Entries in Christian Pappanicholas (5)

Sunday
Mar032013

The Lamb Feast at Resto

 

Restaurants, unlike cats, usually don’t usually have nine lives. So it is remarkable that Resto, now on its third executive chef, is not just alive, but better than it was in 2007, when Frank Bruni of The Times gave it two stars.

The decision to open with Ryan Skeen, the peripatetic chef who seldom spends more than fifteen minutes at any restaurant, ought to have killed Resto if nothing else did. We visited in 2008, after Skeen’s departure, finding entrées that were pedestrian and poorly executed. But a visit late last year to the sister restaurant next door, The Cannibal, made us wonder if Resto was worth another look.

Oddly enough, we decided to visit on New Year’s Eve—a risky day at any restaurant. We paid a shade under $200 per person (tax and tip included), including wines, which the restaurant poured generously. The portions were enormous, and there wasn’t a dud among them. The couple seated next to us—strangers at the time—suggested we might like to try one of Resto’s whole animal feasts. We exchanged email addresses, and gradually assembled a party of 10 (the minimum is 8, the maximum 20). Five options are offered (beef, pig, goat, lamb, or fish), and at least one week’s notice is required.

We settled on the lamb, our New Year’s Eve server’s recommendation. The menus on the website describe them as four-course meals, but “endless” is a more apt description.

 

The first course was a quartet of lamb appetizers (above left): merguez sausage, lamb rillette and chives on grilled bread; lamb tartare with aioli and quail egg; and curried lamb meatball on a skewer.

A kale salad (above right) was strewn with feta, scallion, cucumber, dill, and luscious strips of lamb.

 

Excellent lamb ribs (above left) were served in an ancho chili with caramelized garlic. Rack of lamb (above right) didn’t really work for me, as the small lamb pieces were too chewy.

 

By the time roasted leg of lamb (above left) and confit lamb shoulder (above right) came out, the momentum was flagging at our table, and neither platter was finished. I thought both were quite good, but there were some whispers of dissent.

 

Most people took a pass on buttered lamb brains (above left), as it can be difficult to get past the fact that it’s a lamb cranium, sawed in two, with the teeth and tongue clearly visible. Once the kitchen is done roasting it, there isn’t much left of the brain, which tastes like a creamy pâté. The tongue, however, was not very good: the server explained that the high heat required to cook the brain leaves the tongue nearly inedible. There were no complaints about the vegetables (above right), roasted Brussels sprouts and crisp fingerling potatoes.

Dessert was a first-rate apple cobbler (right), like what Mom makes at home, which is Resto’s usual way of ending one of these feasts.

The price was $85 per person before tax and tip, which these days is a bargain for that much food. Beverage pairings are available, but we decided to order à la carte from the wine list, which has grown over the years, and is much improved over the rather perfunctory list offered in 2008. There is also an excellent beer selection.

Naturally, one of these large feasts gets plenty of attention from the serving staff, who are knowledgeable and enthuisiastic. But it took the bar quite a while to fill a cocktail order, and there was a long pause before the final entrée course came out. The meal ended on a slightly sour note, when one of our party was refused an order of coffee, because our 2½-hour time slot was up, and they needed the table for another feast.

If Resto’s various incarnations have one thing in common, it’s owner Christian Pappanicholas’s commitment to carnivory. With the new chef Preston Clark and ex-Momofuku service whiz Cory Lane at the front-of-house, he’s finally got the right team.

Resto (111 E. 29th Street between Park & Lexington Avenues, Gramercy)

Food: Belgian for carnivores
Service: Much improved over the years, with the occasional off-note
Ambiance: Casual, and a bit noisy as the dining room fills up

Rating: Critic’s Pick 

Monday
Dec102012

Cannibal

 

Most restaurant names these days are hopelessly cryptic: Atera, Battersby, Reynards, The Goodwin, Governor, and so on. They could be anything. What are you to make of a Murray Hill restaurant called Resto? The name, shorthand for “restaurant,” leaves all options open.

How refreshing, then, that the folks behind Resto opened The Cannibal next door. Aside from the blankety-blank steakhouse, has ever a restaurant declared its meaty intentions more openly? Aside from a few token salads and side dishes, The Cannibal is a tribute to carnivory in all its forms—okay, all but one.

The early marketing billed The Cannibal as half-grocery, half-restaurant. One year in, the grocery angle has been phased out. There’s no mention of it on the website, and owner Christian Pappanicholas has brought in high-powered restaurant talent: Momofuku alum Cory Lane in the front-of-house, chef Preston Clark running the kitchens both here and at Resto next door. The menu seems more mature than when I looked at it a year ago.

There’s an overwhelming choice of some 300 beers, with which you can wash down a wide variety of pâtés and terrines, sausages, tartares, hams, salumi, and cheeses. I suspect most of the patrons are there for snacking: there are only six true entrées, three of which are offered only for two, and the menu warns that they take 45 minutes to prepare. (To see the current menu, click on the photo at right, which expands to a larger image.)

Broadly, the choices are divided into Charcuterie ($11–16), Small Plates ($6–13), Meat dishes ($14–20 for one, $60–65 for two), Cheeses (choose 3 to 7 for $12–19) and Sides ($5 each). The proportion of the menu that interests me: just about all of it.

 

The Poulard in Mourning ($13; above left) is a terrific chicken terrine made with a mushroom and leek purée. Spicy Merguez sausages ($11; above right) with yellow curry come on a bed of wheatberry and golden raisins.

Roasted Lamb Neck & Rib (above) is a $60 dish for two. With side dishes and appetizers, a party of four could share it. You get half a lamb neck and a quarter of the rib cage. I’ve never seen such a dish. We ate a bit over half of it, and were stuffed. The lamb was roasted perfectly, rubbed with a spicy Calabrian chile salsa verde.

The setting is casual, with all seating at the bar or at communal tables (on stools that aren’t very comfortable). The sound system is cranked up. Action flicks play on a couple of wide-screen TVs. Reservations aren’t taken for small parties, but seats turn over quickly. We had no trouble getting seated immediately at 8:00 p.m. on a Friday evening. The place was mostly full, but not packed.

Casual vibe notwithstanding, the servers behind the bar are knowledgeable and attentive. Need help navigating that list of 300 beers? I certainly did. Their advice was spot-on. The Cannibal isn’t the solution to every dining need, but oh my! What it does, it does exceedingly well.

The Cannibal (113 E. 29th Street between Park & Lexington Avenues, Murray Hill)

Food: Carnivory, every which way you can imagine
Service: Excellent for such a casual setting
Ambiance: A bar and long communal tables; a bit loud; hard metal stools

Rating:

Sunday
Aug242008

Resto

Note: Bobby Hellen was the acting executive chef at Resto at the time of this visit. The “acting” part of his title was later removed. Since then, he has left the restaurant. The current chef is Preston Clark. Click here for a more recent review.

*

Resto has been on my to-do list for over a year, since Frank Bruni awarded an unlikely two stars in May 2007. Back then, the restaurant didn’t take reservations, and there were reports of waits up to an hour at prime times. Sorry Charlie, but I don’t like to eat that way. Time is too precious to squander an hour of it just waiting to eat. So Resto went on the back burner.

After the hubbub died down, Resto got wise, and put itself on OpenTable, so people can actually plan to eat at a particular time, rather than just hoping. Perhaps the bloom has withered a bit. We found it nearly empty at 6:30 p.m. on a Friday evening, albeit in August. It got busier as the evening went on, but at no point did it appear to be full.

Resto today doesn’t quite seem to merit the laurels Frank Bruni bestowed on it. However, that was when Ryan Skeen was chef; he has since moved onto Irving Mill. Perhaps I visited Resto too late.

The cuisine here is Belgian, a genre not well represented in Manhattan (Markt comes to mind), though it shares much in common with rustic French. The selection of 70 beers is admirable, if not overwhelming. The wine list isn’t long, and neither is the seasonal menu. There are five appetizers ($9–13), five kinds of house-made charcuterie ($9), four seasonal entrées ($16–28), four classic entrées ($15–24), and four side dishes ($6–8).

In the context of these modest prices, a six-week-aged prime ribeye for two at $140 seems incongruous. So does an $85 tasting menu. We were curious, but gave both a pass.

 

Lamb Niçoise ($9), a home-made lamb sausage, had a nice spicy kick. My girlfriend loved the Crispy Pig’s Ear Salad ($12). Loaded with greens, beans, chicory and a soft egg on top, it could easily serve as an entrée. And yes, those really are pigs’ ears, fried crisp and scattered about the bowl like croutons.

 

I couldn’t exactly say the entrées misfired, but they were pedestrian. Wild Striped Bass ($28) was chewy and overwhelmed with red peppers. Steak Frites ($24) featured hanger steak, nicely done, but the fries were mushy.

The décor is plain and bare-bones, but service was prompt and friendly. We had many questions about the menu, and the server provided helpful advice with much enthusiasm.

Resto (111 E. 29th Street between Park & Lexington Avenues, Gramercy)

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

Wednesday
May232007

The Payoff: Resto

Frank Bruni resumed his assault on the star system yesterday, after a few months when most of his ratings actually seemed somewhat sensible. Resto won two stars (the same as The Modern and Gordon Ramsay), apparently because it has great lamb ribs, french fries with mayonaise, and perhaps one or two other good dishes.

Those stars come with a “forewarning”:

Resto — the name is slang for restaurant [thank heavens he cleared that up] — doesn’t take reservations for groups smaller than six, and on some nights there’s a 45-minute wait by 7:30. It can be difficult to reach the bar through the crowd around it and even tougher to hear servers through the din.

If that wasn’t enough Bruni for one week, you can read his Critic’s Notebook piece on Marc Vetri’s pair of Italian restaurants in Philadelphia, Vetri and Osteria. It’s nice to see Bruni branch out a bit, but why must it always be Italian?

In the wagering department, NYJ absorbs another tough loss this week, losing $1 on our hypothetical bet, while Eater wins a whopping $5. We should have remembered our own advice: the restaurants Bruni chooses to review—as opposed to those he must review—are usually two stars.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $30.00   $32.67
Gain/Loss +$5.00   –$1.00
Total $35.00   $31.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 13–2   11–4
Tuesday
May222007

Rolling the Dice: Resto

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews the foolishly-named Belgian eatery Resto. Eater’s official odds are as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 4-1
One Star: 2-1
Two Stars: 5-1 √√
Three Stars:
75-1
Four Stars: 25,000-1

The Skinny: In this week’s game, jokers are wild. Anything can happen. As Eater points out, Resto would have historically belonged in the $25-and-under critic’s territory, and wouldn’t have had a starred review at all. But with Peter Meehan reviewing taco trucks these days, any restaurant with seating defaults to Bruni. With most of the entrées at Resto priced below $20, this is precisely the kind of restaurant Bruni loves.

Bruni certainly hasn’t hesitated to award two stars to unlikely candidates. But when he does so, it’s usually only when the restaurant has already achieved a significant “foodie following.” Frank then swoops in, and his rating confirms what the experts already knew. Resto has flown mostly under the radar, notwithstanding a 4-out-of-5 rating on New York’s “casual scale.” If any of the usual suspects have suggested that Resto was a NYT two-star restaurant, I must have missed it.

Frank sometimes grades on a gentler curve when reviewing restaurants in under-served neighborhoods, but no one would seriously suggest that 29th Street at Park Avenue South is such a neighborhood.

The Bet: Though we won’t be surprised to wake up to a two-star review, we are going to bet conservatively this week on one star.