Monday, March 24, 2014


"Ladies and Gentlemen, the chefs have left the building."  Or so I found out by an unfortunate post-prandial informative.  Calliope is a pretty-but-pretty-typical French bistro on a comely corner of the East Village, distressed mirrors and a white-washed tin paneled ceiling.  My friend (chef and food critic) and most reliable resource had gone on and on about this place- and I had actually attempted three times to go, foiled by a full house with no availability, or private parties.  But on this winter-into-spring evening, the charming reservationist said he "could squeeze" me in, which I might have taken as indication of how we were going to be treated.  But he was so genial and pleasant himself, the simple reservation-making process actually redoubled my anticipation of the restaurant itself.

So I arrived earlier than my dining companion, and was seated at what might be the best seat in the house, mid-room and in full view of the well-designed room as well as passerby traffic of the bustling St. Marks annex.  Inside, the tables were beginning to fill with a somewhat mature crowd, but most seemed like regulars or neighborhooders, who probably appreciate a slightly more refined destination amongst the classic grit of the East Village.

A complimentary plate of crisp radishes and oily

anchovy toast greeted us, but that's the only bread you'll see throughout the course of the night.  There may be some upon request, but that didn't occur to me until I was 7/8th of the way through my main, where I was wishing I had a crust with with to finish up my entree.  As soon as emptied, that dish was whisked away without promise of refilling.  This became a theme for the night: the plates recaptured literally before completion, which makes me think that "squeeze" was that they needed that table back in an abbreviated time frame.  This is NOT the way to handle such a situation.  If you want to compound reservations, notify your diner before confirming that the reservation can be had, but the table needed back by X o'clock.  Information is everything.  Do not just seat a party, and then bulldoze through the courses.

These courses I speak of, are numbered One though Three, the first of which perhaps qualify as snacks: oysters, rillettes and the like, but the
offerings in Two aren't much different: soup, mussels or an octopus salad, all at similar price points, so I didn't quite get the distinction.  At any rate,  my salad from Two was a simple mix of farm lettuces, sprinkled with a tangy crumble of feta and a squiggle of creamy dressing, topped with matchstick scallions.  Big enough to share, but might have benefitted from a spritz of freshly ground pepper, which was neither a table nor offered.  The busboy actually hovered over the table, waiting for me to fork the last leaf before relieving us of the salad plate- I replaced the salad fork upon the plate in his hands as he turned on his heel.  Honestly, there is nothing wrong with leaving an empty plate in front of a diner for a moment of consideration... unless, of course, the clock is ticking.

 Category Three gives us the entrees: a classic steak frites, a lusty sounding roast chicken stuffed with cabbage, and a cheeseburger with Vermont white cheddar.  Somewhat more novel was a lamb's neck ragu, stewed down to pure winter comfort, atop house-made pappardelle: wide, floppy ribbons with just the right amount of chew. I went for a seared halibut, which was a perfectly just-cooked filet crisped golden on the edges, strewn with translucent discs of radish and shreds of fennel.  A thick puree of celeriac spiraled
 underneath, studded with a few sweet golden beets, good enough to warrant a clean plate, although no awards.  Plates, as you might notice, are a little sparse, so a side dish is probably a good, if not requisite, idea.  There was only one cooked vegetable, the other would've been redundant salad of watercress, or housemade pickles- which I think of more as a garnish- or starches: frites or fingerlings.  Instead, the grilled
 radicchio wouldn't have normally been my first choice, but it stood up nicely, the charred edges contributing smokiness to the bitter leaves, a tang of lemon and zip from a scattering of chili flakes.

I was torn between finishing with a pear tarte or the tropical fruit pavlova, and I fear I opted in the wrong direction.  But I was trying to mix things up, whereas my go-to tendency would've tipped the scale towards pear, I clung to the ephemeral promise of spring, and went for the lighter pastry. Nubs of grapefruit and sliced kiwi partnered with pineapple just kissed by the grill, anchored in a cloud of whipped cream atop the coconut pavlova crust, which was toasty and biscuity and paired well with an inky cup of La Colombe.  Still, it missed a little cohesiveness, although perhaps that was more a lack of cohesiveness with the persistent winter temperatures than the actually dessert components themselves, which would have boded better with an elevated mercury.

But basically, there was nothing technically wrong with our meal (with the service, yes, but the food, not really).  All the same, I couldn't help but wonder, throughout the course of the evening, where any of the sparkle was.  The recommendations and reviews I pocketed outshone my experience so vastly, I had to wonder if I had severely mis-ordered, or if it was just an off night.  But my own pride in not checking my phone constantly shot me in the foot: two unread emails in my inbox held the crucial information: the husband-and-wife chef team had apparently departed just over a month prior, and with them seems to have taken all the ado.  While the emails said "Don't go!" I might soften that admonition somewhat: don't go out of your way to go, but if your near and destination-less, you could do much worse.

NEW YORK, NY 10003
(212) 260-8484

Calliope Restaurant NYC

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Pretty bleak.  May be more appealing at nighttime.
I think it's pretty rare that a Chinatown Chinese restaurants is recognized by the Guide Michelin, so that was my lure, rather than any familiarity with its chef.  Although famed chefs like David Bouley and David Chang name it as their top picks for dim sum.   Zagat has it on par with Joe's Shanghai, a far-too-popular tourist destination.  So to, the brusque, aggressive demeanor of the staff: I'm not sure if this is part of the show, or just a you-get-what you pay for type of arrangement, but it seems pretty ubiquitous amongst Chinatown joints.  At any rate, it contributes a modicum of energy to the bleak ambiance, even if it is one of unsettling tension.  You'll reach the dining room at Oriental Garden through an entryway lined with fish tanks.  Its focus is seafood, and some of the freshest you can get in New York comes via the Chinatown conduit.  Live shrimp scamper frenetically across the bottom of one aquarium, and large, slothful grey bass frown lethargically in an adjacent one.  Once you enter the room, the only smile you'll encounter is that of the maitre d', who despite the fact that I was the first to arrive, ushered me to a table- that is, he basically  commanded me to be seated, although I think I would've been more comfortable waiting till my guest arrived.  The rest of the staff exudes as facial expression similar to that of the bass.  At any rate, the room was pretty sparse at this strange dining hour of three o'clock on a weekday.  Only one tableful of five Asian businessmen and another group of four filled two of the tables.  Oriental Garden is conveniently open nonstop from 10am to 10:30pm, dim sum offered until 4pm.  And if my experience was the norm, you will be accosted with dim sum before your tush even hits the seat, so if you're not going that route, just turn it down a couple three times and she'll quit harassing you.  On the other hand, if you do want dim sum, it comes out rapid-fire, but get ready to ask multiple times for what it is lurking in her little wicker steam basket, because the English descriptions are virtually unintelligible.

The dining room is generic ugly Chinatown stark.  The red and gold Michelin Guide indicator on the door outside is more intriguing than the red and golden dragon wallhanging, but there are some nice poems written in artful Chinese characters that can entertain and educate a bit if your at a loss for conversation until your food arrives.  While dim sum is provided instantaneously, ordered food takes a touch longer.  Pots of tea are set in front of you as soon as you sit, so
you can nurse away your hunger pangs with the complimentary brew until more substantial fare arrives.

  From a lunch prix-fixe menu I chose a veggie soup, filled with bright vegetables in a salty chicken broth, scorchingly hot.  Peas and bean sprouts afloat, carrots and broccoli sink underneath.  Nothing spectacular,
 but a pleasant, warming little bowl.   And speaking of warming, beware of the stuffed eggplant: this innocuous-looking plate of nightshades ensconces such searing temperature it actually scorched my dining companion's lip.  I guess the peel insulates the incendiary flesh, tamping any steam, so the heat
only releases when punctured... and then, watch out.  Better enjoy a couple bites of dumpling as your eggplant cools, since they arrive just edibly hot.  The shrimp dumplings, illustrative  of the

 freshness of their seafood, barely contain the flavorful pink shrimp inside their thin wrappers.   We also ordered a pork version, but were served the shrimp-and-pork combo instead, which may have been even better than the shrimp alone.  The superior quality of the shrimp made it not too regrettable a misstep, although a bit redundant.  A generic-but-serviceable saute of Chinese vegetables were super-fresh, tender-crisp and just slicked with that mild clear gravy, I guess of chicken broth and cornstarch.  It boasted mostly emerald pea pods and water chestnuts- those nutty, crisp little discs so rare outside of Chinese cuisine, that I find such an exquisitely anticipated treat.  Perhaps a little heavy on the baby corns, though, which I'm quite sure are enjoyed by just about no one.  After this, and a few rounds of dumplings, the eggplant had cooled enough to taste.  It benefitted from a spike of soy sauce, which enriched the silken, oily flesh to contrast
with the meaty shrimp stuffing.  It gave the impression of lightness, but I'm sure the spongey vegetable's flesh had absorbed an inordinate amount of oil, as it is prone to do.  To no avail though, as the rest of our meal was restrained enough to afford us a little extra indulgence here.  So much so, that we actually wanted to order some more dishes, but the soup dumplings we desired need to be ordered forty minutes in advance, which seemed inordinately long at that moment.  So we cleaned off the rest of
 the fluffy steamed rice and called it a wrap.

The spartan surroundings and laughably gruff service doesn't really invite lingering, anyways, and there were no apparent desserts to be had: not even orange wedges or fortune cookies.  Slthough I'm sure if we were going to spend more money,
they'd be happy to accommodate (note: Cash and AmEx only, so be prepared).

Our little lunch wasn't the most astonishing meal I've ever had, but it seemed indicative of solid preparations, fresh ingredients and reliable quality.  I'd definitely return to explore the dinner menu, which looks more expansive on all levels.  The little laminated lunch menu we were given didn't seem to offer a quarter of what is listed online or on the dinner menu, but using this repast to test the waters, I'd hesitate not at all to revisit this Garden.

14 Elizabeth Street
Between Canal & Bayard
New York, NY 10013

(if there's a phone number, I couldn't find it, but if you do, good luck in communicating if you don't speak Cantonese/Mandarin)