Friday, November 26, 2010

EATALY: Mangia!

I visited EATALY for the first time on opening day: the day when the line spilled out onto 23d street and wrapped around the corner up 5th Avenue. I happened upon Cesare Casella (one of the collaborators), who gave me a nice little guided tour as to how the different sections worked, from the very preciously priced groceries to the in-house vegetable butcher to the individual ingredient-centric restaurant "stations" and the full-service one, Manzo. Only Manzo accepts reservations, and since we were simply dropping by after a lovely round of cocktails at the newly opened John Dory around the corner, we opted for a stint at Le Verdure (the vegetable spot) followed by entrees at Il Pesce (for fish). And despite the somewhat contrived name (although it is accurate to the phonetic pronunciation of the country by its natives), nothing at Eataly feels forced or gimmicky at all.

The hour was later than their typical busy rush, somewhere after eight o'clock. We were swiftly seated at Verdure and put our names in at Pesce to be transferred after the first course. While this worked out swimmingly for us, a prime-time attempt of the same could allow for some unappealing waits and an undesirable lapse in between plates. But if you're quite aware of how the seating functions and you're cool with that, it shouldn't be too much of a problem. As it were, a few lingering shoppers browsed the aisles for tiny bottles of ten dollar pistachio cream or imported hand-made fettuccine asciutta, but weren't at all distracting or irritating as might be the case earlier in the day when the joint is as packed as their imported sardines. They actually contribute a sort of vibrant energy to the hall, making everything feel a bit festive. Our waiter perpetuated that feeling, welcoming us with a sincere smile, a sort of dashing charm and an effortless knowledge of the menu and specials. He wasn't Italian, but obviously the Italians in charge schooled everyone rigorously so that when it got to this point, the bella figurawas as natural as spaghetti and marinara.

Onto our food, which was unerringly much better than I was expecting. The Verdure menu is extensive, especially considering that most of the options are not only vegetable-based, but vegan, thus containing no dairy, egg or even honey (the latter is something I will never understand completely, but that's somebody else's blog). There are salads and soups and roasts and grills, so in order to experience a bit of the variety, we went with the Piatto Misto, which boasted a trio of salads and a small cup of the soup of the day (ours happened to be a hearty minestrone heavy on flavor and chickpeas). Raw Brussels sprouts, one of those things one might make a joke about eating, worked here, leafed out and paired with crunchy sweet strips of red pepper and ribbons of carrots so thin that the bright store lighting shone right through. Next to that was a fine farro salad of cold grains, lightened with leaves of radicchio and frisee, and dressed in an invisible but robust vinegary dressing. Third was a melange of root vegetables roasted to a meaty chew atop a bed of baby lettuces that could've used a little more punch in the vinaigrette themselves, but the tubers picked up much of the slack. A stuffed squash with lentils and a cauliflower and cardoon gratin looked worth returning for. (There is the option of pairing the latter with shavings of white truffles for a mere $67. That would make an $80 side dish... a little out of my budget, but 'tis the season, to be fair.)

We held off on beverages to enjoy a glass of wine with our entrees at Il Pesce. The wine and beer lists are extensive and unique to each "department", thoughtfully matched to complement the foods and flavors on their menus. We opted for a Langhe Arneis, a very uniquely flavored wine with a huge nose, honeyed but crisp and perfect with fish. Memorably good. I don't think it was just luck for us that it went so well with our entrees. A grilled striper, simply adorned with capers and lemon, nothin' fancy, was crisp-skinned and pure-fleshed. Since the secondi are served true to Italian style, they are alone on the plate. There are daily contorni to fill out your mains. We chose a lovely roast of cauliflowers, which came an eclectic farrago of purple, white, green and golden types, roasted deeply to char the nutty florets and tenderize the stalks. Veggies get assertive here, which is how I like them. They're not shy with the e.v.o.o., especially not when they're blessed with the imported abundance at hand from the grocery.
A spiedino, also varies daily, continued my string of good luck with squid. The tenderest of tender tentacles and a few meaty shrimp comprised that day's skewer, served on a bed of nice, bitey arugula. We could've done dessert (and well you can, with an ample selection of pastry and dolci to be had at La Pasticceria, or one of the unctuous gelati from La Gelateria (interestingly, made from a local dairy's milk, which seems prudent). But it was getting late... too late for gelato, in fact, which closes at 10pm. And despite being tempted by the display and the rich Lavazza which can be had to accompany, dessert got skipped, mostly due the late hour. But also, for reasons yet not determined, because our waiter came back with the bottle as we were midway through our mains, after our glasses were nearly empty and refilled them both. I tried to intercept his pour by saying we hadn't ordered the bottle, but he winked and smiled and said that this one was on the house. Charming, in true Italian style.

200 Fifth Avenue (at 23rd Street)
Phone Number: 212-229-2560

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Northern Spy Food Co. Could Try a Little Harder

I keep straying from my modus operandi here. I get swayed by places that are doing what I like them to do- the prettiness of the book cover, and forget that I'm to focus on the author (so to speak). And sometimes they live up (in those cases, bless them.) But I ended up at Northern Spy Food Co., a restaurant I've actually been wanting to get to for months (Alphabet City! So far!!) and it unfortunately reminded me of why I did name my blog as such; there's a reason to put your faith in a trustworthy cook.

Not that Northern Spy is all bad. Or bad at all, really. In fact, there is some very tasty fare to be had amidst the rustically designed dining room. Outdoor park-style benches and folding chairs sidle up to small wooden tables with paper napkins and unremarkable utensils. Our waitress had the lovely glow and smooth skin of a country maid, but was about as nice as the gristly barn-hand. My companion noted that she greeted us with a phatic inquiry of how we were doing, but failed to even give us time to proffer a response. I kept waiting for her to soften up and be as nice as the space demanded, but either she was having a bad day or it just wasn't in her. Either way, it didn't help the overall experience.

The menu boasts the locals and the sustainables (the website has a list of their purveyors), and many of the dishes share a lot of the same ingredients, so you'll want to plan a bit what you order so as not to get too much of the same stuff over and over again. We started with a freekeh "risotto", a young wheatberry not dissimilar to barley, perfectly cooked to retain its nuttiness and toothsome chew, and bound in a cheesy cream sauce rife with chunks of zucchini and kabocha. The earthiness of the grain and the heft of the veggies balanced the undeniable richness of the mascarpone; this was one of the better dishes. A chiffonade of kale with crunchy roasted almonds, pecorino and clothbound cheddar (they are big on their clothbound cheddar), is nothing more than a sum of it's parts, and maybe even less so. A hefty pour of oil and abundant shaved pecorino dressed a rather enormous pile of raw kale, which hid some roasted almonds, curds of cheddar and a couple of cubes of delicata squash, but a lack of salt or acid rendered it simply ho-hum. Plus it was very difficult to fork up as the kale wouldn't quite succumb to the tine of the fork, but slipped off if you attempted a scooping method. City Bakery does a similar version of this salad, using all of the above ingredients minus the cheddar and some of the oil, and plus slivers of red onion and a sprinkle of salt... and it is exceptional. It can be done, it's just not up to snuff here. You might be better off with the kabocha squash soup which smelled heavenly bypassing our table for the next in the hands of our surly-ish waitress.

Mains tend even more rustic: good sturdy autumnal fare with two pork dishes, a chicken, a fish, and a vegetarian dish. The latter, polenta with wild mushrooms and two sunny-side up eggs sounded (and looked) simple but delicious, but wasn't one of our waitress's top recommendations, so we opted instead for the daily catch (striped bass) and a special of olive oil-poached

squid and mussels with beans and carrots. The bass (skin-on) was pan-seared, nice and flakey with a perfectly crisped skin. Yummy melted cipolline onions, puree of celeriac and some chunks of that root roasted. There was supposed to be some fennel in there somewhere (the bulb? the seed?) but I failed to detect it anywhere. But, it was a nice dish. I've just been having such good luck with squid lately that I was excited for this dish, but it didn't live up to my expectations. The squid was a little fishy, the beans slightly undercooked and overwhelmingly salty to boot. The mussels were the only exception... plump and meaty little specimens much fresher than their tentacled brethren, which were initially almost a deterrent to ordering it (mussels aren't my absolute faves), but saved what there was of saving in an otherwise disappointing dish. A side of green beans (these were the only real vegetable side. A request for a portion of brussels sprouts that were on the menu accompanying the Hudson Valley pork was denied, stating that it wasn't even worth asking the chef... he would not do it. This is not Le Bernardin, my friends, and I was not asking for truffles. They are little cabbages. This did not seem to be an extraordinary demand. But apparently, it was.) were tasty, though, if a bit too oily, but bright green and kicked up with some sauteed onion and pungent anchovy. Nice beans, but they'll never make up for the loss of the sprouts.

Desserts are stronger. There was a lovely little coupe of pumpkin mousse capped with a caramelized tuile of pecan, a cheesecake, cookies, tarts and pies. We opted for the latter, a lattice-topped apple with vanilla ice cream and some

superfluous oat crumby-dusty stuff atop. A solid pie (an good crust, thick, but flaky and buttery and crunched with big crystals of sparkly coarse sugar) fulfills all pie expectations, proportionately more crust than filling, if you like it that way. It could have been warmed, howver, and in retrospect the mousse was probably more interesting. Rich, intense coffee arrives in heavy white porcelain mugs from Strongtree, Hudson Valley's small-batch roaster of organic, heirloom beans.

We snagged the last two top upon arrival; the restaurant was full and stayed so throughout the course of the evening. Full enough that when one of the other waiters tried to navigate an armful of coats to check in back that she gently brushed our waitress's head with the errant sleeve of a parka, drawing visible ire and a vigorous roll of the eyes from her. She was such a pretty thing; such a disposition did not become her. But that's kind of how I felt about the restaurant itself. Despite the 23 in Zagat and a nod in the back listings of Edible, I can't give the accolades I had hoped. I so much wanted to love it! But no matter my admiration of their aesthetic and responsible sourcing, if the foods not up to snuff I can't become a follower. Some of the energies of doing the right thing need to be diverted into the preparation. That's not to say that if I ever found myself in the far reaches of Alphabet City needing sustenance that I wouldn't give it another try (perhaps stick the the meatier options? Or balk our server's suggestion and go veggie?), but from that visit I couldn't justify the voyage.

Oh yeah. The chef is Nathan Foot. Next time I will be aware of THAT first, and the rest should follow.

Northern Spy Food Co.
511 East 12th Street (between Ave. A and Ave B)
tel. 212-228-5100

Monday, November 8, 2010

Kin Shop: Harold's 2.0

It seemed a fitting destination spot since our post-prandial plan was to go see The Social Network, and Chef Harold Dieterle is not my real life friend- but he is my Facebook friend. Kin Shop, his new Asian-hawker food style restaurant, is also conveniently located near enough the theatre we were attending, so we went for an early meal before the show (an easy enough walk-in at that early hour). The popularity of food celebrities right now made it that such an attempt a later hour might've been impossible, as the dining room filled up briskly after the approximate seven p.m. chime. I wish I could say that it was because of the food, but despite some stellar dishes, I experienced more kinks with the menu than hits. That said, I think this is a perfect example of why experienced, published (read: paid) food critics wouldn't proffer a review without at least two revisits, because it very well may have just been a circumstance of poor ordering that left me with my lackluster appraisal. But since I am not one of those, my appraisal is as follows. It's more difficult to critique a place when you are in fond admiration of its creator (see earlier review of Perilla), but also helps no one to gloss over the faults as I found them. Anyways, I think the hallmark of a good chef is to take the criticism as it is doled and at least consider it, even if it's not coming from a Bruni or Sietsema. Like I said, I can only judge with the tongue that came along with the head I was born with.

Kin Shop has only been open a month or so at best, so perhaps its still working out some of its kinks. The name means both "to eat" in Thai as well as a nod to it's kinship and proximity to Dieterle's first restaurant, Perilla. The room is a painted a watery cool, lovely, with paisley-esque murals in muted shades of teal and seafoam, heavy grey marble counters and white-washed exposed brick framing a brightly lit, steely open kitchen. The staff is gracious and welcoming, friendly if not overly helpful on some of the more technical issues. It was nice to see the chef himself attending to some of the diners (probably friends), and inspecting many of the dishes as they made their way out of the kitchen. However, it might have behooved him to have actually dirtied that stark white apron with a bit of hands-on, because despite the notable prettiness of presentation, much of what we tried had glaring flavor flaws that could've been easily amended had he been taking a greater part in their production rather than noticeably attentive to his Blackberry.
But let's not get off on the wrong foot, because some of what we had was remarkably good. The eponymous Kin & Tonic cocktail was a perfect riff on the classic, novel with the addition of cucumber, cilantro, and splash of St. Germaine, but not sweet as to render itself a combative pairing with food. Our first dish was by far the best, an order enthusiastically encouraged by the very personable bartender. Squid Ink and Hot Oil soup arrived fragrant and steaming with a glistening inkiness that would rival the first few weeks of the BP Oil spill. And its effects on your lips and tongue (while transient) are no less impressive. This might not be the best dish to order on a first date if your are a little self-conscious about your appearance, but as long as that's not an issue, but taste is exponentially more subtle than the appearance. The ocean-salty black-as-sin broth punched with garlic buoys generous rounds of tender squid stuffed with a brisket forcemeat. A fine mince of water chestnut sinks to the bottom but spoons up to catch crisp julienned green beans that both give a little crunch to the silky broth and morsels of seafood. The menu denotes spiciness with an asterisk for an offending dishes, but this one just kisses the brink of heat making you take enough time with each spoonful to appreciate the sexy farrago of
flavors. It also served as the saviour to a flop of an eggplant dish, which found tough chunks of mostly undercooked, totally underseasoned vegetable coated with tiny "rice pearls" which looked and tasted a lot like toasted millet, but unfortunately less nuttiness. A very nice looking dish (it reminded me of how tiny nonpareils give a shimmery delicateness to confections), but if you've ever tried raw eggplant out of curiosity, it's not something you'd look forward to repeating. That said, if you threw the whole lot into the squid soup… well, suffice it to say I kind of wish I'd've just done that.

The menu boasts quite a few curries and noodle dishes, but there was a seabass braise with matsutake mushrooms that sort of hollered out at me, so we opted for that as a main, as well as the Phuket grilled shrimp (priced per piece). There was no way of knowing that "wet curry" meant soup-style, and after the squid ink soup… well, that's a lot of liquid. The broth also robbed the fungi of all their personality, making them spongey little floaters swimming in a bland stock bobbled with some out-of-place chunks of juicy rambutan and a characterless hunk of fish that had a fairly nice flake going for it, but little else. Plus, I don't want to pay $26 for that much water. Perhaps all the salt, umami and funk got used up in the side dish of Asian greens, which were tasty enough as long as each bite included a hefty hunk of waterchestnut, but much too salty without. To me, though, saltiness is forgivable; I prefer the slight err to the saline side than pasty insipidness. Again, dump those greens in with the fish and the balance is achieved. This much reformatting, however, cannot be expected of the diner, nor such serendipitous order-pairing. Each dish passed underneath Dieterle's watchful eye, but you can't taste the flavors with your cornea. It's too early for him to get sloppy and expect to glide along on the wings of his notoriety. The prawn was a big meaty sucker, but somewhat overcooked to toughness, and again a little salty. The nutty sauce served in its own little white porcelain pitcher aside, redolent with floral peppercorns and a hint of fishy funk, with a nice squeeze of lime countered a little of that, but shouldn't have had to. Dessert list is a pretty minimal proposal, with only one real constructed dessert (a passion fruit steamed pudding) and a smattering of sorbets and ice creams with appropriate Asian flavor profiles (galangal, kaffir lime, Thai iced tea, etc.).

The possibility does remain, however, that we just ordered poorly. Some of the restaurant's flaws reminded me much of the old John Dory, soon (as early as tonight?) to reopen in its new location near its kin, The Breslin at The Ace Hotel. The former Dory suffered from an excess of flavor, saltiness and heft in too many of the dishes, making individual meals difficult to navigate. While certain plates provide a sort of gluttonous delight, their powerful flavors often fight with one another. It suffered its fateful demise, in my opinion, because of those faults, but as I hope its reincarnation proves, is not an unsalvageable concept- just one in need of some revamping to figure itself out. So it is with Kin Shop, which I hope will remedy its current missteps and emerge the stronger sibling as a result (and avoid painful relocation such like the Dory). Dietere's got it in him, he just has to make sure he's guiding the ship and not just going along for the ride.

kin shop
469 6th avenue
between 11th st & 12th st
1 212 675 4295