Monday, June 28, 2010

What To Do When You Forget the Mermaid Parade Until Too Late...

Each year, I promise myself anew that I am going to strut my fins in the annual Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, and every year it arrives before I can get my shells and netting together for a mermiform. Instead, I went to The Mermaid Inn in the East Village.
I always hear the Inn dubbed as the "poor man's Bernardin", which really isn't a good categorization of the place at all. It's much more of a Pearl Oyster Bar/Mary's Fish Camp option. Cute little breezy white table-clothed joint with t-shirted waiters and potted plants. (Do not, I repeat: do NOT take your s.o. here for a significant anniversary or wedding proposal expecting the elegance of Monsieur Ripert. Not here.) That said, it's a fantastic little fish-focused eatery with some robust and soulful preparations and a great selection of diverse piscinery.
Raw bar options are unforgettably fresh, if not particularly innovative. But they needn't be; freshness trumps novelty. And the rest of the menu bumps up the flavor factor immensely, so it's not a bad way to start. An asparagus salad featured expertly grilled stalks, nutty and tender, spiked with some bitey arugula and mellowed with a smear of rich herb aioli. A pretty perfect asparagus dish. Most of the rest of the apps toe the nautical line: lobster bisque and peekytoe crab cakes, crisp calamari or steamed mussels, all competent.
Had to go for the skate again (hey: as long as they've got it, so will I.) Anyways, it allows for a very meticulous comparison, and I have to say this dish ranks up there with some of the best. It was a hugely ample portion, in a classic brown butter sautee, and rounded out with garlicky spinach and an (over?) abundance of what was dubbed crispy potato- actually potato-chippish planks, and probably much too many. I irresponsibly forgot my camera this time, but the website's own Photo Gallery ( gives perfect visuals, and also an accurate view of the substantial portion size here.
They cap you off complementary with a little demi-tasse of homemade chocolate pudding, which even as a non-chocolate-dessert person, I think could use a lot more chocolateyness. There's no dessert menu, so that's your only option for a sweet finish. The portion sizes of apps and entrees are big enough though, so that dessert here (if ever it could be) might be a bit of an after-thought, anyways. And it is creamy enough to get you through.
Service is present and chipper, just right for the space. It's hard not to love it here, the tasty food, convivial atmosphere, and lively E.V. surroundings.
And while it won't make up for my shameful absence yet again from this year's parade, I at least got my mermaid on culinarily. And NEXT year......

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pulino's Doesn't Need You

The most recent venture of Keith McNally will be as popular as all of his ever are, with scant exception. It will be a Balthazar, a Pastis. He somehow knows how to open that kind of restaurant there, and the food needn't even keep up with the buzz. Which exactly what appears to be happening at Pulino's, despite the laudable resume and indubitable talent of it's San Fransisco celebri-chef, Nate Appleman.
Now, I have it on good word that Nate can cook; this I don't doubt. But it seems with the volume that he's forced to put out (and quite possibly the unfamiliar genre, the restaurant being Italian, and this being New York), none of his talent is showing through. A few dishes are serviceable. By far the best thing I've found thus far has been a simple wood grilled asparagus appetizer,
languidly strewn across a white porcelain plate, melted silky leeks nestled within. A gently truffled ricotta cushioned the vegetables and added an air of luxury. A salad of woodsy escarole with sugar snap peas and hen of the woods mushrooms was a little rough; the greens were just a tad beyond tender, the mushrooms slightly too tough, and the garlic pangrattato atop just little scratchy, which combined made the salad a laborious chew, although not entirely untasty.

Moving on to entrees, the pizza (supposedly the restaurant's purpose) needed to sampled. That was too bad. We went for simple: the margherita. The crust had a nice flavor and chew, but that's pretty much all the pie had going for it. The mozzarella atop had become rubbery puddles of not particularly flavorful cheese, and the tomato sauce was either: a) past it's prime, b) an insipid, unseasoned afterthough, or c) both. A few basil leaves couldn't salvage the pie. Roasted scallops were even less successful. The shellfish themselves were fresh, but again a little chewy (Dinner at Pulino's! Free Mandibular Yoga included!), and they had absolutely nothing to do with copious amounts of very juicy grapefruit and smattering of radicchio leaves, which had no business pairing with the truckload of generic, green olive slices dumped on top. There was nothing to tie it together or meld the ingredients into a dish. They just happened to find themselves together on the plate.
And if you venture here, you'll find yourself together with the hoards of the everyone elses that have also ventured here, and will inevitably continue to do so. The room is bustling and convivial. Servers finagle their way between tables, countless waiting diners and a simply mad bar scene, from which arises a cacophonous level of noise. And even with the forgettable food, the place has pizzazz. You kind of want to come back, just to watch the hot chefs in the hot kitchen, that hot guy waiting for his Negroni, and that nod from the maitre d' that you've finally procured that hot-ticket table. And you'll find something to eat. It's just that that won't be the reason you're there.
Which is why dessert got bypassed. My restaurant radar clicked into full gear and pointed us towards The Village Tart a few blocks south and west. It's Lesly Bernard's quaint little sweet and savory bistro, in collaboration with Pichet Ong. Quite the opposite from the scene at Pulino's, the Tart was relatively empty but for us and a chic table of four by the window. That allowed for admiring the lovely collection of eclectic mirrors and a more intimate rapport with our undistracted waiter. Just one dessert to share would suffice, and finally fill the lingering dissatisfaction from dinner. Coupled with excellent coffee from Intelligentsia, we dove into the Strawberries and Cream Tart, a parfait-style coupe of custardy cream and chantilly with lots of sliced strawberries, buttery chunks of pate frisee and roasty, caramelized pistachios. Perhaps the late hour (now approaching midnight) accounted for the sparsity of clientele, but it was noticeable contrast to the chaotic scene not a half an hour earlier. So unlike Pulino's that verges on a stampede, The Village Tart DOES need you.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


I loved Jarnac. It was just on the outskirts of the MPD, so if you were unfortunately caught thereabouts, you could still find marvelous sustenance just to the south, and not have to waste your money and appetite on the chi-chi, trendy, sceney restaurants of the 'hood. But when it suffered the fate as have so many places recently, I was poignantly curious about its latest reincarnation. Jesse Schenker took the helm, and thus was born Recette.
The room has stayed fairly true to form; perhaps the curtains are a bit whiter and the floors tinted a bit deeper, but it's a small space with not too much room for extravagances. So Schenker focuses that attention on the plate, instead. According to his wife, Hannah, there has been some local to-do about the un-Jarnac-ness of the restaurant, which served very generous portions at an unexpectedly moderate price. Recette's menu is apparently more small-plate based, but without disclosure of such, and with prices comparable to those of its predecessor, one might (easily) assume that these are normal appetizer/entree sized offerings. Now, I am no Josh Ozersky, so for me to leave a restaurant hungry is notable, but honestly, I can't really argue against the neighborhooders on this. In order to get fed, the bill will approach proportions much more substantial than any single dish. But I cannot unearth a single issue with any of dishes themselves, who's recipes (recettes) are creative and immaculately executed. It really bring a new brilliance to the West Village.

Early June allows for the onslaught of tomato season, and an exquisite salad of heirlooms with peektoe and burrata did all components justice. It was slicked with a slightly gelatinous glaze of mild citrus and basil seeds, which made for an absolutely stunning dish visually and no less so in flavor.
Lobster risotto was atypically loose, rather than the thicker, gummier porridges more commonly found. But the rice was perfectly cooked, and the brothiness of the summer-truffle inflected sauce provided dipping-fodder for the chewy bread, thus
making a slightly skimpy portion much more fulfilling. Maybe there was a little lemon, certainly some butter for nuttiness, but mostly sumptuous chunks of lobster and heady truffle... a fantastic dish.
So too was the roasted halibut with Spring's trifecta: asparagus, artichokes and morels. Two chunks of the most excellent

heart of the choke, three skinny asparagus tips, a smattering of sliced morels abutting a nugget of snowy fish atop a truffly dollop of foam, I cannot find a fault with this dish. Except that it was gone in four bites. Fortunately for my vegephilia, we ordered also a charming little cocotte the season's best, which wasn't mind-altering but was a welcome addition simply in terms of heft.
Perhaps some of this precious sizing has to do with the heritage of the pastry chef, Christina Tosi (who fledges from Per Se). Or at least she is a very apt fit. A dessert of passionfruit torte was literally the size of half an Oreo. While profoundly good, it was almost too scant to muster up a spoonful of the tantalizing raspberry sorbet, creamy passionfruit custard, tiny, lightly chewy chunks of pineapple and a bite of the nutty disc of crust at once unless you consumed the whole affair in a single mouthful (which with a proper utensil would have been entirely possible).
Now, if you know (and now you do!) to order accordingly, you can have a boast-worthy, memorable experience here. Just think of it along the lines of Per Se, and while you'll be in charge of creating your own run-of-show, the comparative price tag will let you make out like a bandit.


Sorella is (yet another) new joint on the LES. But that's not at all to disparage it; we need new ones opening as quickly as all the other ones are shuttering down. The name comes from the chefs- two best friends that apparently feel like sisters (Sorella is "sister" in Italian). The exterior facade is a flat wall created from what appears to be salvaged wooden wine bottle storage frames, which is in good keeping with their desire to decorate with "as much friggin' wine paraphernalia as possible". You'll miss it if you don't know where you're going, as it tends to look almost boarded up itself, in the coolest possible way. Plus, there is a glass pane above the door with the name etched in gold, a nice balance to the stark facade.
Which is basically how the whole restaurant goes. It is a dichotomy of masculine and feminine, of profundity and frivolity. The front bar area is dark and loungey, with a thick heavy counter, but the back dining room is lighter and airier, with a whimsical
glass ceiling and dangly hand-made pink crystal "chandeliers". Funny little plants abound, as do caricatures of little girls, and all things porcine. The servers are wonderfully helpful, whisking about the room to attend to each patron, and your napkin is always perfectly refolded upon a return from the restroom. But this brisk attentiveness is a quirky juxtaposition with their un-uniformed outfits of Tom's shoes and cut-offs, thinly worn tee-shirts and ubiquitous tatouage. The menu subsists mostly of "qualcosina"- their translation of tapas to quirky Italian. Three entree options are also offered on a daily basis, which are (slightly) more substantial, and substantially more pricey. The fact that the chefs are women, however, does not imply that the food is in any way as dainty as the decor: quite the contrary, in fact. It is almost as if they are trying to out-macho the machos, which they basically accomplish on all counts. ( Or else they just like it that way.)
The food here are robust. Not to say there aren't herbal hints (such as the earthy mint touch in a lamb tajarin, and lovely
pickled cherries in a bountiful arugula salad) an very thoughtful, balanced flavors. But meat and butter abound: short rib agnolotti are nothing more than that, not that exciting,

and simply dusted with cheese and a couple fried leaves of sage. Some exquisite Ligurian anchovies served with a smear of garlicky lemon butter and a deliciously nutty cracker flatbread are similarly tantalizing, but salty and substantial. That lamb tajarin is a creamy tangle of noodles and ragu, buttery and cheesy and full of nuts.
Salads boasted nuts and cheeses and flavorful dressings.
For a main, we opted for one of the daily special's of a porcini crusted halibut. This was a modest portion of fish,

perfectly cooked with slices of roasted peach and littered with some mild shredded greens, an odd pairing that worked marvelously, but was notably amped up with generous lashings of butter and a salty, mushrooms flecked sauce that kicked any "spa-cuisine" right out of that expectedly light fruit-garnished fish dish. Also, for a whopping $34 was shockingly similar to the size of the "qualcosinas". Which is, well, saying qualcosa.
I again (as at Morandi) caught brussels sprouts on their way out in vernal genuflection, but these were no dietetic vegetables. Smothered in a mustardy apple-flecked cream, these sprouts were halved and virtually blackened in butter, and paired with an almost 1:1 ratio with bacon.
Trying to go light on dessert, we opted for a semifreddo with raspberries. This was a gorgeous little dessert, and the the least

gluttonous choice of the night. It needed a little time for the semi- to nudge out the freddo- to soften up, but was a lovely summery pudding. Coffee is Counter Culture: thick and chocolately and served in big, cups. Of course. This food, my friends, is not for the faint of heart.