Thursday, October 16, 2014


Piora, I had waited for you too long.  But thankfully, its quality hasn't ebbed one bit since it's opening about one year ago, where it was received with accolades from pretty much every reputable New York publication.   It has remained, however, a bit under the radar in the larger restaurant scene: it's team is comprised of an inarguably talented pool, but there are no Batalis, Meyers or Colicchios involved.  This, I feel, gives it a somewhat "hidden treasure" appeal, and the overall experience reinforces that nicely.

The restaurant has an elongated format, following extended bowed lines on the wall past the mottled marble bar into a subdued dining room.  The leather-covered tables and low, glowy lighting offer an air of calm; the paned glass wall in the back looks out up on a leafy thicket, giving the impression that we've been transported far from the bustling city which has given that restaurant such applause.  This dreamy mystique was somewhat interrupted by our waiter, who, though competent as he was, greeted us as if he was reading off a teleprompter, awkward and formal.  He was stiff, scripted, creating a a palpable tension certainly discordant with the room, although his genuine smile went leaps and bounds to ameliorate this.

We bypassed the very tempting Monkey Bread simply for budgetary reasons.  The recommended path of menu navigation dictates an appetizer plus entree per person, and a pasta course for the table.  But at these prices, the bill was escalating significantly without the addition of some eight dollar yummy rolls. While I'm sure they were, and almost order them for the name alone (family joke).  Soon after ordering, a small shot glass of soothing squash soup arrived compliments of the kitchen, sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds... a teaser that of fall that has yet to fully arrive in New York kitchens.  It had a cool creaminess as well as nourishing heft, making quite a perfect little intro.  Our appetizers arrived not long thereafter, still clinging to end of summer's glory: Green Peas
conjured up nostalgia of the pea trifecta I marveled at from years past at Telepan.  Piora's version featured toothsome whole peas, just barely steamed, paired with a smooth pea sorbet studded with a chiffonade of pungent nepitella- a minty herbal leaf I order whenever I get the rare opportunity.  Sturdy stems of pea shoots formed a tendriled shroud- not as tender as their younger sprouts, but lovely to behold.  Amberjack Crudo was similarly gorgeous: furled ribbons of zucchini and its blossoms nestled between planks of the unctuous fish, smoothed out with a puree of avocado, and crushed peas with just a hint of char.   And while the Scallop appetizer was just as visually stunning, it could've looked like the homeliest haggis and still have won my heart.  It was also big enough to have served as a modest entree, and in retrospect I wish we would've gone that route, for while all the entrees were notably
 wonderful, this appetizer and that crab pasta (I know, I know.... I'll get to it)  were worth returning for... like, nightly.  It wasn't even my order: I was somewhat wary of the chicken skin component, but in the most brilliant treatment ever effected with chicken skin, it was fried and pulverized into a salty crisp crumble, dusted over the fat scallops wallowing in a thick puree of sweet summer corn.  Add in perfectly braised chanterelle mushrooms and I was suffering some severe (read: fatal) order envy.  Not that my peas weren't delightful, but this was phenomenal.

And then, finally, we get to our midcourse. and unnecessary and pricey as though it was, it was thirty-five dollars of wonderful.  Black garlic bucatini slithered sexy around earthy maitake mushrooms flecked with racy little rounds of scarlet chili- all of that just a glorious set for the true star: abundant clumps of pristine Dungeness crab... more than you need, perhaps, but rarely is there a "too much" involving Dungeness.   There would've been enough to share even had we a fourth tablemate.  

Entrees might have been a little less exciting, but no less solid.  There are but four to choose from, so we were able to sample 75% of what was on offer.  Halibut was simple and lovely, bronzed on top and served in a golden tomato consomme to match.  Squash blossoms and melted eggplant celebrated the grand finale of late summer harvest, creating a laudable, if not exactly revolutionary dish.
 Medallions of succulent, rare lamb riffed on its classic pairing with mint jelly bringing it into modernity with sprightly leaves of novel mint marigold.   Braised miniature artichokes alternated with the mild lamb, and a thick puree of green garlic cut through any residual, subtle gaminess.  The most substantial entree, a thick cut heritage pork chop, was also the harbinger of fall.  Heavy grill marks deepened its rich flavor, the sweetness of fig and apple combining to enhance meaty drippings that pooled
 beneath the chop.  A delicate furl of soppressata crowned the dish, gilding the piggy, so to speak: an artful pork-on-pork coupling.

One of the dishes that had plied me to Piora to begin with was a rhubarb pavlova dessert; this was unfortunately long gone, due to Piora's adamant seasonality.  The option that we regretfully bypassed this evening was a delectable sounding lemon verbena panna cotta with raspberry and sweet corn-  a last hurrah to summer.  The other dessert options, equally tempting, nodded to the shortening days: a fig custard with hazelnut and a truly Thanksgivingy sweet potato semi-freddo with pecans and marshmallows.  Alas, dessert was not in the cards, but I can't really complain one whit with the hand
 that we had been dealt.  The brainchild of Chef Christopher Cipolline and proprietor Simon Kim, Piora showcases an immaculate balance between the soulful intensity of ingredient-driven Italian with the elegant precision of Asian technique.  Even the name, which means "to blossom" in Korean, could be a an Italian word, in its pronunciation and melodic quality.  In its menu you won't find particularly Italian nor Korean dishes- not necessarily even ingredients.  Instead, the team celebrates the finest ingredients of whatever provenance, and so creates the inspired brilliance that blossoms from Piora.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Blenheim glows just like a restaurant on the cobbled streets of the west village should.  It beckoned as I past by one night,  having already dined elsewhere, but an enthusiastic waitress popped out to greet us warmly, reinforcing the atmosphere of the restaurant.  With her disclosure of the chef's pedigree, Blenheim simply demanded a visit.  Ryan Tate comes most recently from Tribeca's Michelin-starred Le Restaurant, but his time at New York institutions Cookshop and Savoy can be seen in his execution, combining his earthy Michigan roots with the sophisticated gilded edge brought by fifteen successful years in the industry.  Thus, the cuisine reflects a midwestern simplicity and farm-to-table authenticity derived from its namesake farm in the Catskills, buffed to a precious, polished sheen that mimics the alluring glow that attracted me in the first place.

It is the farm-philic rusticity of the restaurant's appearance that provides its appeal, some of which is lost in overwrought presentation and elevated pricing.  I wish it could've clung a bit more ardently to its bucolic connection than its Michelin one, although to their credit,  I think they have achieved precisely the ambiance they envisioned.  The walls are hung with an array of antique farm implements, various tools and tchotchkes create an organized rural clutter.  The menu is a bit scattered as well, a long list of intriguing possibilities in a loosely progressive order, but it leaves a bit of interpretation up to the diner as to how to format a meal, but a well-informed waitstaff is gracefully on hand to assist.  A simpler, but even pricier option, is to go with the chef's tasting menu at $95.   The smartest tactic might be the $45 prix-fixe, which we were not made aware of, unfortunately, because in retrospect this seems easily like the most cost-effective approach.
 Although going that latter route would've deprived me of my first course first choice- a roasted beet composition dusted with bronze fennel (even the spices have precious metals) and tiny leaflets of marigold that presented more prominently in the menu description than they did on the plate.   The beet were intentionally positioned like a planet at aphelion: as far away from me as possible, pushed to the distant periphery of an extremely large, otherwise empty platter.  Maybe it's to provide a workspace for combining, like the empty rectangle beneath a Sudoku: Tate's food requires a bit of effortful coordination.  Perfectly balanced bites are not achieved without snips and swipes at leaves and sauces.  A tiny smudge of black currant bavarois plus a spring of greenery atop a beet combined for a truly successful amalgamation of
flavors, but sampled independently can result in the spectral ends of the assertive-to-bland flavor scale.  Similarly, a portion of Tasmanian sea trout supplied three fat planks of the oily fish, adorned with orbs of roe and spherifized mustard, nasturtium leaves and blossom puree, and seabuckthorn crisp and cloud.  Yes, Blenheim has foams and spheres, clouds and ash.  This, I suppose, it what justifies its prices, but there the element of d.i.y. combining isn't as welcome.   I would prefer, at these price-points, that the integration of ingredients be taken care of for you, by Mr. Tate.  I suppose it has to do with the artistry of plating, though, which is admittedly attractive.  Both appetizers we tried were enhanced by the complimentary bread provided, my favorite of which was a nutty flax cracker (notedly gluten-free) that was lovely with my beets, while a sturdy cheese roll held up on its own.

Scrolling down the menu arrives at more substantial plates, although there is no distinguishable break to differentiate starters from mains.  Prices are the best indicator of size, and they escalate chronologically. So my entree of roasted kind trumpet mushroom could've served as a large, shareable appetizer or small plate, but I was content to keep it to myself.  The spatzle that accompanied benefitted from a bit of maillardization, giving the tender morsels a crisp-edged nuttiness that the mushroom, which was just simply steamed, would've also enjoyed.  Fanciful wisps of crisp fennel floated on dollops of anise-hyssop foam, which dissolved a mild sweetness into a savory compote of sauerkraut bedding the dish.   Monkfish arrived as three small medallions (someone forgot to remind the kitchen that this
"poor man's lobster" could be portioned a little more generously for its $26 price tag).  Mustard greens and seeds were more abundant than the fish, although it was deliciously moist and flavorful for what there was of it.

But Blenheim is a fancier restaurant than I had made it out to be, perhaps even more than it makes itself out to be.  Deceived by rusted-out milk jug lamps and unfinished, distressed wood paneling, the menu is decidedly more gilt and finery.  Even on menupages, it's $$ (out of four) ranking wants it to be a more affordable restaurant than it turns out to be.  That said, West Village real estate will do that to a price tag.   Anyways,  I'm projecting, at this point, what I wanted Blenheim to be as opposed to what it is.  Although a little more precious than I had presumed, it is still a masterful execution of farm-to-table cuisine.   Just make sure to tuck in your best flannel.

283 W. 12th St.

New York, NY 10014


Tuesday, September 9, 2014


photo credit: Thomas Schauer
Wallflower wants to be your friend.  But contrary to the mousey loner that can't find a dance partner, the Wallflower has everything going for it.  From the moment you are warmly welcomed by the attentive staff to some notably fine grub, this West Village newcomer has no reason to be shy.

The restaurant is so named as to welcome wallflowers, shrinking violets, pansies, and any other floral alike.  All welcome, so to speak.  Thus, on the night I visited, the tables were attended by an audaciously Harajuku-styled couple, an awkward, fidgety pair on a first date and a table of jovial neighborhooders well into their golden years.  I can't imagine a prototype that would clash in these environs.

The cocktail menu introduces the restaurant's concept well.  The drinks are complex and novel, with quirky names, and not one of which I didn't want to meet.  The food is similarly appealing and seasonal:  the menu is relatively succinct and somewhat bereft of vegetation: there are no side dishes on hand, nor was a request for additional veg accommodated.  But that was really the only snag, and easily overlooked as the evening progressed.
Corn, truffle, cherry tomatoes

Wallflowers apparently have an affinity for crudo and charcuterie, categories that are so popular these days.  You could easily make a meal from those options alone, but my preferences lie elsewhere.  Thus, I began with the Market Salad, which had way too much dressing for its not-enough greens, which were riddled with charred pole beans, tart red currant and thin planks of pecorino.  Had they added twice greenery, the problem would've resolved itself, as well as bulked up the skimpy salad.  It was tasty enough despite its meagerness, but the dressing overpowered.   Chilled corn soup, on the other hand, had nary a flaw, a mellifluous golden pabulum infused with summer truffle, halved cherry tomatoes and fresh kernels lurking within.
Market Salad

Scallops, maitake, corn, purslane

Continuing on a corn-and-mushroom  rampage ('tis the season, after all), four bronzed sea scallops huddled in a bed of corn featured big brushes of ruffly maitake mushroom- a dish I would easily return for (I even considered doing so the very next night).  The maitakes had a meaty woodsiness, the corn sweet and crisp, a combination as intoxicating as the summer sun filtering through fragrant forest pines.  A pork
Pork, turnips, mustard, cherries
 entree arrived startlingly rare, but it was a full-flavored cut, a tender and juicy as it was pink.  The umami-rich jus was perked up with luscious, garnet cherries and mustard, creating a thickly sweet counter for wedges of pleasantly bitter turnips, simply steamed to tenderness.

Brioche, peaches, vanilla gelato
Desserts options consist of just three, and all had a subtle breakfasty quality that was cozily appealing.  There was a coffee pot de creme and yogurt panna cotta, but we chose the brioche with roasted peaches and vanilla ice cream.  It was a perfect example of why I hate brunch, but precisely why French toast should be relegated strictly to dessert.  This divinely buttery little toast boasted sugar-crisped edges up against a perhaps scanty quantity of peaches, which didn't taste so much roasted as just peeled, but they were a fruity, fresh contrast to the luxurious brioche, and well-lubricated by a dairy-fresh milky ice cream scooped on top.  It was decorated with tiny little violet flowers, as precious as the restaurant itself.  As was mostly everything at Wallflower, a restaurant you will definitely want to mark onto your dance card.

235 West 12th Street
No phone

Thursday, September 4, 2014

AI FIORI: Revisit

At some point, I missed the memo that Ai Fiori had morphed into a midtown Marea.  My first visit to Ai Fiori was during winterier months, but if anything you'd think that mid-summer would foster more peak-season produce inspiration.  Instead, it seems to have planted a fishing bug, as well over 50% of the menu now contains some oceanic element, six seafood entrees as opposed to just five variant other protein sources.  Not that
 there's fault in that, but I thought that was more Marea's job.  Ai Fiori, "among the flowers", was supposed to concentrate on the ephemeral seasonality, most of which I associate with seasonal produce from the field.  Wasn't it?

Nothing has changed in terms of affordability, however.  Milking its prestigious address in the Setai Hotel as well as the celebrity attained by its chef, Michael White, puts dining at Ai Fiori in the same ranks as the spendiest eateries in the city.   We chose dining a la carte as opposed to the $94 prix-fixe or the $130 tasting menu, but this was simply a gauged on a style preference, as regardless which mode you select, dinner here will set you back.   I think the most unsettling moment of the evening happened early on, perhaps setting the tone.  I wanted to enjoy a nice glass of white along with my dinner, but unfamiliar with any of their by-the-glass offerings, I enlisted our sommelier, who was very affable and enlightened, so upon his description, I chose the most appealing- which happened to be the least pricey.  He countered with an offer to provide tastes of all, normally a benevolent gesture.  But since I have a pretty low vino-capacity, I approved of the first sample he bequeathed, which, of course, happened to be the priciest.  Which would've made more sense had it been the mildest vintage, but instead if was the most robust.  Which you would normally save 'til the end in a tasting,  but I feel like they wanted to push the most expensive option.  I can't be certain, but when I noticed (quite after the fact), it left a lingering bad taste in my mouth, which is unfortunate, because the Antoine Creek viognier itself certainly did not.

I hope they began every format with the luscious little bite of summer that arrived in the form of a golden corn custard, flecked with fresh tomato and juicy whole kernels.  In retrospect, I wish an enlarged version would've been offered as an appetizer, because of the options that were, my top choice was the Insalata di Pomodori, but I couldn't justify $22 for tomatoes.  Heirloom, to be sure, gussied up with some stracciatella, but at $4/lb at the Greenmarket, some slicing and dressing does not constitute a 450% markup.  Instead, I took my starter from the Contorni menu, a welcome addition to the menu that didn't exist of my first visit.  Cauliflower described as pan-roasted tasted pre-steamed maybe fired in the oven afterwards,  having none of the tell-tale chew and toasted florets of a dry roasted vegetable.  It had a watery quality, and its mild anchovy-tinged salsa verde  tasted most prominently of butter.  Pastas display White's most celebrated fortitude, however, and can be ordered full-size as a main or in half-portions to begin, which was our tact.   Plump,
eggy  agnolotti stuffed with meltingly tender braised veal were topped with shreds of kale and nutty sunflower seeds, sauced in a corny sugo perfumed with fragrant black truffle- a lovely combination of summery elements amped up with the luxury of veal and truffles.   Masterful.

Maybe we should've stuck to pastas as mains, but I took the opportunity to do a direct comparison to my maiden voyage here, ordering again the butter poached lobster that I recalled so rhapsodically- a dish that has apparently attained signature status.  While still visually appealing, the most recent rendition lost some its allure without the memorable sauce Chalon, this time paired with a meager quantity of garden beans (a total of four beans halved, I believe) and breakfast radish.   I also neglected to request a fuller cooking as I did before, and this time accepting its slightly gelatinous texture... but I wish I wouldn't've.  I honestly don't get the whole undercooked fish thing: I go to restaurants to see how well chefs cook... not almost cook.  Leave the translucent fish to sushi fans, and please get my seafood to flake-point.  Its squash-based sauce wasn't as alluring at the Chalon, either, but it could've been due in part to the undercooked crustacean at hand.  The Branzino was given accolades from our waiter, who was extremely personable and helpful, but this fish
 , too, failed to thrill me.  Crisp-skinned filets balanced akimbo over an olivey tomato ragout, upon which balanced a sizeable calamari stuffed with pearly fregola.  It was just that, robustly flavored sauce and well-seared fish, but somewhat more rustic and less special than the gold-rimmed chargers and white tablecloths demand.  The thing I was most looking forward to was another contorno, this time a wild mushroom saute.  But it never made it to our table, somehow being lost in the shuffle of ordering.  One server we addressed about its absence flatly stated "You didn't order that" with a very rough, heavy accent.  Not ideal, and not true, but most importantly, not how you handle the situation even if it were true.  Regardless, it was too late at that point to add it to the mix, so I'll forever lament the missing funghi.

Contrary to the savory dishes, the desserts were actually more attractive in person than their menu descriptions.  I recalled pastry chef Robert Truitt from Paul Liebrandt's beloved Corton- some of the most deliciously memorable and gorgeously plated sweets I've ever enjoyed came from his hand.  We decided upon the Vacherin, playfully crowned with a wavy pane of rhubarb glass balancing atop a scoop of gelato.  A thin plate of white chocolate separated this from plump raspberries and their accompanying sorbet,
sprinkled with a sandy sesame crumb.  We were also treated to another similar concoction layering raspberries, whipped cream and custard over buttery cake, this time topped with a crystalline
 disk of pure, clear sugar- not so much flavorwise, but a curiously gorgeous  bauble to behold. A small quenelle of strawberry sorbet sat off the the left, further differentiating two.  I can't really outrank one over the other: they were both lovely and delicious, if not outrageously dissimilar.

What was dissimilar betwixt my two visits to Ai Fiori was the current version seems to have lost its depth and vim.  There wasn't so much a thing to elicit disappointment so much as a lack a signature Michael White bravado.  He's a big man, to be sure,  but he's also made a big empire.  And maybe even his largesse isn't quite enough to support AltaMarea's sprawl.


Friday, August 29, 2014


I think I was lucky not having read Pete Wells NY Times review before visiting Contra.  Really, not knowing a thing about it at all.   I was invited last minute, by a group of trusted chefs and related fooderati, and at any rate, I hadn't any time to do any research to find out about this enigmatic little nook at which I would dine.   Suffice it to say that I went in without any expectations, and consequently, enjoyed myself exponentially more than all of my dining companions.  Contra (which, according to the hostess, means "against" in Spanish.  As it does in Italian, French, Portuguese, English... so kinda, uh... yeah.  Duh.)  wants to be a groundbreaking argument against convention, but instead comes across as pretty normal dining experience, only that there is a set menu which changes nightly, so no choices to be had.  Contra has a website, that is either dysfunctional or just inoperative, but regardless, you'll not glean a lot of information about the place from it but the address and phone number.   Similarly, you'll enter into a shadowy room once you get there, then be seated at an imposing, glossy wooden table with a simple menu card at each place setting.  Few or no concessions are procurable for finicky diners or fragile constitutions: picky people might be better off elsewhere.  But
despite the name, Contra doesn't really defy convention (as I interpreted the name to imply) in any sense besides the strict menu (relatively affordable at $55 per person).  It wasn't particularly thrilling, either, although everything we had was pleasant, solid, and at times notable.

With no ordering to do, we were quickly bequeathed first with a piping hot loaf of bread ($3 extra, and worth it) with a crumbly, moist density and gorgeous golden crust- almost biscuit-like in texture.  It was uniquely leavened, attaining a subtle sourness much gentler than a San Francisco-style sour, a tangy nuance balanced with buttery sweetness.  And that was even before
adding a swipe of the lusciously creamy whipped butter that accompanies.  Typical or not, the courses which ensued were not insurmountably voluminous, and thus abstaining from the bread for appetite conservation would be vigorously discouraged.  I seriously considered stashing the unfinished half-loaf in my purse, although considering the company I was keeping, I thought that might be.... frowned upon.    A lively salad arrived quickly to distract me, anyways, a lovely composition of salty brined cucumber, pleasantly acerbic plum, and translucent layers of onion that were cleverly charred, just on the edges.    Intrinsically bread and salad,  although expertly done, our meal thus far wasn't exactly contra- anything.  In fact, it was much in keeping with recent years Scandi/Nordic fervor that continues to be a hot ticket.

We continued with the fish course, a sous-vide pollack (my tablemates couldn't resist noting that this is the stuff of mass-produced frozen fish sticks) festively adorned with frondy sprigs of dill, sharing the plate with tiny, halved grilled cabbages and exceptionally large, al dente spring peas.    A creamy, lemony sauce washed over the plate beneath, but other than that the flavors were singular, elemental.  The plate was gorgeously composed, the fish steamed just to the cusp of doneness, the vegetables tender and flavorful, but it wasn't revolutionary in any aspect of its construct.   A mild white fish with green vegs and lemon: we could have been anywhere.  And then, at least, arrived the conversation piece of the evening: the (very minimalist) menu described it simply as beef, beet, dulse.  Our waiter informed of us a change, however: the beef had been substituted with lamb (or so I understood).  The profuse scatter of weedy herbs and garnet slices of beet obfuscated the meat initially, and not being a very avid carnivore, I focused on cutting into the very rare medallions, which required a lot more effort than I would've liked.  After a few bites, I surrendered.  I enjoyed the oxalis and beet much more than the meat, which was pretty tough and not particularly
flavorful, aside from the well-seasoned exterior.  One of my tablemates remarked, postprandially, that she hadn't really enjoyed the veal.... wait.  Veal?  I thought it was lamb.  And another chimed in, that no, we were both wrong- it was venison.  Honestly, I couldn't tell.  It didn't taste like much of anything, and dueling it with a laughably dull knife was more of a challenge than it was worth.  Still now, to this day, none of us know what we ate.  It was some indeterminate red meat, which is pretty sad given the company I was with, and their respective professional palates.

Thick in the fog of the mysterious prior course, we began a barrage a finishers, starting with an off-the-menu cheese plate that was probably the most innovative course of the night.  It was simply a warmed plate, dusted with a flurry of grated cheese studded with a crumble of crunchy Corn Nut clones.  Now I'm not much of a cheese course fan, nor did the order of serving this make sense to me, but I have to say , a couple of swipes off this communal plate was pretty yummy.  I mean, melty cheese and corny crunch: it was the most elegant stoner food ever.  And then came a palate cleanser of strawberry (changed from honeydew) and chamomile, but it was so ridiculously oversized that I actually thought it

 was a sub for dessert.  It was fascinating to watch the frosty strawberry shell drizzled with olive oil melt into weirdly biological configurations, sort of like a slo-mo globular lava lamp- revealing a cool, gently sweet chamomile-inflected gelato within.  It was fruity and smooth, and in a smaller portion would've been an apt palate cleanser, or else a nice component to some light gateau or meringue or something.  But it wasn't dessert.  Dessert came in the form of a blueberry granita shrouding a novel potato gelato, slightly salty and dense, a lovely foil to the sprightly fruit ice.   But wait, WAS that dessert, or another palate cleanser?  By now, our palates were immaculate
 (maybe one of these prior to the meat course could have rendered our taste buds sharp enough to determine the animal that died for our meat course).  Because hence arrived another dessert, although this granola-y little concoction would've been more welcome as a breakfast option at this point, as a fourth dessert course was simply superfluous.  That said , the yogurty ice cream would've melted away before morning, and the nutty granola crumble did prove rather tasty with its toasty honeyed notes.

In the end, aside from the mystery meat, there wasn't one dish I wouldn't been satisfied with in a traditional a la carte format at a well-serviced,
attractive restaurant.  Perhaps I'm being too picky here, allowing my companions' expectations to rub off on me, because there wasn't anything technically wrong with anything but just that one dish throughout the course of the night.   It was just all a little lackluster given the  young pedigreed chefs behind the whole ordeal.  Jeremiah Stone (Isa) and Fabian von Hauske (Noma, Favriken).  They might've done well to stay at those establishments a little longer to gain their footing.   If they're gonna keep in this game, they need to iron out the the substantial wrinkles in the service (protracted lapses between courses, and maybe that one enunciation issue) and consider a little less frantic variability in the menu until they can perfect the offerings.  Although I have to say, given its relative affordability for this quality of cuisine, playing the guaranteed new-experience-every-time card might be the trump that provides meaning to the restaurant's name.

138 Orchard Street
 (212) 466 4633 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

1200 MILES

1200 Miles is named after the geographical distance between Provence and Algiers, but the menu's particulars were as far removed from anything even remotely African as is my own Scandi-Euro heritage.  Aside from the chermoula accompanying a tea-brined chicken entree, I honestly couldn't discern a single indigenous ingredient from that region, nor much that was particularly French, either.  The decor could be interpreted is nouveau harem chic, but even that's a stretch.  The room expansive and industrial, metal fixtures, eclectic mirrors,  and sturdy shelving abutting white tile-work prevail.  The bar was boisterous when we visited, but pretty much keeps its noise to itself, allowing the dining room a little more serenity.  There is also an additional section towards the back of the dining room,  a space which can be cordoned off by an opaque white sliding door,  for more seating or even a private dining space.

The menu features quite a few of those de riguer inescapable ingredients like avocado, little gem lettuce and pancetta- all that have little to do with France or Africa, but not offensive in and of themselves.  Overall the execution of the food is sound.  A beet salad with which we began was quite winning- sprinkled with just a dusting of crumbly goat cheese, the beets got the spotlight, ensconcing  chunks of onion roasted so intensely that they took on a similar sanguine hue, attaining a sweetness that mimicked the beets and enhanced the umami effect of the cheese.   Even the fluke crudo, whose fish was a little sloppily cut, fared better once it made it onto the fork, the cool, translucent slices of fish mild and succulent, and a Christmassy garnish of minced herbs and tomato somewhat placated the bumbling presentation.  Underneath,  disproportionately ample wads of guacamole seemed indulgent, although made for a decent spread to go along with the the complimentary bread basket.  And that bread got a lot of mileage, because wait times between courses were arduous.  In fact, the service as a whole is pretty juvenile- they are pleasant and amicable, but a little bumbling and nescient

We both went piscine for our entrees, although the menu is fairly diverse, with the obligatory chicken/pork/lamb/beef and one vegetarian options, here a black garlic fettucini with summer vegetables.   A meaty steak of bluefish exhibited its prominent fishy funk atop an ample succotash of sweet Long Island corn and diced padron pepper, a novel pesto of verdant asparagus crowning the dish.    Crispy skate wing did indeed retain its crispiness even surrounded by the thin herbal broth that so threatened to besog its perfectly golden crust.  In fact, the skate might have been the best cooked piece of skate in recent history, retaining its unique texture so often lost in excessive breading or sodden with the underlying broth.  It somehow transcended the physics of osmosis, keeping crisp and firm even as the deceptively verdant, but bland,  broth began to infiltrate its crust.  Propped up on
 chopped tomatoes and cucumbers along with citrus segments, it could've used a more complex accompaniment, even if just roasting those tomatoes or grilling the orange and cucumber, which would've contributed a nice charred flavorful and a tenderness to the vegetables to complement the fish.

Braised kale made for a winning side dish, cooked just to a toothsome tenderness but still retaining a bit of firmness, as well as its earthy viridity.  Enriched with pancetta and
 caramelized onions, it's not a pristinely virtuous dish, but it easily satisfies on all fronts: health (greens!), harmony (balance of flavors) and hedonism (mmm.... bacon).  It paired really nicely with the skate, too, rich enough to balance its the fresh citrus, and giving it a needed boost.

I forfeited my dessert preference of any of the three options other than what we got:  a warm almond cake with berry coulis, a summer plum tart, a panna cotta with vin santo and berry sorbet... and of those would have been exponentially more interesting than the generic chocolate espresso parfait my tablemate chose.  But although I had been satisfied, even happy with the food, nothing thrilled me so much as to render continuing research on dessert absolutely vital, so I let him get what sounded good to him... (I'm sometimes... rarely- but sometimes- generous that way).  And it was just fine, a dense coffee-inflected chocolate pudding, the best part of which was the fluffy chantilly, which tasted of fresh dairy just gently sweetened.  It found a happy partner in the subtly bitter Illy espresso, an Italian classic that was well-pulled and strong.  

1200 Miles is a really decent eatery, much better than some of the others in the zone if you're in the neighborhood in need of sustenance.   If it was 12 miles, or even 1.2 miles away from you, you'd probably find a better restaurant in transit.  But in that it's only 3342 feet from my house, 1200 Miles was worth the distance.

31 West 21st Street •
 • 212.510.8722