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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Tuesday
Jun172014

Chicane

Good casual French cuisine in New York has been on the upswing in recent years, but it’s still nowhere near plentiful enough. Italian restaurants and steakhouses with phoned-in menus open with regularity, but a new French restaurant almost always feels special.

So it’s a pity that Chicane, which opened two months ago in Soho, is such a miserable example of the genre. It is not merely that the food was mediocre on the night we tried it: even good restaurants have off nights. But when fries are thick and mushy, it’s a sign that our visit wasn’t an anomaly: whatever else they do, French restaurants have to ace the frites in moules frites.

There are abundant signs that the idea isn’t well thought out. The South of France is the nominal theme at Chicane (named for a twisting section of track on the Monaco Grand Prix). But just a few dishes on the menu are captioned as specialties of that region. Many of the others, if they are French at all, could be found anywhere.

The chef, Andres Grundy, hails from Queens, not exactly a Monte Carlo suburb. He has worked at some very good restaurants at least briefly: Daniel, Le Cirque, Aquavit, Bouley, Daniel, Montrachet, Raoul’s (all in New York), two-star La Broche in Spain, L’Arpège in Paris. Since 2009 alone, he has been at Clio in Boston, then back in New York at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Insieme, the Hotel Williamsburg, and now Chicane. By 2015 at the latest, I suspect he’ll be somewhere else.

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Monday
Jun092014

Cagen

We’re in a Japanese moment. In roughtly two years as New York Times restaurant critic, Sam Sifton could find just three Japanese restaurants to review, and one of these was a wholly unwarranted demotion of Masa from four stars to three.

In two and a half years, Pete Wells has already reviewed nine Japanese restaurants, and there are probably a few he has missed. Some of this is preference—Wells clearly likes sushi better than Sifton does—but that doesn’t fully account for it. If you love sushi, there’s never been a better time than the last couple of years.

No discussion could be complete without mentioning the newest four-star restaurant, Sushi Nakazawa. Each reservation date opens at midnight, exactly 30 days in advance. Counter seats are gobbled up in about 3 seconds: I’ve never seen one available. Table seats are a bit easier to get—only a bit—but for that kind of money I’m not settling for the second-class version.

In the meantime, you won’t do badly at Cagen, which opened last year in the East Village space vacated by Kajitsu, which moved to midtown.

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Monday
Jun022014

Après

Note: Well, that was fast. Après closed just nine days after our visit, and before I got around to hitting “publish” on this review. Après wasn’t busy, and we thought it needed to get customers—pronto. That didin’t work out for them. We still think chef Mazen Mustafa is a talent who’ll be a success somewhere else, and so, for the record, we’re happy to recognize his all-too-brief tenure here. After a renovation, the space re-opened as Unidentified Flying Chickens.

*

Remember Apiary, the East Village restaurant with Scott Bryan, the former Veritas chef, in the kitchen? We gave it zero stars in 2009, and Eater deathwatched it in 2010, a judgment they reversed in 2012.

Turns out they had the right idea but the wrong sell-by date. Bryan left in April 2014, Apiary closed in May 2014, and after a brief renovation, it reopened as Après with chef Mazen Mustafa, Paul Liebrandt’s former top lieutenant at both Corton and The Elm.

Owner Jenny Moon was smart to recognize that a new name was far more likely to be reviewed than a new chef under the previous name. Aside from that, she changed very little. The outdoor signage uses the same typeface as before, allowing the letters ‘a’ and ‘p’ to be re-used. (I am just kidding: the sign appears to be new, although the typeface is indeed the same.) Inside, Après’ décor is extremely similar to the generic Lower Manhattan upscale casual I remember at Apiary.

Mustafa serves recognizably Liebrandtish cuisine, and if it’s not quite as good as his mentor’s best work, it is considerably less expensive than any Liebrandt restaurant in recent memory. On an à la carte menu with no clear division between appetizers and entrées, there are eleven items priced between $14–24; desserts are all $9.

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Tuesday
May272014

General Assembly

For about 10 minutes in 2010, it looked like Tiki Bars were going to make a comeback. Hurricane Club was the glitziest of them all, a 250-seat behemoth that could’ve put Tahiti out of business. If it had worked.

By mid-2013, it was called Hurricane Steak and Sushi, and by late 2013 it was kaput. What must’ve been the most expensive AvroKO design concept ever was hauled out to trash, and replaced with another expensive AvroKO design concept called General Assembly.

The bright, airy space is an Art Nouveau revival. The cuisine is either “a market-driven grill” or “a bistro with . . . French and Italian influences.” It’s a crowd-pleaser without a point of view. Craig Koketsu, the corporate chef at Fourth Wall Restaurants, has long since proven that he can run a competent kitchen, and he does so here. If there are no revelations on the menu, there are no weak spots either. It won’t enter the culinary conversation, but most diners in its target demographic will go home happy.

During our visit, the restaurant was subjected to one of the few forms of legalized terrorism, a visit from the Department of Health. For the record, GA’s predecessor, Hurricane Club (with the same operators), earned an “A” grade a year ago. A repeat visit in January netted just 2 violation points. Three of its four sister restaurants currently have “A” grades; one has a “B”.

Despite this exemplary record, an inspector shut down the whole restaurant between 6:00 and 8:30pm on a Friday evening. No parties were seated. At the bar, the staff tossed all of the prepared sodas and syrups, apparently as a precautionary measure. Wine and beer were served on the house, while they awaited the all-clear. After a couple of hours, runners brought out canapés, free of charge. I was determined to support the restaurant, but by then many parties with reservations gave up and left. General Assembly passed its inspection, but I’ll bet the visit cost them $10,000 or more in lost business and food/drinks both given and thrown away.

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Monday
May192014

Beautique

Note: Just four months after opening night, chef Craig Hopson and creative director Frank Roberts left the restaurant, citing “creative differences.” Just a month earlier, a New York Post article described the place as a “playpen for millionaires.” Whether it can retain its cachet without Hopson or Roberts remains to be seen.

*

A high-gloss restaurant opens in midtown, with white tablecloths, glistening chandeliers, a mirrored staircase, a grand piano, rose petal wallpaper, Jean Paul Gualtier fabrics, plush suede seating, and a décor modeled on Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment.

No, it is not 2004. Welcome to Beautique, which opened last month in a subterranean space adjoining the Paris Theater, just behind the Plaza Hotel and steps away from Central Park.

The question here is not whether the chef, Craig Hopson, can run a kitchen worthy of such a luxurious setting. He more than proved himself, first as Terrance Brennan’s chef de cuisine at Picholine from 2003–07, and then at Le Cirque from 2008–12.

No, the question is who exactly will be the core constituency for a restaurant so resolutely contrary to every current trend. I’d love to see it succeed, but I’m not blind to fashion, and cheerleading from this blog doesn’t matter.

The Central Park South ecosystem has not been friendly to restaurants. It’s a place they go to die, or at best, to be forgotten. In the last decade, only Marea has opened in this neighborhood, and been both a critical and commercial success.

If Beautique wants to be taken seriously, a few easy fixes are in order. It certainly looks shady when, less than a month after opening, the online menus are revised to omit prices. They have nothing to be ashamed of. For the neighborhood, it is not really that expensive, with appetizers $14–19, entrées $29–39, side dishes $9, and desserts $12.

On a menu that pretends the last ten years never happened, there’s no tasting menu, no snacks, sharing plates, or large-format entrées for two. Not that I object to any of this, but I can well imagine the critical reaction.

As I recall, the 200-bottle wine list was fairly priced in relation to the food: a 2005 Château du Grand Bos (above left) was $86, a shade under 3 times retail, and the staff decanted it. But why is the list not online? Just because the décor is from another era, does not mean the technology must be.

Frank Roberts, formerly of Rose Bar, is the general manager here. One might assume that he superintends the cocktail program, and it’s a good one (even if expensive, at $19 a pop). There’s a mixture of slightly-tweaked classics (Bellini, French 75) and house recipes.

The appealing bread service (above right) came with hummus, but there was no amuse bouche, which a restaurant of Beautique’s apparent ambitions ought to have.

 

Although everything is capably prepared, there’s not much critic bait on the menu—the sort of dishes that set pulses racing from their descriptions alone. A Crab Flan ($19; above right) is one of the exceptions, with chunks of pork belly in a malt caramel sauce. More typical is a soft-shell crab ($19; above left) appetizer: first rate and technically correct, but you’ve seen it before.

 

You can’t go wrong with the Scallops ($32; above left) with a foie gras sabayon, shitake mushrooms, and turnips in a diablo sauce. A Lamb Mixed Grill ($38; above right) was served five ways, of which three stood out (bacon, sausage, and chop).

 

The pastry chef is Jiho Kim, formerly of Gordon Ramsay at the London. His work here is superb, assuming his Mascarpone Custard ($12; above left) is any guide.

The design by Marc Dizon and Valerie Pasquiou is stunning. You already knew that. There’s a comfortable bar, two dining rooms (we were seated in the smaller “oval room”), a private dining area, and a spacious lounge that was not open when we visited.

Despite the luxury design, the basement space can feel a bit gloomy when empty, as it was on the early side of the dinner hour, on a Wednesday evening. By the time we left, it was a bit over half full, and felt more energetic. The service is a bit retro: I can’t remember the last time outside of France that I was called monsieur, but the staff are relatively unobtrusive. Dishes are presented without the slightest explanation, and that is that.

The decision to open a restaurant that practically ignores contemporary fashion is obviously deliberate. I don’t mind it at all, though I suspect many will. If Beautique wants to revive the service model of another era, there shouldn’t be any half-measures. Put your prices and wine list on the website, and take credit for offering something that no one lately has done.

Beautique (8 W. 58th Street, west of Sixth Avenue)

Food: Old-school luxurious French-influenced cuisine
Service: Polished and unobtrusive
Ambiance: A series of rooms modeled on Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment

Rating: ★½

Tuesday
May132014

Luksus at Tørst

Luksus is the latest beachhead of the New Nordic invasion of New York, joining such standouts as Acme, Aska, Skál, and Atera. All are helmed by chefs who worked (even if only briefly) at the Danish restaurant Noma, No. 1 on the deeply flawed, but much watched, S. Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list.

The 26-seat restaurant is in the back room of Tørst (pictured above), an upscale beer hall in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. While you wait for your table, you can order one of 21 beers on draft (hundreds by the bottle), which are drawn from taps lined up against a marble wall, with wooden handles stained from light to dark, matching the colors of the drinks that come out of them.

The owner, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, has a love affair with beer: he serves no other alcoholic beverage, and the size of his cellar would make many a sommelier flush with envy. The taps are powered by a device called the flux capacitor (named for Doc Brown’s fictional contraption in the Back to the Future series), which can adjust the nitrogen and carbon dioxide mix of each tap, and maintain the beers at any of four different temperatures.

The pint-sized dining room seats just 26, six at a bar facing an open kitchen, and twenty at tiny tables more suited to a cocktail lounge. Finding room for beer bottles, glassware, and a cavalcade of artful plates, is a Rubik’s Cube puzzle that the servers solve adeptly, all evening long.

Chef Daniel Burns serves a frequently-changing tasting menu with no choices, which was $75 last July, but has since risen to $95 after a series of overwhelmingly positive reviews, including three stars from Adam Platt in New York. Curiously, the Times has not yet weighed in.

Both the plating style and the ingredients are instantly recognizable as New Nordic, with combinations of flavors not normally found together, such as lamb sweetbreads with hay gribiche, or a dessert of beetroot and licorice. Root vegetables and flowers are in starring roles, with smoked this or pickled that, Many of these experiments work. Some fail miserably.

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Monday
May052014

Narcissa

You have to admire the effort behind Narcissa, chef John Fraser’s new restaurant in The Standard East Village hotel. The space is lovely, and well put-together. But we’ve been down this road before, and it usually doesn’t end well.

By my count, Narcissa is the fifth restaurant at this address since 2009. It’s built on the dead bodies of Table 8, Faustina, The Trilby, and The Restaurant at The Standard East Village.

In 2011, André Balzacs acquired the building (formerly the Cooper Square Hotel) and incorporated it into his chain of boutique hotels. His other New York property (straddling the High Line) has been a hit—it’s not my taste, but I respect it—and no doubt he thought that he could spread his pixie dust on the other side of town.

For the main restaurant (there is also a casual café), Balzacs followed a formula that has already bombed here twice, bringing in a respected chef who could fill seats on name recognition alone. First it was Govind Armstrong at Table 8, then Scott Conant at Faustina. Now it’s John Fraser, whose quiet Upper West Side restaurant Dovetail has a Michelin star. Let’s hope they have better luck this time.

According to the website, Fraser is serving “California cuisine with new techniques of roasting, rotisserie and slow-cooking.” Does that set your pulse racing? Nah, me neither. I didn’t notice any “new techniques,” but Fraser has mastered the old ones. The restaurant is named for a cow on Balzacs’ upstate farm, which supplies much of the produce.

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Saturday
May032014

Ariana Soho

A restaurant run by a pop singer is usually not destined for great success. Ariana Grinblat, known in Russia as just “Ariana,” hopes to change that.

The self-described “foodie at heart” says that “Russian food in the U.S. has remained stagnant for the last 100 years while cuisine in Russia continues to evolve and transform.” At Ariana Soho, her aim is to “shock your senses, and redefine what you thought you knew about Russian food.”

Born in Houston to Russian parents, Ms. Grinblat divided her childhood between the U.S. and Russia (she speaks English without an accent). I know nothing about Russian R&B, but Ms. Grinblat is obviously successful, winning “6 Russian Grammys” (the first of them while she was still in high school), “3 Song of the Year Awards, an MTV Europe Music Award Nomination for Best Russian Act, and a platinum debut album selling over 500,000 units.”

This is not one of those celebrity restaurants where the nominal owner appears for a photo-op, and is never seen again. Nearly three months after opening, on a rainy weeknight in late April, with no more than 10 customers present, Ms. Grinblatt was there all evening, dressed rather more chastely than in the photo.

She and her husband/co-owner, Lev Schnur, have their work cut out for them. The 2,000-square-foot space is divided into four rooms, three of which were totally empty when we visited, and even in the fourth there was not much energy. No professional critic has reviewed it. Where are the throngs of Russian ex-pats that have filled Mari Vanna since it opened?

There clearly is potential here. The serene back dining room with a spectacular skylight, contemporary art work, and generously-spaced seating with white tablecloths, lacks only for customers. A curtained grotto at the back of the restaurant, with a gas fireplace, could be one of the city’s most romantic tables, if only people knew about it.

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Monday
Apr282014

Bar Bolonat

It took a while for the chef Einat Admony to follow-up Balaboosta, her hit Middle Eastern spot in NoLIta. There were the usual issues with permits and the city’s bureaucratic Department of Buildings. What should’ve taken six months took more than twice that. It’s a wonder anyone opens a restaurant in this town.

Bar Bolonat, which opened in March, offers Admony’s take on the modern Israeli cuisine of her native Tel Aviv. Judging by the crowds, you’d have to wonder why no one thought of this idea sooner. Of course, execution matters. The cooking is more precise and precious than at Balaboosta, but with a rustic soul that is immediately accessible and of-the-moment.

Some of her ideas are less inspired. A restaurant called Bar ______ that is not really a bar is so very 2009. I only wish that were true of Bar Bolonat’s other conceit, a small-plates menu, consisting of plates of unpredictable sizes, which the kitchen sends out in no coherent order, as and when they are ready, regardless of whether you are. Why couldn’t that tired concept have expired in 2009?

But if it must be a small-plates menu, at least it is a good one. The present menu is a tightly-edited list of 14 savory dishes in three bunches (lightest to heaviest). The categories are unlabeled, but they seem to be sort-of-snacks ($6–12), sort-of-starters ($9–16), and sort-of-entrées ($23–31). No guesswork is required to identify the last category, the three desserts ($10–12), which we didn’t try.

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