Entries in Derrick Styczek (3)



Remember Etats-Unis, the Upper East Side restaurant with an improbable Michelin star? I never quite bought into the star, but for what it was — straight, up-the-gut comfort food — it was certainly well above the neighborhood average.

I’m not sure why Etats-Unis closed (it was always reasonably full, in my experience), but close it did, nearly four years ago. The chef, Derrick Styczek, has resurfaced at Domain, a new restaurant in the space that was formerly Vareli in Morningside Heights, a short hop from the Columbia campus. The name might not be the best choice. Search on “Domain restaurant,” and you’re liable to get back a list of Internet domain hosting services.

There’s room to spread out here, in a roomy two-story storefront that was nowhere near full on a Wednesday evening (the Jewish holiday week, to be fair). It’s an attractive, romantic spot, with dark wood, low lighting, and acres of exposed brick. Not that you haven’t seen it before, but you haven’t seen it here.

Styczek’s cooking is more dainty and precious than I recall at Etats-Unis. There are hints of the former comfort-food style it’s not quite as pleasurable here. Prices are calibrated to the neighborhood, with only one entrée (lamb) abouve $29.

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Etats-Unis, Twice


Note: Etats-Unis closed in November 2009.


A friend and I were overdue for a “catch-up” dinner, and I suggested Etats-Unis. I had good memories of the restaurant when I dined there about a year ago, and the neighborhood was convenient.

Everything that made Etats-Unis worthwhile then is true now, but we had a peculiar experience. My friend asked for a tissue, or in lieu of that a cocktail napkin, or a paper towel, or anything made of paper that one could wipe the nose with—and for some reason the server refused, and in fact, was quite insistent that she would not. It was not, to be sure, a run-of-the-mill request, but why refuse?

etatsunis_inside2.jpgEventually the server complied, but after that we were all but ignored. As my friend lives nearby, she went back the next day to complain. The restaurant was very apologetic, admitted they’d had problems with that server, and gave us a gift certificate more than ample to cover the cost of a second meal.

So this is a review of Etats-Unis, twice. The second time, we had a different server, and Etats-Unis shone—as I’m sure it usually does.

The printed menu changes daily. And it really does change. I brought home copies of the menus from both visits. Two weeks apart, only two of five appetizers and one of five entrées were identical. And the others hadn’t just changed slightly; most had changed totally, aside from the chicken entrée (present both times, but with different preparations and accompaniments).

etatsunis_outside2.jpgFrank Bruni wrote up Etats-Unis on his blog about five months ago. He clearly was reviewing it through the prism of the restaurant’s Michelin star status. Most restaurants so honored are considerably more luxurious than this one, and he expected more of the dishes to be knock-outs.

What strikes me, rather, is that so much of the food at Etats-Unis is just incredibly solid. After three visits, I remain impressed. Everything is robust, hearty, and impeccably prepared.

Its failing, if you’d call it that, is that Etats-Unis goes straight for the gut. These aren’t meticulous, composed artistic creations, with sauces laid out in squiggly lines, plates with funky shapes, and dollops of caviar or truffles. Most could be described as comfort food, but executed at a level that commands attention.

The portions are also enormous. I have never finished a meal at Etats-Unis, and I probably never will. It’s not for a lack of desire. It’s just more food than I can eat.

It is also expensive. Appetizers are $17–22, entrées $28–38. On my second visit, there was an aged prime rib for two, for $96. The wine list somewhat makes up for it, with plenty of reasonably priced bottles. There are about 20–25 choices by the quarter-bottle (a little more than the standard glass), and almost twenty half-bottles.

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Tiger shrimp and Dungeness crabmeat chowder (left); Twice risen wild mushroom soufflé (right)

On our first visit, my friend started with a shrimp and crabmeat chowder ($18), while I had a wild mushroom soufflé ($17), which for me was the knockout dish of the evening—an impressive creation.

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Seafood paella “Etats-Unis” (left); Veal chop (right)

Seafood paella ($38) is the one entrée that was on the menu both times we visited. I hesitate to order paella sometimes, because the seafood is usually in the shell, and the effort to eat it isn’t always repaid in flavor. At Etats-Unis, all of the seafood is out of its shell, and therein lies much of its merit. It includes lobster, shrimp and scallops, along with onions, chorizo, artichokes, bacon and rice. My friend loved it so much that she ordered the same thing two weeks later.

I had the veal chop ($38), which was one of the least interesting things we tried. It was perfectly done, as is everything at Etats-Unis, but not much was done with it, aside from supplying a boatload of rather unmemorable vegetables.

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Date pudding (left); Chocolate soufflé (right)

Among the desserts, date pudding ($12) and the chocolate soufflé ($14) never leave the menu. Both are baked-to-order, and you need to request them at the beginning of your meal (the server will ask). As I mentioned last time, either one is easily shareable, especially given the size of the appetizer and entrée portions.

Anyhow, we ordered both anyway. The data pudding is the better of the two, particularly given that no one else in town is serving anything like it. The soufflé is very good, and you won’t go home unhappy, but there are plenty of restaurants that do it as well.

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Fresh pea soup (left); Organic roasted chicken (right)

The second time back, we both chose the same appetizer: a terrific pea soup ($18) garnished with chives, lemon, and Dungeness crab meat.

Lemon poppyseed soufflé

For the main course, my friend had the paella again, while I chose the organic boneless chicken ($28). Whereas my veal chop last time was rather simplistic, there was much more going on here. The chicken was rolled and stuffed with cilantro, onion, and avocado. On the side was a luscious potato terrine, made with six-year aged Gouda cheese.

To finish, we re-ordered the date pudding, but this time there was a new soufflé to try: lemon poppyseed ($14). It was just fine, but not quite gooey enough. If you’re going to have a soufflé, the chocolate is better. (There are always four desserts; both times, there was a lemon pudding cake available. On the first visit, a key lime cheesecake took the place of the lemon soufflé.)

I was impressed that the staff at Etats-Unis essentially comped an entire meal because of the poor service we experienced the first time. Any restaurant would abjectly apologize, but an entire comped meal at this price level is unusual, especially for a restaurant like Etats-Unis that generally has no trouble selling out.

The space remains spartan and somewhat cramped, but the service (aside from a certain individual) is otherwise very good.

Etats-Unis (242 East 81st Street between 2nd & 3rd Avenues, Upper East Side)

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





Note: Click here for a more recent review of Etats-Unis.

Etats-Unis is an informal 30-seat restaurant on the Upper East Side—and the unexpected recipient of a Michelin star.  It is one of the most accessible and least pretentious restaurants to have been accorded that honor.

The restaurant opened in 1991. After a less-than-ecstatic Diner’s Journal write-up from Bryan Miller in 1992, it received two stars in the Times from Ruth Reichl in 1993. Remarkably for a restaurant of its age, not much seems to have changed.

Despite the French name, the cooking at Etats-Unis isn’t moored to any geographic region. It is hearty comfort food that could vaguely be described as New American. The menu changes daily, based on available seasonal ingredients, with only five appetizers and an equal number of entrees on offer. Portions are quite large, and generally rich in high-calorie ingredients.

The wine list is reasonably priced, and I was gratified to see a large selection of half-bottles, an option far more restaurants should offer.

I started with grilled scallops ($16) on a bed of squash. The scallops were seasoned with a dash of pepper, and like much of the menu, grilled on a charcoal oven. There were three of them, which was more than generous at the price; many a scallop appetizer would come with just one or two. The squash was at room temperature, which to my preference wasn’t warm enough. I couldn’t tell if this was a miscue, or deliberate.

My friend’s mozzarella salad ($16) had an almost ethereal creamy softness.
Braised shortribs ($28) came in an enormous portion, especially considering the heap of spinach and a steamed artichoke on the side. I couldn’t find any fault with this dish, but after the large appetizer I was already filling up, and had to leave half of it behind.

My friend’s rack of lamb ($36) was also excellent, and (as you would expect) a large portion, with a mound of crisp potatoes au gratin.

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There are four desserts available, but two of them are baked from scratch, and have to be selected at the time you order the rest of your meal. Not realizing what we were in for, we both took the plunge. Even at a restaurant with more restrained portion sizes, either of these desserts could easily be shared. Other tables seemed to know this, and in hindsight I think the server should have said something.

Date pudding ($10) came bathed in carmelized rum sauce and whipped cream. It would win the award for richest dessert in town, if it wasn’t for the chocolate soufflé ($12), which is an even more sinful choice. They were excellent, but we were by now completely stuffed, and finished less than half of both.

There is not much space to maneuver when the restaurant is full, but despite that limitation, service was without fault. The kitchen is tiny. For its size, the quality of what comes out is remarkable.

Etats-Unis (242 East 81st Street between 2nd & 3rd Avenues, Upper East Side)

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