Entries in John Slover (3)


Charlie Bird

Once burned, twice careful? How else do you explain the very good, and yet timid, restaurant that is Charlie Bird?

Let’s rewind a bit. Robert Bohr was a partner and sommelier at Cru, one of the city’s best restaurants of the mid-2000s. Frank Bruni awarded three stars right off the bat. Rumor had it Bruni was considering a fourth. I gave it three and a half stars.

In an era when most restaurants were becoming more casual, Cru actually got fancier in its first four years, 2004–08. By the peak, it had a 150,000-bottle wine cellar, with a list so hefty they presented it in two volumes, each the size of a phone directory.

Then the The Great Recession hit. Hedge fund moguls were no longer dropping in and buying the three- and four-figure trophy wines that the business model depended on. The chef left; his replacement was told to dumb down the menu.

I predicted that plan would fail, and it did. As I asked at the time, when the core of your wine list is bottles in the hundreds and thousands, what does it matter if entrée prices are slashed $5 or $10 apiece? Cru closed in 2010.

Bohr moved onto other ventures for a while before opening Charlie Bird in June. The restaurant is, of course, wine-centric: how could it not be? But neither the food nor the wine attempts anything like the ambition of Cru at any point in its six-year run.

I can understand not trying to reproduce Cru, but with the economy now on an upswing, and restaurants like Costata and Carbone pulling in the high rollers again, I think Bohr could have aimed higher than he did.

Mind you, Charlie Bird is very good for what it is, but the food itself is not destination material. It’s good “neighborhood-plus” Italianesque food, which you can get all over town. The wine list, which The Times’s Eric Asimov recently named one of the city’s twelve best, is what makes Charlie Bird a destination.

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Note: Ciano closed in April 2013. Management says that it will re-open on the Upper East Side in August 2013 as Cucina Ciano, with one of chef Shea Gallante’s assistants, but without Gallante himself.


Shea Gallante is back. The chef who made Cru into one of the city’s best restaurants, only to see his work undercut and eventually rendered irrelevant by the Great Recession, has his own place again: Ciano.

In an era of increasing informality, Cru was one of the few restaurants that actually got fancier between its 2004 opening and our most recent check-in, two years ago. But after the fall of Lehman Brothers, the restaurant was forced to reverse field, adopting a less expensive à la carte format and slashing the prices on its legendary wine list by 30 percent.

Gallante never explained his departure. A plausible guess is that when Cru became unsustainable in its original form, he preferred to go out on his own terms. Sure enough, Cru is now closed. Gallante went back briefly to David Bouley’s empire (from which he’d come), then did some consulting in Westchester, and is now back in New York.

Ciano occupies the pretty space that was formerly Beppo. I was never there, but as the re-fit was brief, I assume that a lot of the décor was retained. It’s a beautiful setting for what I call adult dining, with a long polished wood bar, flowers and tablecloths on every table, and a roaring fireplace.

The Italian serving staff—all men, and none of them youngsters—are likely carry-overs too: where else would they find so many waiters of that age on short notice? The patrons also skewed to middle-aged, though not exclusively so. Perhaps many of them had been Beppo regulars, and wanted to see if the new place measures up.

There was always an Italian accent to Gallante’s cuisine at Cru, but it is overtly Italian here. Prices are roughly in line with Cru’s à la carte phase, but without the tasting menus. No one would call it inexpensive. Insalate are $12–15, antipasti $11–18, pastas $19–28 (smaller portions listed for about 1/4th less), secondi $28–35 (not counting the ribeye for two, $48pp), and contorni $10.

Beyond Gallante’s sure hand in the kitchen, what elevates Ciano is its wine program, run by his former Cru colleague, John Slover. As he does at Bar Henry, Slover sells a slew of wines by the half-bottle — the majority of the list, in fact. And we’re not talking about the cheap stuff, either. Real wines of interest, bottles with age, are available by the half, at 50 percent of the bottle price. This is a boon for the customer, but it clearly entails a risk for the restaurnant, as an open bottle quickly deterioriates if another no one buys the other half reasonably promptly.

We began with two of the tenderest Roasted Veal Meatballs ($18; above left) that I’ve had in a long time, so smooth they could have been Kobe beef. Gnocchi ($28; above right) with black truffle butter and 36-month parmigiano were a creamy delight. 

I loved the Berkshire Pork Roast ($32; above left), but it exemplifies the challenge of attracting customers to a restaurant like Ciano. Gallante is clearly sourcing the best beef. With a Barolo vinegar and grilled maitake mushroom sauce, he isn’t stinting on the other ingredients. But diners may ask, “What’s with $32 for pork shoulder?” Lamb Chops ($33; above right) were so rare that I thought they could still “Baaaaa,” and that’s a lot of money for two measly chops.

The experienced server was more polished than one usually finds at a new restaurant, and he didn’t hesitate to share his opinion. He was quite adamant that the smaller-size pasta orders (generally $5–6 less than the full-size ones) aren’t worth the tariff. And when we asked that our shared appetizer and pasta courses be brought out separately, he insisted it would confuse the kitchen, which we found very difficult to believe. Apart from that, he was on top of things.

Obviously, this isn’t bargain dining . Gallante’s technical ability is rock-solid, but he is cooking in a simpler, from-the-gut, style than he did at Cru. Success here will depend on people being willing to spend a bit more for more polished versions of dishes that are available less expensively at more stylish destinations.

I, for one, am happy to do that, but I’m not the guy that restaurant investors are targeting these days.

Ciano (45 E. 22nd Street, east of Park Avenue, Gramercy/Flatiron)

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


Bar Henry Bistro

Note: Bar Henry Bistro closed in 2012. It became an Austin, Texes-themed place called ZirZamin.


Every trend has to begin with one brave establishment trying something for the first time, and having it catch on.

Have you ever visited a place and said, I hope everyone starts doing this? That’s what we said about the wine list at Bar Henry Bistro, which opened in November on one of the few remaining desolate patches of Houston Street.

About that wine list: it’s in two sections: Market and Reserve. On the Market section are 110 bottles, skewing mostly European. For any of these, you can buy half the bottle at exactly half the price. There is a respectable selection of half-bottles, and you can still buy half of those (basically one glass) at exactly half the bottle price.

The half you don’t drink is taken out to the bar, and if no one wants the half-bottle, it’s sold by the glass. Management is betting that there won’t be much waste, and so far it seems to be working. I ordered a glass of 1991 Domaine aux Moines Savennières. Few restaurants would carry that wine by the glass, and at $78 I probably wouldn’t have ordered the full bottle. But it was available to try, because someone had ordered half of it the night before.

There is also a more expensive reserve list (bottle prices mostly in three figures), and these aren’t available by the half-bottle, but as that Domaine aux Moines demonstrates, those who want to explore the market list will find plenty to tempt them. I followed it up with a terrific $7 glass of sherry. (Full disclosure: a second glass of the Domaine and another half-bottle at dinner were comped.)

During the winter, the bar is also serving an obscure cocktail called the Tom and Jerry ($14), recently profiled in the Times, made with eggs, brandy, whisky, warm milk, cinammon, and nutmeg. It’s great for a cold night. The eggs need to be prepped in advance, and even then it’s time-consuming, so they’ll only make a fixed number of them per evening—generally 10 on a weekday, 15 on the weekends. At the beginning of the shift, the numbers from 1 to 10 (or whatever total) are written on the mirror and crossed out as they’re ordered. Once the last one is made, that’s it for the night.

The menu is a bit simplistic, with just five entrées ($16–29), and one of those is a burger. There are about a dozen appetizers and bar snacks—nothing over $14. Indeed, the menu seems to be designed for bar grazers. We enjoyed everything we tried; nevertheless, we had a sense that the food wasn’t as ambitious as the wine list.

At the bar, I snacked on Roasted Almonds ($3) and Marinated Olives($3). A Ceviche special ($9) and Short Rib Tacos ($12; below left) were unmemorable.

We both had the Manhattan Steak ($29; above right), an aged New York strip from Pat LaFreida, the gold standard in beef these days. It was as good as I’ve had outside of a steakhouse, with a recognizable dry-aged tang and a deep exterior char. French fries ($6) were perfect.

We have no idea if the wine program here will catch on, but it strikes us as a fairly low risk for the owners. Most restaurants these days charge out wine bottles at triple the retail price, and of course they don’t pay retail, so they aren’t losing money even if they’re occasionally left with a half-bottle that doesn’t sell. But I don’t get the sense that that’s happening very often, and meanwhile they’re pulling in customers who probably wouldn’t go out of their way for the bistro menu alone.

The dining room is done up in white tablecloths and red velvet chairs supposedly rescued from the Plaza Hotel. Reservations aren’t taken, but we had no trouble getting seated at 7:00 p.m. on a Friday evening. The bar fills up quickly, though. Don’t forget to bring a sweater: the restaurant is in the cellar of an old townhouse, and it gets cold down there.

Bar Henry Bistro (90 W. Houston St. between Thomson St. & LaGuardia Pl., Greenwich Village)

Food: *
Wine: **
Service: *½
Overall: *½