Archive for March, 2007

Early Lunch at Lupa: A Bargain at a Price

March 30, 2007

Twice a day, I am Tim Zagat (www.zagat.com), though admittedly I lack the wiry frame and BBC-worthy voice.  Twice a day, no restaurant’s door is closed to me.  My secret is well-known: eating  off hours.  I can’t buy expensive meals, but I can buy free time.  In short, I can afford to eat out when others can’t afford to be away from their desks.   In the crepuscular crack between 5 and 6 P.M. and the late morning laze before 12:30 arrives and Manhattan feels entitled to eat, nearly ever place is happy for my business, or at least game enough to fake it.   Yes, if you can pick your time, you can pick your table.  And if these early meals don’t suffice, by all means do what I do, eat again at a more cosmopolitan hour.  That said, off hours eating can be an expensive bargain.  Feel is the first victim in a half-empty house: absence of diners spells absence of ambience. After feel, quality is often the second casualty.  At off hours, front and back of house drop orders and nurse and renew hangovers; leftover open wine from the night before gets poured for the marginal while new bottles await regulars diners eating at regular hours; finally, some items, as well as some chefs, just aren’t ready yet.  Many of these deficiencies don’t jump out, and I’m often happy not to know or notice.  Occasionally and inexcusably, the front of house does make it clear that the real game hasn’t begun yet or has already ended.  Yesterday at Lupa www.luparestaurant.com, for instance, my heretofore friendly waitress left halfway through lunch. She had me at hello but apparently felt no need for a goodbye as she scurried off to a more important engagement.   This was clearly not an important hour of service for her or the restaurant.  A replacement was perfectly competent, though the perfunctory dessert offer made it clear that  he and several colleagues preferred to return to their activities at the bar.  Over there, a jovial crowd of underoccupied servers slurped grappa with the furtive fervor of pre-schoolers set loose on Sippy cups of Kool-Aid.  Amidst these distractions, the food offered some pleasures, but not enough to restore the balance.  A small carafe of wine was the perfect amount and price for lunch, particularly on a day when I had to give up my customary dessert nap.  Unfortunately, the bottle of Sicilian red from which my carafe was poured had spent too much time enjoying the sunshine and open air on an unseasonably pleasant March day.  The warm flavors  in the glass were fine.  The warm temperature of the wine was not.      Vegetable offerings were the most adventurous part of the savory menu, particularly the beets with pistachio sauce.  Nonetheless they didn’t feel terribly seasonal on a warm proto-primavera afternoon;  nor did the odd combinations come to seem inevitable.  Instead, they simply felt strange.  I’d rather have the pistachio sauce on a dessert and the beets with just about anything else.  Charcuterie was good, but that’s not good enough in 2007.   When Yorkville (the flyover country Midwest of the UES)’s Uva and Spigolo serve decent testa and prosciutto, a place like Lupa needs to dig deeper to make its plate of salumi stand out.  Standards for high-end casual Italian have risen since 1999, and I’m not sure Lupa hasn’t been a bit too casual in keeping up with the market it created. More disappointingly,  the much trumpeted gnocchi simply didn’t live up  to post- or pre-millenial press.  They were utterly adequate and unsublime.  13 dollars is steep for a cup and half of paste and sauce that neither promises nor offers a hint of revelation; mediocrity is never cheap.Buttermilk panna cotta was an easy sell, and I bought.  The texture was perfect pap for infants and the infirm, or simply lazy chewers, but the liquor soaked fruit accompaniment did instill a little fun into a snoozy meal.In sum, Lupa remains a going concern but not one to concern those living outside the neighborhood enough to go.   It hardly merits a journey or even a detour from elsewhere on the island, even if you live on the Lexington line.   On the right night at the right hour, a good meal could be had, but my off hours forays will unlikely bring me or any friends of mine back.   I got, almost, what I paid for. 

Pie by the Pound…Beers for a Buck: A Decent Restaurant Grows in Yorkville

March 19, 2007

Like polar bears and sand fleas, Pie by the Pound www.piebythepound.com blends with its hostile environment—the tobacco row of slatternly ball cap bars that dominates the East Eighties—but also transcends it. Outside, it’s as nondescript as any of the neighborhood’s soulless swill houses. In fact, it’s even more bland than the area’s faux Irish bars and ersatz Southern barbecue joints. Inside, however, Pie by the Pound shrugs off the mortal boil that is Yorkville and shows its inner Barcelona chic.

Chairs are hiply modern and generously spaced to allow for double parked double wide strollers, extreme lounging and straightforward casual eating. An unexpectedly interesting magazine selection offers entertainment for solo diners and pacification for bored teenagers dragged along by parents. Flat screens add a nice take on the universal intergenerational opiate.

Of course, looks will only get you so far, even on this desperately unbeautiful block where beer goggles are the preferred eyewear. Fortunately, the pizza is hot and delicious. The serving format is innovative as well, a big step up on the dank slice joints down the block. For eat-in customers, a dozen freshly made tiles of pizza sit at the ready behind a thin sheet of glass. You simply indicate how much you want with a hand gesture to the knife wielding server. A moment later the appropriately sized swatch of pizza goes into the oven for a quick refire.

Most of the topping combinations are straightforward: fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil; a great white pizza that avoids the greasiness pitfall so common with this variety; and several mushroom mixes. For those seeking a little nutritional balance, a veggie combo offers all the sweetness and light one expects when six particolored fresh cut vegetables decorate a pie but none of the bitter overload of the classic chlorophyll laden pie. For a bit more fun and a lot more taste, the margherita potato chip pizza proves texture can be as important to toppings as it is to crust. The combo seems odd then inevitable: crunchy, salty, sweet and addictive. It’s easy to see why it sells out so quickly.

As if this bargain priced embarrassment of pizza riches weren’t enough, the beer selection is painfully cheap, not alcohol by the ounce but rather Buds by the buck. Yes, Budweisers run a dollar each here, as do Amstels. Only Heinekens push the price envelope at a princely two dollars apiece. Hipster artisanal sodas round out the selection and are perfect for family outings, but I keep my loyalties with St. Louis’ finest watery refreshment. It won’t distract from the pizza nor leave your wallet much lighter than when you came in the door.

So next time you’re thinking of Totonno’s Yorkville branch or, heaven forbid, a trip to Tony’s di Crapoli, do think twice, it’s not alright. Weigh your options then pick up the phone and order from Pie by the Pound. Better still, bring family or friends, or catch up on your magazine reading, tv watching and beer drinking over a solo slice or two. Pretty soon you’ll be a regular.

King’s Carriage House: A Country Inn for a Night in the Neighborhood

March 13, 2007

It’s a hard knock life being a foodie in Yorkville. The good German and Hungarian stalwarts have long since been kudzued over by a tobacco row of dank bars and dangerously dirty slice joints. The new waves of cuisine, from nouvelle to molecular gastronomy leave us high and dry. Neither haute Paris nor ethnically savory Sunnyside, Queens, Yorkville is a little bit of everything and not much of anything. Nonetheless, a few brave souls are making meals worth a walk if not a cab ride.

Among the new breed, Spigolo, Uva and Café D’Alsace are the obvious well-publicized standouts. Several rungs lower, York Grill remains an adequate standby, unwilling to get better and unlikely to get worse. King’s Carriage House, according to my friends’ reports, falls somewhere in between, but closer to the former group than the latter. This past Friday I gave it a try.

After a single visit, I’d say this lovely little converted brownstone is much more about feel than food, but the feel is wonderfully warm and clubby and perhaps the perfect answer to the modest expectations of a Friday night’s repast. A favorite of many Carl Schurz Park volunteer gardeners and other Connecticut second home owners, its décor is delightfully country inn tweedy, from the hunt scene prints to the candelabra. It’s also surprisingly cosmopolitan.

During a leisurely three hour dinner I was treated to discourses on changing admissions policies at Choate, Taft and Princeton from one table of Rep tied brownstoners, Spanish judicial corruption from madrileño renters and something unintelligible with a German accent from unidentifiable tourists. Only the slouching Tigers were overbearingly loud, and they did provide some modicum of entertainment. Fortunately, so did the food.

Lamb was rare, beautifully seasoned and set off by surprisingly fresh braised greens. Venison sausage and sweet potato hash would make for excellent haute breakfast fare, but also tasted great at dinner time. Only Stilton and fruit with a missing glass of port failed to live up to its promise. The cheese was bland and the presentation a bit dated without being dated enough—no modern funky flavor, no old-school maggot spoon. A goat cheese terrine was antiquated but comfortingly filling and fairly tasty, perfectly suited to the place and the pace. Grilled salmon exceeded wedding banquet standards but not by much. Fortunately, a blackberry crumble redeemed the evening, and left me fortified for the short post-prandial stroll home.

This wasn’t food or drink to contemplate, comment, wax or whine about. It didn’t lift my eyes upward to the heavens with exalted gastro-joy nor the ceiling in exasperation. Rather, it made me smile and look at and talk to my spouse. A good time, an easy reservation, a reasonable check, and baby and babysitter asleep by eleven. Number four on the Yorkville standout list, check.

Top 10 Tastes at C-CAP Benefit 2007

March 1, 2007

Here are ten Xs on my tasty treasure map from this year’s C-CAP benefit. Theme ingredients emerged as always, despite perennial attempts to diversify the offerings. This year Perigord trumped the porcine, as pickup Teams Truffle and Foie Gras replaced last year’s Pork Belly and Kumquat crews.

1. Foie Gras Rice Krispie with Fruit Accompaniment: Compass
Compass’s John Fraser proves once again that he’s the most creative chef on the Upper West Side. Captaining Team Foie, Fraser offered the standout treatment of the luxury ingredient and a glorious reminder of why New York will always beat Chicago—we ban transfats, they ban goose fat—when it comes to fine food. Surprise quickly yielded to sense that combination was inevitable. Of course, yesterday it wasn’t.

Oceana made good use of the fatty stuff in a wintery periwinkles and bacon ragout, and Café des Artistes turned a nice PB&J pun into a fun if unoriginal foie and wine reduction dish.

2. Fluke and Halibut Crudo: Esca
Pasternack’s crudo remains the best in the city. Most revisited of the savory stations and for good reason. Likely one of the more talked about offerings as well. Loved the bonus beverage (Spanish sherry) he kept on hand for those inclined to linger a bit by the windows while gazing at New Jersey’s shoreline.

3. Lime Custard, Flame-broiled Meringue and Candied Kumquats: Aureole
Amar Santana and Rachel Lansang have the best palates of any C-CAP alums, and watching the results of their collaboration was a pleasure. This sweet treat was a gourmet’s key lime pie. It also slyly evoked C-CAP of yore when kumquats were everywhere. A top contender for the clean plate club, i.e., no halfsies left on the cocktail tables.

Neighboring Modern’s Panna Cotta with Mangos, pistachio macaroon and fruit gelée was gloriously overambitious—Victorian trifle in a cocktail glass—but offered some beautiful color and bracing citrus that cut through some of the fat overload from Teams Foie and Truffle. Worthy of repeated attentions as well.

4. Wild Mushroom and Morel Flan, Truffle Oil, Mushroom Broth: Payard
A surprise winner for Team Truffle. Perhaps the richest dish of the night bite by bite. Tasted more luxurious than anything I’ve eaten in a long time. Long finish of truffle, earthy mushroom and general deliciousness.

5. Braised Lamb, Peas and Wilted Lettuce: Beacon
Waldy Malouf and Carmen Quagliata at Union Square Café were two of the few to take spring preview seriously in theming their selection. Both used peas brilliantly, Quagliata for a light salad and Malouf for a signature savory meat preparation. He’s always a top hitter at this event. Stop by on the way in and he’ll have you at “Hello.”

6. Chestnut Bisque, Fresh Black Truffles and Vin Jaune: Town
John Johnson’s restaurant may intimidate with its hyper-fashionable servers and almost too-beautiful setting, but out of house he offers unpretentious seasonal luxury. Part of Team Truffle, his easy to eat soup lingered on the palate like Payard’s Flan and made me far more willing to brave the full-Windsored waiters on a return visit to Town.

Gotham’s pigeon-broth ravioli offered similar Falstaffian fun. Great to see Portale inventing so effortlessly 20 years in.

7. Black Cherry Ice Cream Float: Olives
Alfred Stephens, another C-CAP hall of famer, brought this top contender from 2006 back to triumph again in 2007. People shamelessly ordered seconds and thirds for phantom dates or openly doubled and tripled down. Layers of flavor, layers of fun in the glass. Sad to know it will be gone by next year, excited to discover what Stephens comes up with next.

8. Beef Cheeks with Endive Salad and Beet Gelée: Aquavit
Marcus Samuelsson always brings a special treat—homemade infused aquavit— which makes the line at his station that much easier to bear. The food was worth a journey as well, especially for those who thought his creativity ended with fish. A colorful rich and complex bite best bookended by liquid refreshment (the shots aren’t full size anyway).

9. Morimoto Fishwich of Fried Cod, White Truffle Garlic Mayo and Cheddar on a Bun
Morimoto shows real humor with this fun spin on a McDonald’s delight. Cheddar was perfect sharp counterpoint to Portugal-worthy cod and punchy aioli. Another top player on Team Truffle. Pedantry-free food.

10. Steak Tartare and Herb Salad: Patroon
A surprise hit and the perfect portion for party eating. I was halfway down the center aisle with tartare well swallowed before I realized how good this plate had been. No fudge factor stunt ingredients, just perfect balance. Fortunately, circling round for seconds was taken as a compliment by the chef. Thirds were greeted with bewildered but generally benign tolerance.