Friday, June 29, 2012


I have been waiting probably a year for someone trustworthy to guinea pig this place out for me before I took the dive.  Yeah, "people" said it was "good", and on occasion it is busy as the dickens.  But fearful it was one of those places conveniently located and frequented only for that, I wanted a reliable pre-prandial recommendation.  But a 7:45 showtime for Rock of Ages at Clearview Chelsesa necessitated a nearby eating establishment, so I finally bit the bullet and got a table.

Highpoint's prior incarnation was a miserable trap called Porter's, and unfortunately the room hasn't changed much in order to completely shake off the bad energy of its predecessor.  There are some cute little tchotchke around that provide pleasant visual distraction, and the service is chipper.  And more importantly, the ownership has changed, so while it's still a casual American neighborhood joint, it's not that scummy neighbor you just wish would move away (like the guy who owns the neglected address on the adjacent corner).

The menu here is approachable and simple: there are your classic standbys and some slightly tweaked specials that keep things interesting.  There are a lot of "apostrophed" items on the menu, which indicate these latter options, like the vegetarian "risotto" actually made of couscous,  and the watermelon "steak": a grilled slab of the fruit that offers one of the several vegetarian plates.    A dollhouse grocery cart wheeled in wedges of crisped, spiced flatbread, better on its own than with it's small tub of mediocre hummous.  They gracefully split the farmer's salad for us to share, which I was glad to have done: it was a little ho-hum, so a half-sized portion was ample.

Entrees gained momentum.  Fish 'n Chips of flaky Atlantic cod came in a silver casserole it shared with some truly great, skin-on fries.  A trio of accompaniments- ketchup, tartar sauce and a kicky malt vinegar- come so you can choose your own adventure.   The market fish, roasted whole, was a sizable red snapper (easily enough for two) which showed up atop a bed of mild melted leeks and a tussle of frisee, both complemented by a spritz of the chargrilled lemon leaning at its side.   While not for want of more food, but for sating a comfort-food yen, we ordered a three-for-fifteen bucks trio of sides.  Garlic spinach was a standard but tasty rendition, the mac 'n cheese less so (the pasta and lackluster sauce didn't quite coalesce), but the sauteed mushrooms (annoyingly dubbed 'shrooms, but at least not in quotes) were excellent- hinting of garlic and heaped in abundance.  Of these, the more the better, and they were the most copious portion.

Bellies at capacity and showtime pending, we skipped desserts.  Which is unfortunate, because while a warm apple tart is probably a no-brainer, I was avidly curious to see what would arrive as The Caramel Experiment.  Highpoint, right around the corner as it is,  is good enough for a return visit though, so perhaps upon a subsequent visit I'll get to find out.  Regardless, the highpoint of the evening was definitely Highpoint... and NOT Rock of Ages.  Glad to have a solid, pleasant meal before that catastrophe of a movie, who's only redeeming quality was a stellar performance by Tom Cruise.  Rock of Ages took Americana and contaminated it.  Highpoint takes the same inspiration to a better place.

216 7th Avenue
tel. 646.410.0120

Thursday, June 28, 2012


As unlikely as is a sprawling vegetable farm on the east side of midtown Manhattan, so is a sophisticated, elegant establishment with an uber-celebrity chef to be categorized as something so humble as "farm-to-table".  But Tom Colicchio's Riverpark  has succeeded at both, and turned out a desination-worthy restaurant in the far reaches of the city's Timbuk-nowhere.

The closest thing to here is Bellevue Hospital, and then dive in the East River to swim to Brooklyn.  (Ew.)  But this very remoteness is probably what allows for the real estate to cultivate New York's "most urban farm".  You'll enter through its stalked pole beans and caged tomatoes, and it's worthy taking a stroll amongst the robust vegetables you will soon be consuming.  The proximity of these lovely growing things inspire executive chef's Sisha Ortuzar's emphatically seasonal menu to grand effect.

Inside, you'll hope for a table as far east as possible,  towards the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the lolling river, passing yachts and- if you've amazing vision- the hipsters of Greenpoint.  But if you are not so lucky (as I was not), the interior of the vast dining room is in no way unpleasant, if you manage not to trip on the elevated platform upon which the tables are situated (substantial design flaw, but both times I've been the staff has been extraordinarily cautious to notify newcomers of the step).  Artful lighting and looming floral arrangements compensate somewhat for a lack of a river view, and lend a convivial warmth and a magical twinkle to the room.

The cocktail menu is as inspired by the farm as the dinner menu, and a rhubarb Pisco sour lived up to my hopes.  The tart pie vegetable subbed out the lime from the classic, with albumin fluffed like cotton candy to ease the tang.  It's a beautiful drink, amongst many tempting options to imbibe.  I am enamored of their uber-fizzy Cava rose from Spain, gloriously pink and quite possibly the perfect summer wine.   So far, so flawless.

The menu is well-formatted and respectfully priced, given that the elegant atmosphere could command more formality and steeper fares to boot.  They seem to attain the perfect combination of fancy and farm at Riverpark.  So a humble mass of farm greens and lettuces arrives in an abundant heap, mingling with marinated herbs and vegetables in a refreshing Champagne vinaigrette.  Mushroom consomme, poured a table, shared its heady aroma with caramelized shallots and ramps, and a savory pecorino crouton  culminating in an umami trifecta.

Pastas are offered in primi or secondi sized portions, but even a mid-course size of the cheesy smoked ricotta gnocchi could satisfy a reasonable appetite, just for its richness.  The pillowy dumplings seemed to require  the thick sauce of pecorino to hold them down, studded with bright, emerald peas and ephemeral  morels for a wonderfully gluttonous dish, even with its few ingredients.

Mains offer much to choose from: three fishes, two poultries and three meats on the night of my visit.  Diver scallops were seared to crisp, brown crowns with chewy bits of bacon, then tumbled with zesty shallots, tender asparagus and melted endive.

Both the grilled chicken and duck arrived under a flurry of sprouted leaflets, plucked, I am sure, just moments earlier.  The duck borrowed morels and peas from the gnocchi,  but introduced them to a tangy rhubarb glaze and miniature spaetzle, changing their flavor profile completely.   Grilled chicken was less exciting but nonetheless delicious for it- adorned with uber-seasonal sugar snaps and  ramps it nestled into a  bed of nutty freekah, moistened with lusciously oniony pan juices.   There are vegetable side dishes offered as well, certainly more as a showcase of the farm's delicacies than a necessity to augment the well-balanced plates.

I was hoping, hoping for rhubarb on the dessert menu, but it was only present in a rhubarb-cardamom sorbet, and I wanted to try something cheffier.  We went for two: a torrone semi-freddo loaded with chunks of pistachio nougat and white chocolate, brightened with a compote of tangy redcurrants on one side and a crumble of crisp pistachio granola on the other.    A deconstructed tart divided a fudgy circle of smoked ganache from a smear of toasted marshmallow and a quenelle-shaped scoop of buttery popcorn ice cream, all components bedazzled with crunchy clods of nutty caramel corn, like sweets from a country fair, at once fancified and then blitzed in three.  Which is pretty much how it goes at Riverpark.  It is unarguably, and quite possibly THE most proximate farm-to-table in Manhattan.  But it is still one fancy table.

450 E 29th St. New York, NY 10016
Reservations 212.729.9790

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


The word "prima" is Italian, the owners are French, and the restaurant is pescaphilic.  But there is no confusion as to the wonder of this little East Village newcomer, which has started off strong and seems indubitably capable of supporting this trajectory.  Fresh off a three star review from the New York Times, we procured a table for three having reserved a week in advance (parents in town always requires this) and selecting a relatively early hour (again, the parents).

The room was virtually empty when we arrived, though, so maybe such anticipatory calculations weren't necessary.  It did provide opportunity to admire the room, however, without any bodies to obscure the details: the restaurant is stark, yet cozy.  Exposed brick form the periphery, and the twinkly lighting makes the white tablecloths glow and the crystal glasses sparkle.  It is a very pleasant atmosphere- special without being too formal, alive without cacophony.  Our host was more than congenial: he single-handedly destroyed any myth of the French being aloof.

The wine list is a smidge on the pricey side, but we ended up with a gorgeous viognier that at least came in under $40.   It complemented everything we ate, start to finish.  And on that note, we bypassed the extensive raw bar options for two salads.  A green one was slicked with an herb vinaigrette boasting thin slices of crisp pear atop a mound of greens.  A red one, composed of generous wedges of marinated beets under slivers of Honeycrisp apple and scallion shards, was caught in a flurry of crinkly ricotta salata confetti and a sluice of horseradish spiked dijonnaise- a refreshing riff on that played-out beets-and-goat-cheese standard.    Prima gets more than just the fish right.

But the fish it certainly does get right.  The menu is simple: you choose your fish and the sauce you wish you accompany it (depending on your selection, see if you even need it).  The specimens are pristine and expertly prepared.  Red snapper (the most expensive option at $22) came skin-on, a meaty filet underneath a dice of fresh tomatoes, a node of bonito butter and a big slice of lemon for bite.  I liked this with the sauce vierge, but Dad took his with a tub of housemade tartar that saw no return to the kitchen.  Skate (the cheapest at $15) may have been an even heftier portion, and definitely richer with a cripy golden crust scattered with minced herbs and zesty capers.  I didn't need the green condiment I ordered with it, but as I progressed with the sizeable portion, the sauced offered a nice variant on flavor for the otherwise unadorned plate.

 To counter this, we also sampled a good variety of the vegetable sides: sauteed wild mushrooms were slightly more cooked than I like, but they were full of fresh fungus flavor, salty and oily and sprinkled with a chiffonade of herbs.  Garlic spinach was just that, holding its place as a side for the fish and not too rich to clobber it.  Jumbo asparagus was certainly the most novel, with big, charred spears a dance floor for shimmying flakes of bonito.  Sushi rice was a sound backdrop, too, tender and chewy with just the right amount of sticky.

Whoever says veggies and fish don't satiate would be off their rockers here: despite how tempting the vanilla mille feuille with strawberry jam sounded, there just wasn't room.  In fact, we were packing a doggy bag, which usually only comes into play when I'm saving room FOR dessert. While I'm sure Prima will have no troubles filling its seats by its own caliber, it won't hurt to be able to absorb the overflow from Gabrielle Hamilton's tough-rezzie Prune next door.  She set the bar for the East Village, and Prima shows every intention of playing nice with its neighbors.


I'm going to go ahead and write this, knowing full well that lunch outside is NOT the same as dinner in the dining room.  And dinner is where a NYC restaurant's focus lies.  But on a sunny early summer afternoon, when the weather was cooperative to outdoor dining, an invitation to lunch at the prestigious address presented itself.  The open-air plaza on Park Avenue services a natty lunch crowd: lots of suits and foreign accents, modernist white chairs and a sleek black bar.  Apparently happy hour here is quite the scene.   It's a hyper-popular destination for soccer games, and they even have a d.j. spinning late in the afternoon on Fridays for a sort of makeshift TGIF Euro-boogie tea party event.  Our host waxed poetica about the event, piquing my curiosity.  So with all the sort of "attractions", you might wonder if the food falls short.  Fortunately, it does not.

The lunch and dinner menus are not comprehensively different, although a prix-fixe lunch option at $46 for two courses could save you a few dollars, but only if you order smartly.  Casa Lever is not for the light of pocketbook: this place is expense-account/special-occasion only.  Which is a little tricky, since (at least after lunch al fresco), it didn't seem special enough to warrant such astronomical price tags.  Service was cordial but certainly not exceptional.  I guess a lot of it has to do with the neighborhood, relying on the purses of the Madison Avenue crowd and nearby financial firms.

The menu is typical fancy Italian: a Google search caption nails it with the description "Manhattan sophistication meets superb Milanese classics".  The signature Casa Lever salad is a standard heap of mixed greens (organic, at least) with olives and cherry tomatoes, and a nice pillow of soft, milky mozzarella.  Carciofi was the traditional mix of thinly sliced raw artichoke and shaved parmesan.  Both salads were dressed a tavola, with a marvelous syrupy balsamic and bright emerald evoo- both poured generously.  The zuppa del giorno might have been the best dish of all: a creamless puree of celery and green apple, luxuriously smooth, but robustly vegetal: dense in flavor and texture.  Ordering this and a salad makes a wonderful lunch and foregoes some of the sticker shock.

Amongst primi, the bolognese is a compact spool of tagliatelle sauced in a veal ragu, perfectly balanced in Italian proportions of sauce to noodle.  The sauce has a vibrant tomatoey tang, cutting the richness of ample ground veal.  Seafood ravioli may have been the plumpest little packages I've ever seen: the ample filling of snapper and artichoke bulged proudly from its tender pasta casing.  Eight hefty ravioli surrounded a small tumble of seppia and shrimp amid their oceany broth.

The only secondo sampled was the grilled branzino.  I'm making a mental note at this juncture, too, to remind myself that branzino is not my favorite fish: I prefer flakier varieties.  This was perfectly executed, though, with smoky char-marks criss-crossing its skin, and served with an invigorating citronelle sauce of juicy grapefruit and lemon in a slurry of olive oil.  These beautifully simplistic preparations are intrinsically Italian, so a nice grigliata di verdure balanced things out a bit.

It being lunch, we shared a single dessert amongst the table: a decadent gianduja layered with rich  hazelnut wafer, smooth chocolate ganache and dollops of unctuous hazelnut cream, flanked by crunchy roasted nuts wallowing in a drizzled of buttery caramel.  The Italians know their sweets well.

I'm sure this was an entirely different experience from dinner in the sleek, modernist dining room that looks strikingly like the interior of some Italian magistrate's private jet.   That Casa Lever, the inside version, is infamous for important business lunches and anniversary dinners.  But I'm not sure that lunch al fresco isn't altogether more pleasurable; I'm afraid that all the pomp and bella figura might render an anticipated dinner here a little disappointing if dinner's array is commensurate to lunch's.   There is a guarantee that I will return here, though, despite any of that.  Perhaps not for any particular meal, but if the Friday post-work party lives up to the description our suave maitre d' provided... bells and whistles, baby.  Bells and whistles.

Tel. 1.212.888.2700

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Roberta's is no newcomer on the scene, but she certainly hasn't lost any of her buzziness.  I even felt like one of the cool kids just knowing I was on my way there: Roberta's has a certain cache that doesn't seem to be going anywhere any time soon.  The rooftop garden, an infamous bread program, the tattoos, the handlebar moustaches...   That said, I wished all of the food would have lived up to the hype. Because while most of what we had was great, the pizzas themselves (what most people come for) left my socks unmistakably intact... although the $175, 75-day aged Wagyu certainly loosened their elastic (more on that later).

But people don't come to Roberta's for a pedigreed steak that could serve the Brady Bunch in full (plus Alice); they come for the pizzas.  So we got a few, none particularly life-altering, although the thin, charred crusts are a thing of beauty.  The puffy, blistered "rinds" are chewy and pliable, tapering towards the center in genuflection to their toppings.  The Fennel Frontier sported the vegetable, sliced and all but raw but for some residual softening from the heat of the oven.  A zippy pawlet cheese and italian sausage joined the fennel to a good end flavor-wise, but the heavy toppings caused the crust to sag under their weight.  A special pie with caramelized onion held up better, but the amount of allium seemed skimpy.  The hefty InVolto caches tomato, peppers, three cheeses and sopressata to achieve perfect tomato-saucy pizza flavor, albeit with a heavier crust and folded up like yogi.  These are all great pies, don't get me wrong.  I guess I got my pizzexpectations up a little too high.  Order a few amongst a group of people as great as the ones I was with and you'll come away happy.
Asparagus Salad

Which seems to be what most people do here at Roberta's, making the meagerly sized salads more noticeable.   They even look skimpy on the plate.  Six ribs of Treviso tinged with epoisses and a sprinkle of crunchy breadcrumbs comprised a salad with too few leaves for everyone at our table to get one.  Unfortunate, because the bitter lettuce made fine friends with the pungent cheese and peppery arugula that accompanied it.  Still a little spartan but by far my favorite of the night was an asparagus composition, with raw and grilled spears alike atop smooth, creamy dollops flavored of aged gouda and decorated with fresh, earthy pea shoots and oniony Tinkerbell crowns of fried shallot.  For this, I wished there weren't so many mouths at my table.
Combo Plate

Many of them, however, were fixated on the Combo Plate, though. It featured a trio of charcuterie and as many cheeses with a crusty hunk of baguette- which for Roberta's being known for their bread, was good-but-not-revolutionary.  The best cheese on the plate was a profoundly creamy and salty-sweet Caveman Blue from Oregon... a cheese so good that I fell for it even before I realized its provenance, so my hometown bias could not have played a part.

Celtuce Salad
One ingredient that did hold its own in flavor and novelty, however, was the crisp Celtuce- a succulent celery/lettuce combo with a slight bitterness and earthy sweetness, attributes amplified by grapefruit and almonds, and a flurry of bonito atop for salinity.  This was the kind of excitement I was expecting from Robeta's: strange, humble vegetables  most like grown on the roof, and expertly assembled in simple yet unerring compositions.  You can find it here, but not every time.

The options from the Kitchen section of the menu rekindled the buzz, though.  Squid with meyer lemon, chili and scallion was tender and bright, and a soft shell crab bronzed golden and crisp luxuriated in a creamy yogurt sauce and a flurry of whole-leaf herbs.   Seared sea scallops channeled Daniel Humm with a raw carrot furl and rapturous yogurt sauce, studded with zesty capers and chopped pistachios.  

And then came the Grand Finale, like the timballo in Big Night.  This steak, a 33 ounce Wagyu T-Bone, three inches thick and bloody as Foreman in the eighth round.  Wallowing in its rich juices were a braise of mustard greens and plump morels- finally in an abundance that would leave no eater bereft.  The meat was rich, fatty and fork-tender.  I, preferring my steak more cooked, tended to the  peripheral morsels which enjoyed more heat and salt, while the rare-ivores delved within, and those seeking the real results of that 75-day age plunged close to the bone, where the real gaminess was hiding.   Funny thing is, is that I think they must've been waiting for us, with this steak.  Typical dry-aged meat hangs around for a month, maybe plus... I've seen two months before, max.  But 75 days?  Were they just holding on to this behemoth cut, waiting desperately for a group both big enough (and with pocketbooks to match), to snatch this baby up?  I can imagine them in back "Yeah, it's sixty days now.  But wait!  We can hold on another day.  Maybe tomorrow..." Then 61, 65, 70... finally, probably hours before they thought they might have to divvy the thing up for crostini or something WE show up.  And we did it justice.

Wrapping up (because after an indulgence like that, you just can't forgo dessert), we shared a small cherry semi-freddo with nutty chunks of sesame granola, and a green strawberry shortcake (the Californians amongst us claiming was SO '90s, although I'd never eaten such a thing).  Novel, again, perhaps the green ones were, but they couldn't make up for the angel food cake- a personal pet-peeve of mine, because definitively angel food cake is NOT (or at least shouldn't be allowed to stand in for) true shortcake, which should either be pound cake , or ideally, a biscuit.  All this hoo-ha about Roberta's exceptional breads should've been able to bandy up a a decent biscuit.   At any rate, no dessert could've really topped out that steak experience (at least not in such close juxtaposition), although both we tried were inarguably lovely.  Just that steak was a tough act to follow.  Now, you'll probably never be able to get it, that steak, there at Roberta's, but it does show you what is possible here.  You might love the pies there or just like them, and you might have to order your own individual salads, but there is also the chance of something magnificent arriving on your plate as well.  You'll just have to go to Roberta's and find out.

  • 261 Moore St Brooklyn,NY
  • Morgan Ave stop on L train
  • Open Daily 11a.m.-Midnight
  • delivery hours: Mon-Fri 6pm-11pm Sat-Sun noon-11pm
  • 718-417-1118

Sunday, June 17, 2012


I wanted to watch the movie that inspired this restaurant's name before I wrote this post, but it's taking too long for it to arrive so I must forge ahead uninformed.  That said, there seemed to be no definitive consensus that the movie was, in fact, solely responsible for the name:  the nearby bell tower of Jefferson Market, the charming book store across the street and the candles prevalence in the restaurant also may have influenced the titleage.  But the more important influence comes from the rooftop garden of Bell Book & Candle: a charming construct that supplies a large percentage of its greens, herbs, vegetables and fruits- enough so that the bottom of the menu lists a nice little produce synopsis of what's in season and being currently utilized.  

The restaurant itself is a quirky subterranean space with which I am well-familiar: when I lived on West 10th street upon first moving to New York, this address was actually my laundromat: Suds Cafe.  Then, the area which now situates BB&C's bar was a small, minimalist cafe, and a small hallway connected the washers and driers, which is now the larger dining room.  Here, it is dark.  The movie (so I hear) is set in a basement apartment, and this subterranean space feels unmistakably underground.   The only daylight comes from the glass doors that are above eye-level by the time you descend into the restaurant, and when the sun goes down, even that is lost.  The rest of the place relies on illumination from deflected strip lighting and yes, quite a few candles.  So lighting-wise, dim it is.

But a cheery staff and vibrant menu selections will compensate  for a lot of that.  We started off with two Living Leaf salads straight from the roof:  a riff on a classic wedge featured iceberg that was similar to a tight head of butter lettuce, lightly anointed with a bleu cheese dressing and a more generous toss of crumbled bleu and nicely diced, meaty cubes of chewy, salty bacon.  Some heirloom cherry tomatoes updated the classic with a burst of color and juiciness.

The housemade burrata didn't have a lot of leaves, living or otherwise, but it came with more of those jewel-toned tomatoes and crisp crostini surrounding a hulking mass of gorgeously oozy cheese.  My dining a companion (an Italian, to boot) was amazed that such an exquisite burrata could have been made by Yankee hands... it was that good.

Another salad we took as a side for the burger (instead of fries... it is bikini season, after all).   I can't say I've ever voluntarily ordered or bought Thousand Island dressing, but BB&C's "Old School" housemade version was a completely new animal: tart and zesty, with no cloying gumminess.  Bottle THIS stuff and I'd definitely put it in the rotation.  It anointed a melange of baby greens, carrot ribbons and slim cucumber medallions for a salad that looked traditional but tasted anything but.  And the burger that that salad partnered with was a touch untraditional as well (Ozersky might balk), but it was outstanding.  Sandwiched with thick slices of a chewy light rye, the juicy patty nuzzled in vintage cheddar lent its juices to soften (but not sog) the griddled bread, and a big Rooftop pickle spear harpooned the richness.  (Well, it said rooftop pickle.. I'm guessing it was rooftop cucumber and basement pickle, but whatever.)  It was fantastic, fork and knife worthy, with housemade ketchup alongside.  

But BB&C isn't just another purported "comfort food" haven; Chef John Mooney knows his way around more sophisticated foodstuffs as well.  Pan-seared seabass nestled in a ragout of vibrant favas, ramps and a hodge-podge of mushrooms, giving the fish's lightness a substantial yet seasonal counterpart.  Its skin retained its golden crispiness well above the brothy sauce that might've otherwise compromised its crunch.  We got even a little more green with a side of grilled asparagus- as good as I've ever had.  Salty, thick spears perfectly tender, robustly flavored and brilliantly charred served sizzling on a cast iron casserole all their own.

Dessert presents good variety, but the strhubarb (strawberry-rhubarb) crisp was a no-brainer with June on the calendar.  Maybe a little more contemplation would've been advisable, though, because this rendition was a too jammy and sweet, and had a distinct layer of uncooked doughiness between the fruit and the streusel- a common gaffe, unfortunately- but while the quality scoop of vanilla made up for some of that, it still was a kind of disappointing finale.  Hardly enough to detract from the overall experience at Bell Book & Candle, though.  The "local, organic, sustainable, and overall responsible procurement" of everything on the menu not only does the right thing: it's doing the right thing right.

141 West 10th Street
tel. #1.212.414.2355