Tuesday
Oct072014

Paulaner

It’s hard to screw up a beer hall, but Paulaner nearly failed, opening in November 2013 and closing just five months later for “renovations”. Evidently, the original décor “felt too much like an Applebee’s and needed a stylish kick in the pants.”

Successful second acts are rare in the restaurant business, but there are solid names behind the revamp, which opened in May under new management. Wolfgang Ban (of Seäsonal, Edi & the Wolf, and The Third Man) and Stephen Starr vet Markus Tschuschnig are co-owners. The executive chef is Bavarian Daniel Kill, from Kurt Gutenbruner’s chain of Austrian restaurants (Wallsé, Blaue Gans, Café Sabarsky, The Upholstery Store).

I never visited Paulaner v1.0, but the redesign doesn’t seem that dramatic (see the before and after photos on Eater). Still, it is a clear improvement. Photos on the walls have been ditched, leaving bare brick. Tables are now a darker wood. The long center aisle of the dining room is now taken up with communal tables and wooden benches. At the edge of the room, a row of rectangular tables is replaced with half-moon shaped booths.

The restaurant remains affiliated with the German beer of the same name. At the back of the restaurant, there are two huge copper and stainless steel fermenting vats imported from Germany. Beers brewed on-site are served unfiltered and unpasteurized.

The menu is inexpensive, with starters (appetizers, cheeses and sausages) $9–14, entrées $14–23, and side dishes $5–7. Portion sizes are ample, as you’d expect in a German restaurant. There’s a modest wine list (all $10 a glass). Cocktails are $11; beers $5, $7, or $13, depending on the size. When was the last time you saw food and alcohol this cheap, at a place run by a Michelin-starred chef?

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Tuesday
Oct072014

Michelin New York 2015 Ratings

The Michelin New York 2015 ratings were announced last week. We’re back with our annual tabular listing of stars won and lost over the ten-year history of the Guide.

The Michelin Guide offers the best single list of New York’s best restaurants, mainly because the list is updated annually. Most of the city’s professional critics review a restaurant once, within its first year in business, and do not return for many years, if ever—even if the restaurant has changed substantially.

To give three examples from the 2015 Guide, Aquavit was promoted from one star to two, under its new chef, Emma Bengtsson. The NYT displays Sam Sifton’s 2010 review under former chef Marcus Jernmark. Saul lost its Michelin star after moving to the Brooklyn Museum. The NYT displays Pete Wells’ 2007 review, when Saul was in a much smaller dining room in Boerum Hill. Lastly, A Voce Columbus lost its star after losing its chef, Missy Robbins. The NYT still displays Sam Sifton’s 2009 review, when Robbins was there.

Similar examples from earlier years are abundant. The NYT still displays Frank Bruni’s 2007 review of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Perry St. Michelin took away its star in 2011, after Mr. Vongerichten’s son Cedric took over the kitchen. The NYT still displays William Grimes’ 2002 review of Vongerichten’s Jo Jo. The restaurant lost its Michelin star for the second and final time in 2010.

We don’t think the Michelin inspectors are more competent at reviewing restaurants than the city’s other professional critics. They’re just more nimble.

In the 2015 Guide, there are no new three-star restaurants, three promotions to two stars (Aquavit, Blanca, and Ichimura), and fifteen new one-star restaurants, most of which opened within the last year or two. Picholine got its star back, after a year’s absence. There were no restaurants starred out of nowhere, after many years unstarred, such as Caviar Russe and Telepan in the 2014 Guide.

Particularly notable demotions include Daniel (three stars to two); Annisa and Oceana (one star to zero), both of which had been starred for nine consecutive years, since the first Guide.

Starred restaurants that have never had a New York Times review of any kind, include Andanada, Caviar Russe, Danny Brown, Juni, and ZZ’s Clam Bar.

A summary of changes and a ten-year tabular listing are after the jump.

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Tuesday
Sep302014

Mulino a Vino

At Mulino a Vino, the new Italian wine restaurant in Chelsea, there’s good food hiding behind a really dumb gimmick:

Here, the wine comes first. Diners select their bottle or glass from a list of 50 options divided into nine categories like white-light, red-medium, and red-full, before they see the dinner menu.

I checked multiple news stories, to make sure one website didn’t get it wrong. Sure enough, all the pre-opening publicity describes it that way.

Nevertheless, this is not what the restaurant does. When you sit down in the quiet subterranean dining room, the staff distributes both the food and wine menu. You are not told to choose the wine first, and food afterward.

Vestiges of the original concept remain. On the wine list, the reds and whites are sub-divided into light, medium, and full, with descriptive headings like “dry, powerful, flavorful, and intense,” and followed by a list of “suggested pairings.” Hence, you are invited to think about foods that pair with a particular class of wines, rather than the opposite. This isn’t entirely practical, as the list of dishes in the printed menu doesn’t quite agree with the separately printed food menu. Here lies the path to confusion.

There are fifty bottles on the list, and all are available by glass—even the $2,000 Masseto or the $600 Sassicaia. The staff use the Coravin liberally (that’s the device that can pour from wine bottles without uncorking them), even on inexpensive names that wouldn’t seem to call for it. There’s plenty at the lower end, for those who prefer it: a 2011 Sangiovese (left) was $40.

A serious chef is in charge: Davide Scabin of Combal.Zero, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Torino, Italy. He is not moving here permanently, and the publicity does not suggest how often the menu will change—if ever. For now, the the staff left behind is executing his concept with skill and precision.

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Monday
Sep222014

Huertas

What does a restaurant have to do to get reviewed in this town? Huertas in the East Village has been open for nearly six months, and the only professional review I can find is by Robert Sietsema in Eater: three stars.

Our sample size is smaller than Sietsema’s, but we share his enthusiasm: Huertas is shout-from-the-rooftops good. Imagine a Basque Torrisi Italian Specialties, as it was originally, before the Torrisi sensation went viral.

You might have predicted success, when a couple of Danny Meyer alums are in charge. Chef Jason Miller has worked at Chanterelle, Gramercy Tavern and Savoy, before joining the opening team at Maialino, where he was sous-chef. After leaving Maialino, Miller did an apprenticeship in Northern Spain—hence the Basque connection. His partner and General Manager is Nate Adler, who was beverage director at both of Meyer’s Blue Smoke locations.

Huertas is two restaurants in one. In the front room, there’s a bar and high-top tables where you can order a variety of pinxtos ($4–12 each, passed around dim sum style), cheeses, cured meats, and larger plates (raciones).

In the 24-seat back room, there’s an astonishingly good deal: a reservations-only five-course prix fixe menu for $55 (a few months ago, it was $52 for four). It changes daily, and if you book on OpenTable, they email it to you in advance. Wine pairings, which are generous, are an additional $30.

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Tuesday
Sep162014

The Simone

For at least a decade, the Adult White Tablecloth Restaurant in New York has suffered from media neglect. Open one of these, and the critics are likely to say, “No one eats like that any more.” The exceptions are rare, and usually have big names behind them, like Michael White or Daniel Boulud.

So imagine my surprise when The Simone—an expensive, totally retro, white tablecloth restaurant opened on the Upper East Side—and Pete Wells awarded three stars. Yes, the Upper East Side, where most critics seldom go, and which Wells has repeatedly disparaged, as if it were a foreign nation.

You’ll find more fifty-somethings than thirty-somethings at The Simone, which is just fine by me. I do get tired of being lectured about “the way we eat now,” when I never tired of the the way we ate before. There’s something refreshing about an old-fashioned restaurant. The Simone shows that the format still has plenty of life, when it’s done right.

The chef, Chip Smith, serves straightforward, French-inspired fare. After moving to New York from North Carolina, he cooked briefly at Le Midi near Union Square, a restaurant I found promising, but limited in its ambitions—bearing in mind that no entrée rose above $28. At The Simone, entrées are in the $30s and $40s, and Mr. Smith can do what he wants.

His wife, Tina Vaughn, writes out the frequently-changing menu in a voluptuous, cursive script. There are no tasting menus, snacks, side dishes, seafood towers, sharing plates, or large-format specials; the format is appetizer, entrée, dessert. The End. When was the last time you saw that?

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Monday
Sep082014

La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the “restaurant story of the year . . . the explosion of casual restaurants with good—I mean, really good—wine lists right out of the gate.” Our visit to Racines NY prompted that comment, but I also had another spot on my mind: La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, which opened at around the same time, not very far away.

Both take advantage of NYC’s sudden love affair with French cuisine, which seemed so terribly out of fashion just a decade ago, as Frank Bruni came off the plane from Italy and administered the last rites. Six months ago, when the Torrisi boys (both of Italian descent) announced they were opening Dirty French, it was like Nixon going to China. France had permission to be cool again.

(I’ve been writing about a French comeback for at least six years, only to realize I’d been premature. I don’t recall any recent French opening that elicited the kind of heavy breathing that accompanies a Torrisi project, like Dirty French. If there’s finally an inflection point, this could be very well be it.)

But I digress. La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels is a mini-chain of three wine bars—Paris and Seven Dials in London have the other two. Just like Racines, there’s a Michelin star chef in charge of the food: La Chassagnette’s Armand Arnal. You’ll note I didn’t say, “in the kitchen.” This feels like a consulting job. The menu is timid, and has barely changed in four months.

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Monday
Sep012014

élan

For David Waltuck, it has been a long walk in the desert. His beloved Chanterelle, once a four-star restaurant, closed abruptly in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession. Who’d have thunk he’d spend the next five years on forgettable consulting projects, before finally opening his own place again?

His new restaurant, élan, is a double palimpsest, with echoes not just of Chanterelle, but also Veritas, the last restaurant in this space, also felled by the financial crisis. Give Waltuck at least this much credit: he closed Chanterelle with his reputation intact, instead of spoiling what he’d achieved with a failed re-vamp, as the Veritas owners did.

If you remember Chanterelle at its best, it’s hard not to be melancholy that such a wonderful place can no longer exist. But its charms came at a price: $95 prix fixe, and that was in 2006, the last time I visited. You needed an occasion to go there. Heaven knows what it would be today for comparable quality—certainly not the kind of restaurant where you could just pop in for a quick bite after work.

At élan, there’s no amuse bouche or petits fours, no cheese cart or service brigade. But you could drop in a couple of nights a week without breaking the bank. The cuisine is ambitious for the price, carefully prepared, and like no other in town. Waltuck’s French technique borrows liberally from Asia (“General Tso”), Greece (moussaka), and middle Europe (sauerkraut). Some items are just unclassifiable (foie gras lollipops). Starters and appetizers are mostly in the $14–19 range, main courses $27–33, side dishes $8.

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Monday
Aug182014

Blenheim

When a restaurant announces that it’s “closing temporarily,” it’s usually done-for. So I promptly crossed Blenheim off my to-do list when opening chef Justin Hilbert was canned, and the restaurant shuttered, after a month in business.

Blenheim escaped the usual fate of such establishments—and recovered brilliantly, in fact—when Tribeca’s Le Restaurant closed, and the Michelin-starred chef Ryan Tate became a free agent. A couple of weeks later, Tate was in, and Blenheim had recovered from the dead. Full disclosure: I wasn’t a fan of Le Restaurant. I must’ve caught it on a bad day, as no one else disliked it as much as I did. The food at Blenheim is terrific.

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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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