Entries in Epicurean Management Group (6)

Monday
Aug152011

ellabess

Note: It turns out I overrated Ellabess. Reviews were lukewarm, and the place never caught on. It closed in February 2012 after seven months in business.

*

If you want to know if a new restaurant will be good, look at the company it keeps. Danny Meyer, for instance, couldn’t open a bad restaurant if he tried.

The same, I think, is true of the less well known Epicurean Management, which runs a duo of wonderful, casual Italian restaurants in the West Village (dell’anima and L’Artusi) and a nearby wine bar (Anfora).

With three hit restaurants to their name, they could have upped their game or stuck with what works. They’ve done the latter: the proffer at ellabess falls squarely within the dell’anima/L’Artusi idiom, except that it is not Italian. The owners are apparently happy to grow within a successful model, rather than to challenge it.

The restaurant is located in the boutique Nolitan Hotel, one of many largely interchangeable places dotting the East Village, the Lower East Side, and adjacent neighborhoods. The designer has thoughtfully given the dining room floor-to-ceiling glass picture windows, perhaps hoping that a view worth looking at will come later. At least it admits plenty of natural light.

Gabe Thompson and Joe Campanale, chef and sommelier respectively of the group’s West Village establishments, aren’t involved here. Troy Unruh, a former dell’anima chef de cuisine, runs the kitchen. He serves a mid-priced “seasonal American” (aren’t they all?) downtown menu, with appetizers $8–18, mains $22–32, sides $7. The list of selections at the three-week-old restaurant is brief—just nine appetizers and five entrées—but presumably will rotate frequently, as its seasonal emphasis is fairly apparent.

We shared an octopus salad ($16; above left), an excellent savory–sweet–tart justaposition with melon, cucumber, and mint. The same good judgment was evident in a comped fluke ceviche (above right) with watermelon, chili, radish, and mint.

The chef is fond of melon in savory dishes, but handles it well, as seen in a delightful striped bass ($27; above left) with melon consommé and heirloom cherry tomatoes. A gorgeous, lightly-poached king salmon ($32; above right) lay in a bed of porcini mushrooms, blueberries, and juniper lamb jus.

The wine list is not the conversation piece it is at the group’s West Village places, though it may blossom into one. A Domaine Ostertag Riesling ($40) paired well with our food choices.

The dining room was busy, but not full, on a Wednesday evening. Service was attentive, and the host seated me before my girlfriend arrived. There are no tablecloths, but with plenty of open space the room is not an echo chamber, as it is at so many other new places we’ve visited lately.

If not yet rising to destination status, ellabess has made a promising start.

ellabess (153 Elizabeth Street at Kenmare Street, NoLIta)

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

Monday
Jul122010

L’Artusi

Gabe Thompson and Joe Campanale are on a roll, with a string of West Village hits that began with dell’anima in 2007, L’Artusi in 2008, and Anfora in 2010.

The restaurants (Anfora is technically a wine bar) have distinctive personalities, but Thompson’s solid rustic Italian cuisine and Campanale’s compelling wine lists knit the three projects together.

Two of them are on the same block, and the third is just five minutes away, but somehow they haven’t over-saturated the market: dell’anima, the most established of the three, is perpetually packed, and Anfora is quickly getting there. L’Artusi moved a bit more slowly out of the gate (an unfavorable one-spot from Frank Bruni cannot have helped), but by 9:00 p.m. last Friday night it was full.

Like dell’anima, L’Artusi has plenty of seats for bar dining, but the space is more than twice the size, and not quite as charming. As it filled up, we found the noise increasingly unpleasant, as sound ricocheted off of the room’s hard surfaces. By the time we left, a normal conversation was almost impossible.

At all three Thompson/Campanale places, there is not a hint of attitude, as could easily be the case for a clutch of restaurants this successful. The host offered to seat me alone. I chose to wait at the bar, and later the tab was transferred to the table without my asking. Our server, however, tried to upsell an unwanted side dish, and was a bit inattentive as the evening went on.

The menu is in six categories: crudi, vegetable starters, pastas, fish, meats, and side dishes. Pastas dominate, with nine choices. There are half-a-dozen or fewer entries under the other headings. Most starters are under $15, pastas under $20, and entrées generally under $25.

Campanale’s wine list is remarkable for its length and variety. He’s not the first to put each region of Italy on its own page, and with its own map, but he may be the first to include separate maps showing the location of each producer. Presented in a thick red leather volume, it is one of the prettiest wine lists in town.

As he does at his other places, Campanale offers wines all over the price spectrum, including bottles with age on them that don’t cost half a paycheck, such as the 1995 Cerbaiona Rosso ($58; above right) that we had.

Escolar ($14; above left) from the crudo menu was draped with avocado, basil, and chilies. There is always a danger that such assertive ingredients will overwhelm the fish, but that didn’t happen here. The flavors were bright, crisp, and in balance. We followed that with octopus ($15; above right) that was perhaps as tender as we have ever encountered.

By the way, we had that octopus as an appetizer, but it is listed on the fish section of the menu, where most of the items are entrées. The server sent everything out in the right order, but I have to think some diners have been led astray.

I don’t know how the house-made tagliatelle bolognese bianco ($18; above left) was prepared, but the richly-flavored, flat noodles were in double layers—green one one side, white on the other: a wonderful dish. I wouldn’t call the Dayboat Halibut ($28; above right) a dud, but I found the tomato sauce a shade too assertive, especially for so delicate a fish.

Messrs. Thompson and Campanale have found their niche in a series of casual places, where the food and wine lists are superior to the surroundings. Part of me wants to see them ply their craft on a grander stage. Perhaps that’s not what they aspire to—never mind whether this is the right economic climate in which to try. The restaurants they’ve built are so welcoming, the food and libations so well thought out, that I tolerate their occasional discomforts.

L’Artusi (228 W. 10th Street between Bleecker & Hudson Streets, West Village)

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

Tuesday
Jun152010

Anfora

Anfora is a new wine bar from Gabe Thompson and Joey Campanale, the smart fellows behind dell’anima and L’Artusi. I’ve visited about six times in the month they’ve been open. That’s a lot for me, but I like the place, and it’s on my way home.

The layout is clever, with a long bar on the right side of the narrow space, and several large, cushy, semi-circular banquettes on the left, which can accommodate larger parties. The space feels warm and comforting, but it can get loud when full.

According to the pre-opening press, Anfora emphasizes sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wines. Strangely, this is nowhere stated on the wine list itself, so most customers will not be aware of it. I’m not sold on “green” wines as an organizing concept for a restaurant or bar. The terminology is so baroque that most servers cannot even explain it.

Perhaps it is because too much time as been spent on the “green” angle, that the wine list seems unfocused, and lacks the more offbeat selections found at the same team’s dell’Anima, just two doors away. After all, one of the compelling reasons to visit a wine bar is to try funky things you’d never dream of ordering by the bottle. For the most part, Anfora doesn’t have them.

Apparently, the original idea was that Anfora would double as the pre-dinner drinks room for dell’Anima, which is perpetually packed. The staff discovered that many customers were coming in after dinner, so they’ve added a strong list of dessert wines: sherries, ports, and such. It’s the best part of the list. Anfora is one of the few wine bars I know with a hard liquor license, and they’ll mix a cocktail for you too, though that isn’t the reason to visit.

Anfora is located in a former real-estate office, and therein lies some of its limitations. There isn’t a proper kitchen, so the hot menu is limited to what can be prepared in a toaster oven and a panini press. The cook works in a cramped corner behind the bar, and he sometimes falls behind. I loved a simple order of Curry Egg Salad on Sesame Toast ($6), an excellent snack dish, but I was amazed at how long it took to prepare. The menu has been simplified over the last several weeks, as the owners get more realistic about what can be done in such a small space.

Understandably, most of the menu does not require cooking. The cheeses I’ve tried have been great; there are also salumi and salads. But this is not a wine bar that doubles as a full-service restaurant, as some do.

The staff are efficient, and have adapted well to the limitations of the space. Since the food here can never be the equal of dell’Anima, with its full kitchen, I hope that the owners will let Anfora shine with its wine list. The dessert wines that have been added lately are an excellent start.

Anfora (34 Eighth Avenue at Jane Street, West Village)

Wednesday
Mar042009

The Payoff: L'Artusi

Today, as expected, Frank Bruni “awarded” — we use the term loosely — one star to L’Artusi, a restaurant that no doubt considered itself worthy of two:

At L’Artusi, named for a renowned Italian cookbook writer, Mr. Thompson and his business partner, Joe Campanale, have moved well beyond the bruschetta. They have gone not only bigger — with nearly 115 seats, L’Artusi is more than twice the size of dell’Anima — but also bolder, and the uneven results are a lesson in overextension.

If they turned a more skeptical eye to some of Mr. Thompson’s inventions, edited the menu to about two-thirds its current length and focused harder on the execution of what remained, they’d have an excellent restaurant. As it is, they have a fitfully enjoyable one.

We and Eater both took the one-star odds, and earn $3 on our hypothetical one-dollar bets.


Eater   NYJ
Bankroll $109.50   $130.67
Gain/Loss +3.00   +3.00
Total $112.50   $133.67
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 52–25   54–23
Tuesday
Mar032009

Rolling the Dice: L'Artusi

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews L’Artusi, the big-box follow-up to Dell’Anima. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 8-1
One Star: 3-1 √√
Two Stars:
5-1
Three Stars: 75-1
Four Stars: 20,000-1

The Skinny: Critics haven’t been impressed with L’Artusi. In New York, Adam Platt said it “underdelivers” and awarded one measly star. In TONY, Jay Cheshes found it “hit-and-miss” while awarding three of six stars. One can never discount the possibility of a two-star rating when Frank Bruni reviews an Italian restaurant, but he seldom praises a restaurant multiple critics have panned.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award one star to L’Artusi.

Friday
Jan302009

dell'anima

What do you get when a former Babbo sommelier (Joey Campanale) and a former Del Posto and Le Bernerdin chef (Gabe Thompson) open a casual Italian joint at neighborhood prices? You get dell’anima, one of those instantly popular, crazily-crowded places, that you figure you’ll never get into.

Strangely enough, I got in last night—a bail-out choice when Corner Bistro was too crowded. Reservations at dell’anima (which means “of the soul”) are tough to come by, but there was one lonely bar stool free, and I grabbed it.

The space is casual and cramped. In an early visit shortly after dell’Anima opened in late 2007, Frank Bruni found the food pleasant but unadventurous, and the service was too slow. He did not bother filing a full review, but it scarcely mattered: dell’anima was a hit, and its owners now have a follow-up at nearby L’Artusi.

The menu (click on image for a larger version), which changes daily, is in the standard four-part format, with antipasti e insalate ($11–16), primi ($16–18),  secondi ($20–28) and contorni ($7). There’s an odd mix of English and Italian: “PORK CHOP, ribolata refrito, pear mostarda” is a typical dish. In case you were wondering, pasta fatta in casa.

I wanted to eat simply, so I started with the Endive ($12; above left) with anchovy citronette and pecorino. Flavors were bright and forward. Trofie ($16; above right) was unexplained, but I rolled the dice anyway. Short pasta noodles, slightly thicker than spaghetti, came in a spicy blend with bacon, tomato, shallots, and rosemary.

I didn’t check out the full wine list, but the selections by the glass were ample, and not just generic choices either. A 1999 Satta Vermentino was just $12 per glass.

Service was attentive and brisk—an improvement from some of the early reports. I overheard the bartender offering to transfer a tab to a diner’s table, something the customer had not even asked for. At most places in dell’anima’s price range, exactly the opposite happens. As I was leaving, the hostesses made a point of thanking me for the visit, a nice touch often lacking in places like dell’anima that clearly do not need my business.

dell’anima (38 Eighth Avenue at Jane Street, West Village)

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