Entries in West Branch (3)


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.