Tuesday
Apr012014

Montmartre

Note: This review is under chef Michael Toscano, who left the restaurant in November 2014 for an opportunity in Charleston, South Carolina.

*

If Montmartre were an operating system, what version would it be? Best I can tell, we’re on Montmartre v3.0.

The restaurant opened 13 months ago with ex-Momofuku chef Tien Ho serving classic French bistro cuisine. After just five weeks, Tien and owner Gabe Stulman tossed the menu in lieu of the Asian-inflected Vietnamese cooking that the chef was known for. This was a remarkable turn of events: the restaurant was busy, and none of the pro critics had reviewed it yet. But Stulman apparently smelled a rat before the critics told him what was wrong. When Pete Wells awarded two stars in June 2013, he found v2.0 much improved over version he had beta tested.

It is less clear what went wrong after that, but Tien left the restaurant in October 2013, and Michael Toscano (Stulman’s partner at Perla) was appointed executive chef and co-owner. Strangely enough, v3.0 reverted back to the plan of v1.0, with a classic French bistro menu. It’s a bit like the failure of New Coke: Coke Classic was better, after all.

The new menu is not quite full-on French. Under a heading like Coquillages, you’ve got an offering like Shrimp Cocktail ($15), which basically could be served anywhere. Likewise, under Salades, a choice of Winter Greens ($11) with blood orange vinaigrette. But there’s also escargots ($15) and cassoulet de cochon ($29.50), so there’s enough French for those who want it, along with classic bail-out dishes like a dry-aged burger ($19) and a straight-up roast chicken ($28).

Appetizers and salads are $11–17, entrées $19 (the burger) up to the oddly priced steak frittes ($35.25). There are a lot of prices ending in .25 or .95, which I have to think is a joke, as it is not consistent, and none of Stulman’s other restaurants—all with a similar vibe and price range—are priced like that.

Despite the humble, and for the most part inexpensive, bistro cuisine, Stulman price-gouges on the wine list, as he always does. There are hardly any reds below $60, and the bottom end is mostly over-priced vins de pays. He really ought to be ashamed of himself. The 2012 Gravilas we ordered was fine, for what it was; it just shouldn’t be $52 (it’s about $17 retail).

 

We began with country bread, served with soft butter. The amuse bouche (above left) was a butternut squash velouté with hazelnuts. We made the boring but enjoyable choice for our appetizer, a dozen oysters (Wellfleet, Beau Soleil, and Malpeque).

The menu’s obligatory large-format dish is a hulking braised Short Rib Bourgogne pour deux ($60), served with carrots, onions, lardons, and fingerling potatoes. It’s fabulous, and three could easily share it.

 

Desserts were first rate, a chocolate fondant ($12; above left) and a pineapple clafoutis ($12; above right).

 

The meal ends with cookies served in an old Camel cigarette case.

The space is resolutely casual, like all of Stulman’s restaurants. The dining rooms on two levels are packed with tables, to what I assume is the legal limit: there was barely room for the food, and we might as well have been in our neighbors’ laps.

Montmartre takes reservations (only by phone), which may indicate some weakness, as historically Stulman has preferred strictly walk-ins. We did exactly that at 7:15pm on a Saturday evening and were seated immediately: they were doing decent business but were not full.

I wish we could have tried more, but the fraction of the menu we were able to sample was excellent. If accompanied by a sensibly-priced wine list, Montmartre might be one of our better French bistros.

Montmartre (158 Eighth Avenue between 17th & 18th Streets, Chelsea)

Food: Excellent Americanized French bistro classics; an over-priced wine list
Service: Good
Ambiance: A charming, if over-crowded, Francophilic dining room on two levels

Rating: ★½

Tuesday
Mar252014

Telepan Local

Note: Telepan Local closed in November 2014 after tepid reviews and multiple attempts to change the concept.

*

Today, chefs with even modest success barely wait fifteen minutes before opening a second restaurant, and then a third. Michael White will probably open another half-dozen before you’ve finished reading this post.

Hats off to Bill Telepan, who waited almost nine years after the eponymous Telepan on the Upper West Side, to open his second place, Telepan Local, in Tribeca in the old Industria Argentina space. I have no window into the chef’s thinking, but the original restaurant didn’t arrive fully-formed, and that could be why he was in no hurry to open another: my first visit (in 2006) was so disappointing that I waited five years to try it again, this time with far better results. In the most recent Michelin Guide, Telepan received a star for the first time.

Telepan Local is Telepan’s dressed-down little brother. The design by the Brooklyn studio firm Home isn’t the most original idea, a barn-like structure with exposed wood and subway tile. It’s not a quiet place. Servers wear checked shirts that might’ve been imported from the wilds of Bushwick.

The chef refers to the concept as “American tapas,” a phrase that doesn’t fill me with delight, but I can hardly blame him for copying a format that has been so wildly successful all over town. The menu, which will change frequently, consists of around 25 small plates ($7–17 each), a format that often promotes over-ordering. Sure enough, the server recommended “3–4 dishes per person.” We ordered six for the two of us, and couldn’t finish the sixth.

But it’s possible to dine quite inexpensively here. The two-page wine list offers many bottles under $60. A 2008 Rioja was $54, and with six small plates the bill came to $118 before tax and tip. There aren’t enough good restaurants where you can do that any more.

Telepan’s press interviews promise “seasonal and local” cuisine, which would sound like a broken record, except he was doing it before everyone did it, and he is better at it than most.

 

Foie Gras Jammers ($12; above left) are a cross between a cookie and a slider. The dough is warm, but the foie seemed a bit over-chilled. Arancini ($7; above right) are lovely, made with bone marrow and parmigiano aioli.

 

Pigs in a Blanket ($7; above left) rest in a honey mustard dip; the luscious franks (in soft dough) are many grades better than Hebrew National. I couldn’t at all grasp the point of Mushrooms in Parchment ($12; above right), which came across as mushrooms on soggy bread.

 

I could dine all day on fatty, pink Corned Tongue ($12; above left) with grilled cabbage and russian dressing. Pork Shoulder ($14; above right) with wilted greens and white beans was terrific, and portioned generously (I snapped the photo after we’d already taken more than half of it).

The service model is clearly intended not to feel too dressed up: coats aren’t checked, and there is no bread service, but there are higher-end grace notes: reservations are accepted (I wouldn’t have come otherwise); wine is served at the right temperature, in the right glassware, and a choice of flat or sparkling water is offered without charge.

Plates were delivered and cleared quickly, and although we never had the sense of being pushed out the door, that was the effect whether intended or not, as we were finished in well under 90 minutes. The restaurant was full on a Wednesday evening, and the staff seemed on top of their game.

I’m not a huge fan of the tapas format, but Bill Telepan makes it compelling. The location isn’t convenient for me to be a frequent guest, but if I lived or worked nearby, I’d be in all the time.

Telepan Local (329 Greenwich Street between Duane and Jay Streets, Tribeca)

Food: A seasonal and locally-sourced menu of American tapas
Service: Perhaps too rushed, but certainly better than it has to be
Ambiance: That barnyard look you’ve seen before

Rating:

Tuesday
Mar182014

The Peacock

The Peacock strutted into town in late 2013, aiming to prove that British pub food is fit for fine dining.

The British invasion is hardly big news any more: The Spotted Pig opened in 2003, and there have been many that followed, including Jones Wood Foundry on the Upper East Side, whose owners are also behind this new venture.

But these older places are fundamentally casual, reflecting the cuisine’s humble origins. The Peacock asks diners to contemplate $26 fish and chips in sumptuous rooms, alongside three-figure Bordeaux served by suited sommeliers.

We liked it, but I’m not sure it will last.

The two adjacent townhouses on a Murray Hill side street were formerly the Williams Club, one of many establishments that catered to affluent alumni of Northeast liberal arts colleges. It was a place where locals congregated with their fellow grads, where those not based in New York could find a place to stay. As the Wall Street Journal explained:

The demise of the university clubs comes not from economic recession or a dwindling population of grads but a change in leisure interests. Younger generations of men and women, for good or ill, seem to prefer boutique hotels to the gilded clubhouse. They perhaps don’t see as much prestige in drinking and dining in swanky clubs with their alma mater’s name, when they can just as easily stay in touch with college friends on Facebook.

(There are still a few of these around: the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton clubs are in no danger of disappearing.)

The Williams site was acquired by restaurateur Yves Jadot, who converted it into a boutique extended-stay hotel (30 days minimum) called The William. There are two restaurants, The Peacock and a casual pub called The Shakespeare. Jadot’s other properties supplied the culinary talent, chef Jason Hicks of Jones Wood Foundry (who is listed as a co-owner), and Meghan Dorman of the speakeasy-style cocktail bar, Raines Law Room. Robert Aikens, formerly of Stephen Starr’s The Dandelion in Philadelphia, is executive chef.

There are two lounges with wing-back chairs and plush sofas, where you can kick back on Dorman’s painterly cocktails. They’re over-priced at $16–18, and the pours are not generous, but you are paying for atmosphere. For dinner, you move onto one of two comfortable, dimly-lit dining rooms, where tables are generously spaced and you will not struggle to hear your companion. (See Eater’s photo essay for a look at the décor.)

There are no tablecloths, but everything else about the place screams fine dining, and I don’t take issue with that. I just wonder about the viability of Gammon steak and bangers & mash in this setting. The quality of the cooking is better than most pubs, but it still feels like eating a pub menu at Per Se. Prices are not out of line, considering the elegance of the room and the skill of the cooking, with starters $11–18, mains $21–33, and sides $9.

The wine list (available online) runs to five pages, with a good range of selections below $60. A 2005 Château Ramafort was fairly priced at $55.

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Saturday
Mar152014

The Art of the Cassoulet at Back Forty

Every winter, chef Peter Hoffman hosts a Cassoulet tasting at his Soho restaurant Back Forty, a worthy tradition carried over from dearly departed Savoy, which occupied the same location from 1990–2011.

The only constants in cassoulet are an earthenware pot and white beans. Almost any meats can be included, but duck leg and pork sausage are the most common. Savoy itself used to serve a terrific cassoulet, which it prepared in the upstairs fireplace. We had it in 2009.

There’s a cult of cassoulet, and even a Universal Cassoulet Academy devoted to the dish. Philippe Bertineau, the Academy’s only member based in America, serves an acclaimed cassoulet at Alain Ducasse’s Benoit. I suppose it would be too much to expect him to serve it at Back Forty.

Nevertheless, Hoffman assembled a worthy sextet of chefs (click on the menu for a larger image), including two from his pair of Back Forty restaurants.

The format isn’t ideal. You grab a napkin and fork, walk to serving stations (two downstairs, four upstairs), and take appetizer-sized portions of cassoulet, one at a time. Most of the tables have been removed, so you sit on benches along the outer edge of the dining room, balancing plates and bowls in your lap. It inevitably feels and tastes more like catering than dining.

There were staggered reservations between 6:30 and 7:30, and it was an advantage to arrive early. By the time we left, the later crowd was arriving and, for the most part, eating their cassoulet without a place to sit.

Within these constraints, the staff are efficient: checking coats, clearing plates promptly (you’re expected to re-use your fork), and patrolling the room with wine refills. You can’t beat the price: $65 including wines, before tax and tip, and the proceeds benefit the New Amsterdam Market.

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Tuesday
Mar112014

Gallagher's Steakhouse

Gallagher’s Steakhouse is back from its near-death experience. Prior owner Marlene Brody had planned to close the place in late 2012, citing “economic reasons.” In swooped Dean Poll, operator of the Central Park Boathouse Cafe, who signed a 20-year lease on the space and bought the name, saying he considers himself “privileged to own it.” The restauant closed for renovations in mid-2013 and re-opened in February.

There was much rending of garments over the near-loss of Gallagher’s. Fact is: it had long ago ceased to be relevant. I don’t ever recall seeing the place on any top-10 steakhouse list. Or top-anything, for that matter. Passersby oogled the windowed meat locker facing 52nd Street—and then kept on walking.

The décor that Poll inherited (checked tablecloths and knotty pine walls) had not been fashionable since the Eisenhower administration, unless it was the Truman administration. Anyhow, Poll has revamped it smartly, while retaining the bones of the old Gallagher’s, including the street-facing dry-aging locker and photos of celebrities on almost every inch of wall space. But with white tablecloths, dark leather chairs and mahogany paneling, Gallagher’s now looks like the old-school steakhouse that it is.

The menu earns no points for originality—nor should it. Poll has restored the porterhouse steak (deleted, incredibly enough, by the prior owners in 2008), and there’s a decent selection of non-steak entrées if you visit with your pescatarian friends. Otherwise, it’s mostly the items you expect. The place is not a Luger clone, as there is no thick-cut bacon. Prices are about in line with other old-school joints, and slightly less expensive than premium modern steakhouses like Porter House New York or Minetta Tavern.

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Saturday
Mar082014

Circo's Festival of Black Kale

It’s a good year to be checking in at the Maccioni family restaurants—Le Cirque, Sirio, and Circo. The patriarch, Sirio Maccioni, will receive a James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award later this year; his three sons now tend to his international empire. At Le Cirque, there’s a new chef (Raphael Francois), hired after Pete Wells filed a brutal one-star review in late 2012.

There was a less heralded change last year at Circo (pronounced “cheer-ko”), where Alfio Longo took over the kitchen. Now that he has settled in, the chef hopes to serve special menus every couple of months, focused on seasonal themes—currently, black kale from the Maccionis’ native Tuscany.

The four-course menu (click on the image for a larger copy) will be served for just five days, March 17–21, at both lunch and dinner.

If this meal is indicative of the chef’s talents, Circo is in good hands. One might worry about monotony in a menu built on one ingredient, but he deploys it so cleverly that one is scarcely aware of the repetition. And he is not afraid of challenging the diner: a rich tripe florentine, a chickpea pancake called a farinata, and a cuttlefish stew, are among the choices.

They are practically giving it away for just $49. If Michael White did that, he’d be hailed as a genius. By way of comparison, the four-course menu at White’s least expensive Italian restaurant, Osteria Morini, is $70. Last time I was there, they had paper napkins, orange placemats, and no tablecloths.

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Tuesday
Mar042014

Piora

You figured Chris Cipollone was gonna get another shot. The food media loved Tenpenny, his restaurant in the back of a midtown hotel, but he followed the founding GM (Jeffrey Tascarella) quickly out the door, citing low pay.

After a brief stint at Abe & Arthur’s in the Meatpacking District, he resurfaced at Piora, in the lovely West Village space that was The Goodwin. Going by the critical acclaim (three sparklers from Sutton, two apiece from Wells and Platt) and the difficulty of getting a reservation, I’d say Cipollone’s gonna be here a while.

Critics have struggled to describe the cuisine: Sutton called it “French–Italian–Korean fusion.” Wells said merely that “Korean flavors dart in and out of the menu.” (Owner Simon Kim is part Korean.) But in a lengthy interview with the Village Voice, Cipolline said, “we’re a modern American restaurant” and “we’re not fusing much.”

To the average diner, walking in the door without reading the publicity, Piora seems more Italian than anything else, down to even its vowel-heavy name, which in fact is the Korean word for “blossom.” But you’ll see a section of the menu for pastas, and assume the place must be Italian, although the menu is not in the standard five-part format, and there are no Italian headings like primi or contorni.

Actually, there are no headings at all, and the pastas are entrée-sized. As you’d expect for a hit restaurant, prices have edged up over the last six months. Chicken at opening ($26) is now Poussin ($29). The acclaimed Bucatini pasta has gone from $26 to $36; the duck from $28 to $33. But the chef now serves an amuse bouche, of which I saw no mention in the early reviews. An $85 tasting menu has been added, and there’s the obligatory off-menu dry-aged 40-ounce ribeye for two ($150).

None of this is to suggest that Piora is charging too much. This is simply the arc that successful restaurants travel. For the quality of the food, Piora is fairly priced, with appetizers $15–20, entrées (including pastas) $25–36, and side dishes $9. The menu is blissfully short, with fewer than twenty items fitting on one generously-spaced page.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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