Entries in Taavo Somer (5)


Bar Primi

I’m still not sure if Andrew Carmellini truly wanted to be the king of middlebrow restaurants, or if he just stumbled on them by accident.

That’s not meant as an insult, though I’m sure it sounds like one. Carmellini’s restaurants are places where we could eat well every day, which is a good thing, because we have to eat every day. He has nailed the genre.

For now, he apparently has no appetite for destintion dining, and he used to be very good at that too. I wonder if he misses it?

Anyhow, welcome to Bar Primi, which isn’t a bar (though it’ll russle up a terrific cocktail if you ask for one). It’s named for the middle course of a traditional Italian meal, the primi. It’s as if a traditional Italian restaurant had lopped a page off the menu: it ends with the pastas.

Ryan Sutton, Eater’s restaurant critic, apparently had no sense of irony, when he wrote:

Leave it to Carmellini, Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom, the team behind Locanda Verde, Lafayette and The Dutch, to give New York what it wants, which in this case is a late night pasta parlor where you and a buddy can eat and drink well for about $120. Bar Primi is essentially doing for Carmellini & Co. what Parm is doing for the Torrisi boys: it provides an entry-level Italian experience that can still excite fans of the group’s more expensive brands.

It’s not a crazy idea. Americans have an indistinct relationship with the pasta course: it can serve as an appetizer, or it can be a meal in itself. Very few, in my experience, actually order it as a middle course, between an appetizer and an entrée: it’s just too much food. Still, the menu at Bar Primi is a bit disorienting. It feels like two-thirds of a restaurant, and despite Sutton’s protestations, not exactly cheap.

For the sops who must have secondi, there’s a rotating line-up of them—one per day—and sometimes an extra announced special. Or you can have roast beef, Italian peppers, provalone and arugula on a hamburger bun, which is dubbed “the sandwich,” as the restaurant serves no other. We didn’t try it, but we saw a specimen at another table: it looked terrific.

The bulk of the menu consists of little snacks, or piccolini ($9–14), antipasti ($14–17), and two groups of pastas, traditional and seasonal ($14–22). That sandwich is $16, and the few secondi offered are $23–33.

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I’ve run out of ways to describe enjoyable, inexpensive, faux-rustic Italian restaurants. But there are never enough of them when they’re done well.

Pagani, named for a former music store that once occupied its bright West Village street corner, is done well. You might’ve guessed that if you’ve been to the owners’ other place, the Upper East Side restaurant and wine bar Uva, which we visited a couple of years ago. It has similar charms.

The owners hired Taavo Somer to oversee the décor, which ensured it would be attractive, comfortable and unoriginal. Wisely, they let him nowhere near the food. Mark Barrett, a veteran of Tabla and Babbo (and quite a few other places), runs the kitchen.

The menu is the typical multi-category broadsheet, with a variety of snacks, cured meats, and cheeses as the opening act. Starters and salads are $8–12, pastas $16–21, main courses $19–27, side dishes $6. That qualifies as inexpensive these days.

None of it is very adventurous: even picky eaters could return again and again, without repeating a dish. It all just sounds so good. Four of us were able to sample nine items, and there wasn’t a dud among them. We’d happily order any of them again. There’s a steady 4–5 ingredients per dish, and they all make sense. It feels odd to write that, but it’s often not the case.


Apple fennel salad ($10; above left), with arugula, feta cheese, pistachio, and olive oil, was a bit on the tart side, but after some discussion we rated it a success. The obligatory Farm Poached Egg ($9; above right) keeps company with mushrooms, spinach, and crispy pancetta vinaigrette.


The Sliced Garden Zucchini salad ($9; above left), with grilled corn, string beans, and almond vinaigrette, had a pleasant lemony flavor. The Soft-Shell Crab special ($10; above right), served breaded and deep-fried, won’t be available by the time you read this: order it next year.

Folded Chicken ($19; above) is terrific, the least-expensive entrée and one of the best. The bird has plenty of company: arugula, Parmigiano, tomatoes, spinach, and dried figs. It never feels like too much.


Rich Potato Gnocchi ($19; above left) with walnuts, gorgonzola, and black truffle, were lovely. Garganelli ($19; above right) with whole wheat pasta, spicy sausage, spinach, red onion, and tomato sauce, were more conventional but exactly as they should be.


The desserts are a highlight: the Chocolate Banana Pudding Sticks ($9.50; above left) and the Fruit Torte ($7.50; above right).

The two-page wine list (mostly Italian) is not as deep or as compelling as at Uva, but perhaps that’ll change as the restaurant matures. In the meantime, it is at least fairly priced, with a majority of the bottles—even the majority of the reds—below $50. You rarely see that any more. A 2009 Sicilian red was $45.

We reserved our table of four the same day; nevertheless, the restaurant was packed, so I assume they get a lot of walk-ins. It took a server about 15 minutes to take our order, and only then did he get around to mentioning the specials. After that little glitch, the meal went smoothly.

As I noted, there’s nothing terribly original about Pagani, but if you’re in that neck of the woods, it’s a fun place you’d never get tired of.

Pagani (289 Bleecker Street at Seventh Avenue South, West Village)

Food: Rustic Italian
Service: Friendly but a bit slow
Ambiance: Blonde woods, mirrored walls; Taavo Somer playbook





Note: While I was composing this review, Eater posted that owner Taavo Somer had fired the whole kitchen staff at Isa. The former sous chef tweeted that they’re “Turning something special into another grilling, burger, pizza joint.” There was no sign anything was amiss when we dined there on Friday, but by this morning the restaurant was temporarily closed.

Anyhow: the review is nearly done, so here it is: an ode to the Isa that was.


If it seems that every restaurant these days is a copy of something else you’ve seen, I have a one-word retort: Isa. By turns wonderful and strange, it is the most remarkable restaurant I have visited in quite a while.

You’ll note I didn’t say best. Some of the food we tried didn’t quite hit the mark. But enough of it did, and none really resembled anything we’ve seen. Isa is special.

I’d love to go back, but it is quite the hike, about fifteen minutes’ walk from either of two Williamsburg subway stations (Marcy Avenue on the J/M/Z, or Bedford Avenue on the L). At least it takes reservations, unlike most of Brooklyn. Most nights, you can get in before 8pm without much trouble.

Isa (Estonian for “father”) is the brainchild of Taavo Somer, the design guru behind the restaurants Freemans and Peels, and the dive bar, The Rusty Knot, all in Manhattan.

“They must have chopped down a forest to build this place,” my girlfriend said. There’s wood everywhere, but it is all very comforting, welcoming, and stylish. We dined in the sun-drenched room on the corner lot at Wyeth and S. 2nd Street. Next door is an open kitchen with a wood-burning brick oven.

The chef, Ignacio Mattos, comes from Uruguay via the Italian restaurant Il Buco, where he was executive chef for five years. But he’s doing something completely different here, in a style that has been called “Primitive Modern,” with some apologies to the so-called New Nordic style seen at places like Acme and Frej.

The chef sat for a lengthy interview with Eater, and after reading it you’re still not sure what he is trying to do.

The menu, which changes frequently, is the model of economy, with nine starters and snacks ($7–17), two entrées ($28–29), and two desserts ($11). A three-course prix fixe is $55. If you order à la carte, bread (above left) costs $4 extra, but you should have some. Baked in house, it’s some of the best restaurant bread I’ve had in a while, and the butter is so soft it could be cream.

The menus themselves are so artistic that it’s worth reproducing them in full:


And the drinks menu too:


Don’t look for those menus on the website, isa.gg, the most useless restaurant website I’ve seen. The “.gg” top-level domain corresponds to Guernsey. What that has to do with Isa is beyond me.


We ordered à la carte. A salad ($14; above left) was a triumph of plating, with the ingredients arranged like a house of cards. Salads are often boring, but this one was pretty good, with peach, fennel, mulberry, and almond vinaigrette.

Pig tails ($10; above right) couldn’t have been more opposite, a symphony of cartilege and fat slathered in caramel. An appetizer is about as much of it as anyone could tolerate, but it really needs to come with warm towlettes, as it’s not a knife-and-fork type of dish.


The photo doesn’t give a good view of the Hanger Steak ($29; above left): there’s more of it than you can see. The steak itself was just fine, but nothing special. The interest chiefly came from a potato and marrow soup served inside a hollowed-out onion. At least, that’s what I thought it was.

I wouldn’t order the Mackeral again ($28; above right). There’s a decent amount of fish there, beneath little turnip discs, but it had a rather leaden flavor, partly redeemed by the slightest hint of smoke.


Well, given the news at the top of this post, that’s all she wrote for Isa, an intriguing if not-quite-perfect restaurant that seemed to have so much potential.

Isa (348 Wyeth Avenue at South Second Street, Williamsburg)


The Burger at Peels

Note: Peels closed in January 2014. As Taavo Somer botches project after project, the success of Freemans (which is still open) begins to look more and more like a fluke. Later in 2014, Andrew Carmellini and his team expect to open an Italian restaurant in the space called Bar Primi.


Peels is the lively second act of those downtown scene-builders Taavo Somer and William Tigertt, whose first place (Freemans) is so legendarily crowded that I won’t go near it.

I wouldn’t have gone near Peels either if I hadn’t walked by at 1:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, one of the few times you can walk in and not wait forever.

The vaguely Southern cuisine has received mixed reviews so far. Sam Sifton gave it one star, though he was more interested in guessing (and guessing wrong) which side of the tracks the clientele was from.

The two-story space is a magnet for sunlight. At off-hours, it’s a cheery main-street diner that you wish all neighborhoods would have. In the evenings, it fills up quickly with a party crowd, though the bartender allowed I might get seated promptly on a Monday a Tuesday evening, provided I arrived early enough.

The kitchen butchers its own steaks (a grass-fed ribeye steak is $45). The off-cuts and trimmed fat go into their burger blend. The hand-formed patty is thick and rich, a good foil to the twice-fried potatoes. At $13, it’s less than most of the city’s high-end burgers these days, and arguably better.

The staff were friendly; helpful; welcoming. They’re probably like that all the time, but on a Thursday evening there’s not much they can do for you, and forget about Saturday. Or even brunch. A late lunch is just fine.


The Rusty Knot

The Rusty Knot is a bar no one would have noticed, if it didn’t have Ken Friedman (The Spotted Pig, The John Dory) and Taavo Somer (Freemans) as co-owners. It is carefully gussied up to look like a dive bar, which is exactly the point. You would think, “this has been here forever,” unless you knew that it opened last year.

The still-evolving menu isn’t long, but what they serve is cheap, and mostly successful. Restaurant industry types show up here, as they do at the Pig, Momofuku, etc., because pretty damned good comfort food is served without much pretense.

As for critical opinion, Sarah DiGregorio of the Village Voice hated it, but a delighted Frank Bruni in the Times was “too content to care.” Bruni’s view, in this case, is closer to the consensus.

The location isn’t ideal: cold, inhospitable West Street, a very long walk from mass transit. But if you manage to get there early enough, there are priceless views of sunset over the Hudson River, and you avoid the crowds. If you prefer dining late, the kitchen is open till 3:00 a.m.

Oddly enough, there are three Michelin-starred restaurants less than five minutes away: Perry St., Wallsé, and the Spotted Pig. Which just goes to show that West Street is a lot more hospitable than it used to be.

The Pretzel Dog ($4; above left) comes freshly baked. It’s not noticeably better than Auntie Anne’s, except for Gray Poupon on the side and handi-wipes to wash your hands afterwards. Potato Wedges ($8; above right) are dipped in thyme, oregono, rosemary, paprika and chives, with a house made sour cream on the side. For bar food, it’s a pretty memorable dish.

To go with that, I had a couple of beers I’d never heard of: Red Stripe and Abita Light, both in bottles, and both $6.

It’s not your average dive bar.

The Rusty Knot (425 West Street at W. 11th Street, West Village)