Entries in Stephen Hanson (15)


Atlantic Grill at Lincoln Center


“Did you remember to call ahead?”

At Atlantic Grill at Lincon Center, that’s the new euphemism for, “Do you have a reservation?” I guess reservations smack of privilege and favors, while calling ahead is merely having one’s act together. No worries, though. Atlantic Grill has ample bar seating — first come, first served — for those who didn’t “call ahead.”

The rhythm of the evening is defined by whatever is playing across the street. The alert host knows the starting time and the program at every Lincoln Center venue, even when diners do not. Customer: “Doesn’t the Met start at eight o’clock?” Host: “No, the Met’s at seven tonight. They’re doing Don Carlo.” He proceeds to rattle off the times at every other theater, just to show it’s no fluke. But he’s good at what he needs to be, which is getting diners to their shows on time.

This is the second Atlantic Grill in Manhattan, approximately the fifteenth production (still in business) of prolific restaurateur Stephen Hanson. None of them are great. Hanson’s only stab at excellence was Fiamma, which he closed during the recession. But most of his restaurants are at least competent, and a few are better than that. (Primehouse New York is my favorite Hanson place—though I haven’t tried them all.)

The menu at Atlantic Grill, as you might guess, is mainly fish and seafood. Steve Cuozzo gave it three stars in last week’s Post, which is ridiculous. It is not as good as Ed’s Chowder House a few blocks away, but it is good enough to be a dependable “when-you’re-in-the-neighborhood” place. Neither the food nor the prices will offend anyone, with appetizers in the teens, entrées mostly in the $20s.

I love it when restaurants serve house-made bread, with butter soft enough for spreading. The odd-shaped version of it here, clearly meant for sharing (but served that way to solo diners too), came out of the oven warm: crisp outside and soft inside.

I am not fond of sushi bars in Western restaurants. It feels like pandering. Either open a Japanese restaurant, or don’t open one. The menu here offers a modest selection of sushi, sashimi, and maki rolls. The omakase is $32, and how good could that be?

The list of standard appetizers was incredibly boring (standard soups and salads), so I succumbed to a crispy tempura oyster roll (below left), which was offered as an off-the-menu special. It was just fine, but also instantly forgettable.


Arctic Char ($27; above right) was more impressive: the skin was crisp, the fish tender, and the accompaniments were no afterthought: French lentils, honeycrisp apples, turnips, and whole grain mustard. If the appetizers showed this level of thought, Atlantic Grill might be a two-star restaurant.

The by-the-glass wine list was uninteresting. Service was friendly and efficient, and there was none of the upselling that one often encounters at this kind of restaurant.

The space used to be the venerable O’Neals’. Numerous walk-in guests seemed perplexed, asking the host what had happened to their old standby. Most of them stayed, and I suspect they were happy. Atlantic Grill is better than O’Neals’. It offers the safe, reliable, fairly-priced food that a pre-theater crowd wants.

Atlantic Grill (49 W. 64th St., east of Broadway, Upper West Side)

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


Primehouse New York

Note: Primehouse New York closed in September 2012 after a five-year run.


I had an evening meeting earlier this week in the vicinity of Primehouse New York, so I decided to drop in. The economy and my waistline being what they are, I ordered two appetizers.

Primehouse is a “Steakhouse Plus” — a restaurant that does steaks superbly, but where the non-steak items are far more than just afterthoughts. Both of my appetizers were preparations I don’t recall seeing in any other restaurant.

A rich Filet Mignon Carpaccio ($16; above right) comes draped in a pickled fennel salad, with foie gras “croutons” hiding underneath.

I considered omitting the photo of “Bacon & Egg” ($14; above right), as it really doesn’t do the dish justice. There is a double-cut log of pork belly and a soft-boiled egg deep-fried in panko crust in a pool of grits. Trust me: the dish is much, much better than my lame photo of it.

Steak prices remain on the high side, with most in the high $40s or low $50s, but I assume the aging program remains top-notch, as it was before. The steaks I observed at other tables had a wonderful sear and a uniform medium-rare finish.

Primehouse seems to be doing just fine — the bar is usually close to full, the dining room somewhere between half and three-quarters — but it doesn’t get as much attention as the better known brands. I rank it in the top tier of NYC steakhouses.

Primehouse New York (381 Park Avenue South at 27th Street, Gramercy)


Bill's Bar and Burger

Bill’s Bar and Burger is restauranteur Stephen Hanson’s burger joint in the old Hogpit Barbecue space in the Meatpacking District. Burgers are the centerpiece of the menu, which also features hot dogs, wings, fries, and milk shakes. The most expensive item is a Grouper Sandwich ($9.95).

Hanson is the king of low-brow food. Except for the shuttered Fiamma, his restaurants have never been at the vanguard of culinary ingenuity. He sees a trend and figures out how to down-brand it for popular appeal.

So you figured that a Hanson burger joint would at least be competent. The alleged hamburger experts are officially impressed. Mr. Cutlets, A Hamburger Today, Hamburger America, and the BLD Project are all smitten. We’ll let Cutlets’ comments stand as a proxy for all of them:

The Bill’s burger, at least the one I tasted, is the next step in the evolution of mainstream hamburgers. It takes the aggressive “smashing” technique from Steak n Shake and Smashburger, and applies it even more aggressively, and using LaFrieda beef — a rich blend I couldn’t exactly put my finger in, but lush and sweet in a way that suggested lots of brisket. It’s flatter and wider and browner that the Shake Shack, so much so that it hangs outside of the bun. It’s just luscious and enveloping and compuslively edible. And beneath that crust, which is complemented by a butter crisp toasted Arnold’s roll and a slice of deliciously viscous American cheese, is a torrent of juicy, salty, beef flavor that really lets you know you’ve eaten real meat, not just gray burger tissue. The thing is just fantastic, and there is not one weird topping or middlebrow trope anywhere to be seen. Is it too soon for me to say that this is the best hamburger in New York? I don’t think it is. Certainly it’s the best cheap hamburger in New York, if not the world. Daniel Boulud, Josh Capon, Nick Solares from Serious Eats…we all tried it and were knocked out. But better still than the taste was the fact that it was a blow for orthodoxy, and proof that our national sandwich is still best presented unadorned, in all its rude glory.

I don’t get it.

I dropped into Bill’s Bar & Burger the other night and ordered the so-called “Fat Cat” ($6.95) basically a burger topped with caramelized onions, with tomato and pickles on the side. The burger was over-cooked, and what little flavor it had was overwhelmed by the onions. It’s absurd that this is touted as one of the city’s better burgers. It ain’t in the top 50.

It’s not just a question of taste. The photo (above) doesn’t even look attractive. Those on sites like A Hamburger Today aren’t much better.

This tolerable burger was nothing compared to the awful fries ($3.50), which were over-salted and too greasy. What was worse, it appeared I was served a basket made in two separate batches, as some were burnt and others hadn’t been in the fryer long enough.

The beer was pretty good, and so was the service. There were plenty of empty tables at around 6pm, and there were still a few when I left, around 45 minutes later. By 9pm, I understand there was an hour wait. Don’t waste your time.

As I was getting ready to pay the bill, Mr. Cutlets sauntered in. Acted like he owned the place.

Addendum: It took a while, but finally there’s a pro reviewer who agrees with me: Alan Richman in GQ. I was about 90% certain that I spotted Richman there, but I only caught a brief glimpse of him, and wasn’t positive. He actually looked happy, smiling and waving to the staff. They’ll probably be surprised to learn he hated the place.

Bill’s Bar and Burger (22 Ninth Avenue at 13th Street, Meatpacking District)


The Burger at Primehouse


The recession has forced us to abandon steakhouses—no small sacrifice, as ribeye steak is practically our favorite dish. We make an exception for burgers. With that as our mission, we revisited Primehouse New York last week.

On our last visit, we noted that Primehouse has one of the most comfortable bar stools in the city, with a soft cushion for your derrière and firm, cushioned back. I know plenty of places where the dining room isn’t as comfortable as the bar at Primehouse.

In an era where $16 burgers are routine, the $12 charged at Primehouse must be considered a bargain. I can’t remember the last time I had a burger that cheap at a fine-dining restaurant. Although it’s the least expensive entrée (available only at the bar), they serve it with a flourish and all the fixin’s, marching to your table with the same wheeled cart they’d use if you’d ordered the $79 seafood platter.

For $12, you’re not getting a custom blend of organically-raised grass-fed Wagyu, but it’s a respectable burger I’d happily eat again. My only complaint is that the patty needed to be a bit broader, with less of a “dome” on top.

On a Tuesday evening, the dining room wasn’t at all full, but the bar was doing a brisk business. Evidently others have figured out that it’s the best way to enjoy Primehouse.

Primehouse New York (381 Park Avenue South at 27th Street, Gramercy/Flatiron)


Fiamma Closes: The Bigger Picture

Eater.com reports that Fiamma, Stephen Hanson’s acclaimed SoHo Italian spot, has closed. Two thoughts immediately spring to mind.

Number one, this is the first “recession-related” closure that I’m actually sad about. I never got around to dining at Fiamma, but it was obviously a first-class place. The other closures I’ve seen lately were marginal restaurants that most people won’t miss. They were either not very good, not very important, or both. Bear in mind that the restaurant industry always has a high failure rate. Many of these places would have failed anyway—though perhaps not as soon.

Number two, Fiamma was part of a large empire: Stephen Hanson’s B. R. Guest, with almost twenty restaurants under its wing (before today). In theory, Hanson might have had the resources to subsidize losses at his most acclaimed restaurant with revenues from some of the others. To know whether that made sense, we’d need to know his overall financial picture, but you’ve got to figure it was considered.

The point is that many restaurants at Fiamma’s level aren’t part of a big conglomerate. If revenues are down, the owner has nowhere else to go. If Fiamma couldn’t make it, then what about everyone else?


Wildwood Barbecue

Note: Widwood Barbecue closed in January 2014. Shelly Fireman (owner of Redeye Grill and Trattoria Dell’Arte) will turn it into an Italian restaurant (yawn!) called Floriana.


wildwood_inside1.jpgThe restauranteur Stephen Hanson generally sticks to tried and true formulas. So it’s no surprise that he has now opened Wildwood Barbecue, a few years after the barbecue revolution arrived in New York.

Hanson is known for commercializing cuisines without really mastering them: think Ruby Foo’s. Except for three-star Fiamma, Hanson’s eateries invariably seem flashy but mass-produced. As Grub Street wryly noted, it was telling that Hanson hired his interior designer (David Rockwell) before he’d hired a pitmaster.

Hanson quieted the skeptics when he hired Big Lou Elrose, formerly the deputy pitmaster at New York’s best barbecue restaurant, Hill Country. But Wildwood has a lot to prove, as great barbecue inNew York is no longer the rarity it once was. Hill Country, Blue Smoke, and R.U.B. are all short distances away.

Stephen Hanson tries to be funny: “Get Sauced”
Ironically, Wildwood is located on the site of one of the few Stephen Hanson failures, Barça 18, a tapas place that even Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert, as consulting chef, couldn’t save. With Wildwood, Hanson has reverted to the kind of corporate restaurant he does best. If Outback Steakhouse had a barbecue chain, it would probably look like this.

The barbecue here isn’t beholden to any particular region or style. Though respectable, it isn’t as good as the better places in town. Prices are modest, with appetizers $5.25–8.95, sandwiches and salads $10.95–14.95, entrées $9.95–23.95, tasting platters $21.50–28.95, and side dishes $4.95–6.95.

We got a good sample of the menu by ordering two tasting platters, which came with two side dishes apiece. This was a lot of food for two people. We brought home part of the chicken and several ribs, and the sides were left half-finished.


The Rib Sampler ($28.95) included both the longer pork ribs and Memphis-style baby back ribs. The pork ribs were meatier and more tender. The baby backs seemed a bit dried out.


The “Best of the Best” ($23.95) included a half-chicken, three slices of brisket, and a scoop of pulled pork. The chicken was the star of the meal: pink, tender, flavorful. Elrose serves it with an apricot barbecue glaze. My girlfriend thought this was superior to the chicken she’d had at Hill Country.

The brisket, on the other hand, was disappointing. It was too thin, too lean, and too dry. This was surprising from a pitmaster who’d worked at Hill Country, where the brisket is one of the best things on the menu. The pulled pork seemed merely competent.


We loved the side dishes: Crusty Cheddar Macaroni, Kettle-Cooked Burnt Ends & Bacon Baked Beans, Sweet Potato Fries, and Baked Cornbread. The first two were especially good.

The sides dishes served with the tasting platters are smaller than the sides ordered separately. A couple at the table next to us thought our cornbread looked good to share, but theirs came in a cast-iron skillet, and was about twice the size of our portion.

wildwood_inside2.jpgThere are wine and cocktail lists, but the highlight is a broad selection of beers and bourbons. A pitcher of Cold Ass — not a brand we’d heard of — was $22.

Service at Wildwood is better than most barbecue restaurants. Reservations are accepted for dinner. There is a coat check girl (who refused a tip), and there was even an employee outside to flag a taxi for us on a rainy night. But the space is too cramped, with hardly an inch to spare between tables. It’s neither as comfortable nor as authentic as Hill Country.

We had no trouble getting a table when we walked in at 6:30 p.m. on a Friday night, but the place was full by the time we left. Though there’s better ’cue in the city, we suspect that Stephen Hanson will figure out a way to keep the customers pouring in. He usually does.

Wildwood Barbecue (225 Park Avenue South between 18th & 19th Streets, Flatiron District)

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


Fiamma Capitulates


As we noted yesterday, the SoHo Italian restaurant Fiamma jacked up its prices, while reducing choices and banishing luxury ingredients from the kitchen, not long after Frank Bruni awarded three stars. Bruni took them to the woodshed in the Times dining section.

Hours later, Fiamma waved the white flag. Chef Fabio Trabocchi e-mailed Frank, and announced that prices would be lowered once again—not back to November 2007 levels, but to lower levels than they’d been just twenty-four hours earlier.

Mr. Trabocchi said that he and Mr. Hanson decided today to lower the three-course prix fixe from $92 to $85, the five-course from $120 to $105 and the seven-course menu from $138 as of early this week to $125.

Anyone want to take bets on how long this lasts?


Fiamma Flummoxed

[Kalina via Eater]

In today’s Times, Frank Bruni slaps Fiamma with a wet noodle, after hearing complaints that prices went up dramatically, while quality went down, after he awarded three stars in November 2007.

Indeed, the prix fixe menu went up from $75 to $95, while many of the luxe ingredients were banished from the kitchen. New Yorker’s “Tables for Two,” which often reviews restaurants much later than the other critics, caught Fiamma after its downturn, and it wasn’t pretty. The Eater Complaints Dept. sprang into action, noting not just the price hike, but also fewer choices than before.

The prix fixe was $92 on Bruni’s most recent visit, “an increase of more than 20 percent in just three months.” The five-course prix fixe had risen from $100 to $120, while the chef’s tasting menu “had contracted from seven courses to five.” He says, “The number of choices within the prix fixe was slightly smaller than on a menu I’d saved from mid-November, and in some slight ways the food on the more current menu seemed less luxurious, a shift noted and debated on several dining blogs recently.”

While the cost of dining, like everything else, has continued to rise, the shift at Fiamma—more money for less luxury—was especially abnormal, and deserved the dubious distinction of being called out in the newspaper itself. Normally, Bruni saves this type of news for his blog.

But he left Fiamma at three stars, while noting that it “makes me feel a bit less enthusiastic about a restaurant with so much to recommend it.”

The trouble is that most people who are searching for restaurant reviews will find Bruni’s original three-star rave, and not the far less conspicuous correction. You can’t tell whether Fiamma has slid to the lower end of the three-star range, or if Bruni would award two if he were doing it all over again.

Unfortunately, Times policy doesn’t allow a re-rating without three full visits, rather than the one visit that preceded this update. Bruni is no doubt unwilling to make that investment for a restaurant he reviewed only four months ago.

Had Bruni lowered Fiamma to two stars, the repercussions would have been substantial. It would have been a cannon-shot across the bow of restauranteurs: “As quickly as I gave you the third star, I can take it away.” Instead, restaurants can feel free to take advantage of the consumer after the rave reviews are in, knowing that they are not likely to be revised for many years to come.


The Payoff: Primehouse New York

In tomorrow’s Times, the animal-sex imagery abounds, as Frank Bruni pays homage to Prime, the mighty steer who sires the porterhouse at Primehouse New York:

And Primehouse New York, on Park Avenue South? It’s the seminal steakhouse.

It’s also an estimable one, with virtues that will rightly earn it the affection of many discerning carnivores and give it a solid chance in a competitive field.

[D]essert doughnuts … come in the form of hollow balls, accompanied by three plastic syringes of a sort containing chocolate, butterscotch and strawberry. You use the syringe of your choice to, um, fertilize each one.

He loves the steaks, but uneven service, an over-priced wine list, and a shortage of recommendable non-steak dishes, all add up to one star, as both Eater and New York Journal had predicted. We both win $3 on our hypothetical $1 bets.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $58.50   $77.67
Gain/Loss +3.00   +3.00
Total $61.50   $80.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 26–11   28–9

Rolling the Dice: Primehouse New York

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 Primehouse New York, Stephen Hanson’s contribution to Manhattan’s over-saturated steakhouse industry. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 4-1
One Star: 3-1 √√
Two Stars:
Three Stars: 50-1
Four Stars: 25,000-1

The Skinny: Bruni loves steakhouses. It’s his second favorite cuisine, after Italian. The trouble is, his steakhouse reviews are unpredictable. With Italian cuisine, you know he will rate the restaurant one star higher than it would receive if the chef were French. With steakhouses, there’s just no telling.

He awarded two stars to: Peter Luger, Craftsteak (re-review), Keens, and Wolfgang’s. He awarded one star to: Craftsteak (first review), Harry’s SteakPorter House, Robert’s Steakhouse and V Steakhouse. He awarded zero stars to Kobe Club and STK. Numerous others—including some clearly better than those that won full reviews—got the Diner’s Journal treatment: BLT Prime, Capital Grille, Chemist Club, Quality Meats, Staghorn Steakhouse. (Phew! Am I leaving any out?)

That brings us to Primehouse New York. The two available data points are my review and Adam Platt’s. I hesitate to admit I have anything in common with Adam Platt, but both of us are confirmed carnivores, and both of us awarded two stars. Cutlets also likes it. Weighing against Primehouse are its steep prices and Bruni’s general hostility towards chain or “chain-like” restaurants.

There’s virtually no doubt that Primehouse has superlative cuts of meat and knows how to prepare them. Bruni’s rating will come down to his assessment of everything else: ambiance, service, and the non-steak dishes. My sense is that Bruni has gotten tougher on steakhouses—Wolfgang’s (reviewed less than a month into his tenure) might not get the same two stars if it opened today. His other two-star steakhouses have a “destination” appeal that Primehouse, despite its merits, does not really offer.

The Bet: We’ve vacillated all day, but it’s almost review time, so we have to make a decision. We agree with Eater that Bruni will award one star to Primehouse New York.