Monday
Aug112014

Racines NY

If there’s a restaurant story of the year, it’s the explosion of casual restaurants with good—I mean, really good—wine lists right out of the gate. I’ve mixed feelings about the claptrap ambiance of such places, but if the wine selection is good enough, the other sins are nearly forgiven.

Welcome to Racines NY, with a two-letter suffix to distinguish it from the original Racines, which opened in 2007 on the Boulevard Montmartre in Paris. Practically all of the pre-opening press describes it as a wine bar. With its ample selection of offbeat wines by the glass, you could be very happy if you came here only to drink.

But the owners prefer the term “neo-bistro.” The chef, Frédéric Duca, is straight off the plane from Paris, where he earned a Michelin star at L’Instant d’Or. He serves a tightly-edited and frequently-changing menu of just five appetizers ($14–18), four mains ($31–38), and three desserts ($10–12).

Hardly a restaurant opens these days without a separate list of bar snacks, seemingly for noshers who don’t want to commit to a full meal; or, more cynically, a ploy to lure diners into ordering an extra course. Racines goes the opposite way: the only item really suitable for snacking is a cheese course ($18). Exactly what the lithe, 108-pound starlets sipping rosé at the bar are nibbling on is a mystery I leave for another day.

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Monday
Aug042014

Barchetta

These days, the usual career path of successful chefs is to open a second restaurant, and then a third; in fact, to keep going until the public says “Enough already!” And sometimes even past that. See the dictionary entry under “English, Todd”.

Not so, David Pasternack. Despite the accolades rained upon his Hell’s Kitchen Italian seafood restaurant Esca, the chef has been surprisingy slow-footed about growing his personal brand. Aside from the short-lived Bistro du Vent (2005–06), Pasternack has resisted expansion in New York. (I don’t know for sure, but you’d have to think there’ve been offers before now.)

Pasternack finally got the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse, partnering with LDV Hospitality (Scarpetta, American Cut) to open Barchetta (“little boat”) in the space that was last home to Alain Allegretti’s La Promenade des Anglais. This site has had trouble holding onto restaurants. Located in West Chelsea, close to Tenth Avenue, it is not convenient to mass transit. It needs to make a passionate case for our attention.

The immediate impression is that this is a cheaper and more casual version of Esca: an Esca without tablecloths. At the flagship, you won’t find an entrée for less than $30; here, they hover mostly in the $20s. Servings of crudo, the Italianesque sashimi that Pasternack introduced to New York, are similar to those served at Esca, but a couple of dollars less. You can order spaghetti with lobster at Esca for $30, or fettucine with lobster at Barchetta for $28.

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Tuesday
Jul292014

Decoy

Decoy opened in mid-May in a former laundromat below Ed Schoenfeld and Joe Ng’s hit Chinese restaurant, RedFarm.

There’s a faux mysteriousness about the project: the website is just a landing page, without so much as a menu, hours of operation, or really anything except a phone number and social media links. It doesn’t take much googling to find out everything you’d want to know about Decoy, so why the deliberate obfuscation?

In many ways, Decoy is just an extension of RedFarm. Call the phone number, and the RedFarm staff answer. Show up for dinner at RedFarm, where they don’t take reservations, and they’re liable to send you downstairs to Decoy’s ample bar, to cool your heels during the epic wait.

Decoy itself takes reservations (I already like this place better), and the menu is different. For $65, a party of two gets a whole Peking Duck, two small plates from a list of 13 choices, and one rice or side dish. Larger parties receive extra courses from the à la carte menu, in addition to the duck.

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Monday
Jul282014

The Black Ant

The Village Voice wrote recently of a “Mexican Food Moment” in New York City, including The Black Ant (La Hormiga Negra), a new restaurant in the East Village from the same folks behind Ofrenda across town.

It certainly does seem that there are a lot of new Mexican restaurants lately—and not merely the cookie-cutter TexMex kind that serve standard-issue burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas, and the like. For a while, it seemed like every other chef was opening a gourmet taco joint.

The focus here is inventive dishes inspired by chef Mario Hernandez’s native Oaxaca. The website declares on its landing page, Cocina de Autor—referring to the chef as “author” of a cuisine—which would sound pompous if written in English, but seems to describe this restaurant exactly.

True to the name, there are a number of dishes with dehydrated edible insects shipped from Mexico: a guacamole made with ant salt; a tortilla topped with fried grasshoppers; a side order of crickets. Ant salt even appears in several of the cocktails. Several bloggers have reviewed and photographed these items (here, here, here). We weren’t about to go near them.

Fortunately, if you’re insect-averse, there’s plenty to enjoy. There’s a variety of smaller plates in various categories that serve as appetizers ($8–14), entrées ($22–27) and sides ($6), most not exactly resembling anything I’ve ever sampled in a Mexican restaurant.

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Monday
Jul212014

Bacchanal

Note: Well, that was fast. Four months in, chef Scott Bryan left the restaurant to take over at Corvo Bianco on the Upper West Side. That’s not exactly a hotspot, so the difference of opinion between Bryan and the owners here must have been substantial. As noted below, it seemed to us that there was a disconnect between Bryan’s inexpensive casual menu here and the deep wine list.

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Years from now, perhaps the early twenty-teens will be called the VeriCru diaspora. Veritas and Cru, perhaps the two best wine restaurants the city has seen, both expired in 2009–10, victims of the Great Recession.

(For the history buffs out there, I do realize that Veritas re-modeled and somehow soldiered on until 2013. I prefer to remember Veritas as it was conceived, not the watered-down replacement that tried and failed to replace it.)

Since then, we’ve seen openings like Pearl & Ash and Charlie Bird, where great (but not “VeriCru” epic) wine lists pair with good (but not great) food in drastically pared-down rooms. To me, it seems odd to pair a $250 Brunello with a $29 roast chicken, in a room where you can barely hear yourself talk. But if you want it, you can have it. Veritas and Cru had it all; these places do not.

Welcome to Bacchanal, the latest entry in the genre. The pedigree is obvious, starting with the chef, Scott Bryan, who opened Veritas (lasted eight years there), consulted a bit, spent five years at the mediocre Apiary, and is now back in his element.

Owner Peter Poulakakos has a stable of Financial District restaurants, anchored by Harry’s at Hanover Square and the more recent Vintry Wine & Whisky, where the reserve list goes as high as a 1945 Château Haut-Brion for $9,975. No doubt Poulakakos borrowed from those superb lists to open Bacchanal, as it’s almost unheard of to build such a cellar from scratch at an untried restaurant.

On a wine and spirits list that runs to 40 pages, you’ve got 1970 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti ($9,125), 1978 Château Pétrus ($2,900), and 1982 Château Mouton Rothschild ($1,950), to name a few. For those who don’t want to spend a mortgage payment on dinner, there are many excellent offerings in the $45–60 range. But how can you not splurge, at least a little bit? A 2001 Château Moulinet, which the sommelier decanted, was well worth the tarrif at $75.

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Tuesday
Jul152014

Bâtard

Bâtard-Montrachet is a grand cru appellation of Burgundy, producing wines of 100% Chardonnay. A bastard is “a contemptible, inconsiderate, overly or arrogantly rude or spiteful person.”

Both are applicable at Bâtard, the latest restaurant in the hallowed space that was once home to the beloved Montrachet, and more controversially, Corton. The constants at all three establishments have always been excellent cuisine, Burgundy-centric wine lists, and owner Drew Nieporent, the mayor of Tribeca, who also owns nearby Nobu and Tribeca Grill.

The list of chefs who cooked at Montrachet reads like a culinary Who’s Who. As they left one by one, to pursue other projects, Nieporent kept replacing them, holding onto three New York Times stars until the very end. Montrachet finally closed in 2006, re-opening two years later, named for another Burgundy appellation (Corton), with a much larger kitchen and the talented but difficult chef, Paul Liebrandt, at the helm.

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Tuesday
Jul082014

The Gander

 

Four years after Recette charmed the West Village, chef Jesse Schenker has expanded to more upscale digs at The Gander, which takes over the space that briefly hosted the doomed Alison Eighteen.

I thought Alison Eighteen would last longer. It turns out the goodwill accumulated at Alison on Dominick and her Hamptons restaurants did not travel with her to the new location.

I mention this, because Schenker may have to overcome similar challenges. The restaurant is on a charmless, lightly-traveled block. The newly-remodeled space is attractive and comfortable, but so was Alison Eighteen.

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Tuesday
Jul012014

Heartwood

The remains of Donatella Arpaia’s once-formidable restaurant empire continue to crumble. Her mediocre pizzeria, Donatella, closed in January after a shade over two years in business.

Heartwood opened recently in the same space. The pizza oven imported from Naples still dominates the open kitchen, decked out in a sober terra cotta, rather than Donatella’s blinged-out gold plating.

Ms. Arpaia remains a partner here. There’s an impressive list of other names involved, perhaps too many: Mark Fiorentino, a former bread-maker at Daniel, is in charge of the pizzas. Bradford Thompson (ex. Lever House, Miss Lily’s) writes the rest of the menu. Nick Mautone (ex. Gramercy Tavern, Eighty One) runs the front of house.

Put those folks together, and you get a restaurant designed by committee, with menu categories like: Snacks, Bowls, Salads, Pizzas, Proteins, and “Grains and Veggies”.

It’s priced for a recession we are not currently in, with appetizer-like plates $11–14, entrée-like plates $22–26, pizzas $14–21 (they are easily sharable), and side dishes $8. Unfortunately, many of the dishes read better than they taste.

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Monday
Jun232014

Chez Jef

Note: Chez Jef closed in July 2014, as expected, for a re-vamp. It is expected to re-open in fall 2014.

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Earlier this year, Mathieu Palombino (of the Motorino pizza chainlet) closed his indifferently-received Bowery Diner, replacing it with a French pop-up, Chez Jef.

The re-do was modest: the “Diner” sign remains, with most of its neon letters no longer functional. A few red-and-white checked curtains are basically all that stands between the former diner and a cute little French bistro, with the words “Chez Jef” stamped on the butcher paper that covers ever tabletop.

In February, Palombino told Eater.com that he intended to run the pop-up “for two to three months.” Four months later, it’s still there, although the customers are not: we practically had the place to ourselves on a Wednesday evening.

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Saturday
Jun212014

EXKi

EXKi is a fast-casual restaurant with an environmental conscience, serving a vegetable-centric menu with primarily organic ingredients, free-range chickens, and recipes free of additives or preservatives.

The name is short for the French exquis, meaning exquisite. That’s a lot to live up to.

The first EXKi opened in Brussels in 2001, eventually expanding to 77 restaurants in five Western European countries. Their first New York outlet is number 78, with another planned for later this year, and surely more to come if the concept succeeds.

Pret A Manger offers a good template for what EXKi could become, if it takes off.

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