Archive for the ‘Overrated Foodie Finds’ Category

Casa Mono: Ugly American Meets Angry Iberian

February 19, 2010

This is not a restaurant built on love.  Chairs are tightly packed and sparsely padded to prod people in and out the door as fast as possible.  Service is equally unwelcoming.  Not a place designed to produce repeat business.  In short, the cultural illogic of lazy capitalism.    Below are a few lowlights of a recent meal.

1. Pedestrian Pan Con Tomate:  A simple dish but often sublime.  Not on my second visit, where salty and soggy came together in blissless matrimony.  Inferior to that served at Boqueria–simple version–and Tía Pol–deconstructed.  Roughly equal to that served at the Yale Club’s Spanish Night buffet.  The “Monkey House” would be better off serving Monkey Bread.

2. Occam’s Razor Clam: Occam’s proposition states that the simplest explanation is usually the best.  I’d add a seafood corollary: the simplest preparation is usually the best.  That said, it’s fine and good to salt, lube and saute your proteins, but I can get the same taste at Joe’s Shanghai for half the price.  Given that razor clams are the beef cheeks of the sea, I don’t need Ripert prices on this one.

3. Sun Drenched Spanish Wine:  The list is long and deep, and the pours are generous, but after my wine experience with a glass of Monastrell, I doubt I’ll be digging any further.   Monastrell is an amiable grape that generally gets along with everything. Here, however, my glass was served at kitchen temp not room or cave temp.  Overheated alcohol in a literally overheated glass turned this normally friendly food bev into a nasty little throat scratcher.  The wine made me feel like drinking, but it didn’t make me feel like drinking here.  If I return, I’ll stick to beer.

4. Glop Lo Mein: Fideos with mussels and a goopy sauce were a mayo drenched monstrosity.  Rubbery shellfish, glutinous sauce and grease addled noodles were like the worst of 1950s midwestern Chinese food tarted up in Spanish drag. Everything else I ate was diminished by kitchen work; this dish was a disaster from conception forward.

5. Bone Dry Bread Pudding: A beginning baker’s go to recipe is, apparently, not as foolproof as I had thought.  Bland coffee ice cream did little to improve the stale crouton texture and taste.  If you’re in the mood for dessert, hit Otto for stellar gelato and magnificently baroque sundaes; hit yourself on the head for ordering ice cream here.

Conclusions: Nearly every problem I encountered during my two meals was one of execution of dishes not conception.  Perhaps the issue was a simple as who was running the kitchen those days.  Given the rich options available in this City, I can’t say I intend to risk going back to find out.

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Hitching Post II: A Beard House Disaster

July 27, 2009

It’s hard not to please food fans when fat, sugar, caffeine and alcohol are offered in unabashed abundance.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve liked nearly every meal I’ve had at the Beard House.  Nearly every meal.  Once in a while a visiting restaurant manages the mean feat of making  me wish I’d stayed home.  Such was the case with the Hitching Post II.

So next time they’re in town, avoid the temptation to give the sequel a second chance.  Instead, order “Sideways” from Netflix,  broil up a couple of Lobel’s steaks and open a bottle of Sea Smoke Southing.   Miles and Jack would do the same. 

Below are a few observations from a meal that sent me running East  to Otto for a restorative lardo pizza and grappa chaser. 

1) So-so starters: Sweet potato puree congealed over toast rounds with shredded pork. The half-full trays going back to the kitchen made clear that I wasn’t the only one voting with my stomach.  Fifties style rumpus room quality mushroom caps set the amateur tone for what followed.

2) Chintzy Chardonnay: Forget about the oak vs. steel and malolactic vs. natural fermentation debates.  This wine had bigger problems, like going corky on the nose and flat on the tongue.  I now know why Miles stuck to Pinot.

3) Substandard Steak Frites/Hyposubstandard Steak:  French fries do not belong at the Beard House;  bad french fries really don’t belong, particularly on a plate with gray and grainy banquet hall steak.   N.B.: Forget the mesquite; upgrade the meat.  I’d have sent the wan flesh hunk back if I’d been in a restaurant and fed it to my least favorite pet if I’d been at home.

4)Sour grapes and a bitter ending: Dearth of Dessert made a bad evening worse.    Closer was not big or good enough.

5) Conclusions: Barbecue travels about as well as panda bears and orchids.  Either go for a local urban product–Blue Smoke, Hill Country, etc.–or go the source.

Another Roadside Distraction: Amagansett’s Lobster Roll (Lunch)

July 27, 2009

The oyster pan roast and the lobster roll are two dishes that need to die.  Both used to be poor men’s suppers; both are now willful and wasteful anachronisms.  Luxury ingredients need to be showcased not hidden.  And luxury ingredients gone bad or borderline need to be discarded not disguised.

Such is the case with Grand Central Oyster Bar’s overhyped oleaginous oyster stew.  Their version is all cream, potato, paprika and bivalves on the edge of e.coli overload.  It tastes less of the sea than the sewer, as do the restaurant’s raw offerings on the bookends to the workweek.

For its part, Lobster Roll’s (1980 Montauk Highway E.) version of its namesake dish is undeniably safe and inoffensive but also inexcusably bland.  First do no harm, sure, but then don’t bore me either.  In any case, neither restaurant is more than a road or rail side distraction in its current form, and neither dish merits the time or money.

If you are going to stake your name on a single dish at least do what you do right, as Rebecca Charles does at the West Village’s Pearl Oyster Bar.  Unfortunately, rather than putting me in mind of the superior bread, texture and flavor intensity of her lobster roll, or her oysters for that matter, this Amagansett offering had me reminiscing about the Rt. 9 Westborough McDonald’s seasonal lobster roll. A lesser road and a lesser restaurant on paper but not on the plate.

In both places, the lobster tasted of nothing, the celery in the salad hid what little flavor was in the meat, and the roll was unbuttered and uninteresting.   That said, McDonald’s has much better fries and much lower prices, coupled with much better managed customer expectations.

Yes, Lobster Roll does offer a sense of place.  Blond servers of surprisingly diverse ages—prom queens past and present—speak to a long history in a single locale, and Capt. Jack kitsch décor is a pleasant reminder of old seafood shacks everywhere from Ann Arbor to Anna Maria.  Also, the celebrity endorsement page of the menu is endearingly outdated: “newlyweds Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin” and seventies heavy—Cheryl Tiegs to Peter Boyle.  And that’s about as good as it gets.

Conclusions: Next time you’re on the Montauk Highway, engage in some Emersonian self-reliance, and hit a roadside fish shop for whatever’s fresh.  Grill it up at your rental, house, or one of the nearby parks (Hither Hills, for instance) and call it a day.  There’s no reason to get off the road for this one.

Of Savory delights and Service Disasters: Solo Dining in the Cruelest Month

April 16, 2008

Springtime in New York is great for eating out but lousy for eating out alone.  Outdoor seating is way too precious to leave half empty—everything’s at least a two top—and indoor seating is neglected by bartenders rediscovering the charms of nicotine breaks or nubile prep cooks.  On an international tour of pork destination dining spots, a pair of favorites rewarded return visits even as a trio of others persuaded me never to return.  In a surprise twist, Italy won twice while Malaysia, Spain and Korea fell way short.

FATTY CRAB

Fatty Crab in the midafternoon would perhaps be more aptly named Fat Blunt or Fat Roach.  I don’t know if my server was smoking toad venom or the Chronic, but no one on the right side of Kubla Khan would call a dish of pork belly and watermelon the “Mecca of Pork.”  He also probably wouldn’t tell a solo diner that “Fatty Crab rolls family style, so ordering for one will be tough…but you can stay….if you want.”  Keep on rolling, buddy.  Sorry for the buzzkill.  If you don’t want my money, I don’t want to spend it.   

BOQUERIA:

Airheaded server, arrogant owner and errant flavor combinations made for a disappointing first foray to the counter at Boqueria.  The “bikini” sandwich—yes, the two piece swimsuit is also a grilled cheese in some languages—wedged an ill-advised mixture of cheeses and sun-dried tomatoes between a multi-grain bread that has never and should never grace a Spanish table.  A hacked up ham plate did little to remedy the situation. Pressure to booze and dessert denial from pneumatic beertender put a bitter finish to a none too sweet meal.  Gallic diffidence from paper-doodling owner Rochefort snuffed last bit of good will.  

MOMOFUKU SSÄM and MOMOFUKU NOODLE BAR

I will not eat David Chang’s porky butt and buns.  I will not eat David Chang’s green eggs or ham (former undercooked, latter mouldy).  I will not eat at Noodle Bar or Ssäm.  I will not be ripped off again and again.   I’m done with the Happy Peachster until his prices approach sanity and consonance with the cheap setting and minimal service on offer at Ssäm and Bar . 

During my last Noodle run, my prawns were well past gamey, my slow cooked eggs were simply undercooked (and vaguely chlorophyll colored) and my soft-serve ice cream had the texture if not the flavor of bung seepage.   Similar experience at Ssäm.  Hicky of a hangover from the crapulence of too much good food and drink fine.  Bruising bout of nausea from bad food and brazen overpricing, not so fine.  Ssäm and Noodle are too hip for this square.  The would be Emperor of the East Village needs some clothes, quick. 

FRANK PEPE’s PIZZA (NEW HAVEN)

Great view of coal oven and jovial highly caffeinated pie wranglers and servers added some noise in the early lunch hours.  Whole white pie with monstrously fresh and juicy clams and and mozzarella reminded me what all the fuss was about.  Cold glass of Long Trail was perfect foil.  Sometimes the perfect wine pairing is a quick cheap beer:  Whole meal was less than twenty dollars including twenty plus percent tip.    Porky pepperoni to go was a pleasure for my return train meal on wheels.  Gastrotourism in the Havens pizza belt sure beats Hamptons run to Nick & Tony’s!

OTTO

And back in the City for one more pie. Late afternoon counter eating was a people watcher’s delight.  Drunken middle aged woman kissing bartender and exclaiming in Brooklyn French upon increasingly evident subtleties of her third quartino of rosé.  Hipsters muttering and mulling over hip things hiply.  A few random NYU professors in for a quick cacio e pepe and a quicker couple of cocktails. Finally, a bartender willing to hold to restaurant’s promise to restore any and everyone at the bar from unabashed boozers to teetotaling foodies.   Price was high—almost fifty dollars for delicious lardo pizza, scalding and mediocre Lagrein quartino and a brilliantly redeeming ice cream confection—even for one, but I left feeling better than when I went in, and I left wanting to go back. The great places have no off hours or meals: When they’re open, they’re open with open arms.  Otto’s on the list.  

 

 

No Country for this Old Man: Why I’ll Stick to Town

November 26, 2007

Complementing the name and cuisine of Town Restaurant with Country Restaurant was a great idea and a witty verbal play for Geoffrey Zakarian: Town&Country. However, after a recent visit to the latter, I’m pretty sure I won’t be jumping the ampersand anytime soon. The front of house under the recently departed Doug Psaltis just didn’t match the back, and until it does, there will be no return visits to Country for this Old Man. Here are a few “freebies” that explain why.

1) An hour of free time to cool my heels at the bar: “Your table is being re-set right now” would be a far more credible fib if it weren’t followed in sequence by “The party ahead of you is paying their check” and then “The party ahead of you has just started their desserts.” Hard even to imagine the unlikely chain of events that would lead a party to occupy our table as it was being re-set, request a check for a meal eaten elsewhere then order dessert. Could it be that they simply didn’t have a table ready? And why no complementary drink to unruffle feathers or at least a better time estimate so I could decide whether to order a cocktail?

2) A free White Burgundy bath at the table to wet them: The snippy server—think maitre d’ in “Ferris Bueller”—did little to end the nightmare. Rather, he made it worse. Among the egregious highlights, he cleared my part-full wine glass and inverted it table-side, dumping its contents onto the floor and my shoes: No cleanup and no replacement.

3) A free steam facial from plastic plate cover: The inordinate distance food must get frog-marched to make it from kitchen to table means everything arrives covered in condensation-fogged plastic lids. I know the restaurant is in a hotel, but Country table service shouldn’t feel like Ramada room service. Cold and soggy deep fried pickles that accompanied the “Sample in a Jar” steak tartare made for an ugly and unappetizing combo.

4) A free laugh courtesy of the wine list: Laughably expensive list given the relatively casual and reasonable food on offer in the Café. A surfeit of three and four digits wine selections suggests that the beverage director is confusing Burgerhounds with Burghounds. Danny Meyer’s story about the Union Square Café customer ordering a 12-dollar tuna burger and a 1200-dollar bottle of wine is meant for a laugh not for a business model.

Michael Mina: No Heart Left in SF Restaurant

August 6, 2007

It’s still loved by San Franciscans, at least according to the latest polls, but I saw only out of towners on a recent Sunday night at Michael Mina, and I doubt many will be back. Two children asleep on their chairs were probably the happiest guests in the house. Here are five reasons why this much hyped restaurant isn’t meeting expectations, even for hotel dining. In short, Michael Mina’s heart–and soul–are no longer in SF. Good news for Vegas, bad news for the Bay Area.

1) Cold unskilled front of house: Not much food knowledge, emotional intelligence or hard skills evinced by server: bad marking of table, mis-placed chargers and total failure to accomodate a preference for placement of a wine glass on one diner’s drinking side. Of all cities, San Francisco should be able to accommodate lefties! Never checked on food or wines—never even offered taste of wine before pouring the latter—and thus missed easy opportunities to amend several egregious slipups.

2) Weird cheese plate: Serving meal-ending cheese selection with savory accompaniments just doesn’t make sense, especially such ill advised combinations as on offer here. Would have worked far better at the start of the meal . Beautiful plating only goes so far with an off-kilter palette. This was close to a bad Will Goldfarb parody. And can someone give the servers a brief class on pronunciation? Brebis and Idiazabal aren’t exactly rare cheeses or words these days and certainly seem to be within the realm of the knowable for putatively two star Michelin service. Melted ice cream on other dessert plate did nothing to redeem the course.

3) Overcooked Fish: Alaskan Halibut was clearly put under heat lamps when I ran off to a five minute bathroom odyssey (hard to find in a labyrinth of a lobby). Herb crust was crusty as promised, so crusty and charred that it felt and tasted like a dusty spice rack. The butter sauces and vegetable accompaniments were vividly colored and flavored and totally wasted on the centerpiece fish.

4) Wildly expensive wines by the glass: Twenty dollars seemed to be the low-end for options by the glass. An announced “Tokay” (yes, no date, producer or year) was nearly thirty. A Marc Colin White Burgundy was simply unpleasant. One Riesling almost redeemed the night, but not quite.

5) Dubious temperature choices: Frog legs three ways with trio of garlic soups sounded and looked great. But on a warm night, does anyone want three espresso cups heated to the burn point and filled with scalding soup? Slow to eat, too hot to enjoy, a dish in need of revision.

Parea’s Spartan Delights

May 1, 2007

5 Best and 5 Worst at Parea Restaurant (www.parea-ny.com)

Kalos: The Good

1) Lush and Lusty Lamb chops: The classic Greek meat was a revelation. Rich and meaty as beefsteak without any of the usual heaviness. Cooked to specification, generously portioned and worthy of a second order.

2) Lickable lamb ribs with orange zest: The braised flesh yielded to gentle pressure, releasing far more flavor than I ever thought could be squeezed from Little Bo Peep .

3) Superlative Sweetbreads: Perhaps the most delicious dish on the menu. Richly roasted with smoky flavors, strong meaty mouth feel and wonderful seasoning. Better than Eleven Madison Park’s sweetbreads, better than Landmarc’s, better than Blue Ribbon’s.

4) Stellar Greek Whites: The native grape wine selections were resin free and flavorful. Priced well below expectation by Gramercy area standards, they delivered far more surprise and delight than I would have expected.

5) Friendly Front of House: Servers and maitre d’ were warm, honest (I don’t care for ouzo either) and flexible. They seated our incomplete party, brought appetizers to keep us busy while we checked Blackberries and generally helped ease a few awkward moments of thumb twiddling down time.

Kakos: The Bad and The Ugly

1) Octogenarian Octopus: A Greek place without fresh seafood is Eater Deathwatch-worthy. Our ancient creature of the sea was richly sauced, lovingly plated and godawful. I cannot accept gamy tentacles as anyone’s idea of haute cuisine, particularly at the peak of weekend service. Someone should have noticed the half-full platter we sent back and asked if there had been a problem. I fear they already knew.

2) Leathery Langoustines: When young and beautiful, langoustines look and taste good anywhere from raw to roasted. These old-man stenched, manky numbers were beyond repair and confirmed that the octopus disaster was a trend, not an exception.

3) Desultory Donuts: Much praised in print, ours were greasy and off temperature.  This is a common and delicious dessert item and could and should have been much better.  Greek coffee was a pleasurable counterpoint, but pricey for what it was, Turkish coffee with nationalist pretenses.

4) Off Atmosphere: Empty at eight upon our arrival and just filling as we left at ten. Parea feels like a lounge with food, not a restaurant. I don’t mind if the place goes disco late at night, but don’t make diners feel like they got to the party too early. This isn’t Madrid. Some of us do eat before nine. For a room to be loud and empty is merely a triumph of bad thinking.

5) Monochromatic Color Scheme: Three white sauces with white pita on white plates may work in a beautifully decorated flawlessly executed seafood restaurant on an intimate Greek isle. Here it felt like a platter of paint samples. Thankfully, the sauces, particularly, the feta and lemon, didn’t taste like High Gloss Benjamin Moore.

Takeaway: Stick to the turf and you’ll eat like a hero.  Venture into the surf and you may wake up feeling like you’re swimming with the fishes.

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. 

5 Overrated Foodie Books: 4 Fluffed, 1 Muffed

January 4, 2007

1) Tony Bourdain’s Nasty Bits: Some good, some bad, some ugly, much like Use Your Illusion, II. A few gems, but feels like a series of loosely connected refritos put together on deadline. Bourdain’s having trouble with a second act, other than being the celebrity Tony Bourdain. Fortunately, he’s smart enough to figure out a solution.

2) Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked: Repetitive. Okay to stitch columns together into a book. It just shouldn’t be so obvious. Anecdotes reappear, including a citation from a wealthy French friend, Jack Nicholson on overeating as only heroic in the Midwest and Elaine’s big veal chops. Even oddly esoteric word-choices, such as “factitious,” are repeated ad nauseum.

3) Michael Ruhlmans The Reach of a Chef. Big-font, triple space, wide margins. Much like a Princeton lax player’s senior thesis. Anyone else remember Courier 14? I did like Ruhlmann’s first two books but “Where’s the beef?” This mash note to celebrity chefs is a food version of Almost Famous. Get some distance!

4) Bill Buford’s Heat: Great New Yorker articles on Pasternack and Batali show Buford’s strength as a writer of profiles. However, amateurish sections on Renaissance food history overreach. Also packs a fair amount of stuffing into a book that could have been far shorter. There are four or five great articles in here, but not worth it at hard cover prices.

Muffed:

5) Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table: Concise, clear and larded with personal, sometimes painfully personal, anecdotes. But too many smudges on the glass for such a perfectionist. Counted 4 typos in the book, and big ones.

Could also use a bit more punch. I’d like to see some suggestions for fixing the restaurant industry, applying his ideas to different formats, cities, etc.

5 Most Overrated Restaurants in New Haven

December 18, 2006

(And Where to Go Instead)

1) Skappo: Small plates, big prices and brutally overbearing service. Forced jollity and intrusive conversation from owner will wipe the smile right off your face. Mawkish Medieval Town décor may be authentic, but it’s also authentically awful. Go to Modern or Bar for a far less Italian but far more delicious and high-value meal.

2) Louis’ Lunch: An historic restaurant with prehistoric food. “Soup Nazi”-style shtick with customers is paper-thin and unpleasant for locals who want the burger, not the bull. Patties are often not cooked to temperature and tend towards the dry and crumbly. Sliced bread in lieu of bun is a bad idea, even if it’s an old bad idea. Go to Yankee Doodle, eat better for less and leave smiling.

3) Gastronomique: Owner is genial but sometimes distracted by more compelling recreational interests. Some nights he’s made me high-grade steak tartare; others he’s been unable to make change. Super-slow even when empty, especially when sous-chef in training is at the stove. Go to Union League and get what you pay for.

4) Zinc: Promises too much and doesn’t deliver. Overambitious Asian fusion is incoherent, imitative and outdated. Erratic service does nothing to help. Nonetheless, generous portions, decent bar and cheap wine Sundays are pluses. Go to Pot au Pho instead or hop on Metro-North to NYC.

5) Claire’s: Putumayo Presents sensibility with grade school cafeteria execution. An unfocused amateurish EPCOT Pavilion of mediocre vegetarian options. Even the bagels are a disaster. Sidekick “Basta” will leave you saying “Enough” well before the check arrives. Bribe an undergrad, and eat in Berkeley College instead.