Mountain Bird

When 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.

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RedFarm (Upper West Side)

The RedFarm guys have been busy. In the last six months, they’ve renovated their original location in the West Village, run a pop-up steakhouse in the basement, opened a cocktail bar (soon-to-be Peking Duck place), and expanded the franchise to the Upper West Side. A Williamsburg expansion is on the way.

RedFarm UWS (in the old Fatty Crab space) looks just like the flagship, with its exposed barnyard wood, red-and-white checkered upholstery, and digital toilets in the loo. It’s twice the size.

It’s also just as crowded. There was a 20-minute wait at 9:00pm on a Sunday evening, when most Upper West Side restaurants are starting to slow down. Call me old-fashioned, but when you have 82 seats, I think you could take reservations. I predict they eventually will, when the hype dies down. But you have to give the team credit for recognizing that a “downtown restaurant” would work uptown without changing a thing. RedFarm UWS is a hit.

You have to worry if quality will suffer, as chef Joe Ng’s attention is divided across multiple properties. Some of the food didn’t seem quite as carefully prepared as I recall at the original RedFarm. But it is still one of the most original Chinese menus in town, and to the extent I can tell from one visit, very much worth repeated visits.

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When Frank Bruni was the New York Times restaurant critic, he dropped two stars on an earnest neighborhood Italian spot every other week.

Actually, that is a very unfair exaggeration. Sometimes he went a whole month without reviewing an Italian restaurant, and he didn’t love them all. But he loved a lot of them.

Spigolo was one of these, a pretty good restaurant that no one talks about any more. Frank Bruni gave it two stars in 2005. The review reached its 13th paragraph before Bruni mentioned a dish he liked: admittedly, there were many of these, once he finally got around to it, but they almost seemed beside the point.

Scott and Heather Fratangelo, the critical darlings who opened the restaurant, left in September 2012, with no explanation that I can find. But the restaurant is still popular, judging by the crowds on a recent Wednesday evening. And Spigolo moving to a larger space early next year.

The new chef, Joseph D’Angelo, cooks in the same rustic Italian idiom that Bruni described. The online menu and wine list lack prices (irritating!), but we ordered three entrées: all were in the high $20s, and as I recall those prices were typical. It’s a fair tariff for food of this caliber. A pretty good chianti was $48.

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Butter Midtown

Logic suggests that I should never have visited Butter Midtown. Clubby restaurants run by TV chefs are seldom worthwhile, and the two co-owners (Richie Akiva and Scott Sartino) are scenesters better known for the beautiful crowd they attract than the food they serve. And I wasn’t impressed with the original Butter in NoHo, which is currently closed for renovations.

Anyow: I gave it a shot, on a recent Wednesday evening in holiday season.

There’s good news and bad news. The food at Butter Midtown is better than I ever imagined. But I wouldn’t recommend it, except for people-watching. You won’t eat badly here, but if food’s all you want, you’ve got so many better options.

The executive chef is Food Network personality Alex Guarnaschelli. Her extensive TV schedule probably leaves very little time for actually running a kitchen any more, but the menu fairly reflects the upscale comfort food she’s known for.

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Cafe Tallulah

I’ve never built or run a restaurant, but I’m gonna go out on a limb, and give some advice: don’t tell the press that you’re building a new Balthazar or Elaine’s. Those two places are too iconic – too legendary –to be copied. The attempt is bound to seem pale by comparison.

That’s exactly what Greg Hunt, owner of Cafe Tallulah on the Upper West Side, did. Florence Fabricant of The Times duly reported it. Hunt hired Roxanne Spruance, a sous chef from Blue Hill Stone Barns (and previously WD~50) to run the kitchen. An Employees Only alumnus was in charge of the cocktails. With that background, the critics were sure to turn up, right?

Except: five weeks later, Spruance was gone, replaced by one Patrick Farrell, who promptly got slammed by The Post’s Steve Cuozzo. According to the folks at Immaculate Infatuation, the place is now on its third chef in ten months.

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Mission Cantina

What is it about tacos that attracts chefs not previously known for them?

Alex Stupak (a former pastry chef) opened Empellón Taqueria two years ago. Then, British chef April Bloomfield opened Salvation Taco, and French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened ABC Cocina.

Now Danny Bowien, a Korean-born chef raised in Oklahoma, best known for his Mission Chinese restaurants, has gotten into the act with Mission Cantina.

It’s a cantina in name only: a hip, divey-looking place on a busy street corner, where the Mexican tradition is very loosely re-interpreted for the Lower East Side. The “Mission” DNA is very much in evidence, from the minimalist décor to the tiny space where reservations aren’t taken.

The sizable kitchen on two levels is a formidable operation. Bowien, as he does at nearby Mission Chinese, sources his ingredients with some care. The quirky menu is uniquely his own, and will be found nowhere else. It’s fairly inexpensive, with appetizers $8.50–13, individual tacos $4–5, and side dishes $6–8. A whole chicken or a rack of lamb ribs is $35, but you need a posse to share them. The individual tacos are quite hearty: two of them plus an appetizer is ample, though you could order three if you’re really hungry.

Unfortunately, what could be a very good restaurant is scuppered by the service. The kitchen sends out a bowl of fried peanuts in chili sauce (above left), but then your entire order comes out practically at once: the appetizer and both tacos. Either it’s a cynical table-turning strategy, or the kitchen just can’t space out an order. (Mission Chinese is just as crowded, but didn’t seem as rushed when I tried it.)

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Cucina Ciano

Remember Pan Am, the airline? After it folded in 1991, it was resuscitated six times, in each instance having nothing whatsoever to do with the original, aside from the name.

This is the comparison that comes to mind when you visit Cucina Ciano on the Upper East Side, which shares ownership and a name—but little else—in common with Ciano, which failed nobly after a three-year run in the Flatiron District.

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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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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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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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