Wednesday, October 12, 2011

WESTVILLE: Why Wasn't I Here Before?

Westville is four blocks from my house.  It is cheap (relatively), market-driven, lively, popular, friendly and cute.  So I ask me: why haven't I ever been here before??

Regardless, I was here last night, and it evokes a "finally" type qualifier.  Westville is not fine dining, certainly not faultless, but it's good, solid, fresh seasonal food that as long as you're in the mood for that, is really tough to have a problem with.  The lines outside for brunch (and a packed house on the night I visited), illustrate this.  Anyways, on probably the last night of the year where dining outside would be an option, we plunked down at a prime two-top on a full-moon moonlit evening, still balmy of residual summer but fall making some headway into the hyper-seasonal menu.  We took a LONG time deciding what to order.  The regular menu is long; the seasonal market daily special's menu is the same length.  Sidelong glances to our neighbor's dinners dictated that we wouldn't be ordering separate apps, mains and sides: these portions are BIG.  There are a few salads, none of which scream ingenuity, so we started off with a pile of roasted beets (given the option of walnuts vs. goat cheese, we chose fromage), steaming on a porcelain white plate, just screaming for the cheese to warm up and ease it's way between the chunks of pristine root.  Far as I could tell, they were virgin, so I who love beets, relished their inherent beetness, but the herb-flecked goat cheese rescued them from monotony.

Next up, we chose from a head-spinningly long list of market sides for a four-option plate ($14.00) and shared an entree of whole roasted trout with sweet potato fries and salad.  We followed our server's suggestion with the brussels sprouts and artichokes (which were my choices anyways) plus roasted cauliflower dijonaise (sic), and sauteed mushrooms with leeks.  The mushrooms were the best by far, a perfectly hodgepodge of woodland funghi, salty and fragrant of earth and umami.  Next, I guess I had to love the brussels sprouts, even if they were slightly underdone in their middles.   (The smaller ones were perfectly tender and nutty like a good sprout should be.)  A fugitive hunk of cauliflower from a prior diner's fumble remained on the sidewalk underneath our table, and it almost looked good enough to overhaul the Five Second rule.  So it made the cut for our #3 choice.  Alas, in reality the cauliflower was also unevenly cooked: small florets softened ideally but the bigger ones left with a little too much raw bite in the centers.  But the roasty edges hinted of pungent mustard with a nudge of sweet and the richness of a touch a mayonnaise, perhaps?  The most disappointing were the artichokes, though.  Obviously not fresh-plucked specimens, they actually tasted like canned (which are probably THE best canned vegetable there is along with corn, but still), with a bit of saline tang, quartered and haphazardly matted with parmesan.  Nothing of the rich, nutty, earthy thistle that I was expecting, especially since they had come recommended as a favorite by our waitress.  But vegephiles unite: you could easily call this plate alone dinner, especially if you opted for some of the heartier, protein-studded selections like the marinated tofu or seared plantains with cotija.   We stuck it out for a real main course, though, with the whole grilled trout, which was a big fish, this guy, sporting char marks that were no joke- the smoky, toasty flavor of fire permeated the delicate flesh to great effect, conjuring up recollections of a fresh caught rainbow cooked over open coals at a dusky campfire I may or may not have ever experienced.  Sweet potato fries were the perfect foil for it, crispy and tender with a rich, vegetal sweetness.  Good as the trout was, though, I couldn't keep my eyes off the chicken shawarma adjacent to us, which was a an overloaded platter heaped with chunks of fire-grilled chicken with a yogurty salad and stacks of pliant flatbread.  That plate could've fed two hungries alone.  A seafood burger on a Portuguese roll, a steak salad... a lot of stuff on this menu looked tempting.

We (unfortunately) skipped dessert... I looked at the daily specials listing pumpkin pie as the dessert option, which I'm not quite ready to accept in a surrender of summer.  That completely overlooked the farm-friendly pies, cobblers and sundaes on the regular menu that totally should've been explored.

I didn't follow any chef here.  (They don't even list a chef on their website.  There are three Westville locations, so probably whoever has their thumb on the menu just scripts all of them.)  If anything, I followed the farmer, or at least his dirt candy.  And I'll come back again, too, to see what these cooks can do with what the season has to offer.

246 W18th Street, New York, NY 10011
Between 7th & 8th Avenues
Phone: 212-924-2223

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Diversion: Bklyn/DUMONT

The summer weekend MTA schedules threw our transportation options a pretty giant curve by eliminating L train service, so the half-mile trek from the F to DuMont might have contributed somewhat to my experience.  My #'s 2 and 3 of dining companions arrived 45 minutes post-reservation, which (opposed to myself) the accommodating staff had nary an issue with.  When they finally got there, we were whisked off through a tiny white-washed barroom, on into a tented, heated garden with picnic tables and overgrown ivy creating a magical, unexpected treasure of a dining "room".  I almost expected to see fireflies gadding about, despite the onset of early fall.  There's nothing frou-frou here at DuMont: any frivolity is probably handed off to its sister restaurant, the formal, prix-fixe Dressler nearby.  Instead, the vibe, the food, and the service here is neighborhood-friendly, and as undemanding of your palate as it is on your wallet.

I can't remember why none of us ordered the corn soup... it smelled ethereal, smoky and spiked with jalapeno, and was recommended by the charming couple who babysat me at the bar while I waited for my guests.  But instead two of us ordered the beet salad, which was a decent starter I suppose: the beets were prime specimens for their own sake, but a cold, hard puck of pointless goat cheese rolled in chopped walnuts quite overwhelmed the little dears.  They would've been just fine on their own, buried underneath a nest of arugula and sided with juicy, mild sections of grapefruit atop a thick smear of unctuous yogurt.  Kick that crottin by the wayside (or wrap it in a napkin and filch it for a breakfast omelette tomorrow- it might perk up warmed) and enjoy the rest of the salad on its own.  Memorably better, in an I-wish-I-would've-ordered-this-but-at-least-he-let-me-try-a-bite fashion, were the fried artichokes.  Meaty at the heart and crisp at the edges, and earthy and vegetal as a good artichoke should be.  They're cribbed on a luscious bed of garlicky, lemony cream, perfectly complementing the salty, oily  thistle.  Ahh, to have ordered the artichokes....

Alas, I was somewhat redressed (on paper) with the entrees, which proffered up that favorite skate of mine, and brussels sprouts on the list of sides, to boot.  And the skate was ace, tender in its ropey way and crispy golden on the edges- not so different from those exquisite artichokes.  The dumptruck of mashed potatoes underneath, however, was not only disturbing in proportion, but garnished with a handful of misfit olives and two juicy chunks of warmed tomatoes- delicious in their own right but poorly matched with the spuds.  And the brussels sprouts "roasted with pancetta" not only weren't roasted, they had been steamed to just-crisp emerald green...  ideal if you are a haricot-verts, perhaps  (and even this is ebbing out of fashion: see Ned Ludd), but insufficient if you are a crucifer.  Instead, the oily sprouts were just short of tender, hinting of a sulfuric bitterness and riddled with morsels of bacon which, while abundant, were insufficient to mask the inadequate cooking.  They were what I might accidentally cook at home if I was short on time, whisking them off the stove prematurely, but deeming them edible in a sort of feed-focused adequacy, all the time wishing I had left 'em another minute and a half on the heat. Unsatisfactory at home, but unacceptable at any reputable restaurant. And not roasted.  At all.  You will not, however, be disappointed with the portion sizes:  the kitchen dishes out generously.  I made off with a good cup and a half of potato puree from my skate, which sauteed up nicely into little pancakes the next day.  Too bad I didn't hang onto that chevre: I could've had two meals from one.

We also received a special-of-the-day gnocchi with porcinis... that we didn't order.  Instead of graciously leaving the dish for the three of us to nibble as a mid-course, our waiter snatched it away and there was that awkward wait while our two correctly delivered dishes chilled and stagnated, and we were haunted by the heavenly perfume of the absconded porcini dish.  In the interim, we nibbled at the exceptional fries that accompanied a good, solid no-frills burger.  Big juicy patty just barely pinkish in the middle atop a toasted brioche bun, there wasn't much to complain about.  In time, entree #3 arrived, which was a special of the day: hake, baked tasty, but the appetite that had spawned awaiting its arrival obfuscated my intent to photograph it and my memory of its accoutrements.  We think it had roasted squash and broccoli romanesco, piled again atop a heap of pommes purees (don't get me wrong, they do them well enough, but doubled-up with both fishes and the sheer excess of quantity might raise a brow or two).

Now at this point, dessert was in no way necessary.  And  the food up until this point hadn't really whipped me into a frenzy of desire for what else the chef could proffer, but at the same time, my friends were from out of town, and we WERE all the way out in Brooklyn, for Heaven's sake.  We might as well see as much as it had to offer as possible, right?  And a warm berry buckle seemed fitting on an unusually cool and drizzle-threatening late summer evening.  And it was lovely, this little treasure, ripe with jammy fruit and a buttery crumb topping, lubed up by a nice scoop of traditional vanilla.  The chef amusingly adorned the ice cream with two sugary roasted pecans, giving it a somewhat fly-like animation, but none the less tasty for it.   So underneath the strings of party lights and protective tent, surrounded by a convivial din of laughter and clinking forks, DuMont really is a pretty good little neighborhood bistro.  But if you don't live in the neighborhood (regardless of the MTA's track work schedule), it's not much worth the hike out there, for food as good as you can find at a number of similar places, probably just blocks from Wherever You Live, NYC.

432 Union Avenue

Monday, October 3, 2011


If Sifty can give it a deuce, I thought it worth a trek to the Upper West Side.  More than that, though, Daniel Boulud isn't one to lead me astray, and though the expansion of his increasingly vast empire doesn't have him slinging hash much himself in any of his eponymous restaurants, he actually WAS there the night I visited.  Boulud Sud opened recently in the space Boulud originally desired for Cafe Boulud, but the deal fell through last minute.  So he opened Cafe around the corner, and when the address finally again became available, he snatched it up.  Conveniently located just south of Bar Boulud (thus, the Sud, and also a nod to the south Mediterranean influence on the menu), Boulud Sud has hit the ground running, and I have to admit my sky-high expectations based on the reviews I heard might have contributed to a heightened criticalness.

The room is subdued, verging on bland.  Ivory and taupe hues, plus glowy lighting somewhat soften the sterility of decor, but regardless there is a sense of elegance and luxury here.   There are white tablecloths in the dining room, but simple woven place mats top the bar and lounge tables.  It's just a hint shy of the poshness of Daniel, while more sophisticated than db Bistro Moderne; that said, all of Daniel's pricepoints fall within the "special occasion" category to me.

  The menu is divided into  De La Mer (fish, etc.) , Du Jardin (vegetable) and De La Ferme (meat & fowl).   Our waiter's enthusiasm for the Salade Tropezienne convinced me to start with that, but while it was a lovely tumble of crisp and juicy fennel, celery and artichoke, it obfuscated a sort of mild skordalia-esque cream bedding the vegetables that wasn't discovered until about 75% of the way through.  Without it, it was a simply dressed raw vegetable salad, but even with the addition of it didn't immediately become rave-worthy.  A saffron linguine with bottarga and razor clams proved more interesting, the spendy spice perfuming the pasta itself along with lemon, then simply tossed with the shellfish and a sprinkle of the mullet roe- but again, a solid dish without much fanfare.  

I was more impressed with the entrees, both selections from De La Mer.  Cedar grilled rouget absorbed its woody fragrance, then present on a flamboyant furl of parchment alongside baby fennel and shallots, with a spritz of piment d'espellette for kicks.   Even more flavorful was the pungent romanesco that pooled aside a slim filet of daurade cooked a la plancha upon a bed of every-so-slightly wilted arugula.
The flavor profiles here tend more robustly Mediterranean than at his other restaurants, which still hold a pretty tight French line.    A great example of this was a side of charred broccoli, stalks cooked tender and toasty topped with crispy, fried shallots, but seasoned with a peperoncini-spiked mix hinting of North Africa.
Desserts present quite the conundrum when it comes to ordering:  Tunisian-born Ghaya Oliviera might actually steal a little of Boulud's thunder with the sweets.  By far the most memorable course we had was  a peach concoction served in a highball: peak-season peaches nestled in a rich zabaglione, with rice pudding ice cream and a playful and pure retro aspic bulging with summery fruits and berries... even a gooseberry, plump and tart provided additional joy in an already exuberant pudding.  It was an appropriate finish to the evening.  The food, all of it, was good enough to make me want to return to try a greater variety.  It felt as if any disappointment was more a function of suboptimal ordering rather than culinary flaw, and inspired desire to poke around the menu to a much greater degree- to see what other treasures might be unearthed from those minimalist menu descriptions.  Which forces me to try and think what might constitute the next "special occasion"....

20 West 64th Street

tel.  1(212)595-1313



Variety is the spice of life.  And Simpson Wong pretty much rules when it comes to putting a little Asian flare out there.  Cafe Asean has been on my hit list, literally, for years.  But it's also the kind of place that has cemented itself into the infrastructure of the West Village, so I never felt any urgency to visit (just an omnipresent desire).  So when the opportunity finally presented itself (i.e.  if you want to try Tertulia, get there VERY late or VERY early...), I jumped at the chance.  I've peeked in dozens of times.  The tiny room boasts just five or so tables, a low ceiling hung with paper lanterns, and the funky perfumes of fermented fish, rich soy and steamed rice.    It doesn't take much to remove yourself from the historic streets of the Village and transplant yourself into an exotically rustic little bistro of the Mekong. 

Our server was chipper and full of smiles, if a little overwhelmed handling all the tables on his own.  But he nipped about the room taking orders and then, as defly as possible, providing steaming bowls and platters to a diverse assortment of guests.  It did take awhile, though, to get our orders in, and then for them to appear, but it sort of played into the whole lazy tropical vibe they have going on.  Also, it's no quick Chinese take-out joint; there is heart and soul in this food.

We started off with a couple of appetizers (a market special of stuffed zucchini blossoms had unfortunately already sold out.. this is another reason I like to eat earrrrly!):  a mountain of crispy calamari (the crust was exceptional, the squid a bit chewy) with a bracing dipping sauce redolent of lemongrass, vinegar and garlic, and a hearty canneloni-style dumpling filled with meaty wild mushrooms (we opted for pan-seared, but they were a touch too chewy and greasy: I'd recommend going for the steam).  

For entrees we sampled a good variety:  a meat, a chicken, a fish.  The first bite of Pai Koot (Singapore-braised spare ribs) encountered an unfortunate hunk of gristle which was initially off-putting... but a second bite (and third, fourth, fifth, ad infinitum...) proved it an anomoly.  The rest of the rack was rich, meaty and fall-off-the-bone tender, sided by a pillow of rice to sop the surplus of fragrant sauce, and smokily charred lettuce that held it's inner crunch while the edges of its leaves wilted into submission.  Of the chicken dishes, we opted for ayam panggang, which unfortunately was inhaled  by its orderer so I can only vouch for the fact that the meat was fork-tender and juicy, with a fragrant smoky char and looked sublime.  And the velocity with which is was consumed is going to have to speak for its tastiness.
Kekapis Dan Ikan filled the fish quotient: scallops and poor man's lobster (actually, I don't like that term: monkfish tastes nothing like lobster.  Crawdads should be poor man's lobster), and although it was a touch overcooked, the coconut curry, rife with trumpet mushrooms and bok choy, and  scented with ginger and saffron kept things lubricated.   Wok-fried Chinatown seasonal greens (a melange of Chinese water spinach and scapes) rounded things out vegetatively, which was similar to the post-prandial state of consciousness we were reaching.   With bellies full and a similarly replete agenda for the rest of the evening, we opted out of a real dessert in lieu of their classic Indonesian coffee, a strong, icy joe sweetened and lightened with cream.  Fortified with the hearty Asian fare and refreshed from the iced caffeine, I emerged from Cafe Asean feeling much like I had just landed back in New York after a brief vacation in the Orient: pleasantly reminded of the myriad flavors and nuances that are a little rarer in all the New American-locavore haunts that currently dominate the New York City restaurant scene.  It's nice, a little spice.

117 W. 10th St.
(Bet. 6th Ave. & Greenwich Ave.)
tel. (212) 633-0348