Entries in Michael Toscano (3)



Note: This review is under chef Michael Toscano, who left the restaurant in November 2014 for an opportunity in Charleston, South Carolina. Montmartre closed in March 2016. The owner Gabe Stulman, changed the concept over and over again, but couldn’t find a formula that worked.


If Montmartre were an operating system, what version would it be? Best I can tell, we’re on Montmartre v3.0.

The restaurant opened 13 months ago with ex-Momofuku chef Tien Ho serving classic French bistro cuisine. After just five weeks, Tien and owner Gabe Stulman tossed the menu in lieu of the Asian-inflected Vietnamese cooking that the chef was known for. This was a remarkable turn of events: the restaurant was busy, and none of the pro critics had reviewed it yet. But Stulman apparently smelled a rat before the critics told him what was wrong. When Pete Wells awarded two stars in June 2013, he found v2.0 much improved over version he had beta tested.

It is less clear what went wrong after that, but Tien left the restaurant in October 2013, and Michael Toscano (Stulman’s partner at Perla) was appointed executive chef and co-owner. Strangely enough, v3.0 reverted back to the plan of v1.0, with a classic French bistro menu. It’s a bit like the failure of New Coke: Coke Classic was better, after all.

The new menu is not quite full-on French. Under a heading like Coquillages, you’ve got an offering like Shrimp Cocktail ($15), which basically could be served anywhere. Likewise, under Salades, a choice of Winter Greens ($11) with blood orange vinaigrette. But there’s also escargots ($15) and cassoulet de cochon ($29.50), so there’s enough French for those who want it, along with classic bail-out dishes like a dry-aged burger ($19) and a straight-up roast chicken ($28).

Appetizers and salads are $11–17, entrées $19 (the burger) up to the oddly priced steak frittes ($35.25). There are a lot of prices ending in .25 or .95, which I have to think is a joke, as it is not consistent, and none of Stulman’s other restaurants—all with a similar vibe and price range—are priced like that.

Despite the humble, and for the most part inexpensive, bistro cuisine, Stulman price-gouges on the wine list, as he always does. There are hardly any reds below $60, and the bottom end is mostly over-priced vins de pays. He really ought to be ashamed of himself. The 2012 Gravilas we ordered was fine, for what it was; it just shouldn’t be $52 (it’s about $17 retail).


We began with country bread, served with soft butter. The amuse bouche (above left) was a butternut squash velouté with hazelnuts. We made the boring but enjoyable choice for our appetizer, a dozen oysters (Wellfleet, Beau Soleil, and Malpeque).

The menu’s obligatory large-format dish is a hulking braised Short Rib Bourgogne pour deux ($60), served with carrots, onions, lardons, and fingerling potatoes. It’s fabulous, and three could easily share it.


Desserts were first rate, a chocolate fondant ($12; above left) and a pineapple clafoutis ($12; above right).


The meal ends with cookies served in an old Camel cigarette case.

The space is resolutely casual, like all of Stulman’s restaurants. The dining rooms on two levels are packed with tables, to what I assume is the legal limit: there was barely room for the food, and we might as well have been in our neighbors’ laps.

Montmartre takes reservations (only by phone), which may indicate some weakness, as historically Stulman has preferred strictly walk-ins. We did exactly that at 7:15pm on a Saturday evening and were seated immediately: they were doing decent business but were not full.

I wish we could have tried more, but the fraction of the menu we were able to sample was excellent. If accompanied by a sensibly-priced wine list, Montmartre might be one of our better French bistros.

Montmartre (158 Eighth Avenue between 17th & 18th Streets, Chelsea)

Food: Excellent Americanized French bistro classics; an over-priced wine list
Service: Good
Ambiance: A charming, if over-crowded, Francophilic dining room on two levels

Rating: ★½




Note: This review is under founding chef Michael Toscano, who left the restaurant in November 2014 for an opportunity in Charleston, South Carolina. Later still, Perla moved to a new space at 234 W. 4th Street, where it is now called Perla Cafe. Despite the similar name, it is now more casual, and is both less expensive and less fancy than it was when I wrote this review.


I’ll admit it: I went to Perla with a poison pen in hand, ready to hate the place on the slightest provocation. I was annoyed by the presumption of its hideously over-priced wine list and its self-serving no-reservations policy.

Why go at all? The reviews were rapturous, and the chef, Michael Toscano, had impressed me at Manzo, where he cooked a meat-centric menu for Mario Batali and the Bastianiches at Eataly.

Two dinners later, I’m a fan. More than any restaurant since Locanda Verde, Perla has rustic Italian cuisine nailed. And unlike Locanda, the chef—at least for now—is in the kitchen, and not distracted by running other restaurants. And what else is there, quite like Perla? Peasant perhaps?

As I’ve noted in the past, Italian restaurants are the most over-saturated genre in New York. Perla isn’t the best one, but in the niche it occupies—casual, rustic, and hearty—it is just about perfect.

The managing partner, Gabe Stulman, has become reigning savant of “The Way We Eat Now.” Just 31 years old, he has opened six restaurants in six years, and has yet to fail.

Stulman hated that his first two places, The Little Owl and Market Table, took reservations:

Little Owl really became its own beast. As it got more attention from reviews and stuff, it turned into the kind of place where you had to make dinner reservations a month in advance, which started bringing in a different crowd. Who plans where they’re going to eat dinner a month in advance? Tourists and people who have assistants to book things for them. It wasn’t a neighborhood place anymore with real regulars. It’s hard to tell friends who stop by that they’re going to have to wait two hours and you can’t even offer them a barstool to wait on. I realized I wanted a change.

(He had a nasty split from his Little Owl partners; one gets the sense that there’s more to this story.) Not taking reservations has become practically a religion to him:

I like no reservations way more. There’s less expectation and there’s less sense of entitlement from the guest. I think that when people make a reservation a month in advance, there is more of a sense of an expectation of the meal or, ‘this shit better be awesome and you better live up to that.’ That’s an awesome challenge and I embrace that, but with no reservations it’s way more casual and, I think, more fun.

He told The Times, “The less accessible you make your place to a wider audience…the more accessible you make it to a local audience.” This is a dodge, and surely Stulman knows it. The restaurants are packed because they’re destinations. No single restaurateur could open six restaurants in six years in a few blocks’ radius, and survive on local diners alone.

High-minded justifications for not taking reservations often wither when reality sets in. Having never failed, Stulman hasn’t confronted this possibility. But it would be nice if he’d just admit that the policy is more for his convenience than the customer’s. In an otherwise glowing review, Pete Wells called him on the hypocrisy of it. From the man who complained that his friends had to wait two hours to get into The Little Owl, what do we have?

Currently only six tables can be reserved; the rest are first come first served, a policy that is easier to take at an ambitious bar than at a restaurant where you are encouraged to order antipasti, primi and secondi, and where a roast chicken for two costs $65.

Dining at Perla takes a significant commitment of time and money. The restaurant should make a reciprocal commitment, rather than force customers to stand around near the bar — not at the bar (stools are reserved for dining at peak hours), but near the bar. By 8 p.m. the mob gets thick and the wait can be two hours.

You wonder how much he’s losing? From 4:30pm till about 7:00, there are empty seats at Perla. Those who’ve heard about the punishing waits may be staying away, not realizing that the place is wide open and available.

It must be noted: Perla’s informal rusticity is only skin deep: dinner will easily run you $100 a head, and it could go much higher than that, depending on how much you drink.

Leaving aside Stulman’s nauseating sanctimoniousness, he hires good people. Many of the staff are fellow University of Wisconsin grads (he even calls his four-restaurant empire “Little Wisco”). They’re all friendly, gregarious, and eager to please.

The menu is in the standard four parts (antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni). It changes frequently, and prices are edging up: just two weeks ago, the most expensive pasta was $21. Today, it is already $25. The entrée average is around $30; soon, it will no doubt rise.


But the food is great. On my first visit, I started with the Tramezzini ($8; above left), a snack resembling a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, with foie gras, pistachio mint jelly, and cherry jam. Crostini (above right) with ricotta, honey, and black pepper, were on the house. (The usual bread service is a country bread with olive oil.)


I then ordered two dishes that Pete Wells raved about (and has saved me the trouble of describing), the Vitello Tonnato ($16; above left) and the Guinea Hen ($28; above right). Both are wonderful.


On a second visit, we started with a simple salad of Field Greens ($14; above left), followed by the Cavatelli with Duck Ragù ($25; above right), onto which the server shaves flakes of frozen foie gras. (The chef, it must be noted, has a foie gras fetish: it shows up in numerous dishes.) I didn’t get much foie taste: perhaps I got fewer of the shavings than Wells did, but the dish is fine without it: hearty, rich, and bursting with flavor.


Beef Tongue ($24; above left) is close to the bottom end of the entrées, but the chef does a brilliant job with it. The tongue tastes like a very rich pastrami, with textural contrast from a crisp, oaky char on the edge; but te bed of cannelini beans on which it was served contributed little. We finished up with a serving of Fiore Sardo ($5; above right), a hard, funky sheep’s milk cheese, along with a shared glass of the intense house-made ginger grappa ($13).

The staff splits dishes and even drinks without complaint: for instance, the tongue was presented on two plates, the grappa in two glasses, even though we’d ordered just one. I ordered an inexpensive red wine (a 2006 Odoardi), practically the cheapest they have, and the server nevertheless decanted it, a courtesy most places reserve for the expensive end of their wine lists.

The space is lovely for what it aspires to be, with wooden beam sealings, brass fittings, soft banquettes, an exposed kitchen, and a wood-burning brick oven. There’s a drinks bar at the front and a “chef’s counter” at the back, where I sat both times, and would again.

Perla, in short, is a restaurant about which it is impossible to complain, even if it damn well ought to take reservations.

Perla (24 Minetta Lane near Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Village)

Food: Rustic Italian
Wine & Spirts: Some good stuff here, but bargains are hard to come by
Service: Friendly, gregarious, eager-to-please
Ambiance: A cozy, sun-drenched, casual Italian spot

Rating: ★½



I had no desire at all to visit Eataly, the new Batali–Bastianich Italian food hall that offers the charm of a shopping mall with the crowds of an airline terminal the day before Thanksgiving. There are six or seven themed dining spaces, none of which take reservations, and where waits of 45 minutes or more are already legion.

There is also one real restaurant, Manzo (meaning “beef”), which takes reservations and offers something approximating a civilized experience. Reviews have been uniformly positive (e.g., a rare three stars from Adam Platt), so I decided to brave the crowds and try the place.

Manzo is expensive, and in line with those at the same team’s Babbo—the chef, Michael Toscano came from there. But Babbo, at least, is a nice-looking place. Manzo looks thrown together, with insufficient visual or aural separation from the rest of Eataly. Crude posters, advertising the owners’ new cooking school, adorn the walls.

It’s not that I mind eating in a supermarket. It’s that I mind paying $250 for dinner while doing so. For all that, the food at Manzo is extremely good—indeed, better than the last time I ate at Babbo. It ought to be easy to erect a real wall with a door (in lieu of the current makeshift screen), to set Manzo apart. Then, get rid of the crass posters, and they’d have themselves a great restaurant. Instead, what they have is an annoying one.

The staff wisely distributes the wine list first. I was already forewarned of the potential for rip-offs, and when I opened it up to Barolos in three figures, I figured I was about to get bent over the table. Dig a little deeper, and there are plenty of reasonable bottles below $65, or even below $50. The San Polo Brunello 2004 ($63) was an excellent foil to Manzo’s meat-centric menu.

Eataly has its own bakery, so it is no surprise that the bread was freshly baked, but the staff forgot to deliver the olive oil to go with it.

Appetizers were excellent: Crispy Sweetbreads ($15; above left); Top Round Carne Cruda ($17; above right), or the equivalent of steak tartare with a soft-boiled egg surrounded by rich, Piemontese beef.

We asked to share the Agnolotti del Plin ($23; above left), and the kitchen divided the order without prompting. It was a simple dish, but executed beautifully.

For a purportedly beef-centric restaurant, we longed for more choices among the secondi. There is a ribeye for two ($95), but we wanted to try different things. Tagliata ($35; above right) is a fairly lean cut of meat, and it needed more excitement than to be just simply roasted, as it was here.

The Veal Chop Smoked in Hay ($45; above right) is the dish several critics have raved about, and with good reason: it’s a huge, double-cut truncheon-sized specimen: juicy, smokey, and full of flavor. Braised greens with cannellini beans and pancetta ($10; above left) was also very good.

The dining room is not large, but a restaurant in this price range needed more than just two servers on duty. The host and two sommeliers filled in on their behalf, but still, it was sometimes difficult to get their attention.

Manzo is expensive, but not out of line for the quality of the food. The service will improve as the staff matures. What will not improve—at least, not anytime soon—is the terrible space. For $250, I want to enjoy dinner in peace, and I don’t want ads for Lidia Bastianich’s cooking school staring down at me. I might consider returning to Manzo—after they remodel.

Manzo (in Eataly, 200 Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street, Flatiron District)

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