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.

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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.

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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.

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Saturday
Jan042014

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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Tuesday
Dec312013

Spigolo

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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Monday
Dec302013

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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Tuesday
Dec242013

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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Tuesday
Dec172013

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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Tuesday
Dec102013

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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