Entries in Keith McNally (14)

Wednesday
Feb292012

Minetta Tavern

I’ve written about Minetta Tavern before (here, here), and as far as background goes, I have little to add. I keep wondering if quality will suffer, given that it is perpetually packed and could probably float on reputation for years to come.

In four visits, I’ve only sat at the bar. Walk-in tables are never available at the hours I’ve gone, nor is it reservable at the times I want to eat. But the bar is really just an extension of the dining room: most people seated there order food.

The food remains excellent. If they’re capable of serving a bad dish, I haven’t seen it yet. The main menu is fairly static—except for the prices, which keep going up—but there is a printed specials menu that changes reasonably often. On a Monday evening a couple of weeks ago, everything we ordered was from that menu.

At $18, a Brussels Sprouts salad (above left) was no bargain, but despite the humble-looking photo, it’s studded with bacon and egg, a dream of a dish.

 

Sea Bass ($36; above left) seems to be the default fish that every restaurant must offer (having apparently replaced salmon and swordfish). This version of it was just about perfect.

But the dish I’ll remember for a long time was the Calves Liver ($34; above right), so thick and hearty it could be a steak, with a charred skin as if it were a steak. This was the best liver dish I can recall, anywhere.

The formula here remains what it was: deceptively simple things that they knock out of the ballpark. Our food bill was $88 for two entrées and a shared salad. Most of the entrées are above $30, but you can eat for less. The Minetta Burger is still just $17 and worth every penny; the Tavern Steak, at $26, although it is not the best steak they serve, still puts many other places’ steaks to shame.

Wine will plump up the bill, no matter what you do. It’s a good diverse list, but with very little below $60 a bottle.

There are a lot of Minetta dishes still on my bucket list — I’m still looking for an occasion to try the côte de boeuf for two (now $134), and the roasted bone marrow looks incredible. That’s for another day.

Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal Street between Bleecker & W. 3rd Streets, Greenwich Village)

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

Thursday
Jun022011

Pulino's

Note: Pulino’s never really caught on, and closed at the end of December 2013. It was the first McNally restaurant ever to close. A French restaurant Cherche Midi, is expected to replace it.

*

My son and I had an early dinner at Pulino’s last week. Since we last visited, owner Keith McNally fired the opening chef, Nate Appleman, and replaced him with one of his corporate chefs, Tony Liu. Typical of McNally, he blasted the critics for under-appreciating the place, but by replacing the chef so soon, apparently acquiesced in their judgment.

Appleman was at least trying to serve interesting food, and for the most part he succeeded. In replacing Appleman, McNally has regressed to the mean. Pulino’s will always be dependable, if you don’t mind throngs of tourists and the crowded, generic, punishingly loud room. But it will never be destination cuisine—just a useful option if you happen to be in the neighborhood.

Ricotta Bruschetta ($12; above left) was curiously bland and didn’t come with enough bruschette. An off-menu special of Softshell Crab ($24; above right), lightly breaded and deep fried, was quite good. We didn’t try pizza, but those we saw at other tables were thicker than those Appleman served, rectifying a nearly universal complaint under the prior regime.

Add a beer ($7), two lemonades ($8), and a shared dessert (3 smallish scoops of gelati, $8), and you’re up to $59 before tax and tip, for not very much food. Pulino’s is not bad, by any means, but it no longer aspires to be great.

Pulino’s (282 Bowery at Houston Street, NoLIta)

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

Wednesday
Jul072010

Not About the Food?

I’d like to deconstruct and debunk a sentence from Sam Sifton’s blog post about this week’s restaurant review, Kenmare. It’s a small point, but that’s why we’re here, so be forewarned.

Here is what Sifton said, with the offending sentence in bold.

I don’t like it much as a restaurant, but that may hardly matter. Places like Kenmare aren’t really about the food. They’re about who’s there and whether they know you. It’s a big city. That works for some people.

“Not about the food” is a lazy meme often trotted out by foodies, food writers, and food-boardists. The restaurants tagged with that epithet are usually those: A) Where the food isn’t very good; and B) That attract a “scene” (models, celebrities, nightclubbers), consisting of people that are somehow determined not to care what they’re eating.

I’d like to challenge that.

In the first place, I think there are very few places that actually set out to serve “inconsequential” food (Sifton’s word). Joey Campanaro, the named chef at Kenmare, has seven New York Times stars to his credit, including a couple of deuces at places where he is still on duty, the justly acclaimed Little Owl and Market Table. I doubt that they would have hired him if they didn’t want a bit of his pixie dust, and I doubt that he would have signed on if knew the food was doomed to be panned—as it has been.

If Kenmare is serving bad food, it’s not by design. Cooking, like books, plays, albums, paintings, and every other kind of creative endeavour, fails sometimes. But rarely is it because the creators never actually cared whether they succeeded.

A commenter to Sifton’s blog post put Pulino’s in the same category, i.e., “not about the food.” But the same owner’s Minetta Tavern has three Times stars and a Michelin star. It throbs with celebrities and pretty young things. Did Keith McNally intend for Pulino’s to be bad (assuming that’s true)? Of course not!

Now, you might argue that regardless of the owner’s intentions, restaurants can be characterized by what their customers intend. But how, exactly, do you put all of Kenmare’s customers into the same bucket? Surely it has (or had) patrons like me, who had enjoyed Joey Campanaro’s work at other restaurants, and wanted to see if he could perform the same magic in another setting.

Visit Sifton’s review, and at the top of it you’ll find a photo of six young, attractive women sitting at a table with drinks, and no food. The caption says, “Kenmare’s owners say it is not a nightclub, but not everyone is going there to eat.”

The women, no doubt, have less experience than Sifton—in the food department, I mean. But who’s to say that, because they are young and attractive, they do not care if they’re served terrible food. (I am assuming the photographer caught them before the food arrived, not that they didn’t order any.) The Times has no idea whether these women ever returned to Kenmare. It just assumes that because of what they look like, they couldn’t possibly tell a good restaurant from a terrible one.

Am I the only one offended by the suggestion?

A couple of Sifton’s other examples—Carmine’s, which has just closed after 107 years at the South Street Seaport; and Nello’s, which received a New York Times goose egg several months ago—seem to me entirely different kinds of places than Kenmare. These are old established restaurants that, for good or ill, have a clientele built up over years or decades that likes what they’re doing, and doesn’t see any need for change.

But Kenmare, a brand spanking new place with a well known chef, has no regulars to fall back on, and the so-called “scene”—those who visit places simply because someone told them to—have a predictable habit of moving on after a few months, or a year at the most. No sensible operator would open such a place intending to serve bad food. That it happens is simply because restaurants fail sometimes.

Monday
May312010

Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria

 

Note: This is a review under Chef Nate Appleman, who left the restaurant in November 2010.

*

Few New York restauranteurs—okay, none—have managed to attract as much giddy anticipation as when Keith McNally opens a new place. He’s on—what is it?—his tenth or fifteenth brasserie, each duly stamped out of a pre-fab mold, and each hailed instantly as if he were doing something new.

The critics have often liked but have seldom adored his restaurants. Frank Bruni wrote a three-star love letter to Minetta Tavern (the only rating above two stars McNally has ever received), but panned Morandi, curiously the McNally restaurant that is least like the others. Those were the only ones that opened during Bruni’s tenure. On this point McNally deserves much credit: he doesn’t shove restaurants hastily out the workroom door. He bides his time, and when he sees gold, he pounces.

I’m less in McNally’s thrall than most people. I wouldn’t have given Minetta Tavern three stars, but I’ve been twice and love it, for what it is. I found Pastis entirely unimpressive, Odeon and Schiller’s both forgettable, though it should be noted I visited them long past their prime. Nevertheless, Schiller’s and Pastis remain packed (I have not checked Odeon lately). I have never been to Balthazar: it’s too difficult to get in, at the hours I would want to go.

Now comes Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria, which is right out of McNally’s playbook—but then again, no. It looks and feels like a McNally place, but he lured James Beard honoree Nate Appleman away from San Francisco, to sling pizza on the Bowery.

(All of McNally’s past chef hires were from New York, and if we can put it so delicately, he seldom chose anyone who presented any threat of running the show. Quick: do the names of any McNally chefs trip off the tongue? That’s right: they don’t.)

The pro reviewers have hammered Pulino’s pizzas, which are made with a thin crust resembling matzo. Of the six pro reviews I checked, not one liked it. For a restaurant that has “pizzeria” in its name, that’s a drawback.

I visited Pulino’s by myself. Given the reviews, I wasn’t going to take a chance on pizza. (The server advised that a hungry solo diner can finish one, but not if you want to try anything else.)

Fortunately, there are many non-pizza items, and you know what? I loved everything I tried. All the food is cooked in two huge wood-burning ovens, which impart a rustic, smoky flavor.

None of the food at Pulino’s will break the bank. Appetizers (various salads, antipasti, proschutti, bruschette) are $8–15, pizzas $9–18 and easily shareable, mains $18–29.

 

I started with the Fazzoletti (above left), crèpes topped with ricotta, lamb ragu and peccorino: a hearty dish, full of flavor. Tender polpettine (above right), or braised goat meatballs, came in a luscious sauce of honey, black pepper, green garlic, white wine, polenta verde, and almonds.

I can’t find an online dessert menu, but I think I had the budino di faro pudding topped with dates and goat’s-milk yogurt (left).

What I loved about this food, besides that it was very good and impeccably prepared, is that I haven’t seen these exact dishes at a hundred other places. Now, a pizzeria that can’t make pizza has a real problem, but there’s excellence and even a bit of inventiveness on the rest of the menu.

The cookie-cutter décor, cribbed from other McNally joints, doesn’t deserve any awards. And at a brand new restaurant, I shouldn’t have to contend with a table that wobbles on an uneven surface.

Restrooms with a shared washroom are another design feature out of McNally’s playbook. In the photo (right), you’ll notice separate doors labeled “women” and “men.” In fact, they lead to the same room, with a sink for washing up, and with toilets behind another set of doors.

I had read about this, but I presume many guests have not. While I was at the sink, a woman poked her head inside the door, gasped, and quickly backed out. Is this McNally trademark is past its sell-by date?

Pulino’s serves the identical menu for lunch and dinner. I took advantage of a slow work day to visit Pulino’s for a very late lunch, at 1:45 p.m., when it was less than half full. At prime times, I hear it is mobbed and oppressively loud.

If there’s anyone who can survive a slew of terrible reviews, it’s Keith McNally. Really, aside from the wobbly table, I had no complaints about the meal or the service at all. I suspect Pulino’s will remain popular for a long time to come.

Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria (282 Bowery at Houston Street, NoLIta)

Food: **
Service: *
Ambiance: Not the reason to dine here
Overall: *½

Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Wednesday
May052010

Review Recap: Pulino's

Today, Sam Sifton gets back on the straight-and-narrow, awarding one star to Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria. There’s an acknowledgment that the owner, Keith McNally, is working from a template, though Sifton doesn’t seem to hold it against him:

Mr. McNally is an important figure in the recent social history of Manhattan. His restaurants have introduced or enhanced neighborhoods all over downtown: Pravda and Balthazar in SoHo, Pastis in the then-quiet meatpacking district, Schiller’s on the Lower East Side, Morandi and Minetta Tavern in the West Village.

Now, there is Pulino’s. You can sit at the bar there, drink Campari and read the newspaper, as you can at any of Mr. McNally’s establishments, feeling grand under a ceiling that soars above a checkerboard floor, surrounded by distressed mirrors, chicken-wire glass, towering walls covered with liquor bottles. The room evokes Schiller’s and Pastis alike, and is as recognizably McNally as the man himself, standing rumpled as Eeyore by the pass to the kitchen.

He seems to love most of the food, finding only a few flubs and a “punishingly loud” room. Presumably, these are the reasons why the restaurant got just one star, rather than the two that McNally and Chef Nate Appleman likely expected. (These days, practically everybody thinks they deserve two stars, unless they’re gunning for three or four.)

But according to most of the reading I’ve done, one star was the correct rating. This is the Sam Sifton of last year, as opposed to the recent Sifton, who has been pulling stars (and restaurants) out of a random number generator.

The review came awfully fast, though. Pulino’s opened to the general public on March 26, and Sifton’s visits were probably wrapped up by April 23, just four weeks later. (The Times photo shoot was on April 28; it needs to be scheduled, and Sifton is unlikely to have paid additional visits after that.) Perhaps Sifton expected some complaints: on the blog, he notes that the restaurant was open an additional two weeks for “friends & family.”

Still, I think he should have given McNally and Appleman a few more weeks. It might not—indeed, probably would not—have changed the rating, but would have been more fair to the restaurant.

Friday
Jun122009

The Bone-In Strip at Minetta Tavern

When Frank Bruni pronounced Minetta Tavern “the best steakhouse in the city” and awarded an improbable three stars, our eyes rolled.

“There he goes again,” we thought, conjuring up the image of countless restaurants over-rated during his tenure.

But we’ll give Bruni credit for one thing: the man likes his steak, and he likes it the same way we do: dry-aged prime, with a crunchy charred crust. So if Bruni thought Minetta was the city’s best, we figured it certainly wouldn’t be bad. We had to try it.

There are really only two options, a bone-in New York strip and a côte de boeuf for two. I’m leaving aside the Tavern Steak ($21), which looked pretty good when another diner had it, but it’s neither aged nor prime. And I’m also ignoring the filet mignon, which can never be a serious test. And since I was alone, that côte de boeuf wasn’t an option either.

The strip it was. And, oh my! was it good: more marbled than the typical strip, cooked on the bone to give it more flavor, and including a “tail” of half meat, half fat that most restaurants trim off. Equally impressive, it was just $36.

I cannot say for sure that it was better than the Steak for One at Wolfgang’s, which was $0.50 more expensive the last time I had it. But it was certainly as good, and certainly more remarkable for being served on the bone, which few restaurants do.

A side of leafy spinach ($8) was commendably done, but not memorable the way the steak was.

Once again, I sat at the bar, which had just one stool available at 5:30 p.m. Service was a bit more distracted than last time, when I had the burger. This place is bursting at the seams. When I left, at around 6:45, there was a hostess standing outdoors with names on a clipboard. I wouldn’t call her a bouncer—actually, she was quite friendly—but I gather her job was to turn away walk-ins.

We’ll go ahead and give the steak 3 stars, since we haven’t had better, but you’ll have to put up with some hassles if you want to try it.

Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal Street between Bleecker & W. 3rd Streets, Greenwich Village)

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

Wednesday
May202009

Review Recap (lame duck edition): Minetta Tavern

Well, blow me down.

The day after we wrote that “One or two stars are the only plausible outcomes here,” Frank Bruni awarded three stars to Minetta Tavern:

The minute you heard that Keith McNally was dusting off Minetta Tavern — that musty, sputtering Greenwich Village relic from the late 1930s — you probably figured he’d get the look and atmosphere right…

But were you prepared for a côte de boeuf like Minetta’s, a sublime hunk of glorious meat that you dream about hours later, pine for the next day and extol in a manner so rapturous and nonstop that friends begin to worry less about your cholesterol than about your sanity?

And did you expect that Mr. McNally, with the chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, would come up with the best steakhouse in the city?

We never saw this one coming, nor did over 500 Eater.com voters, 91.4% of whom believed, as we did, that two stars was the maximum for this place.

Our experience here is limited to the $16 Minetta Burger (like us, Bruni prefers it to its $26 cousin), but this didn’t strike us as a three-star restaurant. Indeed, Minetta Tavern serves a slimmed down version of the Balthazar menu, and no one has suggested that Balthazar is unfairly rated at two stars (Amanda Hesser, May 2004).

We don’t agree with Bruni every time, but all of his other three-star restaurants were, in a sense, predictable. They were types of restaurants where you knew this outcome was possible. This is the first one that just came out of nowhere.

Indeed, even taken on its own terms, the review makes a poor case for three stars. Bruni concedes that “little of the rest of Minetta’s food rises all the way to the extraordinarily high level of the beef.”

What a bizarre way to begin the last three months of his tenure.

Tuesday
May192009

Review Preview: Minetta Tavern

Are you feeling withdrawal over the death—or at least, suspension—of Eater’s BruniBetting, and the end of our weekly competition? Yeah, us too. As recompense, we launch “Review Preview” (pronounced “REEview PREEview”), in which we’ll showcase the weekly Times review, either by Frank Bruni or his successor.

This week’s subject: Keith McNally’s Minetta Tavern makeover, and Bruni’s first review as a lame-duck critic.

The Skinny: We’re not sure how Keith McNally got to be so good at turning out one hit after another. Fine dining ain’t his thing—his restaurants hover somewhere in the nether-regions between one and two stars. But somehow, wherever he lands, he attracts a gaggle of celebrities, often to neighborhoods not previously considered dining destinations.

And his restaurants stay hot, years after he opened them. We’ve still never been to his flagship, Balthazar — the trouble of getting in just never seemed to be worth it. Our one visit to Pastis left us unimpressed. We walked by Schiller’s Liquor Bar recently, and kept right on walking, deterred as we were by the ridiculous crowd.

McNally has never had a failure in New York (at least that we’re aware of), but his Italian restaurant, Morandi, has never caught on the way the other ones did. McNally is still smarting after Bruni slammed it with one star. He accused Bruni of hating women chefs, but he fired the chef, Jody Williams, anyway.

At Minetta Tavern, McNally takes no chances. The restaurant has been in the heart of Greenwich Village since before most of us were born. Formerly an undistinguished formula Italian place, McNally acquired it, spruced up the décor, and installed the same kitchen team that runs Balthazar.

McNally must be the only guy who could replace one formula restaurant with another, and still have a big hit. Service probably has a lot to do with it. We were impressed with the coddling we received when all we did was order a burger at the bar.

The Prediction: One or two stars are the only plausible outcomes here. Most of the critics have been impressed with the Minetta Tavern reboot. Frank Bruni seldom goes against a solid consensus, so we assume he’ll be impressed too. We predict that Frank Bruni will award two stars to Minetta Tavern.

Friday
May012009

The Minetta Burger

Note: Click here for a review of the steak at Minetta Tavern.

I don’t quite get the breathless excitement over Keith McNally’s latest restaurant, the reborn Minetta Tavern. Then again, I have never understood the excitement for Keith McNally’s other restaurants—most of them formulaic French brasseries. He’s got a good grasp on the format, but does this justify the long lines and impossible-to-get reservations?

Even Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton had to admit defeat, conceding he hired a concierge service to get him into Minetta at a decent hour, after multiple failed attempts to get in on his own. Restaurant Girl didn’t let on how she got in, but she does not dine anonymously, which perhaps is all we need to know.

Last night, I decided to take a flyer on the bar at Minetta Tavern, figuring it was early enough (5:45 p.m.) that I would get a seat.  Sure enough, there was exactly one stool free when I arrived. The staff were friendly and accommodating—well beyond my expectations. I was expecting “attitude” at the host stand, but there was none of it.

Minetta Tavern shares its chefs with Balthazar, the McNally establishment to which it is most similar. The Minetta menu is slightly less expensive, and has slightly fewer offerings than Balthazar does. Most notably, it lacks Balth’s humungous plateaux de fruits de mer ($65 & $110 respectively), and it offers burgers, which Balth does not.

There are two burgers at Minetta Tavern, the Minetta Burger ($16) and the La Freida Black Label Burger ($26). Both Restaurant Girl and Bloomberg’s Sutton thought the lower-priced option was better. We tried the purported Black Label product at City Burger a few months ago, and weren’t impressed. Later on, La Freida explained that City Burger wasn’t getting the real Black Label blend, which was available only at Minetta. We weren’t going to fall for that trick again. It was the Minetta Burger for us.

And I fine burger it was: thick, juicy, and flavorful. Oh, and they nailed the fries, too. It’s not cheap, but this is a burger I could eat every week. I asked the kitchen to hold the caramelized onions that normally come with it. When the beef is this good, who needs onions?

There’s much more to Minetta Tavern, which I’ll be back to sample another day. Yesterday belonged to the burger.

Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal Street between Bleecker & W. 3rd Streets, Greenwich Village)

Wednesday
Apr092008

France Makes a Comeback

barboulud_outside2.jpg brasseriecognac_outside1.jpg

In today’s Times, Florence Fabricant reports that traditional French restaurants are making a comeback (“There’ll Always Be a France, Especially in New York”).

Evidence:

  • Daniel Boulud has just opened Bar Boulud, with a classic French bistro and charcuterie menu.
  • Later this month, Alain Ducasse will open Benoit in the former La Côte Basque space. Ducasse already opened another French restaurant this year, Adour, in the former Lespinasse space.
  • Next Monday, Brasserie Cognac opens in West Midtown. Rita Jammet, who owned La Caravelle, is on hand as a consultant.
  • Keith McNally, who owns perhaps the most successful casual French restaurant in New York, Balthazar, is converting Minetta Tavern (in Greenwich Village) into a French bistro.
  • Later this year, David Bouley will convert his three-star Austrian Danube into a French brasserie, Secession. Bouley is also moving his eponymous flagship French-inspired restaurant to a new space about a block away from its current location.

benoit_opening.jpgWhat’s notable is not merely that these restaurants have a nod to the French tradition, but that many of them are overtly traditional, serving the old standards (lobster thermidor, cassoulet, duck à l’orange) that were considered dinosaurs a short while ago.

Bouley told Fabricant, “I see traditional food coming back. It’s also newly popular in France, and it’s great to see. I have an emotional connection to that food, to my grandmother’s cooking: some of my family comes from Arras and Tours. And I love the tradition — braising rabbits and boning fish tableside, but in a relaxed atmosphere.”

These new restaurants lack the “jacket-and-tie mandatory” atmosphere of their “Le” and “La” predecessors, but in many other ways they’re throwbacks.

I, for one, am delighted. It’s not that these restaurants are uniformly excellent. I love some of them (Le Périgord, Le Veau d’Or) and have been underwhelmed at others (La Grenouille, Adour). It’s just fascinating to see that restauranteurs are giving New Yorkers something different by giving them something traditional.

Frank Bruni, who usually finds French food so dull, is going to have to brush up on Escoffier.