Entries in Tom Valenti (5)


The West Branch

Note: West Branch closed in July 2010.

Tom Valenti has made a living at giving Upper West Siders haute comfort food. Ouest was an instant hit when it opened in 2001, in what was then a culinary desert at Broadway and 83rd. Two years later, he had another hit at ’Cesca (with which he has since severed his ties). Both got two stars from the Times.

The West Branch arrived last fall, after a long gestation. The name comes from a tributary of the Delaware River, where Valenti likes to fish. Also, the restaurant is a branch of Ouest, offering similar, but simpler cuisine at a much lower price point. Here, the average entrée price is around $20, as opposed to about $30 at Ouest.

In the large space, which was formerly three separate storefronts, he has 170 seats to fill. He has divided it up smartly into several adjoining rooms, so that you don’t feel like you’re in a dining barn. The classic bistro décor is easy on the eyes. We suspect it gets noisy when full, but on Labor Day that wasn’t an issue.

Valenti might want to consider updating the website. It still consists of nothing more than a splash page that says, “Opening Summer 2008.”

The menu plays it straight, consisting almost entirely of well known classics.  With gizzards, livers and hearts on offer, you couldn’t accuse Valenti of pandering. Still, it’s not an especially creative menu—not that it needs to be. Sometimes, comfort food well done is exactly what one wants.

We can offer only a preliminary verdict on the food, as our weekend of over-eating left us with room only for entrées.

Duck Confit “choucroute” ($19; above left) was executed flawlessly, including pork sausage, thick-cut bacon, and a bed of sauerkraut. House-made pappardelle bolognese ($19; above right) was a basic dish, but just as satisfying.

The West Branch impressed in other ways, too. We loved the warm, house-made bread with soft butter. We ordered a nice French country wine for around $35, and the server circled back frequently to refill our glasses.

It may not be an “ambitious” restaurant, but on this occasion The West Branch delivered on its ambitions perfectly.

The West Branch (2178 Broadway at 77th Street, Upper West Side)

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


The Payoff: BarBao and The West Branch

Today, Frank Bruni delivers identical one-star verdicts on BarBao and The West Branch:

Both the West Branch, a mostly Mediterranean brasserie, and BarBao, which interprets Vietnamese cuisine, deserve to make it. While their kitchens aren’t consistent enough or their menus quite original enough to brand them destination restaurants, they have real talent in their DNA and bring serious food to a patch of Manhattan that, for all its recent strides, could still use more of it.

This was one of Bruni’s better reviews. The text was consistent with the rating, and the rating was consistent with the general buzz about these places, and in the case of BarBao, with my own observations. And he resisted the temptation to give two stars to The West Branch merely because it is inexpensive.

Bruni liked BarBao a tad better than The West Branch. Yet, he thinks we may be heading into a burgers-‘n’-fries era, which could work to the latter restaurant’s favor. He found The West Branch consistently full, but BarBao always had empty tables (as it did when we visited). However, it could be less about the recession, and more about the fact that Tom Valenti is already well known in the neighborhood, thanks to Ouest, his other restaurant nearby.

We went home quite unsure about our hypothetical wager with Eater.com, given that either one of these places could have earned two stars. But our sense was that if either place had struck Bruni as a destination restaurant (which is essentially what two stars means), he would have granted it the courtesy of its own review.

As we correctly predicted one star for both restaurants, we win $5 on our hypothetical one-dollar bets. Eater was correct for BarBao (winning $2), but not The West Branch (losing $1), for a net of $1.

  Eater   NYJ
Bankroll $105.50   $124.67
Gain/Loss +1.00   +5.00
Total $106.50   $129.67
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 48–23   51–20

Rolling the Dice: Bar Bao and The West Branch

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 has a two-fer, with Michael Bao Huynh’s BarBao and Tom Valenti’s The West Branch going under the microscope. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars:
One Star: 2-1 √√
Two Stars:
Three Stars: 35-1
Four Stars: 35,000-1

West Branch
Zero Stars:
One Star: 3-1
Two Stars: 2-1 √√
Three Stars: 5-1
Four Stars: 20,000-1

The Skinny: Bruni’s double reviews usually have a theme. Here, it is geography: both places are on Bruni’s beloved Upper West Side, where a deuce is always in play. You wonder, though, why a new two-star restaurant would be relegated to sharing a review, when trivial one-star places have so often been given reviews to themselves.

Frank Bruni has reviewed Michael Bao Huynh twice, awarding one star at Bao 111 and two at Mai House. When we visited, we found BarBao a touch less exciting—less polished—than Mai House.

We haven’t made it to The West Branch yet, but reviews have generally been positive. It’s a less ambitious version of Valenti’s other restaurant, Ouest, but as Eater notes, Bruni could give bonus points for serving pretty good grub at recession-friendly prices.

The Bet: We are betting that Frank Bruni will award one star apiece to BarBao and The West Branch.



Note: Ouest closed in June 2015 after an impressive 14-year run. Tom Valenti, the chef–owner, cited a forthcoming rent increase. Beyond that, the neighborhood had changed considerably. Ouest, at the time it opened, was considered one of the first restaurants on the Upper West Side with a serious, credentialed chef, at a time when the area was known for unremarkable neighborhood joints.


A friend and I had a pre-concert dinner at Ouest last Saturday night. I had been there twice before—another occasion before an event at Lincoln Center (loved it), and two New Year’s Eves ago (underwhelmed).

This visit was more like the first time I went. I started with the Salmon Gravlax with Chickpea Pancake Caviar & Mustard Oil ($14). This was an excellent hunk of smoked salmon with just a dash of caviar, but then, how many $14 dishes have any caviar at all? It was terrific. My friend had an off-menu potato gnocchi dish, which she liked.

We both had the Braised Beef Short Ribs with Israeli Cous Cous, Spring Onion & Shiitake ($32). This was one of the larger short rib portions I’ve seen, and also one of the cleverest. After braising, the short ribs were apparently put on the grill for finishing, as they had obvious ‘lines’ where the meat had been charred. The dish offered the best of both worlds: braising first (for tenderness), grilling afterwards (for flavor). Forget about the short ribs at Café Gray. This dish is the ticket.

Ouest doesn’t try to be formal, but the service was solid, and the food a lot more enjoyable than many restaurants at its price point. I’ll be back…just as long as it’s not New Year’s Eve.

Ouest (2315 Broadway between 83 & 84th Streets, Upper West Side)

Food: ★½
Service: ★½
Ambiance: ★½
Overall: ★½



Note: This is a review of ’Cesca under Tom Valenti, who shortly thereafter severed his ties to the restaurant to focus on his other Upper West Side property, Ouest. Frank Bruni paid a visit to ’Cesca in October 2007 under the new chef, Kevin Garcia, and liked what he saw.


My friend and I had dinner at ’Cesca a couple of Fridays ago. I was sporting a 101-degree fever and wasn’t in the mood for fine dining, but we had an opera to catch, so there we were.

’Cesca was a hit pretty much immediately after it opened in late 2003. Along with its sister restaurant Ouest, ’Cesca marked the arrival of fine dining in a neighborhood that had had precious little to choose from. Poor William Grimes, in his two-star review for the Times, complained that he could only get 5:30pm reservations. That’s still true, by the way. Our reservation was at 5:30 for an 8:00 opera—earlier than I would normally choose, but nothing later was available.

The decor is warm, comfortable, and welcoming. There seem to be enough soft surfaces to catch the sound, and prevent ’Cesca from becoming an echo chamber—like so many other contemporary restaurants. In the middle of the night, I wouldn’t mind tearing down some of the velvet curtains and transporting them to BLT Fish.

I had the cauliflower soup (a daily special) and a wonderful duck ravioli. It’s not the restaurant’s fault that I didn’t finish them, but I just wasn’t up to it that day. My friend had a tomato and mozarella salad, followed by a huge veal chop (also a daily special), which she pronounced a huge improvement over one she had recently at Cookshop.

We had only one complaint. My friend ordered a side dish of mashed potatoes, only to find that her entree already came with potatoes. She said, “There are enough potatoes here to feed the whole Upper West Side.” (That side dish was a huge helping, which even two people might have trouble finishing.) A server really should tell you that the entree you’ve ordered already comes with a generous helping of vegetables.

I really was out-of-it for this meal, but we’ll definitely return—if we can get a reservation, that is.

’Cesca (164 W. 75th St, east of Amsterdam Ave, Upper West Side)

Food: **
: **
: **
: **