Florian Café


A few weeks ago, one of Pete Wells’s reviews in the Times drew this plaintive comment: “Why can’t restaurants just serve regular food anymore?”

(That restaurant was Semilla, where your only option is a $75 mostly-vegetable tasting menu, with concoctions that some diners might find eccentric, like beets with bone marrow, or a cabbage sandwich.)

The comment was misguided: most NYC restaurants do serve what I assume was meant by “regular food”. They just aren’t as likely to get reviewed. For good or ill, critics exist to make news. The more straightforward the menu, the less there is to say about it.

That commenter would probably be happy at Florian Café, assuming he didn’t mind the prices, where you’re paying for more than just the “Spontaneous Italian” cuisine the website promises. You’re also getting walls decorated with imported Italian mosaic tiles, a white marble antipasto bar, and several larger-than-life cast bronze nudes in provocative poses. The owner himself, Shelly Fireman, made those statues, so you’re not allowed to dislike them.

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Knickerbocker Bar & Grill

Knickerbocker Bar & Grill is one of those restaurants you walk by, year after year, and think, “I really ought to try that sometime.” You would have had plenty of chances to say that: the Knick has been on the same Greenwich Village street corner since 1977, remarkable longevity in a town where five years is a long run for a restaurant.

Knickerbocker has an old-skool look (Hirschfeld caricatures, vintage advertising posters) that would seem kitschy if it debuted today, but after almost forty years, they’re entitled. It’s alleged to be a celebrity haunt, though we didn’t spot any.

It’s a very good second-tier steakhouse. You won’t see it on any top-10 lists, as they serve U.S.D.A. choice beef, not prime—priced accordingly. Their signature dish is the t-bone, served like a Luger porterhouse, pre-sliced in portions for one, two, or four guests.

There’s also a 48-ounce long-bone ribeye ($85), along with humbler cuts (filet, shell steak, skirt steak), and a full menu of non-steak dishes. Every non-steak entrée is below $30, appetizers generally in the mid-teens.

There’s live jazz on Friday and Saturday evenings, starting at 9:45pm, for which there’s a whopping $3.50 cover charge. I think you can afford that. They must take it seriously, as the website lists the featured acts (different each weekend) for the next two months.

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Happy Ending

Note: This is a review under chef Francis Gabarrus, who left the restaurant in April 2015, after just four months. We liked his work, but felt that his classic French menu clashed with the history of the space and wouldn’t be embraced by the neighborhood. His only professional review came in The New Yorker, one of that publication’s rare pans.


To clubhounds of a certain age, Happy Ending isn’t a French restaurant. It’s “a Lower East Side nightspot that specialized in sloppy, Tao Lin fever dreams of emaciated 20-somethings mugging for party flicks.”

The original Happy Ending closed in 2013, but the website lives on, with photos that give a pretty good idea of what was going on there. Before that, it was a massage parlor called Xie He Health Club, and perhaps you can guess what the “Happy Ending” referred to.

The space is under new ownership, and quite curiously, they’ve installed chef Francis Gabarrus, who had a Michelin star in France at La Ville Stings, and also spent time with Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, and Thomas Keller.

What’s curious is that they didn’t change the name. There wasn’t much left in the Happy Ending franchise when it closed, and whatever brand equity it still had, was decidedly not invested in French comfort food. A fresh start might’ve been a better bet.

One could make a long list of New York bars and restaurants that are deliberately difficult to find. Sometimes, it’s part of the game. The original location of David Chang’s Momofuku Ko was unmarked, but Chang was already on the way to culinary sainthood: he wasn’t depending on walk-ins. It doesn’t work so well for a new French restaurant that cries out for validation.

The 61-seat dining room reminded Eater of a “1970s basement,” but the windowless space is nicer than any basement of my acquaintance, with its white tablecloths and artwork curated by gallerist Max Levai. (The basement where the “happy endings” formerly took place is apparently now a dance club; we didn’t check that out.)

The bar has its act together: they mad a terrific Gibson ($13). The wine list is not online, but it struck me as a shade over-priced. A bottle of the 2012 Domaine Faiveley was $65.

The food menu is French in style, but a number of these dishes could be served anywhere: mac and cheese; chicken soup; Tuscan chopped salad. It isn’t terribly expensive, with eight small plates ranging from $8 (mixed olives) to $25 (charcuterie), and seven entrees from $19 (mussels or a pork belly sandwich) to $36 (an 8 oz. filet). Sides are $7–9.

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Cafe Clover


One website called it a “farm-to-nutritionist-to-table restaurant.” That nutritionist, according to the pre-opening press, is Mike Roussell, Ph.D. His name isn’t on the website, but his presence looms large at Cafe Clover, which opened recently in the West Village.

The chef here is David Standridge, formerly of Market Table and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. You’d think, with that pedigree, his menu wouldn’t need an editor. And yet:

“Unlike a health food restaurant that starts with a healthy perspective, I start from a delicious food perspective and then try to eliminate unnecessary calories and also try to make things more healthy,” Standridge, says, of the Café Clover concept.

To do that, he creates the menu and then gets a full nutritional analysis from Dr. Roussell, who will report on things like if a dish has too many calories or carbs, and then send Standridge back to the kitchen to tweak it.

The result is as joyless as it sounds: a cuisine that is clinically executed and hopelessly dull. Do we really want a restaurant where every dish tastes like a nutrition lecture?

Restaurants have struggled on this West Village street corner, most recently home to 10 Downing and La Villette. But there’s nothing wrong with the neighborhood, as El Toro Blanco is still packing them in, on the same block. If Cafe Clover fails, I’d blame the concept, not the space.

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Mapo Korean BBQ

A couple of months ago, Pete Wells published a survey of a dozen Korean restaurants in Queens. Most are well past the No. 7 train’s Eastern terminus. It takes a car, an L.I.R.R. train ride, or a long walk to reach them—in other words, a schlep. One day last month, we decided to give one of them a try: Mapo Korean BBQ.

It’s no wonder that Wells chose this place as one of his anointed dozen: the place has a sterling reputation. Robert Sietsema, who probably knows this cuisine better than anyone who is not Korean, chose Mapo for his first review on Eater.com, awarding three stars.

Among the grillable meats (which are the whole point of the restaurant), there are just four options. We chose the same dish that Wells ordered, the marinated kalbi, or short rib.

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Bowery Meat Company

Every chef wants a steakhouse. What’s not to like? Steakhouses are expensive, popular, and predictable.

Once they’ve sourced the beef, there’s not that much difference in what two properly-equipped kitchens will do with it. And yet, people flock to designer steakhouses as if the chef’s name mattered.

Mind you, I don’t deny that there’s room at the margins for a chef’s personality to shine. But a great steakhouse is mostly about the steak. There’s hardly any other restaurant with entrées in the $50s and $60s that is so likely to succeed, and where that success depends so little on the chef’s contribution.

So that’s why we’ve had such establishments as Arlington Club (Laurent Tourondel), Craftsteak (Tom Colicchio), V Steakhouse (Jean-Georges Vongerichten), Charlie Palmer Steak NY, American Cut (Marc Forgione), and now Josh Capon’s Bowery Meat Company.

These places aren’t fool-proof, as Colicchio and Vongerichten learned. But you’ve got to try really hard to foul up a steakhouse. Craftsteak and V Steakhouse failed because the two chefs over-thought them. If they’d just opened normal steakhouses, those establishments would probably still be with us today.

Josh Capon has made no such mistake. Bowery Meat Company is straight out of the celebrity-chef steakhouse playbook, with enough creativity to distinguish it from the national chains and Luger clones, but enough of the familiar features that meat-&-potatoes carnivores will expect. The comfortable décor features low lighting and plenty of dark wood trim: if Capon fails, Wolfgang could take it over, and he wouldn’t need to change a thing.

Capon made his name with seafood at the Soho standout Lure Fishbar, where he also serves a killer burger so successful that it morphed into its own restaurant, Burger & Barrel. There’s nothing that screams “steak savant” in his background. He’s doing it because the market will bear it.

For a designer-label New York steakhouse, the prices are surprisingly sane, though still not cheap. Steaks and chops will set you back anywhere between $29 (hanger steak) and $55 (NY strip) for one, $110 and $144 for two. There’s a small selection of pastas ($19–24) and non-steak mains ($29–34). Starters and salads are $15–21, side dishes $10. The one constant across Capon’s restaurants, the burger, is $22.

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David Chang’s Momofuku empire now spans a dozen restaurants in three countries. But how many restaurants outside of that empire are run by chefs boasting “Momofuku vet” on their bios? I’ve lost count.

One thing’s for sure: it’s a brand that chefs want on their resume these days, and it’s the calling card at Bara, which opened in the East Village in December, boasting two Momofuku alumni. Chef Ian Alvarez worked at Noodle Bar, and later at French Louie in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. GM Kyle Storm worked at Má Pêche, and later ran the bar at French Louie.

The website notes coyly that “the word bara has many meanings,” without stating any of them. Apparently, it literally means “rose” in Japanese, but it is also short for Barazoku, a Japanese gay men’s magazine that shut down in 2004; or more generally, Japanese slang for a genre of homoerotic media. There are a few other meanings: bara means “bread” in Welsh, “coffin” in Italian, “puddle” in Serbo-Croatian, and “mainland” in Swahili. But if you Google the term, the gay context dominates the search results, so this must be the the one that was meant, for reasons that aren’t at all clear. I was unaware of this until I looked it up.

The restaurant claims to be a mash-up of the Japanese izakaya (a drinking establishment that serves food) and the Parisian wine bar. Frankly, it doesn’t remind me of either. It’s just a casual local restaurant that fuses the two cultures, starting with the place setting: silverware and chopsticks, a combo we’ve seen before. Very little of the food really requires chopsticks, so their presence is mainly to set a mood.

The compact (and inexpensive) menu, which changes daily, features about a half-dozen apiece of “1st” ($6–12) and “2nd” ($18–22) courses, with four sides ($2–9). Many of the dishes could easily be imagined at a Momofuku restaurant, with their eclectic mix of local and Asian ingredients, and predominantly Western cooking techniques.

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Bar Primi

I’m still not sure if Andrew Carmellini truly wanted to be the king of middlebrow restaurants, or if he just stumbled on them by accident.

That’s not meant as an insult, though I’m sure it sounds like one. Carmellini’s restaurants are places where we could eat well every day, which is a good thing, because we have to eat every day. He has nailed the genre.

For now, he apparently has no appetite for destintion dining, and he used to be very good at that too. I wonder if he misses it?

Anyhow, welcome to Bar Primi, which isn’t a bar (though it’ll russle up a terrific cocktail if you ask for one). It’s named for the middle course of a traditional Italian meal, the primi. It’s as if a traditional Italian restaurant had lopped a page off the menu: it ends with the pastas.

Ryan Sutton, Eater’s restaurant critic, apparently had no sense of irony, when he wrote:

Leave it to Carmellini, Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom, the team behind Locanda Verde, Lafayette and The Dutch, to give New York what it wants, which in this case is a late night pasta parlor where you and a buddy can eat and drink well for about $120. Bar Primi is essentially doing for Carmellini & Co. what Parm is doing for the Torrisi boys: it provides an entry-level Italian experience that can still excite fans of the group’s more expensive brands.

It’s not a crazy idea. Americans have an indistinct relationship with the pasta course: it can serve as an appetizer, or it can be a meal in itself. Very few, in my experience, actually order it as a middle course, between an appetizer and an entrée: it’s just too much food. Still, the menu at Bar Primi is a bit disorienting. It feels like two-thirds of a restaurant, and despite Sutton’s protestations, not exactly cheap.

For the sops who must have secondi, there’s a rotating line-up of them—one per day—and sometimes an extra announced special. Or you can have roast beef, Italian peppers, provalone and arugula on a hamburger bun, which is dubbed “the sandwich,” as the restaurant serves no other. We didn’t try it, but we saw a specimen at another table: it looked terrific.

The bulk of the menu consists of little snacks, or piccolini ($9–14), antipasti ($14–17), and two groups of pastas, traditional and seasonal ($14–22). That sandwich is $16, and the few secondi offered are $23–33.

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Duet Brasserie

The all-day chameleon restaurant is a familiar idea, with pastries and omelettes at breakfast, salads and sandwiches at lunch, and fine dining at night. This is the formula that Balthazar nailed, and many others have copied.

This is also the plan at Duet Brasserie, which opened under the radar in late fall 2014, in the old Centro Vinoteca space, a spacious corner lot where Barrow Street meets Seventh Avenue South. The address is on Barrow, but most of the footprint faces onto Seventh.

Most of the downstairs dining room is dominated by floor-to-ceiling French doors, which will open in good weather, presumably with a sidewalk café, but the charmless view onto lower Seventh Avenue is not much of a selling point. Neither is the room itself, which is bisected by display cases showing off the ample selection of baked goods, protected under glass in harsh lighting more suited for a retail bakery.

The publicity photos show an elegant upstairs room, with white tablecloths and a custom-made Swarovski crystal chandelier. That room wasn’t in use the night we visited—a very slow Christmas eve, which attracted only a few customers. Instead, we were seated downstairs, where Duet Brasserie feels like a diner.

If only they charged diner prices. On the French-inflected menu, starters are mostly $12–28, entrées $32–48, side dishes $9–14. There’s also a $75 four-course prix fixe. The website shows a $200 ten-course tasting menu, but the staff did not offer that to us (nor would we have taken them up on it).

The chef here is Dmitry Rodov (his wife, Diana, is the pastry chef). His stated aim is to serve “home cooking, beautifully presented,” and this is generally the case, but many less expensive restaurants do the same, as well or better. The chef needs to prove he can operate a restaurant where no entrée is below $32, and at this he fails.

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If it wasn’t for critics and restaurant guides, who’d ever find a place like this? Nestled mid-block on a dark East Village side street between Avenue A and Avenue B, it’s hardly a spot that attracts much random foot traffic. A popular ramen shop is next door, but who’d know about that either?

But here we find one of the best new restaurants of the year, and better yet, not from any of the recycled names and restaurant empires that command most of the media ink in New York. The chef here is Thomas Chen, an ex-pat of Eleven Madison Park and Commerce. “Tommy” was his childhood name, which morphed into Tuome (“tow-me”).

I don’t want to jinx the guy, but if the early reviews are any guide, Chen in ten years could have himself a hot little empire like David Chang, Mario Carbone, or Andrew Carmellini. Just you wait. Or maybe he’ll stay behind the stove at his namesake spot, and turn it into a Michelin star restaurant. Who knows? Those are heady expectations to put on a chef from whom we’ve had one meal, but I’ll go out on a limb, and say the potential is there. What Chen does with it is up to him.

Chen does this in an unassuming double-storefront, decorated not very originally, with exposed brick, old knick-nacks hanging on the walls, and somewhat uncomfortable wooden chairs facing tables that are a bit too close together. But it’s charming in an East Village-y kind of way.

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