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: **

Monday
Dec192005

Annisa

In early September, I took a friend to Annisa for her 40th birthday. It’s a sweet-looking room. We were seated side-by-side on a banquette, which was an intimate twist on the usual arrangement.

The Seared Foie Gras with Soup Dumplings and Jicama appetizer has been on the menu from the beginning. William Grimes loved the dish when he awarded two stars, and I guess the restaurant doesn’t want to fiddle with success. Then again, when an appetizer is this good, why should they?

For the main dish, I tried the Miso Marinated Sable with Crispy Silken Tofu in Bonito Broth, another dish Grimes loved. I suppose I should have trusted my instincts, as I’ve never been a tofu lover. The dish was beautifully prepared, but somehow it just didn’t seem like tofu and sable go together. This item, like the foie gras, has been on the menu from the beginning, so I must be in the minority.

Mind you, we had a wonderful time, especially my friend, and I can see why Annisa has garnered so many plaudits. In my book, it certainly ranks at the high end of two stars. Indeed, I am going with consensus, and awarding three. 

Annisa (13 Barrow St. between Seventh Ave. & W. 4th St., Greenwich Village)

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

Monday
Dec192005

Righteous Urban Barbecue

Note: RUB BBQ closed in January 2013.

*

Righteous Urban Barbecue (or “RUB”) is my favorite barbecue restaurant in Manhattan. I’ve had several excellent meals there, and its location is convenient. Here are two reviews, the first from August 29, 2005:

I went to RUB yesterday and ordered the burnt ends ($19.95). I’ve never had this dish before, but it sounded so appealing that I was willing to forego the St. Louis ribs, which are my usual order at ‘cue restaurants.

The burnt ends were really terrific. You get a plate full of juicy brisket squares, with perfectly charred ends and nice pink flesh with a real smoky flavor. I was not tempted to add any sauces, being content to let the intrinsically musky flavor do its own work. Side orders were the cole slaw (underwhelminig) and onion straws (addictive). To my surprise, the soda was free.

In the mid-afternoon on a Sunday, I had no trouble getting seated. I’ll certainly be back to sample more of the menu.

This one was from just a couple of weeks later, on September 12, 2005:

Another visit to RUB yesterday, this time for the Szechuan Smoked Duck. It’s gotta be the strangest offering on the RUB menu, not at all typical for a barbecue restaurant. It’s truly a hybrid dish, with the duck prepped as it would be in Chinatown, and then given the finish in Paul Kirk’s smoker. The billowing layer of fat underneath the skin gives the duck a flavor explosion, while the flesh has the smokey bbq taste.

You can have a half duck at $14.75, or a full duck at $26.75. Unlike most of the other entrée dishes, it doesn’t come with any sides, but the half-duck alone was sufficient for me. You have to be a bit careful, as there are a lot of bones to pick through, but the payoff is sufficient to justify the effort.

The décor at RUB is really bare-bones. The food is what it’s all about. (I later went back and tried the ribs, although I didn’t write a review at the time. However, my experience on that third visit was comparable to the other two.)

Righteous Urban Barbecue (208 W. 23rd Street, west of Eighth Avenue, Chelsea)

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

Postscript: Though I remain a fan of R.U.B., it is no longer my favorite barbecue joint in Manhattan: Hill Country is better.

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: *