Archive for the ‘Lads Who Lunch’ Category

Centro Vinoteca: Burrell Steps Out of Batali’s Shadow and Into His Old Neighborhood.

March 5, 2008

Anne Burrell is still a mint love letter, beef cheek ravioli or lardo pizza short of  a career-making signature dish, but she’s well on her way to creating a signature restaurant in the neighborhood that made Mario Batali a star with Pó.  Below are a few high and lowlights from recent visits. 

1) Lamb Ragú: Well-priced, polyphonic flavor bomb of a sauce on perfectly cooked pasta.  No stunt ingredients, no hot or sour flavor tweaks.  Just disciplined time-honored, ingredient-honoring low and slow technique.  Can’t wait to try the boar version. 

2) Chicken Liver Paté: Generous flavors, generous size, low cost for kitchen and client.  Taste and nose are deeply earthy—good barnyard, not Missouri manure pond—but it’s a dish that needs to be shared.  Don’t go solo unless you like mid-afternoon fat sweats.  Deviled eggs are also worthwhile, though not as surprising as when they hit the menu at Blue Smoke a few years ago.  A rumpus room favorite from Midwest childhood.

3) Quartinos: Fun idea but arguably a bit pricey, and inexcusably a bit warm, especially the reds.  I love sun in the glass, just not sun on the glass.  Also, servers need not break the flow of conversation and courses by darting about refilling wine glasses from these diminutive little containers.  Even the most uncoordinated of drunkards can self-pour from tiny-tyke Sippee Cup serving vessels.

4) Centro Vinoteca’s Meat Balls: Biggest (Flavored) of Them All

Grilled up at lunch time and sandwiched between bread that’s just about texturally perfect, the savory lamb treats will make the afternoon nap that much sweeter.  No finer ground globes of meat in City at moment.

5) Cappuccino Panna Cotta:  Texture is dead on, flavors are harmonious, portion size is irresponsible and perfect.  Here chocolate covered coffee beans are delightful grace note rather than the usual gratuitous garnish.

Further advice:

1) Rinse carefully after eating the panna cotta.  I forgot to and went to a meeting looking like a Skoal Bandit had exploded in my mouth.  

2) Don’t waste cab fare on the overpriced grappa pairing.  Otto’s offerings are more fun and a heck of a lot cheaper.   Alto’s are more refined and about the same price.

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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.

Five Points of Virtue at Five Points

May 12, 2007

Another in my series of Lads who Lunch leisure meals. This time, at Five Points, the best thing to hit Great Jones Street since Don Delillo. www.fivepointsrestaurant.com

1) Value in the Village:
20 dollar prix-fixe tasted like twice the price. No wedding dinner salmon or chicken on this three courser (Modern and Nougatine take note). With the exception of an oleaginous tartar sauce splooge, every component was clean flavored and beautifully plated.

2) Freshness First:
Seasonal squid and soft shell were young and frisky. They tasted of themselves and in consequence required minimal intervention.

3) Creativity:
Best deployed citrus notes since early Dan Barber. Tartly dressed squid was highlighted, not hidden by stipples of sweet and sour. A crunchy shredded salad under the crab added one more texture point to an already complex soft creamy crispy interplay.

4) Generous beverage service:
Glass of Riesling was closer to a quartino. Carried me through to the panna cotta and rounded out the sobremesa time. Second beer was brought to table when first seemed short. No questions asked. Happy to tip accordingly.

5) Décor:
Flowers were fresh, extravagant, beautiful and understated, much like the food. Open spaces at both ends and great Andalusian airflow were Euro-cool without the exchange rate problem.

The Faults:
Didn’t look for them and didn’t find them. An unslick but well-oiled machine.

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.