon tartare, followed by braised shortribs that melted in your mouth. Dessert was a yogurt panna cotta.

My friend and I dined at Blue Hill the night before. Now, if you asked a dozen knowledgeable people, most would say that Blue Hill is the more reliable, but my friend and I had no trouble concluding—at least on this occasion—that we had enjoyed our dinner at Compass more.

With its checkered history of four chefs in four years, it would have been easy for Compass to wither and die. It has a large dining room to fill, but we found it busy last night. It’s a pity Amanda Hesser demoted it to one star, back when Katy Sparks was at the stoves (which seems like ages ago). Compass is back.

Shortly after I wrote this, Frank Bruni restored Compass’s two-star rating at the Times.

Compass (208 W. 70th Street, west of Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Brick Lane Curry House

When this restaurant opened in 2002, the verdict over at eGullet was: “Spicy food and slow service”. Three years later, Brick Lane Curry House has its act together. My friend and I arrived at 6:20 Saturday night and were out by 7:35, which was sufficient time for us to order drinks, appetizers, and entrées. The restaurant is now on OpenTable, which was what brought it to my attention.

I started with Aloo Chaat, which is described as: potatoes tossed in a yogurt and mint sauce with spices. At $6 this is a bargain, as the portion is almost big enough to be an entrée. My companion ordered the same thing with chickpeas, rather than potatoes. It has a lively flavor, and just enough heat to prepare the palate for the curry to come.

Most of the curries come in a variety of preparations, usually chicken, lamb, goat, fish, shrimp, paneer, tofu, and vegetable, priced from $12–19. We both had vindaloo: she the lamb ($17), I the goat ($18). I’m not a curry expert, but there was enough heat to bring sweat to the forehead, water to the eyes. I found the bones in the goat a bit annoying. We ordered two preparations of rice and another of spinach to round out the meal, and had more food than we could eat.

For the record, vindaloo is the restaurant’s second-hottest curry. The hottest is Phaal, which is described thus:

An excruciatingly hot curry, more pain and sweat than flavor. For our customers who do this on a dare, we will require you to state a verbal disclaimer not holding us liable for any physical or emotional damage after eating this curry. If you do manage to finish your serving of curry, a bottle of beer is on us.

Brick Lane Curry House (306–308 E. 6th St. near Second Avenue, East Village)

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