Thursday, June 19, 2014


Donatella lost her battle with Chelsea, although her awning remains at the new incarnation, Heartwood.  It's only been in action a month and a half, so they've simply rolled her name up underneath until they acquire their own version- she's still a partner, so they needn't hide their ancestry entirely.  Their newness shows in fits and spurts, however; they've got some kinks to work out and some spiffing up to do, but  they're working from a solid base.  Heartwood's chefs come from good pedigrees:  Mark Fiorentino and Bradford Thompson, from Daniel and Lever House, respectively.

The ghost of Donatella remains not only furled up in the edge of that awning, but also in her legendary Stefano Ferrara wood-fired oven, no longer blinged out in gold tiles, but sporting a glossy, brick red shell, to put out novel pizzas with silly names,  such as the popular "When Peter Luger Goes Out For Pizza"  and the "Wild & Sharp".  They sport sturdy crusts, on the thick side of thin but not over-inflated, and nicely charred on the edges.  While we didn't order a pie, no crusts were left on any of the pans on surrounding tables: a good sign.  Hardly just a pizza place, though, the menu opens up with a snacky array of small plates, dips and cheese- scant on the vegetable quotient here, but that is picked up by a constantly changing trio of seasonal salads.  The night we were in featured a refreshing composed tomato concoction, paired with fine haricots-verts, ribbons and chunks of cucumber and dollops of foamed burrata.  We also tried the Chilled Shrimp cocktail, with was four sizeable, sturdy shrimp,
marvelously fresh, and just dusted with herbs.  They fanned out from a creamy, verdant avocado mousse studded with a juicy dice of snappy pickled green tomatillos- a really fetching combination.  Rustic bread (complimentary) swabbed up any remainders of the smooth mousse, but is served with a strangely tasty brown butter butter.  Sweetened with agave and maybe even a touch of warm spice, the butter, while delicious, seemed an odd spread for a dinner load, but I could see it going over very well in a brunch setting.  Or, excuse me, a "Brunchy" setting, as states the menu.  The gimmicky names would be

 a lot more annoying if the food didn't hold its own,
 lucky for them.  There's a lighthearted vibe at Heartwood, like they want you to have a joyful experience along with a really good meal.

Which is what was happening, although it would've happened a little more effortlessly had the staff been a little more effortful... and knowledgeable, and sophisticated.  Young servers seemed enthusiastic but inexperienced, and at the price points of the restaurant, they are really what tip the scales one way or the other.  Both entrees we tried were solid: a grilled salmon might have been a touch overdone for my dining companion, but it was how I prefer it.  It boasted distinct, smoky grill marks which played well off a bright Meyer lemon puree beneath.  Grilled spears of tender asparagus beneath were quite perfect examples of how the vegetable is best cooked, with more of the like piled atop, this time steamed and sprinkled with zest.   Their menu changes frequently enough so that their online version which I am referencing now isn't up to date (annoying), but I remember well the pan-seared cod served atop a rough succotash of
grilled corn, favas, burst cherry tomatoes and the unfortunate addition of some funky saltfish, which, paired with the well-cooked filet, contributed an unecessary fishiness that the whole dish would've performed better without.  Luckily, it didn't overwhelm, and the other components- plus the brightly herby dollop of pesto atop- fought a valiant battle to negate its influence.   While the plates are relatively balanced, there are a handful of sides from which we chose roasted beets with almond and orange, which would've fell more swiftly into the line-up as a salad.  Apparently, our waitress must have felt it would work better as dessert, however, because he forgot to provide it alongside our entrees, and when this was brought to her attention, it didn't arrive until after our entrees were easily completed, but for two
 bites I left just so I wouldn't have to eat a bowl of beets, post-facto, all by themselves.  And they certainly weren't worth the wait: roasting skin-on and then removing the skin takes the whole point of roasting and throws it in the compost, leaving what might as well have been boiled ones, thrown together with some orange segments and toasted almonds and no additional consideration.

Happily we found some reprieve in desserts, even though even their printed menu in the restaurant wasn't accurate either (better than the online dessert menu, which doesn't exist).  No more rhubarb, despite it being only early June, and was (seemingly prematurely) subbed out for peaches.  I can't really complain about this, however, because the fruit was supremely tasty, toothsomely intact and just pleasantly warm underneath a sugar-crusted gridlock of sublimely buttery pastry.  It was an easily shareable portion... well, the cobbler was.  The little scoop of brown butter ice cream could've easily increased 50% to sufficiently accompany each bite of the cobbler below, but it was a winning sweet.   And in the end, I felt much more than 50% satisfied with the overall experience at Heartwood, as well as about 85% certain they will improve with time.  And if we're talking numbers, there's value-added bonus with the retention of what was D Bar (now the Parlor) which opens up via a small corridor tucked behind the pizza oven.  It remains in its original state, $30,000 chandeliers intact, and a gorgeous ghost of Donatella past.  The name Heartwood is derived from the core of a log... the heart of the lumber.  It's the hardest part, burning hottest, so while Heartwood might just be kindling it's flame, it's got a tremendously solid foundation from which to burn.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


I think I have a thing for bulls.  Lucky for me, there are Toro varietals all over the place.  Toro Bravo (unaffiliated) is one I've claimed to be my favorite restaurant ever.  I had my eye on El Toro Blanco (Mexican) until I was dissuaded by a very trusted source.  Now chefs Ken Oringer and 2014 James Beard Best Chef NE winner Jamie Bissonette have brought their Boston native Toro to New York City, on the same stretch of 10th avenue with such heavy-hitting stalwarts Del Posto and Colicchio & Sons.  Well, the address says 10th avenue; you really have to walk almost to eleventh to find the door.  But the restaurant itself is just really big.  Far west of the trendy Meat Packing District, Toro retains some of the nuances of both neighbors, but at the same time a welcome rusticity that releases it a bit from the surrounding pomp.  That's not to say it's not an occasion destination- the price points here certainly derive from the enormous real estate upon which it sits, super-quality sourcing of ingredients and celebrity-chef notoriety ... all adding up to one pricey repast.  But it is money well spent, and no hints disappointment even nudged the experience- except for that maybe I would've wanted a little bit more of it.

Toro is palatially large: the open kitchen far in the back showcases the chefs doing their thing, but from our table near the front, they looked like small marionettes prancing about an illuminated stage.  Apparently, the majority of work is being done in a kitchen which measures like a half a subterranean block away, the above-ground open kitchen just providing some of the a la plancha dishes and a lively show.  Despite its spaciousness, the place fills up quickly.  No sooner than we were seated did the bar crowd begin to multiply, the noise level right along with it.  So if you tend to be less than thrilled with a little seat-bumping and raucous, celebration-caliber laughter, maybe go really early and avoid the prime-time crowds, or at least see if you can reserve a table as far from the bar as possible.

But don't let the cacophony distract too much from the marvels of the menu.  We bypassed ordering the shishito peppers in favor of cheffier dishes, but our neighbor's order of them looked so enticing I'm still rueing that omission.  Soothing over that loss, however, the best dish of the night arrived as our first: a plate of coliflor y kohlrabi, roasted with a zesty array of golden raisins, pignoli and anchovies with a light dusting of pimenton de la vera for subtle heat.  It recalled a similar dish I had at nearby Salinas, and I would love to see the two of them go head to head in a battle for superiority: I would be one happy judge,
regardless of the outcome.  Setas come crowned with a golden yolk intended to be stirred in to the saute to augment its richness, but frankly I think I would've preferred it without.  The melange became a little gummy in its eggy coating, and it seemed to tamp the well-garlicked and -herbed flavor of the mushrooms.
And for the $16 price tag, I would've well done without the egg and hopefully shaved a few dollars off.  On that note, you could also add cocks comb for and additional three dollars, but nearly $20 for a small plate of mushrooms, regardless of the accoutrements, seems... excessive.

From the Tapas Calientes section of the menu we took Suquet de Mariscos, a wonderfully soothing potage of lobster, urchin and parsnip.  I detected no pieces of the latter, so I'm guessing the ivory opacity of the broth came from the pureed tuber rather than cream, although from its indulgent flavor it's hard to know.  Crunchy shards of frizzled onions were the perfect foil for the mildly oceanic stew.  While the monkfish cheeks in Moroccan spices were so tempting, we had to make do with that as far as the seafood quotient, the bill rapidly mounting.  Flavors here are so robust that the diminutive portions don't always seem flagrant, and none so much as the tiny cup of sliced, marinated skirt steak nuzzled in a red onion marmalade and cabrales butter.  The funk of the blue cheese made the dish, balancing the sweetness of the jam and elevating the tender, rare beef.  Served mounded up in its little bowl, its scantness was deceptive, but splayed out on a regular plate it would not have attained Ozersky's seal of approval.  But they are tapas sizedeven if some hover near entree prices.  None of them price in the single digits except an escalivada of eggplant (which is really more of a dip) and the patatas bravas, which were by far the most voluminous dish, a daunting pile of chunked spud crisped golden and slathered with globs of mayo bedded in dusty tasting tomato sauce.  The potatoes tasted flour, unspectacular, and
underseasoned without a vigorous swirl in their sauces, and really only achieved deliciousness with a renegade swipe in the juices from the filete (that cabrales butter would make a saddle delicious).    At any rate most plates tip toward the twenty dollar end of the scale, and with the three to four dishes recommended per person, the bill can get profound.  And the thing is, I still had more than enough room for dessert.

I can't say I wasn't happy, however, to have retained sufficient capacity to be able sample a sweet, as it turns out.  We chose a riff on the summeriest of desserts: a strawberry shortcake that subbed in golden cubes of moist, crisp-edged olive oil cake surrounded by glistening, jammy berries and pillows of frothy whipped cream subtly flavored with port.  There were a couple of other dessert options, too, rattled off by our waitress (no dessert menu): housemade churros and some chocolate mousse concoction if I remember correctly, and if I heard correctly over the elevated din.  But by this time, we had acclimated to the rowdy volume, and sort of entered celebration-mode ourselves.  The noise isn't really a deterrent in the end, as long as you're not too sensitive.  This kind of bull, well... it deserves a little "Ole!"

Entrance on 15th Street and 11th Avenue

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Miss Lily's is keeping the party going, and party is what the East Village- and dance hall-loving islanders- is all about.  Opening up a second location of Lily's (the first is on West Houston) in the hugely popular 7A location,  they conceded to keep the address as part of the name, both for locational purposes and what might probably result in a really smart maneuver to retain its predecessors' avid following.   Luckily for all, Miss Lily's food is exponentially better than was the generic cafe, and the exuberant atmosphere contributes even further to its enjoyment.

Adam Schop is the master behind the grub, recently taking responsibility for both locations  after his return to New York City, where he had been widely recognized for his Peruvian establishment, the now-shuttered Nuela.  Although the food there was good, Peruvian didn't really seem to be his thing, and Schop picked up shop and moved down to D.C. to regroup.  And maybe West African isn't his absolute forte, either, but like its website says, it's definitely enough to take you on "an island vacation in the middle of a busy city."  Technicolorfully blasted in a rainbow of stripes, multi-colored prints and brightly painted walls, the festive room designed by Serge Becker literally vaults you into party mode.  The waitresses were, unfortunately, apparently selected more for their   
appearances, too.  They are lovely and young, sweet and clueless, decked out in fetching sundresses and island coifs, but their helpfulness might end there.  Not that they're not trying, but this is no Danny Meyer-eschelon service.  But it's okay, here- hopefully you'll be enjoying yourself enough as soon as the festive cocktails arrive not to notice the lapses ('cause there might be a few).

The menu celebrates the islands, from the Bahamas to Trinidad.  I had to try celebrated juice guru Melvin's "Body Good" salad, but quite frankly, Melvin: you can do better.  The salad was simply a hash of julienned kale, celery and chard with sliced apples, a few walnut thrown in and very lightly dressed but still overly candy-sweet.  I'd say Melvin ought to stick with his juices and leave the rest of it up to Schop, because from that point on things got a lot better.  Jerk grilled corn didn't seem that grilled, but then again it didn't seem jerked, either... until a latent punch of heat sparked into action as the sweet coconut-mayo

 slather released its tether on the spice.  The ears were brilliantly yellow, juicy as grapes and indecently good.  There are certainly some stoner-food nods bumping about here (the corn being one of them) and also a jubilant bread option dubbed "festival" that are basically glorified doughnuts, although not quite as sugary, but sweet nonetheless, with a mild corny flavor and a delicately salty appeal.  The exterior has a great, toothsome crunch to it, breaking open in a waft of fragrant steam to unveil a tender, corny crumb.

There's a Grill section featuring choice proteins nuzzled with jerk seasoning.  The gentle spices allowed appreciation of the  juicy cut of pork, although I expected a bit more zing and heat from the jerk than it afforded.    Despite mention of a grilled cucumber salad, there's not much else on its plate but for some slices of raw cucumber (the menu seems to overstate the use of its grill) and a dollop chutney, so you might benefit from a side one of the classic sides such as rice & peas or sweet plantains.   Or get some greens in with the callaloo, which is pretty much your only veggie side option.  Strewn with mild peppers and cooked into submission, it's a classic preparation that basically renders it useful as a green gravy, good for moistening up your meat or pone.

I couldn't resist ordering the Buss Up Shot, even having not a clue what a buss up shot was.  Turns out the  Trini term derives from the busted up appearances of the torn roti dough that make up the starch in the dish.  Lily's is served with a soupy curry of vegetables, rich in flavor and with a enough sizzle to perk up the half-dozen skewered shrimp that make this shot a slam-dunk.  The tamarind chutney aside isn't chunky like I'd consider a typical one: it tastes more like A1 Steak Sauce.  But it can add some depth, and if you're displeased with that sauce but still want something, two bottles of jerk marinades are provided tableside to dabble with at your leisure: one regular, one spicier, although in actuality they tasted pretty similar.

Along with a lively cocktail menu (beware of the easily toppleable glasses: you lose your punch with just the suggestion of imbalance as the unwieldy glasses are even less stable full than empty), there are also an array of non-alcoholic tipples, all of which would go well with a little umbrella on top.  I'm actually not sure whether the sorrel drink was alcoholic or not.  It had a slightly boozy, herbal flavor, but it left us feeling good either way.  Or maybe that was the effects of the luscious ice cream sundae, served in a classic glass coupe, filled from the bottom up with a juicy, sweet pineapple dice, creamy  vanilla ice cream, ascending to a crumble of toasty cashews.  It was diagonally impaled with a crunchy gingersnap that imparted its spicy flavor throughout as the concoction softened.

Schop's got Lily's going strong.  The place was packed, the energy of the room living up to expectations.  Islander's warmth and hospitality, bumping dance hall vibe, East Village hip and solid food to float it.  We hit 7A where it hadn't been open but just a week or so, and I'm imagining it's the kind of joint that only improves with time.... and in just this incipient stage, it's pretty great already.

109 Avenue A at 7th Street, New York, NY 10009
For inquiries please call 212-812-1482