Update: This is a review of THOR under Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, who has since departed. As of 2008, THOR was on its fourth chef, with Jesi Solomon (a former sous chef at Stanton Social) having replaced Mark Spangenthal, who replaced Kevin Pomplun, who replaced Gutenbrunner. Later Update: THOR closed in May 2009. It was replaced by a new concept called Levant East.


THOR is short for The Hotel on Rivington. It’s also the name of the restaurant that occupies the ground floor of that hotel. I don’t know what possessed somebody to put a 21-story hotel on the Lower East Side, although it is surprisingly easy to reach (just 2 blocks from the F train’s Delancey St stop).

The building sticks out like a sore thumb in this trendy, but still gritty neighborhood of low-rise tenements. Who could be staying there? You get no immediate idea of the hotel clientele when you visit, because the entire ground floor seems to be occupied by the vast lounge and restaurant. Indeed, you wouldn’t even know that it is a hotel, except for the name. There is no check-in counter, bellhop, or concierge to give it away.

The host that greets you seems oh-so-annoyed to have landed in the maelstrom of a successful restaurant. You get the sense that he’d be happiner in a far less hectic profession. Just beyond his station, a capacious lounge area awaits, filled with beautiful young bodies sipping their drinks. Loud music thumps in the background. “This is very Lower East Side,” my friend remarked.

The seating area is just beyond the lounge, and it is not far enough. I have not seen a serious restaurant that goes to a more sustained effort to ensure that your ears will be battered and assaulted during your meal. THOR’s 21-foot ceiling offers plenty of hard surfaces for the sound to bounce off of, and the sound happily obliges. Your eardrums may need a medical checkup after the meal is over. The large tables (apparently the same ones you find at BLT Steak) offer plenty of room for the food, but to communicate you’ll have to shout.

If you survive the aural onslaught, you’ll be treated to some of the best and most creative food in New York. Of restaurants I’m familiar with, only nearby WD-50 offers a comparable exercise in culinary experimentation on this level. Practically every dish on THOR’s menu offers surprising combinations from superstar chef Kurt Gutenbrunner.

I had my doubts about THOR, because Gutenbruner is now on his fourth restaurant (with Wallsé, Café Sabarsky, and Blaue Gans also in his stable). Perhaps, like many a celebrity chef, he’s taken his eye off the ball. But Gutenbrunner is obviously as good a manager as he is a chef. THOR’s kitchen staff turns out his creations expertly, and the service (despite the din) is nearly perfect.

Gutenbrunner told Frank Bruni that “he considered Thor the culinary equivalent of a chance to move from orchestral music to rock ‘n’ roll.” You can see what he means. At his flagship Wallsé, the Austrian cuisine is excellent, but largely traditional. At THOR, he lets his wildest urges run wild, with spectacular results.

The menu is needlessly confusing. My friend, who hadn’t researched the restaurant in advance (and one shouldn’t have to), was initially baffled. In a preface, Gutenbrunner explains that there are plates of various sizes, allowing you to construct a tasting menu of your own design. But there is no indication of which plates are small, and which are large. Instead, the menu is in sections labeled “Cold Plates to Start,” “Warm Plates in the Middle,” “From the Market on the Side,” “Hot Plates” (a fish list and a meat list) and “Sweet to Finish.” Since when did the traditional captions — “Appetizers,” “Entrées,” “Side Dishes,” and “Desserts” — need to be replaced?

Anyhow, after all that my friend and I each ordered a “Warm Plate,” a side dish, a meat course, and a dessert. And we were transported. To start, my friend ordered the “Grilled shrimp skewers with green tomatoes, peppers and quark powder” ($14), and I the “Ravioli with farmers cheese, mint and hazelnut butter” ($13). My dish came with three ravioli, and they were wonderful; the ingredients worked marvelously together.

The side dishes are all $7. Many of them are traditional vegetable sides, but a terrific mushroom risotto is offered, which my friend and I both ordered. This is one of THOR’s better bargains, given the intensive labor required to make a risotto. It could have been an appetizer in itself, but it came out with the main courses.

I hardly ever order calves liver; indeed, I can remember ordering it only once before in my life. It wasn’t a bad experience, but calves liver is simply one of those dishes that you don’t want every day. “Glazed calves liver with apples and scallions” ($24) seemed too intriguing to pass up, and my willingness to take a chance paid off. If all calves liver dishes were this good, nobody would be ordering foie gras.

My friend had “Roasted rack of lamb with broccoli puree and 14K golden nugget potatoes” ($28), which offered two hefty chops, which she said were spectacular.

For dessert, I tried the pumpkin cheesecake with maple syrup ice cream ($9), which Frank Bruni had described as “a happy nose dive into the heart of autumn.” My friend ordered the petits-fours ($5), which come with what looks like a tube of toothpaste, but it actually contains hazelnut chocolate, which you squeeze into a small basin in the center of each cookie. WD-50’s Wylie Dufresne and Sam Mason would be kicking themselves, and wondering, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

The wine list is organized by region, but there is also a section labeled “Sommelier’s Discoveries,” featuring growers and/or regions that don’t get a lot of publicity. The friendly sommelier came over unbidden and made a wonderful suggestion from that section. It was a 2003 Blaufrankisch by Feiler-Artinger, from Burgenland, a region of eastern Austria. Better yet, I had requested a wine between $35-45, and it was $39. Sommeliers who don’t try to gouge every last dollar earn my everlasting respect. The restaurant uses stemless wine glasses from the Austrian firm Riedel. Somehow, you feel strange drinking wine from a stemless glass, although the Riedel catalog is in fact highly regarded, and pricey.

The individual dishes on the menu are all reasonably priced, but if you heed Gutenbrunner’s advice to construct a “tasting menu,” the bill can mount in a hurry. Our meal of an appetizer, side dish, main course, and dessert apiece, plus wine, was $192.56 (including tax and gratuity). Had we ordered cocktails, more tasting plates, or a different wine, it could easily have been a lot more. For cooking this good, we considered it money well spent.

THOR is full of contradictions. Kurt Gutenbrunner’s serious cuisine finds itself in a clubland setting designed for twenty-somethings who probably don’t realize how special it is. Many of those who would appreciate it are no doubt put off by the location, the clientele, or the noise. (We are in our forties, and seemed to be among the oldest people there.) But if you can put up with the racket, you’ll find that THOR is serving some of the finest food in the city.

THOR (107 Rivington Street, between Essex & Ludlow Streets, Lower East Side)

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


What the Stars Mean

I’ve employed a variation on the system found in The New York Times and many other newspapers:

**** Extraordinary
*** Excellent
** Very Good
* Good
(zero) Satisfactory, Fair, or Poor

Like some newspapers (but not the Times), I award half-stars to further discriminate between rating categories. Similar to Zagat (but not most newspapers), I consider the food, service, and ambiance separately, in addition to awarding an overall rating.

I attach greater significance to the food rating than to service or ambiance. If service and/or ambiance are only a bit better/worse than the food rating, then the overall rating will simply be the same as the food rating. However, if I feel that service/ambiance make a significant difference, I adjust the overall rating accordingly.

Here’s a bit more on what the stars mean to me:

One star: Good in its category; worth a look in its neighborhood, but not worth a special trip.

Two stars: One of the city’s better restaurants in its category. More than just “good for the neighborhood.” A “minor destination,” though possibly with some significant limitations. Worth going at least somewhat out of your way.

Three stars: The city’s best, or very close to the best, of its kind. A special experience. A destination in every respect, without any serious limitations. Nationally, or perhaps even internationally recognized (or deserves to be).

Four stars: A transcendent experience, one of the world’s best. Worth a trip to New York in its own right.

For service and ambiance, I award stars based on my views of what is generally expected for a restaurant in its category. Service, I think, is self-explanatory. Ambiance refers to décor and related issues, such as the noise level, spacing of tables, and so forth.

One and two stars are not bad ratings. They literally mean “good” and “very good” respectively.

Like the Times, I take price into account, but I am not as price sensitive as Frank Bruni. If something is “very good,” it doesn’t suddenly become “bad” because I think the restaurant is over-charging for it. I usually mention prices—at least for what I ordered—and you can decide for yourself if you think it’s worth it. In borderline cases, I may award a slightly higher rating for a great bargain, or a slightly lower one for egregiously over-priced fare.

Unlike the Times, I don’t limit the star system to “$25-and-over” restaurants.The Times isn’t entirely consistent about this anyway. And I will sometimes rate restaurants that the professional critics didn’t bother to review.

Note: For more on the stars, see this post.


Siam Inn

Siam Inn is easily overlooked. The sign outside is small and humble; we nearly walked right by it. But for a happy, budget-friendly pre-theatre meal, Siam Inn is the ticket.

Both Zagat (“very plain decor” leads some to opt for the “excellent delivery”) and Michelin (“plain dining room”) take swipes at at the ambiance, but this is misleading. Okay, it’s not a decorator’s wet dream, like Vong or Spice Market, but Siam Inn is both pleasant and easy on the eyes. The banquettes are comfortable, the tables generously spaced. There are white tablecloths, and service was better than some two-star restaurants I’ve visited lately

In Michelin’s defense, they are tough graders on ambiance, or what they call “comfort.” Siam Inn receives two couverts on their one-to-five scale. That might not seem very good, but quite a few fine dining restaurants in New York have two couverts, such as Artisanal, David Burke & Donatella, and TriBeCa Grill, so Siam Inn is in pretty good company. Notwithstanding that, Michelin praised both the cuisine and the service, and it was an entry in the guide that led me to Siam Inn in the first place.

Anyhow, back to the restaurant: My friend and I shared an order of Thai Spring Rolls ($4.25), a generous and tasty portion that comes with three rolls, provocatively cut in half lengthwise, to show their innards.

Menu choices show between zero and three stars to indicate the degree of spiciness. I ordered a three-star special, Duck Basil ($19.95), which comes with Holy Basil, White Mushroom, Garlic and Chili. I would describe this as pleasantly hot, but not the fire-engine red associated with Sripraphai or some Indian curry houses. The duck slices (boneless, with the skin still on) were tender and moist. My friend had another hot duck dish, which looked very similar to mine, but with different vegetables and spices.

We both had a fun cocktail starter called a Blue Moon (sorry, I forget what was in it). The final bill, including tax but before tip, was about $62.

Siam Inn (854 Eighth Avenue between 51st & 52nd Streets, West Midtown)

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



I had lunch at Nobu on Wednesday, probably my 4th or 5th time at the restaurant, always for lunch. (Accounts of two past visits can be found here and here.)

As I have noted before, if you show up without a reservation at 11:45 or noon, you will invariably be seated. In the past, we’ve always been told that we’d have to be finished by 1:30, or so. No such guidance this week; even when we left, at 2pm, the restaurant was not full.

I started with a salmon skin roll, which was very good, if not quite offering the taste explosion of the best sushi restaurants. My colleague and I shared four of the signature dishes: yellowtail tartar with caviar and wasabe sauce; spicy rock shrimp tempura; squid “pasta”, and miso black cod. I think the squid pasta has lost a bit of its lustre; when you get over the novelty, it is really nothing special. But the others are all top-notch, and it is no surprise that they bring the miso black cod last. Although imitated a hundred times over, there is still no miso black cod like Nobu’s.

I finished with an apple crisp with cinnamon ice cream, and while you don’t think of Nobu for its desserts, this was beautifully prepared and a sensory pleasure.

Service was excellent.

As an unrelated aside, did you ever wonder why you can’t get through to Nobu on the reservation line? At lunch time, there are five phone operators sitting at a booth near the front door. They are the reservations department. While waiting for my coat, I overheard one of them telling the others about a recent social event she’d attended. The phone rang: “Nobu, can you hold, please?” After putting the caller on hold, she finished her story about the social event.

Nobu (105 Hudson Street at Franklin Street, TriBeCa)

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


Fig & Olive

Is there a sommelier in the house? An Olive Oil sommelier, that is?

You’ll find one at Fig & Olive. On entering, you notice a striking back-lit wall at the far end of the restaurant, with what look like wine bottles on display. But those bottles contain olive oil.

After you arrive, your server drops off a plate of soft bread and a ceramic dish with three small compartments, each containing a splash of olive oil. He explains each olive oil sample with the kind of lexicon usually reserved for wine or liquor (“buttery notes with an oaky taste and a smooth finish” — that sort of thing). The bread, “our freshly baked olive fougasse bread,” is perfect for dipping. My friend and I couldn’t exactly perceive the various tastes he had described, although we could tell the three olive oils were subtly different.

Indeed, olive oil takes center stage at Fig and Olive. Almost every dish mentions which olive oil it is prepared with. For instance, I started with a Fig Jamon Goat Cheese Carpaccio, which comes with 18 month cured Spanish ham, warm goat cheese, sherry vinegar, and Aguibal Arbequina Olive Oil (from Spain, I gather). That’s a lot of ingredients, but they go together perfectly. This was a terrific dish.

My dining partner had a French-inspired starter, Saumon Marine Aux Trois Agrumes, which comes with marinated raw salmon, lemon-orange-grapefruit, chive, cilantro, and Moulin Baussy Olive Oil. This was a nearly entrée-sized portion. (She had started with a salad, which was also an ample size, and she was quite pleased with it.)

Both of these selections ($12 each) are in a section of the menu labeled Carpaccio and Tasting Plates, priced in the $10-14 range. Salads are $12-15, soups are $6.95, Tartines (served till 6pm) are $9.50-$13.50. Various tasting plates (vegetables, crostini, chesse, meats) are available; for instance, six cheeses for $14, or four vegetables for $16. Everything seems to come with olive oil and figs.

Main courses (served after 6pm) are $15-24. I had the Salmon with Carmelized Fig and Orange ($19), which comes with Mahjoub Tunisian Olive Oil. This dish was not as successful as the starter. Initially, I was intrigued with the carmelized exterior of the salmon, but the dish had no staying power. About midway through the dish, I concluded that the fish itself was over-cooked, and dry.

Service lapses abounded. When I selected a white wine at $36, the server informed me that it was not cold, and suggested another at $10 more. Now, I am always happy when a server directs me to a better wine choice, but when I have selected a $36 bottle (and this restaurant has plenty of choices at that price point), his recommendation should be in my range. I ignored his advice and chose something else, with which we were delighted.

At another point, he brought out an olive oil, but then held it up to his nose and sniffed before describing it. My dining partner’s entrée was brought out while she was still eating her appetizer. After finishing my appetizer, I had left my knife and fork on the plate—clearly suggesting I wanted them replaced. Instead, when the plate was cleared, my dirty knife and fork were returned to me.

The no-nonsense décor gives olive oil bottles center stage. Tables are metallic and rather closely-spaced, and the noise level is above average. Fig and Olive may be a one-trick restaurant, but its considerable charm in the olive oil department, at a moderate price point, makes this restaurant worth a try.

Fig & Olive (808 Lexington Avenue at 62nd Street, Upper East Side)

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


Perish the Thought: Kerry in '08??

An article today on Yahoo! News says “Kerry Positioned for ‘08 White House Bid.” Egad! A second Kerry bid is just what Democrats don’t need. Even his presence in the primaries will reinforce the party’s image as soft, flip-flopping, liberal, tax-and-spenders. I don’t think Hillary Clinton is electable either, but at least she’s been tough on Iraq. Much as I oppose that war, no one that’s perceived as soft on defense—as Kerry is—will be the next President.

While Kerry has not formally declared his candidacy (it’s far too early for that), the article says that he has maintained the core of his 2004 campaign staff, continues to build a network of supporters, and continues to travel nationwide raising money—all things he’d be unlikely to do if he were content merely to be the junior Senator from Massachusetts.

The most memorable quote of the article goes to Ronald Kaufman, a former political director for the first President Bush: “I go to bed every night praying Kerry is the nominee again.” Yes, that’s right, folks. Kerry is precisely the nominee the Republicans would love to run against.



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

It seems that when I roll the dice with fine restaurants on New Year’s Eve, I keep getting snake eyes. Restaurants tend to offer a limited menu—something they can serve to hundreds of people quickly and easily—at an inflated price. I was disspointed in Ouest last year (although I’d had a good meal there on another occasion), so I suggested to my friend that we take a step up the food chain, to Picholine, mainly because it’s the best restaurant of that calibre near Lincoln Center, where we were starting our evening.

Let me be clear: I did not have a bad meal at Picholine last night. But my friend and I paid almost $800 (incl. tax & mandatory 20% tip) for a dinner that, to put it charitably, just might have been worth about a third of that. A New Year’s markup is fair, and to be expected, but a 200% mark-up? I am not so sure about that.

Picholine was serving a six-course prix fixe at $195. We began with a quartet of amuses bouches, consisting of: (1) Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Caviar; (2) Peekytoe Crab Tartelette; (3) Goat’s Cheese Gougère; (4) White Bean-Truffle Soup. These were all small, but together made a respectable first course.

There was a choice of two appetizers. We had the Sauteed Foie Gras and Wild Game Pate with a Kumquat Chutney and Port Vinaigrette. (I haven’t noted what the other appetizer choice was.) This was a superb, thick lobe of foie gras, and certainly the best dish of the evening.

For the fish course, the choice was Maine Diver Sea Scallops or Wild Striped Bass with Truffle Toast, Salsify and Oyster Jus. We both had the striped bass, which was skillfully prepared without ever rising to excellence.

For the meat course, the choice was rack of lamb or Scottish Pheasant with Crosnes, Dried Fruit, and Foie Gras Sabayon. On this dish, the accompaniments were better than the main event. One imagines Picholine’s assembly line of scores, and perhaps hundreds, of pheasant breasts, and it isn’t a pretty thought. Is high-quality pheasant available in such quantities? I found mine dry and tough.

Picholine’s cheese course is possibly the best in New York. We received a generous serving of six cheeses, none of them likely to be encountered anywhere else. We were feeling rather bloated by this time, but we did give a try to each of them:

(1) Fleur de Maquis, a sheep’s milk cheese from Corsica, encrusted in dry herbs.
(2) Roncal, a sheeps milk cheese from Navarre, Spain. This was a hard cheese, and our least favorite of the bunch.
(3) Le Moulis, a cheese from the Pyrenees, described as “semi-firm, lingering, earthy, and fecund,” whatever that means.
(4) Winnimere, a wonderful raw cow’s milk cheese from Greensboro, VT.
(5) Sprintz, a cow’s milk cheese from Switzerland that was described as “hard, majestic and profound,” whatever that means.
(6) Stilton, a cow’s milk cheese from England that had a “mineral tang.”

All quotes are from the cheese menu, which (as always at Picholine) they give you to take home, with your choices circled and numbered.

Finally, there was a dessert tasting, which consisted of four small mini-desserts on one plate. At this point my stomach was yelling “No mas!”, but I gave most of them a try. I found them unremarkable, but perhaps I wasn’t the best judge of things by that time. Mignardises, which I didn’t touch, came with the bill.

I’ve saved the most serious complaint for last. Picholine has a wonderful wine list, but we took our chances on the recommended wine pairing, at $115 per person, i.e., $230 for the two of us. At that price, we could have had two terrific half-bottles or a blow-the-doors-off full bottle, and had money left over. Instead, we put ourselves in Picholine’s hands, and went home both poorer and disappointed.

We were served just four glasses each, with no wine for the amuse or the cheese course. A little math tells you that they were charging $28.75 per glass, and for that price you expect the best, especially at a restaurant noted for its wine list. We were optimistic when we tasted the excellent sauterne that accompanied the foie gras, but what on earth were they thinking when we were served a red wine with the striped bass? I know it is not impossible to drink red wine with fish, but for a wine pairing it was bizarre. Moreover, the server advised that it’s “something new from Oregon.” For that we were paying $28.75 a glass? My friend aptly characterized it as “flat” and “lacking any body.”

For the pheasant, our server turned up with another red, which she assured us was “something bolder.” We couldn’t taste any difference at all. Several hours later, as we were reliving the meal, my friend and I concluded that they give us the same wine for both courses. We are not wine experts, but we think we can tell when something allegedly “bold” is in fact no such thing.

A mildly fizzy dessert wine came with the final course, and this was more suitable, but by now we were rather offended at what we’d been given for our $230. I’ve ordered wine pairings at a number of restaurants, and normally you get a range of provocative choices that present some strong contrasts, and really enhance the meal. Instead, we were simply ripped off. In addition, several of the wines were mis-timed (i.e., arriving well before the food they were supposed to go with).

The space at Picholine is of course lovely. Naturally, the restaurant was packed. Our reservation was at 10:30 (after the New York Philharmonic Gala), and there were still people getting seated after us. Service showed the potential for being first-rate, but on such a night, naturally there were slips. On another day, I think Picholine would do a lot better.

We paid $195 apiece for the food, $115 apiece for the wine pairing, 20% for service, and tax, for a final bill $795.93. At that price, the restaurant should be going the extra mile—nay, the extra light year—and they did not.

Picholine (35 W. 64th St. btwn Central Park West & Broadway, Upper West Side)

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


Dim Sum Go Go

Mario Batali once said that there would be no losers when the Michelin New York guide came out—only winners. (His reasoning was that since this was the first guide, no one could “lose” by being de-listed or stripped of a star; there was only the upside of being listed, or getting starred.)

Well, one of the winners—for me, at least—was Dim Sum Go Go, which I tried tonight, mainly because it was the closest Chinatown restaurant in the guide to where I live.

Dim Sum Go Go (originally named that way, because it offered Dim Sum to go) has a funky, but obviously on-the-cheap, interior that’s a step above the usual Chinatown décor that comes out of a Hollywood backlot. Most of the people eating there are caucasian, and I’m not sure if that’s a bad sign. The restaurant was fairly crowded, but I was seated immediately.

Your server presents two menus, one for dim sum, and one for everything else. The “everything else” menu looks like a typical Chinese menu, while the dim sum menu is a loose sheet of paper. You place your order by checking a box next to the items you want, and a pencil is provided for this purpose. Prices are indicated by Chinese symbols, and you have to find a code at the bottom of the page to interpret them. Individual dim sum orders (3 pieces) are mostly $2.50 or $2.90 at lunch, $3.45 or $3.95 at dinner. You can have a dim sum platter or vegetarian dim sum platter (10 pieces) for $9.95/$10.95. Dumpling soup with Shark Fin is $6.00/$6.95.

I suspected that a dim sum platter wouldn’t be enough on its own, so I ordered that plus Duck Dumplings and Pumkin [sic] Cakes. The drawback of the dim sum platter is that you have no idea what you’re getting. I recognized shrimp, duck, and stuffed mushroom dumplings. The others were a wild fantasy of colors and shapes, and they were all at least interesting. Several were a bit slippery, and given my mediocre chopstick skills, did not easily make the trip from plate to mouth.

I wouldn’t recommend the pumkin cakes for a solo diner. You get three cakes about 4×2×½ inches. It’s basically like eating the filling of a pumpkin pie, without the crust. About one of these is enough, before the cloying sweetness of the dish becomes overwhelming. The main menu describes it as a dessert (which I think is more appropriate), but the dim sum menu doesn’t indicate this. I wasn’t quite full yet, so I ordered a real dessert: Tapioca with Egg Yolk, and this was wonderful.

Service was just adequate. You don’t have a server assigned to your table; you just need to flag down one of the “roving” servers. Water was offered only on request, and servers had trouble keeping water glasses full, both at my table and at others. The server who took my initial order was so busy that he didn’t even think to ask if I wanted a beverage.

William Grimes awarded one star to Dim Sum Go Go in 2001, and in his view the main menu—which I did not try—is actually superior to the dim sum. I can’t judge that, but I’ll say that a meal of just dim sum is a bit cloying. Next time, I think I’ll do dim sum as an appetizer, and then order another main course. At a total of $29.75 (incl. tax & tip) for nineteen pieces, Dim Sum Go Go was certainly kind to the wallet.

Dim Sum Go Go (5 East Broadway at Chatham Square, Chinatown)

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


Return to Danube

Note: Danube closed on August 2, 2008. It re-opened in October as Secession, a French brasserie with Italian and Austrian influences. The pseudo-Klimt décor remained in place, but with a more casual vibe. Secession closed in May 2009 after receiving scathing reviews. The space is supposed to re-open as a Japanese restaurant, Brushstroke.


I visited Danube for the second time last night. (An account of my first visit is here.) It remains a wonderful restaurant for a special occasion. The Klimt-inspired décor is a gem, although it occurred to me that curtains in the main dining room would be an improvement. It almost spoils the atmosphere to look out the windows and see gloomy Hudson Street outside.

Although Danube is a beautiful room—arguably one of the city’s nicest (it shares the top Zagat rating of 28 for décor)—it is not a large space. As at many New York restaurants, you could easily reach out and touch your neighbors at adjoining tables. Luckily, the room is not loud. I don’t know if it’s because diners are speaking in hushed tones, or because the heavy carpeting and tapestries absorb the sound.

There are three à la carte menus at Danube: Austrian, Modern Eclectic, and the Chef’s Market Choice. Each has two or three appetizers and anywhere between two and five main courses. You are not required to order your entire meal from the same menu. Appetizers are $9-19, but most are under $15. Mains are $26-35.

I should note that Danube has what they describe as a “tasting menu” at $85 ($155 with paired wines), but it is actually a four-course prix fixe (appetizer, fish, meat, dessert), with two or three options for each course. Anyhow, that’s not what we had on this occasion.

It is remarkable that you can have a very respectable meal at this fine restaurant for $35 total (before tax, tip, and beverages), if you order at the bottom end of the appetizers and entrées. Finding an inexpensive wine at Danube is more of a challenge, as nearly all of the selections on the long list are over $60. We found a very respectable burgundy right at $60. I thought the staff left me to struggle over the decision for rather a long time. At a restaurant of this calibre, a sommelier should come over without being asked.

The wonderful amuse bouche was a small cube of smoked salmon, with creme fraiche, cucumber salad, and mustard seed. This was a variation on the same amuse that I was served the last time. The server who deposited it at our table had an extremely thick accent, and we had to ask for the description twice.

The bread service was disappointing. Several choices of rolls were offered, but both that I tried were unimpressive. At Outback Steakhouse, you get a wonderful loaf of warm, freshly-baked pumpernickle bread. Why is it that so many high-end restaurants are content to serve perfunctory dinner rolls that were baked hours ago?

The food was a happier experience. I ordered from the Modern Eclectic menu. The restaurant is rather long-winded in its descriptions. Per the website, the appetizer was described as “Freshly Harpooned Sashimi Quality Bluefin and Hamachi Tuna, Key Lime Pickled Onion, Pumpkin Seed Oil and Sesame Mustard Dressing” ($14). This was a wonderful dish, rich and flavorful.

When the appetizer is this good, sometimes the entrée is an anti-climax, but not here. I ordered “Chestnut Honey Glazed Long Island Duck Breast with Wild Mushrooms, Corn Purée and Seared Foie Gras” ($31). The duck was luscious, tender, and enveloped in fat, while the foie gras was pure heaven.

For the record, my friend ordered two of the Austrian specialties, an Austrian ravioli ($11) and the Wiener Schnitzel ($30). She was pleased with both.

The tasting menu shows an “Elderflower Gelée with Lemon Verbena Sorbet” as a pre-dessert, and I believe this is what we were served. This was a palate-cleanser, which prepared us for the “Original Viennese Apple Strudel, Crème Anglaise and Tahitian Vanilla Ice cream” ($10). I thought this was just okay; nothing wrong with it, but rather forgettable.

Service was generally smooth and polished. Early on, I felt that we were being slightly rushed through our meal. We started with cocktails. It seemed like only a few moments had gone by, and we were placing our order, receiving the amuse, and inspecting the wine—with our cocktail glasses still half full. Yet, it was over two hours before when we left, so things slowed down considerably later on. As we departed, the staff handed us a blue Bouley bag containing a wonderful lemon coffeecake, which we enjoyed for breakfast the next morning.

While no one would call Danube inexpensive, overall it is very fairly priced for what you are getting. The New York Times ratings have been bastardized in recent years, and three stars isn’t quite what it used to be. Danube has truly earned every one of its three stars.

When Michelin’s New York City guide came out in November, eight restaurants received one of the two highest ratings. Seven of those restaurants either have now, or have had very recently, four stars from the New York Times. Danube was the eighth. What this basically means is that Danube is, in at least one reasonable opinion, the best restaurant in the city that has never had four stars from the Times. There are a handful of other plausible candidates, but I’ve certainly no argument with Danube’s extra Michelin star. It is one of the city’s best fine dining experiences.

Danube (30 Hudson Street at Duane Street, TriBeCa)

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


Angelo & Maxie's Steakhouse

Note: Angelo & Maxie’s closed in March 2011.


Angelo & Maxie’s Steakhouse offers a three-course lunch special for $20.99 till 3:00pm. For the appetizer, you get a tossed salad, caesar salad, or soup (today it was split pea). For the entrée, you get an 11 oz sirloin, an 8 oz filet, chicken breast, or salmon. I did not note the dessert options.

One of my super-scientific theories of fine dining is that you should never serve a salad with just one anchovy, as Angelo & Maxie’s did this afternoon. It looks like a mistake. The rest of the salad was competent, if you can excuse stale croutons, but there was one lonely, soggy anchovy. Had it wandered in uninvited from another salad, or was Angelo’s too cheap to put in another one or two of them?

One would guess that an 11-ounce sirloin is the black sheep of the steak family. The better sirloin cuts will have long since been taken by other restaurants, or for heftier portions at this restaurant. Mine arrived rare (rather than the medium rare I’d requested), and without the thick char on the outside that the better steakhouses have mastered. It was, however, a better hunk of beef than you get at Outback Steakhouse.

Well, what do you want for $20.99? Service was acceptable. The décor offers a nod to the faux art deco style, without actually committing itself to anything in particular. There is a cigar bar attached, which may be the most compelling reason to visit Angelo & Maxie’s. The restaurant is part of a six-city chain, and they’ve got their own brand of steak knives. If it’s great steak you want, you should buy a set, then take them up the road to Wolfgang’s.

A lunch special probably doesn’t show off Angelo & Maxie’s to its best advantage, so I’ll probably try it another time at dinner. But I won’t be in any rush.

Angelo & Maxie’s Steakhouse (233 Park Avenue South at 19th Street, Gramercy/Flatiron District)

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