Monday
Dec192005

Tocqueville

Note: This is a review of Tocqueville in its former location. The restaurant moved to 1 East 15th Street at Fifth Avenue, the opposite end of the block from its original space. The latter has become a Japanese restaurant, 15 East, by the same owners.

*

Tocqueville offers a quiet, civilized dining experience. The design, muted and refined, has a calming influence, and unlike so many modern restaurants, doesn’t call attention to itself. The dining room is small and the tables reasonably close together—yet, you hear your companion’s voice without shouting, and you don’t hear anybody else’s conversation. Even if you knew no more, all of these attributes would recommend Tocqueville to the discerning diner looking for an evening’s escape without busting the budget.

I chose Tocqueville mainly to please my mother, who was visiting from out of town. She ordered six oysters on the half-shell, followed by the seared Maine diver scallops with Hudson Valley foie gras. She pronounced both superb—and she is not easily impressed.

My choices, alas, didn’t turn out quite so well. I started with a salad listed on the menu as: “Cato Farm Connecticut Aged Dutch Farm House Cheddar” with “shaved fennel, frisee, roasted pears, hazelnut balsamic vinaigrette.” That’s quite a mouthful, and it looked wonderful, but was far too salty to my taste. I noticed that a diner at the table next to me left hers unfinished, so perhaps she had the same reaction.

For the entrée, I ordered the Niman Ranch Pork Chop, which is served with “manila clams, fingerling potatoes and bitter greens with chorizo white wine and garlic.” (All quotes from the restaurant’s website.) The clams are an odd pairing with the pork chop. Once again, this dish was too salty, including the chop (which was thick and tender).

Given my mom’s endorsement of Tocqueville’s cuisine, perhaps I just made the wrong choices. The restaurant was full on a Sunday evening, and I suspect many of the patrons were regulars. Service was efficient and friendly, although I grew mildly irritated at an over-eager server who punctuated each dish ordered with “excellent! … wonderful! … great!” On the other hand, over-eager is better than under-attentive.

Appetizers are $12-28, mains are $27-36. Tasting menus are available for $75 (five courses) or $95 (seven courses). The wine list is pricey, with scarcely a bottle below $50. We lucked into a wonderful bordeaux at $48, which is about the cheapest you can do, but the pickings were slim at that price range. I don’t think it would kill Tocqueville to offer a reasonable wine selection in the $35-45 range.

Tocqueville (15 E. 15th Street, ½ block west of Union Square)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Café Gray

Note: Café Gray closed on June 21, 2008. Click here and here for later reviews, and here for my parting thoughts.

A friend and I had dinner at Café Gray on a Friday night in November of last year. It was a 5:30pm pre-theatre dinner, but we reserved only on Monday. Even when we left at around 7:00pm, the restaurant was not yet full.

At first, we were seated near a family with young children. (I can’t comprehend taking small children to such a place, but one sees it all the time.) They were well enough behaved, but to be on the safe side we asked to be moved. The staff offered us a nice table for two right next to the kitchen area, and this worked out perfectly. Service overall was top-notch.

So many people have recommended the mushroom risotto and the braised short ribs, so I ordered them. These dishes are indeed delicious, but they are also the most expensive items on the menu. After each of us had had a martini, a glass of wine, an appetizer, an entrée, and a cup of coffee, the bill had come to over $200 with tax and tip. This is not an unreasonable sum to pay for dinner at a nice restaurant in New York, but the city has better bets for that amount of money.

Some people love the space at Café Gray, and others hate it. After reading so many of the “hate it” posts, I’d expected something a lot worse. Café Gray is lovely, although the point of exposing the kitchen still eludes me. We had a nice time, but we were not transported. Putting such an elaborate place in the middle of a shopping mall looks like a gamble, and I’m not yet prepared to say whether it has paid off.

Café Gray (10 Columbus Circle, 3rd floor of the Time Warner Center)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Wallsé

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

Last November, a friend and I went to Wallsé. It’s a beautiful restaurant that could pass for an art museum if it wasn’t serving such wonderful food. On a cold fall evening, Wallsé offers the perfect getaway from the elements.

To start, I had the Spätzle (a kind of Austrian pasta) with braised rabbit, wild mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, and tarragon ($15). Our server guided me to this, and he wasn’t mistaken: it was a wonderful dish. Both my friend and I were beguiled by the crispy cod strudel with a stew of carrots and ginger with black trumpet mushrooms ($27). Cod is the humblest of fishes. The highlight of the dish is the light, flakey, almost ethereal strudel crust that surrounds it.

I don’t normally have dessert, but who could resist when things were going so well? We shared the Quark “cheesecake” with chilled quince consommé and elderflower sorbet. The menu puts “cheesecake” in quotes because it’s made with a very light cheese, giving the cake a consistency just slightly more solid than whipped cream. The quince consommé came in a separate dish, and it almost seemed superfluous to the excellent cake. Perhaps combining the quince with the cake would produce an even more successful offering.

When Wallsé called to confirm our 6:00pm reservation, they asked if we wouldn’t mind showing up a little closer to 5:45. This happened to suit our plans, but I was mildly insulted by the suggestion. Although the request was phrased politely, the intent was obvious enough: “we’re trying to turn the table.” My feeling was that they offered a 6:00pm reservation, and they should stand by it: serving the next customer was their problem, not mine. Indeed, I was just faintly aware that the efficient service was perhaps too efficient (the appetizers arrived just moments after we ordered them).

None of this should take away from what Wallsé achieves, which is creative Austrian cuisine, prepared to near perfection. Appetizers are priced from $11-19, entrées from $26-35. All desserts are $9. We had a tough time deciding what to order, which may mean that we have to go back!

Wallsé (344 W. 11th Street at Washington Street, West Village)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Scalini Fedeli

I had dinner last December at Scalini Fedeli. It is is a pricey restaurant that gets mixed reviews, whereas the New Jersey outpost of the same restaurant gets rave after rave. An underwhelmed William Grimes awarded just one lonely star in a 1999 review, but Bob Lape awarded three in Crain’s New York Business. Michelin awarded one star, making it (in Michelin’s view) one of the city’s finer Italian restaurants.

The on-line menu at Scalini Fedeli’s website says that there are three options: prix fixe at $60, degustation menu at $70, or seasonal game menu at $75. Only the first was available when I visited. The menu showed over a dozen choices for both the first and second courses (some of which have price supplements). To these, the waiter added a recited lengthly list of daily specials. I find this extremely irritating. A restaurant of this calibre can afford to print a new menu as frequently as necessary, especially when the specials are so numerous. By the time the waiter gets to the end of his list, you’ve already forgotten the first thing he mentioned. It is too tedious to ask him to go through the whole list again.

Anyhow, we both started with the Soft Egg Yolk Raviolo, with Ricotta and Spinach, covered in truffle butter. This was absolutely outstanding. The dish has been justly praised on several websites, suggesting it’s a regular on the menu. Curiously, the menu on restaurant’s own website doesn’t list it, although the one on menupages does. By the way, the amuse was also an excellent raviolo, although I’ve forgotten what it consisted of.

For the entrée, I had the slow roasted breast of duck and leg confit with a mustard seed and black olive sauce. It comes with a Sicilian risotto. This was one of the more ample duck portions I’ve had, cooked beautifully to a medium rare temperature. There were a good 10-12 slices of duck breast, along with the leg-and-thigh confit served in a separate bowl. (I couldn’t understand the reason for separating them.) The mustard seed and black olive sauce didn’t quite work for me. It left an aftertaste that was just slightly bitter. It remains, however, one of the better servings of duck that I’ve encountered.

My companion had the roasted veal chop in a porcini dijon and green peppercorn sauce. This looked terrific, and he pronounced himself pleased.

After a pre-dessert of two sorbets, I had the carmelized apple tart (the waiter’s recommendation), and my companion had the passion fruit panna cotta. I would judge the apple tart a success, but not anything special.

Service was excellent. Tables are well spaced, and the noise level was low. The restaurant was a little under half-full when we left at about 8:00pm. On yesterday’s showing, I would say the New York Times rating of one star definitely cannot be justified. Scalini Fedeli is at least at the high end of the two-star category. Further visits might show it to be worthy of three.

Scalini Fedeli (165 Duane Street, just west of Hudson Street, TriBeCa)

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

Monday
Dec192005

5 Ninth

Note: Click here for a later review of 5 Ninth.

Frank Bruni’s one-star review of 5 Ninth did not leave me with any eagerness to visit. That all changes when you receive an invitation, and your host is paying the bill. That’s what happened one night last December.

The building’s facade conceals its intentions. It occupies an eighteenth-century townhouse that has seen better days. Amid the glitz of the meatpacking district, it’s the building that time forgot. Only the brass #5 on the door tells you that you’re in the right place. (My companion, who is not a New Yorker, had to ask at three different storefronts nearby before he was directed to the right one.)

It’s a narrow building, and therein lies part of the problem. The entire ground floor is the bar. Dinner seating is up a treacherous staircase (we saw one patron take a scary tumble during dinner). Most of the tables seat only two; all of them are small. No one takes your coat; your server just directs you to hooks on the wall.

The menu at the website isn’t much use. It doesn’t show prices, and most of the offerings have changed anyway. Prices have also gone up. The Bruni review stated that entrées are $25-32. When I visited, they were $30-34. (I don’t recall seeing any mains below $30, but if there were any, it was only one or two.) There was no amuse bouche, and at these prices I think there should be.

Dinner starts slow at 5 Ninth. It was nearly empty when we arrived (6:30pm), but nearly full by the time we left (8:30 or 8:45). An empty restaurant is no guarantee of efficient service. A basket of bread was deposited on our table, along with a heavenly homemade whipped butter, but without bread plates or spreading knives. We thought that perhaps this was part of the meatpacking ethos—who needs plates when you can eat off the table?—but bread plates finally arrived after we’d had two slices apiece. Not that this bread was even worth the effort, as it was crumbly and stale.

For starters, my companion and I were both attracted to the sardines. We each received two whole fish, quite a bit larger than usual, grilled crisp and just a bit spicy. Separating the meat from the bones required a bit of labor, although well worth it. We kept the same knives that we had used to spread the butter. I’m sure the staff would have replaced them had we asked…but you shouldn’t have to ask.

For the main course, my companion had the goat, which looked wonderful (it resembled duck breast, but I forgot to ask how it tasted). I ordered something called “Mr. Clark’s Pork.” It turns out this dish is named for the farm where chef Zak Pellacio sources his pigs. From the description, you have no idea what you’re getting. It turned out to be heaven for pig lovers: pork loin cooked in its own fat, along with another body part deep fried. This came with what could only have been a potato fritter, grilled flat, with a salsa paste on top.

At the table next to me, a young lady also ordered Mr. Clark’s pork. Unlike me, she didn’t ask the server how the dish was prepared, and she was disappointed to receive a preparation with such a high fat content. It wouldn’t hurt 5 Ninth to be a little less cute with their descriptions.

We skipped dessert, but we were in the mood to finish with some scotch. “Do you have any scotch?” we asked. “Hmmm…I think we have some Laphroig, a McCallans, a Johnnie Walker Blue, and maybe a few others.” Here again, this seems basic. Either the server should know, or the after-dinner drinks should be on the dessert menu. Anyhow, we both chose the Johnnie Walker Blue. I’m a single-malt guy, but this was so smooth that I might just be converted to blends.

5 Ninth has been open since May 2004. Service glitches should have been worked out by December. The artistry of Zak Pellacio’s food deserves better.

5 Ninth (5 Ninth Avenue btwn Gansevoort & Little West 12th Sts, Meatpacking District)

Food: **
Service: Not Acceptable
Ambiance: Fair
Overall: *

Monday
Dec192005

Riverdale Garden

Note: The Riverdale Garden closed in February 2007. The owners said they would re-open if they could find fifty couples to purchase $5,000 apiece in dining credits. Eater.com reported that they had found just 16.

*

The Bronx is not exactly a hotbed of fine dining. The Zagat guide lists but twelve restaurants in the Bronx, and very few of them appear to merit a trip out of Manhattan. Well, at least one of them does. The Riverdale Garden is an oasis well worth the trip. Located just a block away from the 242nd St terminus of the #1 train, the restaurant is extremely easy to reach, and in a safe neighborhood. Valet parking is also offered.

Inside the Riverdale Garden, you are transported by a cosy farmhouse décor, with white tablecloths and an exposed wood-burning furnace. There are a couple of sofas by the furnace, and on a cold night it was wonderful to relax there and soak up the heat. As you’d expect, The Riverdale Garden has…an outdoor garden. As you’d also expect, it was not open on Saturday night in January, but we peered outdoors, and it looks like a lovely romantic setting for a return visit in summertime.

I ordered a wild mushroom risotto, followed by a braised lamb shank. The risotto was terrific, and the lamb so tender that a knife was entirely superfluous. My friend was equally pleased with the soup du jour and a tuna steak. For dessert, we shared a heavenly fruit compote with cinammon ice cream. We each ordered mint tea, which came in personal-size tea pots in a witty design I’ve never seen anywhere else.

All of that, plus one glass of wine (my friend does not drink) came in for under $100 before the tip. I can’t remember the last time I had a meal this good that stayed under $100. I was particularly struck by the fact that I had ordered practically the identical items recently at Café Gray (wild mushroom risotto and braised shortribs), and paid more than double that figure, although at CG we drank a bit more. There’s no contest as to which restaurant I’ll return to sooner.

The restaurant was full on a Saturday night, with what appeared to be an upscale clientele. Service was friendly and efficient. Appetizers are in the $6-10 range, mains $16-27. The menu changes seasonally, and the version shown on the website isn’t current.

Riverdale Garden (4576 Manhattan College Parkway, Riverdale, Bronx)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Chanterelle

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

In mid-January, I had a business dinner at Chanterelle. My only prior experience at the restaurant was a lunch in 1990, which is too long ago to be relevant.

Chanterelle is now just over twenty-five years old, with a ten-year stint in SoHo, followed by a move to the present TriBeCa location in 1989. The restaurant ranks high in New York’s culinary scene, but just where is a matter of some dispute. Chanterelle earned two stars from Mimi Sheraton (1980) and Marion Burros (1984), four from Bryan Miller (1985) and Ruth Reichl (1993), before William Grimes took the restaurant down a peg with a three-star review in 2000.

I have to wonder about the two-star jump from 1984 to ‘85—can any restaurant really improve that much in a year? By 2000, Grimes clearly thought that Chanterelle had lost a step, a view many of the web reviews confirm. However, since the Grimes review, the James Beard Foundation has twice lauded Chanterelle as best restaurant in America (2002, 2005). Yet, Michelin failed to award even a solitary star. My own experience puts Chanterelle close to the top of the three-star range. I cannot say that it is four stars.

The menu at Chanterelle changes every four weeks. Many famous artists have designed menu covers for Chanterelle, but if that was the case on our visit, it wasn’t drawn to our attention. Inside, we found calligraphy worthy of the Declaration of Independence. On the left was the table d’hôte three-course dinner at $95, on the right the six-course tasting menu at $115 (with wine parings, $60-85 additional). You can add a cheese course to the table d’hôte for $19. One of the entrées carries a truffle supplment of $20. Otherwise, it’s just $95 per person, plus alcohol.

As my host was buying, I didn’t examine the wine list, although it is notoriously pricey. He found a wonderful Australian red, with which I was quite satisfied.

We were served double amuses of chilled squash soup in a shot glass and a small crab cake (shaped like a ping-pong ball). Both were superb. While we awaited our appetizers, our server brought out two different butters for us to try with warm, home-made bread rolls.

I started with the seafood sausage, which is well known to be one of Chanterelle’s signature dishes. It’s a sizable portion, and the explosive taste made it the meal’s highlight. Might this be the best appetizer in Manhattan? My companion ordered the foie gras terrine, which he pronounced excellent.

Almost five years ago, Bob Lape’s review for Crain’s New York Business complained that Chanterelle’s kitchen doesn’t always send out the advertised product. Both my companion and I ordered the “Loin of Lamb with Moroccan Spices, Gateau of Eggplant Lamb Shank.” I couldn’t, for the life of me, detect any Moroccan spices in the dish that came out. There were four or five beautiful slices of rare lamb loin with a crusty exterior, but they were not Moroccan in any way that I could perceive. The braised lamb shank in an eggplant jacket was clear enough to the taste, if slightly bland.

For dessert, I ordered the “Pineapple Fruit Soup with Passion Fruit Soufflé Glace.” This was an unusual concoction, but I am positive that there was also grapefruit in it. Now, while I love pineapple and passion fruit, I am not a fan of grapefruit. I finished the dish, but had grapefruit been part of the description I likely would have chosen something else.

After dessert, our server brought out two trays of petits fours. At this point, they were just showing off. A table of eight would have had trouble finishing the quantity of sweets that were presented to us. They looked wonderful, but my companion and I were too full to touch them. Our server also brought out a tray of small, freshly-baked cream-puffs, which I couldn’t resist.

Chanterelle takes a team approach to service. The dining room is small, and it appears that all of the staff perform all of the functions interchangeably. This leads to some service glitches, such as two separate servers coming around to take our bottled water order. Some of the plates weren’t cleared quite as rapidly as I would have liked. These are minor complaints, which I would put in writing only because, at Chanterelle’s level, I believe service should be practically flawless.

I went home happy, but still feeling that Chanterelle is operating a step or two shy of its full potential.

Chanterelle (2 Harrison Street at Hudson Street, TriBeCa)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Wolfgang's Steakhouse

Note: Click here for a review of Wolfgang’s TriBeCa.

In mid-January, I paid my first visit to Wolfgang’s Steakhouse. I ate at the bar. The Gustavino ceiling is priceless, but it makes Wolfgang’s noisy (and I was there before they really filled up). Carpeting, rather than hardwood floors, would probably make a big difference, but peace and quiet are clearly not the idea here.

Like Peter Luger, Wolfgang’s signature entrée is simply labeled “Steak for Two,” “Steak for Three,” or “Steak for Four.” It’s a porterhouse, but they don’t say so. I was alone, so my options were the ribeye, the NY sirloin, the filet, or the lamb chop. They’re all $36.50, so it’s just a matter of preference.

I ordered the ribeye, which was a hefty size and thickness, a perfect medium rare, and had heavy char on the outside. I was fully sated after finishing it. About four hours later, I had a distinct craving for another. One small strand of gristle was all that stood between my steak and perfection. It was still damned good.

Also like Luger, Canadian Bacon is on the menu. It’s $2.50 a slice, and you wonder why more appetizers aren’t offered with that kind of flexibility. I knew I was in for a large steak, so I ordered just one slice. Oh my, but was that superb: thick, crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside.

Like many folks, I found the medical advice in Frank Bruni’s review (“Eat up, but don’t tell your cardiologist”) of dubious value. It doesn’t bother Wolfgang, though. A copy of the Bruni review is very prominently posted.

There are plenty of FOH staff roaming around, although it can be hard to get their attention. As I was leaving, I was looking for someone to fetch my coat, and quite inadvertently I ended up presenting my claim check to Wolfgang himself. Momentarily flustered, he said, “One of zee girls!” (Any girl would do, I suppose.) A couple of minutes later I had my coat and was on my way. Until next time.

Update: On a later occasion, two colleagues and I tried that porterhouse, which was amazing.

Wolfgang’s Steakhouse (4 Park Avenue at 33rd Street, Murray Hill)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Sparks Steakhouse

I had dinner at Sparks Steakhouse in late January. I was not impressed. The décor and servers come straight out of Central Casting. I suppose that somebody needs to act out the part of the cliché steakhouse, but because it’s a cliché there’s not a whole lot to distinguish it.

My unscientific survey of the surrounding tables suggests that most Sparks patrons do as we did, and order the prime sirloin steak ($38.95). You get a thick hunk of meat, which the kitchen prepared it to a perfect medium rare. However, I found it a slightly tough, and also a bit too salty. The steak also didn’t have much char on the outside. It was, in short, not the kind of world-class steak you expect from a high-end steakhouse.

I knew a huge steak was coming, so my colleague and I decided to split a shrimp cocktail rather than order separate appetizers. Without prompting, the kitchen divided the portion onto separate plates. That was a nice example of going the extra mile: not many restaurants would do that, particularly when it was unprompted. I have no complaints about this dish, except that $17.95 is awfully expensive for four shrimps (two apiece).

Sparks is known for its deep wine list. We shared a bottle of the 2001 Cakebread Cellars, which I mention only because it was terrific: an exceptional cabernet, at least to my untutored taste.

It was not a bad evening, but with so many other steakhouses to choose from, I won’t be rushing back.

Sparks Steakhouse (210 E. 46th St. near Third Avenue, East Midtown)

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

Monday
Dec192005

BLT Fish

Note: Click here for a more recent visit to BLT Fish.

Back in May, two colleagues and I had dinner at BLT Fish. My sense was that Frank Bruni had awarded awarded one star too many. Mind you, a two-star restaurant is still very good. But this didn’t feel like it deserved three.

Our server got things off on the wrong foot. We said, “Can we order some appetizers?” He said, “The kitchen prefers to receive your entire order at once.” This is no doubt true, but it was an awfully clumsy way of telling us that the restaurant values its own convenience over that of its guests. Perhaps he should have just said, “Sorry guys, but we have tables to turn here.”

BLT Fish wheels out impressive-looking whole fish. Red Snapper “Cantonese” Style was a gorgeous presentation, filleted tableside, but both the fish and the cantonese vegetables seemed a bit bland in the end. The appetizers, spicy Tuna Tartare and Softshell Crab Tempura, were more successful.

There were two different amuses, both imaginative turns on “bread & butter.” But in one case there was too little bread and too much spread; in the other case, it was the opposite. No one came around to offer more bread.

Vegetables are separately priced side orders, steakhouse style. Sauteed spinach was fine. Our server talked us into ordering Salt Crusted Sunchokes, which were mushy and not at all interesting.

The sommelier helped us choose too excellent wines, both of which were a hit. All told, it was an uneven performance. I would certainly return, but the restaurant needs some fine tuning.

BLT Fish (21 W 17th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, Flatiron District)

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