Entries in Elettaria (5)


How Dumb Can Ozersky Get?

Josh Ozersky, editor of The Feedbag, is often called on as expert du jour when the press need a quote and don’t know whom else to ask. But unless the topic is burgers, barbecue or steaks, he doesn’t really speak expertly.

The latest example comes in today’s New York Daily News article, “Recession forces ritzy restaurants such as Café des Artistes to close doors.” The reporters, Leah Chernikoff and Edgar Sandoval, don’t exactly cover themselves in glory. The story purports to be about “ritzy” restaurants killed by the recession, but several of those listed don’t fit that description. Elettaria wasn’t ritzy at all. LCB Brasserie closed before the economic downturn, and the restaurant that replaced it (Benoit) was practically the same genre. La Goulue closed due to a lease issue; its owner insists it will re-open nearby.

The reporters say that “512 [NYC] resetaurants have closed this past year.” But the vast majority, as in about 95%, aren’t “ritzy.” As far as I can tell, “ritzy” restaurants (however one defines that term) are closing in roughly the same percentage as the fraction of the market they occupy. No more, no less. Take a tour through Eater.com’s posts tagged “The Shutter,” and tell me how many of them are “ritzy” in the same sense as Café des Artistes. It’s a tiny number.

Café des Artistes closed, as far as I could tell, because the owner was 85, and as he was going to have to retire eventually, now was as good a time as any. [ETA: Oh, that and a greedy union.]

One doesn’t expect much nuance from Daily News staff writers, but from Ozersky one expects better:

The great fine-dining fuddy-duddy restaurants were already on the wane before the recession hit… Overwrought and overstaffed, they were lingering in their own twilight. Now the meteor has hit, and these places have all gone under… The old white tablecloth dinosaurs have been supplanted by friskier mammals.”

It’s usually a safe bet that when people use words like “fuddy-duddy” and “dinosaur,” it’s shorthand for “restaurants I don’t understand.” Now, I am not suggesting that the loss of Café des Artistes is any great culinary loss: my last meal there was a disaster. But it filled a legitimate niche, and some of the remaining examples of the genre are still very good, for what they are (Le Périgord, for instance).

If Ozersky’s point is that the narrow genre that Café des Artiste occupied (Classic Old French) is shrinking, that has been true for decades—not so much due to the recession, but because their clientele is aging and is not being replaced. But to Daily News readers, when “white tablecloth” and “dinosaur” are put in the same sentence, there is no distinction between Café des Artistes (which Ozersky hated) and Marea (which he loves). Both have white tablecloths and elegant service. And I’ll betcha Marea has far more staff than CdA did.

What, exactly, makes Café des Artistes “overwrought,” and not Le Bernardin? Obviously the latter restaurant is far better (and still thriving), but its style of service is much farther over the top than CdA ever was. If the word “overwrought” applies to the service at any restaurant, on what principled distinction could Ozersky apply it to CdA and not Le Bernardin? Or is it really just a lazy term used to disparage a genre he never appreciated?


The House-Made Hot Dog at Elettaria

Note: Elettaria closed in August 2009, after the owners could not negotiate a lease extension.

News of a Hot Dog, of all things, sent me back to Elettaria last week. According to the Feedbag, chef Akthar Nawab spent months perfecting it.

Actually, there are two hot dogs on Elettaria’s bar menu, either $2.50 or $4.50. The latter, which we ordered, resembles a hefty bratwurst sausage—house made, of course.

We enjoyed the robust, spicy flavor of the hot dog and the warm, toasted bun, but they weren’t made for each other. The bun needed to be about twice the size to wrap its way around the sausage. We did our best, but this beast would have been better with a knife and fork.

It’s a great hot dog, though, and a bargain at $4.50. If Nawab can just find the right bun, it would be perfect.

The kitchen comped a crab cake (right), which wasn’t anywhere near as memorable as the bratwurst. An order of meatballs ($5), served on a skewer, had a mild curry flavor, but they weren’t tender enough.

These items are served only at the bar, along with an alluring selection of cocktails. I’ve been meaning to go back for the Zombie, allegedly so potent that they won’t serve you more than one. I was headed for a show, so I gave that one a pass.

Elettaria (33 W. 8th Street at MacDougal Street, Greenwich Village)


The Payoff: Elettaria

Today, as expected, Frank Bruni awards one star to Elettaria, finding the performance too inconsistent, the ambiance too scatter-brained:

The ostensibly individual tables bisecting the dining room are essentially one way-too-long communal table, which makes for odd traffic patterns.

And why is this central and most crucial region of the restaurant so cramped when there’s so much elbowroom and extra space around the bar up front? Elettaria is lovely but awkward, and its awkwardness undercuts Mr. Nawab’s impressively creative cooking.

But then his cooking also undercuts itself, some dishes mirroring the setting: seductive in the abstract, less so in actuality. There’s too broad a gap between the best of them, which are excellent, and the rest. I had only one meal that wholly delighted me, while the others were a mix of exciting, intriguing and frustrating moments.

We and Eater both win $2 on our hypothetical one-dollar bets.

              Eater          NYJ
Bankroll $86.50   $106.67
Gain/Loss +2.00   +2.00
Total $88.50   $108.67
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 40–18   42–16

Rolling the Dice: Elettaria

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 takes a belated look at Elettaria, Akhtar Nawab’s Indian–American fusion restaurant in Greenwich Village. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 5-1
One Star: 2-1 √√
Two Stars: 3-1
Three Stars: 8-1
Four Stars: 1,000-1

The Skinny: As usual, there are only two possible outcomes here: one star or two. The closeness of the odds (2–1 and 3–1 respectively) shows that this is basically a coin toss. Reviews have been all over the map, ranging from Platt’s one-star slap to RG’s three-star rave. Will the real Elettaria please stand up?

The X-factor is the rather long time it took Bruni to get around to this review: it has been more than six weeks since most of the other critics filed, including this blog, which awarded two stars. We can only assume that Bruni saw potential, and wanted to give Elettaria time to resolve the early kinks. Bruni doesn’t usually give restaurants that chance, so you’ve got to figure that he really wanted to like this place.

We are torn, but our sense is that the cramped ambiance, abbreviated menu and chronic inconsistency will rate mentions in this review.

The Bet: We are betting, with some reluctance, that Frank Bruni will award one star to Elettaria.



Akhtar Nawab (center) runs a tight ship at Elettaria

Note: Elettaria closed in August 2009, after the owners could not negotiate a lease extension.


Akhtar Nawab first came to prominence at Tom Colicchio’s Craftbar. He left in 2006 to go solo, but things didn’t quite go as planned. He was the originally announced chef at Allen & Delancey, but when the restaurant finally opened, Neil Ferguson was at the helm. Then he signed on at The E.U., a star-crossed restaurant if ever there was one.

elettaria_outside.jpgAt Elettaria, Nawab is finally in control of his own destiny, along with partner Noel Cruz (Dani). Let’s hope that it’s a hit. Based on our meal there last night, it certainly deserves to be.

The name is the Latin word for cardamom, a spice often used in Indian cuisine. There are Indian accents all over the menu at Elettaria, but there are accents from a lot of places. Nawab is from Kentucky, and the cooking here could as well be called Modern American.

elettaria_inside2.jpgThe interior design is from the same folks that did Allen & Delancey. You can see the resemblance, but their work is less successful here. For A&D’s charm, they’ve substituted a laundry list of clichés.

The bar takes up too much space. Dining tables are crammed too closely together. There’s a long row of them along the restaurant’s spine, and they’re just inches apart. We considered ourselves lucky to be there early, before the place filled up. There isn’t much space to manoever.

There’s a wide-open kitchen at the back of the restaurant. Nawab has it running smoothly. It’s a pleasure to watch. The space, most recently a men’s clothing store, was once a nightclub, and the kitchen is “on the very same spot where Jimi Hendrix reputedly plucked his guitar.”

elettaria01a.jpg elettaria01b.jpg
Bread service (left); White asparagus with foie gras (left)

Our dinner at Elettaria was one of those rare restaurant meals that actually improved as it went along. The bread service consisted of two slices of naan. For the appetizer course, we were both attracted to one of the recited specials: a serving of white asparagus with shaved foie gras.

Pork, rice, quail egg

The asparagus, served chilled, had been over-cooked. The foie gras lacked the flavor punch it should have, and the few croutons offered were slightly soggy. At $20, this appetizer needed to be better.

The kitchen sent out a comped mid-course. It wasn’t on the printed menu, so I am guessing this is an item the chef is still tinkering with. He need tinker no longer. The highlights were two contrasting cuts of pork and a fried quail egg, resting in a slurry of rice. Nawab risks accusations of being derivative, with pork and fried eggs showing up on menus all over town, but this dish was much more of a hit than our original appetizer.

[Update: In his rave review for The Sun, Paul Adams described “an off-the-menu starter of lúgao ($12), Filipino rice porridge flavored with a succulent panoply of pig parts.” I am pretty sure that’s the mid-course item described above.]

elettaria03a.jpg elettaria03b.jpg
Red Snapper (left); Striped Bass (right)

We both chose fish for the main course: red snapper ($28) for me, striped bass ($22) for my girlfriend. The kitchen did well by both fish, which were tender, flavorful, and well complemented by the accompanying vegetables and cous cous. A bed of small clams that came with the red snapper seemed more decorative than anything else.

The wine list here is downright revelatory, with many great bottles under $50, along with an impressive list of cocktails, liqueurs, apéritifs, and so forth. A 2004 Cotes de Provence from Chateau de Roquefort was only $37.

Although our appetizer misfired, the cooking here is ambitious. Over time, we suspect that Akhtar Nawab will have many more successes than failures. The reasonable prices make the restaurant especially compelling. Elettaria is well worth a return visit.

Elettaria (33 W. 8th Street at MacDougal Street, Greenwich Village)

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