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



Monday, November 3, 2014

BLT BAR & GRILL

BLT lost its LT: Laurent Tourondel is no longer associated with what has become now quite a substantial chain of restaurants.  It was always a solid bet with him at the helm, in that reliable steakhouse fashion, so much so that it attracted the attention of a monied buyer.  It then branched out into a myriad fish, steak, burger and veggie-centric establishments.  The latest, a Bar & Grill, came to my attention because my sister happened to be planning a company event requiring a large private dining area, and although we were peripheral that, it's why I was here.  I strayed from my titular objective, to say the least.

The BLTs are a part of ESquared, each of which have their own executive chef.  Bar & Grill has David Crain, an alum of Gramercy Tavern, Union Pacific, and coincidentally, Gotham Bar & Grill.... the most un-bar-and-grilly bar and grill one could imagine.
  BLT B&G shares some of that: its sleek and spacious dining room, gently illuminated by an eclectic array of glittery, suspended bulbs is decorated with amusing quirky quotes chalked graffiti-style on the walls.  It's no rival to the muted elegance nor culinary excellence of Alfred Portale's iconic restaurant, but it gets the job done.   Plus, it's not trying for much more than super hearty, substantial American fare, and for this, you could find much worse.  And I have to say, our server was en pointe-effective and attentive: if he ever needs a new gig, he'd be easily capable of a greater grill.





The menu is enormous.  Selectively, one could format a meal that would fit the constrains of Steak, Prime, Fish.. whichever BLT you chose.  There're pizzas, burgers, sandwiches, salads, sides, entrees of all inclinations.... you name it.  You couldn't not find something to eat here, whether in the end it was necessarily that thrilling.  And we started off those signature popover, a welcome holdover from Tourondel's original.  Puffy clouds of carbohydrate and fat were slightly denser than I remember, but still buttery fragrant and perilously hot.  And they paired well with my  beet salad, which was tasty enough, and like the popovers (and everything on the menu), big enough for sharing.  Cool, pickly beets offset by a pungent crumble of gorgonzola were adorned with the requisite frill of frisee and walnut dressing complete with immense sugar-crusted
 nuts big enough to serve as dessert themselves.  Another appetizer option also entailed cheese than greens, although entailed more of the former, duly titled Crispy Goat Cheese.  Three pucks of warm, melty chevre were crusted  in a crisp crust of bacony breadcrumbs and nuzzled into tufts of more frisee.  A fairly standard rendition, and aptly composed.  The tufts of mache were a nice touch, along with squiggles of a mustardy dressing to liven things up.





As noted, this menu is expansive.  Entrees could've gone in any number of directions: pizza, pasta, meat, fish, poultry, or even just go with the daily special, the Wednesday that we visited was featuring a seafood hot pot with saffron rouille which was probably the most intriguing option, although there probably was nothing wrong with Friday's ginger crusted cod with leek soubise, or curried mussels on Monday.  Off the standard menu, however, the mushroom whole grain mustard tipped the scales in favor of a double-cut
 pork chop, which was easily three inches thick and amply pooled the umami-rich gravy.  That gravy ameliorated substantially my sea scallops, which I ordered still wistfully recalling the miraculously good ones from Piora.  These were fine, but strikingly below average in comparison to Piora's.  I know it's not a fair comparison, but it was just so vivid: these were wan and "regular", although stealing spoonfuls from the pork chop's sauce helped immensely.  The pallid fava bean tabouleh that accompanied might have benefitted the most.  The favas were just shy of tender, complete with a slight raw-bean flavor, unsettling firmness and not much else, so the rich gravy, while it made little sense, at least gave the combo a little chutzpah.  The
redeeming factor of the repast was the brussels sprouts, and unfortunately not for the brussels sprouts themselves, but just the fact that Hurrah! brussels sprouts are back on the menus!  There weren't the most brilliant reintroduction to autumn's finest vegetable, but I was just happy to have them back in circulation.  In fact, it seems I was so excited that I forgot to take of picture of them.  Which is odd, but there they were, roasted with bacon and honey, and a bit too much of both, but not mortally so.  I still finished them off, although there remained a small pool of sweet, oniony bacon in the bottom of the crock.

But sweet has its time and place, and found it effectively in a caramelized apple tatin, crunchily edged in burnt sugar.  It was in keeping with the rest of the meal, tasty in its own right, if not exceptionally executed or novel in any sense.  But it's a Bar & Grill, after all, and for that, it lives up to its name.








123 Washington Street
(entrance on Albany Street)
tel. 1(646) 826-8666








Thursday, October 16, 2014

PIORA




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.