Entries in Top Chef alumni (7)


Pig and Khao

Pig and Khao is the first solo venture for Top Chef alumna Leah Cohen, who is better known for shagging fellow cheftestant Hosea Rosenberg than for her performance on the show.

Cohen is actually a better chef than that. A CIA grad and former chef de partie at Eleven Madison Park, she opened Centro Vinoteca in the West Village with Anne Burrell, and was later promoted to executive chef. She left the restaurant in late 2009 and spent a year in Asia.

This new restaurant, in the old Falai space, is a partnership with Fatty Crew, the outfit behind the various “Fatty” restaurants (Crab, ’Cue). The food may be Cohen’s, but there’s Fatty DNA all over the place, from the casual no-reservations vibe, to the cocktail program and even the china.

The cuisine is nominally Filipino (as is Cohen on her mother’s side), though like most “Fatty” restaurants, it’s a mash-up of so many different Asian and American culininary styles that it really isn’t authentically anything.

The whole menu, including the cocktail and wine list, fits on a single sheet of paper. It’s dominated by small plates ($9–15), with just three proper entrées ($24–28), a few sides ($4–8), and a couple of desserts ($8). Cocktails are inexpensive ($10); along with beers, they vastly outnumber the wines (just five choices).

But none of this is necessarily a drawback. Especially at a new restaurant, I’d rather choose from a dozen items the chef thinks she can nail than from many dozens she can’t.

Sizzling Sisig ($12; above) is a legitimate Filipino dish, with chillies and pork face. The whole egg on top may be Cohen’s idea, as it’s not mentioned in any of the online recipies I checked. It’s served on a cast-iron skillet, still frying as you eat it. This is one of my favorite dishes of the year.


Curry Lamb Ribs ($24; above) are grilled at a low heat for many hours. They pull off the bone easily, then you wrap them in whole wheat pancakes with beets and yogurt. This is another terrific dish.

I visited quite early on a Friday evening—I was practically the first customer—so I was well taken care of. Cohen was in the house, but working mostly downstairs in the prep kitchen. She did make two brief appearances, wearing a thin red t-shirt with the words “Pleasure Dispenser” printed across her chest.

The space is attractively remodeled, and more casual than in the Falai days. It isn’t a large restaurant, especially with the backyard garden closed in colder weather. For a solo diner, a seat at the chef’s counter is the way to go.

The two dishes I ordered may be the best ones: I had the advantage of reading early reviews and heeding their recommendations. We’ll have to see if the chef has more arrows like that in her quiver.

Pig and Khao (68 Clinton St. between Rivington & Stanton Sts, Lower East Side)

Food: Flipino cuisine, liberally interpreted
Service: Casual, but just fine for what it is
Ambiance: Right out of the Fatty playbook

Why? A couple of excellent dishes, but menu and beverage program need to grow 


First Look: Social Eatz

Note: Social Eatz closed in March 2013. Another concept from the same chef is expected to replace it.


Social Eatz is the new restaurant from Top Chef alumnus Angelo Sosa. After coming within a whisper of winning Season 7, he came back for the current “All Stars” season, and was eliminated about two-thirds of the way through.

He has bounced around a bit. His last place, a sandwich shop called Xie Xie, lasted only a shade over a year, although a problem with air conditioning in the building—not any deficiency in Sosa’s food or its popularity—was the reason it closed.

The menu at Social Eatz is casual and inexpensive, with all of its various categories ending in a ‘z’, like “soup’z,” “salad’z,” “app’z,” “burger’z,” “taco’z,” and so forth. The most expensive item is $12—the Bibimbap (Korean for “mixed meal”) Burger. You’d have to try really hard to spend more than $25 a head.

Sosa has been giving out a lot of free food, especially at lunch time. Last Thursday, the restaurant’s first night officially open, they weren’t charging anyone. I think I was recognized, but the staff said that every meal was on the house.

The cuisine is somewhat difficult to classify, with a mixture of American and Asian influences, and yes, tacos. Culinary styles are cross-polinated in most of the dishes, an approach that could crash and burn if the spices get even slightly out of whack. I liked both items I tried, and I have to assume Sosa is really cooking here—at least for now—as I didn’t see him schmoozing in the dining room.

Hot Wings ($9) are glazed in a tamarind, garlic, shallot, plum sugar, and Japanese togaroshi sauce, the latter incorporating red chili, roasted orange peel, and black sesame. You can’t make out all of the individual flavors, but they work together brilliantly. In Korean Beef Tacos ($9), tender skirt steak is marinated in a sweet/savory sauce and served in a house-made soft tortilla with spicy bean sprout kimchee.

Service was very good, especially for a restaurant this inexpensive. The host checked my coat, and there were cloth napkins. Staff seemed to know the menu well. After I finished the wings, the server brought out a hot towel for me to wipe off the barbecue sauce. That’s not bad for a place where the food bill would have been $18. (Alcohol wasn’t available, as the liquor license hadn’t come through yet.)

I’m not sure why Sosa is content to do this kind of food, when he is clearly capable of much more. For now, this is the idiom in which he chooses to work. His brand of fusion cuisine won’t be to all tastes: to some, his palate may be too sweet, or not tart enough. But you’ve got to hand it to a guy who is serving food of this quality, in a decent-looking midtown space, for about $20 a head.

Social Eatz (232 E. 53rd Street between Second & Third Avenues, East Midtown)


Octavia's Porch

Note: Octavia’s Porch closed in May 2011 after just six months in business.


It’s Hanukkah! Which put me in the mood, the other day, to visit chef Nikki Cascone’s new Jewish-themed restaurant, Octavia’s Porch.

Cascone is Jewish on her mother’s side. (She’s also a Top Chef alum, having been eliminated mid-way through Season 4.) She told the Times, “I want people to understand Jewish food that goes beyond the New York deli.”

The menu is a mixture of obviously Jewish dishes (Gefilte fish, Kreplach, Latkes), and a few others you could find anywhere (roasted chicken; a veggie club sandwhich). The only nod to the other half of her heritage (her father’s Italian side) is a buckwheat tagliatelle entrée. There is certainly enough to please those for whom the Jewish dishes hold no appeal.

It’s all offered at Avenue B prices, so appetizers are mostly $10 or less, sandwiches $12, entrées $18–22, desserts $6–7. Cocktails seem like a great deal at $10, until the bartender tops off your Mojito from a soda gun, sending it to a watery grave.

The warm, house-made bread could be Robert Atkins’ public enemy #1. Serving such a gorgeous specimen to a solo diner is almost criminal. Most three-star restaurants don’t serve bread this good. The only explanation I got out of the server was, “She just uses a very high quality flour.”

Kreplach, as Wikipedia tells us, “are small dumplings filled with ground meat, . . . usually boiled and served in chicken soup.” The Kreplach here ($8; below left) are an error of both conception and execution. Made with beef and veal, they quickly fell apart, with the meat filling not adhering to the dough. Worse yet, the traditional chicken soup was replaced with an inauthentic dipping sauce of soy and scallions. These were not the Kreplach of my youth, nor were they an improvement.

But Long Island Duck Breast ($19; above right) was wonderful, with glistening meat wearing a sensuous coat of fat and skin. Spiced vanilla–apple sauce was unsubtle, but just fine. It comes with a latke, and though I didn’t mind that it was made with sweet potato, it won’t put Russ & Daughters out of business.

The space is bare-bones, particularly in the rear dining room, but old-school chandeliers and sconces make it feel like home. Menus are presented in a laminated sleeve, which means they don’t have to be replaced as often, but which also makes them look a bit cheap. The wine list is unmemorable. Service was reasonably smooth, for a restaurant that had been open just three days. The restaurant was full, and with clearly more than just an Avenue B crowd.

I am sure there will be adjustments to the menu. Cascone understands the idiom and there is no question she can cook. The bread and the duck entrée show promise of how good the restaurant can be. The kreplach show that there is still some work to do. I would certainly go back, if I lived anywhere nearby.

Octavia’s Porch (40 Avenue B between E. 3rd & E. 4th Streets, East Village)

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


Kin Shop

Note: Harold Dieterle closed Kin Shop and its sister restaurant, Perilla, late in 2015. He said that he was “not having fun and enjoying myself.”


Harold Dieterle, the winner of Top Chef Season 1, has done many admirable things. To date, he is the only winner of that show to parlay his success into a restaurant: Perilla.

And since opening three years ago, Dieterle has basically stayed put, focusing on his kitchen, not photo-ops. Critical reception was tepid, but we liked Perilla when we visited earlier this year, and it remains steadily busy.

A few weeks ago, he opened Kin Shop, a Thai restaurant. Yeah, it’s a bit of an eye-roller: both the kitschy name, and the deeper question whether Thai cuisine is something a non-native can just dabble in.

Does Kin Shop qualify as an authentic Thai restaurant? I’ll leave that debate to others. In an interview, Dieterle wisely described the menu as “spins on traditional dishes” and “original stuff with influences from Thai flavors and ingredients.” In short: it doesn’t much matter whether you would see these exact dishes in Thailand.

The menu is much more focused than at the typical Thai restaurant, where you could visit every day for months without running out of new things to try. There are just two dozen items, all served family style, as sharable plates. It’s fairly priced for the West Village, though not if your idea of great NYC Thai food is a place in Queens. Salads and soups are $9–14, vegetables $8–9, noodles and curries $14–25.

Spicy Duck Laab Salad ($13; above left) was aggressively hot. We loved it, but we were left with no taste for the Beef Tartare ($14; above right), which failed to make much of an impression.

Dieterle’s skill with proteins really shone, including the tenderest duck breast ($24; above left) that I’ve had in a long time. Put it in pancakes and add some red curry sauce, and you are in for a treat.

Goat ($21; above right) came with a milder curry sauce and a blaze of fried shallots, purple yams, mustard greens, and toasted coconuts. It seemed to be the same cut that would be called osso buco if it were veal, and if this were Italy. Having been braised for many hours, it came off the bone like butter. [Update: Justin, in the comments, says it’s the neck, not the osso buco.]

We didn’t mind the family-style service, but the food came out too fast. Our first two items, plus a Stir Fry of Aquatic Vegetables ($9; above left), all arrived at once. Perhaps we’d have liked that Beef Tartare better if the Duck Laab Salad hadn’t been there to overwhelm it. Perhaps the vegetables wouldn’t have seemed dispensable if they’d been served later.

The two entrées came together, as well, and I began to suspect this was part of a strategy for turning tables. Kin Shop is packed in its early days: both the bar (where they also serve food) and the tables were full, and the host was turning walk-ins away. Servers, at least, are attentive and well informed about the cuisine.

The space is narrow, with an open kitchen in the back. There is exposed brick, painted white. Green floral wall hangings match the banquettes, in a design not especially suggestive of Thailand. It is exactly what you expect a West Village-y dining room to be.

I suspect the Sripraphai set will sniff haughtily at Kin Shop, but Harold Dieterle’s version of Thai cuisine is very good indeed.

Kin Shop (469 Sixth Avenue between 11th & 12th Streets, West Village)

Food: **
Service: *
Ambaince: *
Overall: *½


Plein Sud

Note: Plein Sud closed in August 2013. This is a review under chef Ed Cotton, who left the restaurant in October 2011. Reviews were mostly unfavorable, but Cotton lasted for quite a while afterward, so there may have been other reasons for the split.


Hotel Restaurants have rules all their own. Practically all hotels must have a restaurant, so they bring in an established operator, who can be guaranteed—at least, as much as anything in this business can be—to run a reliable operation.

The operator gets a subsidy, which limits his downside risk. In exchange, he must offer room service and serve three meals a day. The menu can’t be anything so terribly challenging that guests will find it off-putting. Of course, what works in the Four Seasons would fail in the Holiday Inn, but the principle remains the same.

The Thompson Hotels, a boutique chain with five New York City properties, offer an eclectic mix of restaurants: Kittichai at 60 Thompson, Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill at 6 Columbus Circle, The Libertine at Gild Hall, Shang at the Thompson LES, and now Plein Sud at the Smythe. I suspect that at least two of the five (Shang and The Libertine) would be doomed as stand-alone restaurants.

Plein Sud adheres to the pattern of the other Thompson hotels, in that it has an operator with established credentials: Frederick Lesort of the now-shuttered Frederick’s Madison; along with a chef, Ed Cotton, who worked at (and was fired from) three-star Veritas.

The South-of-France cuisine seems calculated to meet the hotel’s requirements, with safe choices that won’t offend any guest. Even those who didn’t take French in high school will guess the contents of Le Burger Royale au Fromage, Coq au Vin, and Pasta Printemps. The menu does not stray far beyond these brasserie standards.

Over the course of half-a-dozen visits (the first chronicled here) I’ve found the cooking always at least competent, though singularly lacking in ambition. One wants to think that Cotton, who has worked at much better places (and is a current contestent on Top Chef), is not content to stop at this.

There’s a range of appetizers in various categories to satisfy bar grazers. On another visit, I tried the Tart Flambé, an oven-baked flatbread with smoked bacon, onion, and cheese. It’s a perfect snack, though better for sharing, as it wears out its welcome. (Gael Greene has a photo on her blog.)

We tried the large charcuterie board ($21; left), which allows you to choose five of the six meats on the menu. They were all just fine, though served with not enough bread. Dozens of places in town offer the same.

We wondered: if all you have are six selections, why not just give slightly less of each, and serve all six? Figuring out which one to leave out—we chose the air-dryed Wagyu beef—seemed odd. (There is also a small charcuterie board that offers three of six for $15.)

Steak au Poivre ($32; above left) was clearly better than the average non-steakhouse New York Strip, though well short of Minetta Tavern level. The fries were perfect. Pasta ($21; above right) with Merguez sausage and goat cheese was another solid effort.

Over the course of my visits, I’ve found a mixture of considerate and clueless service—never offensive, just sometimes aimless. Having now seen the AvroKO décor from every angle, I am inclined to be less charitable than before. Like everything else at Plein Sud, it won’t offend anyone, but it seems to be a retread of ideas the firm has used before, with filament bulbs hauled in from the company store room.

What we have here is a solid and reasonably priced neighborhood restaurant that seldom disappoints but never wows. I freely admit to a bias in favor of this type of cuisine. Most of the New York City critics will be bored by such a place. Do the owner and the chef aspire to anything more? Or are they happy to serve hotel guests and curiosity-seekers who happen to just wander by? That’s an open question.

Plein Sud (89 West Broadway at Chambers Street, TriBeCa)

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

Plein Sud on Urbanspoon


First Look: Plein Sud

Plein Sud is the new Southern French-themed brasserie in Southern Tribeca, in the swanky Smythe Hotel. It has top-drawer names behind it, including restauranteur Frederick Lesort (who previously ran the now-shuttered Frederick’s Madison mini-chain) and design firm AvroKO.

The chef here, Ed Cotton, has a blue-chip background, with stints at Veritas and BLT Market on his resume. He’s also a competitor on the coming season of Top Chef. If he survives deep into the season, Plein Sud could start to get a lot of attention.

The restaurant has been open since May, but it only received its liquor license yesterday. In honor of that event, they were offering wine on the house. Where the alcohol is free, New York Journal is on the case, so I dropped in. Service at the bar was a bit inattentive, but considering that they didn’t even have a bar until yesterday, it is too soon to reach any judgment.

The space is easy on the eyes, as you’d expect from an AvroKO production. The only food I sampled was an excellent Duck and Foie Gras Terrine that could withstand comparison to anything served at Bar Boulud, the city’s charcuterie capital. The young lady seated next to me at the bar offered me a taste of her Loup de Mer entrée, which had a nice crisp skin and a medley of roasted vegetables.

This is a take-no-risks menu, but if you love French classics, you’ll like Plein Sud. There are more pâtés and terrines to be tried, charcuterie, and baked flatbreads, along with the usual appetizers and entrées. It’s the kind of focused menu that David Bouley’s failed Secession, nearby, should have had.

Cotton was fired at Veritas, probably because he was serving two-star food in a three-star restaurant. Plein Sud doesn’t aspire to three stars (and won’t get them), but it doesn’t have Veritas’ high prix fixe. That terrine was just eight dollars, and most entrées are in the twenties. If he can keep serving food this good, he’ll do just fine. If he wins Top Chef, he’ll do even better.

Plein Sud (89 West Broadway at Chambers Street, TriBeCa)


Centro Vinoteca

[Kalina via Eater]

Note: Centro Vinoteca closed in March 2013. The following review was written under chef Leah Cohen, who left the restaurant in September 2009.


Centro Vinoteca is one of those restaurants that raises immediate suspicion, with its achingly long 18-month gestation and a game of musical chefs before it served its first meal in the summer of 2007. Frank Bruni’s middling one-star review did nothing to pique my curiosity.

Last fall, founding chef Anne Burrell—she of the blonde spikey hair, perhaps best known as Mario Batali’s sidekick on Iron Chefleft the restaurant. Apparently all of her TV gigs were interfering with more important matters—like, you know, cooking. No successor was announced, but the owners quietly passed the baton to sous chef Leah Cohen (left), whom they knew — although we did not — was about to appear as a “cheftestant” on Season 5 of Bravo’s Top Chef.

Cohen has had an eventful season on the show. As of this writing, she has made it to the final five, out of an original cast of seventeen. She is not a bad chef, but she will probably be remembered for getting caught on camera playing tonsil hockey with a fellow cheftestant. Most observers expect her to be sent home well before the finale, as she has barely scraped by in the last several challenges.

Of course, the episodes we watch now were taped months ago. As of today, Cohen is chef de cuisine at Centro Vinoteca, and the restaurant’s website doesn’t fail to remind you. I don’t know how many people visit the restaurant to see her—as if you could actually “see” anything—but they are milking it for all it’s worth.

We paid a visit on Saturday evening. Okay, I’ll admit it: I wanted to see what Cohen’s food was like, apart from the contrived and time constrained challenges imposed on TV. Whether due to Cohen’s minor celebrity turn or other reasons, the restaurant was as crowded as any we have been in lately. It is a noisy, cramped space, and not especially pleasant. (An upstairs dining room appears to be a bit more civilized.)

For a casual Italian joint, prices here are a tad on the high side, with antipasti $10–16, primi $14–18, and secondi $22–36. The menu appears to be changing regularly. Many of the items mentioned in the Bruni review have been replaced.


Both pastas were very strong: a kabocha squash ravioli with walnuts ($14; above left) and a squid ink tagliatelle with baby squid, shrimp and cockles ($18; above right). But both pastas got cold too quickly, as the plates had not been pre-warmed.


Sausage-Stuffed Baby Chicken ($22; above left) suffered from a lack of balance between its two main ingredients. There was about a millimeter of chicken wrapped around far too much of the sausage. It was tender and nicely complemented by a bed of creamy polenta and mushrooms, but the sausage was too powerful a presence.

Ribeye Steak ($36; above right) is a bail-out dish in many restaurants. It was beautifully done here, but my girlfriend said that the potato prosciutto fontina cake underneath it was inedible.

If Centro Vinoteca offered a more quieter atmosphere, I might consider returning to try more of the pastas. They weren’t good enough to compensate for the loud, cramped atmosphere and the uneven entrées.

Centro Vinoteca (74 Seventh Avenue S. at Bleecker/Barrow Streets, West Village)

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