Friday, December 12, 2014

KING BEE

I wanted to love King Bee... I mean REALLY wanted to love it, but despite a few low-volume buzz-worthy components, overall I think there's still a lot of work to do on the hive.  (And that will be the last apian reference I will make, I promise.)  The restaurant itself is pleasant: subterranean and cozy, minimally decorated but in a simple, pure sense.  This same aesthetic is reflected in the food, as well, and frankly I wouldn't mind a bit (even quite a bit) more embellishment.  Prominently featured is a painting by Steve Keene, commissioned to create a King Bee mural that stretches across the eastern wall, again modernist and minimalist, so in terms of keeping with a theme, they are certainly true to their motif.

We visited very early on a Friday evening, so it wasn't surprising the room was virtually empty at this blue-hair dining hour.  As well, the temps outside were plummeting, and may have been somewhat of a deterrent to those who were not locals, since King Bee is pretty far over towards Alphabet City, located on a relatively desolate stretch of 9th street.   This restaurant will be a cornerstone to the block.....if it manages to take hold.  We will see.  It certainly has some spiffing up to do in the meantime.



 The menu is fairly limited, broken down into hors d'oeuvres, appetizer and entrees, and later, desserts.  The inspiration purportedly Acadian, and thus elements of French Canadian and hints of  bayou Louisiana freckle the menu, but not really definitively enough.   I wonder, however, if we weren't adventurous enough in our ordering.  But it is tricky to be too ambitous: like I said, the menu's succinct, and some things might be delicious, but they come across a little... particular.  Some are potentially delicious oddities, others poor renditions of standards.


 The Upstate Raw Salad was a brightly hued pile of leaves and shaved cauliflower, obviously utilizing some prime produce.  And kudos for that, but a thin, flimsy dressing, slightly saccharine, merely lubricated the greens, and no
matter how good your lettuce is, a simple pile of it isn't going to bring a lot of repeat customers.   There really wasn't a lot more going on this salad than just that.  Similarly, a stark plate of pink country ham came furled with paper-thin slices of autumn squash and a tasty smear of creamy mustard creme fraiche studded with crunchy seeds- but it still presented as ham slices on a plate with some token veg for color.    But I think the most disappointing dish was the
Gumbo z'Herbes, a thin brothy puddle tasting mostly of dusty dried herbs, yes, but there wasn't really
anything gumbo-y about it.  A scoop of jasmine rice huddled beneath the surface, which is typical of gumbo, but that didn't make up for the lack of any deep, hearty roux, the absence of any seafood or protein element at all, or any of the rib-stinking punch that I would associate with gumbo.  It was a soupy green murk of dried herbs, like an attempt to use up that old McCormick's bottle of fines herbes you couldn't remember why you purchased in the first place.  Pretty rounds of sliced radish masqueraded as ham, adding a nice punch of pink but little else: maybe actual ham would've helped.

Entrees are hearty, for the most part, from a buckwheat cooked risotto-style with mushrooms, pea shoots and egg, to poutine rapee, a racy-sounding dish of starchy, meaty dumplings plumped with lamb and turnips.  Along with a duck fricot - which turned out to be a ducky turn on chicken and dumplings- I was learning some new, Acadian culinary terms along with an explanation for the obesity rates in Lousiana.  I may have wimped out choosing the lightest sounding option, but it was the most pleasant dish of the night.  Roasted cod, however, seemed more steamed than roasted, and it was actually black cod rather than true, which is normally the default cod.  It was served in a buttery broth, quite luscious, and accompanied with a few cockles and mussels to fill out the dish, since the token quantity of kale
registered more as an aromatic than a vegetable, silky and tender though the few leaves of it was.  There are no sides dishes on offer, so unless the chef would be amenable to an off-the-menu request, get your greens elsewhere.

King Bee features an ample beverage selection, true to its East Village address.  A unique Schonramer Pils was golden and smooth, perhaps one of the more memorable components of the meal.  It was light enough to warrant a second bottle, but had enough body to hold up as we made our way to dessert with a simple bosc pear crostata.   It was a nice, rustic sweet,
 the fruit could have been syrupier, the crust flakier and butterier.  No complaints about the intensely flavored little scoop of vanilla except for that there could've been a smidge more.  King Bee, in fact, left me wanting a little more of everything, a little more flavor, more options (or maybe just more description to convince me of getting some of the less familiar things on the menu without so much risk), definitely more vegetation, more smiles from the waitstaff.   But maybe it'll come around: I hear the bee colonies are rebounding spectacularly.







424 EAST 9TH ST NYC 
tel. (646) 755-8088

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

UPLAND


Goodbye, Manzanilla.  Justin Smillie departed Il Buco Alimentari, and has taken over the sprawling space to create Upland in an effort to bring " contemporary California cooking to a polished East Coast setting".  I'm not sure how much of California Smillie was able to drag across the continent, but in terms of quality and execution, this Park Avenue newcomer has hit the ground running.





On a frigid late autumn night, there wasn't a reservation to be had, and the place was bustling.  We waited a solid forty minutes at the bar (as the hostess predicted), but the warm, convivial atmosphere floats those minutes by practically unnoticed... aside from my escalating appetite as the enticing aromas wafted by from hearty plates toted to awaiting diners.  It's a glowy, golden room, comfortable with blonde wood accents, gleaming white-washed walls and curving leather banquettes.  The simple,
 minimalist plaid linens belie the some of the sophistication of this kitchen, much like the similarly patterned Hastens bedding company nearby,
 whose luxury mattresses are the things of which dreams are made.  Luckily, Upland's food follows suit, for we were unequivocally impressed with our meal.  

The menu, in perfectly synchronized simplicity, lists its offerings from Pizza, One, Two, Three and Sides.  Pizzas are easily a meal for two, priced respective to their ingredients, from a savory-sweet $18 pear and straciatella option to the pricier $29 white version with truffles (hopefully ample).  We started with a whole, crispy hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, its frilly ruffles fried to a crisp in contrast with its tender, just-warmed center,
 left earthy and dense.  Shy Brother's goat cheese lived up to its name- just a subtle essence of mildly goaty milkiness, flecked with vibrant herbs, and served with juicy wedges of lemon- which should be squirted generously.  Their acidity brings the whole dish into harmony, enlivening the dairy of the yogurt and refreshing the salty crisp of frying.   Despite my preference for novelty, it would be hard not to order this starter again.

Section Two is compromised exclusively of pastas, a creative array of novel preparations served in main course proportions.  Herein lie the most unconventional preparations.  Chilled farro noodles paired with sea urchin and Japanese seasoning wouldn't be found at any red sauce joint for sure, and while others tend more Italian, ingredients like chicken livers and kale elevate them from the ordinary.  


Three covers protein-centric mains.  We chose a lamb, roasted just rare, it's gaminess countered with sweet, plump dates and planks of confit carrots in its own savory, brothy jus.   The signature Upland Cioppino featured a heftier broth, more akin to a marinara than soup, a richly seasoned pool that just begged to be sopped up with bread- fortunately provided in the form of a soft, pillowy potato loaves, generously supplied.  The stew is concocted of mounds of crabmeat, clams, lobster, scallops and swordfish, and if the delicacy and freshness of the seafood is somewhat obfuscated by the profundity of the sauce, revel in how masterful said sauce is.  It muscles past the constrains of a classic cioppino thanks to a lusty douse of gochujang, a spicy, pungent Korean condiment that has just topped my grocery list for my next visit
to Kalustyan's.    And while I'm there, I probably wouldn't be remiss in picking up some grating bottarga if I thought I might be preparing any shishito peppers, milder now that their spicy summer peak has past.  The dusting of funky
 cured roe made up for any zip that have seasonally ebbed from these delicacies... and  still, there was a little heat in a couple of them.  Shishitos are always an adventure.

There is a really nice spectrum of desserts, light and fruity with an Asian-esque pomelo salad, homey cinnamon-sugar doughnuts, and a chocolate option spiked with orange and sea salt.  I, however, honed in on a yuzu scented souffle, studded with intense sour cherries that sunk to the bottom, where the citrusy cloud melted into a warm, tangy pool of cream.  It was a most impeccable accompaniment to a finely drawn espresso, using acclaimed Counter Culture beans.  Which may be the most counter-culture aspect of Upland.  It comes across not so California-esque-  what with globalization, I feel like bi-coastal is practically locavorism.  But regardless of its slant, Upland gets a thumbs-up.






 345 park avenue south New York NY 10010
 reservations call 212-686-1006


Thursday, November 20, 2014

BEAUTIQUE

My Beautique will not be your Beautique.  But in true follow-the-chef fashion, a tasting menu (some courses which are featured on the menu currently, and some which soon may be) from Chef Carlos Letona brilliantly displayed the level to which this guy can cook.
 Which is like, Abdul-Jabaar high.  The restaurant has received press all about its sceney celeb magnetism, but the food can go much further than that, given the chance.  It may not always come through~ I feel that there could be the chance for a little elitist hierarchy here, but come in deference to the kitchen, and I guarantee she'll put out.

In fact, it makes me wonder how long Letona will last there.  Beautique seems to want to cater to the beautiful ones, more of a clubby scene than a culinary one.  It is fun, the soundtrack is deejay-worthy,  and the room is flashily decorated.  But what I ate from my little corner of the long, sleek bar was what excited me.  I'll focus on the dishes that are currently on the menu, although I have to say, for one, I hope the little truffled porcini cracker might eventually see the light of day.  It was ethereal.  Many dishes belie Letona's pedigree of Atera and Per Se: there is a delicate and whimsical quality in his
 food, from unexpected ingredient pairings to trompe l'oeil plating.  A roasted carrot salad, however, was pretty straightforward, although none the less delicious for it.  I don't eat a lot of carrots; they turn me yellow.  So indulging in these was even more of a treat, their rustic skins just scrubbed and not peeled, relieving them of that sterile, "baby carrot" convention and bringing them back to earth.  A flutter of edible yellow petals, tiny round fruits like miniature Cape gooseberries, golden toasted almonds made for a study in warm ochre tones against the rough textured earthenware plate.  A touch of spicy harissa amped up the flavor profile, balanced with the cool tang of a mild sheep's milk yogurt.
Quinoa and hazelnut pilaf, pre-warm cauliflower soup
  Vegetables get the spotlight a lot here, another dish featuring a warm puree of cauliflower nuzzled around a mound quinoa, its nuttiness compounded with toasted hazelnuts, all of it prettified with more colorful petals.  Tiny shards of green apple added brightness and crunch.    I also tried an off-the-menu beet dish, pooled in a savory broth and eyed enviously by a nearby diner... so much so that he ordered it as well.  If the kitchen is listening, is may soon make it onto the regular menu.  Bitter, peppery nasturtium leaves countered the sweetness of the beets, adding bite to the umami-rich broth.


 Another dish that may soon be added was my favorite of the night (as well as the striking, striped glass dish upon which it was served): an impossibly tender, sweet langoustine spritzed with toasted grains of quinoa which added a delicate, nutty crunch.  A vanilla scented broth was poured tableside (they do like the pomp of a tableside presentation), creating a subtly luxurious dish which lasted only a few bites, but made an enormous impression.   Speaking of enormous, a wild mushroom risotto should also be added to the menu... it would become the truffled mac 'n cheese of The Waverly
Inn, that super, over-hyped, gluttonously indulgent splurge that they would not dare to take off the menu, for fear of rioting.  This risotto is better, so rife with whole mushrooms and rich with truffle flavor and aroma so as to be just this side of nauseating... precisely the side on which you want to be.  And no, it wouldn't probably come with quite as many fat slices of truffle as this one, but Beautique does err on the side of opulence.  On the other hand, you would receive
 more than the one bronzed scallops shown here for an entree portion.  Anointed with a foamed-out vibrant yellow chorizo dashi, the fat scallop was perfectly seared and sweet, various brassicas tossed in for diversity's sake:  a charred broccoli floret, a few raw brussels sprouts leaves cupping the savory sauce.   Another winning entree is a steamed filet of halibut, scented with lemon balm and an intrinsically "green" tasting sorrel puree, daubed in lines and dots across the rough, black plate, again adorned with what was become a small florist's shop worth of edible petals.  Still, they are pretty.













And the list goes on, but I finished with a simple composition of dulce de leche cremeux, two dense custards of thick Mexican caramel plated with a smooth, pure tasting milk ice cream dusted playfully with a crumble of Oreo cookies.  Beautique doesn't take itself so seriously so as to turn up its nose at the use of America's favorite cookie in one if its still frou-frou desserts.  That's the boutique in Beautique, and the beauty of a place like this, that can balance the scene right along with the cuisine.








8 West 58th Street
tel. (212)753-1200

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

EMPIRE DINER

Since I moved to New York, this is Empire Diner's third or fourth incarnation.  It's also the cheffiest, and by my standards, the best.  Amanda Freitag took over over a year ago, and it's just as bustling as ever, the interior retaining it's foundation and classic, diner-y feel, with an additional dining annex constructed adjacent, which up a sort of hidden staircase past the bar we ascended to arrive upon our table.

I like it in there.  There's a lot of chrome, dark wood, it has a sort of swanky truck-stop feel, with a little deco, cinematic mystique thrown in as any New York eponym should.  Upstairs even feels a little V.I.P, although that may have been because Sandra Bernhard was dining at the table next to ours.  As for the food, it may not be what one expects from a diner, and the prices reflect that.  But what it loses in economy it makes up for in volume, and for the most part, quality.  (Even Sandra got half of her entree that remained to go in a doggy bag).  Her's was the evening's special: a filet of sole with grilled summer squashes piled underneath.   For our part, however, we started off strong with some veggies: beets from the sides menu (I think beets are a little sweet and powerfully flavored for a side, and function much more deftly as an appetizer).  These were tender and tangy, mounded above a thick swirl of yogurt with a smattering of fresh herbs.  Alas, there's one other thing about Empire Diner that's unlike other diners: the menus aren't fossilized under a laminated
 coating.  They slide in and out of plastic sleeves, and their mutability is hyper-seasonal and can't guarantee any particular menu stalwart as the seasons ebb.  Consequently, those beets are long gone.   However, a lip-smacking brussels sprouts rendition from the Small Plates menu endures, and that is a prudent move.  The sprouts are halved and roasty, spiked with a zesty chili jam that plays well off their earthiness.







Gauging from Sandra's super-size sole entree, we selected those that seemed a little more constrained in portion size, because a movie was on the docket, post-prandially, and toting leftovers to Clearview wasn't an option.  Thus, a falafel burger on brioche seemed circumspect, and although it was substantially doused in a creamy cucumber raita, it still came across as a little dry (there's a reason falafel's traditionally paired with pita).  I mean, it was basically four inches of vertical starch.  Consequently,  it seems to have been axed from the menu, although there are three meat-based burgers, a brisket sandwich and a tuna melt to pick up the slack.  We also tried the Baja Fish Tacos, two to an order, but doubled-up each on the corn tortillas, which swiftly fell apart as the moist steam from the flaky chunks of grilled hake decimated their structure.   Two tortillas were excessive in proportion to the filling, but they
deconstructed so quickly that the redundant tortilla was left mostly as shrapnel on the plate.  A kicky green tomatillo salsa livened up the flavorful fish, pickly carrots and cabbage and jalapenos added crunch and heat, and a creamy swipe of lime crema smoothed everything over.  While I applaud the effort to avoid frying the shells, a flour tortilla might hold up better, or else maybe this is why the hard shell taco is the default.   I was a little disappointed not to have happened here on a Friday night, where Hot Chicken is the Green Plate Special (Freitag means Friday, so it's suitable she'd have a hot, spicy chick on the dat of her namesake), but maybe another visit is in order.   Also, to tackle some of the Dessert menu, upon which such classics as Peach Melba, a banana split, rice pudding and a black and white cheesecake are featured.  But I'm sure for these, two, Freitag has some unconventionally tasty tricks up her sleeve.




 210 10th Avenue @22nd street
tel. (212)596-7523

Saturday, November 15, 2014

FONDA

Mexican food in New York has solidly evolved beyond street tacos and Americanified cheese laden and fried-everything adulterations.  Alex Stupak may have started it, and certainly the arrival of Michaelin-starred Enrique Olivera's Cosme will up the ante once more.  But on a more approachable scale, Roberto Santabanez (who is certainly a name for himself) gives us Fonda, which first opened in the east village spawned a second location near me in Chelsea, and while it won't steal any of Stupak's thunder, it might help to handle a bit of Rocking Horse's overflow.



Dark and modern, Fonda is still retains a quaintly neighborhood feel.  We had such pleasant rapport with the hosts and servers, as well as the bar tender in front of whom we sat, as we arrived reservationless and opted to be seated immediately at the bar rather than waiting a tad for a table.  Bar seating gives you full view of the t.v. monitors, which is a less fetching perspective than the tables surrounding from which you can appreciate the vibrant modern Mexican art on the walls.  The art is a good indicator of the cuisine, as well, which edges on contemporary Mexican rooted in his native Mexico City.


And the food is solid.  Guacamole is made tableside, offered to your spiciness specifications. It's an enormous portion, divisible amongst three or four, I'd say, in addition to your meal.  Otherwise, they'll be remaining guac, which should be conserved to dab into throughout the rest of your meal, because few things don't go with a little extra guacamole.  An appetizer of Carne Asada Taquitos is served with with it's own chile di arbol and cilantro salso, and is a great opportunity to use up any of that remainder, although it performs just as well in its own right.  They're spicy, meaty little envelopes, and pretty filling for under ten bucks.    These aren't, but the  fish tacos are offered in both appetizer and entree sizes.  And as is typical of Mexican cuisine, we're short
on veggies here, so the sauteed spinach with mushroom is a welcome respite, although not much more to expound about beyond that.  And they're the only cooked vegetable-vegetable amongst the sides, the alternatives being a kicky nopales slaw, spicy buttered corn and fried plantains, all of which are tweaked a little cooler than those simplistic descriptions imply.

For their own part, entrees are similarly midgy on the vegs.  At least so far as the menu implies, and my Camarones Adobados were no exception.  Fat shrimp, grilled and served over a formation of green  rice, described as creamy, although I'm unsure how to make granular rice take on a creamy quality unless it's risotto-ified, and this decidedly was not.  The rice was flavorful, though, the vegetal puree adding cohesion (maybe that what they were referring to?), with a
 velvety sludge of black beans pooling around, which provided some lubrication and heft.  A small salad accompanies entrees, as if a token gesture to ameliorate the lack of vegetation.  Although the vegetarian enchiladas feature an appreciable array of dirt candy, I wanted something a little cheffier... and some protein.

Desserts are fairly classic and hearty: a caramelly banana bread pudding, a chocolate brownie with cajeta or the iconic tres leches.  But it's hard to want more starch after all of that that constitutes the dinner menu, so this time desserts were skipped. A return visit could be formatted strategically to make dessert more appealing, however, and for my take on Fonda, that isn't at all an unreasonable prospect.





189 9th Avenue @ 21st Street
 · tel. 917 525 5252

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

ELAN

David Waltuck is certainly one to follow.  His first permanent engagement since the shuttering of the iconic Chanterelle in Tribeca, Elan has opened up with a distinct... well, let's just say it is aptly named.  The dining room is subdued and relaxing, but the food more than compensates for the formally relaxed vibe.  Our server, notably, might win the year's Best Waiter award if there were one.  He was so personable and helpful I wanted to compliment David personally on having procured such an outstanding individual.  Luckily, there were a lot of things I wanted to compliment David on throughout the course of the night, and he wasn't even actually in the kitchen that evening.





The menu is both accessible and pretty standard in format, but it may belie some of the surprises the appear once the food begins to arrive.  A warm, seedy pretzel roll will tide you over 'til the first courses arrive, and our waiter confessed to having consumed far too many of these.  I could see it happening, for the warm chewy rolls have a scrumptious appeal on their own, and they paired magnificently with the lusty seafood sausage.  Its loose, delicate texture imparted lightness, seasoned just intensely enough to uphold a brat-worthy tradition but not to overpower its robust seafood flavor.  A thin, saucy sauerkraut puddled beneath, rife with mustard and fresh
 chives, simply divine swabbed up with a hunk of pretzel and a chunk of forcemeat.  It's a generous portion for an appetizer, and there are starters before that list playful bites like a fois gras pop and truffled croquettes.  Elan works best in a small plate format, but rely on your waiter who can deftly advise in terms of quantity.  Our choices (a starter, a main and two sides) turned out to be a modest meal, but fully satisfying.  




From the eight entrees listed, we chose a grilled flank steak, fanned out over the plate, although decidedly much rarer than the medium which we requested.  Not being such a big meat eater, though, I was happy with the well-done edges and left the bloodier bits to my tablemate.  That, I felt, justified my hogging most of the delicious pile of sauteed oyster mushrooms, smothered in a delectable gravy, a few token snappy snap peas thrown in for color.  And given the season (and presence on the menu) no autumn/winter meal is complete for me without brussels sprouts.  These are rich and nutty, tossed with quite a surplus of Chinese sausage for my taste: I would've gone twice or quadruple the sprouts for that quantity of chewy little pork
nubs, but the flavors were outstanding.  I'm sure the Ozerskys of the world would appreciate the proportions.  Instead, to fulfill my veg quotient we doubled-up with an order of regal grilled oyster mushrooms, these simply seared hot and anointed with a zippy herb butter, leaving the woodsy mushroom flavor to shine through in all its glory.









Certainly such a diminutive repast demands dessert, but the hourglass did not.  Wistfully I bypassed the apple sundae with butterscotch and halvah, a summer's-last-hurrah blueberry tart with corn and basil, and the welcome-to-fall gorgonzola panna cotta with Concord grapes and pignoli, all for which I would happily return.  And if I am lucky enough to make it back in any reasonable time frame, I bet our waiter might even order my brussels without asking.






43 East 20th Street, New York City
646-682-7105