Archive for July, 2007

Home Restaurant: Best and Worst of a Worthy Fixer Upper

July 30, 2007

Like Hearth, the name Home is lovely, simple and evocative, and so is much of the food on offer at the namesake restaurant on Cornelia Street. That said, front and back of house make enough avoidable errors to leave me hoping that a better restaurant can be built on this fixer upper’s attractive foundation. Below are the strongest and weakest features from a recent visit.

1) Intriguing East Coast Wine List: I thoroughly enjoyed the rosés from Shinn Vineyards during a recent trip to the North Fork, and enjoyed them again at lunch at the proprietors’ New York restaurant.  I’m still not completely sold on the Long Island wines that make up the bulk of Home’s list, especially the Cabernet Francs, but the whites I had were uniformly excellent. A non-LI Barboursville sauvignon blanc also confirmed the good things I’ve heard about Virginia wines and made me wonder if I’ll be seeing more of them soon.  Markup was a standard double of retail, a relative bargain in the City and sufficient encouragement to take more risks on subsequent visits. 

2) Surprise Patio in Back: This little seating area is one of the secret spots that you come to treasure in an open space-deprived city. I had no idea it awaited me at the front door and never would have thought to ask, except the restaurant was empty enough to encourage exploring. Nothing wrong with cozy rustic indoor seating, but out back is the place to be in the dog days of July and August.

3) Butterscotch Pudding a Homely Delight: Dessert saved the day as it so often can. Butterscotch pudding was rich but not gratuitously so and deeply flavored. Texture was on the right side of unctuous—close but not too close to grade school Cysco pudding. N.B. Avoid the burned popcorn espresso as a closer and you’ll go home without a bitter taste in your mouth.

4) Pacing Problems: A bugaboo of crowded restaurants; a surprise in an empty one. We were the first to sit, the first to give an order and the first to be served.  Unfortunately, enthusiasm for the maiden order turned to heedless rushing as hot mains were fired too early and kept on too long. When a salad was sent back—wrong order—mac and cheese kept on cooking and cooking and cooking. Rubbery in the middle, paint crust texture on top, no good from start to finish. Unfortunately, tasted too close to Home-made, at least in my house.

5) Schwag Water Cress Salad: Like a cheap dime bag, it was lovely to look at, but stem heavy to a fault. Stuck between teeth but not to ribs. Well conceived, poorly executed. Garde-manger needs to step up. That said, cashews were a nice surprise and goat cheese did more than usual yeoman’s duty.

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Taylor’s Automatic Refresher vs. Shake Shack

July 27, 2007

A brief side by side comparison of New York and San Francisco’s top contenders for best open air burger joint.

1) Burgers: Shake Shack
Avoid the secret sauce. The meat at both places is too well cooked to need the moisture enhancement and too richly flavored to need the coverup. Taylor’s Automatic Refresher’s version has a great charred taste; Shake Shack’s has a rich poolside grill flavor.

After much ruminating and a few return visits, I have to give the nod to the Shack for meat flavor. Their mix of meat cuts is simply the most delicious I’ve encountered—great at any doneness from still-breathing to medium. Shake Shack also wins on the all important bun to burger to cheese ratio. The balance makes the whole far more than the sum of the parts, and with this kind of beef and potato bun, the parts are pretty great.

2) Shakes: Shake Shack
The name sets the bar pretty high, but it’s not the shakes that win the day; it’s the concretes. Taylor’s Automatic Refresher does a great vanilla shake with Double Rainbow ice cream, even if mine was melted on the first order of the day. It just can’t compare to frozen custard concretes, particularly the Wednesday peach offering that has me lining up right around a rational person’s brunch time.

3) Fries: Taylor’s Automatic Refresher
Garlic and parsley ries were unbelievably garlicky in a zippy and refreshing way. I wouldn’t have minded them a few degrees warmer, but they top Shake Shack’s crinkle cuts any day. Gilroy is the promised land of the stinking rose.

4) Wine and beer list: Taylor’s Automatic Refresher
The list is long, gently priced and burger friendly. Shake Shack’s list is also good, but they don’t have anywhere near as many half bottles and they can’t do real wine glasses in a park. Their draft selection is also limited. Taylor brings elegance and variety to the booze and burger experience with lovely glassware, additional indoor seating and no mosquitoes.

5) Location: Tie
Taylor’s Automatic Refresher at San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace has a great city view and even better water and bridge views if you take it to go. That said, I love gazing at the Flatiron building from Shake Shack in New York’s Madison Park, and it’s nice to picnic under real trees (or metal ones this summer).

Conclusion: Shake Shack Wins
In this West Coast/East Coast rivalry, both contenders have their virtues, but the Shake Shack takes the tourney by a hair, or rather, by a beautiful rich lush perfect patty of brisket enriched beef perfection. In the end, it all comes down to what’s between the buns.

Coming soon: Swan Oyster Depot vs. Pearl Oyster Bar

Slanted Door: 5 Reasons Why The Bi-Coastal Hype is Well Deserved

July 27, 2007

I’m always skeptical when a restaurant is so frequently and effusively praised.  High expectations are hard to exceed and easy to fail to meet.  For once, the critics have it right.  Here’s why.

1) Floyd Cardoz of Vietnamese Food in the Kitchen: Charles Phan enhances and refines his native cuisine but never obscures the ingredients that give it such a unique and attractive set of flavors and textures.  Makes New York’s Indochine look like Saigon Grill on an off night. Oh, and he’s also around at Slanted Door to talk to customers when he isn’t manning the stoves. No Vegas outposts…yet.

2) Snap-tight service: Counter and table servers know their stuff, and when they don’t, they ask. Exotic herbs in each dish were explained on request. Clam shells were whisked away and my usual spills were quickly and discreetly erased. I talked to a barman one morning, a takeout counterman another and an outstanding server at lunch on the third day. Not a single slip, plenty of charm and the best hard skills training—clearing, marking, tracking orders, wine service and pairing—of any of my week’s dining in San Francisco.

3) Wondrous whites: Reasonably priced wine list with unreasonably good selections. Bartenders check every bottle before pouring by the glass, and the reward is consistently exceptional quality. Two Rieslings were particularly delicious. For my money, and I didn’t spend too much, one of the better lists for white going in the Bay Area.

4) Manila clams with crisp pork belly and chiles: Ordered this dish on a whim, then returned for more on two occasions. Amazing combination of rich porcine juiciness from back bacon, piercing heat from piquant peppers and salty-sweetness from super-fresh clams. And Thai basil was a magic addition. The protein and vegetable components were delicious in their own right, but it was the broth they infused that had me gasping. Wonderfully integrated flavors.

5) Vietnamese iced coffee: One of few the great byproducts of colonialism. French press coffee with chicory drips onto condensed milk to produce a two layered parfait of pleasure. Mix the layers then add ice to order, as they do here, and you have coffee and dessert without the gutbusting juvenile whipped cream shenanigans of Starbuck’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. It tastes profoundly of espresso, but it’s oh so much better. Regular desserts are also outstanding, especially the lighter fruit based offerings.

5 Reasons to Gather at Hearth

July 11, 2007

With a nod to Gramercy Tavern, the Meyer inspired Hearth is producing some of the most compelling dining in the City. It’s not the food, wine list or service alone, but the power trio combination of the three, like Rush before they got old.

1) Tom Colicchio in the kitchen: Canora makes deft and delicious use of butter, seasonal vegetables and hearty meats. He also brings a gimlet eye to colorful, attractive and unfussy plating. In other words, he does a great impression of Tom Colicchio in the early aughts at Gramercy Tavern. That said he finds his own voice even in reworking GT classics like black bass with morels and peas in butter sauce.

2) Danny Meyer at your table: Paul Grieco brings the best of Gramercy service to Hearth, much as Mary Mraz has done at the North Fork Table and Inn. Hallmark emotional intelligence, flawless pacing and deep knowledge of food and wine are all on ample and much appreciated display.

3) Three-ounce wine servings: The short pour lets you play all night in Grieco’s exotic wine harem, but leaves you with only the merest hicky of a hangover the next day: enough to remind you of a great evening, not enough to leave you with any regrets.

4) Wine list I’d take to the beach: Other than Josh Wesson, no one writes and talks about wine with Paul Grieco’s excitement, humor and wit. That Best Cellars’ top tippler was dining at Hearth on my last visit suggests that he and Grieco recognize each other as kindred spirits.

5) Bar stools with amazing kitchen views: For those who like the art and sport of kitchen theater, there are few better places to watch and eat. Smellavision at its best.

Boqueria Reigns in Food of Spain

July 3, 2007

If you want great Spanish food in New York, look for an Irish-American chef. Bolo’s butter-cheeked Bobby Flay is already well known; Boqueria’s sun-averse Seamus Mullen will be soon.

Cause For Applause:

1) Clean flavors: Market-fresh arugula, scapes and other seasonal produce lighten and brighten up bar snacks and large plates. Don’t worry though, Mullen’s no culinary Calvinist. The menu also contains plenty of fried favorites for those so inclined, from meal-opening croquetas—obligatory and workmanlike— to meal-ending churros—extruded wonders that belong on the short list of New York super-doughnuts.

2) Dirty chef: I love it when the chef makes the rounds of tables, especially if there’s evidence of cooking on his whites to tell you he’s really working the stoves. Even better when he’s a shy kitchen craftsman happy to hear a compliment or answer a question but happier still to return to his station. Mullen’s no media-savvy FN food actor, and that’s great news for dedicated food fans.

3) Quality Caffeine on The Quick: The barman at Boqueria had no problem answering a booze athlete’s call for a mid-bout bolus of restorative caffeine. He also knew to cut it with a pitch perfect half-nipple of milk. For those who tend to match wine to water consumption, consider throwing caffeine in the mix and you just might outlast the college kids at the other end of the bar.

4) High performance, low-key cheese plate: A perfect bar snack or first dessert. One of the best edited and plated cheese selections I’ve seen recently. An understated wood plank held flavor complementing cherries, apples and quince paste alongside generous chunks of lush ripe torta de serena, garrotxa, idiazabal and cabrales.

5) Golden Showers at the Bar: Half the fun of easygoing Txakolí is the pouring method. Here it’s cascaded down from on high, just as it is in Galicia and the Basque Country. Fine to drink this light white at the tables as well, but much better up front. Would you order French maid service for your apartment while plugging away at the office?

Cause for Correction:

1) Twice-killed swine: Rough-cut thick slices of jamón serrano took subtlety out of the dish. Spanish ham should be too good for this brutish treatment. And speaking of pigs, how about some feet on the menu?

2) Still no Orujo: Spain’s grappa homologue remains elusive in this city. A server hinted at the culture preserving virtues of trade barriers in explaining its absence from the menu. I say leave the canned fish back on the Peninsula and start importing the world’s best hooch.

3) Not much bottom to the wine list: Txakolí and the other Basque whites on Boqueria’s list were once the quite reasonable choices of factory workers out for a low budget low pretense moveable feast. I know Spain has moved up in the world economy and that the Euro is now crushing the dollar, but there have to be a few Iberian options left under thirty dollars. The same applies to double-digit heavy options by the glass.