Sunday, February 19, 2017

ROUGE TOMATE

On a block in Chelsea better know for furnishings than feasts, the New York off-shoot of the original Belgian Rouge Tomate inconspicuously nestles itself in, an unassuming storefront with large, plate glass  frontage and a heavy wooden door the right.  Thick lumber planks inspire much of the decor, giving the room a sylvan feel, which also informs the very veg-centric, super-seasonal menu.  The first attempt at a Rouge Tomate in the city opened on the Upper East side and earned a Michelin star, but "economics" forced them to shift elsewhere, and the new Chelsea locations, while adhering to salubrious, wine-informed cuisine, is less formal and more intimate.  The decor is minimalist: an
 open kitchen looks stark and industrial in contrast with the cabin-like feel of the dining room.  But the  plates coming out of it masterfully combine the elements of sophisticated and soulfulness, ever an eye for the appeal on the plate as well as the palate.

Servers circulate throughout the dining room in attractive, custom-made leather aprons, their heft not slowing them down a bit, and with a pleasant countenance as they do so.  The menu is full of greenmarket-friendly goodies and cycles with the season, so don't play favorites- they probably won't last long.  But that provides an easy excuse to return frequently, as cauliflower and Brussels sprouts shift out in favor of fiddleheads and ramps.  But execution,
regardless the season, is en pointe: a Small Plate of mushroom tartare may have looked sightly
 diminutive on its plate, but it's savory richness made it just the perfect amount.  The mushrooms were minced and molded into a brick, rife with umami, spiked with garlic, and crowned with lilliputian potato chips for crunch.
It's a small serving, like you would want for something so powerfully flavorful: consider it a vegetarian's take on fois.  Not a mock meat-there would be nothing so silly here- but a vegetable concoction commensurately rich and luscious.    Snacks could precede this, like icy-fresh oysters with a gingery apple mignonette embellishing
 each, although depending on how many you order at three dollars each, you could determine the dent they make on your appetite.









Vegetables are stars here, main courses can be had of broccoli or acorn squash, but not to the extent of disparaging any carnivore.  Rustic beasts like wild boar can be found roasted with cabbage, spaetzle and, less traditionally, avocado, or thick medallions of venison with a inky, savory jus.  A skate fish entree   perfumed with vadouvan and a flurry of nutty bulgar lounges over a puree of sweet carrot, with vibrant radicchio, braised but retaining its signature bitter kick, bookending the main components.  And vegetables on their own shine, too:  roasted Brussels get a subtle sweet and
 sour glaze, but mostly they are just expertly roasted nuggets, tender until the centers where they resist with just a hint of vegetality.  Whatever is in season might grace the menu, though, depending on when you visit.  So radishes, that can be so sharp and fiery raw are roasted into submission, cooled with lime and pear and zipped back up again with peppery cress.





Desserts are equally modern, a carrot pie riffing on traditional pumpkin, creating a looser, pudding-like filling in a gingered crust, imbedded with toothsome bits of pineapple and topped with daubs of creamy yogurt.  Lemongrass parfait skirts the locavore theme, but capitalizes on the peak of the tropics in a lightly sweet, fruity mousse topped with a zesty mango sorbet and a chunky fruit salad of kiwis and banana.

If Pascaline Lepeltier is wandering the floor, flag her down and take her recommendations.  A sweeter soul could not be found, and as a Master Sommelier, her wine expertise is beyond compare.  She pretty much embodies the integrity and charm of the restaurant itself, which even bereft of her immediate presence, is a place that defines what restaurants are intrinsically for: nourishment, both of the body and the spirit.  Rouge Tomate has a way of restoring both.






126 W 18th Street 
(646)-395-3978



Saturday, February 18, 2017

LORING PLACE


People love to ask me what my favorite restaurant is, and it's a question I cannot answer.  As a default, I used to say ABC Kitchen, which would actually have been in the running if I were to choose one upon which to award such laurels   But then Chef Dan Kluger left that building, and while I'm sure it is still a a fine destination, some of its cache certainly ebbed upon his departure. So I eagerly, eagerly awaited him opening his solo venture. And then I waited some more.  And some more, with the typical, inevitable New York-style delays and postponements, until finally in November it quietly swung open its doors.

Those doors are deceptively humble- there's really no evident signage, so it seems sort of clandestine and exclusive.  They open into vast space, double-wide and two floors deep,  taking advantage of what must be extremely expensive real estate.  The decor is just as simple: pale exposed brick upon which are hung some scenic black-and-white farmscapes, which make the illuminated picture windows showcasing glowing masses of frondy greens that comprise the back wall an alluring detail.  




There have been made myriad comparisons about ABC Kitchen and Loring Place, most of which are grounded in the fact that Kluger is a master of Greenmarket fancy, so the successes for which he became notable at ABC are also flourishing at L.P.  Perhaps even more so, in fact.  It deliciously showcases the region's finest seasonal bounty as well as his extraordinary talent.  Each dish we tried had some unexpected little sensation ... beyond how good they looked and sounded just from the menu descriptions.  That menu, as your server will inform you, is divided up into several categories, all of which are best enjoyed shared- mostly just because in that fashion you can try greater
 number of dishes.  And just because there is a celebration of produce here doesn't mean you can't find your fair share of decadence and substance.  Our server recommended the baked ricotta and kabocha squash, gooey and sweet on thick slabs of grilled sourdough and a decidedly filling was to start.  A bit of heft is given to an ample plate of scarlet and golden jewel-toned beets bedecked with chunky granola and interspersed with chewy nubs of sweet membrillo and tangy, crumbly ones of vivace cheese.  The granola, fashioned from quinoa, has intermittent sparks of novel spices and shreds of various herbs making each bite its own little unique adventure.  Brussels sprouts
 escape from their usual accoutrements, glazed with honey-mustard and joined by crunchy bits of apple and smooth chunks of cool avocado.   Leeks are woven into a raft fanned over with thinly sliced pears, toasted walnuts and subtly tangy vinaigrette of yogurt and sherry.  The symbiosis of fresh sweetness, earthy allium, tang and crunch is masterful.









But we can't just eat vegetables, not here.  I mean, you could, and quite well, and no-one would fault you, but Large Plates offer the same elements of ingenuity and playful flavor profiles, and frankly some of the most wonderful dishes.  An innocuous-looking filet of halibut with braised mushrooms and chiles harbored an incredible punch of sumptuous umami, and more than just a hint of smokiness from the wood-burning grill that is used to cook a majority of the food here.  It permeated the fish and fungus with its potent essence, seductively bound to the supple flakes of fish.  The broth alone was spoon-worthy.  From the wood-burning oven, on the other hand, came a hunk of roasted short ribs, less tender than those braised, but magnificently beefy and with a welcome bit of chew: the flavor of the meat is so pronouncedly bovine and hearty that the extra nanosecond of mastication gives you time to savor the excellent meat.  It's nestled into buttery pureed potatoes, and for a spark of vibrancy, a sward of horseradish-spiked gremolata brightens the homey dish, cutting the richness with just a smidge of zestiness.  There are three intriguing pastas as well, and novel pizzas such as one topped with Brussels and cheddar, or the Dates Pizza, a snacky devils-on-horseback version.

Dessert riff on classic American standards, from a chocolate "hostess cupcake" with tangerine sherbet  and a baked apple pied up in puff pastry, to a that Dairy Queen phenom, the Blizzard.  Rich with salty caramel and crunches of nutty toffee, it could be described as nothing short of delicious, but I suppose I prefer a cheffier dessert.  All the sweets seem to rely more on nostalgia rather than the ingenuity found in the previous courses, which is absolutely the only thing I could even begin to whimper about throughout the entire evening.  And as the menu changes so often anyways there are already some different selections currently that might have appealed to me more.  In fact,  I may have found my answer to that nagging question that started this post, after all.











Friday, November 18, 2016

ROTISSERIE GEORGETTE


Upon entering Rotisserie Georgette, you might think you've come upon one of those classic, old school New York holdovers, one of the few that have stood the test of time.  And while Georgette very well may endure, advancing its tenure, it is actually much newer on the scene than its looks would imply.  Georgette Farkas opened up her long-awaited solo venture in 2014, but the grand dining room exudes a dusty luxury of an earlier era.  Graced with high ceilings and generous square footage, the decor doesn't really take the best advantage of the bones of the room.  Drab, musty colored valances and glowy sconces are hung too low, truncating the room.  The eclectic mix of mirrors are a nice touch, but you're better off facing the back wall, covered in a showy blue and white tile and a glimpse into the kitchen, than towards the
 front, which looks a little dated and, frankly,  morose.  The room might appeal to the moneyed Upper East siders which it mostly attracts, but actually the restaurant needn't necessarily be a splurge: an excellent meal could be made of a variety of of options using a little penny-conscious savvy.  Or, one can go all out, truffles and fois, to make up a repast quite fit for a very special occasion.... or even have the repast be a special occasion.

The staff and waiters were certainly comptent, Ms. Farkas herself gliding through the dining room, seating patrons and keeping her expert eye to assure all the cogs were operating seamlessly.   But there lacked much affection between server and servee, beyond just the inquiry of having finished a dish or not, and consistently refilling glasses of water.   This didn't seem to affect much the temperament of guests, however, who all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, in fact so much so that the noise level was surprisingly boisterous.  One would think the high ceilings and carpeted floors, as well as the proportionately mature clientele, might provide a more placid noise level, but I actually found myself leaning in on more than one occasion to hear my dining companion.    But most of the time, our mouths were too full to talk, happily full, as soon our food arrived.

The menu follows a steakhouse format: everything is quite strictly a la carte, so know that your roast half chicken with choice of sauces (I recommend the Grand Mere) is simply that.  All sides need to be commanded independently, which can make that $26 bird a little less economical as just a part of a meal, instead of comprising it.  Sizing is a bit inconsistent, too: salads are easily large enough to share, but a portion of roasted leeks was better off for an individual, although the chewy, meaty slice of rich slab bacon underneath the vertically propped
alliums made the dish all the more hefty, along with a creamy crushed egg vinaigrette.  The black truffles, which were the justification of its $18 price tag, weren't particularly flavorful, as slices of
cold truffles tend not to be.  It might be better to restrain your truffle budget to where it is employed with warm food stuffs, as that is where is really performs most gloriously.  For luxury, opt for the terrine of fois gras, its highlight a warming zesty apple chutney.  The fois itself plays its typical suave role, but with plain white toast as the co-star, the chutney definitely steals the show.


As for that chicken, its a plush and luxuriant bird, regardless of the chosen sauce.   Really, the chicken is so juicy and luscious it needs no augmentation, although I wholeheartedly recommend the sauce grand-mere with its mushrooms, red wine and bacon.  But all sauces sound like valiant counterparts, from the Provencal flecked with the classic herbs, Marocaine kicked with cumin and coriander, or a bright, verdant chimichurri.  That said, even the grand-mere has but a couple of errant floating mushrooms, so side dishes are pretty much a must, unless you consider the fat bulb of creamy, pungent garlic
 adequate roughage.  I cannot resist
roasted Brussels sprouts, a solid preparation with roasted apple and bacon so smoky it infiltrates the entire dish.  Even so, crispy
sunchoked or orange roasted
carrots might be a little more interesting.  And as the menu states, there are "Never Enough Potatoes" (most blatantly since the entrees come with NONE), so there are three versions to opt from: roasted, tarragon-inflected frites, or a hedonistic baked number stuffed with a Gruyere-laden mash.   Even fish is cooked on the rotisserie, and that $41 whole branzino, even though it's not listed
along with the other "Pour Deux", it is certainly sufficient for that many.  It's gleaming silvery skin can barely contain the flavorful tender flesh literally bursting through: I think this is the best simple whole roast fish I have ever had.  An herby tomato-fennel concasse atop was vibrant and flavorful, but I was afraid to use too much even to mask at all the wonderfully fresh fish.  But it was light enough just to enhance the flavors, and the whole dish was certainly the highlight of the menu.


Or was the Pavlova?  I loved this crispy meringue cocoon of  syrupy port-roasted plums bedecked with plump blackberries and a sprinkling of crunchy pistachio bits.  Supposedly there was a ginger granita lurking about somewhere in this little delight, but I'm not sure where it was hiding.  And while I'm not a chocolate person, the Souffle au Chocolat Amer was a marvelous chocolate option, the "amer" not to be mistaken for "American", it is unmistakably French for bitter, and an alluring subterfuge of fluffy cloud-like souffle relinquishing itself into a lusciously creamy bittersweet pudding beneath.  The extra three dark chocolate truffles aside may have been extraneous, but it would be silly to turn down extra truffles.
The coffee their using at Georgette is equally as lush and rich- even the decaf was wonderfully smooth and strong, an excellent counterpart to both desserts.   Its actually a good illustration of everything chez Rotisserie G.  She is using exemplary ingredients to their finest advantage.  There is little reinvention or modernism going on here, but sometimes if it ain't broke, don't fix it.





14 East 60th Street
tel.  1.212.390.8060



Saturday, November 5, 2016

SAN CARLO OSTERIA PIEMONTE

San Carlo Osteria Piemonte is a big name for this tiny little West Village Italian gem.  I found my way here by good word from the trusted then-manager of Da Marcella nearby, and they suggestion was worthy.  The room is subtly lit, emphasizing its cozy, nook-like feel, and the congenial, welcoming staff compound this.  You are welcomed into their space, in Italian, and throughout the night the Italianness of the establishment just becomes more and more impactful.  The San Carlo team helms from the
 Piedmont region of Italy, and the menu is an inspired combination of traditional Northern Italian with a bit of modern whimsy.


They started us of with a lovely little bowl of chewy farro and diced market vegetables, fragrant with basil.  It's a dish that is also available on the menu as a primo, but it was offered as complimentary little nosh, in keeping with typical Italian generosity.  There are more little bites, labeled sfizi, such as a plush, ricotta filled squash blossom fried to a crisp, or crusty anchovy toasts whisked with herb butter.









Antipasti included a seasonal salad or one of grilled octopus, and a variety of crudi, some of which are nearly ample enough to either share or serve as entrees (or secondi, as the case may be), if you add a contorno, which is where I found my choice of appetizer.  While I was hesitant to get generic verdure grigliati for fear of just those generic verdure grigliati, these were anything but.  Robust, super-primo veggies- yes, the usual suspects, but seasoned to amplify their natural flavors to the ultimate degree, cooked just short of too much, toothsome yet tenderized.  Each veg was Noah's ark-style, two of each, so both of us at my two-top got a nice big sample of each specimen. Capesante con pure di rafano featured six fat little mollusks, buttery and sweet against a zippy puree of spunky horseradish smeared around the
 periphery.  A light eater could make a meal of these, and bigger appetites that go for the real secondi still might be challenged by their abundance.  



The primi, on the other hand, are classic first course portions, but regardless of how you fit theme into your meal, they are not to be missed.  Tajarin Superga live up to their braggadoccio, a dense spool of angel hair spun with brown butter infused with black truffles and safe, a decadent explosion of autumnal flavor.  On the lighter side is a fusilloni with shrimp and a lemony arugula pesto, or go heartier with the housemade agnolotti in a rich, meaty ragu.  The tajarin, however, pairs swimmingly with a contorno of sauteed wild mushrooms, salty with a truffled woodsiness.    Choosing a main course from the Secondi gets pricier... some of the items from this section approach the forty dollar mark.  But rest
 assured you'll get both quantity and quality for the price.    Unlike a classic secondo, bare on the plate, entrees here come with ample garnish: a vegetable and starch in every case.  Bone-in veal is pounded thin and breaded in the Milanese, joined by a zesty arugula salad and roasted potatoes, while a behemoth pan-seared split full chicken breast (free-range) shares a crowded platter with both fava and cannellini beans, and a thick tomato-pepper sauce called bagnet rosso, a classic Piedmont-style ragout.


Dinner might fill you up too much for dessert, which would be too bad, considering the options.  Pears poached in red wine and spices, or a minty semifreddo with spicy chocolate sauce await, or take the opportunity to try the Bönet, a traditional Piedmont pudding like a fudgy flan dusted with crumbled amaretti.  If you forgot to save room, however, finish your meal with an outstanding limoncello, tart and icy-fresh.  Reality always sets in inevitably, but for the moment you'll really believe in la bella vita, thanks to San Carlo.








90 THOMPSON ST.
Tel: 212.625.1212 / 212.625.1232






 

Monday, October 24, 2016

MOMFUKU NISHI

A very well-respected entity in the food industry told me that Momofuku Nishi was a different restaurant every week.  I'm not sure if he meant that it was intended to be so, or if it was just still sorting out  a massive identity crisis due to an onslaught of initial negative reviews.  I mean, David Chang is usually pretty impervious to criticism, and so it is that his new Chelsea venture, which began as a Korean-Italian hybrid, is still one of the toughest tables in town to procure.  It's one of those go super early or late spots, but at least it does now take reservations, another thing that has changed from its original policy.   Still, it does get packed, and the uncomfortable seating and tight quarters are some of the things that DO remain constant.  That, and a staff of somewhat unappealing surly waiters, more emblematic of a Chinatown hole-in-the-wall than somewhere charging $23 (with an optional $60 supplement for white Alba truflles) for a plate of noodles.








And those noodles can be worth putting up with the anti-luxe conditions: the ceci e pepe  that are now dubbed simple "Butter noodles" are a savory tangle of al dente spaghetti  swathed in a savory chickpea hozon to mimic the classic cacio cheese treatment, and a hefty grind of fragrant black pepper.  Less worth your while is Chili Squid, shreds of cabbage and squid tossed with a thinner lo mein and a decidedly fishy sauce.  The noodles actually tasted fishier than the scant strips of squid, and it was unclear whether a funky fish sauce was making that contribution or
 whether the squid just wasn't a la momente, but regardless it left a bad taste in my mouth, and on my mind.  A better choice might be the spicy beef that I was eyeing enviously in front of diners all around me: oversize spinach elbow macaroni mingled with fragrant shreds of tender beef scented with mint and topped with a crunchy frizzle of fried shallots.   I was happy to pick my mood back up with a stellar plate of jewel-like heirloom tomatoes wallowing in in a vibrant green basil oil strongly tinged with cumin.  It was a glorious tribute to close
 out tomato season with the exceptional fruits really starring in a sauce that enhanced their  lusciousness.  Just as good were the roasted beets, generously portioned and festooned with chopped chervil.  A meaty walnut bagna cauda referenced again the Italian influence, but the overall impression of the dish just celebrated the great roots, regardless of their.... roots.  Both vegetable dishes were obvious shares, for two or even three people.    As are most of the dishes, like a soft shell salt-and-pepper shrimp, the whole thing edible although you'll end up picking the little twiggy legs out of your teeth.  I preferred ridding the crustacean of his appendages and noggin', although consuming the outer shell was kind of nice, crunchy counterpart: like an all-inclusive fish 'n chips, no potatoes required. 








 Another eye-catcher on a neighboring table was a behemoth marrow bone served with tender rectangles of toasted milk bread to scoop out its creamy interior.  This was about as ubiquitous as
 the spicy beef pasta dish, again reiterating the fact that I probably did not order that well.  That was illustrated by the roast pork that came next, which tasted more like ham than "the other white meat", incredibly fatty even aside from the thick fat cap that encircled each slice.  The flat, fat broad beans that stretched across the meat were probably the high point, as the pickly shards of onion tried their best to cut the fattiness of the pork.  The only other entree was an Ocean Trout, though, and in that it's a similar species to char, not my favorite even though I'd normally opt for fish.



To close out, I have no fault to find with the moist pistachio bundt cake, its crisp edges nutty and buttery, and the whipped ricotta with which it was served completely redefining this often gritty and maligned cheese.  Nishi's version was ethereal, densely creamy yet light, and luscious to pair with bites of cake.  That said, it was a fairly heavy finish to a fairly heavy meal, and if I could have yet another do-over for the night, I'd head a couple store fronts down the block and splurge on a cup of soft serve from Milk Bar, Cristina Tosi's associated dessert mecca conveniently nearby.  But anyways, if my friend was right, I can come back again in a week or two, and run no risk of repeating my missteps.






232 Eighth Avenue
Between 21st + 22nd Streets
tell  646-518-1919






Saturday, October 22, 2016

CHINA XIANG

Maneuvering through what is almost inarguably the dodgiest area of town to approach China Xiang, my expectations for the restaurant just about imploded. Needless to say it was quite heartening when the food began to arrive to squelch this misperception. The room itself is pretty bare-bones, although a step up from what you normally find in Chinatown. Charcoal grey stonework comprises one wall, and there are some attractive
modern lanterns suspended from the ceiling, but the windowed facade looking out onto a shoddy stretch of 42nd street doesn't do
 much to improve the ambiance.





     
Saute Mix Vegetables
So shift your focus to the voluminous menu, spanning from an innocuous but respectable saute of mixed vegetables, to more audaciously authentic Hunan fare like chili-spiked frog or baked corn with a salted egg.
 While the former is a laudable, if somewhat uninspired, melange of crisp-tender broccoli, enoki and straw mushrooms, plus the requisite water chestnuts and bamboo shoots, the hacked-up frog jumps in (no pun intended) to
Saute Frog with Green Pepper
Shanghai Style Thick Noodles with Shrimp
sate more ambitious palates. It boasts an incendiary duet of chilies, red as an engine and green as… well, frog. It is the scarlet ones to which one should pay deference, although the frog-hued ones too are not just there for decoration. Pay attention to the bones, too, as this meat will need to be sucked off of them. If that's a little much for you, there is the American Chinese section of the menu, as well as numerous soups, rice dishes and noodles, of course, skinny lo mein or fat, hand shaved ones slicked with a subtly sweet, umami-rich glaze best teamed up with meaty pork of beef. The more delicate shrimp we ordered didn't add much, and the heft of the noodles sort of overwhelmed them. 
The ingredients utilized are all
exceedingly fresh, from garlicky flaps of slippery, floppy woodear mushroom accompanying a sauté of tender chicken with sweet red peppers to fat bulbs of brilliant jade bok choy steamed juicy and crisp. To quaff is beer and wine only, and while the pinot grigio they have on hand works well enough with the cuisine, it's not a particularly admirable bottle: better off with suds.
Chicken with Black Mushrooms

















The service is basically what one has come to expect in a casual Chinese restaurant, but glasses of ice water are efficiently refilled and a server will readily come to your assistance when beckoned. As far as desserts go, you don't get to choose. There's one option, a funny, somewhat pasty puree of purple potato piped into, weirdly enough, miniature Tostitos Scoops, and to add to the hilarity, spritzed with a sprinkle of turquoise Pop Rocks. Get these just for the novelty if you're inclined, because although consuming one is an amusement, it's hard to imagine anyone wanting more than a taste, let alone the six of which arrive. Otherwise, grab a fortune cookie from the deep bowl at reception and ponder your fate on a white slip of paper as you exit, hopefully with a great enough satisfaction from dinner to distract you through the unsavory sidewalks of Port Authority on your way home.



 360 West 42nd Street
Tel: 212.967.6088/6085