Entries in Andrew Carmellini (10)


Bar Primi

I’m still not sure if Andrew Carmellini truly wanted to be the king of middlebrow restaurants, or if he just stumbled on them by accident.

That’s not meant as an insult, though I’m sure it sounds like one. Carmellini’s restaurants are places where we could eat well every day, which is a good thing, because we have to eat every day. He has nailed the genre.

For now, he apparently has no appetite for destintion dining, and he used to be very good at that too. I wonder if he misses it?

Anyhow, welcome to Bar Primi, which isn’t a bar (though it’ll russle up a terrific cocktail if you ask for one). It’s named for the middle course of a traditional Italian meal, the primi. It’s as if a traditional Italian restaurant had lopped a page off the menu: it ends with the pastas.

Ryan Sutton, Eater’s restaurant critic, apparently had no sense of irony, when he wrote:

Leave it to Carmellini, Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom, the team behind Locanda Verde, Lafayette and The Dutch, to give New York what it wants, which in this case is a late night pasta parlor where you and a buddy can eat and drink well for about $120. Bar Primi is essentially doing for Carmellini & Co. what Parm is doing for the Torrisi boys: it provides an entry-level Italian experience that can still excite fans of the group’s more expensive brands.

It’s not a crazy idea. Americans have an indistinct relationship with the pasta course: it can serve as an appetizer, or it can be a meal in itself. Very few, in my experience, actually order it as a middle course, between an appetizer and an entrée: it’s just too much food. Still, the menu at Bar Primi is a bit disorienting. It feels like two-thirds of a restaurant, and despite Sutton’s protestations, not exactly cheap.

For the sops who must have secondi, there’s a rotating line-up of them—one per day—and sometimes an extra announced special. Or you can have roast beef, Italian peppers, provalone and arugula on a hamburger bun, which is dubbed “the sandwich,” as the restaurant serves no other. We didn’t try it, but we saw a specimen at another table: it looked terrific.

The bulk of the menu consists of little snacks, or piccolini ($9–14), antipasti ($14–17), and two groups of pastas, traditional and seasonal ($14–22). That sandwich is $16, and the few secondi offered are $23–33.

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Lafayette is the fourth restaurant in chef Andrew Carmellini’s growing empire, joining Locanda Verde, The Dutch, and The Library at the Public Theater.

The theme is the all-day French brasserie, in the style that Keith McNally nailed at Balthazar and a bunch of other places. If McNally has proven anything, it’s that this type of restaurant can print money, if it’s done right.

So far, printing money is Lafayette’s major accomplishment. It reproduces the genre faithfully, and reasonably well by New York standards. If it can remain this good, after the critics have finished with it, Lafayette could even be essential. Of course, it could also become a mediocre tourist spot, like McNally’s Pastis. All options are open.

It’s hard not to be wistful at the thought of talent squandered. Carmellini at Café Boulud was one of the best three-star chefs in town, and his success at A Voce showed that it was no fluke. When he opened Locanda Verde, you could at least understand why he aimed low: the city was still recovering from the financial crisis. Despite that, Locanda Verde turned into a terrific place—as it still is—despite its modest aims.

But the financial crisis is no more. Michelin-starred tasting menus are sprouting up all over town, like spring ramps. Not that that’s the only way to aim high; but it is one of the ways. Carmellini no longer has to aim low. Apparently, he wants to. Whether Lafayette turns into another mediocrity, like The Dutch, or becomes a solid (if uninspired) asset, like Locanda Verde, remains to be seen.

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The Library at the Public

Andrew Carmellini is one of those chefs who can do anything, and get coverage. No doubt the Public Theater realized that, when they invited him to open a new restaurant in their newly-renovated building, the former Astor Library.

The theater gave him a gorgeous, cloistered space, dimly lit with dark paneling and comfortable seating. Once you’re inside, it doesn’t look at all like a restaurant attached to a performing arts center. It’s open most days till midnight, Thursdays to Saturdays till 2:00am — hours clearly intended to attract more than just a pre-theater audience.

What’s missing is a reason to go. The food is competent, of course, as you’d expect at any Carmellini place. But it feels phoned in, as if Carmellini spent fifteen minutes on it before turning his attention to the next project.

The menu is divided in three “Acts,” with various snacks ($6–13), appetizers ($12–15) and entrées ($17–27). Perhaps they were worried about pushing the metaphor: desserts are labeled, simply, “desserts” ($7–9). All of it is fairly obvious stuff.

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The Dutch

Most chefs would be delighted to receive just one tenth of the free publicity that has been accorded The Dutch, chef Andrew Carmellini’s new SoHo restaurant.

By my count, since the first reports that he was considering the former Cub Room space, in September 2009, The Dutch (or unnamed versions of it) has been mentioned in thirty-eight posts on Eater.com, some thirty-three of which came before it had served a single meal. Many of them were titled, simply, the Daily Dutch, both confirming and lampooning the need to provide infinitesimal updates on the protracted build-out, which took almost a year and a half.

Carmellini himself is a master at manipulating the media, beginning with a bizarre opening night, which commenced at 11:00 p.m. on a Monday in April (naturally blogged to death), with normal hours the next day and lunch a couple of weeks later. All blogged and tweeted in copious detail.

None of this is to deny that Carmellini is a pretty good chef, with a long track record of success, and at least somewhat deserving of all that attention. Yet, in an interview with The Times last September, he purposely deflated expectations: “We wanted this to be a neighborhood restaurant,” and “it kind of sounds like a joint, and that’s what we want there.”

When the likes of Martha Stewart,  Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, and Thomas Keller, dine there on the first couple of nights, this isn’t a neighborhood restaurant, whatever the chef may say. But it’s not fine dining, and the restaurant is designed as much for snacking as a full meal. The late-night hours and casual vibe attract, among others, restaurant industry professionals on days off and at the end of their shifts. That part of the plan seems to be working (Todd English and Wylie Dufresne were among the chefs I spotted).

I’ve been to the Dutch twice, both times fairly late by my standards. Even after 11:00 p.m. on a Friday evening, the room was packed, although I was able to snag a bar stool immediately. It was the same story at 10:00 p.m. on a Monday. I suspect it will be packed for a good long while.

The menu, which Carmellini describes as American food, has Asian, Italian, and Mexican influences too. Prices are in a wide range, with entrées $18–46. You can have oysters from the raw bar at $3 each, or a serving of caviar for $95; smoked ricotta ravioli at $18, or a ribeye for two at $96. Cocktails are the standard NYC upscale price: $14. Other prices have already gone up since the introductory menus were published.

Every meal starts with the warm house-made corn bread (above left), which is a bit too crumbly, but very good nevertheless. Deep-fried little oyster sandwiches ($5 ea., above center) are a delight, but Asian ribs ($7; above right) are somewhat ordinary.

I didn’t much care for under-seasoned Bario Tripe ($14; above left), with beer (untastable), onion, and avocado, covered in dull tortilla chips.

The chicken has undergone perhaps the most significant change since the opening. Photos from early reviewers showed pieces of Southern fried chicken with a biscuit for $19. This has evolved to one piece of smoked chicken (above right) in a sort of foam, topped with stray pieces of popcorn for $22. Carmellini has the knack for poultry, but the version I had at Locanda Verdi a couple of years ago was better, and a larger portion, at a similar price.

The interior, designed by Roman and Williams (same folks as The Breslin and The John Dory) is a rambling space with ample bar seating. It gets awfully loud. Service, although unpretentious, can be slow. I haven’t sampled the wine list, but I’ve had several cocktails, all of which are quite good.

Anyone who knows Andrew Carmellini, knows he will never serve you a bad meal. But it’s hard to avoid the sense that his restaurants are evolving to the lowest common denominator. The Dutch wasn’t as good as Locanda Verde, which wasn’t as good as A Voce, which wasn’t as good as Café Boulud.

Of course, it’s nice to have a “drop in” place, which The Dutch is, but Café Boulud and A Voce were not. Yet, it’s hard to escape the sense that Carmellini could do better.

The Dutch (131 Sullivan Street at Prince Street, SoHo)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *


Locanda Verde

I was back at Locanda Verde last week for a business lunch (previous review here). Despite my misgivings about the Ken Friedman décor and occasionally clueless service, Locanda Verde may be the best new casual restaurant of 2009.

Oh, and Andrew Carmellini has a way with chicken. More on that in a moment.

We started with Pumpkin Ravioli ($15; above left) and Gabagoul & Grana ($14; above right), the latter being a mafioso’s version of salume with with parmesan cheese.

Then came a Sheep’s Milk Ricotta ($11; above right) and an excellent side of Roasted Brussels Sprouts ($7; above right) with pancetta and pecorino.

I loved all of that, but the Fire-Roasted Garlic Chicken ($19; above) sent me over the edge. This was probably the best chicken I’ve had all year, perfectly seasoned, busting with flavor. The identical dish seems to be available at lunch or dinner for the same price, but at dinner they make you order the whole chicken for two. At lunch, you get a half-chicken for one, which was more than I could finish.

We were seated at one of those round tables in front that is so small, it seems like it belongs in an ice cream parlor. Our server did not seem to be well informed about the menu. My companion asked about a dish she saw at another table. He disappeared to check on it, and forgot to return.

The kitchen, where Andrew Carmellini rules, is as good as ever.

Locanda Verde (377 Greenwich Street at N. Moore Street, TriBeCa)

Food: **
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: **


Review Recap: Locanda Verde

Today, Frank Bruni awarded the expected two stars to Locanda Verde, while also scolding chef Andrew Carmellini for not doing more:

Renown in the restaurant world can dawn so suddenly and grow so quickly that many chefs get ahead of themselves, winding up a half-dozen paces beyond where they rightfully belong.

For Andrew Carmellini, the opposite has been true. Now 38, he has lagged behind, without billing as prominent or a showcase quite as flattering as he deserves…

But in keeping with the Carmellini story, Locanda Verde doesn’t amount to the exactly right situation or perfect fit for him. It’s not the Carmellini restaurant that many of us have been waiting and hoping for, though it has plenty to recommend it. Hit the menu’s strong spots and you’ll have a terrific meal at a reasonable price.

Like the menu at A Voce, the one here is emphatically market-driven, as the restaurant’s name (which means “green inn”) telegraphs. But the dishes in aggregate tend to be more rustic and less elegant, perhaps a reflection of Mr. Carmellini’s mood, certainly a reflection of the moment.

Bruni has a long history of over-rating Italian restaurants, but he certainly gets the food:

The pasta dishes and entrees weren’t as uniformly successful. While the “Sunday night ragù” on top of big, floppy gigantoni was a porky dream and while a dish called “my grandmother’s ravioli”— filled with short rib and pork and sauced with San Marzano tomatoes — made me want to swap ancestors with Mr. Carmellini, the crumbled mix of meats in a white Bolognese was a total washout, and the noodles in several dishes were slightly overcooked. Neither his grandmother nor mine would approve.

Carmellini’s last place, A Voce, was obviously a two-star restaurant, but it got three from Bruni. Today, he walks it back:

When he left in 2005 to open A Voce, he got his own kitchen, where he did some of the city’s best Italian cooking. But A Voce’s coolly modern, oddly soulless cosmetics were more of a drag on his efforts than a complement to them.

I couldn’t agree more. Although some of the finger-wagging in today’s review strikes the wrong tone, this time he got the rating right.


Review Preview: Locanda Verde

Record to date: 6–3

The NYT took its sweet time posting the teaser for tomorrow’s review: Locanda Verde. We’ll therefore skip the analysis and go straight to the prediction: Bruni + Carmellini + Italian = 2 stars.


Locanda Verde

Note: Click here for a later review of Locanda Verde.

When Robert DeNiro opened the restaurant Ago last year in his new Greenwich Hotel, he made every mistake in the book. It was a formulaic, over-priced copy of an out-of-town restaurant whose chef had no commitment to New York. Imports tend to do badly here, but Agostino Sciandri, for whom it was named, was practically a no-show, thereby ensuring Ago’s doom.

At Ago’s replacement, Locanda Verde, DeNiro gets everything right. The chef, Andrew Carmellini, has done acclaimed work at two different three-star restaurants—Café Boulud and A Voce. Carmellini is both chef and partner here, and he has no other projects distracting him. It even says at the bottom of the menu, Cooking Today: Andrew Carmellini & Luke Ostrom, as if to emphasize that the chef is not just a distant consultant. No item costs more than $25.

I never had Carmellini’s food at Café Boulud, but I did visit A Voce before he left. It was certainly very good, but over-rated at three stars, in a clear example of Frank Bruni’s pro-Italian bias. Some of its deficiencies were not Carmellini’s fault. The space was both ugly and raucous, and the service not good enough for a place serving $39 short ribs and wine bottles in three and four figures. But there was no doubt Carmellini could cook.

At Locanda Verde, he serves “neighborhood Italian” food, perhaps slightly dialed down from A Voce, but not by much. This time, the space and the service support the concept, instead of being at war with it. Ken Friedman (Spotted Pig, John Dory, Rusty Knot) re-did the décor, happily not in the over-wrought style that has marred some of his earlier efforts. The tables are a tad small, and the space gets a bit loud when full, but in light of the price point I have no complaints.

The menu is in the five-part format that is common for Italian restaurants these days, with small plates called Cicchetti ($7–10), Antipasti ($12–16), Pastas ($14–19), Secondi ($19–25) and Contorni (6–7). The wine list averages around $50–60 per bottle, with many reasonable choices below that level, and several as low as $35.

I visited twice last week, the first time alone, the second with my girlfriend, so I was able to sample a bit more of the menu than usual.

There are a few different crostini. Fava Bean on prosciutto bread ($7; above left) was either a comp or a mistake, but it was wonderful—probably the best of the crostini that I tried. Morel mushroom crostini ($7; above right) were nearly as good, if a bit messy.

Focaccia bread (above left) is so hearty that it’s almost like a slice of pizza. Gnocchi with local tomatoes ($17; above right) were as good a rendition of that dish as I have had.

Lamb meatball sliders ($11; above left) are succulent and gooey, but you had best wear a bib. Blue Crab with jalapeño and tomato ($9; above right) were my least favorite of the three crostini I tried, not because there was anything wrong with them, but because the others set such a high standard. 

Some of the dishes have odd names, like “My Grandmother’s Ravioli” ($17; above left), which will make you think Carmellini had a blessed childhood if his grandmother could cook like that.

I was fortunate enough to see the Porchetta ($22; above right) come out of the oven. The carcass is wrapped in a cylinder, the skin scored and seasoned. I assume that they cook one of these slowly for many hours. If you order this dish, which you should, you’ll get a substantial helping of it.

We also had the Orichiette ($16; above left) with rabbit sausage, sweet peas and fiore sardo, a rich, satisfying dish. We finished with the panna cotta (above right).

On both visits, service was attentive and polished, much better than I would expect for a restaurant this new, this busy, and this inexpensive. The staff transferred our bar tab to the table without our having to request it.

At Locanda Verde, the concept that was so expasperating at A Voce comes together perfectly. Let’s hope that Andrew Carmellini remains here for a long, long time.

Locanda Verde (377 Greenwich Street at N. Moore Street, TriBeCa)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: *
Overall: **


A Voce: How to Detonate a Restaurant


Update: Andrew Carmellini’s replacement has finally been named: Missy Robbins, formerly of Chicago’s Spiaggia. To learn more about the débacle that led up to this, read on.

The farce at A Voce is one of the sorriest spectacles we’ve seen in a long time.

After weeks of rumor-mongering, Grub Street reported yesterday that Manuel Treviño, a former Top Chef contestant, will temporarily replace Andrew Carmellini at A Voce. According to the report, “Treviño will oversee the expansion of A Voce to the Time Warner Center,” where it is replacing Café Gray, “but he is expected to make way for another big-name chef to be named (eventually) by A Voce’s owners.”

How many shades of stupidity can be painted in one sentence? Apparently, if Treviño does a good job at the Time Warner Center, he’ll get fired anyway. And if he does a bad job, the restaurant will have the mediocre reviews hanging like deadweights around its neck.

Remember: once the critics have reviewed a place, they seldom return. Why would anyone open the Time Warner branch with a transitional figure, get pummeled, and then bring in the chef they really want?

It gets worse. Today, Grub Street reports that pastry chef Josh Gripper has left the restaurant: “I’m not comfortable with [the ownership’s] direction, and I don’t think it would be a smart move to stay with them.” Ouch.

As a reader noted in the Eater comments section: “They might as well mail that 3rd star back to the Times right now.” We were never persuaded that A Voce was three-star material, but it’s still sad to see the owners squandering the good hand they were dealt.


A Voce

Note: Andrew Carmellini, the chef when this review was written, has left A Voce. His replacement is Missy Robbins, who comes to New York from the Chicago restaurant Spiaggia. We haven’t been back since, but click here for a review of A Voce Columbus at the Time-Warner Center.


avoce.jpgA Voce is the first solo restaurant by Andrew Carmellini, who had been the popular chef de cuisine at Café Boulud. It was one of the biggest hits of 2006, scoring three stars from Frank Bruni and another from Michelin. The restaurant is full almost every night of the week. I had wanted to visit a lot sooner, but it never seemed to be available when I was. When I saw that a 6:15 p.m. slot was available on Sunday evening, I grabbed it.

My friend and I started with the duck meatballs ($15), which every reviewer has raved about. They are indeed a tasty delight, but I must say that neither of us could find any trace of the foie gras that the servers insist is in there. A pork chop with onion glazing ($30), one of the daily specials, was done to perfection. My friend ordered the braised short ribs, at $39 the most expensive entree (unless you’re having the truffle tasting). The preparation was certainly first-rate, although it seemed to me a bit over-priced, in that the best short ribs in town, at Café Gray, are “only” $38.

The price of the short ribs, however, had nothing on the wine list, which featured many bottles over $1,000, and tons more well over $100. For a casual restaurant where the waiters wear dockers, it seemed to us incongruous. I did finally settle on a pinot noir a shade under $50. I was quite irritated to find that the restaurant kept the open bottle on a serving station, out of my reach. I generally prefer to control a bottle that I’ve paid for, especially when the serving staff are going to disappear for long stretches—as they do when A Voce gets busy.

For dessert, I ordered a maple-walnut cheesecake ($10), which seemed more like a parfait. As I see it, the word “cheesecake” conveys definite meaning, and restaurants shouldn’t be putting it on their menu unless they intend to serve something at least approximating a cheesecake.

Bread service came in the form of addictive warm home-made bread and olive oil, although there wasn’t enough of the latter.

Although the menu is expensive, the atmosphere at A Voce is informal. The space is attractively decorated, and the swivel chairs are quite comfortable. But the tables are fairly close together, the noise level builds rapidly, and the serving staff gets a little stretched as the restaurant fills up. Andrew Carmellini’s upscale Italian cuisine is wonderful, but he hasn’t really provided the elegant stage on which it deserves to shine.

A Voce (41 Madison Avenue at 26th Street, Flatiron District)

Food: **½
Service: *
Ambiance: *½
Overall: **