Thursday, May 26, 2011

FEDORA: I Tip my Hat

A bit turned around on the circuitous streets of the West Village, I tracked down a local for directions to Fedora, at which he wrinkled up his nose and remarked "that old dodgy place?" and pointed me around the corner. He was, however, referencing the Fedora of late, an historic NYC relic long since shut down. The new incarnation, nurtured back to life by the Joseph Leonard/Jeffrey's Grocery team, retains only the name for nostalgia's sake. Everything else is revamped and renovated, and as a result, one spot-on destination worthy restaurant, hitting just about every crucial element square on the head. And capped off with the snazz of a Fedora.

Even their reservation policy is novel and convenient. Day of, starts at 11am, first call, first served. We easily nabbed a two-top for 7:45, and at 7:35, the party prior was paying up and heading out. So far, so good. The space is dark, to be sure, and as the evening progresses, so does the noise volume. But it suits the bustling vibe. There were only four servers that we could intuit, but each pitched in to help where needed, with no loss of hospitality or flow. They dress in natty vests and button downs, jeans and tattoos: standard hipster-waiter uniform.

Specials were described in detail and with price: these guys know their customer. The food on the menu runs the risk of sounding too outlandish, but the output (for the most part) assuages less adventurous palates. Snarkily titled Crispy Pig's Head was nothing even remotely shocking. Intensely porky cheek meat, pulled, seasoned, and formed into a tender croquette, refreshed by crunchy cucumbers, shredded napa cabbage and enriched by a luscious gribiche dressing that hinted vaguely of ranch, but this blend of fresh sour cream and snipped herbs coalesced to reach heights no Hidden Valley ever even dreamed of. A beet salad comes in a
humongous bowl (Elaine would be proud), filled with quartered chioggias steamed tender, lots of shaved ricotta and crunchy walnuts atop mixed greens. A missed opportunity presented itself in a dish that every table flanking us ordered... and consequently licked clean. The Egg in a Hold, a suspicious sounding combination of tripe ragout and cheddar with a poached egg on toast, looked saucy and rich. Split between four appeared the ideal breakdown for an appetizer, otherwise running the risk of appetite-killer. But each bite was met with eye-rolling satisfaction: a definite must-order for a return visit.

Portions here are generous, especially for the prices. After such hefty appetizers, I couldn't even finish my entree, delicious as though it was. Pan-roasted hake with shiitake and radishes sat on a creamy pillow of soft polenta. The fish was crisped golden on one side and flaked tender beneath, the lightly pickled radishes adding a nice, sour foil and the mushrooms (both those mentioned and a cameo of buna shimeji) a touch of umami. A daily special of roasted squab was a little trickier. It arrived Tim

Burton-style: little rigor-mortis claws reaching out over the edge of the dish, which would've worked better had the other end of the leg not been sort of gristly and tough, while remaining undercooked. It was actually frightening in more than just appearance, although glazed in a lip-smacking sauce that made up for some of its faults. And while I thought Sant Ambroeus would serve me my last brussels sprouts,
Fedora's trumped them on all counts (not in the least actually remembering that I ordered them.) While not the perfect compliment to our entrees, they certainly were not for want of flavor themselves. Roasted with black beans, bacon and a vinegary heat, they acted as little umami bombs, perfectly cooked to a firm tenderness and abundant in their white porcelain bowl.

Full bellied from "supper" (as it is dubbed on the menu), the dessert list looked too enticing to deny. Unfortunately, the apple crumble pie that so enthusiastically jumped out at me had, bewilderingly (for a Tuesday night on the early side), "run out." Thus, we were offered a waitress's choice (which was my second choice, anyways) of "cheesecake" panna cotta, a tangy custard glazed with an even kickier
passion fruit jelly and a drift of crumbed graham cracker, best spooned up generously with each mouthful to cut the tart bite of the pudding with its sandy sweetness. A nice dessert, complemented luxuriously with a robust cup of Stumptown (I ordered decaf, and was again forewarned of a potential supply exhaustion, but apparently I swooped in in time for a final cup). Thankfully, because even if this was bottom-of-the-pot it was a top-of-the-charts mug of joe, caffeinated or not. (Man, I love where I'm from.) So despite its few dainty missteps, Fedora comes off as an all-around crowd-pleaser, worthy of a subway trip if that's what it takes, or else just a good GPS for the windy streets of the West Village. Once arrived , you can stash it under your fedora.

239 West 4th Street

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Makes it tough when the staff and ownership of a place is so friendly and generous that you really want to like it... but just don't, really, that much. I unfortunately felt this way about Sant Ambroeus, another restaurant that has been around for ages and established a very solid reputation, but might just be resting a bit too much upon it. The interior is dimly lit and a bit pallid, but in contrast to the atmosphere, the smiling staff, clad in well-fitting, blossom-pink shirts circulate convivially, giving the room an energy that alone it would have not. The actual service, however, was a bit European when you get right down to it. They will fulfill a request expeditiously and water glasses were never long unfilled, but if you don't signal your desires, they'll leave you be. Thus, we were sitting for quite too long, chatting and enjoying our company, until we realized we had never even placed our order. Same too with dessert and the check. The assertion needs to come on your part, or that relaxed Italian version of laissez-faire will leave you starving, restless and unattended.

In appetizers, though, we started off strong: a seasonal Insalata Arcobalena arrived living up to its name (Italian for rainbow). A colorful array
of emerald haricots verts, bright red tomatoes, delicate pink pickled onions, sunny baby corns and multi-colored legumes was a bright foil to the subdued room. Lightly tossed in an tart herbal dressing, it is a perfectly lovely springtime starter, and the beans fortified it enough to stand up to any residual winter chill. A special salad dubbed Esotica was less to my taste, although the tender seared tuna atop was excellent and the dressing vibrant. A motley hodgepodge of juicy watermelon,
papaya and cucumber cubes joined the dish but made for strange bedfellows with fish. Not much tied the two together aside from proximity; a smattering of parsley or even a true bed of lettuce might have finished up the dish more nicely. It could make a decent luncheon, though, on a warm summer's day, like an updated, piscine Waldorf. I'm not so much for that fruit and fish thing, though. As good (or better) than even the Arcobalena was the Carciofi, a simple amalgamation of shaved
artichokes amidst a sizeable tangle of bitey arugula and some chunks of flavorful tomato, with square panes of thinly sliced grana and a brilliantly tangy lemony dressing. The artichoke gave just enough resistance to the bite and the tender lettuces didn't- a winning pair. A plentiful, gratis bread basket offered nutty, moist-crumbed multi-grain and buttery foccacia: both excellent.

Mains were less successful, of the two we tried. Both specials of the day, but in execution, fairly unspecial. The better of the two was a seafood spaghetti, perfect in proportion but lacking
pizzazz, even with the (impalpable) addition of jalapeno to a sparse tomato sauce anointing a nice array of fresh maritime proteins. Not bad, just lackluster. Similarly, grilled striper with seasonal vegetables was just food. The fish was fresh, well-cooked if uninspired, and the "seasonal" vegetables not particularly demonstrative of any particular season (not considering the vernal abundance gracing most restaurants right now: ramps and asparagus in the least). Instead they were buttery planks of steamed carrot and truncated green beans, and (oddly enough)
more baby corns, which while tasty, conjured up more the idea of Del Monte Mixed Vegetables than a springtime cornocopia of farm-fresh produce. Fluffy potato puree was piped into small florets orbiting the dish: perhaps as a nod to the restaurant's opening year, 1936. Oh, and I almost forgot!- (as, coincidentally, did our waitress) an order of Brussels sprouts, on the side. I was wildly anticipating these as a sort of last hurrah, since I thought the crucifer had pretty much gone out with the groundhog. But my exceptional dining companion was duly venerated for having found what I imagine was one of the last NYC restaurant with them on offer. Until they didn't arrive... and then again, when they did. Our server forgot to place the order, then ran back order up a serving. But brussels sprouts take a good little while to cook, and these behemoth specimens achieved a bright green coat but a raw, bitter white center, raw on the palate as well as my nerves. Some veggies are perfectly all right lightly steamed: brussels sprouts are not one of them. The retained the bitter earthiness of dirt inside, but even the one tiny one that managed to get cooked all the way through wasn't seasoned to any remarkable effect. In the least, though, it would've been easy enough to cut them all that small and achieve some tenderness in taste and texture. So sad when the little cabbages debase their potential.

A little sweet is in order at a place like Ambroeus, which boasts "gelateria/espresso bar/paninoteca/pasticceria" somewhat more prominently than "ristorante". The caffe is a strong point, too, Danesi Caffe imported from Italy and brewed strong accordingly. A tray of all the nightly dessert options is presented and artfully described: a fairly traditional array of cannolis, tiramisu and millefoglie, etc. We opted for a passion fruit
torrone, a semi-freddo layered with thin, dense pistachio sponge and apricot jam beneath a marshmallowy pillow of tangy, tropical mousse studded with candied fruits. Perched atop was a tiny little chocolate placard, with "Sant Ambroeus, dal 1936" inscribed in gold, as if to convince you once again of the staying power of this historic Milanese transplant. And paired with the ambient charm, the glimmers of satisfaction, and the somewhat transporting atmosphere of the place, it sort of does achieve just that.

259 West 4th Street

Thursday, May 19, 2011


This restaurant will always be on my Top Ten list. I think it's one of the best casual Italian joints in the city, celebrating the abundance and rusticity that I think Italians do best. It's not fancy or nuanced, but Frank DeCarlo puts out as true of Italian food as any Mario or Giovanni, and with it he puts his heart and soul. I've never been to Peasant when he's not in the kitchen- a gorgeous, brick-walled open space with a glowing hot brick oven, butcher blocks counters strewn with huge bowls of seasonal produce, gleaming copper pots suspended from the ceiling, and a hustling team of concentrated cooks.

Our server was note-worthily perfect. Casually clad a black tee and jeans, but with an Wikipedic knowledge of the menu, acute recognition capabilities of regular diners (which the next table over was) and a genuine sense of hospitality. I wanted to invite him to dine with us. Although I didn't want to share our food.

We split the insalata stagionale, or actually, they split it for us- arriving on two
small plates divided judiciously and plated nicely (which wouldn't have happened had we been left to our own devices.) A harbinger of spring showcased green and white asparagus, crimson and golden beets, shaved fennel, radishes, slivered red onions and some bitey arugula to punch things up. If there was a dressing, it was ethereally light or else I missed it, but the vegetables were so fresh and flavorful they sang on their own.
Another appetizer was a seasonal special of thick, meaty spears of asparagus grilled to a slight char and crowned with a lightly poached egg for that classic combination. (Note: please forgive the abysmal photography of this entry. My dining companion, charming as he may be, was not cooperating as a contributing eater. He wasn't amused by my photographing our vittles, so I attempted to do so more furtively, without a flash. But in the candlelit dimness of the restaurant, this was hardly an easy feat.) For heartier appetites, there are a variety of brick oven Neopolitan pizzas, simple enough not to overpower oncoming courses, but flavorful enough to comprise a meal, as well, if you so choose.

I was thrilled to see that favorite fish of mine on the menu for a main course: skate, oven baked. Less thrilled was I that my dining partner insisted on the same, stating it as the whole reason for choosing Peasant. Uncooperative as a co-eater, for sure, but at least he had good taste. The whole wing arrived in a hellishly hot skillet, capers sizzling in the hot buttery juices pooling around the fish, which sported a light dusting of breadcrumbs atop instead of the usual all-over breading, allowing it to retain the integrity of its delicate flesh and unique, ropey consistency. A sprig of roasted thyme balances on top, which I recommend dispersing the tiny, fragrant leaves of across the dish, and use that juicy wedge of juicy lemon wedge to its full advantage.
Really a superlative preparation.. and super-sized. In retrospect we should've split the fish and sampled another main, but lucky you are that I can suggest you do so instead. We ordered a side of sauteed broccoli rabe, brilliantly green and sweetened with a fruity olive oil. Frank has a bit of a heavy hand with the e.v.o.o, for sure, but it doesn't come across greasy or sodden, probably due to the excellent pedigree of oils on hand. Those shy of a little extra lubrication might well be advised, however.

In a trifecta of misbehavior, my friend denied me the luxury of dessert at Peasant, although I haven't heard that they quite live up to the high bar set by all the other components of the restaurant. Instead, we shuffled off to Cones on Bleecker street for some (admittedly excellent) gelato. I went with a novelty flavor of sweet corn dusted with cinnamon, and one scoop of raspberry, which was a lovely pairing of creamy sweet to luscious tart, and light enough to top off a belly which was really not for want of more food.


Peasant Restaurant

194 Elizabeth St.
Phone: 212-965-9511