Monday, August 10, 2020

ATOBOY

Despite multiple attempts, a visit to Atoboy hadn't worked out pre-pandemic for myriad reasons, so when it finally presented itself as a viable outdoor-dining option in our current state of existence, I was beyond excited to check it out.  Multiple chefs and in-the-knows had recommended it, and the menu was equally alluring.

Atoboy, and its more posh big brother, Atomic, are run by ....... a. modern Korean smack in the middle of K-town, but exceeding the standard grill and bbq fare of the neighborhood.  Many of the dishes we sampled lived up, although the few the fell short may have tainted the overall experience, fragile as it is under the current circumstances.

Our first plate was a duet of summer squash, sliced into discs and drizzled with a delicate basil oil.  The good stuff was stealth fully cached beneath, however: a savory sludge of whole and pureed doenjang chickpeas, salty and teeming with umami.  Atoboy's plating technique is the opposite of Portale; things need to be excavated in order to achieve the intended composite, and often this is not readily obvious.  So quite a bit of mostly unseasoned, plain raw zucchini got consumed before unearthing the prize, which was unfortunate to say the least.  Even the endive salad hid most of the creamy burrata underneath
 its crisp leaflets and tufts of mystifyingly piney agretti a rare-ish, salt-tolerant herb of mediterranean heritage, flanked with sweet and salty candied nuts.  When you order as is prescribed, the prix-fixe plus encouraged add-ons, it's a little tricky to remember the components of each dish when they are stealthfully concealed by another.  Resultantly, you might miss the point of the dish if you don't dig deep, so don't worry about upsetting the beautiful compositions- you will be rewarded.

A super-refreshing scallop crudo hid none of its glory: basically a cool, liquid watermelon gazpacho, afloat with vibrant haricots verts and tender hunks of sweet scallop, just kissed by the grill. The remaining rorth drank like an alluring cocktail, a plus since the Chenin blanc I order was a little flat and chalky.





The menu is a prix-fixe triaged into categories: the above dishes came from the first, select-two part, and the slightly larger plates to follow came from the select-one section.  Firm hunks of salmon came bathed in a fragrant coconut curry that looks innocuous, but careful when you hit it.  It kicks like a twelve gauge when it comes on.  Emerald sprigs of broccoli shared the liquid inferno, which was admittedly less appealing in the 90 degree heat that refused to dissipate, but the dish itself was stellar.  I can imagine in a nice climate-controlled dining room it would've been even more impressive....... (ah, the girl continues to dream.....). Consuming this in your typical
 fish-first sequence did, however, manage to blitz our tastebuds to the degree that the beef cheeks were rendered fairly lackluster.  Their fattiness also wasn't rendered enough, as the signature cheeky tenderness was completely absent, and there were quite a few fatty, gristly bits that made me doubt that the cut even WAS cheek.  We left it about 40% unconsumed, and that's a pity, because the tasty little cubes of jus-imbued potatoes suggested what the flavor could have been, but also suffered a lack of salt.









Things rebounded with dessert, surprising since there are but two options: a more commonplace panna cotta tweaked with figs and gooseberry syrup, and our choice, an odd-but-sensational burrata and yogurt concoction crowned with a cinnamony sujeonggwa granita that was refreshing enough to stand up to the relentless heat outside.  Crunchy candied walnuts, if not the same, then noticeably similar to the ones in the endive salad, gave some texture, and the burrata attained a just-short-of-frozen consistency that might sound off-putting, but actually created these milky little chewy moments that were quite enjoyable

Tables at Atoboy are sheltered beneath a large white tent, and separated by plexiglass dividers, and decorated with artfully poised branches.  Utensils arrived tucked into paper sleeves, and a plastic ziploc is provided to your mask while you are dining.  The food menu is printed, but the the drink roster requires a QR code scan.  It's not easy to block out the rather unattractive stretch
 of 28th street, nor that night's torturous temperatures, but focus your attention on the lovely dishes in front of you, and the cheerful staff at your beck and call,  and it's easy to see why so many people told me to come.  





43 East 28th Street
tel. (646)476-7217

Thursday, July 30, 2020

WAYAN

Wayan is so good I kept forgetting what was happening in the world.  Midway through dinner, when I excused myself to use the ladies room, I forgot to remask upon entering the dining room, as if the whole al fresco dining situation had been a choice and not an ultimatum.  Our server could not have been more hospitable, smiling and gracious and actually said straight out what a pleasure it was to work there.  I think he is not alone, and this happy workplace informs the whole staff’s comportment, which in turn, makes it a really
 lovey place to visit.  And that sentiment must also carry over into the kitchen, or more likely, blossom from it, because there is love in this food, and sheer deliciousness.   Cedric has apparently learned well from his father, and maybe even taken it a step further with this solid and superb take on Indonesian flavors.  





A fresh heirloom tomato salad sang of summer, and while not the most revolutionary dish it was wildly tasty, peak produce, each tomato varietal boasting its own unique flavor, and a refreshing, zingy chili-garlic vinaigrette enhanced with sesame.   We came to a consensus on our favorite dishes, one of which was an exceptional octopus, two fat tentacles roasted ’til the tips achieved a bacon-like
 crispness.  They sat on a bed of richly sweet hunks of roasted fennel bulb zipped up with a sweet chili sauce.







Hiramasa 
(Amberjack) sashimi was simple and light, graced with a ginger-tumeric dressing kicked up with sambal.   
A half head of cauliflower was roasted to just the verge of softness, still resisting the knife but tender enough to acquiesce, thickly coated with curry and spices so as not to need the kicky little pitcher of saffron-yellow curry sauce that came along for the ride, but it was nice to alternate bites with mini-surges of heat.  Crisp niblets of corn and sprigs of cilantro kept it fresh, and don't forget to squeeze that lime assertively over the whole shebang.  .  


The other dish we all loved was the hake, salty enough to recall the ocean from which is came, meltingly tender underneath a savory tomato concasse and flanked with an array of summery patty pan squash, those little UFOs of the zucchini world, and a few chewy nubs of okra



We shared everything we ordered, but the whole roasted fish was the only thing too big for a single diner.  This sizable black bass (whom we named Fernando) was an textbook example of a perfectly roasted whole fish, flaky-fleshed and succulent, although the steamed broccoli accompanying seemed a bit of an afterthought; it wasn't even on the menu, and while I'm never one to turn down an extra vegetable, this one could’ve been either slightly more cooked or seasoned in some way.  Thick slices of Gold bar squash lived up to its name, and was more interesting.  
Desserts wanted for something more refreshing: the only fruit option was a banana sundae that read more cake than split, with its ube ice cream accompaniment.  There is also an pandan custard and, in a divergence from the tropics,  a cast iron cookie served with buttermilk ice cream.  I would've rather an exotic fruit pudding or, maybe as a riff from his dad's playbook, a molten pineapple upside down cake. 


But Wayan renewed my zest to start back on the restaurant exploration circuit.  I hope as restaurateurs figure out this whole new world of hospitality that more restaurants like Wayan follow suit.  If anyone needs a how-to tutorial on dining during Covid19, make a Resy here.  I couldn't have been more impressed.








Wednesday, July 29, 2020

CHAMA MAMA

Boy, am I out of practice.  I'm not even sure the very choice of the restaurant itself wasn't somewhat faulty.  In retrospect, homestyle Georgian cuisine is probably not the optimum choice for the hottest calendar month in New York, compounded by the fact that the airy, cool enclaves of interior dining are marshaled off for the foreseeable future.  It would be the first time I'd dined out since the pandemic hit, though, and a lot of factors played into finding somewhere that I'd feel safe, that I desired to visit, had a broad and intriguing enough menu, and was protected from as many of the indignities outdoor dining in a huge metropolis inevitably presents.

Chama Mama was on my list long before any murmurs of viruses and ventilators, basically since it opened, and it was one of the first to pivot into takeout and delivery despite its youthfulness (or maybe because of it).  It also covets the luxury of an outdoor patio, a prized commodity, especially while its main dining room must be shuttered.  You will pass through it briefly, in its echoey, air-conditioned emptiness, to exit into a well laid-out back garden, festooned with string lights, responsibly distanced tables, and a plethora of leafy growing things.  A small patch of vegetables and herbs beside our table also
 doubled as an unintentional menagerie of tiny baby mice, thankfully still in their miniature, nascent stages so they looked cute rummaging through the celery and lovage.  Resultantly, I suppose I hope that vegetation is more for show than culinary use, although with all we've been through of late, there are much scarier things to be exposed.










Onto the food, Chama Mama still enlists paper menus, much to my relief because I still have never gotten around to downloading the QR code app.  The menu seemed much as I remembered it from pre-pandemic, but my knack for ordering well had definitely rusted over.  Either that or most offerings here exhibit a very similar flavor profile: those "Georgian spices" are the connective tissue of the menu.  Not that that is an entirely bad thing, because the flavors are very good.  But our repast was a bit monochromatic, down to the nearely-ubiquitous pomegranate seed garnish, but that also was at least in part due to my tablemate's quasi-veganism.

The food came out rapidly, just after our beverage selections.  The wine list is strictly Georgian, and completely mystifying to anyone not well-versed in such (so, probably just about everyone).  I chose one of two rosés, which I'm not sure she ever specified which I got, nor did I get the taste I thought she said she would bring.  At any rate, I don't know if it was just that varietal, but it wasn't great.  A bit funky and flat, albeit a lovely deep pink, and as the first alcohol I've imbibed in four months, my bar was low and I decided it was just fine.  




Our first dish was a small crock of roasted mushrooms, none of which attained the ideal crisp-edgedness I always hope for with anything roasted, but it was a tasty hodgepodge of fungi and a few strips of red pepper, there was some cilantro and garlic involved.   Of the two eggplant appetizers, we went with the smokey walnut-paste version and studded with crunchy bits of them, although I think I might have preferred the tomato-inflected rendition, from on-paper.  But I was thoroughly in the realm of letting someone else do ALL the work, ordering included, and kind of gave my tablemate the reins.  And don't get me wrong, it was good: I just like tomatoes and eggplant.... that tag-team of nightshades.


A decidedly un-summery selection was the Lobio with in a clay-pot, a steaming soupy blend of toothsome beans capped with a sort of dry, crumbly corn pone and an assortment of picky tidbits beneath.  It was listed under "Sharable" plates, but soup is always a weird one to share, even outside of a pandemic, and most certainly within one.  It also was just too hot and starchy for a muggy summer night, so if you really want to try this, hold out 'til the temperatures are more conducive.


My favorite dish was probably a fry-up of potatoes and (more) mushrooms, again with those Georgian spices, served with a freshly sour green plum sauce, and a chewy, floury ficelle I wish would've arrive with the Lobio or that eggplant dip.  Again, shoddy ordering- no fault of theirs.  In fact, some of the most popular dishes we didn't try, mostly due to the heat and their heft.  The Imeruli Kachapuri definitely would've been on the docket had we been in breezy a.c., but the molten cheesy loaf just seemed unappealing under the circumstances.  Same for the Elarji with mint yogurt, another cheesy concoction anchored by grits.












Pudgy dumplings (Khinkali) filled with scallions and mushrooms had thick, chewy encasements: sturdy and substantial despite their lack of meat. But mushrooms had kind of lost their intrigue at that point, and I wished I would've ordered a chicken skewer with grilled vegetables, or even the dumplings with beef and pork instead.  Ultimately, too, it turned out to be a starchier repast than that to which I am used to, and dessert at that point seemed redundant.  On offer is a sweet layered honey cake, a cream-filled Napoleon and Pelamushi, a grape pudding (which I actually don't recall seeing that night,
 but I kind of wish I had).    Our server was sweet enough to offer us a complimentary finale, however, a mason jar of pillowy tart yogurt with jammy cherries, which was very good, if not a little more in the breakfast category for me than dessert.  But the evening was coming to a close... fluffy clouds started roll in although the humidity remained, and I for one can only take so
 much lolling around in such swampy air.  We were again ushered through the vacant dining room, its airy coolness a convincing reminder to come back to Chama Mama once indoor dining resumes.
























149 WEST 14TH STREET 646-438-9007

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

THE ORCHARD TOWNHOUSE

I ran into Phil Winser (the co-owner of Silkstone Hospitality) last summer, at the time with his wife, and sporting a Fat Radish hat, one of their restaurants.  Given my affinity for the aforementioned, I struck up conversation with him, having read that they were to open up another Radish in the old Trestle on Tenth space.  He corrected me, in that it would not be another Radish but instead, a new concept..... or at least a new name, bringing the vegetable-forward, farm-to-table ethos that they do so well there, along with the original's street address, but only for the
 sake of its name: The Orchard Townhouse.  From that, they built of a buzzy-but-cozy, neighborhood-friendly but destination-worthy eatery that might be the spark that this area needs since the demise of The Red Cat and Trestle.

Our server could literally not have been more charming and charismatic; any more would've lapsed in to theatrics But as it was, he was absolutely delightful, and set the mood for the entire evening.  The whole vibe of the place is lively and engaging, buzzy but cool, and lowly lit which gives the illuminated areas an enticing glow.









The menu is simply a list, although delineations of category, size and pricing show a pretty obvious progression. There is a nice trio of raw bar options, with local oysters, tuna tartar and  chili-lemon crab on toast.  Beyond that we get a lot of yummy vegetables, not sidelined as accoutrements but spotlit in their own right.  Case in point, we were welcomed with a little amuse-bouche that I initially mistook as octopus, but in fact, it was a small, steamed radish, tender and lightly pickled, and quite delightful.



A super-fave was the mushroom toast- a thick slab of sesame-crusted bread, laden with a tumble of perfectly cooked mushrooms anchored with a smooth, smoky eggplant puree. This could have been the star dish of the night, although many vied for that title.   Romanesco broccoli (or is it cauliflower?) magically held its prehistoric shape and vibrant green while it was cooked into absolute annihilation.  It was so sort it might've been considered "too", although it was a really interesting comfort pabulum, nestled into a milky ricotta enriched with brown butter, a assertively charred lemon plated aside for brightness.  A smattering of crunchy candied almonds gave the only textural contest, and they were enough, if you're okay with really soft-cooked veggies (which , in
 this case, I totally am.  My tablemate was less thrilled.).   Less enthralling was a dish titled Acorn Squash, but it turned out to be a grain salad, cold, and about as appealing as it seems in this picture.  There was nothing technically wrong with it: in a grain bowl aside it would probably be passable, but in the depths of a winter chill, a cold starchy salad is a hard sell. It would've been vastly improved even just served warm, with would've augmented the feta's creamy zip.  Additionally, there wasn't as much squash as there was other stuff, so it was a bit of
 mislead, title-wise, and at $17, not a value.

















The chef sent out a riff on the carrots dukkah, subbing in beets, perhaps because of the delay we incurred while the kitchen  was thrown into the weeds by a sizable party overwhelming their normal efficiency.  It was a great dish, as would be the carrots, I assume, with tender beets nuzzled into spiced yogurt with a kick from a vibrant shies gremolata, and a smattering of crunchy, blistered peanuts.





The largest and most expensive dish, a New York strip at $42, doesn't label itself shareable but it surely would be, especially with a side dish to accompany (it comes unadorned).  And of those, I would highly recommend the brussels sprouts (of course I would), charred savory with lardons, their fat rendered out to a meaty chew, a bit of pecorino for even more umami, a hint of crunch from toasted walnuts and some appley sweetness. I mean, who needs the steak?



Another big plate was an utterly simple 7 oz. filet of halibut, gorgeous bronzed on top and impeccably tender beneath.  Served with just lightly dressed, crunchy greens and another wedge of charred lemon, its satisfaction belies its plain-jane appearance.  Plus, it's a really nice, generous cut so you could add it to a compilation of shares, with enough for two to sample.


Unfortunately, with the aforementioned service hiccup, we were kind of on deadline, (a clock in direct eyeshot across the street reminding us of the increasingly advanced hour) as my tablemate had an untenably early morning meeting distracting her, and we thus bypassed dessert.  Which sucked, because from what I can recall it was basically a play-list of my all-time favorites.  On the other hand, the dessert menu is NOT listed on their website, so at least I can't remind myself of what I missed.  I will have to return, which I gladly will, to complete the full-on OTH experience.  As well should you.







Monday, March 2, 2020

PORTALE



Alfred Portale has taken himself down a notch.  Not in ambition, nor humility (he has always been gracious and hospitable) and certainly not in execution. But his newly opened eponymous restaurant is a less lofty affair than was Gotham Bar & Grill, which was inseparable from his reputation for thirty some years.  The only thing that moved up is the new address, five blocks north.  The verticality of plating has grounded
 itself, the high ceiling and airy dining room left on 13th street.  The new restaurant is more Italian, like Portale himself, although the modern art decorating the walls depict iconic Americans, like Lucille Ball and Sinatra (I 'm not particularly a fan of the paintings), implying that it isn't an exclusively Italian restaurant.

Lumache 
That said, the strongest dishes definitely nod Italian.  There is a long list of pastas, handmade in house from locally grown grains, are priced as primi, but eligible to upgrade into larger, main-dish portions.  Most are hearty enough to satisfy even in their more diminutive sizes, like the immaculate lumache, which manages to be both refined and comfortingly nostalgic. Chubby macaroni cradle nubs of short ribs, ground into a pebbly bolognese, unconventional in its lack of tomato, and studded with sweet chunks of roasted squash and fragrant with truffles and parmigiano.   Ricotta Cavatelli al arrabbiata strays from the norm as well, tweaked with a fresh cilantro pesto, while mushrooms fortify the two vegetarians options, a cappellacci with goat cheese and a risotto with spinach and fontina.

Before you get there, though, you'll encounter a roster of cichetti, many of which are substantial enough to comprise, or at least anchor, a full meal.  Maritime crostini are graced with baccala, ruby shrimp and potato, and more seafood star in the fritto misto, with a golden crusted calamari, shrimp and cod served with a lemony aioli.

Our server was suave and accomplished, but super chill and friendly- quite the perfect example of hospitality.  He was also ace on the subject of wines, useful given the list of whites by the glass had a couple of wild cards that piqued my interest.  It may have been the ghost of Pascaline Lepeltir from Route Tomate, the address's prior incarnation, the encouraged me to stray past my go-to selections, but for whatever reason I was feeling experimental, and narrowed its down to an orange and a grillo, neither of which had I ever sampled.  He brought me tastes of both, and I began with the seemingly less foreign of the two, which at least in color was a familiar hue of pale buttercup.  The taste... well, at first I blamed it upon having just mouthwashes, so I swished some water and went on to the orange, which was surprisingly fresh and floral, with just the faintest hint of funk.  Assured now that my palate was untainted, I returned to the grillo, but it only marginally improved.  Verbatim, I assessed that "it tastes like you're sucking on a barnacl."  I guess there are redeeming qualities to "oceanic" notes or a subtle salinity, but this one was overpowering, like brackish backwater murk.  Now, if that appeals to you, by all means go for the grillo.  Not my thing.



Appetizers include a kale salad starched up with pears and quinoa, much like the finocchio, which featured less of the fennel than I would've liked.  It was primarily composed of a chewy riso nerone and juicy, but somewhat flavorless, hunks of blood orange.  Perhaps it was just that the fennel was so expertly roasted, though, that made me want more of it, but it seemed there was a surplus of rice and fruit for a dish titled simply "fennel".










Secondi are more predicable, what one might find in pretty much any upscale, farm-to-table establishment with a thoughtful chef: dry aged sirloin with crispy potatoes and brussels sprouts, a formidable roast chicken with blue corn polenta, and crisply sautéed branzino with delicata squash and red chard (strangely, served
 aside).   I say crisply which actually verged on a fried, achieving a deliciously crisped skin but robbed the svelte filet of some of its delicacy.

Four side dishes (around ten dollars a pop) are on the menu, but although there were Brussels sprouts intended to accompany the steak, they weren't one of those four.  Our server, however, was gracious enough to afford us an off-the-menu treat, rounding out an otherwise somewhat veggie-scarce repast. There are veg components with most dishes, to be fair, but in lesser portions that I would deem ample for my liking.

Five dessert options were presented, fairly simple concoctions but nonetheless tasty for that.  An olive oil cake with orange marmalade, a milk chocolate-updated tiramisu, a classic affogato, a selection of gelati and our choice, the torta di here, which was essentially a caramelized pear upside down tart, its crust treacley sweet, if a tad mealy.... or sandy, might be a better description, as it wasn't entirely off-putting, although noticeable. Cool chunks of pear nestled within were relatively earthy and mild, countering the very rich, sweet and buttery crust; a scoop of mildly maple gelato was also not as sweet, a necessary foil for the deeply caramelized tart.  It was served with a birthday candle, quite unpredictably, since both I and my tablemate are summer babies.  But it was in good keeping with the festive vibe of the place, and I would steer any one else celebrating an occasion here, secure they'd be in good hands, fed well, and treated, even if for no particular reason, like its their birthday.





126 West 18th Street
(917)788-0255