Entries in Osteria Morini (3)


Ristorante Morini

How much Michael White is too much Michael White? At Ristorante Morini, his seventh New York restaurant in as many years, the chef is betting that we still don’t have enough.

There’ve been some stumbles along the way. Nicoletta, his pizzeria, is limping along after horrible reviews. How do you screw up pizza? Somehow, he did. The Butterfly, his take on a 1950s Wisconsin supper club, quickly fell off the radar after a much publicized opening. A recent re-visit to Costata, his Italian steakhouse in Soho, was disappointing. But at modern haute Italian fine dining, his judgment has never failed him. That’s the genre he tackles once again at Ristorante Morini.

White may be repeating himself, but have you tried to book a table at Marea lately? After five years in business, it is still solidly booked at prime times. Opening Ai Fiori, a second restaurant in the same mold, did nothing to tamp down demand, so why not build a third?

He chose the right location, the Upper East Side, the city’s only remaining residential neighborhood where guests aren’t offended by white tablecloths and don’t require a special occasion for fine dining. The Met is a block away, and if you’d rather avoid museum food, there is now a far better option.

I’m not sure why he chose the name Morini, which this new restaurant shares with Osteria Morini in Soho, where you find haute trattoria fare served on wooden tables with orange paper placemats. This Morini is nothing like that Morini, but I’m sure some tourists will show up at the wrong one.

To run the kitchen, White has installed Gordon Finn, who worked for him at Alto when it had two Michelin stars. Finn executes the White playbook flawlessly. Close your eyes, and you could be at Marea or Ai Fiori.

The prices are punishingly high. You are paying for luxury, or at least the perception of it. Crudi and antipasti are $19–26, pastas $22–29 (not counting gnocchi with black truffles, $42), entrées mostly $36–52 (but Dover Sole will set you back $69).

There is also a four-course option for $84, which allows you to select almost any starter, pasta, entrée and dessert (some items carry supplements). The tariff will probably go up over time, as Ai Fiori’s prix fixe is $94, Marea’s $99, and the restaurants are quite similar. Indeed, when the chef came to our table to say hello, he did not disagree when I described it as “Marea with a meat option.”

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NYC's Top Ten New Restaurants of 2010

’Tis the season when food writers sum up a year’s worth of dining, so here are my top ten new restaurants of 2010.

It was not a great year. No new restaurant earned three or four stars on our rating scale, although two came close: Millesime and Tamarind Tribeca. Sam Sifton of the Times awarded three stars to just one new place, Colicchio & Sons, but most critics (including me) found it disappointing. There is no “almost” in Timesspeak, but it did not appear that Sifton came even close to awarding three stars to any other new restaurant.

This does not mean that we ate badly, only that our best meals in new restaurants were at the lower end of the dining spectrum. This isn’t really surprising. Restaurants generally have six to eighteen-month planning cycles. If you’d been planning a new place in 2008 or 2009, how ambitious would you have been?

I’ve ordered the restaurants based on my dining experiences, which in most cases was one visit. Unlike the pro critics, I’m spending my own money. If I am disappointed, I’m not going to go back a second or third time, just to see if it was a fluke. Even when I like a place, I often don’t have the time or money to go back right away.

Some of the restaurants listed below actually opened in late 2009. I’ve included them if my first (or only) visit was in calendar year 2010.

1. Millesime. Chef Laurent Manrique returns to NYC (he was here in the ’90s), having won two Michelin stars in San Francisco. This classic French seafood brasserie doesn’t soar quite as high as that, but it was the best meal we had this year in a new restaurant. In our book, the food was three stars, though the service had some catching up to do. P.S. The downstairs “salon” is pretty good, too.

2. The Breslin. We adore the Breslin. Chef April Bloomfield’s fat-forward menu won’t be to all tastes, and it could be downright artery-clogging if we ate like this every day, but the chef doesn’t pander, and everything she does is impeccably prepared. They have a great lamb burger, and it’s great for breakfast too.

3. Tamarind Tribeca. This big-box Indian restaurant was the sleeper hit of 2010. We never imagined it would be this good. I gave it 2½ stars, but looking back, I am not sure why it didn’t get three. Of course, we sampled only a sliver of the menu, but what we had was flawless.

4. ABC Kitchen. Jean-Georges Vongerichten entered the farm-to-table game with a splash. Who’d have expected a restaurant in a home furnishings store to be this successful? JGV’s restaurants are notorious for quickly turning mediocre, after the attention-deficit chef wanders off to his next project. But if Chef Dan Kluger sticks around, ABC Kitchen could stay relevant for a long time. But good luck getting a last-minute reservation: the place is perpetually packed.

5. Ciano. Chef Shea Gallante (ex-Cru) returns to New York with a wonderful (if expensive) Italian restaurant, with a terrific wine list that allows most bottles to be ordered by the half. We would have rated this one higher, but one of our entrées was a dud (over-priced, under-cooked lamb chops).

6. Kin Shop. The year’s best Thai restaurant comes from an American, Top Chef alumnus Harold Dieterle. Not quite authentic, but clearly inspired by Thailand, the menu has both hits and misses, but the former are very good indeed.

7. Osteria Morini. Chef Michael White’s first casual Italian restaurant is dedicated to the hearty cuisine of Emilia-Romagna. Some of the dishes may seem over-bearing and unsubtle, but we liked just about everything we tried, even if the soundtrack is too loud and the paper napkins too cheap for the prices White is charging.

8. Manzo. If we were judging the food alone, we’d rate Mario Batali’s temple of Italian beef higher, but it’s smack dab in the middle of the city’s most crowded supermarket, Eataly. It is awfully expensive, for a space that is so unpleasant.

9. Riverpark. This is a “Tom Colicchio restaurant” that doesn’t charge Tom Colicchio prices. His former sandwich guy, Sisha Ortuzar, turns out to be a fine chef. But how many people will become regulars at a place that’s half-a-mile from the nearest subway station? We sure won’t.

10. Taureau. Chef Didier Pawlicki (of La Sirène) opened this all-fondue joint to very little critical notice. We loved our meal, but we’re not going to return regularly for such a limited menu. Still, we think it’s a great date place. There’s nothing like cooking raw meat in a shared pot of boiling oil to bring people closer.


Honorable Mentions: There are a few notable places that didn’t make our list, that nevertheless deserve a word or two.

1. Anfora. This quickly became my go-to wine bar after it opened in May. I probably visited fifteen or twenty times. But unlike some wine bars, the food menu here is too limited to qualify Anfora as a real restaurant. That’s why it didn’t make my top ten.

2. Maialino. Danny Meyer’s Roman Trattoria actually opened in late 2009, and we reviewed it in December, but most of the pro critics reviewed it this year, so you’ll probably see it on a lot of Top Ten lists. Our own meal there was slightly disappointing, but it was probably atypical, as Meyer’s restaurants tend to get better over time.

3. Má Pêche. You’ll definitely see David Chang’s first midtown restaurant on most critics’ top-ten lists, despite the fact that hardly anyone thought he had improved upon, or even equaled, what he’d achieved in the East Village. But in a bad year, Chang’s seconds are still pretty good. I dined here three times, and will again, but the review meal was not that great, although I hear the menu has changed a lot since then.

4. Recette. Jesse Schenker’s small-plates restaurant will also be on a lot of top-ten lists. I liked everything I tried; by the same token, I can’t actually remember any of it without re-reading my own review. It lacked (for me) any of the more memorable dishes from our top-ten list.

5. Terroir Tribeca. This was my other go-to wine bar, and unlike Anfora, it does have enough of a menu to qualify as a real restaurant. It doesn’t make the top ten because it’s practically the same as Terroir in the East Village, which opened in 2008. (Tamarind Tribeca, which does make our top ten, is quite a bit different from the original Tamarind in the Flatiron District.)


Osteria Morini

What a wild rocket-ride Michael White has had. Four years ago, he was the relatively unheralded chef at Stephen Hanson’s Fiamma. The restaurant was a solid three-star, but the chef’s name didn’t roll off the tongue.

Today, White is as close to culinary royalty as any chef in this town who doesn’t have four New York Times stars. His three established places (Alto, Convivio, and Marea) have nine NYT stars, and also five Michelin stars. No other NYC chef has more than two Michelin-starred restaurants, nor more than four stars in total.

Mario Batali is a better known Italian chef than White, but Batali hasn’t actually cooked in years, except on television. White really works in his restaurants.

This fall brings a dual test, as Osteria Morini, his latest place, has just opened; another, Ai Fiori, is forthcoming in the new Setai Fifth Avenue.

The obvious questions are: 1) Is there such a thing as too much Michael White? And 2) Can his restaurants remain as good, when his time is split among five of them? To answer the second question, we’ll have to wait a while. For now, we can answer the first: when they’re as good as Morini, White can open as many restaurants as he wants.

The focus here is on the cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region, known for hearty, uncomplicated fare. The word Osteria signals a more informal approach to Italian food: no tablecloths, no expensive prix fixe.

This was clearly meant to be the casual cousin to the chef’s earlier restaurants. As Frank Bruni noted in a blog post:

Its unvarnished sensibility will be reflected in its décor, which uses antiques and other materials plucked or salvaged from flea markets and farmhouses throughout Italy.

Still, with pastas priced at $17–19 and entrées $24–42, these aren’t cheap eats. It’s quite a bit more than White and his partner, Chris Cannon, told the Times just six months ago. At these prices, they could afford to ditch the paper napkins and the garish orange paper placemats. The loud rock sound track is probably the restaurant’s least authentic amenity; it ought to go, too.

But that is about all we would change at Osteria Morini, which is already a great restaurant after only a month in business.

Musseto ($13; above left) was a hearty stew of braised cockscombs, sweetbreads, calves feet, garlic croutons, and salsa verde. Nine out of ten diners would probably reject it for the “ick” factor alone, but I couldn’t actually distinguish the specific taste of any ingredient except the croutons.

Mozzarella ($11; above right) paired happily with figs and rosemary oil.

The pasta section of the menu is loaded with shapes and flavor combinations I have never seen before, all made in house. While Tortellini ($18; above right) may be common, the duck liver cream sauce it came with was not. It was an excellent dish, but it needed to be just a shade warmer.

White roasts Porchetta ($29; above right) with sage and rosemary on a spit for three hours, wrapped in thick, crackling skin. The pork was beautifully cooked, as tender as butter.

Petroniana ($27; above left), a crispy veal cutlet, is so rich that it could be dessert, putting the old classic to shame, with layers of prosciutto, parmigiano, and truffle cream, served on a bed of buttered spinach. We debated whether this dish was too heavy for its own good—it was certainly impossible to finish—but I would order it again.

Cavoletti Bruxelles & Pancetta ($9; above right), or Brussels Sprouts, were an excellent side dish, but honestly there was no need to order them, as the rest of the meal was already far too filling.

The wine list is excellent for this type of restaurant, with many unfamiliar wines (Talia Baiocchi published an overview last week). I checked in on foursquare, and within minutes a stranger directed my attention to a white wine fermented in its skin, in a section of the menu captioned “Vini Bianchi da Contemplazione.” These wines have a slightly orange hue and an arch, crisp flavor that pairs well with the cuisine. We had the Notte di Luna, which at $69 seemed to us a very good deal for something so unusual.

A restaurant in such high demand—and Morini is about as hot as any right now—could quickly become full of itself. There is none of that here. The staff volunteered without prompting to transfer our bar tab to the table (Ahem! Paging Jeffrey Chodorow). And when we stopped Chef White to ask how a dish was prepared (the Porchetta), he insisted on finding a piece of paper so that he could draw a diagram, and then took us into the kitchen to show us how it worked. (We are reasonably certain he did not recognize us as bloggers, because it was the end of the meal, and he had paid no attention to us before that point.)

Chef White is juggling four high-profile restaurants, soon to become five. To maintain quality at all of them will be a challenge. We can’t forecast how he’ll manage that. Right now, while Osteria Morini has his full attention, it’s everything we hoped it would be.

Osteria Morini (218 Lafayette Street between Broome & Spring Streets, Soho)

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