Thursday
Dec222005

davidburke & donatella

Note: Click here for a more recent review of this restaurant, which has been renamed David Burke Townhouse.

Once upon a time, David Burke and Donatella Arpaia opened a hot little restaurant on the Upper East Side. They called it davidburke & donatella. The food was inventive and terrific. The space was noisy, but when the food was this good, who cared? It was packed every night. Flushed with success, Arpaia opened her own place in Soho (the undistinguished Ama). Burke took over the catering operation at nearby Bloomingdale’s, launched a steakhouse in Chicago, and started planning another in Manhattan.

With all of this extra-curricular activity going on, is anyone minding the store at the flagship restaurant that bears both their names? My experience last night suggests that one or both of them needs to start spending more time at East 61st St, ere DB&D becomes a sad caricature of itself. I still have fond memories of my first visit (eighteen months ago), but the restaurant is now misfiring.

This was a year-end celebratory dinner with two friends who live in Boston, but have been working in New York. We knew that the transit strike would make it difficult to get uptown, and my friends suggested that we cancel. However, I was determined to keep the date. We hailed a cab immediately, but the driver had first to drop off somebody else, which required a bit of a detour. In all, it was about a 90-minute trip from our TriBeCa office to the restaurant, more than double than normal. Exasperated with the traffic, we left our cab behind at 57th & Park, and walked the last five blocks. (FYI, taxis during the strike are charging per person by the number of fare zones crossed; we were charged $15 apiece — $5 times three zones.)

Transit strike notwithstanding, DB&D was fully booked. They graciously honored our reservation, although we were 40 minutes late. The noise level was just as I had remembered it: practically deafening. The server dropped off an amuse bouche, but we couldn’t hear his description of it. We were barely able to ascertain that it contained no pork (which my companions do not eat). It was a small pastry filled with some kind of tangy meat—but what?

The wonderful bread service that I wrote about last time remains the same. (“Bread arrives — cooked in its own copper casserole, and steaming hot. The butter comes as a modern art sculpture that you almost regret cutting into.”)

My companions are identical twins, and they ordered identically. They started with grilled oysters, which they described as unpleasantly gooey, and left unfinished. I had the Scallops “Benedict” ($15). This was two fried egg yolks, each atop a scallop, atop a slice of bacon, atop a potato pancake: in short, about two ingredients too many; a promising idea run amok. The bacon was salty and tough, as if left over from breakfast the day before.

My companions did better than I for the main course. They had the Lobster “Steak” with curried shoestring potatoes ($40). They got an enormous helping of lobster, shaped like a fillet mignon, with which they were quite happy. Alas, I had no joy with the Halibut “T-Bone” ($38), which came with lobster dumplings that were both tough and gummy. The halibut was bland, and the portion was small.

Although the restaurant has been open just two years, there is already a section of the dessert menu labeled “DBD Classics,” from which we ordered. My companions shared the famous cheesecake lollipop tree ($16), while I had the coconut layer cake ($10). This was the only course that all of us found successful, and the only part of the meal that I’ll remember with any fondness.

David Burke was in the restaurant last night, but he was in civilian clothes, talking on his cell phone. He’s obviously not minding his kitchen, and he’s not minding his website either. Visit http://www.dbdrestaurant.com/, and you’ll be reminded that “Thanksgiving is just around the corner.” (It is Dec. 22 as I write this.) There are bugs in the site, and it takes several frustrating clicks to get to the online menu, which is outdated anyway. (The first click brings up David Burke’s spring recipies, instead of a menu. The second click brings up a section called “Our Little Nest.” Another click, and finally you see the menu.)

We wondered how difficult it would be to get a taxi home. Although there are plenty of taxis out, you can’t easily tell whether they’re available, because the meters aren’t running during the strike. As we were all rather full, we decided to walk off some of the calories, and see how far we got. In the end, we just kept walking. It was about two hours from 61st & Lex to John & Gold, or about 6-7 miles in 30-degree weather. But it was a lot more pleasant than sitting in a taxi.

As I observed last time, the tables at DB&D are packed as tightly as can be. Our table was near the front door, in front of the bar, and a long walk from the kitchen. Our server was pleasant and tried hard, but she was obviously very busy, and there were long stretches when we didn’t see her. I ordered a glass of wine to go with the appetizers. I would have ordered a second glass of wine, but by the time she re-appeared the meal was almost over, and I didn’t bother. They did manage to keep our water glasses replenished.

Marian Burros of the Times rated DB&D at two stars. On the strength of my first visit, I thought that the restaurant arguably deserved three. On the weakness of last night’s visit, it would earn only one. The bill for three was $228.50 before tax and tip, and there was only one alcoholic beverage (my glass of Riesling) in that amount. At these prices, DB&D needs to do better. For now, I would give the food two stars for good intentions, but only one for execution.

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

Monday
Dec192005

All Caught Up on Restaurant Reviews

I’m now all caught up with posting my restaurant reviews, after a year in which I posted rather irregularly. Regardless of the posting date, all reviews were written within a few days of the visit. Most of the reviews are on eGullet also, although the ratings appear only on this site.

The ratings are my impression of what a restaurant critic should award, if the restaurant always performed as it did when I visited. (In most cases, I have only one visit to go on, and obviously a professional review would need to be based on several visits.) My rating system is the same one-to-four star scale that the New York Times employs, although I allow half-stars. I also rate food/service/ambiance separately, in addition to providing an overall rating.

Monday
Dec192005

Gotham Bar & Grill

You could eat for a month at restaurants helmed by chefs who trained under Alfred Portale, whose Gotham Bar & Grill is one of New York’s iconic restaurants. After twenty years, Portale still delivers one of the most satisfying dining experiences you can have in this city. On a Wednesday night in November 2004, Gotham was packed.

I started with the Gingerbread Crusted Foie Gras ($24), which was probably the best foie gras dish I’ve had. Who else would have thought of putting such a humble ingredient as gingerbread on foie gras? It was ingenious.

It was really tough to choose an entrée, as every item on the menu sounded good. I chose the Rack of Lamb ($39), which I suppose is a boring choice, but when in doubt the lamb will never disappoint. It came with two generous double-cut chops, mind-blowingly tender, and a potato puree that was a bit underwhelming. Portale’s trademark is that he plates dishes vertically, so it was no surprise to have the chops delivered with the bones pointed upward, leaning against a potato tower.

Service was impeccable. This struck me right at the beginning, when I took the plastic stirring stick out of my vodka & tonic, and laid it on the table. It can’t have taken more than 30 seconds for someone to notice this, and come take the little stick off the table.

My only complaint is the bread—a fist-sized wad of dough that seemed to have been baked many hours before. The crust had long since turned to concrete. If Kentucky Fried Chicken can turn out fresh, warm bread, why can’t a three-star restaurant?

Gotham Bar & Grill (12 East 12th Street btwn Fifth Avenue and University Place, Greenwich Village)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Nice Matin

Nice Matin is beautiful to look at, but the entrées need some work.

I ordered Sole “Milanese”. It came inundated in an arugula salad of fennel, oranges, onions and olives. The salad was mentioned on the menu, but there was no mention it would be piled so high that you wouldn’t know a fish was buried underneath. After some industrious digging I found the poor sole, which was not far removed from McDonald’s filet-o’-fish.

Another of my companions ordered the grilled sea bass, which she described as oily and over-cooked. My mother had a halibut dish that’s not shown on the online menu. She said it was fine, but not at all what the description led her to expect.

When we arrived, we were seated at a table so small and cramped that it would have been more at home at a cocktail bar. They agreed to move us, but we still ended up at one of the more claustrophobic tables for three that I’ve encountered at a legitimate restaurant.

Nice Matin has the same chef, Andy D’Amico, as the dearly departed Sign of the Dove. When it opened, the critics generally were enthusiastic. William Grimes, never easy to please, was sufficiently enchanted to award two stars, which would be unusual for such a casual restaurant, even if the food were better. We didn’t try one of the most praised dishes, the beef short ribs. However, on the strength of this performance, I don’t expect to be back anytime soon.

Nice Matin (201 W. 79th Street at Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side)

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

Monday
Dec192005

LCB Brasserie Rachou

Note: The Department of Health closed LCB Brasserie in March 2007, after it failed an inspection with 80 violations. Initially, there was a sign in the window that it was “closed for minor alterations.” But after a couple of months, owner Jean-Jacques Rachou decided to cash out and retire. Alain Ducasse bought the space, which has re-opened as Benoit, a clone of one of Ducasse’s Paris restaurants.

*

LCB Brasserie Rachou is an odd hybrid between the four-star destination that La Côte Basque once was, and the informal brasserie that it now aspires to be. The serving staff (many of whom pre-date the flood) are attentive and très correctement. The china and flatware would be at home in any three- or four-star restaurant. The patrons are all monsieur et madame. Every dish is served with a silver half-moon cover, which is removed with the obligatory voila!

I ordered a cassoulet, while my mother ordered rack of lamb. Both of us were delighted. (I would note that the lamb came with four chops, which is generous as compared to the three I was served at Gotham Bar & Grill.) To accompany, we ordered a $35 cabernet that I reckon would have been $50 in many restaurants. In a restaurant of this calibre, $35 for almost any bottle is a steal.

Most entrées are over $25, and many are over $30, making LCB Brasserie a bit pricey for a two-star restaurant, but for traditional French favorites it still offers an experience that has become scarce in Manhattan. I would happily return.

LCB Brasserie Rachou (60 W. 55th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves., West Midtown)

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

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: *