Birds & Bubbles

It’s not exactly an obvious combination, is it? Fried chicken and champagne?

Obvious or not, that’s the value proposition at Birds & Bubbles, the peculiar and yet oddly compelling restaurant from the home cook turned chef, Sarah Simmons.

The restaurant is on an uncharming Lower East Side street, in a narrow subterranean space that was previously an appropriately named restaurant called Grotto. The hours suit the clubby neighborhood nearby, with a 2am closing time Thursdays through Saturdays.

The backstory in brief: Simmons was a retail strategist who started a supper club in her apartment, cooking the soul food she’d grown up with in South Carolina. After winning Food & Wine’s Home Cook Superstar award in 2010, she started City Grit, a so-called “culinary salon,” where guests buy tickets to dinner. Originally an extension of Simmons’ in-home supper club, nowadays she cooks there only occasionally: visiting chefs prepare most of the meals.

Simmons knows her stuff. I liked the food at Birds & Bubbles a lot. It’s Southern comfort cuisine, and does not blaze any culinary trails. But the chicken’s really enjoyable, the bread and side dishes well above anything you get at the average poultry joint.

Unfortunately, the wine menu looks like it parachuted in from another planet, or at least another restaurant. It consists mostly of champagnes over $100 a bottle, with only a few sparkling wines in the $45–65 range and a handful of cheap, uninteresting still wines you probably don’t want.

If you order cocktails or bubbly by the glass, as we did, the costs quickly mount up: dinner for three was over $200, including tax and tip. That’s an awful lot for a meal whose centerpiece is fried chicken served in a stainless steel bucket. The food menu is inexpensive, with salads, appetizers and soups $5–13, mains $17–24, and side dishes $9.

For a group, the Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner ($55), which we ordered, offers a good cross-section of the menu: a whole chicken, a bread basket ($12 if purchased à la carte), and your choice of three side dishes. You don’t have to eat chicken: there’s a crawfish étouffée, shrimp & grits, a steak, and so forth. But you don’t order the salmon at Peter Luger, do you?

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The Clam


When Gabe Stulman and Joey Campanaro opened The Little Owl in 2006, they surely never imagined the multitude of restaurants such an unassuming little place would beget.

Anywhere in the Village, you’re never more than about five minutes away from one or another of their properties, all somewhat resembling each other in their commitment to straightforward, rustic, gut-busting cuisine, served in casual, comfortable dining rooms that appeal to a neighborhood crowd.

They’re actually not partners anymore. The pair split up in 2008, with Stulman starting up his “Little Wisco” empire, Campanaro retaining The Little Owl and their second restaurant together, Market Table. But you’d hardly know they ever disagreed, given the similarity of the restaurants they now operate separately.

Stulman is up to six restaurants. Campanaro has been slower to expand, opening The Clam, his third, earlier this year with his Market Table partner, chef Mikey Price. You’ll get no prizes for guessing the concept: it’s a seafooder, with the menu relying heavily on a certain bivalve mollusc.

They’ve got a terrific location, a spacious corner lot with broad, picture windows and the de rigeur exposed brick that no downtown restaurant can do without. Yet, there are white tablecloths, previously thought to be the kiss of death at a neighborhood spot, and—shock!—no one seems to mind. The restaurant has been solidly booked at prime times. It took me almost eleven months to get a reservation.

No matter what, you’re probably going to be eating seafood here. A couple of the entrées are sops to landlubbers (a half Bell & Evans chicken; a braised shortrib), but to choose these is to miss the entire point of the restaurant. Whatever you order, you’ll start with one of the terrific warm parkerhouse rolls (above right).

The menu is in five confusing sections: “iced delicacies” (what most people call a raw bar), appetizers ($13–19), entrées ($25–31), side dishes (“eight dollars each”), and then the perplexing part: “house specialties” ($13–24), not clearly delineated as starters or mains, linked only by the fact that they’re all made with clams.

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Le Jardin Bistro

How did I miss this it? A French bistro as cute as Le Jardin was on Cleveland Place for 15 years, and I never noticed.

It closed in 2010 to make way for John Fraser’s pop-up What Happens When, followed by The Cleveland, which tried out three chefs in two years and finally closed after a dispute with the landlord.

Meanwhile, Le Jardin’s original owner, Israel Katz, found a business partner and re-opened Le Jardin in an old townhouse on Avenue C, or perhaps I should say, “Rue C.”

A lovelier spot for a rustic French bistro would be difficult to imagine. On the ground floor, there’s a bar and an enclosed patio. Most of the seating is up a flight of stairs, where there’s a spectacular bi-level dining room with an open kitchen, distressed brick walls, and a functional fireplace, which was roaring the evening we went. Past a set of French doors, there’s an enclosed candle-lit garden, which is open all year.

If you’re looking for the ultimate charming third-date spot, put Le Jardin at the top of the list.

The menu is taken from the French bistro playbook. There is nothing original, but if you love this cuisine, you will want to order all of it. Prices are so modest, you could stay all night and have dinner twice. Appetizers are $5–12, mains $14–22. For dessert, cheeses are $4 each, sweets $9.

The all-French wine list offers nine choices by the glass, fourteen modestly-priced bottles ($42–69), and and ten “cru & back vintages” soaring up to $750 for a 1989 second-growth St. Julien. We were happy to order at the expensive end of the regular list, a 2009 Hautes-Côtes de Nuits ($69).

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The Prime Rib Feast at The Breslin

It’s never too soon to re-visit The Breslin, one of two April Bloomfield restaurants with a Michelin star — The Spotted Pig is the other — and both criminally under-rated by the Paper of Record, at one star apiece.

The Breslin has been with us for five years, and the value proposition isn’t much changed. It’s a full-on cholesterol assault, but you’ll love it all the same. Sam Sifton had a point when he implied it would kill you to eat here too often. So would Peter Luger, but no one’s making you drop in every night.

There’s a robust market for the so-called “large format feast,” which started to appear all over town at about the time The Breslin did. There are four of them here, all for eight to twelve guests: prime rib ($95 per person), roasted duck ($65), whole suckling pig ($85) and lamb curry ($80).

Order one of these, and you’ll be seated at the dining room’s large central table, facing the open kitchen, where you can oogle the chefs, and the rest of the guests can oogle you as the food comes out. A group of us visited recently for the rib. (Click on the photo, above left, for a larger image of the menu.)

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Sushi Nakazawa

I’ve never really found it that difficult to get into popular restaurants. It may require advance planning, such as calling the exact day that tables open up, 30 days in advance, at the exact hour the reservations line opens. Or perhaps the opposite—walking in at 5:30 and sitting at the bar. But it can almost always be done.

Perhaps the toughest challenge was Momofuku Ko, when it was new. There was a science of out-dueling the restaurant’s notoriously finicky website. Even the New York Times critic, Frank Bruni, admitted he relied on “tireless friends and readers” to get him in. I wrote a series of posts about reserving there, which I finally did on the third or fourth try.

My Ko Kwest was child’s play compared to Sushi Nakazawa, the toughest table in town since Pete Wells gave it four stars last December. Reservations open at midnight, thirty days in advance. Four times, I tried exactly at midnight to book the 10-seat dining counter, and failed. Finally, I settled for the 25-seat dining room. This was fifteen months after the restaurant opened. By the time Momofuku Ko was in its second year, reservations at its 14-seat kounter were reasonably easy to come by.

The restaurant’s backstory has been much repeated. In the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, chef Daisuke Nakazawa was the apprentice who cried when, after 200 tries, he finally made an egg custard that his master, Jiro Ono, found acceptable. Alessandro Borgognone, owner of Patricia’s Italian restaurant in the Bronx, saw the film, found Nakazawa on Facebook, and lured him to New York.

Sushi Nakazawa is not a four-star restaurant. Pete Wells’s review made no sense, even if you assume that everything he wrote was true. How do you put Sushi Nakazawa on a pedastal occupied by only five other restaurants, when you concede that “not everything is the best in town,” and “the $450 menu at Masa may glide to a higher pitch of pleasure”?

Yes indeed, Masa is better. Nevertheless, if your standard is “pleasure per dollar spent,” Sushi Nakazawa is certainly compelling. To the owner’s credit, and unlike just about every other three- and four-star restaurant, he has not jacked up the prices since the review came out. It’s still just $150 for the omakase at the counter, $120 at the tables. (You cannot order à la carte, unless you want extra pieces after your set menu is over.)

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Calle Dão

Cuba once had the largest Chinese ex-pat population in Latin America. Havana’s El Bario Chino (its Chinatown) occupied 44 square blocks in 1870, though today it is restricted to a portion of Calle Cuchillo (“Knife Street”).

Chinese–Cubans predictably migrated to New York, where Chelsea and the Upper West Side became home to “dozens of greasy spoons, unique in that they served Chinese food and Cuban food in separate measure, side by side.” That era has long since passed. More recently, Jeffrey Chodorow’s Asia de Cuba was a clubby, upscale riff on the same idea. The New York outpost closed in 2011, but it soldiers on in London.

I haven’t seen much evidence that New Yorkers mourned the loss. But Naples native Marco Britti fell in love with Cuban–Chinese fusion cuisine when he lived in Havana. He is betting that the city will welcome its re-introduction. To carry out the concept, he hired chef Humberto Guallpa, who was executive chef at Vandaag for its final year in business, from 2011–12. (Britti also owns Favela Cubana, a more straightforward Cuban restaurant in Greenwich Village.)

Welcome to Calle Dão, a fusion restaurant with a fusion name: “knife” in Mandarin, “street” in Spanish. It’s located on one of those forlorn midtown streets where you’d have no reason to go without an appointment, but I suspect they do good lunch business here. Dinner could pick up if the concept catches on.

But will it? There’s no rule that necessarily limits chefs to the cuisine they grew up with. Yet, when an Italian (Britti) and an Ecuadoran (Guallpa) are charged with reproducing the cultures of China and Cuba, you fear that something will be lost in translation. The dark room feels like the Epcot version of Havana. It’s comfortable enough, but the authenticity seems faked.

I never experienced the greasy-spoon version of Cuban–Chinese fusion, but the elements of both cultures are plainly evident, with chopsticks and silverware at every place setting. You’ll certainly pay more than in Havana, with appetizers and ceviches $8–12, entrées $13–32 (most over $25), and side dishes $8.

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Cherche Midi

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

You can’t escape that feeling when you walk into yet another Keith McNally restaurant. Whether it’s the Odeon or Cafe Luxembourg (with which he’s no longer associated), Pastis (recently closed), Balthazar or Minetta Tavern (both alive and well), or the brand new Cherche Midi, you’ve seen this before.

McNally has only occasionally departed from his signature motif, the all-day French brasserie. But even these other places, such as Schiller’s Liquor Bar and Morandi, bear his unmistakable stamp, long since copied by many others, though seldom as well.

He has rarely failed, but Pulino’s, his bar and pizzeria, never caught on like the rest of them. McNally panicked when he fired the opening chef, Nate Appleman, who got mediocre reviews. I liked Pulino’s under Appleman; much of the charm evaporated after he left. “Failure” is relative: Pulino’s had a nearly four-year run.

With Cherche Midi, McNally has returned to the French brasserie template that has worked so well at Balthazar, Minetta Tavern, and so many others. It is, of course, reliably full with beautiful guests who know and love the formula, and the rest of us when we can get in. Whether it will fill a distinct niche, as his more successful establishments have done, will take time to sort out. For now, it is very good, and that’s enough.

McNally’s establishments are less chef-driven than most restaurants. You go to Balthazar for what McNally has created, not for who’s in the kitchen. Still, good food doesn’t happen by accident. There are co-executive chefs at Cherche Midi, Daniel Parilla (a former sous chef at Minetta) and Shane McBride (who still oversees the kitchens at Balthazar and Schiller’s). Should either man leave, McNally would replenish from his deep bench, and I doubt Cherche Midi would miss a beat.

The food is prepared with French technique, although the menu is mostly in English. Appetizers are $14–27 (all but one under $20), entrées $23–49, side dishes $9, desserts $10–11.

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By The Hudson

Restaurant names often tell you very little. What do you know, really, about The Simone, Charlie Bird, or Cherche Midi, from their names alone? In contrast, By The Hudson (BTH) makes its value proposition abundantly clear: it’s a room with a view.

Actually, that sells it short. Chef Lusianie Otero’s “Amer-ibbean” cuisine surpassed my expectations, but when a restaurant is named for its location, it’s the location that they’re selling, so let’s discuss that for a moment.

BTH is located at the far western tip of 125th Street, underneath the Riverside Drive viaduct. Tall picture windows on two sides offer gorgeous views of the Hudson. Two other restaurants share the block, but don’t have the scenery: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and Harlem’s Floridita. The famed Cotton Club is a block away; Fairway Market is just up the street. Another restaurant with a view, Hudson River Cafe, is four blocks north.

Still, the walk from the subway feels a bit bleak, especially after dark. That’ll change, eventually. Columbia University plans to build seventeen buildings over the next quarter-century on the superblock bounded by 125th Street, 133th Street, Broadway, and Twelfth Avenue. Several are already under construction. You can’t help feeling that in five or ten years, this area will be barely recognizable.

With all of the ongling construction in the area, BTH’s timing seems to be pretty good. But the space facing the water (formerly a diner) had been vacant for seven years before BTH opened in September, so I guess it wasn’t an easy sell. The neighborhood clearly has bright prospects, provided the restaurant survives the long winter.

The restaurant is evidently still deciding how best to market the cuisine. Florence Fabricant’s Off the Menu teezer described it as “American, with hints of Italian,” but the chef hails from Puerto Rico, and our server called it “Amer-ibbean.” Osso Buco is the only dish that immediately screams Italian, and there’s a heavy dose of the safe, recognizable standards that many places serve: Shrimp Cocktail, Caesar Salad; Steak & Fries, and so forth. But where the chef does insert her personality, the dishes have a recognizably Caribbean tint.

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M. Wells Steakhouse

What a strange trip it’s been for M. Wells. Our story begins in 2010, when chef Hugue Defour and his wife, Sarah Obraitis, took over a diner in Long Island City, turning that forlorn Queens neighborhood into a destination.

Defour came to New York from that insane Montreal restaurant Au Pied do Cochon, where you’ll find a whole pig’s foot stuffed with foie gras; or a hunk of foie gras on a buckwheat pancake ladled with maple syrup. (We’ve been twice, and would happily go again.)

M. Wells was very much in this spirit, with its meatloaf for four, plates of veal brains, and “seafood cobblers the size of throw pillows” (said Sam Sifton, who awarded two stars).

It was never quite a fully-formed restaurant, as dinner was served only three nights a week: the small kitchen apparently couldn’t handle any more. Still, those three nights were enough to turn Long Island City into a world pilgrimage site. Then the landlord got greedy, and after just a year in business, M. Wells was forced out.

The following year, Defour and Obraitis opened M. Wells Dinette, a lunch-only restaurant located inside MoMA PS1, a branch of the Museum of Modern Art located in a former schoolhouse, just a few blocks away from the former diner. Pete Wells gave it two stars.

The Dinette was just a snack to tide us over for the main event, M. Wells Steakhouse, which opened in late 2013 after nearly two years of planning. Naturally, it’s in an improbable location: a former auto body shop that is unrenovated and totally unmarked. By now, this is all schtick: luxury apartments have sprouted up everywhere you look, including right across the street.

Inside, the 80-seat dining room is a smart mash-up of old and new. There’s plenty of exposed brick and garage doors made of corrugated metal, but chandeliers hang from the old industrial ceiling, and servers are smartly dressed in black vests and ties. Unobtrusive nick-nacks remind you of times long past, such as an old-fashioned ice box, used for bar storage.

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Claudette arrived in Greenwich Village several months ago, as welcome as a burst of sunshine after a rain storm. It’s a lovely Provençal bistro, in a city that can never have enough of them.

This is the third act for co-owner Carlos Suarez (Bobo, Rosemary’s). Wade Moises, who runs the kitchen at Rosemary’s, has come along for this venture as executive chef, along with chef de cuisine Koren Grieveson, who spent over a decade at the respected Chicago restaurant Avec.

I liked the food Rosemary’s, but it’s loud and perpetually packed; at the bar, you can barely move. I feared that Claudette would be more of the same, but it turns out to be surprisingly civilized. Suarez has created a warm, inviting room. There aren’t a ton of tables. The ample marble bar attracts a dinner crowd, not a party. It does get a tad loud, but not punishingly so.

This address has not been kind to restaurants, but there is nothing wrong with the location. I vaguely recall a place here called Washington Park, years ago. The reasons for its demise escape me, but it later became Cru (felled by the recession), and then the short-lived Lotus of Siam (a terrible idea, doomed before it began). Claudette ought to last a while.

The menu is fairly brief, but it appears to change frequently. There are choices in four categories, with headings printed in French, but the dishes described entirely in English. There’s a quartet of salads under du Jardin ($8 each; $30 for the set); six Hors d’Oeuvres ($13–18), nine Entrées ($22–34; or grilled ribeye, $46); and four Garnitures, or side dishes ($8).

A few dishes are lazy: that Pat LaFreida ribeye that seems to find its way onto every menu in town; a hanger steak, just because; a cavatelli for diners who want a recognizable pasta option. But mostly, the chefs stick to their chosen Provençal and North African theme.

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