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: *

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: **