Tuesday
Sep172013

Domain

Remember Etats-Unis, the Upper East Side restaurant with an improbable Michelin star? I never quite bought into the star, but for what it was — straight, up-the-gut comfort food — it was certainly well above the neighborhood average.

I’m not sure why Etats-Unis closed (it was always reasonably full, in my experience), but close it did, nearly four years ago. The chef, Derrick Styczek, has resurfaced at Domain, a new restaurant in the space that was formerly Vareli in Morningside Heights, a short hop from the Columbia campus. The name might not be the best choice. Search on “Domain restaurant,” and you’re liable to get back a list of Internet domain hosting services.

There’s room to spread out here, in a roomy two-story storefront that was nowhere near full on a Wednesday evening (the Jewish holiday week, to be fair). It’s an attractive, romantic spot, with dark wood, low lighting, and acres of exposed brick. Not that you haven’t seen it before, but you haven’t seen it here.

Styczek’s cooking is more dainty and precious than I recall at Etats-Unis. There are hints of the former comfort-food style it’s not quite as pleasurable here. Prices are calibrated to the neighborhood, with only one entrée (lamb) abouve $29.

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Wednesday
Sep112013

Sushi Dojo

 

Was I imagining it, or have we entered a Golden Age of Japanese cuisine in New York? New York’s Adam Platt seems to agree: this week, he posted a roundup of six new entrants—and he still didn’t manage to hit all of them.

I won’t have the time or the money for such an extensive survey. If I could only do one, I wasn’t sorry that it was Sushi Dojo, which opened in the East Village in early June and was an instant hit.

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Monday
Sep092013

Mighty Quinn's Barbecue

Barbecue is a cuisine I love, but all too rarely find the time to enjoy. Many of the recently acclaimed places have opened in Brooklyn or Queens, and I don’t love ’cue quite enough to head over there.

Mighty Quinn’s Barbecue is an exception, opening last December on a bright East Village street corner in the old Vandaag space. I had a mid-day appointment in the area, so I headed over at 11:30 a.m., when they open for lunch.

Good barbecue in NYC is still scarce enough that the better places can be packed at peak hours. Getting there early is a boon: I was served immediately. It’s not a huge space, and I’m sure at the dinner hour it’s packed.

The owners have put a high gloss on what is still, at root, a bare-bones operation. The space is bright, shiny, and comfortable. Nevertheless, you stand in a cafeteria line, and the food is served on metal trays.

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Tuesday
Sep032013

Estela

I’ve got mixed feelings about Estela, the new tapas-style restaurant from chef Ignacio Matos and beverage director Thomas Carter.

We last saw Matos at Isa, where he wowed audiences and critics (or most of them), but didn’t wow the owner, the world’s greatest poseur, Taavo Somer. Apparently unwilling to operate even one good restaurant, Somer fired Matos abruptly in the summer of 2012. Isa still exists, but is culinarily irrelevant, like all of Somer’s other places.

So it’s an understatement to say I was rooting for Estela to succeed. I didn’t love everything I tasted at Isa, but I loved a lot of it, and it mattered.

Alas, Estela is a let-down. The food is all pleasant enough and mostly pretty good. You won’t eat badly here. But most of it is beneath what Matos was trying to do at Isa. It was worth going out of your way to visit Isa. It’s worth dropping in at Estela if you’re in a few blocks’ radius.

It’s an even bigger come-down for Carter, who was beverage director at Blue Hill Stone Barns, and now serves a wine list that fits on a single page. (That is, unless there’s a larger list that the server neglected to show us.)

None of this is accidental. In a joint interview with Eater, Matos and Carter made their lower ambitions abundantly clear: “I don’t want us to think in terms of ‘developing dishes’ or anything like that,” says Mattos of the way he’s training his young and small kitchen to work. “These should just be plates of food, nurturing and relatively cheap, that remind you of the home-cooked meals you never experience anymore.”

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Monday
Aug262013

Alder

Give Wylie Dufresne credit. Give him double-credit.

When WD~50, his modernist—and not always approchable—restaurant, struggled during the Great Recession, he stayed open. For a while, he was doing just five nights a week, but he didn’t give up, and he never dumbed down the menu.

And for ten years, WD~50 was all he had. Unlike most chefs with three New York Times stars, he didn’t open a more casual restaurant that might’ve distracted him, or competed with the flagship for his attention.

In May 2012, WD~50 abolished the à la carte menu in the main dining room. Tasting menus are now all you can get. They’re also back up to seven nights a week. I guess the Great Recession is over. (Not everyone thinks the new format is an improvement.)

About that time, he started planning Alder, a new casual restaurant in the East Village, which finally opened in March 2013. Alder is à la carte and less elaborate than WD~50. It’s Dufresne’s take on classic pub food, recognizably in his style, but not as avant-garde as WD~50 sometimes can be. There are four cooks in the kitchen at Alder, as opposed to twelve at WD~50, so the food is a lot simpler.

Generally, you’ll recognize what you eat, which at WD~50 is not always the case. You can take grandma or perhaps even your picky Aunt Gertrude, provided she doesn’t mind the noise. Sound levels in the dining room can be punishing. We visited on a warm summer evening, and fortunately were able to sit outside. Indoors, I might like Alder a lot less.

But we ate outside, so I loved it.

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Monday
Aug192013

Umami Burger

The California-based Umami Burger chain opened its first New York City branch three weeks ago, backed by a chorus of heavy panting by the usual sources.

All that excitement for a burger joint, and an imported one at that?

You can see why. They serve a very good burger, named for that indescribable taste sensation common to such foods as aged beef, cheeses, and shellfish.

The whole menu consists of a handful of salads, starters and side dishes, and eight—count them, eight—kinds of burgers. That last castegory includes items like turkey, tuna, and duck burgers, in addition to traditional ones.

There are eight beers on tap and sixteen in bottles, nine wines (most available by the glass or bottle), and fifteen house cocktails ($12 each). That’s not the typical beverage list for a burger joint. If you’re teetotaling, there are the obvious sodas and odd ones too, like Mexican Sprite (whatever that is). I visited in the early afternoon, so I drank just lemonade.

I ordered the Truffle Burger with Fries ($12.50), and — what more is there to say? It was a great, thick burger, cooked to a perfect medium rare, and with an ideal patty to bun ratio. I didn’t detect much truffle flavor, nor did I care. But if you prefer the smash technique, perfected (should I say ruined?) at places like Bill’s Bar and Burger, then this place isn’t for you.

The fries are thin and crisped, excellent specimens of the style.

You’d call the bi-level space “bare bones” if it were anything but a burger joint. For a burger joint, it’s upscale. There are bars and free-standing tables on both levels, plus a row of banquettes on the ground floor.

A host seats you. Service is very good. There was no wait to get in, but I visited at an odd hour, although even at 1:30pm, well past the lunch rush, the place was about half full.

I don’t want to over-sell Umami Burger. It’s a burger spot, and a good one.

Umami Burger (432 Sixth Avenue at W. 10th Street, Greenwich Village)

Food: Burgers are the focus
Service: Very good, even excellent, for a burger joint
Ambiance: A comfortable bi-level restaurant with two bars

Rating: Neighborhood Spot

Tuesday
Aug132013

Brasserie Cognac East

Sometimes, you can just tell that a new restaurant fulfills a neighborhood’s long-felt need. That’s my reaction at Brasserie Cognac East on the Upper East Side French, which was packed to the gills on a random summer Tuesday.

Classic French cuisine has been on the upswing the last few years, as I and many others have noted. Still, the swish of the scythe was so devastating in the 1990s and early aughts that the arrival of another such establishment is welcome.

More, please.

Cognac East is the second of the family. Its older sister opened in West Midtown in 2008, as Brasserie Cognac de Monsieur Ballon. The fictitious M. Ballon, it seems, has been kicked to the curb. The chef, Florian V. Hugo (the Les Misérables author’s descendant), clearly knows his French cuisine. When it’s right, it’s very right.

Both restaurants are built for volume: there are 100 tightly-packed seats at Cognac East, on two levels. The space (formerly the Italian restaurant Lumi) is loud, and not the most charming. Internet reviews suggest the service can be uneven. That was my experience, too, at the original Brasserie Cognac. I had a terrific vol au vent on opening night, but a meal about six months later that I’d rather forget.

This must all, of course, be placed in the context of a mid-priced menu, with most entrées below $30 and most appetizers in the mid-teens — higher than Sel et Poivre, lower than Orsay, both nearby. If I lived in the area, Cognac would be in my regular rotation.

 

We loved the cheese puffs (above left) that started the meal. A tomato-y lobster bisque (above right) was really good.

 

The tuna tarte flambé (above left) is an unusual dish, but it works. The version we were served was spiced with wasabi, which is probably not in Escoffier’s cookbook. There is no mention of wasabi on the Internet menu, so perhaps that has been phased out.

The shoestring fries (above right) were crunchy and salty, exactly as they ought to be.

 

Steak tartare (above left) was disappointing, as an overdose of pepper completely smothered the over-sauced beef. But all was forgiven with a perfect scallop (above right) with mushrooms and a squash purée.

 

The cheese soufflé (above left), made with emmenthal, gruyère and parmesan, was one of the evening’s highlights, a must for soufflé connoisseurs. The side salad it comes with (above right) doesn’t add much to the dish.

  

If the desserts we sampled are any guide, your last memories will be good ones. Our favorite was the coconut shell (above left), with bitter chocolate, coconut sorbet, exotic fruit salad, and passion fruit sauce. Or try the rose macaron (above center) with litchies, fresh raspberries, rose cream and berry sauce. The floating island (above right) with poached meringue with caramel and vanilla crème anglaise was okay, but I have had better versions of this dish.

Full disclosure: we dined at the publicist’s invitation, sat in the corner booth, and got Cognac East’s best. The throngs packing the dining room are evidence enough that the neighborhood wants such a place. I hope the chef and his team can give it to them.

Brasserie Cognac East (963 Lexington Ave. at 70th Street, Upper East Side)

Monday
Aug122013

Atera

You could hardly blame owner Jodi Richard if she’d given up after Compose quickly failed in 2010–11.

The concept was always a tough sell: a foraged modernist $120 prix fixe-only tasting menu served around a 12-seat dining counter, served by a chef with impeccable credentials but no record of success.

Despite favorable reviews in other outlets, The Times could not be bothered to review it, sending Julia Moskin for a Dining Brief, no doubt while Sam Sifton snored his way through three visits to La Petite Maison.

Richard didn’t give up. She lured Matthew Lightner to New York, chef of the acclaimed Portland restaurant Castagna, closed for a renovation that stretched to nearly six months, and re-opened as Atera.

It had to have been a risk for Lightner: this city sometimes chews up and spits out chefs imported from elsewhere. Just ask Miguel Sanchez Romera.

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Tuesday
Aug062013

Per Se: Luxury Cars and Four Stars

After a deeply enjoyable lunch at Per Se recently, I started thinking about what it means to be a four-star restaurant.

I

Most of us can’t afford a Rolls Royce, a Jaguar, or a Maserati. Yet, most of us respect those cars. They captivate us. If offered a free ride in a Rolls, wouldn’t we all jump at the chance?

Not so with four-star restaurants. There’s a large sub-culture that finds these bastions of luxury actively worse — who wouldn’t care to visit them, even if they were free, and who certainly don’t find the stratospheric sticker prices remotely worthwhile.

Luxury restaurants coddle you. Some diners are stubbornly resistant to coddling. It’s not just that they’re willing to pay less, in exchange for the same food with worse service. They actually prefer it that way. Frank Bruni captured the ethos of the new generation in his first review of Momofuku Ssäm Bar:

Ssam Bar answers the desires of a generation of savvy, adventurous diners with little appetite for starchy rituals and stratospheric prices.

They want great food, but they want it to feel more accessible, less effete.

These comments captured the false dichotomy. If you don’t join them, you’re un-savvy and effete. Good service is a “starchy ritual,” a religious ceremony repeated endlessly for no logical purpose.

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Tuesday
Jul302013

Momofuku Noodle Bar

Whip me with a wet noodle, if you must. I suppose I deserve some kind of penance for the following confession: Until recently, I had never been to Momofuku Noodle Bar.

Blame it on the lines, which at dinner times often snake down First Avenue. I was eager to visit, but not eager enough to go that far out of my way, and then wait for a bar stool. (Reservations aren’t taken, except for the large-format chicken meal, which feeds 4–8 people. I saw an order go out while I was there: four people would need to be awfully hungry to finish it.)

I rectified this shocking omission in my culinary travels on a recent Friday afternoon, when I dropped in for a late lunch at about 3:30pm. There was still plenty of business, given the oddness of the hour, but it was delightfully uncrowded. If it were always like this, I might come more often. But if it were always like this, it wouldn’t be Noodle Bar.

The Momofuku story is so well known that it hardly needs re-telling. After graduating from the French Culinary Institute, David Chang worked his way through the fine-dining kitchens of Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Mercer Kitchen), Tom Colicchio (Craft), and Daniel Boulud (Café Boulud). Then, he left fine dining and opened a noodle shop.

The original Momofuku Noodle Bar, which opened in 2004 with 27 seats, was such a hit that Chang followed it up with Momofuku Ssäm Bar in 2006. After another two years, Noodle Bar moved into its present 65-seat space down the street. Momofuku Ko, Chang’s Michelin two-star spot, moved into the old Noodle Bar. The empire now includes four restaurants, a chain of dessert shops, and a cocktail bar in New York; outposts in Toronto and Sydney; and a culinary lab.

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