Friday, April 7, 2017

ACME

The original Acme was a divey Southern/Cajun bar and grill that closed half a decade ago, which was then swept up in the New Nordic trend in 2013.  One year ago it reinvented itself once again, retaining only the the name and address which has proven versatile enough to function in accordance with its new identity, a contemporary bistro with global influence and a decidedly New York appeal.  It sadly lost the cool neon sign that had remained even into it's first reimagining, but apparently this new rendition was too cool for old school.  The dining room is shadowed and moody, with leather banquettes and an eclectic private collection of
 art adorning the walls.  Chef Brian Loiacono combines French technique with his Italian-American roots into a menu that basically results in spiffed-up comfort food, cooked with no fear of fat, salt and flavor, but mostly good effect.  The best dishes are vegecentric, although even those are not bikini-friendly fare.


Except for the little amuse sent out to whet our appetites: a tiny arrangement of crudités- one carrot, one cucumber plank, one spear of fennel for each of us- served with a lusciously garlicky aioli dusted with a kiss spicy cayenne.  A love it when a starter actually provokes your hunger and curiosity, and this one did just that.  



  

And a good whetting was needed, with what was to come.  We started with the crispy artichokes, which may have been the best dish of the night, but were perfect examples of assertive dirt candy.  Smashed into submission and decimated with the high heat of a hot-oiled skillet, they were then interred into a cool pillow of whipped lemon ricotta, until we ourselves did the decimating.  Certainly, they are listed as a House Specialty for a reason, but they are no dainty salad.  So too an appetizer of roasted carrots, shrouded in a tahini sauce flecked with crunchy pops of toasted quinoa.... who needs meat with
 vegetables this salacious?  That said, there is beef in the form of both tartare and marrow bones, a porky pate enriched with fois, and buttery Oysters Rockefeller updated with chives and nettles. 


There are a smattering of pastas to choose from, in hearty preparations like a cheesy risotto with black garlic and mushrooms, or pappardelle tangled into a ragu rich with lamb and rosemary ricotta.   Entrees showed three fishes, two poultries and a steak in the form a NY Strip, the priciest option at $45.   Grilled scallops, 
however, at notable $36 appeared voluminous on the plate, but mostly for the mountain of crispy fried Brussels sprouts rather than the three scallops it included.  Fat as they were, three scallops could be considered an appetizer portion, and at this price seemed skimpy.   As it were, the sprouts, rich as their frying rendered them  (in good keeping with fearless approach to vegetables), became too heavy atop the bizarre clod of cashew butter (for lack of a better term) beneath- a good quarter cup of dense nut puree is excessive.  I was counting on the elderberries noted on the menu to refresh the dish, but they were M.I.A. as far as I could tell.  It made for a strange counterpart to the scallops that were
 cooked rather delicately, still slightly translucent within and mildly seasoned.  True, anything else would have been overkill, but the dish failed to meld.   A roast chicken in comparison was positively spartan.  An adequately flavored breast, skin-on, was gently perfumed with orange, perched atop a sauté of mushrooms that tasted faintly musky, faintly....... past due.  They were well-cooked but in freshness definitely lacking, as if they were on their last legs before betrothed to the chicken.  Little frills of micro-greens decorated both entrees, adding an iota of freshness otherwise lacking.  I'm being severely critical here, though, because while both entrees were edible, the pedigree of the restaurant and those involved demands much more.   Were this the quality at the original Acme, I might probably have been relatively pleased.  

Some of this might have been exacerbated by a staff sporting even less enthusiasm than the kitchen.  But some of that energy might have siphoned off into a subterranean lounge below featuring excellent cocktails and a a succinct menu including some full menu items and a smattering of small plates, as well a nightly entertainment ranging from local djs to drag performances.  And the highlight of the evening might have been the magnificent wallpaper in the bathrooms.  I spent far too much time in there trying to decide which character I most associated with.   From this post, one might assume it was the Drudge, but it's not that I was entirely displeased with Acme.  I suppose I just really loved its prior incarnation, and the current one just did not live up to expectations.  Although we were dining early, the relatively empty dining room illustrated it might not be just me who harbors this opinion.  I do think they have the potential to improve, however: the menu is enticing, and those artichokes would be worth returning for.  More along those lines, and a little lightening of the hand, and maybe next time I might even stay for dessert.  





9 Great Jones Street

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

OCEANA

Oceana in the hands of chef Ben Pollinger was a laudable destination for seafood in midtown, not that it actually needed either of those qualifiers: it was simply a wonderful restaurant.  So who knows why whoever decided it was time to switch up the team, but with no warning I suddenly found my friend Bill Telepan at the helm, and the prior Bill has yet to bob his head up at another outpost.


Oceana knows its customer, though.  Seafood fresher than fresh is a given, as is its appropriate dominance of the menu.  We were welcomed with a divine little amuse of crabmeat simply perched on a salty, seeded wafer: a pure and elemental bite.  But a salad may have been even too much of an afterthought even seafood is the focus here, dressed heavily though flavorfully, a plain-jane mix of greens.  But as one of the scarce vegetable options on the menu, more thought should be put into it.   Another salad with roasted acorn squash was more interesting, plonked
 with daubs of fresh cheese.  The rounds of squash were roasted sweet, their nuttiness augmented with a sprinkling of crunchy pistachios.   The menu takes is real footing from the sea, however, so with a lobster fried rice things really start to get interesting.  Chewy fat grains of rice and nubs of roasted cauliflower, nutty and sweet, nuzzle together with sumptuous morsels of lobster meat and spears of green onion.  This is a heftier option though, and decidedly rich, so while it is listed as a side dish, it would make a better shared appetizer, or even
 an entree for someone looking for big flavors in a smaller portion.  But the flavors are a good indication of things to come, for while the fish is pristine enough to speak for itself, Telepan exhibits a good measure of cheffiness in its preparation.







For entrees, a glossy hunk of halibut perched over rich mushroom broth, studded with more wild mushrooms and deep green leaves of spinach.  Earthy sunchokes countered the salinity with their rooty charm, crushed as if by the weight of the hefty piece of fish, bronzed golden atop, flaky and moist beneath.  An even less traditional preparation is the monkfish,
roasted with hearty pastrami spices on knotty rye noodles slicked with mustard.  Smoky slips of cabbage further the parallel with a Jewish grandma, but it remains far more elegant than any bubbe's pickled beef ever was.   He doesn't funnel all his creativity into iterations of fish, though- a special of braised short ribs might
 sway even the most seaworthy.  But if it's not on the docket when you visit, a Flying Pigs pork chop could stand in nicely, and either of the beef options from Niman Ranch would be hard to criticize.



Desserts have always been a strong suit at Oceana.  I remember the dessert I had under Janssen Chan at the original location (am I showing my age!??), an apricot-almond souffle that turned me into a souffle lover.  Prior to that, I was never a fan.  But I have always loved apple and caramel desserts, and the warm apple cake at Oceana puts both of those components to good use.  The moist cake is plump with roasted lemon salted-caramel apples, smothered in a nutty, gooey caramel.  The apples retain a hint of tartness with the lemon, augmented by a cool apple cider gelato.  I didn't regret that choice one iota, but a Tropical Vacherin with lime meringue and pineapple granita gave it a run for its money, and as the souffle happened to be chocolate that ruled it out for me, but chocophiles would love it with its boozy armagnac scoop of ice cream.

Honestly, it's hard to mess up a meal at Oceana.  It's obviously a little silly not to go seaworthy with your order, but Chef Telepan's entire menu is ace, so salties and landlubbers alike can indulge.  In the restaurant desert of midtown Manhattan as well, Oceana is one welcome oasis.



120 West 49th Street
tel.  (212)759-5941







Tuesday, April 4, 2017

USKUDAR

For twenty years Uskudar squeezed itself into a tiny freckle of a space on the Upper East Side, but its popularity allowed for expansion into the adjacent space recently gone vacant.   Both share rusty exposed brick walls and warm, glowy lighting, with white-clothed tables lining the periphery to maximize every possible inch of seating.  So the new addition provides a welcome increase in square footage, but creates an odd dual-entry scenario that needs to be addressed.  So too do some menu items, which too often take a safe and lazy route rather than capitalizing on a sparsely represented cuisine in our city.




Uskudar is a bit expensive for what it is, a rustic traditional Turkish that aspires to something somewhat more sophisticated.  Most strikingly, however, is a lack brightness and pizzazz.  A braised artichoke appetizer special was bland and gummy, a single deflowered choke served stem-side-up in a pale, cloudy sauce with muddy peas and steamed "baby carrots", those whittled plugs of the real deal.  Better was the Imam Bayildi, but still, it tasted more of charred green pepper than the rich roastiness the dish is famous for- no imam would faint in
 delight over this eggplant.  Do take advantage of the warm puffy pide alongside, however, which also serves to bulk out the smallish portions. 











For mains, grilled branzino is plated whole and amply charred, flavorfully fresh but unimaginatively sided with generic mesclun greens- a missed opportunity to impart a stronger Turkish impact with a native salad like Coban, fresh with cucumbers, or Piyaz's white beans and zippy onion.... anything but generic mesclun.   Chef's Mixed Grill provides good meaty variety, tender hunks of lamb and chicken and juicy, crumbly sausages, all flavorful but too mildly seasoned, garnished with a tidbit of pepper and wan tomato.
Saucier options are significantly more enticing, like Etli Bamya's lamb cubes simmered with okra and tomatoes, or Manti, poached beef dumplings in a rich garlicky yogurt.



The wine list is rife with well-priced bottles, most in the mid-$30 range, in addition to a smattering of cocktails. Or skip the booze with a citrusy Camlica soda, sour cherry juice, or the Ayran, a salty yogurt drink, frothy and frosty, which could also serve as a not-too-sweet finale.



That said, if you are jonesing for dessert, they too have greater appeal in writing than reality.  Kayisi are but plump dried apricots, chilled, tucked with an almond and fresh whipped cream.  Rice pudding is noticeably sturdy, denser than cheesecake and dusted with cinnamon, but with a milky flavor and subtle sweetness.  This pairs well with a strong coffee, but ironically an Americano is a smoother, richer brew than the Turkish coffee that was more grit than joe.



The potential is here, the ingredients are premium and Chef Ibrahim Ozdemir exhibits as deft hand in many of the dishes he concocts.  But there is an unnecessary timidity that too often displays itself, making much of the menu simplistically lackluster.  With the added space, and the imminent completion of the Second Avenue subway line, now is the time to push the envelope, and go for bold.





      1405 Second Avenue
                                                                   tel. (212)988-4046









Friday, March 31, 2017

TAVERNA KYCLADES

Queens is so far.   (I might be being lazy.)  But Greek food... great Greek food- has been elusive to me in Manhattan.  Milos is a price gouge, totally overrated even taking price out of the equation.  My meal at Pylos was just plain bad, and Periyali was ho-hum at best.  My finest experiences had been via Michael Psilakis, but the one I loved the best (Anthos, now closed) was more upscale Greek-influenced, and his Tavernas now are just as far as the lauded places in the bastion of Greek dining, the aforementioned Queens.  So when I learned that the esteemed Taverna Kyclades had a location in the East Village (and has, for three years now!  Where have I been?), a visit was paid that very night, 'cause like I said, Queens is FAR.  (Or whatever.)

The E.V. location is small - small, crowded and noisy.  Simple design and a white-washed color scheme function to open up the space as much as possible, but they are packing up as many diners per square foot as they possibly can, which makes for a somewhat obstreperous atmosphere.  But even in cramped quarters, the quality lacks for nothing, and when the food is good enough, a lack of elbow room imparts a family-style appeal that is conducive to the simple, sincere menu.

Starting off with a Greek salad is a great decision, chunky, crisp cukes and surprisingly flavorful tomatoes for March features a honking slab of creamy, crumbly herb-flecked feta, doused with a slug of grassy olive oil and a few grinds of salt and pepper was all it needed.  Oh, it's plonked with just enough briny black olives to add a little funk, but I'm not an olive fan to my tablemate capitalized on both of our shares.

Do not miss the octopus, two fat tentacles tender and juicy, with a robustly smoky char.  A liberal squeeze of lemon unleashes the fest flavor, and although plates here are primarily intended for spring, I honestly wonder if I couldn't have finished the whole thing solo had I not been anticipating sampling some more of the menu still to come.  Like a side of Horta, deemed dandelion greens by the menu, server, and my dining companion, but girl knows her greens!!  And that was chard.  Which is really neither here nor there , but one should get their veggies straight.  (Plus, I like being right.). It's a big plate of roughage, though, probably enough for three or four, even as voraciously as I consume plant matter.  Sauteed tender waith and allium punch and just a subtle brace of acidity, they actually paired
 swimmingly with some leftover feta from the salad.   Couple of slices of the soft grilled bread provided with some Horta plus feta would make a fine lunch.


Just a curiosity more than a hunger inspired one more dish, which is pretty phenomenal considering that octopus was an appetizer, plus the Horta a side: you're getting a lot of bang for your buck.  I mean, it's not cheap: that octo-ppetizer is almost $25.  But with the enormity of the dishes, we could've easily gotten out of there at just over sixty bucks for the two us, with a nice little glass of house wine to boot.  But explorers are we, and the recommended stuffed clams were a great addition. Don't dive right into this when served or you'll take off a layer from the roof of your mouth, but sprit with lemon and enjoy the buttery, garlicky oceanic perfume before indulging in the sumptuous little bite-on-the-half-shell.  They're stuffed generously enough to almost require two bites, but there's no need for daintiness here: go ahead and wolf it.  There are all
 the fresh fish of the day options as well, priced in that typical by-the-pound whole-fish method, which can get pricier.  But you needn't go that route to have a fantastic repast, although the fish is as fresh as this city could ever provide and the kitchen cooks it expertly to your specifications, served with a choice of horta, beets, french fries, rice, or lemon potatoes.





The menu doesn't mention dessert, but order a coffee or ouzo to finish, and out comes a cinnamon-dusted custard, delicately crusted in a gossamer layer of filo.  It's creamy and cool, reminiscent of a light flan or rice-less rice pudding, and not too sweet.

If the original Kyclades in Queens is any better, I'd be happy, now in the know, to make the cross-borough commute.  But if they're comparable as I'm thinking they probably are, I'm happy to save my next swipe to go visit chef Psilakis.







 228 First Avenue
tel. (212)432-0011




Wednesday, March 15, 2017

AUGUSTINE

As if we needed additional proof that FiDi is the new MePa, a reasonable-hour table at Augustine is as hard to get as buzzy openings in more trafficked names.  Procuring a 7:30pm for two required a little help from a friend, but even with that connection we weren't seated 'til nearly eight, apologetic as the host was.  At first, it wasn't an issue: the front room is decorated in typical McNally brasserie style, big chandeliers and warm-hued lighting.  And pretty as they are, those flower-motif tiled walls bounce your noise and everyone else's around like a forcibly thrown
 Superball in confined quarters.  Which didn't make the half an hour long wait for our table any more pleasant, but the complimentary champagne we received upon finally being seated certainly did... although it would've been more appreciated had it been offered to sip on as we anxiously hawk-eyed which table might possibly be ours, once our dallying predecessors decided to finally pack up.  Additionally, this was not the only service snafu: lapses are pretty long between courses, and I was on the verge of canceling the coffee that was served well after dessert (which I actually wished they hadn't brought, because it was unpleasant and watery, and most of the tarte with which I had planned to enjoy it was already gone).



That said, the staff is very attractive and restaurant is absolutely lovely.  Each tile panel is etched with a different botanical specimen... I was having fun identifying peonies and poppies, snapdragons and delphinium until our food arrived (which didn't take long since we basically pre-ordered waiting for our table).  The wait staff is charming and efficient- they don ankle-length white aprons, which end a certain formality, and even though the tablecloths are white they are covered in sheets of white butcher paper, mitigating any excessive formality.


After a delightfully dainty gougere stuffed with caviar and ham, we started with appetizers on opposite ends of the spectrum, one which was hard to even really qualify as an appetizer.  The roasted bone marrow features a Jolly Roger arrangement of two enormous split
 bones and surfboard-sized grilled toast upon which to spread it.  Squeeze cloves from the whole head of soft, often-roasted garlic to amplify that savoriness even more, and then finish off daubs of oxtail ragout which accompany it in its own little crock.  How this is not a main course I'm not sure, but perhaps it is simply because of the traditional categorization of marrow.  The price and the caloric impact certainly vault it into main course territory, at $31 and who knows how many gazillion kilocalories.  That said, if that oxtail ragout DOES evolve into a main course, a return visit to Augustine will be timed accordingly.  Alternatively, a simple salad of Boston lettuce looks almost
undressed, but harbors an unexpected complexity, the crispy, silky leaves magically salty and flavorful, and trounced with supremely nutty sunflower seeds, their dark green sprouts and a delicate julienne of mild radish.  If you're lucky enough to visit Augustine with a group, Le Petit Aioli is a ultimate treat, although it is in no way petit.  A tower of lobster, mussels and tiger shrimp is accompanied by colorful crudités and a rich garlic aioli for dipping.







Speaking of dipping, don't miss daubing morsels from the excellently fresh bread basket in the verdant, saline olive oil zipped with potent bits of chili flake (I need to find out what the olive oil is!). This was that elusive kind of wonderful fragrant evo that they serve in restaurants and I can never find retail.  It's extraordinary, as if the bread wasn't good enough on its own.  Onto main courses, the excellence continues.  The menu is rather large, offering seven Entrees plus a simply grilled fish of the day, plus Rotisserie and Grillade options, and Plat du Jour, which ends up being a lot to choose from.     I went for Atlantic cod although I prefer Alaskan,  but this pillowy filet was wonderful, atop a pile of meltingly tender cabbage and leeks perfumed with winter truffle.  Small, halved marbled potatoes were roasted so deeply that their exterior achieved a buttery, crusty chew, adding a hearty decadence to the dish.
  My tablemate had had his heart set on  duck a l'orange for oh, like, a year now, so that one was similarly a no-brainer.  The duck, a breast and leg, was rich and tender, gently sweet with marmalade,  but the best part was a saucy jus pooled beneath that I couldn't keep my spoon out of even though it happened to not be on my plate.  It was studded with tender-crisp turnips, which were slightly bitter and earthy, a perfect foil for the meat.  A small parcel of confited duck meat came wrapped up in pate feuilletee, like an edible added-value gift, as if the duck itself was not fine enough on its own.  My only
 disparagement was with a side of grilled broccolini, which despite its attractive emerald color, tasted repellently of propane.  It was edible, but just barely, and if I wasn't such a vegetable fanatic I would have left it untouched.  It was pretty miserable, and so not in keeping with the rest of the evening.

That was NOT the case with our grand finale, an apple Tarte Tatin that was anything but classic but perhaps the best rendition of this dessert I have ever had.  The apple was sliced into ribbons and tightly furled into a chewy, caramelized crust, so rich and buttery that in comparison the salted caramel ice cream seemed light and refreshing.  The apple was rich and fruity, tender yet slightly chewy: whoever is doing pastry is a master of caramelization, and they have me under their spell.  While all the dishes here were outstanding (aside from that noxious broccolini), this tarte was unforgettable.  Which is a nice finale for this post, since the night I met Augustine's chef, Shane McBride, was similarly unprecedented and indelible, and one of the crucial moments that sparked my passion for the industry.  It's great to see he still has his touch.... and then some.




5 Beeckman Street
tel.  1.212.375.0010

Monday, March 6, 2017

PARM

Parm started out as a storefront sandwich shop on Mulberry Street, taking over the original (now defunct) Torrisi Italian Specialties address with a shiny deli case of day’s-worth-of-calories kind of sandwiches on your choice of sweet semolina or sesame roll.  It has since expanded to include two other locations in the city, approximately equidistant from the original, as well as rounding the menu out with platters, sides and dessert, all with the signature hearty, Italian-American theme.  The two newer outposts have broader menus, but offer the impressive sandwich selection as well.  There are no red-checked tablecloths, but the tables are linoleum, the soundtrack from the 80’s and decor from the late 50’s. 
 Bring a serious appetite but a casual attitude…. and some mints.  Garlic pervades and olive oil in anointed with wild abandon.  Some of the most popular dishes are an enormous Chicken Dinner, featuring chicken parm and spicy rotini: enough for three.  Baked ziti is another favorite, as are their San Gennaro-style Chinese ribs, showing there’s no attempt to play this off as “authentic” Italian- like their sister restaurants, Major Food Group is never afraid to show off a little kitsch.



A good shareable starter are the Artichokes Casino, which are a distant relative to clams of a similar preparation.  Here, four plump bottoms are stuffed with pork sausage a bacon, a riot of garlic and a good kick of heat.  Two are ample per person, unlike Mario's recipe meatballs, which I can't imagine downing more than one as an appetizer, so the three that arrive might leave at least one to sandwich for lunch the next day.  There are salads, too: a pretty classic Classic Caesar, or more popular, the Arugula salad with sweet chewy figs and a hefty grating of parmesan.  

Pastas are more Italian in nomenclature than size... this are no primi-portioned penne.  Good thing noodles make great leftovers, or else a very economical meal to split one, adding a side or salad.   'Cause despite it's very low-key sensibility, dinner at Parm can still get spendy if you're not at least a little cautious.  Caution, an action that is thrown to the wind in the preparation of of a hearty Fusilli Bolognese, featuring massive corkscrewed pasta and a meaty-tasting sauce (although not that much actual meat).  A cool plop of milky ricotta tamps the subtle heat of the sugo, making the best bites dug deep from below to get more of the bolognese which can get a little lost in all that cheese.




If you do want to go lighter on a main course, there is a respectable roasted half chicken, or a whole orata, grilled and sluiced with an herby salsa verde.  For even more green, add a super garlicky side of lightly sautéed broccoli.  Alternatively, hearty renditions of Italian-ish dishes like pork Milanese or a magnificent eggplant parm stratified into ten luscious layers.  At this location as well as the Battery Park City one, the only sandwich offering is the Randy Levine, a seeded roll stuffed with char-siu-style pork served with a haystack of Italian-herbed fries, skinny as the trousers on a well-dressed uomo.  But there is a full array of sandwich options in a retro glass deli case at the entry, the equivalent selection at the Parm on Mulberry that started it all.  They can make these to serve to your table upon request, or else pick one up for lunch tomorrow, if you're not already overburdened with leftovers.

There is one dessert to close out with.  Well, two flavors of one dessert: ice cream cake comes in either S'Mores or Neopolitan, iced with a sugary frosting and a festive shroud of rainbow sprinkles.  These aren't printed on the menu, so their $16 dollar price tag might come as a surprise.  Granted, it's a slice big enough to share between two or three people, but at the same time, you can buy a whole ice cream cake for that same amount, and this one, despite its celebratory appeal, isn't much, if any, better.  Probably you won't need-need dessert anyways, if you experienced Parm the same way I didn't, so snag a melty mint from the register on the way out and save the $16 better spent on an excellent meatball sammy for a later day when your fullness dissipates, and you need a little reminder of how yummy was Parm.






 235 Columbus
 tel.  1.212.776.4921