Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Periyali made me miss Michael Psilakis.  This restaurant has twenty-seven years of staying power under its belt, plus an enthusiastic endorsement from Cindy Adams as the best Greek in the city on its website homepage.  After last night's dinner, I am kicking myself for putting even a gram of faith in the Page Six author.

It's a lovely little restaurant, don't get me wrong.  This had been its one alluring quality every time I passed by: the room is sparkly and white, the ceiling swathed in drapes of lilting silk panels, and glittering sculptures of shining silver sardines decorate the walls, along with big looming bouquets of mixed flowers, heavy with colorful blooms and arching branchlets.  So with the Post endorsement and its impressive record of endurance, I finally planned a visit.

Waiting upon my late-arrival dining companion, I was offered a drink.  I decided, yes, to have a glass of wine, and was offered the choice:  red or white.  (Really?)   I said (umm)  white?... "Sancerre, Chardonnay or Kouros?" Okay, so at least that was better than simply a decision between colors.   But three choices only, no prices given- and that was that.  I
 decided on the Kouros (it is a Greek restaurant after all) and was poured an almost laughably full glass.  It was fuller than some restaurants practice as he finished the bottle into my glass... then he opened another one and topped me off to almost the brim.  Well, luckily it was a voluptuous wine with a pronounced acidity which would pair well with food, since this abundant glass would last me the entirety of my repast.

The meal started off better than it progressed.  Complimentary bread basket included three varieties, crusty and fresh.  I started with pazaria skordalia, mostly for the luscious garlic puree, but the beets were quite fine themselves.   There was about twice as much skordalia provided as was probably necessary, and necessarily prudent.  Fortunately, the Calarmariaki Tiganita included
 the identical deluge of dip, so we were both going to be experiencing the same inevitable  post-prandial garlic aftermath upon our meal's conclusion.  I do love it, though, and this was a good example, intensely garlicky and with a bit of texture- a perfect foil for the tender sweet beets, although the pool of verdant oil beneath seemed excessive.  Abundance as a theme, that calamari was similarly plentiful, and I thought the skordalia an odd pairing, but it actually played nicely, especially with the snappy arugula alongside.

There wasn't much of a wait after our appetizer plates were cleared (both with about 50% of the superfluous skordalia left over) and our entrees appeared.  They appeared rather homogeneous, as well, both identically sided with a plain mound of steamed white rice, and (more garlic on) some steamed green beans- like t.v dinners on porcelain.  I couldn't help but notice, too, that as I ordered from a $38 prix-fixe menu, he got a lot more green beans than I did with his regular-menu shrimp- but that may have been simply coincidence.  At any rate, they weren't beans that I wanted a whole lot more of anyways, although they were, quite frankly, tastier than anything else on the plate.  Lavraki Plaki , filet of striped bass, was smothered in a generic tomato sauce with visible slices of garlic, but this time either my palate was desensitized to the allium or else it was more for decoration than flavor, because they sauce just tasted of a bland tomato puree, nothing better than what you could buy in a bottle at the grocery store.  Or a can.  Made me wish I'd have retained some of the skordalia: that stuff really makes anything taste good.
  And while I'm not always a fan of skin-on fishies, if it's well-crisped and integrated it is inarguably delicious.  This one, however, was flabby and fishy, rubberized by the wan sauce if it was ever even crisp to begin with.    The fish tasted either farmed or old, in either case unimpressive.  Shrimp were overcooked and leathery (can't say anything different about their sides since they weren't anything different); a home cook with some frozen Contessas could do better for one's self.   Nothing jumped out at me from the sides' offerings (asparagus, horta, okra, potatoes) as much as an appetizer of charcoal
 grilled mushrooms did, so I requested them as a side, instead.  Apparently, however, removing their accompanying arugula and lemon wedge was verboten, and thus impossible.  He would, however, bring the appetizer in full as a side (this was his concession), I'm guessing so as not to oblige the $8 reduction in price of the app vs. side dish (although that was not my intent).  At any rate, they may have been the best thing of the night, simply grilled with a kick of woodsy smoke, their earthy chew balancing the bite of the arugula brightened with a spritz of lemon.  Even those wouldn't have minded a little smudge of the skordalia, though, either.

My prix-fixe came with dessert, and thus plonked down our table two wedges of cake and a couple sandy, nutty cookies.  The cakes were fine: one moist with orange zest, the other rich with walnuts and a sticky-sweetness.  There are other sweets on offer, but we weren't given that option.  Out of curiosity, I asked about other dessert options, our waiter off-handedly rambled off a list of rice pudding, sorbets and gelatos- but never inquired whether we might like some.  The vanilla ice cream next door to us, however, looked goopy and chewy, so perhaps the allotted cake was as good as it was going to get.

Thing is with a meal like this, though, it does serve a purpose.  The tragedy lies in the waste of a lovely, charming and conveniently located restaurant serving such mediocre, generic food.  As I stated in my opening line, I need to get to Kefi and MP Taverna and remind myself what marvels Greek cuisine can provide.  But similarly, there's nothing like a bad meal to make your next one taste even better.

 35 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011      Ph: 212 463 7890 

Thursday, October 10, 2013


What ever may or may not have been taking place during the incipient stages of Lafayette, Andrew Carmellini has tied up any of the loose ends and fashioned them into an intricate, beautiful weave like a hand-tatted doily.  Carmellini is one of those smart, super talented chefs that can cross genres, and pulls them off flawlessly.  Locanda Verde (Italian) is going strong coming up on five years, The Dutch (New American) is so busy it's next to impossible to get a table and Lafayette (French) is destined to become another gilded notch on his collar.  And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Lafayette took over the old Chinatown Brasserie: it's a big restaurant, with additional outdoor seating that I was able to take advantage of given this revisit to July-like temperatures (thankfully, with slightly relenting humidity).  Under breezy cobalt blue umbrellas, we pulled up sturdy picnic chairs to a marble table.  Angled away from the busy traffic of Lafayette street, you could almost imagine yourself in a grand cafe in the south of France.  White-washed wood and glossy white subway tiles set off the blue accents, giving it a Provencale air tres authentique.  It would behoove you to begin your meal with a cocktail: their list is provocative- fresh and seasonally balanced.  I tried the Crochet Rouge,  a bourbon-based drink that sipped subtly of malt and brightly of citrus, expertly balanced and supremely drinkable.  Our genial sommelier helped us unearth an unfamiliar wine (from their rather pricey list).  We procured a reasonably priced ($45) bottle of WEinbach Sylvaner, and marveled at its robust perfume, and lusty body.  I dubbed it the Marilyn Monroe of white wines, voluptuous and tantalizing.  It paired well with our entire repast.

As the wine was voluminous in flavor, so are the dishes.  Many salads are big enough to split, and at these prices, that's not a terrible idea.  I think one could probably get away with sharing an appetizer and entree, each with a side and dessert plus wine, and come away feeling regally sated for under a $100.  Going the traditional route, however, will tax you noticeably more.  Extraordinarily crisp local butter lettuce is heaped on the plate, anchored down by crumbles of exceptional, pungent Roquefort and swaths of
 country ham in a light herbal vinaigrette.  Even better is the roasted beet root tumbled with soft,
 earthy tufts of mache, tempered ribbons of pickled red onion, crunchy caramelized cashews on a dense pillow of fragrant bergamot yogurt, gently citrus and unctuously rich.    There are several other appetizers I'd avidly return for, including an octopus with charred eggplant, although I'm sure if I do I'll be too late for the arugula with organic strawberries or the heirloom tomatoes with feta and pancetta.  There are French Market offerings we missed as well, such as sweet peppers and breakfast radishes, and a tempting Maine crab a la nage.  Heartier options like pate or tartare might endure a little longer.

A return visit might also include the highly recommended black fettucine, or cocquilles with beef cheek and brebis- both dishes that remained in the running right up until crunch time.  Lamb chops Marocaine made up for any carnivorous deficit, however, luckily ordered medium (because even then were on the rare-ish side), three chops teepeed over beady Israeli couscous and some confited shoulder, melted leeks and whole Lilliputian carrots.  Plates are fairly well-balanced, including vegetables and starches not necessarily noted on the menu.

 Thus, a side of brussels sprouts may not have been requisite, but they were wildly appreciated- fearlessly roasted with thick chunks of bacon and horseradished smudged with garlic.    Not to be missed, even if you don't think you need them.  East coast halibut was another last hurrah
 of summer, perched atop a sweet slurry of corn with a vermillion sauce poivree.   Wood-grilled trout, however,  trumped of the piscine dishes, its silky flesh permeated with a profound smokiness, reminding why this fish is so commonly used in appetizing.  The lingering char trickled down into a toothsome bean ragout, which mingled a variety of legumes with yellow and green haricots, all brightened with a vibrant  orange-inflected citronette.

For a finale, we went out in grand style: a Belles Poires tart for two, which was easily big enough for four or more.  Gossamer layers of buttery pastry cradled tender, spiced pears in a thick smear of
pistachio custard.  A small scoop of cooling yogurt sorbet kept its distance so as not to sog its ethereal crispness, but ready to anoint individual bites as desired.  Belles, without question.  Perhaps even more remarkable (and I guessed it!) was the sublime coffee (decaf!) served alongside: Stumptown at its absolute finest, thick and chocolately, gulpably smooth but sippably decadent.  This was certainly among the best coffee I've ever had... and how fitting.

Our waiter bid us adieu with a somewhat scripted adage, but his sincerity behind the words was unmistakable.  So it is with anything that chef Carmellini touches.  Perhaps there was a hiccup or two upon opening Lafayette, but he is a chef much too smart, much too talented, capable and respected to have left any of that to persist.  Perhaps our waiter's words were a bit foreign to his tongue, but given a little time, he'll have it rolling out as effortlessly and eloquently as Lafayette has shaped up to be.

380 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003
(212) 533 3000

Sunday, October 6, 2013


How do you say "favorite" in Spanish?  Because that's what this relatively new Chelsea tapas-focused Spaniard has become.  A mecca of robust flavors, it balances traditional and creative Basque under the deft hand of San Sebastian native Luis Bollo, an established and award-winning chef who is worth every accolade.  Salinas is on the east coast of Spain, but towards the west edge of Chelsea, and in no way too far or inconvenient to beeline to, regardless of where you're coming from.

The room has a sultry quality to it, not in temperature, but with a swankiness that feels mysterious.    White-washed exposed brick and glossy black limit the color palette, aside from voluptuous bouquets of ruffly, heavy-headed roses, in deep oranges and pinks, bunched in monochromatic masses that break up the darkness.  They are also used, ingeniously, to break up a communal table, thus sequestering each end to be used as a two-top, divided by the massive flowers, without moving any furniture around.  Deep blue velvet booths are tucked neatly along the periphery, and a large, open-air room in back can either hold an overflow of reservations, or be reserved for private affairs.  Given the appropriate circumstances, any romantic sentiments might easily escalate with the inspiration from flickery candles,  glowy lighting and the tumbles of blooms.

The food has a sexy quality to it as well, edging towards decadence without excess.  We began with the traditional  pa amb oli (Catalan for bread with oil),  but this crusty bread grilled smoky was anointed with fresh, garlicky crushed tomatoes as well as its drizzle of fruity
 olive oil.    The juices will run down your chin: care less about
 this than procuring your fair share.   Another classic plate is patatas
 bravas, Salinas' version using cubed morsels of waxy potato fried crisper than crisp, buttery smooth inside and thinly smeared with a zesty coat of spicy mayonnaise.

 But the standout dish of the night was inarguably the Coles e Colifor, featuring florets of cauliflower and halved brussels sprouts, grilled to a rich roastiness and nuzzled into a plush pillow of thick, lemon zest-infused yogurt.  Pimenton de la vera adds a touch of woodsy smoke and a kiss
of heat, and one order to share amongst four people was nothing short of inadequate.  The wonderful thing about tapas-style dining is that one's order can be augmented throughout, so an indispensable 'refill' of these arrived swiftly, despite the increasingly populated dining room and constant circulation of runners ferrying enticingly fragrant platters and emptied trays to and fro.  Alcachofas Fritas are fried to an inimitable crunch, paired with perhaps a few too few small, sweet candy cane beets and a scatter of toasty pignoli.  A smooth emulsion of rulo, only mildly goaty, is brightened with lemon and accompanies the rich artichokes for dipping.

Of course, there are meatier tapas on hand as well,  traditional jamons , sausages and artisanal quesos.     We tried the crispy quail decadently cloaked in applewood smoked bacon, four plump drumsticks lolling over a melange of apples roasted with spring onions and tiny caps of shiitake mushroom.

A handful of seasonal offerings are also listed on the menu, as are a few specials your server will describe.  One of these was an under-seasoned sauté of somewhat bland calamares, who took on a bit too much chew whether under- or

overcooked, paired with enormous creamy white beans and morsels of lobster mushroom.  The dish itself was fairly monochromatic: the flavors didn't stray much from its appearance.  On the opposite end of the flavor spectrum rang in a Fideos Canarios from a section of Spanish pastas, which can be ordered as tapas or main course-sized.  Fideos are cut into manageable, abbreviated strands which avoid the Italian twirling conundrum, and these silky, slippery noodles were richly seasoned, thick with umami, salt and depth: this is what Rice-a-Roni is supposed to taste like, but never could.  Tender bits of smoked rabbit coalesce with nubs of roasted green cauliflower, with a moist, oversize scallop standing guard aside flanked with tiny, briny crispy shrimp, creating a surf 'n turf 'n earth par excellence.

Finishing up, any additional food was purely superfluous.  But I had my dad in tow, and when there is bread pudding anywhere in an accessible vicinity, it is simply mandatory.  Salinas' was of the pumpkin variety, a bit chi-chi for the likes of such a traditionally humble sweet, but nonetheless delicious for it.  The pudding side of it featured soft, toasty cubes that held their shape bound with a creamy pumpkin custard and topped with gently spiced scoop of ice cream.  A crisp, buttery plank studded with pepitas spanned the plate and anchored itself in a smooth puree on the opposing end, but the best bites included tidbits from all the components.  I ordered a decaf to go along: this would have paired well with a bitter espresso, but my coffee order went missing- which I actually appreciated, in the end.  I couldn't much fit another morsel of anything on top of an at-capacity stomach, and it didn't make its way onto the bill, either, so I'm guessing she just didn't hear me.  And that was the only snafu of service at any juncture throughout a spectacular meal in a beautiful space with a deft crew, under the thumb of a chef who has garnered my irrevocable admiration.

136 9th Avenue •  Between 18th & 19th Streets 
• 212-776-1990


Thursday, October 3, 2013

BXL Zoute

Why I thought this place was Middle Eastern is a bit of a mystery even to me, except that its name is an unfamiliar hodgepodge of random letters that meant nothing to me, and the signage presents bold, oversize, rusty-looking letters that for whatever reason appeared earthy and exotic, reminiscent of a roadside stand peddling couscous on the cusp of the Sahara.  Instead, BXL stands for Brussels (Bruxelles) and Zoute is salt (Dutch), and the menu's main draw is the Belgian staple,  mussels.  That is pretty much the only thing worth coming for, as well.  Despite the fact that I departed with an unreasonable fondness for the place, the food is not particularly good.
I should have known as much, given that the only citations on its website were for the webdeveloper: no mention of any chef or restaurateur.  But they've established themselves enough to support three locations in Manhattan alone, and the restaurant itself by appearances is rustic and charming, although the location near me is situated at a chronically difficult address.  Frondy palms enclose a patio out front, and the interior is casual, warm and sylvan underneath that looming, enigmatic sign.  Those ominous, metals letters give better indication of the menus foundation than do the bright-faced staff.

We were there early, our servers fully attentive as the rest of the dining room was fairly empty.  I can imagine at a busy brunch or as the evening progressed, a full house might overtax the abilities of the somewhat novice servers, but they are affable and eager, and with a light load handled our orders adequately.  The menu is pretty heavy, and even the lighter sounding dishes ended up a little leaden.  Chicons au Gratin was all ham and cheese,  despite it being described as "endive wrapped it ham".  It was quite literally roulades of ham cloaked in a thick crust of melted gruyere, stuffed with a few spare leaves of endive.  Flavor was great: the ham fresh, rich and salty, and the cheese thick and flavorful, but the proportions grossly skewed from my expectations.  A basket of sort of flimsy bread wouldn't quite hold up to scooping it as a dip, but you can cut off pieces to savor like substantial little hors d'oeuvres- prepare for subsequent appetite-killing, however, if you consume the whole plate.  Even its small side of mashed potatoes (an app with a side.  Huh.)  sat as a dense, leaden lump (at $10, this plate certainly merits its price calorically, but it is more than a bit rich for my tastes).  Other appetizers toe this line, bitterballen,
cheese croquettes, blood sausage, bone marrow. Luckily, there are a fair number of salad options, although many of these could make light meals themselves.  Contributing a lighter footprint is the shaved vegetables, gently seasoned and crowned with a fluffy poached egg atop to dress.  This was actually a nice conglomerate of thinly ribboned vegetables, jicama, radishes, cucumber, carrots and red bell pepper, all crunchy and fresh.

We split a generous crock of mussels, from which there are several flavor options.  Our waiter preferred the Thailandese- but the richness of coconut milk seemed excessive after the heavy appetizers, so we opted for a classic Provencale, which was less tomatoey than normal, but the savory broth tasted nourishing and sincere, redolent of white wine and basil, shards of crisp celery scattered throughout.  Belgians like fries with their mussels, and these are fast-food style, but far superior.  Crisp and salty and hot, with just a hint of grease to lubricate their crunch.  I prefer bread to absorb the broth, but this
variety became too sodden too quickly.  Brussels sprouts, despite
 the eponymy with the restaurant, weren't stellar specimens.  Slightly undercooked, they seems to have spent a little too little time in the oven, and then thoughtlessly tossed with a lot of meaty lardons,  which were actually very lean and tasty, but didn't play well with the al dente veg.

There are other main dishes as well, similarly sturdy: a creamy chicken stew with bacon, meaty Carbonnades and Entrecote, all which seem heavy for a warmish early fall, giving few options for more delicate appetites.  But it's not magnificently expensive, and serves very hearty food comfortably and amicably for when the occasion warrants.  You know your tastes better than I.  The menu's bylines boasts Great Belgian Beer:  if that title alone appeals to you, you'll be in capable hands at BXL Zoute.

 50 West 22nd street
tel.  (646)692-9282