Tuesday
Mar042014

La Fonda del Sol

Whatever happened to La Fonda del Sol? Not Joe Baum’s 1960 masterpiece, but its reincarnation six years ago? It got the deuce from both Frank Bruni and Adam Platt—favorable reviews by their standards—but quickly fell off the media map.

Opening chef Josh DeChellis left after two years, as anyone who knew his background would’ve expected. Chris DeLuna has been there since 2012, though you wouldn’t have known it from any of the websites that report on New York City restaurants. The owners, Patina Restaurant Group, seem utterly innocent of the word “marketing”.

I was drawn back by a Valentine’s Day prix fixe of just $55. That’s a bargain, on an evening when mediocre restaurants attract three-figure sums for mass-produced, dumbed-down versions of their regular menus. La Fonda del Sol did the opposite, serving (as far as I could tell) a better menu than their everyday norm. You quickly see why they couldn’t charge more: the place was only about half full.

The food hasn’t lost a step since we visited in March 2009. I’m sure the menu has changed many times since then, but it still seems to be basically the same kind of upscale Spanish cuisine that DeChellis served, although without the petits fours, which at the time were some of the most luxurious I’d seen in New York.

The 20-page wine and spirits list has one of the better selections of Spanish and Portuguese wines in town, including the 2007 Douro we enjoyed ($65; above left). It was a romantic evening, and I didn’t take detailed notes on the food. The photos after the jump (not my best, in low light) give a general idea of the style of the cuisine and its presentation.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Feb252014

All'onda

Welcome back! It’s been far too long since Chris Jaeckle earned three stars at Ai Fiori, and since Chris Cannon ran what were arguably the best Italian restaurants in New York. Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich might disagree with me about that last statement, but if it comes down to pistols at dawn, I’ll take Cannon’s side.

Jaeckle and Cannon have now opened All’onda (named for a style of soupy risotto served in Venice) in a smart casual space near Union Square. The cuisine is dubbed Venetian, although most diners won’t know the difference. Early publicity mentioned Japanese influences (Jaeckle once worked at Morimoto), which have since (quite sensibly) receded.

For the record, restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow is an investor here, but his China Grill Management does not operate it, which is why it doesn’t suck. Let us all say a prayer that Chodorow will never operate another restaurant again.

To recite the history just briefly: Cannon was in partnership with the chef Michael White at two terrific Italian restaurants, Alto and L’Impero (later rechristened Convivio). At the height of the Great Recession, they brought in high-roller Ahmass Fakahany as an investment partner and opened Marea, taking a big bet on fine dining at a time when everyone else was running the opposite way.

Soon, they were rolling in dough and opened two more Italian restaurants, Ai Fiori and Osteria Morini. At about that time, and for reasons that have never been fully explained, Fakahany and White ditched Cannon, who was left with just his two original restaurants, Alto and Convivio. Shortly thereafter, both places closed suddenly—on the same day, in fact—and Cannon headed home to New Jersey.

For more than three years, Cannon didn’t say a word about the split, and a recent interview with the Village Voice still leaves many questions unanswered. It ought to be noted that Cannon is no stranger to culinary divorces, having suffered a similar split with the chef Scott Conant.

Jaeckle left Ai Fiori (which Cannon had helped open) in November 2011, and it wasn’t difficult to guess that he wanted his own place. All’onda was announced in September 2012, with Cannon on board as a consultant while his newest project, Jockey Hollow, remained under construction at the Vail Mansion in Morristown, New Jersey.

Originally announced for a November 2012 opening, All’onda endured all of the usual delays, and finally served its first risotto in early January 2014. A photographer with a tripod was shooting the space when we visited, so the first pro reviews will probably start to appear within the next week or so.

All’onda, as Chris Jaeckle told the Times, is “the most casual restaurant I’ve ever worked in.” That is probably almost true for Chris Cannon as well, at least since he became famous: except for Osteria Morini, opened in his dying days with White and Fakahany, he’s known almost exclusively for fine dining.

They probably could have aimed higher. With the Torrisi boys serving $30 pastas and $50 veal parmesan to packed houses at Carbone, All’onda is a steal, with no pasta above $19 and no entrée above $29.

The ten-page wine list, Cannon’s specialty, has plenty of drinkable bottles below $50, and about 90% of the list is below $100; they serve it in the right glassware. In a town where $15 cocktails are commonplace, and the Torrisi team gets $20 at ZZ’s Clam Bar, they’re just $12 here. I enjoyed the Basil Gimlet (photo above; with gin, lime, basil syrup), and they transferred the tab to our table. I splurged just slightly on the wine (a 2007 Travaglini, $65), ordered an after-dinner drink, and still kept the bill below $200 (before tip).

For a restaurant of this quality, All’onda is remarkable. Of course, if the reviews are as favorable as I believe they will be, these prices won’t last. They never do.

 

Click to read more ...

Monday
Feb172014

Regency Bar & Grill

When you spend a year and $100 million renovating your Upper East Side Hotel, you’ve got to make it back somehow. What else explains a restaurant that charges so much, and delivers so little in return?

The Regency Bar & Grill opened in January in the 38-year-old Loews Regency Hotel on the Upper East Side. The space where the legendary “power breakfast” originated was gutted and re-built. (The old furniture went to a Coney Island Senior Center.)

At first glance, you’d say they got their money’s worth. It’s a plush white-tablecloth room, with polished aluminum fixtures, cozy banquettes, and walls adorned with historical black-and-white photos of Manhattan habituées. You’d never dream of building such a space downtown, but for the neighborhood it’s in, and the clientele it has to serve, it feels pitch-perfect.

 

The cocktails are $18 apiece, but the bartenders know their craft, once get their attention. A Rob Roy was prepared with Sheep Dip Whisky (they gave a taste of that on the side) and served with a 2-inch-square ice cube, the kind the top-drawer cocktail parlors use. The tab is transferred to the table if you ask.

The Sant Ambroseus team (who run this joint) clearly wanted the Regency to be higher-profile than 540 Park, the last restaurant in this space. They lured Dan Silverman from the Standard Grill downtown, where he got one star from Pete Wells. The guy has been around, including stops at Alison on Dominick, Union Square Cafe, and Lever House. He seems to last about five years, wherever he goes.

The opening was deftly publicized, with multiple blog posts on the likes of Eater, Grub Street, and similar sites, and a photo of Silverman in The Times. I’ll admit I was played. I have nothing against the neighborhood, as regular readers well know, but I wouldn’t ordinarily go running to an Upper East Side hotel restaurant.

The last time I sampled Silverman’s cooking was in 2006, at Lever House, where the prices (adjusted for inflation) were about the same as they are here. I wasn’t wowed and had no desire to go back. I have the same impression today.

Click to read more ...

Sunday
Feb162014

J. G. Melon

I used to have a separate to-do list just for burgers. I gave up on maintaining it, because there were so many burgers, and so little time. It just wasn’t going to happen. Naturally, J. G. Melon was on the list. It regularly appears in compilations of the city’s “best burgers” (here, here, here, here—and many more).

Just a bit of history: the place opened in 1972, but looks a good twenty years older than that. Much like Katz’s Delicatessen, it seems to be frozen in time. It won’t change, because it doesn’t have to. The founders were named “Jack” and “George” (hence J. G.), and the “Melon” is for the watermelon art that passes for décor.

It’s notoriously difficult to get in at sociable dining hours. A few months ago, we walked in at about 6:00pm on a Saturday evening. We were quoted a 20 to 30-minute wait by a host who barely looked us in the eye. It hardly seemed like we could rely on that, and there was nowhere to wait, so we gave it a pass.

Recently, we dropped by slightly earlier, in the middle of a blizzard, and it was still pretty crowded, but we were seated immediately at the bar. It didn’t take long before the place was packed once again. The bartender was more attentive than the host; she made a pretty good martini.

J. G. Melon serves a typical pub menu, but I’ve never heard of anyone ordering anything but the burger. If you peer into the half-open kitchen, burgers seem to be the only thing they make: possibly hundreds per hour at busy times, as it appears they have at least a few dozen on the grill at any given time.

 

I was surprised by how small it was. A super-model on a diet could make peace with it. Mind you, in this era of $20 burgers, they do not overcharge: it’s $10.25. Still, in a city where great burgers are so plentiful, I was surprised it has made so many top-10 lists. By all means, if you’re in the neighborhood and it’s not prime time, stop in and have one. But it’s not the burger of your dreams; it’s just solid and reliable.

Mediocre cottage fries (easily sharable) will set you back another $4.95, and credit cards aren’t accepted.

J. G. Melon (1291 Third Avenue at 74th Street, Upper East Side)

Food: Burgers and not much else
Service: Hurried
Ambiance: A 40-year-old pub that looks 60

Rating: Neighborhood Spot 

Saturday
Feb152014

The Whole Hog at DBGB

Many restaurants offer whole-animal “feasts”, or what’s called “large format” in the trade. Recently, a group of friends gathered for the Whole Hog at DBGB, Daniel Boulud’s charcuterie and burger-centric restaurant on the Bowery. 

The feast is offered on at least 72 hours’ notice, and costs $495 for “up to 8 guests.” (The advance notice shouldn’t be an issue: rounding up such a large party took weeks.) Anyhow, you get starters of salad and pig’s head terrine, the pig itself, and Baked Alaska for dessert. All the beer you can drink is an extra $200, but we ordered beverages à la carte and spent less than that. The full bill came to $636 before tax and tip.

Although not stated on the website, extra guests are $60 each, and if I did it again, I’d highly recommend bringing at least 10. The eight of us went home full, and there was still a ton of food left over.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Feb102014

The Cecil

Harlem’s culinary renaissance draws a lot of ink these days. The Cecil is the latest Exhibit “A”. There’ll be another; always is.

If we’re honest, these Harlem spots haven’t yet earned a grade on the Manhattan curve. If you put the Red Rooster in midtown, would it have won Sam Sifton’s paroxysms of joy? I don’t think so.

We loved our New Year’s Eve dinner at Mountain Bird. It was very good, no denying it. But part of the joy was finding a $59 six-course French tasting menu in Harlem. Put it somewhere else, and it wouldn’t seem as remarkable. It wouldn’t be $59 either.

So now we come to The Cecil, named for a hotel that burned down in the 1970s. The upper floors at the current site are now an SRO, so this isn’t the most upscale spot, but you’re at 118th Street, only eight blocks north of Central Park’s upper edge, just east of Columbia, and within walking distance of the Upper West Side’s expanding northern boundary.

Click to read more ...

Sunday
Jan262014

The Writing Room

It takes chutzpah to open a restaurant in an iconic space. That’s what the owners of The Writing Room have done, taking over two buildings on upper Second Avenue that, for almost fifty years, were known as Elaine’s.

They’ve invested two and a half years and $4 million, and gotten their money’s worth, a lovely modern-casual restaurant that feels immediately comfortable. It reminds me of The Smith. The decibel level is higher than I’d like, but that’s probably deliberate.

The new owners aren’t shy about reminding you what used to be here. The main dining room is festooned with photos of Elaine’s celebrity patrons, of which there were many. A back room, called the Study, is decorated with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, populated with the literary works of Elaine’s regulars. The re-building job occasioned a lengthy Glenn Collins article, “Reviving Elaine’s Without Elaine.” The place was long past its prime when Elaine Kaufman died in 2010, but no one is going to forget her anytime soon.

The Times’ online archives are full of stories about Elaine’s, but the paper never reviewed it as an actual restaurant. By most accounts, the critics weren’t missing much: the food was generally described as mediocre, at best.

That is one thing the new owners have fixed. It’s not destination cuisine, but for what it is, it’s very good. The concise, upscale pub menu (curiously lacking a burger) is inexpensive for the neighborhood, with starters $11–15, entrees mostly $19–28 (a lobster is $32, a dry-aged strip steak $52), and side dishes $5–6.

The wine list runs to 16 widely-spaced pages, organized by grape, with a short paragraph on the history of each varietal. Just like the food, it’s not a destination list, but much better than you’d expect.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Jan212014

Peter Luger Steakhouse

To write a review of Peter Luger Steakhouse seems absurd. All that’s worth saying has been said, right?

There’s only two ways this review can go, and you already know them. Either it’s the best steakhouse in the city, or it’s criminally overrated. Both views have ample support, from carnivores more knowledgeable than I.

Let me trianguate. It ain’t bad. I’d happily go again, if asked. But I wouldn’t recommend it either. The quality of New York steakhouses has risen markedly since Ruth Reichl awarded three stars in The Times in 1995. The city’s best porterhouses are no longer a Luger exclusive. If you want to traipse over the Williamsburg Bridge, to say you’ve done it, then go ahead. But you don’t have to. There is really no need.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Jan142014

Quality Italian

It’s hard to understand why reservations at Quality Italian are so difficult to come by. But difficult they are: for prime time on a Wednesday, I booked a month in advance.

But the Stillman family, whose patriarch started (but no longer own) the T.G.I. Friday’s chain, has long had an eye for populism. They still own the iconic flagship Smith & Wollensky’s, not an “A” steakhouse by any means, but a very solid B+. And I’m a big fan of their very good, if ineptly named, modern take on the genre, Quality Meats, which is still humming along after eight years in business.

Their forays out of the steak business have had mixed results, from the successful Park Avenue [name-your-season] (which lost its lease recently, but is supposedly relocating), to the best forgotten Hurricane Club (also now closed).

The family expanded late last year, with Quality Italian in West Midtown. The website name, qualitybranded.com, gives the strong impression that there are more Qualities to come. And why not? Steakhouses are the most replicable high-end restaurant genre of them all, and the Stillmans’ model clearly works.

Craig Koketsu is the executive chef here, as he has been at all of the Stillmans’ recent projects. Spread as thin as he is, with so many disparate concepts, he nevertheless hits on a winning idea or two at each restaurant, and hires a strong kitchen team to execute it.

Steak is at the core of the menu at Quality Italian, and if you order that you won’t be sorry. Stray beyond the steaks, your mileage will vary. A massive Chicken Parmigiana for two that resembles a pizza ($29pp) flies out of the kitchen. Most of the professional critics disliked it, and we were not willing to take a chance.

The rest of the menu triangulates steakhouse and Italian standards, some straightforward, others tarted up. If you’ve ever wanted to try agnolotti pasta with dry-aged porterhouse, now you’ve got your chance. If chefs are putting dry-aged beef into burgers, pasta surely had to be next.

Pete Wells found the place gimmicky, and there’s a bit of that. A server dressed like a French maid wheels a cart to your table and makes steak sauce as you watch (above right). The great irony is that when the steaks are as good as they are here, you shouldn’t even need the sauce. After all her labor, I thought I ought to try it, but found it quite unnecessary and quickly gave up.

But for all the gimmicks, there’s a serious wine list, running about 10 pages with a strong selection of Bordeaux, California Cabs, Super Tuscans, and so forth. You won’t find many bargains, but the list isn’t out of line with the restaurant’s price range. It’s hard to do business below $60; at $69, the 2008 Pergolaia (above left) was not a bad way to go.

 

Garlic bread (above left) comes to the table straight out of the oven. Beefsteak Tomato and Stracciatella ($15; above right) is an excellent riff on the old steakhouse classic.

 

Many steak connoisseurs hate filet, in which case they’ll hate Quality Italian, which has a whole section of the menu devoted to it. We’re contrarians: Wendy orders filet consistently, and as a change of pace I quite like it.

For $43, you can get a filet with a gorgonzola dolce (above left) that was so utterly irresistible it could be a dessert. The specials menu offered a dry-aged bone-in filet ($53; above right), so seldom encountered that I had to order it. For those who contend that filet has no flavor, this is your answer.

 

The menu engineering at Quality Italian can get on your nerves. Consider a list of side dishes captioned “New Classics.” What exactly does that mean? If it’s new, it’s not classic. But anyhow, one of these is the Kale Carbonara ($11; above left), a contraption that combines three recent fads: kale, bacon, and a poached egg, which the server punctures and mixes into the dish at tableside. Perhaps the chef means that it deserves to be a classic, and you know, he’s right.

You also wonder how a new restaurant could already have a signature dessert. Well, they claim to have one: the Limone Meringa with strawberry–basil sorbet ($10; above right). Readily shareable, it’s a first-class way to send out dinner on a high note.

The large space has received the familiar AvroKO treatment, with more farmhouse wood and Edison bulbs than the law allows. It can get a bit noisy in here, and if it ever slows down, I haven’t figured out when. The crowd skews young, ranging from date night and ladies’ night, to business dinners and midtown tourists. We usually arrive at 7:30 for an 8:00pm reservation, and get seated early. Not at Quality Italian, where we were seated at eight, on the dot. Despite the crowds, the platoon of servers is equal to the challenge. Some of the pro critics complained about the service, but we found it friendly and attentive.

On such a wide-ranging menu, and in such a busy space, I’ve no doubt you can have a mediocre meal here, and you will pay for the privilege. But if you steer clear of the gimmicks, the core steakhouse menu is very good.

Quality Italian (57 W. 57th Street at Sixth Avenue, West Midtown)

Food: Steakhouse meets Italian
Service: Good for such a large space
Ambaince: An Edison bulb barnyard

Rating:

Monday
Jan062014

Mountain Bird

When Eater.com posted about Mountain Bird, a French restaurant in Harlem that’s “quietly killing it on 145th Street,” I was already hooked.

And that’s before I heard about New Year’s Eve, when the restaurant served a $59 six-course BYO prix fixe. Oh, that was the late seating; the early seating was just $49.

This isn’t grandpa’s Harlem any more, with luxury condos popping up all over the place. Still, it’s a little dodgy to walk around at night.

Then you arrive at Mountain Bird, with its lace curtains, distressed mirrors, and dainty little sconces. The design on the custom tile floor spells out “Mountain Bird,” and on the white bone china the letters “MB” are written in gold. Wine is served in the correct glassware. French opera classics play on the sound system (just a bit too loud).

The 19-seat space is a tight fit. Our party of three was seated at a wobbly marble table that would have been a bit cramped even for two. And make sure not to trip over the space heaters.

But let me repeat the lede: $59 for six very good courses, and that was on an evening when restaurants traditionally over-charge.

Click to read more ...

Page 1 ... 2 3 4 5 6 ... 149 Next 10 Entries »