Tuesday, May 29, 2012


If I didn't live where I lived, I'd totally be a forager.  When I'm back home in Portland, my favorite thing to do is gather the blueberries from the garden and cut fresh lettuce.  Okay, it's not like I'm hunting morels or plucking up knotweed, but I love the seasonality and immediacy of eating what is growing right in front of you.  At Forager's City Table, they've done the foraging for you, so all that needs to be done is get a table.

There's no rezzies here, so first come, first served.  The place is busy at this point, but not so much that you'll have to fret the 1 1/2 hours waits like at Tertulia or Red Farm.  The restaurant finds itself in the base of The Gem Hotel in Chelsea, just behind the grocery Forager's Market, that similarly touts an array of local and seasonal specialty products (as well as some standards).   But as for the restaurant, I met the executive chef Douglas Monsalud (what a fitting name...) who explained the philosophy:  organic veggies straight from their own farm, an in-house butcher, sustainable fish and local farmer's bounty.  The fact that the whole conglomerate is actually owned by a farmer speaks volumes.  The open kitchen lets you watch the transformation of these precious comestibles into the tasty fare that awaits.  The menu sports a decidedly Asian flair: easier, perhaps, with May's pea shoots and green garlic than the brussels sprouts and parsnips of December- but we'll see.  At any rate, it's not traditional Asian at all- a snack of chicken fat potato chips with sage and yuzu salt pretty much epitomizes that.   After Snacks, the menu is divided into Cold, Hot, Noodles, Large, Sides and Desserts, from which it is recommended choosing one from each to share.

 The Spring Hearts salad from the Cold section jumbled aspargagus, hearts of artichoke, palm and escarole with crumbled hard-boiled eggs and an herby dressing.  The diagonally sliced hearts of palm mimicked similarly sliced egg white for a playful coup d'oeil that was as delicious as it was unique ... and lovely.  Emerald green spring pea tendrils (a Side) were ensconced in a sweet soy that wanted for nothing but perhaps a bowl of rice, so as not to waste any of the sauce.

We skipped Noodles in favor of two Larges: black cod and the butcher's steak (I mean, the butcher WAS right there doing all that work and all...).  The fish was smoked in black tea and refreshed with pearly little green peas, cutting some of it's signature fattiness, but the heirloom tomatoes swathed in bacon (which could have been exponentially crispier) brought it all back.  A bit disparate, the components to this dish, but not necessarily off-putting.  A side of miso butter mushrooms baked in parchment helped pull this all together, but these were just a fortunate side order.  Very fortunate, in fact: they might have been my favorite dish of the evening (although I really did love that salad).  The steak that we ordered medium came rarer than I would've liked, but it was a robustly flavorful cut of meat, maple and soy enhancing its umami to great effect, with crisp, peppery watercress and sweet juicy pears for earthy balance.

The only real downside to a meal at Forager's is dessert: because while we were fully sated and in absolutely no need of dessert (of course, when DOES anyone actually NEED dessert?), with the markets bursting with rhubarb and strawberries, the potential for some marvelous concoction led to ultimate disappointment in a paltry array of ice creams and sorbets- house-made or not.  We settled on a duo of maple walnut and green apple: the former benefitting from it's hard-to-findability on the East coast and the latter really having no redeeming qualities whatsoever: it was anemic and frosty.  If they don't get their dessert thing going for themselves, perhaps they can make a deal:  20% off at Billy's or Empire?

300 West 22nd Street
tel: 212-243-8888

Sunday, May 27, 2012


On a desolate stretch of far west Chelsea- that club-goer's stomping grounds just before the West Side Highway- a new Mediterranean restaurant has popped up, The Americano.  Entering through a large floor to ceiling glass wall, you pass the long, steely bar into the back dining room, which despite being on the ground floor, has a distinct subterranean (read: basement) feel.  Decor is a industrial to the nines;  it feels like it's going for an streamlined, clubby feel appropriate for the neighborhood.  There was no creativity in even giving the restaurant a name inside the eponymous hotel, and the spareness of the rooms, while perhaps appealing, is almost laughable.  Fortunately, the food shows slightly more panache, but there is a palpable theme of austerity throughout.

Billed as "French fare with a Latin flair", chef Joseph Buenconsejo's menu slants primarily Mediterranean.   You'll be smart to commit your order to memory, because service not once delivered the correct plate to its recipient, and doubly so since the room is so poorly lit, it may be difficult to determine exactly what is on the plate once it's in front of you, anyways.   There are some nice seasonal nods here, but mostly the food is not too conceptual.
The best plate of the night was a charred octopus and calamari app., surrounding a zesty mound of black beans with peppery arugula.  The seafood attained an ideal smoky sear while retaining its crucial tenderness.  A bountiful salad featured leafy Bibb and pickly shaved vegetables in a mustard vinaigrette: nothing momentous, but a solid salad in the least.  A mushroom soup was anticlimatic: a thin, drab, taupe bisque with the noticeable gaseous flavor of truffle oil, although as the soup-of-the-day, it's impossible to know whether it lived even up to a description in absentia, given that our waitress simply deemed it "mushroom" without further extrapolation.  In addition, a good 10% of one of the bowls ordered had sloshed out all over the saucer beneath, soggying the doily to a very unappealing brown mess.

The main dishes are brazenly spartan: not a squiggle or foam to be had, usually a protein with some token veggies and a plentiful sauce.  We stuck to the piscine side of things, sampling halibut, cod and (God forbid) Chilean seabass (obviously not my choice).  The fact that the latter was even on the menu was disheartening, so I didn't hazard a taste (in addition to the dry-rub smear of black olives in the preparation, it was going to be far from my favorite dish, even with a verdant smash of oily spring peas beneath).  Its orderer shrugged "It's good" when inquired of his satisfaction, and I'll take that assessment at face value: was mostly consumed, but far from plate-licked.
 Halibut was awash in a creamy white sauce flecked with shreds of spinach and crowned with a sizeable pastry fleurons.        Arriving simultaneously were two small pitchers of sauce: one white, one brown, both of uncertain purpose.  The white most likely appeared to be destined for the halibut, but then again, wholly redundant.  The brown tasted of Worcestershire, which had little to do with anything at the table presently as well.  Apparently it was the piri piri broth (thought much too syrupy to actually qualify as broth) to douse the cod, but actually distracted from the rest of the components of the dish: smoked shrimp tumbled with steamed potatoes and a tomato concasse, and a random fling of blistered shishito peppers atop.  I would've ditched the cod and just stuck with shrimp, potatoes and peppers for a more cohesive dish.  For my own part, the "broth" went unused.  Given the absence of accoutrements, we ordered a smattering of sides.  The creamed spinach was basically the sauce of the halibut in inverse proportions of leaf to butter, thankfully small in portion for its garlicky richness, but indulgently tasty, to its credit.  The asparagus and morels were six disappointingly tough stalks, halved and planked above a puree of morels, squashing the anticipation of the uber-seasonal mushroom into a muddy sludge- most of which refused to cling to the asparagus and ended up abandoned in the bottom of the small bowl.  A saute of wild mushrooms was most successful: neither too dry nor soggy, and with a good variety of meaty specimens like oyster, chanterelle and cremini.

A tarte tatin seemed a safe enough venture for dessert, given that we weren't feeling much of a yen to really milk out the experience: the tables surrounding us were a raucous crew of teens celebrating high school graduation.  And if you used the restrooms one floor down, you gained a vista to the party in progress in the hotel's private room.  Which answered the question as to whether teenagers actually DO behave that way in real life, or just on t.v.  Parents forewarned: apparently, they do.  But none of the kids stuck around for dessert, so our tarte, a puck of soft, sugary apple atop a somewhat tough crust of pate feuillettee served with a squat, oversize dollop of creme fraiche, went down easily enough.   And here, too, we at least got a squiggle, in the form of a caramel zig-zag.

And Zig Zags were inarguably the tamest of the paraphernalia being utilized in the festivities for the party below.  Given the hotel's address, the party-set is probably going to be the majority of its clientele, probably even moreso than the hotel guests.  If branding is most successful when impressed upon the youth, then The Americano has hit the ground running.

518 West 27th Street
tel.  (212)525-0000

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Full disclosure:  in no way did I follow any chef to Matilda.  Truth be told, I followed the pulse.... or Puls'd, rather: a Groupon-esque server that got me a bargain here (hey, I'm not getting paid for this, so cut me some slack).  Anyways, a bargain so it seemed on paper, but the "coupons" stipulations made it really tough to order as I pleased.  Our server, though, was probably as accommodating as he could be, and that pretty much set the standard for Matilda.

Named after the owners' young biracial daughter, Matilda plies Italian with Mexican for a fusiony sort of Tusc-Mex that hints at elements of both, but doesn't really succeed in elevating either (hopefully the daughter's future is brighter than her namesake.)  Not that Matilda is a trainwreck; it's just not that exciting of a ride.  The food seems dictated by the constraints of the theme, rather than inspired by them.  In fact, the Italian contribution seems to be mostly in the nomenclature, while the food appears to be fairly exclusively Mexican.

The room is decorated in a somewhat gaudy d.i.y. mishmash with quaint pink walls and sparkly chandeliers, surely reminiscent of the little girl's bedroom.  Inlaid tilework surrounds the periphery with a hodgepodge of Spanish, Italian and English words: sogno, uliveto, cuenta, chocolate, bambola... perhaps a few a Matilda's favorite things?  At any rate, the menu is as eclectic as that selection- verging on disjointed.  Nothing sings particularly Mexican or Tuscan, although the ingredient repertoire is indicative of such.

Wines are basically red or white, and putting too much energy into differentiating with greater discernment than that is probably a waste.  Affordably priced, they still may not be worth your dime.  Probably better off with one of their few specialty cocktails, or a michelada.

We started off with two servicable little tacos de mariscos- no Italian influence here.  Swathed in soft, generic yellow corn tortillas, they were stuffed with well-cooked, chipotle-sauced shrimp and monkfish, crowned with copious amounts of cilantro.  Tasty, but pretty standard.   Chayotes gratinati sounded a bit more ambitious, and perhaps was too.  A small crock of the cubed vegetable arrived slightly undercooked for its cheesy, chorizo-ey mantle (or else the topping was too rich for its freshly al dente counterpart).  Again, no Italian here aside from the name: in fact, the cheese tasted like Swiss gruyere.  The chips served aside are masterful, though.  Very sturdy but still delicately crisp, they spooned up the squash without breaking... and without threatening to break your tooth, either.

We added grilled shrimp to fortify the insalata della casa, which was basically just a green salad with a light citrusy dressing, plated with five large, well-seasoned, slightly overcooked, shrimp.  I don't know how to say "yawn" in Spanish OR Italian.  The shrimp benefitted largely, however, with a dip in the oversauced lasagna de tortillas.  Subbing out the noodles for corn tortillas, it ended up tasting a lot like t.v. dinner enchiladas- not horrible, just flat.  The heavy tomato sauce drowned out much of the chipotle flavor, and the ground meat just gave texture rather than impart any robust, beefy flavor like a real bolognese (which is pretty typical for what I'm assuming was conventional hamburger-grade meat).

The most exciting thing was La Cucaracha! (Yay! Cockroaches!) Spicy pickled vegetables reminiscent of a classic Giardiniera, zipped up with a lot more peppery heat and a flourish of cilantro.  Out of everything we tried, this was the sole dish that seemed to accomplish a symbiosis of the two cuisines, and ironically one which would probably unpleasantly assault a nine year old's palate.   It also came with more chips, which cumulatively rendered dessert superfluous, which was probably okay, given the uncheffy selection of gelati and sorbetti, a chocolate cake and churros.  From this one (admittedly limited) visit, my assessment is that they should probably just stick with Esteban's side of things and abandon the speranza of Maristella.  There are too many great little Italians in this city to a comparative paucity of decent Mexican joints, and this could easily function (especially in remote Alphabet City) as a really decent, mid-scale neighborhood one.  As the evening progressed, the tables were pretty much filled and the room reached a level of buoyant festivity, which aided the cuisine considerably.  Mexican just isn't the same without a touch of fiesta.  Better it would be to let the Matilda that CAN choose her heritage to stick with the Mexican side of things, and let little Matilda, the girl, be the one to flourish in her diversity.

647 E.11th Street NY, NY 10009