Entries in Simon Oren (4)


Nice Matin


Nice Matin is one of the more puzzling restaurants in New York. It pairs one of the city’s most pedestrian and uninspired menus with one of its most remarkable wine lists.

It was not always thus. In 2003, William Grimes of The Times awarded two stars, praising the Provençal/Niçoise cuisine, while noting that the 140-bottle wine list poorly represented the South of France.

But by 2011, Eric Asimov reported that the wine cellar had swelled to 2,000 bottles, “with perhaps the best list of Bandols and Provençal wines in New York.” The leather-bound wine list is 55 pages. There cannot be more than a couple of dozen restaurants in NYC with such a list; they would almost all be three-star places considerably more expensive than Nice Matin.

It was the wine list that brought me back here, as my dinner in 2005 was so disappointing that I had vowed never to return. Since then the owner, Simon Oren, acquired the substantial cellars of two luxury restaurants that closed, Chanterelle and Country, and he continues to buy at auction where he can.

Nice Matin is the flagship of a network of undistinguished French bistros, the Culinary Tour of France. (Simon Oren also owns the SushiSamba and 5 Napkin Burger chains.) His partner is chef Andy d’Amico, who once earned three stars at Sign of the Dove.

It is difficult to comprehend why Mr. Oren has made such a substantial investment in the wine list, while Mr. d’Amico allows the food to languish. Unlike my meal in 2005, the food this time was at least competently prepared. There were no fireworks on the plate, but no disasters either. I’d have no objection to dining here again.

But the menus are dog-eared and torn; they are obviously not revised very often, except for inflation. Now, I’ve no objection to the French classics—I love them—but the cuisine of southern France has much more to it than the same list of fifteen entrées, year after year, unchanged with the seasons. Put more life in the menu, and Nice Matin could really be something.

I’ve no objection to the prices, either: nothing is more expensive than Steak Frites, at $27.50. Most of the entrées hover around $20, most of the starters around $11. A prix fixe, with limited choices, is $35. Obviously, the quality of the ingredients is limited at these prices.

And there is some carelessness. Fresh bread (above left) comes with butter drizzled in olive oil, a nice touch, but the butter is ice cold.


The food, as I said, is worthy of neither praise nor complaint. It was fine. I liked the Escargot ($9.75; above left) a tad better than the Mushroom Tart ($11.75; above right).


Both Salmon ($21.50; above left) and Chicken under a Brick ($19.75; above right) are ample portions at practically diner prices. The chicken was quite good, but it was undermined by a pedestrian ragout of couscous, root vegetables, apples, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, and herbs.

The casual décor, if not exactly authentic, is attractive and even romantic if you get the right table (we had the booth in the corner). But tables are crammed together, extracting maximum use from every inch of space that the law allows. Grimes complained that it can get noisy in here, and that is still true.

It is passing strange that you can spend $35 a head on food, and then spend hundreds on a first-growth Burgundy. We didn’t go quite that far, ordering a 1984 Santenay Gravière Premier Cru for $77. I don’t know how many places in the city would have that wine, or its equivalent, at that price (or any price), but it can’t be many.

Nice Matin is two restaurants in one, a forgettable French bistro with one of the city’s great wine lists.

Nice Matin (201 W. 79th Street at Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side)

Cuisine: French Mediterranean classics, adequately rendered
Wine List: One of the city’s best
Service: Casual, but fine for what it is
Ambance: A cramped but attractive dining room

Rating: ★★
Why? Because of the wine list


5 Napkin Burger

5 Napkin Burger is part of the same chain that owns a clutch of mediocre casual French restaurants, such as Nice Matin, Cafe d’Alsace, and so forth. Apparently the menu at Nice Matin offers a “5 napkin burger” that was so popular they decided it deserved its own restaurant.

My advice? Don’t bother. My son and I both had the namesake 5 Napkin Burger ($14.95) on Saturday evening. It was over-cooked, too greasy, and overwhelmed by the taste of caramelized onions. It oozed enough grease to make the poor bun wilt under the pressure.

The space is the size of a small barn, but the décor isn’t bad, featuring white tile walls and a collection of antique scales hung along the back of the room. There are over fifty beers on tap, but the rest of the menu is a mash-up of sushi and miscellaneous comfort food.

Service is designed to get customers in and out in a hurry. We waited around 20 minutes for a table at 6:30 p.m. on a Saturday evening. I am not sure why it is so busy. In a neighborhood that has a dozen restaurants on every block, it’s hard to see the point of this place.

5 Napkin Burger (630 Ninth Avenue between 44th & 45th Streets, Hell’s Kitchen)



In his review of Barbounia, Frank Bruni’s most gushing praise was reserved for something critics usually don’t talk about: the seats. Yes, Barbounia has the most comfortable seating of any restaurant in New York—or any I’ve tried, at any rate.

On Memorial Day, the restaurant was only sparsely populated, and the staff invited us to choose our own table. Although we found Barbounia comfortable on both the eyes and the arses, the dining experience was mediocre.

I started with Saganaki ($13) — baked cheese, truffled fig marmalade, fresh fruit, fresh baked cherry and walnut breads. I was thinking of a baked cheese dish that I’d ordered in Greektown in Detroit, but this was a pale shadow of it. After a couple of bites, the cheese quickly became sticky and dull to the taste. Halibut with fava beans ($26, I believe) was competently prepared. My friend seemed to have the better of it with three juicy pieces of rack of lamb.

The wine list was featuring white wines of Santorini, a small Greek island of which I have distant but fond memories. Alas, both the first and the second Santorini wine I selected were out of stock. (“We’re re-configuring our wine list,” the server said, a process that evidently involves restocking, but not reprinting.) Pressing my luck, I gave a third choice, which they were finally able to produce. It was astringent and overly acidic. I don’t know if that’s Santorini’s fault, or if my first choice would have been better.

The befuddled serving staff was persistently confused about silverware. They gave me the steak knife and my friend the fish knife for our entrees. After we were finished, they dropped off clean forks and steak knives for both of us, although we hadn’t ordered any dessert. A few moments later, they were taken away.

In a neighborhood that has plenty of excellent dining options, we won’t be rushing back to Barbounia.

Barbounia (250 Park Avenue South at 20th Street, Flatiron District)

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


Nice Matin

Nice Matin is beautiful to look at, but the entrées need some work.

I ordered Sole “Milanese”. It came inundated in an arugula salad of fennel, oranges, onions and olives. The salad was mentioned on the menu, but there was no mention it would be piled so high that you wouldn’t know a fish was buried underneath. After some industrious digging I found the poor sole, which was not far removed from McDonald’s filet-o’-fish.

Another of my companions ordered the grilled sea bass, which she described as oily and over-cooked. My mother had a halibut dish that’s not shown on the online menu. She said it was fine, but not at all what the description led her to expect.

When we arrived, we were seated at a table so small and cramped that it would have been more at home at a cocktail bar. They agreed to move us, but we still ended up at one of the more claustrophobic tables for three that I’ve encountered at a legitimate restaurant.

Nice Matin has the same chef, Andy D’Amico, as the dearly departed Sign of the Dove. When it opened, the critics generally were enthusiastic. William Grimes, never easy to please, was sufficiently enchanted to award two stars, which would be unusual for such a casual restaurant, even if the food were better. We didn’t try one of the most praised dishes, the beef short ribs. However, on the strength of this performance, I don’t expect to be back anytime soon.

Nice Matin (201 W. 79th Street at Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side)

Food: Fair
Service: Satisfactory
Ambiance: Fair
Overall: Fair