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.

*

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

Note: Heartwood closed in November 2014. We weren’t impressed, so this doesn’t come as a surprise. The restaurant was tweeting out free pizza deals in October, so it was obviously not doing well. Donatella Arpaia, who still controls the lease, expects to replace it with Prova, yet another pizzeria.

*

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.

 

The Bibb and Bacon Lettuce Wraps ($13; above left) aren’t “wrapped” at all. You get three fists of Bibb with chunks of soggy maple-candied bacon perched on top. Slices of tomato and stray droppings of smoked pecan sandwich the bacon, but as soon as you touch it the tower collapses. You eat the piece parts, and I suppose the idea is that they’ll be reunited in your stomach.

On this bacon-happy menu, Warm Spinach and Frisée ($14; above right) is a better bet, as the kitchen has mixed the ingredients together, which is how a salad is supposed to work. There’s a poached egg, maple vinaigrette, and house-cured lamb bacon.

 

In the photo, you can’t make out the Heritage Pork Chop ($26; above left), as it’s hiding beneath peach chutney and honey-glzed turnips. It never should have left the kitchen at all. Three meager medallions, cooked off the bone, had been roasted to the texture of dry cereal. If pigs could sue for wrongful death, this pig should.

Pizza was a far happier choice. I’d heartily recommend “When Peter Luger Goes Out For Pizza” ($21; above right), with braised short rib, creamed spinach and horseradish on a charred, thin crust, smoky enough to remind you of a good porterhouse steak.

Duck Fat Potato Wedges ($8; above right) aren’t nearly as compelling as they sound, but they grew on me. You could do a lot worse.

The mostly domestic wine list is short and recent (nothing older than 2011), but fairly priced in relation to the menu. There’s a summery list of slightly-overpriced house cocktails ($15), many with smoky names like the Firecracker Martini (peppered vodka, cucumber, BBQ rub).

Service was friendly, but a bit discombobulated at times: there was a substantial gap between the arrival of my cocktail and Wendy’s glass of wine; another gap between the delivery of my entrée (the pork) and her pizza.

The space is casual, but a little nicer than I remember at Donatella. Sound ricochets off the brick walls and the low pressed-tin ceiling, so be ready for the assault on your eardrums. But the restaurant was full on a Tuesday evening. For a hot summer in Chelsea, this is probably what the neighborhood wants.

Heartwood (184 Eighth Avenue between 19th & 20th Streets, Chelsea)

Food: An uneven menu of American grill standards, salads, pizzas
Service: Casual and discombobulated
Ambiance: Casual and noisy

Rating: Not Recommended (no stars)

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.

*

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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Tuesday
Jun172014

Chicane

Note: Chicane closed for summer renovations in June 2014. Usually, such closures turn out to be permanent. Sure enough, Chicane closed for good in October. As we noted in our review (below), there were “abundant signs that the idea [wasn’t] well thought out.”

*

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 three 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.

Both the menu and the wine list are printed on frayed card stock that is already showing signs of ill-use. Sure enough, the first wine I chose was not available: the list had obviously not been re-printed anytime recently.

The menu is in the four-part format that is the current NYC standard, with “sharing plates and specialties” ($6–10; cheese plate $18), appetizers ($9–19), entrées ($19–32), and side dishes ($7). Those aren’t unfair prices, if only the food were better. Our server’s recommendations were generally the most expensive dishes, and after we’d ordered he tried to upsell us into even more.

 

Barbajuans ($8; above left), the national dish of Monaco, are puff pastries filled with Swiss chard and ricotta cheese. But I doubt the originals are as dry and bland as these. The Pissaladière ($10; above right) was made with a crust so thin that it crumbled instantly. Without enough bread to give it structure, the dish tasted like caramelized onion soup with anchovies and sliced olives lazily sprinkled on top.

 

There seemed to be nothing wrong with Mussels Marinières ($21; above left), but the mushy fries were a textural disaster (or nearly as disastrous as fries can be).

 

Lamb Shoulder ($28; above left) is braised overnight, but the goopy fat in this specimen looked as unpleasant as it tasted. For dessert, a Strawberry Vache ($12; above right) was decent enough.

The 75-seat dining room is decorated in a sunny Monaco motif (plenty of Grace Kelly photos). But the excessive din from the noisy bar, packed two deep, would have marred this potentially romantic spot, even if the food had been better. The bar, indeed, seems to be the scene here, as most of the tables were unoccupied at 8:00pm on a Wednesday evening. There is supposedly a subterranean cocktail lounge in the basement (mentioned in an UrbanDaddy piece), but with no reviews that I can find.

The owners clearly made an investment in this space, but if if they want to serve southern French cuisine, there is an additional investment they ought to consider: a chef from the South of France.

Chicane (430 Broome Street between Lafayette & Crosby Streets, Soho)

Food: Southern French cuisine…sort of
Service: Upsellingly obnoxious
Ambiance: A noisy beach in Nice, waiting for the chef to arrive

Rating: Not Recommended (no stars)

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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