Entries in Ryan Skeen (5)



Note: The Skeen curse continues. 83½ closed (briefly) after just 4½ months in business. As noted in the comments (below), it has re-opened with a different chef, Will Foden, who is serving an Italian menu.


I’m gonna try to write this post without making a bunch of Ryan Skeen jokes. It’s not easy. The chef has been linked to ten projects since 2008, many of which failed quickly (either the restaurant or Skeen’s involvement). In early 2012, he sat for an interview with Grub Street, clearly aware of his reputation for job-hopping. Taken individually, each failure has a logical explanation. Taken together, there is a shitload of them.

Welcome to Skeen Project #11, 83½, named for the restaurant’s location, halfway along 83rd Street between First and Second Avenues. The place has been open less than a month. Skeen hasn’t quit yet.

No one who knows Skeen’s history would predict a long life for this place. But at least it’s a lot different than most of his recent projects: a brand new, small dining room with 42 seats, where he’s the executive chef, and no one else’s culinary ego is competing with his.

Of course, there is still an owner to contend with, Vincenzo Mangiafridda Jr., who owns Gino’s Pizzeria next door. We weren’t sure if it was Vincenzo or his son who was perched at the bar on a recent Saturday evening, chatting with Ryan in the open kitchen and surveying the scene.

The one-page, focused menu is in four sections: Starting Course ($16), Sea Course ($17), Pasta Course ($18), and Large Courses ($27). But for one dish with a $5 supplement (the rack of lamb), every dish in a category costs the same.

This layout might prompt over-ordering. The server didn’t push that at all, though he did point out that some tables order a pastas—of which there are only two—as a mid-course to share. There are just five entrées, and the kitchen was no longer offering two of them when we arrived a shade early for our 10:30pm reservation.

Given Skeen’s reputation as a meat-hawking chef at Resto and Irving Mill, it may be a bit surprising that about half the menu is seafood, and most of the meat offerings are timid. Is Skeen channeling the Upper East Side, trying to prove he’s settled down, or something else?

The wine list isn’t long, but it’s fairly priced in relation to the food, and it featured a number of producers unfamiliar to me, many of them labeled as organic or biodynamic. At $50 (about 2½ times retail), the Torbreck 2009 Cuvée Juveniles (above right) had a rich, full-bodied flavor.


A Tea Beet & Goat Cheese Salad ($16; above left) was…well, a beet salad. A Liege Salad ($16; above right) was as close to the old Skeen as the menu got, a delightful soupy mix of escarole, arugula, chopped pig’s ears, and a poached egg.


If you’re going to offer just two pastas, there’s full credit for making one of them such a dandy as the Sepia Bucatini ($18; above left) with chili, sea urchin, lemon and basil.

But I was quite disappointed in the Rack of Lamb ($32; above right), the only dish on the menu that carries a supplement. Served off the bone, the lamb didn’t have much flavor, and it was swimming in a watery swamp of bitter greens.

The space doesn’t appear to be perversely designed to amplify the ambient noise, but noisy it was, until the crowd thinned out later in our meal. The dining room is modern, stylish, and attractive, although the tables are close together. The servers are smartly dressed and knowledgeable, a cut above what one often finds at new restaurants these days. This isn’t their first rodeo.

I’m sure 83½ will attract some of the Skeen curiosity seekers, the way it attracted us. The introductory menu doesn’t qualify as destination cuisine, but as Skeen finds his equilibrium perhaps it will become more adventurous. The advantage of a small space is that the menu doesn’t have to be full of crowd-pleasers, as long as he can keep 40-odd seats full.

Less than a month in, 83½ is promising, but perhaps not yet at its full potential. It will bear watching, along with the chef’s mercurial temper.

83½ (345 E. 83rd Street between First & Second Avenues, Upper East Side)

Food: Upscale American cuisine
Wine: A short but worthwhile list of wines, many organic or biodynamic
Service: A strong point, especially for a restaurant this new
Ambaince: A small, stylish dining room with an open kitchen; a bit too loud

Why? A promising menu with some soft spots, but well worth watching


Fish Tag

The history of chef Michael Psilakis has become the culinary equivalent of “The House that Jack Built.” Every time he opens a new place, you need to tell the story of all the previous ones, to understand what is going on.

His newest, Fish Tag, is his fourth on the same site that was once home to Onera (very good), Kefi (good), and Gus & Gabriel Gastropub (awful). He has also done five places with the restaurateur Donatella Arpaia, including Anthos (excellent, but closed), Dona (not bad; now closed), Mia Dona (where he is no longer involved), a larger version of Kefi (mediocre), and the restaurant Eos in Miami.

Where those restaurants failed, Psilakis’s cooking usually wasn’t at fault. (To go into the reasons, Jack’s House would become a whole subdivision.) Onera, Anthos, Dona, and Mia Dona, all got two stars from the Times, and Anthos should have had three. Kefi was good before it moved to a space far too large for its own good. That leaves Gus & Gabriel as Psilakis’s only outright failure (though he claims it will be reincarnated in Brooklyn), amidst a long line of successes.

At Fish Tag, the chef is once again in his sphere. It offers mainly a seafood menu—not overtly Greek, but in the same imaginative modern Greek style that was successful at Onera and Anthos. It’s more elaborate than the former, but less fancy than the latter. The layout was gutted and replaced with a sleek, elegant design that’s the best I’ve ever seen it. The dining room now seats 60 (it was formerly 75). There are now three separate bar counters that seat 30 between them.

Psilakis is hedging his bets, so Fish Tag doubles as a wine bar. To that end, many of the wines are available in three-ounce, six-ounce, or half-bottle pours, and the menu includes plenty of cheeses and cured meats for bar patrons who might not want a full meal. On the main menu, the entrées top out at $26, and there’s the ever-present $16 burger that shows up in most restaurants these days.

There are some blunders that could cost Fish Tag a whole star. After you sit down, the server utters the seven words most dreaded in the Western culinary canon: “Let me explain how our menu works.” But you really need the explanation this time. Although Fish Tag has traditional appetizers and entrées, they aren’t so stated on the menu. Instead, the items are arranged from “lightest” to “heaviest,” with appetizers in red and entrées in black.

Groups of menu items are lassoed with large curly braces, next to which are written the spirits (wines, beers, scotches, etc.) that purportedly go with them. As if this wasn’t enough to learn, some items are marked with a “§” sign, which means (a footnote tells us) that they may be ordered “simply grilled” with potato and broccoli rabe.

You might think this was enough complexity, but there’s more. While the wines are listed on the back of the food menu, a separate menu lists the hard liquors, ice creams, coffees, teas (“please allow five minutes for stepping”), cheeses, cured meats, and “appetizing.”

Appetizing? That’s the Jewish word for the food usually served with bagels, such as lox and other smoked fish. At our table, we received two copies of the food menu, but just one of the cheese-meat-appetizing-everything-else menu.

The good news is that once you’ve figured out how to order, Fish Tag becomes a delightful restaurant.

Young Pecorino “Saganaki,” or Sheep’s Milk Cheese ($12; above left) with lemon, garlic, and almonds, comes sizzling in a cast-iron skillet. It’s wonderful; yet, we could easily have missed it: it’s the bottom entry on the cheese menu.

Smoked Sable ($9; above right), one of ten choices from the appetizing menu, has a rich, smokey taste. 

Branzino Stuffed with Head Cheese ($26; above left) is a stunning creation, and dare we say, critic bait. The menu doesn’t say whose head it’s made with (presumably lamb), but once you get past the “ick” factor it’s a brilliant dish—vintage Psilakis. Striped Bass ($23; above right), simply grilled, is a less elaborate creation, but excellent nonetheless.

The wine list is delightful, with plenty of good buys at the $50-and-under level, my benchmark for this type of restaurant. Côtes du Roussillon Villages Latour de France is an appellation I’ve never seen before. The 2008 M. Chapoutier “Occultum Lapidem” ($45; label at right) has a light, fruity taste not unlike some Burgundies, making it a terrific red wine to go with fish. It was one of many that we could have had by the glass or the half-bottle, but we went ahead and ordered a full bottle.

I photographed the label (right) after the sommelier explained that, in honor of a former blind resident of the estate, all of the wine labels from this producer are printed in braille.

At times, Fish Tag seems just a tad too precious for its own good. Tap water comes in clear glass jugs, the size of one full glass, each with its own rubber stopper, which the server removes just before setting it on the table.

But even more precious is the collection of white porcelain cake plates, which are used for serving many different items, including the smoked fish. It looks impressive, but it’s a bit awkward to eat off of an elevated pedestal.

Those idiosyncrasies aside, the service and wine program are in very good shape for a month-old restaurant. The general manager and wine director aren’t credited on the menu, nor is anyone credited at ChefDB, but whomever Psilakis hired is earning their keep. The restaurant was full, and running smoothly, at 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening.

Even if Fish Tag is a bit over-thought (particularly the color-coded menu), we were impressed with the food—the way we had been with Psilakis’s earlier restaurants, before he lost his way in the last couple of years. Will Psilakis stick around long enough to ensure Fish Tag remains relevant? Or will he hop to a new project after the reviews are in? Ryan Skeen is assisting in the kitchen, but no one expects that to last: it’s the serial job-hopper’s seventh restaurant in three years.

Let’s hope that Psilakis has learned his lessons well, and that he’ll make Fish Tag his main focus. This is where he belongs.

Fish Tag (222 W. 79th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave., Upper West Side)

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


5 & Diamond

Note: This is a review under chef David Santos, who left the restaurant in August 2010.


What do Tribeca, the East Village, and the Lower East Side have in common? They’re all neighborhoods that, not so long ago, were considered absurd locations for destination dining. Today, no one thinks twice about it.

Is it Harlem’s turn? That’s the bet Marcus Samuelsson is making, as he prepares to open the Red Rooster at the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. And that’s the bet the owners of 5 & Diamond have made at 112th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.

The geographical barrier is more psychological than real. 5 & Diamond is just a few blocks from subway stations at 110th Street on the B, C, 2, and 3 lines. From many midtown locations, you can actually get there faster than you can get to the East Village or the Lower East Side. It just seems far away.

Without the benefit of a celebrity name like Samuelsson, the owners of 5 & Diamond decided to rent a name. Serial job-hopper Ryan Skeen was brought in to open the place, and promptly made a mess of things, as only he can. It wasn’t long before Skeen had a foot out the door. By the time the Village Voice filed its rave review, critic Sarah DiGregorio was giving Skeen credit for dishes he no longer had anything to do with.

The permanent chef is David Santos, who doesn’t bring Skeen’s press clippings, but has an impressive resume and plans to stick around. With the review cycle basically over, 5 & Diamond will need to win destination diners via word-of-mouth.

The restaurant occupies a pretty storefront; the build-out is handsome, and would fit in without apology anywhere downtown. For a place still fighting for attention, it could use a sign, and frankly a website.

Santos’s eclectic American menu is sensibly edited, with just seven appetizers ($10–16) and seven entrées ($22–32). There’s a quintet of desserts ($5). A five-course tasting menu is only $50, and as three standard courses will set you back at least $40, this is the way to go.

Our tasting menu showed great promise, but there were also some missteps. One of these was a raw Long Island Fluke with pickled rhubarb, sea beans, and chili oil. The first three ingredients were too delicate to withstand the fourth. The taste of chili oil overwhelmed the dish. (In the photo, you can see a pool of it, underneath the fish.)

But we loved seared scallops with apricot gazpacho, spring onions, and lovage (above left), as well as the grilled Portuguese Sepia with piquillo pepper puree, sherry shallots, and olives (above right). In both of these dishes, the ingredients were in the right balance.

The chef sent out an extra item not on the tasting menu, a Keepsake Farms Hen Egg (above left) with chorizo, roasted garlic, and potato foam. Like all such egg dishes, you puncture the yolk, and then have a gooey delight as all of the ingredients mix together. This was the highlight of the evening—and curiously, the least expensive savory course on the regular menu, at $10. If you order à la carte, this is perfect for sharing, as it is a very rich dish.

According to Santos, Idaho Brook Trout (above right) is one of the few Ryan Skeen contributions still on the menu. It was conceptually simpler than most of the other items we were served, but beautifully cooked.

We weren’t at all fond of the “Philly Cheese Steak” (above left). The quotes signal that it’s a deconstructed dish, with clothbound cheddar, crisp shallots, and red pepper foam on a bed of bruschetta. In our view, when you are serving 14-day aged sirloin, there shouldn’t be so many side-kicks on the plate. In addition, the bruschetta became soggy, and the fried shallots left a bitter after-taste.

We had no complaint at all with warm Brioche Doughnuts (above right). Along with the tomato rosemary focaccia served at the beginning of the meal, they showed off a kitchen with strong baking skills.

We eschewed the offered wine pairing ($35pp) in favor of a 2006 Château du Cèdre Cahors ($48). In general, the wine list struck us as slightly too expensive for the area.

While we were there, we saw at least eight people outside look at the menu posted in the window, and keep on walking. Santos needs to find ways to get them in the door, given that the restaurant was only half full on a Saturday evening.

A $5 menu offered weeknights from 5:30–7:00 is a start. We suspect that the neighborhood needs a few approachable dishes to balance the foams and the high-end French technique.

A burger ($13) is buried under a list of side dishes. We asked Santos why it wasn’t more prominent. He said that he doesn’t want people to think of 5 & Diamond as a “burger place.” But with three-star restaurants serving $26 burgers nowadays, we don’t think there’s much danger of that.

Service was very good, for the most part—certainly in line with the quality of the food Santos aspires to serve. As we know him from a food board, we are not going to rate the restaurant with “stars.” We’ll only say that it shows every promise of becoming the destination restaurant that Harlem should have.

5 & Diamond (2072 Frederick Douglass Blvd. at 112th Street, Harlem)


The Payoff: Resto

Frank Bruni resumed his assault on the star system yesterday, after a few months when most of his ratings actually seemed somewhat sensible. Resto won two stars (the same as The Modern and Gordon Ramsay), apparently because it has great lamb ribs, french fries with mayonaise, and perhaps one or two other good dishes.

Those stars come with a “forewarning”:

Resto — the name is slang for restaurant [thank heavens he cleared that up] — doesn’t take reservations for groups smaller than six, and on some nights there’s a 45-minute wait by 7:30. It can be difficult to reach the bar through the crowd around it and even tougher to hear servers through the din.

If that wasn’t enough Bruni for one week, you can read his Critic’s Notebook piece on Marc Vetri’s pair of Italian restaurants in Philadelphia, Vetri and Osteria. It’s nice to see Bruni branch out a bit, but why must it always be Italian?

In the wagering department, NYJ absorbs another tough loss this week, losing $1 on our hypothetical bet, while Eater wins a whopping $5. We should have remembered our own advice: the restaurants Bruni chooses to review—as opposed to those he must review—are usually two stars.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $30.00   $32.67
Gain/Loss +$5.00   –$1.00
Total $35.00   $31.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 13–2   11–4

Rolling the Dice: Resto

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews the foolishly-named Belgian eatery Resto. Eater’s official odds are as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 4-1
One Star: 2-1
Two Stars: 5-1 √√
Three Stars:
Four Stars: 25,000-1

The Skinny: In this week’s game, jokers are wild. Anything can happen. As Eater points out, Resto would have historically belonged in the $25-and-under critic’s territory, and wouldn’t have had a starred review at all. But with Peter Meehan reviewing taco trucks these days, any restaurant with seating defaults to Bruni. With most of the entrées at Resto priced below $20, this is precisely the kind of restaurant Bruni loves.

Bruni certainly hasn’t hesitated to award two stars to unlikely candidates. But when he does so, it’s usually only when the restaurant has already achieved a significant “foodie following.” Frank then swoops in, and his rating confirms what the experts already knew. Resto has flown mostly under the radar, notwithstanding a 4-out-of-5 rating on New York’s “casual scale.” If any of the usual suspects have suggested that Resto was a NYT two-star restaurant, I must have missed it.

Frank sometimes grades on a gentler curve when reviewing restaurants in under-served neighborhoods, but no one would seriously suggest that 29th Street at Park Avenue South is such a neighborhood.

The Bet: Though we won’t be surprised to wake up to a two-star review, we are going to bet conservatively this week on one star.