Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Portland vs. New York

So this is gonna be controversial, but I think, on the whole, Portland's food is way more exciting than New York's. There are great things, OBVIOUSLY, in both cities. But what Greg Denton is doing at Superbite, with Andy Ricker as probably the best Thai chef in the country, Jason Francis French's basically instigating the whole wood oven fired cooking craze, Toro Bravo is still my favorite Spanish, the national acclaim for The Pigeon, the brilliant authenticity of Renata.... I really think Portland's bar is higher. Sssooooo....... what do YOU think?

Monday, August 15, 2016

DIMES

I was a late-comer to Dimes, a kitschy little eatery that was all the rage when it over on the remote cusp of Chinatown and the Lower East Side- where streets have names of Presidents and the topography is utterly foreign.  It's just a matter of time, though, 'til this obscure zip code becomes a coveted one, with the continuing, incessant, insidious developmental sprawl.  On an average night, lines outside Dimes still warrant substantial wait times, and I'm not one to play that game.  So we went early, and were lucky with a combination of un-prime-time dining and prime, weekend beach-weather where the hoards were probably still flocking the shore instead of occupying the table I would've been waiting for them to vacate.






Bright and elemental describes both the food and the decor.  The stark, white-washed room is broken up with blocky primary colors, vibrant cobalt and classic fire-engine red, and the menu is a short-list of hot-item healthfoods and trendy ingredients: we've got kale and quinoa, wheatgrass and avocado, but Dimes is in no way puritanical.   There's still pulled pork and indulgent cheeses, so you can take things either way.  On the healthier side, we started off with The Big Salad (Elaine Benes would've been proud), a big bowl of fresh leaflets mounded with roasted shishitos and kernels of corn in a kicky charred lime vinaigrette.  Not quite hearty enough for any entree, it was still to big for an individual appetizer but ideal to share between the two of us.  There are also Small Plates, from which a sourdough Maitake Toast  or Grilled Halloumi with Romesco probably
would be a much better choice than the Magical Vegetable Pot, but I was lured by the possibility of some bewitching prestidigitation. 
The only glimmer of a crystal ball in this tiny cup of produce, however, was the glass crock in which it was served.  Basically just a visually striking strata of beautifully

jewel-toned vegetables, they were much more interesting to conceive than to consume.  Raw, shredded cabbage and fennel layered with ribbons of zucchini and mango were pretty but plain, and frankly didn't even compliment one another very well.

Roasted Cod
Mains were significantly more interesting, however.  And generous.  Served in colorful bowls, a flaky plank of roasted cod draped itself over a pert barley risotto, fragrant with lime and amped up with kicks of jalapeno.  Its green hue and creamy texture come from a smooth mash of avocado and yogurt, caching tender half-moons of gently sweet, starchy plantain.  It tastes healthy, but nourishing at the same time, and not just a little indulgent.  Another dish featured tender hunks of coconut-poached salmon over generous spools of soba studded with sea beans and  eggplant.  There were two vegetarian options on the roster as
Coconut Poached Salmon
 well... well, actually just one.   A Spiced Quinoa actually took it all the way to vegan, but then the Black Rice listed just below appeared vegetarian until you got to the bonito garnish- a tricky little addition to an otherwise PETA-friendly concoction.   Not that I care, but it seemed odd (why not just nutritional yeast or something?).  Other large plates included that Pulled Pork mentioned above, a Lebanese-inflected chicken, a modest portion of steak, so carnivores are not neglected. 




I think we chose poorly selecting dessert, whereas in retrospect I wish I would've opted for the flowery fruit soup, but instead I was lured by yuzu towards a roasted plantain and avocado gelato concoction, not quite summery enough for the steamy climes outdoors.  But not only that, it was a little flat and one-dimensional, not to mention autumnal, where there are months still to go before sweet potatoes become relevant.  The black lava salt atop the gelato was a nice touch, though.

Most of Dimes attention comes from the brunch crowd, but all of its menus have a breezy, healthful appeal.  I'm not sure it's quite up to all the hype, but it's definitely a fun little adventure in which to partake.  In short, Dimes is certainly worth a few of your dimes.




 49 Canal Street
Phone 212-925-1300

CAFE ALTRO PARADISO



It's cool and lofty, airy and light, as well a paradise should be.  Cafe Altro Paradiso opened up under the esteemed Ignacio Mattos, well known on the scene for his other popular New York restaurant, Estela.  An early table for two was easy enough to procure, but the spacious room filled quickly, living up to the buzz it has been cultivating.  We sat comfortably near the back where a horizontal window, stacked with heavy white porcelain plates waiting to be filled, offers a peek into the kitchen.  Even with the dining room sparsely populated, the activity within was lively, busy toques prepping for the rush soon to come.  An artistic wine bottle
rack looms above the window, colorful foil-wrapped corks creating a geometric patterns in reds and blues and gold.  The menu reads deceptively simplistic, but there was nary a dish that we tried that didn't provide some unexpected, delightful element that defines, fundamentally, the reason we dine out.

And this is a menu that boasts variances daily, according to the gluts and paucities of the market.  So a midsummer's  day found fat sugar snap peas prepared in the uber-trendy "cacio e pepe" mode.  David Chang fashions Nishi's ceci e pepe with it in mind; traditionally, it is a garniture for sturdy spaghetti.  At Paradiso, peas are the culprits.  Brilliantly green, they appeared to be raw, but Mattos plates them warm, barely steamed to tenderness, blanketed in a shroud of shaved pecorino cheese.  I didn't perceive much pepe, but the dish was fantastic even its dearth- Paradiso must have a great source for produce with these succulent, thumb-sized beauties as prime examples.
 There are half a dozen or so pastas to choose from; we chose plush ravioli filled with squash and ricotta, slicked in butter and topped with verdant fronds of nettle and toasted pignoli.  Primi prices range in from $21-23, a little on the pricey side but there is a soulfulness and depth in these, and all Paradiso's cuisine, that warrants the cost.









Part of the value is the ingenuity: almost every dish offers an element of surprise.  Such was the warmth of the peas, and for an entree of roasted hake, the thick filet came assertively seasoned and anointed with a colossal silken blob of luscious aioli, the rough chopped tomatoes alongside featured warm, chunky almonds, unroasted, that had an earthy, nutty quality I initially mistook for somehow pleasantly under-cooked legumes.  They didn't crunch so much as yield their firm texture against the warm tomatoey stew.  This is a must-order dish. Another fish entree, the whole roasted
 branzino, was rife with pin bones which were a little tricky to pick out, but well worth it when you achieved a juicy, fleshy hunk of fish to eat with the accompanying pan-roast of golden corn kernels, nubby, chewy barely and tiny
 chanterelles.  The combination somehow elevated each component until both the plate of grains was licked clean and the skeleton of the fish bared.





We finished with a peach "tart tatin", unconventional in both its choice of fruit and pizza-like consistency.  Slivers of peach fanned over an almondy puff pastry were thin enough to attain a slight chewiness, naked as they were to the heat of the oven.  I wished they would've had a little more jammy peachy flavor, but it's been a tough year for peaches (even the Greenmarket has allowed for a certain percentage of imported ones to compensate for a late freeze that decimated crops)  There wanted a little more peach either in quality or quantity to make this a rave-worthy or crave-worthy dessert, but the barely sweetened, milky whipped cream tasting profoundly of fresh dairy heightened the pleasure factor immensely.

Paradiso keeps things simple, but not so much that you think this is stuff you could cook at home.  There was something unexpected and nuanced in every dish that upsets convention and keeps things provocative.  Everyone has their own idea of paradise, but Ignacios' has something special that couldn't leave any savvy soul disappointed.



     234 Spring Street
     tel. 646.952.0828



Saturday, August 6, 2016

THE MARSHAL

The Marshal is so farm-to-table that the incessant vehicular traffic funneling into the Lincoln Tunnel entrance just outside is incongruous.  It unfortunately makes al fresco dining outside this cozy little Hell's Kitchen nook a lot less attractive, but once inside you can forget the noxious exhaust fumes and honking horns and settle into a different kind of bustle.  The real estate of The Marshal is pretty diminutive- and they've wedged in as many tables as could possible feet per (very popular) square inch.  If the purveyor's farms that they promote at every turn are anywhere near as close with the restaurant as the tables are to one another, they're keeping it as local as they possibly could.  And, in fact, they are.  In order to be seated, however, tables must be pulled out to allow for a body to sit upon the cushioned benches that line the south wall.  Across from me, my tablemate looked somewhat dwarfed as his chair was significantly lower than my perch, also creating an awkward table height for him, but perfect for me.  Minor inconvenience.  Water and wine was provided efficiently, though our server seemed a little less knowledgeable than might be desired, and his congeniality took a little coaxing.  Once we got it, though, he was very pleasant, and the floor manager (obviously a veteran in the industry) ruled the goings-on with the grace and mastery of a Queen Bee.  Service was practical and adept throughout the evening, even as any elbow room disappeared and the queue outside expanded.






The menu is encyclopedic in its crediting of  ingredient provenance, as well as just being a generous menu to begin with.  It states at the bottom that they are happy to provide any further farm sourcing information, but I can't imagine what that would be unless you want to know the farmer's blood type or something.  But it's nice to know what careful attention is being paid to where your food is coming from.  It's a lot to read, though; there are nine or so Starters designated as such, but these could also include almost any entry from the Farm Sides.  Thus, I began with the Upstate Grower's & Packers green bean and mint salad, which was lightly dressed in a lemony verjus and a flutter of Tonjes Farm feta.  Raw green beans were in the compostion.
A vast improvement would come from a gentle steam of the beans to tenderize them, heightening the whole dish.  This, in fact, is really the only flaw with The Marshal: if anything, the produce is left to speak for itself a little leniently.  It wouldn't hurt to provide a megaphone, so to speak, and give the dirt candy's voices a boost.  Another starter worked better, as it featured Pulled Lamb, richly meaty but not gamey, to roll up into Bibb lettuce and doctor up with feta, radishes, jalapenos, cilantro and/or pickled onions, as you please. With all the focus on the farmers, vegetables are not their strong point.


Masterful Chef Charlie Marshal is, however, with the proteins.  Cod steamed in parchment was so much more than steamed fish... the parchment was, in fact, practically incinerated from the wood-burning stove.  The Marshal exclusively relies on a cherry and apple wood stoked oven to cook... no gas.  And all that deliciously smoky, woodsy char made its way into the ample hunk of flaky fish.  Somehow, however, the flavor escaped the delicate tangle of ribboned squash and turnips that nestled in  below.  Again, the veggies seem to get lost in the shuffle.  Bone-in Chicken shared this fate, as it's magnificently juicy breast meat, anointed with goat
 cheese and a flutter of herbs, far outshone the tough saute of salty rainbow chard beneath.  Even a side of dainty, darling Snow White mushrooms were underseasoned, the only hint of herbs supposedly flavoring them was a little twig of rosemary steam bereft of the fragrant needles and any of their pungent flavor.  I wonder if some of this wasn't because Chef Marshal was not in the kitchen the evening of our visit, but this would be even then an unfortunate excuse.



Desserts performed in the same caliber as the proteins.  A dense scoop of vanilla perched atop thin slabs of fudgy chocolate, gilt with a nub of Andrew's Honey comb atop and lashings of honey beneath, with tiny crunches of bee pollen crowning the affair.  A berry shortcake featured spectacularly flavorful berries- rasp, black, blue and straw- layered with a delicate sponge cake and creamy whipped cream.  Personally, I don't consider sponge cake a short cake.... I prefer a biscuit-type pastry, but the berries were so remarkable that this time, I'll let it slide.  In this instance, the exceptional produce, left to shine on it's own, was more than enough.






628 TENTH AVENUE
tel.  (212)582-6300

Friday, July 15, 2016

LINCOLN

I'm having trouble thinking about how to start a review of Lincoln.  It's one of those places where there is nothing technically wrong, but somehow it lacks inspiration.  Situated in Lincoln Center, the hub of culture, ballet, art and performance in New York, it's an impressive address that wishes some of that creativity inspiration would translate over into the restaurant.  The price points are similarly impressive, and after having experienced the restaurant itself, I'm not sure it has quite enough bells and whistles to substantiate the cost on its own.  In conjunction with an outing to the ballet or opera, it could make for quite an iconically memorable New York City
night.  Chef Jonathan Benno certainly creates a worthy menu, and it is solidly executed.  But the service tends a bit scripted and contrived, leading to a sense of insincerity, even though they have every reason to be proud of their place of work.





The dining room features a enormous glass wall bolted with steel fixtures that overlooks the plaza, a dark wooden ceiling slopes from the opposite wall to meet it.  Seating is comfortable and plentiful: this is a very large restaurant, and it has a spacious and airy feel which adds to the luxury: ample elbow room is a precious commodity in this city.   The menu is vehemently seasonal: we began with the Insalata del
 Mercato, featuring many early summer garden headliners, bolstered with fat grains of chewy, nutty farro drizzled in an herby sesame puree.  It was neatly divided to share between me and my tablemate, although its diminutive portion made the halved plate look a little skimpy.  Bolder was the Sarde alla Griglia,
proportionately heavy on the summer squash, which was folded into thick, fat ribbons, but sardine was the main flavor component (as sardines tend to be), although even it was almost obliterated by a pungent smear of Calabrian chilis and garlicky olives.   Gamberetti Fritti wouldn't have been out of place at Red Lobster, their seasoned breading  too heavy, overwhelming the preciously fresh, fat shrimp ensconced within.  Lemony leaves of purslane and sweet slabs of pickled yellow
 tomato elevated the dish beyond chain restaurant territory, however, imparting a summery, modern element.

There are several Primi on offer, ranging from $26-$38, which is a lot of coin for pasta.  But many feature precious ingredients, so some of that might be justified.  I was a little put off that the "ravioli" we ordered wasn't technically ravioli but another pillowy pasta shape.  Actually, sort of a compartmentalized ravioli, I suppose, with a deuce of filling separated like quilting: half sweet Jersey corn and half rich summer truffle.  The rectangles were thickly doused in salty, rich brown butter enriched further with straciattella, and a smattering of brilliant emerald peas, which added a pleasant pop.  Bonus were several sauteed morel mushrooms, not mentioned on the menu, but highly appreciated.


For a main course, we both went seaward, choosing Ippoglosso (halibut) and Orata (daurade) from the six Secondi offered.  The halibut was actually the most expensive menu item, a whopping $46 for the fish, which might have been a touch overcooked.  It was suppose to be served with sugar snap peas, but actually arrived with green and yellow string beans, but true to description a plethora of nutty golden chanterelles as well.  The buttery almond-chamomile broth added an element of richness, which another might find it overly saline, but I like salty.  I consider it an indulgence at restaurants, sodium
 restrictions be damned.  The Orata was less impressive, a bit limpid in its somewhat generic white wine and lemon, but the fish itself was more deftly prepared, and I'm never going to complain much when there tender bulbs of poached fennel and earthy artichokes floating about.  There is also an ample selection of Verdure on the menu, creatively prepared and overzealously portioned.  I suppose they have to be, given the prices, but they aren't quite substantial enough (except maybe the Melanzane alla Parmigiana), I wouldn't think, to be treated as entrees (although at $18 to $22 apiece they nearly cost as much).  They're big enough to
serve as such, however.  The Funghi Trifolati was the best thing I ate all night, the edges of each impeccable 'shroom, from fluttery maitake to stately king oysters to to nutty shiitake, crisped and buttery.  I honestly could have subsisted on these as an entree had I expected such a generous allotment, and they were so wonderful so as to impart absolute satisfaction.


Desserts, for me, were wildly less gratifying.  We ordered what looked to be the most interesting options, but what arrived was both not interesting and certainly different than what I inferred from the menu descriptions.  I love a semifreddo for its diaphanous frothiness, but Lincoln's blood orange version verged on leaden, the plentiful pistachios within weighing it down even further, and the white chocolate yogurt drizzle presented a table hardened into waxy, saccharine castings atop.  The Bocca Nera didn't provide much appeal either.  Centered around a shiny parapet of glazed chocolate cake, it shared the plate with poached sour cherries, a scoop of
 chocolate-mint ice cream and walnuts both candied and creamed.  There was just too much going on- you can have chocolate and fruit, chocolate and mint, or chocolate and nuts... but not all three, all at once.  You'd be better off with a housemade gelati or sorbetti, or the savviest of all: just order a post-prandial coffee or digestivo, and enjoy the complimentary rainbow cake that accompanies, moist and fudgy.  Here, the diverse combination of flavors work.  Even the coffee
comes with its own pasticcino, a chewy layered caramelly almond bar far more pleasant than the composed desserts we tried.   Cut thirty dollars off your bill and walk away feeling a little less taxed and just as pampered.











142 West 65th Street at Lincoln Center

  Tel. 212.359.6500

  




AGERN




Finding your way to Agern, tucked elusively behind a Nordic food court (also orchestrated by chef Claus Meyer), might be as esoteric as the menu itself.  Not to dissuade you, I wholly recommend this restaurant.  It's just that the new influx of Scandinavians on the culinary scene seem vigorously more interested in titillating and intriguing you than feeding you.  And in most cases, at no small fee.  The menu is accessible from three approaches: two tasting menus (an omnivoric Land + Sea or vegetarian Field + Forest), or a la carte.  Strangely, however, the prices to order in the latter manner are not listed (at least not on the lunch menu).  Our server, perhaps encouraging us towards a tasting menu, said he could bring the other menu, which included the prices, creating a situation both awkward and conspicuous.  Agern likes to do things its own way, so when I ordered an iced tea on that muggy summer afternoon, what arrived looked like a bloody mary, but was their special hibiscus-agave mocktail... which is NOT an iced tea.  Service here definitely needs some buffing, as sincerely as they do seem to be trying.  Also, while explaining the menu, he stated that he would inquire about any food allergies and aversions if we chose a tasting, but he never did.  Thus, when our first course arrived, a trio of Snacks, included was a raw oyster to which one of us (that would be me) at the table were averse.  To
 no tragic end, however, as an extra glistening raw oyster decorated with a tiny borage blossom was well appreciated by my tablemate.  I should've traded him for the little toadstool-shaped turnip concoction, its cap fashioned out of a thin slice of the vegetable and conjoined with a dollop of a remoulade-heavy turnip slaw, crisp and lusciously creamy.  The
 other was a tiny "taco" of raw kohlrabi filled with ever-so-gently cured fluke, delicate and decadent at the same time.  The flavors are superlative- there is a balance of sensations: of lightness and depth, complimentary textures, sweetness and bite that are simply magical.  But the Ikea aesthetic of simplicity and minimalism is running full throttle, where the complexity lies in the ideation and composition, but the finished product is pure and elemental.  So to is the decor; the tables are of pale wood, their imperfections highlighted as part of the design.  Spindly-legged chairs flank the bar, and more substantial ones of deeply stained wood surround the dining tables.

So we progressed to our first courses, again throwing our waiter a curveball and requesting a second course dish as an appetizer.  It seemed like and appetizer, anyways: a liquidy succotash of roasted and fermented corn studded with golden chantrelles and a puree of golden raspberries sounded extremely appealing, but hardly substantial enough for an entree.  Our waiter said he would ask the chef if this was possible, and in that he never returned with a denial of the request that was, in fact, approved .  So when it arrived, I had to wonder if the chef had downsized the dish in accordance with a demotion from a main, but he reassured us that no, that was the actual size of the dish regardless of when it was served.  Which was laughably small.  Ridiculously small/  Gorgeous as it was- a masterpiece in buttercup yellow glowing from a rough, gunmetal clay plate.  But if there was a half cup of food there I would be surprised, and as a main course, even a bird-like waif would have emerged hungry.  It was as delicious as it was tiny, though, each component of the dish sharing an attribute with another while retaining its own identity.
Sweetness, earthiness, a bit of tang, a nudge of butter: revolutionarily good.  A Salt and Ash baked beet played again with monochromatics, this time a study in crimson with huckleberries and beet juice staining the horseradish and frondy microgreens to a coordinating vermilion. Apparently there is a little more pomp at dinner, when the salty ashen crust is shattered a table and presented for two, but I was happy enough with the whole things for myself, superlatively beet-y, cool and earthy-sweet.  The compote of huckleberries and diced beet below imparted a bit of tang and the bite of horseradish, highlighting the humble attributes of the tuber itself.

In terms of size, I won again with my entree, a tender poached skate wing enshrouded in a thatch of julienned celery root and apple.  It created a nice fresh little topping but the treasure was the delicate skate below, pillowy in contrast to the crisp salad , smattered wioth  mild capers.   I think the leek component mentioned on the
 menu presented by enhancing the pleasantly saline broth beneath, swiftly elevating it beyond its spartan components.  A roasted guinea hen was a little spartan in its own right, although not at all in flavor but just its slightly meager portion.  There were translucent furls of nectarine for brightness and bold onions charred smoky to round out the plate, but the five small nuggets of poultry that anchor the dish seemed a bit skimpy.
  There are no side dishes offered, although one wonders if one could make another request to reformat any given dish as a supplementary course... or better, just come a little less hungry, and appreciate the masterful execution of Meyer's inspired creations, brought to life by Executive Head Chef Gunnar Gislasan, a robust and solid looking Icelander who has won that country's Restaurant of the Year for his innovative Dill every year since it opened in 2009.







One benefit of the modest portions at Agern is that you will easily have room for dessert(s).   The rhubarb with angelica and sorrel sorbet was disappointingly unrhubarby, but quite wonderful as a sweetly creamy deconstructed cake-and-ice-cream concoction.  The rhubarb was relegated to two raw shards as garnish, and a smidge of compote at the periphery of the creamy green orb of sorbet showered in a matching crumble of cake.  Another dessert, newly added to the menu, featured blueberries, fat and syrupy, coddled a scoop of lemon verbena ice cream- a very simply but refreshing little summer dessert.  They actually made nice
bedfellows, the two of them, where the rhubarb dessert benefited from the fruitiness of the blueberries, and the latter from the cakey crumbles and creamy ice cream.   These, and most everything, are adorned with precious little leaflets, sometimes adding a hint of lemon, or else mint, but always a thoughtful contribution to the overall flavor profile.  Attention to detail, in the food, is the overwhelming expertise of Agern.  One would hope that a little of this will translate over to the service as the restaurant matures, and that perhaps the attention to the fine points might expand to to include ensuring a greater sense of satisfaction overall.  And that might include filling the diner's belly along with his imagination.




Grand Central Terminal
89 East 42nd Street, New York, NY 10017
Telephone: 1-646-568-4018