Monday
Dec022013

The East Pole

When’s the last time a cloned restaurant was actually better the second time? Usually, the clone is a poor shadow of the original. Occasionally they’re equal, if the management is really good.

The East Pole breaks the rules. Billed as an uptown version of The Fat Radish, it’s a significant improvement on its predecessor. Not that the Fat Radish was that bad, but when we visited, the food wasn’t impressive enough to overcome poor service and a room so loud it was headache-inducing. Perhaps it has improved; I wasn’t inclined to go back.

The concept is cleverly re-imagined for the Upper East Side ecosystem. The room has a bright sheen, casual but refined, with edison bulbs, blonde wood tables, plush black leather banquettes, and soft music in the background. You can be comfortable here, and don’t have to shout to be heard.

Like the Fat Radish, the restaurant wears its farm-to-table ethos on its sleeve, with a list of purveyors on the back of the menu, and servers in brown aprons as if they’d just walked in from the barn. Our server delivered a sermon on pickling, which he does in his spare time at home. After a while, it felt like too much information. The menu is vaguely British (Scotch Egg, Fish Pie), to an extent you’d barely notice. Although reprinted daily, there’s a sizable list of recited specials with quite intricate descriptions: why?

Prices at the East Pole are a bit higher than at the Fat Radish. A Piedmontese Flank Steak at the Radish ($28) becomes a Piedmontese New York Strip uptown ($42). What seems (from the description) to be the same Heritage pork chop is $28 downtown, $32 uptown. But the bacon cheeseburger is $19 in both places. The room is so much nicer that I’d gladly pay a few bucks more.

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Monday
Nov252013

American Cut

Chef Marc Forgione was perturbed when I suggested, in my review of Khe-Yo, that he was expanding rapidly with concepts that could run on auto-pilot.

He must have thought I was saying nobody is running them, which of course is not the case. Although I did not like Khe-Yo, I praised the service, which does not happen by accident. Somebody runs these places. I’m not sure Forgione does.

If he does, he might want to explain why the online menu at his new Tribeca steakhouse, American Cut, is posted without prices, a cynical ploy that I find downright insulting. The posted menu is a PDF facsimile of what is handed out at the restaurant. Someone had to do the extra work to take the prices off it.

Actually, prices are in line with other premium steakhouses in town. Such places are opening everywhere lately; they always do in an economic recovery. In a recent round-up of new steakhouses, the Post’s Steve Cuozzo ranked American Cut fifth out of nine—mediocre. That’s about right.

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Sunday
Nov172013

Kingside

It’s almost forgotten now, but in 2004 Landmarc was happening. Eater and Grub Street didn’t exist then, but if they had, Landmarc would have soared right to the top of the “Where To Eat Now” lists.

Diners endured hour-long waits for cuisine that wasn’t especially inventive or clever, just comfort-food classics really well made in a casual room. Nowadays, another place like that opens every week. In 2004, it wasn’t a cliché, yet.

The French-trained chef, Marc Murphy, parlayed the success to a second Landmarc in the Time-Warner Center, in the space Charlie Trotter was once supposed to occupy.

The crowds at the original Tribeca Landmarc subsided, as they always do at hot restaurants. A few years later, both Landmarcs were just serving gussied-up shopping mall food, with shopping mall service to match.

Despite training in “some of the most highly esteemed kitchens in the world from Paris to Monte Carlo” (so says the website), Murphy’s ambitions remained decidedly low-brow. His next project, a two-restaurant chain called Ditch Plains, did for the seafood shack what Landmarc had done for American comfort food. We liked Ditch plains, but there’s no mistaking what it is.

If you replicate Landmarc’s cuisine, dial up the volume, and do it well, what do you get? Welcome to Kingside, Murphy’s latest production, a big, bold brasserie in the Viceroy Hotel, a few doors down from Carnegie Hall.

No one will confuse Kingside for the bargain Landmarc used to be. Cocktails are $16, and most of the entrées—sorry, “large plates”—are over $30. These prices aren’t out of line for the location, but even after eating and drinking without excess, you’ll still be well over $200 a couple, for food that’s well made but not very memorable.

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Sunday
Nov172013

Whitman & Bloom

I remember the Murray Hill of twenty years ago: from a culinary perspective, there wasn’t much going on. Fast forward. The neighborhood hasn’t yet arrived, but with battalions of post-collegiate twenty-somethings settling there, the scene is far better than it used to be.

Whitman & Bloom Liquor Company, in a large space that used to be a sports bar, is typical of the new Murray Hill, with its loud, boozy atmosphere and a downstairs speakeasy. At first, I didn’t even realize it served food.

Actually, there’s a serious chef, Eldad Shem-Tov (an Israeli), whose resume counts stints with Alain Ducasse, and at Aquavit and Noma, though I’m not sure for how long. These days, everyone cooks at Noma for 15 minutes. This seems to be his first New York gig as an executive chef, but he’s surprisingly sure-handed, serving food far better than you’ve any right to expect.

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Monday
Nov112013

Distilled

What exactly is Distilled?

On the website, Distilled claims to be “a New American Public House serving redefined regional dishes and cocktails within an approachable communal setting.”

That’s a sufficiently elastic description to allow practically anything.

I’ve visited twice for cocktails ($10–15, most $14), which are very good. Try the “Age & Nobility.” The bartender sets the glass on fire with green chartreuse, then adds barrel aged Old Forrester, Campari, and Mead. That was the most memorable of the several cocktails I tried, but there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. Mead (an alcoholic mixture of honey and water) is a speciality too.

Wines are disappointing. On the one-page bottle list, there were just two reds under $50, and they were out of one of them. This is at a restaurant where all but two dishes are $23 or less.

The chef and partner here is Shane Lyons, formerly a child actor best known for Nickelodeon’s All That. As his TV career wound down, he went to culinary school, graduating from the CIA at 18. His prior New York gigs included Café Boulud, Craftbar, and Momofuku Noodle Bar, before he landed at Distilled, in the former Centrico space in Tribeca.

The one-page menu is firmly in the comfort food idiom, with share plates ($5–17), salads ($9–13), meat and fish dishes ($13–32; most $17–23) and vegetables ($8–16).

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Monday
Nov042013

Uncle Boons

What are a couple of Per Se vets doing in a Thai restaurant off the Bowery? I dunno, but they ought to keep doing it.

Like a lot of chefs trained in fine dining, Matt Danzig and Ann Redding (husband & wife) didn’t try to replicate that model when they struck out on their own. Redding’s from Thailand, Danzig had visited a lot and fell in love with the cuisine.

The early reviews have been mostly rapturous (two stars from Pete Wells), and they’re deserved. Danzig and Redding’s version of Thai cuisine is terrific, and well worth seeking out.

The space is decked out like a Thai tavern (a poor man’s Spice Market), and in a clever nod to the nearby Lighting District, no two light fixtures are the same. The rest of the décor is in dark wood and brick, with leafy plants in the window and an oldie sound track that doesn’t blast. Eater measured the sound level at almost 80db (comparable to a vacuum cleaner or an alarm clock), but we must have lucked out with our corner table: mercifully, we could hear ourselves talk.

The restaurant accepts limited reservations on its website, but many of the seats are reserved for walk-ins. There was nothing available online, but we took a chance at 7pm on a Saturday evening and were seated immediately. An hour or two later that probably wouldn’t have worked.

The Western influence is evident, in a focused menu that is practically old-school, with its recognizable appetizers ($8–15), entrées ($20–28), and side dishes ($3–8). Didn’t anyone tell them you’re not supposed to do that any more?

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Monday
Oct282013

Charlie Bird

Once burned, twice careful? How else do you explain the very good, and yet timid, restaurant that is Charlie Bird?

Let’s rewind a bit. Robert Bohr was a partner and sommelier at Cru, one of the city’s best restaurants of the mid-2000s. Frank Bruni awarded three stars right off the bat. Rumor had it Bruni was considering a fourth. I gave it three and a half stars.

In an era when most restaurants were becoming more casual, Cru actually got fancier in its first four years, 2004–08. By the peak, it had a 150,000-bottle wine cellar, with a list so hefty they presented it in two volumes, each the size of a phone directory.

Then the The Great Recession hit. Hedge fund moguls were no longer dropping in and buying the three- and four-figure trophy wines that the business model depended on. The chef left; his replacement was told to dumb down the menu.

I predicted that plan would fail, and it did. As I asked at the time, when the core of your wine list is bottles in the hundreds and thousands, what does it matter if entrée prices are slashed $5 or $10 apiece? Cru closed in 2010.

Bohr moved onto other ventures for a while before opening Charlie Bird in June. The restaurant is, of course, wine-centric: how could it not be? But neither the food nor the wine attempts anything like the ambition of Cru at any point in its six-year run.

I can understand not trying to reproduce Cru, but with the economy now on an upswing, and restaurants like Costata and Carbone pulling in the high rollers again, I think Bohr could have aimed higher than he did.

Mind you, Charlie Bird is very good for what it is, but the food itself is not destination material. It’s good “neighborhood-plus” Italianesque food, which you can get all over town. The wine list, which The Times’s Eric Asimov recently named one of the city’s twelve best, is what makes Charlie Bird a destination.

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Monday
Oct212013

Khe-Yo

Marc Forgione has made the transition awfully quickly. I mean, from chef to restaurateur.

Not long ago, all he had was the formerly Michelin-starred Marc Forgione, where I’ve never been very impressed. Not that I disliked it, but the accolades seemed over-done.

Then, three months ago he opened the Laotian-themed Khe-Yo, followed soon thereafter by American Cut, a steakhouse, both within a few blocks’ radius of the first restaurant. It’s a good way to branch out, as the steakhouse can run on auto-pilot, and the chef at Khe-Yo is a former sous-chef of his, Soulayphet Schwader. It’s a Forgione restaurant in name only.

The dining room isn’t my kind of place: dark and gloomy, a thumping sound track, overly loud. It was full when I arrived for an 8:00pm reservation; our table wasn’t ready until 8:20. The nine-seat bar was full, at first, and there was nowhere to wait.

But for what it is, the service here is very good. The staff apologized profusely, and repeatedly, for seating us late. Once I finally got a bar seat, the tab was transferred to our table. I wouldn’t choose to go back, but if it’s your type of spot, you’ll be well cared for.

The menu is just 14 items (plus one special) in three categories: salads ($11–15), appetizers ($9–13) and entrees ($21–33). I assume these dishes are Laotian (a cuisine I’ve never tried before), but only in New York would the names of the purveyors be added to the name. Khy-Yo serves not just any beef jerky, but Creekstone Farms Beef Jerky.

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Tuesday
Oct152013

Juni

  

You’ve got to give Shaun Hergatt credit for persistence, if naught else. His first fine-dining restaurant won two Michelin stars but took a critical drubbing. The critics acted clowns, but the same clowns (or some of them) are still running the circus.

A lot of chefs would have followed it up with a steakhouse or a noodle shop. But here he is again, giving the critics what they already told him they don’t want.

To be fair, dumb reviews weren’t all that went wrong at SHO Shaun Hergatt. It was in a terrible location, not visible from the street, on an upper floor in a building surrounded with scaffolding and Jersey barriers. Even with the best reviews, I’m not sure he could have overcome that.

Juni (a diminutive of the Latin word for June) isn’t a SHO clone. It doesn’t look like a hotel in Dubai, the room isn’t as spacious or as opulent, there are no tablecloths, he’s not sending out edible gold leaf, and the wine list is far more modest. But it’s still an expensive fine-dining restaurant in a boutique hotel (The Chandler at 31st and Madison), a genre the foodocracy does not embrace.

There are two gracious, comfortable dining rooms, decorated in taupe and other muted colors, with custom flower prints on the walls and a large floral centerpiece. The flower motif is in the food too, with colorful petals on many of the dishes. Servers are in navy suits and ties, runners in dark blue coats, with a low diner-to-staff ratio. There’s a heavy ceramic pedestal at every place setting, and plates are served on top of this. Water glasses, silverware, and serving pieces, etc., are first-rate.

The cuisine is recognizably Hergatt, but there is a hint of the new Nordic here and there, with a heavy dose of crisps, flower petals and herbs, assymetric platings, and austere presentation. Whether you like this style of cooking or not, it is obviously labor- and ingredient-intensive, and beautiful to look at.

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Tuesday
Oct082013

Pagani

I’ve run out of ways to describe enjoyable, inexpensive, faux-rustic Italian restaurants. But there are never enough of them when they’re done well.

Pagani, named for a former music store that once occupied its bright West Village street corner, is done well. You might’ve guessed that if you’ve been to the owners’ other place, the Upper East Side restaurant and wine bar Uva, which we visited a couple of years ago. It has similar charms.

The owners hired Taavo Somer to oversee the décor, which ensured it would be attractive, comfortable and unoriginal. Wisely, they let him nowhere near the food. Mark Barrett, a veteran of Tabla and Babbo (and quite a few other places), runs the kitchen.

The menu is the typical multi-category broadsheet, with a variety of snacks, cured meats, and cheeses as the opening act. Starters and salads are $8–12, pastas $16–21, main courses $19–27, side dishes $6. That qualifies as inexpensive these days.

None of it is very adventurous: even picky eaters could return again and again, without repeating a dish. It all just sounds so good. Four of us were able to sample nine items, and there wasn’t a dud among them. We’d happily order any of them again. There’s a steady 4–5 ingredients per dish, and they all make sense. It feels odd to write that, but it’s often not the case.

 

Apple fennel salad ($10; above left), with arugula, feta cheese, pistachio, and olive oil, was a bit on the tart side, but after some discussion we rated it a success. The obligatory Farm Poached Egg ($9; above right) keeps company with mushrooms, spinach, and crispy pancetta vinaigrette.

 

The Sliced Garden Zucchini salad ($9; above left), with grilled corn, string beans, and almond vinaigrette, had a pleasant lemony flavor. The Soft-Shell Crab special ($10; above right), served breaded and deep-fried, won’t be available by the time you read this: order it next year.

Folded Chicken ($19; above) is terrific, the least-expensive entrée and one of the best. The bird has plenty of company: arugula, Parmigiano, tomatoes, spinach, and dried figs. It never feels like too much.

 

Rich Potato Gnocchi ($19; above left) with walnuts, gorgonzola, and black truffle, were lovely. Garganelli ($19; above right) with whole wheat pasta, spicy sausage, spinach, red onion, and tomato sauce, were more conventional but exactly as they should be.

 

The desserts are a highlight: the Chocolate Banana Pudding Sticks ($9.50; above left) and the Fruit Torte ($7.50; above right).

The two-page wine list (mostly Italian) is not as deep or as compelling as at Uva, but perhaps that’ll change as the restaurant matures. In the meantime, it is at least fairly priced, with a majority of the bottles—even the majority of the reds—below $50. You rarely see that any more. A 2009 Sicilian red was $45.

We reserved our table of four the same day; nevertheless, the restaurant was packed, so I assume they get a lot of walk-ins. It took a server about 15 minutes to take our order, and only then did he get around to mentioning the specials. After that little glitch, the meal went smoothly.

As I noted, there’s nothing terribly original about Pagani, but if you’re in that neck of the woods, it’s a fun place you’d never get tired of.

Pagani (289 Bleecker Street at Seventh Avenue South, West Village)

Food: Rustic Italian
Service: Friendly but a bit slow
Ambiance: Blonde woods, mirrored walls; Taavo Somer playbook

Rating:

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