Entries in Ken Friedman (16)


The Prime Rib Feast at The Breslin

It’s never too soon to re-visit The Breslin, one of two April Bloomfield restaurants with a Michelin star — The Spotted Pig is the other — and both criminally under-rated by the Paper of Record, at one star apiece.

The Breslin has been with us for five years, and the value proposition isn’t much changed. It’s a full-on cholesterol assault, but you’ll love it all the same. Sam Sifton had a point when he implied it would kill you to eat here too often. So would Peter Luger, but no one’s making you drop in every night.

There’s a robust market for the so-called “large format feast,” which started to appear all over town at about the time The Breslin did. There are four of them here, all for eight to twelve guests: prime rib ($95 per person), roasted duck ($65), whole suckling pig ($85) and lamb curry ($80).

Order one of these, and you’ll be seated at the dining room’s large central table, facing the open kitchen, where you can oogle the chefs, and the rest of the guests can oogle you as the food comes out. A group of us visited recently for the rib. (Click on the photo, above left, for a larger image of the menu.)

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Monkey Bar

The business cards at Monkey Bar say in small print, “Est. 1936.” Yeah, sure it was. The space in the Hotel Elysée is that old, but nothing has lasted there except the Simian-themed décor.

To give only the recent history: the Glaziers of steakhouse fame (Michael Jordan’s, Strip House) acquired the Monkey Bar in 1994 and hired the restaurant starchitect David Rockwell to give it a plush makeover. There was a succession of chefs, including John Schenk, Kurt Gutenbrunner, Patricia Yeo, Chris Cheung. At one time, Monkey Bar was one of the toughest doors in town.

Somewhere along the line, the Glaziers turned it into a steakhouse. By then anyone could get in, including me. I recall having a pretty good steak there in the 1990s or early 2000s: after all, good beef was one thing the Glaziers had in abundance. By 2008, it had fallen on hard times. Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter acquired the space and closed it for restoration, installing a spectacular Edward Sorel mural in the dining room.

Carter’s idea was to create a midtown version of what he’d already achieved in Greenwich Village, at the Waverly Inn: a restaurant masquerading as a club for publishing and advertising industry moguls, celebrities, and the well connected. By July 2009, The Times reported that Carter spent 20 minutes a day, 7 days a week, laying out the seating chart of the two restaurants:

Although hardly any critics have reviewed the Monkey Bar yet — and the first chef was fired — prime reservations are already nearly impossible for anyone other than the famous or well connected…

For a while, there was a phone number people could call to reach a reservationist. No more.

“We were getting 1,000 calls a day,” said Mr. Klein in an interview at the bar at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street, next to a property he owns, the City Club Hotel. “It’s hard on the phone to say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have a place for you.’ It’s easier by e-mail. People get upset on the phone.”

So now there is an e-mail address…although 90 percent of reservations are made through the partners — that is, by people who know them or have some connection and reach them directly.

The one thing it lacked was food worth paying for. Within five weeks of opening, Carter fired the chef, Elliot Ketley, replacing him with culinary legend Larry Forgione, who was there only as a consultant until a permanent chef could be found. Forgione was on hand when Frank Bruni awarded a weak star, finding a menu strewn with “many mishaps.” That accomplished, Forgione gave way to Josh Moulton.

It turns out that there’s a limit to the number of people who will sign up for expensive, mediocre cuisine, and Monkey Bar had surpassed it. Before long, it was on OpenTable and reservable any day, any time, at short notice. Lunch service was dropped in the dining room.

Give Carter credit for recognizing that he’d run the restaurant into a ditch, and needed a full-scale talent make-over. To fix the place, he brought in the restaurant equivalent of the 1927 Yankees: managing partner and front-office genius Ken Friedman (The Spotted Pig, The Breslin, The John Dory), chef Damon Wise (Craft, Colicchio & Sons), sommelier and GM Belinda Chang (The Modern), and cocktail whiz Julie Reiner (Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club).

The question is how long Carter can keep this team together. Wise admits that he plans to open a downtown restaurant in 2012. The Monkey Bar is in essence a stop-gap for him until that space is ready, though he insists he will remain executive chef here. Reiner is only consulting, and Friedman has places all over town, which leaves only Chang with a full-time commitment to the restaurant.

For now, though, let’s enjoy what they have accomplished, which in a few short weeks is something remarkable, given what they started with.

Chang’s wine list is just a few pages long. Reprinted daily, it comes in a cardboard folder with the leaves stapled together. About equally balanced between the United States and France, I assume it is a work in progress. You won’t find much below $50, whether red or white, but if you’re willing to spend a bit more, there are some older Bordeaux worth a look.

Perhaps the 2001 Château La Vieille Cure was a hold-over from prior management. At $80, it qualifies as a bargain on this list. Chang has stocked the place with proper Bordeaux glasses, but not decanters, and a wine this old really ought to be decanted. After a while, it opened up beautifully, and was well worth the price.

Wise’s menu is a complete departure from the brasserie food that Monkey Bar was serving a couple of years ago, with a fairly close stylistic resemblance to Colicchio & Sons, his last stop after many years previously at Craft. It’s priced for the midtown corporate crowd, with appetizers and pastas mostly $19–23, entrées mostly $29–36. There are a few outliers, like the ubiquitous côte de boeuf for two ($135) and pasta with truffles ($55): this is a Graydon Carter restaurant, after all.

But with an excellent bread service, an amuse bouche, and petits fours at the end, you are getting your money’s worth. In the early days, the menu is promising. If the execution isn’t quite perfect, it’s certainly miles ahead of Colicchio & Sons, in a far nicer room.

The amuse bouche (above left) was a small cup of celery root soup with diced apples. To start, we shared the Braised Pork Belly ($21; above right) with crispy deep-fried oysters and kimchee, a well conceived but slightly cloying dish.

Both entrées were impressive productions, though verging on the edge of over-worked. Halibut ($31; above left) was a lovely dish, served with heart of palm, chorizo, squid, and oyster velouté. Long Island Duck ($32; above right) came with salsify, black mission figs, and oyster mushrooms. The breast was a shade on the greasy side, and would have benefited from being cut in thicker slices. These are the kinds of adjustments I expect will be made in the coming weeks.

There is apparently not a full-time pastry chef on duty, but that didn’t stop the kitchen from turning out wonderful, sugar-coated beignets (above left) and petits fours, including the insouciently named “monkey balls” (above right).

Without Graydon Carter’s rolodex to rely on, Monkey Bar now needs to earn business the way most new restaurants do: by attracting repeat customers. As of last week, it had its work cut-out for it, although the publicity cycle was only just beginning. I made a last-minute reservation on Friday evening and changed it twice, all without any trouble. The dining room was about half full, although the bar was doing brisk business.

Service was smooth and assured. If you think of Monkey Bar as a two-week-old restaurant, this is a strong start. If you think of it as a place Graydon Carter has been tinkering with for three years, then you wonder if the latest move is just desperation. If Belinda Chang sticks around and Damon Wise’s downtown restaurant is delayed a little longer, Monkey Bar might just grow into something special.

Monkey Bar (60 E. 54th St. between Madison & Park Avenues, East Midtown)

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


John Dory Oyster Bar

The John Dory Oyster Bar should come with a disclaimer: all similarities to the outfit formerly named the John Dory are purely coincidental.

Once upon a time, chef April Bloomfield and business partner Ken Friedman opened a damned fine restaurant called the John Dory in far Southwest Chelsea, on the same block as Del Posto, Colicchio & Sons, and Morimoto. It got mostly favorable reviews (two stars from both Frank Bruni and yours truly).

In a move that no one saw coming, the restaurant closed after just nine months. Friedman gave multiple explanations for why it failed. (We’ve heard others that we can’t repeat.) In essence, he says that the business model counted on a heavy all-day walk-in trade, which is absent in that neighborhood. It’s an understandable mistake, coming from a team whose other places—the Spotted Pig, the Rusty Knot, and the Breslin—don’t take reservations.

Now called an Oyster Bar, the John Dory has re-opened in a corner of the Ace Hotel, the same boutique that’s home to the Breslin. Located just south of Madison Square Garden, Penn Station, and the Herald Square shopping district, it should have no trouble attracting the foot traffic that was lacking in the old location.

Some of the old Dory’s over-the-top fish décor made the trip upstream, er, uptown, but it is done far more tastefully here. With high ceilings and panoramic picture windows, it no longer looks like, as Frank Bruni put it, “Mr. Friedman . . . went on eBay, typed in ‘fish décor’ and bought and made use of everything that popped up.”

But some of the changes are less salutary. The seating—all bar stools—is so cramped that it must surely be at the legal limit. It leaves servers with hardly any space to maneuver. At 6:30 p.m. on a Saturday evening, I got one of the few places available, a window stool with my back to the room, looking out on what must be one of Manhattan’s most charmless intersections.

The limited menu, which changes daily, is now all bar snacks, raw fish, and small plates. Most individual items are $15 or less, but a hungry diner will need several of them to put together a full meal. Friedman and Bloomfield have already proven that they can serve real entrées in a casual, no-reservations setting. The loss of the original Dory’s more serious cooking is a real disappointment.


I loved the Oyster Pan Roast with Uni Crostini (above left), even if there was no “pan.” This is one of the few dishes retained from the old John Dory, and with good reason. But the Lobster and Onion Panade (above right) was too bland—the first time I’ve ever said that of an April Bloomfield dish—and I didn’t detect any lobster. It turned out to be a not-very-good French Onion Soup without the cheese.

There’s a fine wine list here, but I had two very good cocktails, the Spring Forward (Gin, Vermouth, Spring Onion) and the Fall Back (Applejack, Rye, Amaro Nonino, Vermouth, Peychaud).

The staff are friendly and attitude-free, but they struggle to keep up. The cocktails took too long to come out, and there were other awkward waits. I was puzzled by the kitchen’s decision to send out my two dishes simultaneously, although this could have been the server’s error (i.e., not making clear that I was a solo party). The server might also have pointed out that both were soups, which I had not realized. I would probably have ordered something else.

The John Dory Oyster Bar is an excessive reaction to the failure of the original John Dory. I fully understand the desire to be in a neighborhood with customers, and the no-reservations service model is fine with me: I love the Spotted Pig and the Breslin, both of which work the same way. But the menu is not as appealing as their other places, and right now the service is too frantic.

With April Bloomfield in charge of the kitchen, you know that it will probably get better.

John Dory Oyster Bar (1196 Broadway at 29th St. in the Ace Hotel, West Midtown)

Food: *
Service: no stars
Ambiance: *
Overall: *


Breakfast at The Breslin

Like most hotel restaurants, The Breslin is compelled to serve breakfast. I say compelled because it is not the meal into which the chef pours much creative energy, although it is comparatively lucrative. The profit margin on a $2.50 cup of coffee must be around five hundred percent.

Still, April Bloomfield’s fingerprints are all over the menu: I don’t know of many places that serve poached eggs with curried lentils, yoghurt, and cilantro, or beans in pork fat. Ricotta, Bloomfield’s favorite cheese, makes an appearance in at least two dishes.


I had the Seasonal Frittata with — yes, riccotta ($14) — and the house-cured bacon ($7). Unlike the bacon you have at home, Bloomfield’s doesn’t get crisp. It is really a portion more appropriate for sharing, given the high fat content, but there I was by myself . . . and finished it.

The Breslin (16 W. 29th Street between Broadway & Fifth Avenue, West Midtown)


The Breslin

I visited The Breslin alone about a month ago. I felt it was a two-star restaurant at the time, but hadn’t sampled enough of the menu to form a definite impression. Now I can correct that (and Sam Sifton’s wrong-headed one-spot).

I wrote about the background of The Breslin in an earlier review, so I’ll get right to the food.


The Terrine Board (above left) is excellent—the components being guinea hen, rustic pork, rabbit & prune, liverwurst, and head cheese. I wonder why there is no option for a solo diner? It comes in two sizes ($25 or $42), and even the smaller one, which we had, is too large for one person.

A whole trout ($32; above right) was exquisite, its pink flesh moist and tender. We also had the lamb burger and fries once again (the photo is in my earlier review), which was as good as before.

The wine list is a tad expensive, with too few bottles under $50. However, the 2007 Domaine des Martinelles at $55 was wonderful. The list describes it as “the rustic side of Crozes-Hermitage: meat-driven, earthy, funky, and amazingly yummy.” It arrived at the table properly chilled. Even restaurants much more expensive than The Breslin often serve red wine at room temperature.

I don’t know how Chef April Bloomfield divides her time between The Breslin and her other restaurant, The Spotted Pig. She was in the Breslin kitchen the night we were there, apparently (as far as we could tell) looking at every plate that went out.

The space is noisier than I’d like, and I wish they took reservations. The dining room hasn’t been full either time I visited (the packed bar is another story entirely). Perhaps it would even help business to get with the program, and join OpenTable. But I love April Bloomfield’s food too much to subtract points for that, so The Breslin gets two stars from us.

The Breslin (16 W. 29th Street between Broadway & Fifth Avenue, West Midtown)

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

Breslin Bar & Dining Room on Urbanspoon


Why April Bloomfield Rocks


The other day, I was browsing the online menus of several West Village restaurants, trying decide which one to visit for dinner. Their unrelenting sameness depressed me. It’s not that I’ve tired of the classics, only that I doubted they’d be done really well.

Then I decided on The Spotted Pig, and I remembered why the chef, April Bloomfield, really rocks. Her menu—particularly the list of daily specials—is packed with dishes that don’t resemble anyone else’s. She isn’t serving kidneys on toast because there is great demand for them, but because this is her food.

I started with an order of Shito Peppers ($5), lightly fried and dusted with sea salt, each one packing a different heat intensity, depending on how many seeds remained inside. It was just a five-dollar bar snack, but full of flavor, and not duplicated in any other pub I know of.

Then I had a Butter Cup Squash Salad ($15; right) with golden chard and sorrel—a simple, impeccably prepared salad. Who else is serving one with these ingredients?

That’s why April Bloomfield Rocks.

The service here was excellent, as always, bearing in mind that it’s basically a gussied-up pub. But there are a lot of staff here—surely enough for a two-star restaurant, despite the superficially casual box they’re squeezed into.

One minor complaint: I was seated against the back wall, with the daily specials—there are always more than a half-dozen of them—written on the mirror behind me. Given that the menu is reprinted daily, why must it omit so many items, especially as there are so many seats, like the one I was in, where the mirror can’t easily be seen?

The Pig was the least crowded I’ve ever seen it. Don’t cry for April and her business partner, Ken Friedman: the place was full by 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday evening. But it was the first time I’ve been there that it actually took a full hour to seat every table.

The Spotted Pig (314 W. 11 Street at Greenwich Street, West Village)


The Breslin

Note: Click here for a later review of The Breslin.

Time was, the cuisine of the British Isles didn’t travel well. No one went to England for the food, and no one opened serious English restaurants anywhere else.

April Bloomfield may be the chef who, more than any other, has proven that the food of her native country can be exported. It began at the Spotted Pig, a West Village hit six years ago that remains impossibly busy at practically all times (and does not take reservations).

Bloomfield and her business partner, Ken Friedman, stumbled at the John Dory, a seafood restaurant in Far West Chelsea that won good reviews, but couldn’t stay in business. Friedman attributed the failure to the lack of lunch traffic in that neighborhood, and inefficient use of the space due to the decision to accept reservations, which he says he regrets.

The Breslin, a gastropub like the Pig, opened last fall. The neighborhood presented a bit of a risk, as West 29th Street is neither a nightlife hotspot nor a residential district. It’s in the unnamed gray space on the Manhattan map, north of Chelsea but south of Midtown. Restaurants too numerous to name have failed here. Nevertheless, they vowed not to take reservations.

By opening in the boutique Ace Hotel, Bloomfield and Friedman at least hedged their bets. Hotel restaurants are usually subsidized, since most establishments feel they must offer their guests a place to eat. A failure would mean leaving the space vacant for a prolonged period, which an upscale hotel would likely consider intolerable. The built-in captive audience gives the restaurant a cushion to rest on.

Not that the Breslin shows any sign of failing: it was arguably the hottest of the fall openings. It was less than half full on a recent Saturday evening, but I hesitate to draw conclusions during a summer weekend. But if this persists I suspect the no-reservation policy will get a second look.

Whether you like the Breslin or not, you have to take off your hat to Ms. Bloomfield, to this extent: She isn’t serving a Scotch Egg or a Beef & Stilton Pie because the market demanded them. No menu consultant gave her the list of obligatory standards that every place in town is serving. When you dine at Bloomfield’s restaurants, you’re getting her cuisine, and nobody else’s.

In a somewhat unflattering one-star review, Sam Sifton complained that too much of the menu sings in the same key: it’s heavy on salt and fat, and as he indelicately put it, tough on the digestive tract. It’s somewhat unfair to penalize the restaurant because he needed to fart, but it is a heavy menu. There is no denying that.

The menu is divided into snacks ($4–8), appetizers ($12–18), entrées ($17–32), and sides ($7–8). Terrine boards are $25 or $42, and you cannot order their contents individually. Even crazier is a ribeye for two at $139; no steak for one person is offered.

I visited the Breslin alone, and tried too little of the menu to form a definite impression. Boiled Peanuts Fried in Pork Fat ($6; above left) is a crazy dish that no one else serves. Whether due to boiling or saturation in fat, the shells are edible, and just as good as the nuts inside.

The Lamb Burger with Feta ($17; above right) is rich and flavorful, but I like the Spotted Pig’s beef burger with roquefort even better. It comes with addictive chips that, in keeping with the theme, are thrice fried.

The service is top-notch, at least by pub standards, as I have found at every one of Ken Friedman’s places. For a former record industry honcho, he seems to understand how to recruit and train a staff. They all dress casually, and indeed, you might have trouble telling them apart from the customers.

Friedman has done his usual bang-up job on the décor, assuming you don’t mind a Disneyfied version of what a real English pub looks like. The space is quite a bit more comfortable than the Spotted Pig, with the advantage of being built from scratch, and not having to fit into a landmarked neighborhood.

The Breslin is, alas, too far out of my way to be on the regular rotation. But there is much more of the menu that I am eager to try, if only to find out if the rest of the food tastes as good as it reads.

The Breslin (16 W. 29th Street between Broadway & Fifth Avenue, West Midtown)


Review Recap: The Breslin

Today, Sam Sifton awarded the expected one star to the Breslin. He loved the food (mostly), but noted that an awful lot of it strikes the same chords repeatedly:

The Breslin is the sort of restaurant you end up thinking about a lot, not always pleasantly, staring up at the ceiling at 3 in the morning in cold sweat and mild panic. Yes, the food is good. But it is monochromatically good: it is 10 colors of fat. Excess can become wretched, and fast.

He also notes the insane ritual of trying to get a table at this crowded place:

The restaurant takes no reservations; it celebrates a democracy of the committed. Save for at breakfast, over pancakes and Stumptown coffee, the restaurant is almost perpetually jammed.

At night, out in the bar, people dance in place, drink amber cocktails, listen to music that bounces smartly between rock and hip-hop. They wait endlessly for tables to clear.

I question the idea of calling this “democracy.” It is simply owner Ken Friedman’s way of making more money: no need ever to worry about no-shows, or tables vacant because the last booking has departed and the next hasn’t yet arrived. If the Breslin ever quiets down, rest assured that Friedman will suddenly be pleased to take your reservation—not that this is likely anytime soon.

Eater’s prediction and the many reactions to it show that people still haven’t adjusted to Sam Sifton’s grading curve. For Frank Bruni, two stars was the default rating. He usually didn’t give one star without reciting a long list of complaints. This would explain the attitude of the Eater commenter, who said, “it only deserves 1 star but the review barely took the restaurant down or explained why.”

Sifton has returned the star system to its historical roots. One star means “good.” It is not an insult. There is nothing fundamentally inconsistent with a positive review that awards only one star.

We are not about to say that we fully grasp Sifton’s system, but at least we got this one right, and are awarded with a whopping $4 against our hypothetical one-dollar bet; this is courtesy of Eater odds that were wrong to begin with. Eater loses a dollar.

Eater   NYJ
Bankroll $9.00   $8.00
Gain/Loss –$1.00   +$4.00
Total $8.00   $12.00
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 6–5

Life-to-date, New York Journal is 76–32 (70%).


Review Preview: The Breslin

Tomorrow, Sam Sifton takes on the latest April Bloomfield/Ken Friedman production, the insanely crowded Breslin in the Ace Hotel. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows: Goose Egg: 50–1 ; One Star: 4–1; Two Stars: EVEN; Three Stars: 10–1; Four Stars: 25,000–1.

We haven’t yet been to the Breslin, and we hear it’s practically impossible to get a table at the hours most people want to eat, unless you’re prepared to wait an awfully long time. Sifton probably didn’t endure those waits, but he cannot have been insensible to the plight of those who do.

We think that Eater is grossly over-stating the certainty of a two-star review. The Times dining section is being run by adults now, and two stars is no longer the default rating for ambitious comfort food served in a zero-star environment. To the contrary, we think Sifton comes into this place planning on one star, and the food would need to be an out-of-the-park home run to overcome the restaurant’s many drawbacks.

So, while a two-star review wouldn’t surprise us, we don’t think it’s four times as likely as a one-star review, as the Eater odds imply. We hope nobody is actually betting on our advice, as our predictions since Sifton took over have not been very accurate. Nevertheless, we will buck the Eater odds today, and bet on one star for the Breslin.


The Burger at the Spotted Pig

As time allows, I’ve been eating my way through the city’s iconic burgers. On Friday, it was The Spotted Pig’s turn. No less an authority than Citysearch’s Mr. Cutlets ranks it fourth—not bad in a town where there’s a burger on every street corner.

I eat at the Pig only when I can arrive between 5:00 and 5:30 p.m., when dinner service begins. Any later than that, and you’re looking at a long wait. The service puts many two-star restaurants to shame, from the friendly hostess that found a bar stool for me when it appeared there were none, to another hostess that offered without prompting to transfer the bar tab to my table.

But let’s move onto that burger ($17), a hefty monster with a gorgesous beefy taste and a crisp, charred bun. One could argue that the roquefort cheese overpowers the meat (that’s Cutlets’ position), though I would probably order it again as-is. The shoestring fries that come with it are insubstantial.

The burger seems to be the most popular item at the Spotted Pig. I had a great view of the kitchen, and it looked like about 60% of all orders coming out were burgers. I now see why. It is truly a masterpiece of burger science.

The Spotted Pig (314 W. 11 Street at Greenwich Street, West Village)