Monday
Dec192005

Mainland

Note: My predictions of Mainland’s success were ill-founded. It closed in 2006, re-opening as Ollie’s Brasserie. That didn’t last, either. As of August 2007, the space houses an Italian restaurant, Accademia di Vino.

*

I dined at Mainland in early October. It’s one of the few Chinese restaurants in the city that at least tries to be original. It is a lovely space. My friend and I were treated well. In this neighborhood, I believe it will succeed

Frank Bruni’s one-star rating was correct. The shrimp dumplings were good, but I’ve had better at 66. The Peking duck was good, but I’ve had better on Mott Street. The miso black cod was good, but I’ve had better at Nobu.

Complimentary sweets served at the end of the meal were a nice touch. There were five little pieces of candy, each different from the other. Five doesn’t divide by two, so I happily ceded the fifth piece to my dining partner.

Mainland (1081 Third Avenue at 64th Street, Upper East Side)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Uncle Jack's Steakhouse

Note: Click here for a more recent review of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse.

Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse doesn’t seem to get as much “foodie” attention as other New York steakhouses. I was working in the neighborhood one night in October, so I thought it was a good time to give Uncle Jack’s a try. The restaurant claims to be “New York’s Best Steakhouse.” While I haven’t tried anywhere near all of them, on the strength of one visit the boast is not an unreasonable one.

I ordered the rack of lamb, which came with a dijon mustard, rosemary demi-glace, and Japanese panko bread crust ($40). This was one of the top 2-3 lamb dishes of my lifetime. Absolutely outstanding. I also ordered the asparagus side dish ($10), which was cooked to perfection.

I don’t know where the custom arose that steakhouse portions are about double what they’d be in any other type of restaurant. The server described the lamb chops as “lollipop sized.” I suppose that’s true, but even at that size, I don’t think I’ve ever had more than four of them on one entrée. Uncle Jack’s served eight of them. The asparagus, too, was certainly ample for two people.

Having said all that, I was ravenously hungry (having missed lunch), and with the food being as good as it was, I ate every morsel.

My only pet peeve was the menu, or rather the lack of one. The captain said, “I am the menu,” and proceeded to recite the whole thing from memory. He was most patient, and his explanations were perfectly clear, but at these prices why can’t they be bothered to put it in writing?

The other sticking point is that diners not familiar with NY steakhouse prices might be surprised at the final bill, since the captain doesn’t tell you the prices. You could ask about each item, but it’s rather tedious to do so. He did make a point of mentioning that the Kobe steak was “on special” for only $100. I happen to eat out at steakhouses a lot, so I wasn’t surprised at my $50 tab (before tax and tip). Others might be.

That caveat aside, Uncle Jack’s is wonderful. I’ll be back.

Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse (440 Ninth Ave., between 34th & 35th Sts., Hell’s Kitchen)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Hearth

Note: Click here for a more recent (and more favorable) report on Hearth.

I post this review with some trepidation. The foodie community loves Hearth. I had dinner there in early October with two collegues, and was underwhelmed. I ordered:

FOIE GRAS TORCHON ($18)
with Endive, Mission Figs, and Brioche Toast

STEAMED BLACK BASS ($27)
Heirloom Tomatoes, Leeks and Fine Herbs

The foie gras was extremely bland (I enjoyed the toast more), and the bass practically devoid of taste. The bread service was also a disappointment (tasted stale; the butter wasn’t spreadable).

My colleagues did enjoy their meals, so perhaps I just ordered the wrong things.

Hearth (403 E. 12th Street at First Avenue, East Village)

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

Monday
Dec192005

De Grezia

De Grezia is the foodie equivalent of a zero point one earthquake: it simply isn’t noticed in this city of big, brash, publicity-studded restaurants. The family that runs it most certainly has no publicist, no menu consultant, no Internet site. Yet, if you put it anywhere else, De Grezia would be one of the finer restaurants in town. Here, it is barely noticed.

The business associate who suggested De Grezia for a meal we shared in early October said he favors the restaurant because it is quiet, the food is excellent, and it’s a pleasant alternative to yet another Smith & Wollensky dinner. He mentioned that the restaurant has several excellent private rooms that are perfect for a confidential business negotiation, because “no one will know you’re there.”

The restaurant is on the lower level of a townhouse. The décor is lovely and soothing. Service is highly professional. I started with an appetizer of black penne pasta studded with seafood (scallops, shrimps, calamari). The entrée was a wonderful branzino, cooked whole. The waiter promised tableside filleting, but after showing me the fish as it had come out of the over, it was whisked away to be plated back in the kitchen.

The ‘buzz’ some restaurants get is a curious thing. Two nights earlier, I found the Sea Bass entrée at the much-lauded Hearth underwhelming. At the unheralded De Grezia, I had a far more pleasant encounter with another member of the bass family, the branzino. In my mind, there was no doubt at all which was the better restaurant.

De Grezia (231 E. 50th Street, near Second Avenue, Turtle Bay)

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

Monday
Dec192005

The Red Cat

On a Sunday night in October, a friend and I looked in on The Red Cat. The restaurant can thank Frank Bruni, because without his June review I would most likely have overlooked it. Things were only just warming up when we arrived at 6:00, but the restaurant was full by the time we left at 7:30 or so.

Full marks go to an appetizer Bruni didn’t mention: tempura of bacon, a wonderful if peculiar dish that’s exactly what it sounds like. We both had the suckling pig entrée (served only on Sundays), which Bruni mentioned near the end of his review. It was served “pulled pork style” on a bed of spicy, but slightly watery, vegetables and corn bread.

The restaurant is to be commended for offering a reasonable selection of half-bottles of wine. When they were out of the $30 cabernet I wanted, they recommended a sensible alternative that was actually $3 cheaper.

My friend doesn’t follow the NYC food scene, but when I mentioned the minor controversy surrounding Bruni’s review, she instinctively agreed with me. The Red Cat is a “best-of-the-neighborhood” kind of restaurant, precisely the type that deserved one star — as The Red Cat in fact received when William Grimes originally reviewed it for the Times.

It is no insult for this type of restaurant to receive one star: indeed, the meaning of one star is “good.” The Red Cat is a good restaurant. We had a wonderful time and would happily go again. But for The Red Cat to receive two stars, a level carried by such restaurants as Annisa, David Burke & Donatella, Montrachet, and Café Gray, is overly generous.

The Red Cat (227 Tenth Avenue between 23rd–24th Streets, West Chelsea)

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

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: *