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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Monday
Apr212014

Rôtisserie Georgette

Who’d have thought that a French restaurant that serves meats on a rôtisserie would be one of the breakout hits of 2014?

Georgette Farkas thought so. After 17 years as Daniel Boulud’s head of in-house PR, she left last year to open Rôtisserie Georgette on the Upper East Side, steps away from Central Park South and the posh Fifth and Madison Avenue shopping districts.

It might strike you as an obvious move, but according to the Post’s Steve Cuozzo (who awarded three stars), there hasn’t been a French rôtisserie restaurant in New York since D’Artagnan in 2001—and that one didn’t last long. But Farkas’ instincts were spot-on: Rôtisserie Georgette is consistently full, and I had a tougher time booking it than almost any restaurant I’ve visited in the last year.

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Sunday
Apr202014

Skál

First you have to figure out how to get there, a streetcorner on the edge of the city, where Chinatown meets the Lower East Side. It took me to the last subway station below Central Park that I’d never been to (East Broadway), then a couple of disorienting wrong turns till I found it.

Finally, there it is: Skál, with its box-shaped dining room giving off a warm glow, in an area where most of the storefronts are barricaded shut during the evening. Look a bit closer, and there’s a trendy bar or two, and on the street, plenty of revelers with a purpose, heading to their next watering stop. The busier part of the Lower East Side is four blocks to the north.

You can see faint glimmers of what the New Yorker meant in 2003, when it reviewed Les Enfants Terribles, the last restaurant to occupy this space: “It’s nice that the Manhattan tradition of opening a restaurant in an impossibly lonely, graffiti-bombed corner of town is still in effect.”

A decade later, as it prepared to close, the website Bowery Boogie lamented that, “The Ludlow corridor has become that temple of doom situation, whereby the heart and soul of the neighborhood is being categorically stripped by the hand of gentrification.”

No, it’s not grandma’s Lower East Side any more.

Nowadays, one in ten chefs cooks at Noma for 15 minutes, then opens a New Nordic restaurant. Skál means “Cheers!” in Icelandic, and the here the cuisine hails (nominally) from that Scandinavian nation. But the Canadian chef Ben Spiegel’s tightly-edited bistro menu could be found anywhere, with its Long Island duck wings, Elysian Fields lamb rib, Berkshire pork chop, and Angus hangar steak.

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Sunday
Apr202014

Seeing Stars: Eater Blinks and So Do I

The stars are back.

Two years ago, the Los Angeles Times announced it was dropping the “star system” for rating restaurants. To my knowledge, no other publication followed the LAT’s lead.

In New York City, the Times, New York magazine, the Post, the Daily News, Time Out New York, the Observer, and GQ, all give stars. Among print publications that regularly review restaurants in New York, to my knowledge only the New Yorker and the Village Voice have yet to use stars (and they never did).

Last week, Eater.com (which had long eschewed reviews of any kind) began two new series of reviews, with critics Ryan Sutton (formerly of Bloomberg) and Robert Sietsema (formerly of the Village Voice), who will use separate non-overlapping four-star systems. (New York is the only other publication with separate star systems for low- and high-end restaurants.)

After the LAT announced its decision, the Times’ Pete Wells filed a blog post explaining why his reviews would continue to have stars:

No two critics are going to have the same reaction to a restaurant, and no two critics are going to come up with identical interpretations of the precedent. The whole process of critiquing restaurants is inherently subjective. Readers are free to disagree with the critic. Go ahead and throw the newspaper across the room if you like. That’s part of the fun. . . .

Whether you think that renders the stars meaningless depends entirely on what you expect them to do. If you hope they are going to organize the entire New York City restaurant scene into an objective and verifiable hierarchy of good, better and best, you’re going to find that the reviews are a weekly exercise in frustration. (A corollary: If you read the reviews believing that all restaurants with a given number of stars are meant to be equally good, you’re going to lose your mind.)

On the other hand, if you understand that the stars accompany a review of at least 1,000 words, I hope you’ll believe that they do have meaning. The reviews have to cover a lot of ground. They tell you what kind of restaurant is being reviewed, how it looks and feels, how customers are treated, how some of the dishes taste and often whether it’s worth the price. A star ranking from zero to four can’t do any of those things in any meaningful way, but it can try to serve as shorthand for how strongly the reviewer is recommending the restaurant.

After the LAT announcement, I introduced my own system, which not-coincidentally was a five-step scale, just as the stars had been (four to zero), but—as I then saw it—without the stars’ historical baggage. From highest to lowest, my ratings were:

  • Extraordinary
  • Category Killer
  • Critic’s Pick
  • Neighborhood Spot
  • Not Recommended

These categories had always approximated my general sense of what the stars ought to mean, although not all critics used them that way. I found in practice that my new system was no more liberating than the stars. In fact, it was less discriminating, because I had used half-stars in the past, but I had allowed myself no way to designate a restaurant as, for example, “Neighborhood Plus.”

Other problems I saw with the star system seem less serious to me now. I do not fundamentally take issue with a restaurant like Roberta’s receiving three stars, as it did from Sutton last week, assuming you agree with his assessment. Restaurants are rated against the ideal versions of themselves, not against others in completely different genres. You could agree with Sutton’s rating, while concluding at the same time that Roberta’s isn’t for you. (That, in fact, is precisely my view of Roberta’s.)

There is nothing to be done about the fact that, on crowdsourced review sites like Yelp, a three-star review is terrible, while to most professional critics it is terrific. In my system, a one-star restaurant is “good,” which ought to be a compliment. I cannot do anything about the fact that some people will read my reviews, see one star, and think, “It must be awful.” The readers who say that haven’t read the review.

There remain considerable differences in the ways critics use the star system. Some publications go up to five stars, although most use four. Some go down to zero, but others stop at one. Some use half-stars; others don’t. Because of this, stars are generally not comparable across publications. For a given publication and critic, the stars, as Wells put it, “serve as shorthand for how strongly the reviewer is recommending the restaurant.”

But the system, in whatever fashion it is used, remains the lingua franca of restaurant reviews.

A few years ago, the Post’s Steve Cuozzo dropped the stars (in fact, he dropped traditional “reviews” entirely), but after a while concluded that he might as well re-instate them. I’ve now come to the same conclusion.

Wednesday
Apr162014

Gato

Gato, Bobby Flay’s latest restaurant, asks us to ponder whether a TV chef best known for throwdowns and gimmicks, for a line of spice rubs and a middle-brow empire of tourist traps, can still cook food that matters.

For now, the answer is emphatically yes. Gato is so good, in fact, that it invites you to forget his multiply cloned restaurants at various casinos, his half-dozen TV shows (that’s only the active ones—there have been many others), his cookbooks, and his burger palaces in eleven states.

Flay is omni-present on TV, but he was once a serious restaurant chef. With the critically admired Mesa Grill in 1991 and Bolo in 1993, he was on the way to the kind of restaurant empire that chefs like David Chang and the Torrisi gang have built in New York today.

He chose a different path, proliferating his brand outside New York, and augmenting it with a lineup of cookbooks, spice rubs, and especially TV shows, where his good looks and winning smile made him a natural. He never entirely took his eye off his kitchens: he was already a minor industry in 2003 when William Grimes upgraded Bolo to three stars.

But the New York restaurants gradually faded. Frank Bruni demoted Mesa Grill to one star in 2008. Bolo closed in 2008 to make way for condos, Mesa Grill in 2013 after losing its lease. His remaining New York City restaurant, Bar Americain, was well off the radar.

The loss of Bolo stuck in his craw, and there were persistent rumors he would re-open it. He was certainly patient: he told Eater.com that he looked at “hundreds and hundreds of spaces” over “five or six years.” After securing a liquor license under that name, Flay changed his mind and called it Gato, after a stray cat that walked by while he and his partners were scoping the storefront they eventually chose.

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Sunday
Apr132014

The Chori Burger at Jeepney

I don’t often chase food porn: there’s far too much of it, and I have far too little time. I made an exception for the Chori Burger at Jeepney, featured last week in The Times by foodcurated’s Liza de Guia.

Jeepney claims to be the world’s only Filipino gastropub. Exactly what passes for a gastropub these days is anyone’s guess, but it’s Filipino, beyond a doubt, a casual place that looks like a dive bar with a serious kitchen. You can feast on fertilized duck eggs, pig snouts, beef blood, and head-on prawns, along with less adventurous fare, like pork shoulder, lamb shank, and roasted chicken.

But it was the burger ($17) that brought me here:

The chef, Miguel Trinidad, creates a patty with beef and longanisa, a cured pork sausage. He tops it with banana ketchup (a condiment that finds its way into many dishes here). Both sides of the challah bun are drizzled with a kewpie aioli (soy sauce, garlic, and other spices).

In the Times video, the chef explains that the burger is not traditional in the Philippines, but Americans imported it during the occupation, and it’s now found in many places there, though usually with a White Castle-sized patty. In this interpretation, the burger has the heft that New Yorkers expect.

The server leaves you with three napkins, and you’ll need them, but it’s well worth it for this spicy, messy masterpiece. Finish it off with satisfying fries made from kamote, the Filipino equivalent of the sweet potato.

I assume the burger is fairly new, as Pete Wells did not mention it in an improbable two-star review a year ago. I don’t know when or if I’ll make it back to try more of the menu. For burger hounds, that alone is enough to make Jeepney a destination.

Jeepney (201 First Avenue between 12th & 13th Streets, East Village)

Sunday
Apr132014

Nerai

In what other age could one of the best high-end Greek restaurants in New York, open and go almost totally unnoticed?

That is the perplexing question at Nerai, which opened in May 2013 in the old Oceana space, and has attracted no professional reviews that I can find, except from John Mariani in Huffington Post, who posted a rave three months ago.

The opening certainly was publicized, although perhaps not as well as it could be. Did it begin so poorly that the first critics to visit found it not worth writing about? Or did they just assume that a white tablecloth restaurant on East 54th Street is unimportant by default? I fear it could be the latter.

I am not going to pronounce Nerai the best modern Greek restaurant in New York. That judgment would require more visits and deeper exploration than my time and money will allow. But after one visit I can certainly pronounce it a candidate.

Admittedly, there’s not a lot of competition since Michael Psilakis’s Anthos bit the dust. Molyvos is reliable, but not the standout it once was, although it has the city’s best Greek wine list. Milos could be better, but I’ve never been (GQ’s Alan Richman posted a rave in 2010). Thalassa is an old favorite of mine, but it gets very little critical attention; it is still very good, but below its peak.

Which brings us back to Nerai, which feels immediately cozy and elegant. A series of rooms in the bi-level space is decked out in soothing, vaguely nautical themes. In the room we were in, on the ground floor, the walls are lined with white muslin gauzes, pleated to resemble sails.

You won’t get out cheaply. Starters and salads range from $15–27, composed entrées $26–56 (just one dish under $30), sides $10. There’s also whole fish and seafood, $33–60 per pound, a notoriously tricky format, as you don’t quite know what you’re paying until the bill arrives.

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Tuesday
Apr082014

Ristorante Morini

How much Michael White is too much Michael White? At Ristorante Morini, his seventh New York restaurant in as many years, the chef is betting that we still don’t have enough.

There’ve been some stumbles along the way. Nicoletta, his pizzeria, is limping along after horrible reviews. How do you screw up pizza? Somehow, he did. The Butterfly, his take on a 1950s Wisconsin supper club, quickly fell off the radar after a much publicized opening. A recent re-visit to Costata, his Italian steakhouse in Soho, was disappointing. But at modern haute Italian fine dining, his judgment has never failed him. That’s the genre he tackles once again at Ristorante Morini.

White may be repeating himself, but have you tried to book a table at Marea lately? After five years in business, it is still solidly booked at prime times. Opening Ai Fiori, a second restaurant in the same mold, did nothing to tamp down demand, so why not build a third?

He chose the right location, the Upper East Side, the city’s only remaining residential neighborhood where guests aren’t offended by white tablecloths and don’t require a special occasion for fine dining. The Met is a block away, and if you’d rather avoid museum food, there is now a far better option.

I’m not sure why he chose the name Morini, which this new restaurant shares with Osteria Morini in Soho, where you find haute trattoria fare served on wooden tables with orange paper placemats. This Morini is nothing like that Morini, but I’m sure some tourists will show up at the wrong one.

To run the kitchen, White has installed Gordon Finn, who worked for him at Alto when it had two Michelin stars. Finn executes the White playbook flawlessly. Close your eyes, and you could be at Marea or Ai Fiori.

The prices are punishingly high. You are paying for luxury, or at least the perception of it. Crudi and antipasti are $19–26, pastas $22–29 (not counting gnocchi with black truffles, $42), entrées mostly $36–52 (but Dover Sole will set you back $69).

There is also a four-course option for $84, which allows you to select almost any starter, pasta, entrée and dessert (some items carry supplements). The tariff will probably go up over time, as Ai Fiori’s prix fixe is $94, Marea’s $99, and the restaurants are quite similar. Indeed, when the chef came to our table to say hello, he did not disagree when I described it as “Marea with a meat option.”

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