Monday, November 30, 2015


It was a good decision to put the "kitchen" after Chalk Point, because the food here feels a lot like something the well-practiced, very capable home chef could come close to replicating, with a little elbow grease, in their own abode.  It's grubbable, satisfying food- more pleasingly voluminous
than elegantly nuanced.  The decor merges barnyard-chic with dive-bar kitsch: Handy Bar downstairs is strikingly more sophisticated in mood, even with its raucous patrons, than the dining room above.  The bar program, coincidentally, is strong,
so the food upstairs might cooperative better with their inventive cocktails or beer rather than wine, although their list is certainly drinkable.

We started off strong, so strong perhaps, that it was a bit of a false start.  A grilled romaine and beet salad featured crunchy lettuce, a nuttiness and inherent juiciness coaxed out by the char.  The accompanying beets were tender and dense, again benefiting from an aggressive roast, and sprinkled with a sprightly crumble of blue cheese and toasted walnuts.  I do wish there would've been more of
 those stellar beets nestled into the romaine, but it was otherwise a memorably exceptional salad.  I took my starter from the the Sides, a cauliflower steak artfully carved to resemble a T-Bone in
shape and girth alike.  If it was meat, it certainly would've qualified as double-cut, and if they're gonna charge $14, I suppose the heft is necessitated.  Easily shareable, it was generously slathered in an oily tahini dressing, with a few too many sweet golden raisins and shockingly hot tidbits of pickled chili.... but yummy all the same, in a gluttonously un-virtuous vegetable way. 

There were two special entrees in addition to the menu which changes every Friday: easier to keep track of the offerings on Facebook than on its own website, for the most up-to-date information.  Chalk Point (and its chef, Joe Isidori) is paying good attention to what is in the market and where its fundamentals are coming from.  One was a glazed filet of salmon, stretched languidly across a wide, white plate and bedecked with oyster mushrooms and salsify, along with shreds of kombo and vibrant tobiko.   It's flesh looked suspiciously pale on the outside, but a fork broke into its more robustly hued interior, moist and rare.   Catfish, which can be
suspciously muddy or metallic, was farmed but well-sourced, its sweet flaky flesh even more sweetly glazed in misoyaki, broiled to a blistered char over a mountain of long beans and bean sprouts.  This amounts to a distinctly Asian profile, like most (if not all) of the dishes, tend.  So while the name and the website imply farmy New American, the cuisine really touts a lot of Oriental attitude.  A side of brussels sprouts didn't, however, and it didn't have a tremendous amount of personality either.  The sprouts are
 simply sauteed, missing out on the opportunity to
 roast them to their finest state.  They toasted the garlic instead, which amounted in crusty little allium crunchies amongst nubs of chewy house-smoked bacon.  If I'd my druthers, I'd saute the garlic and toast the sprouts: that would make for a successful side. 

Dessert kind of toed that line, although we strayed from either of our server's recommendations, which may have been a better tact.  The vanilla panna cotta was smooth and pleasant, if a little bland.  But the toasted coconut aside helped immensely, and the blueberries were surprisingly good considering it is November.

For all the accolades I'd been hearing for Chalk Point, it fell short of the bar I had raised for it.  But it was a satisfying enough meal for what it was, especially considering the doggie bag of unfinished morsels came close to providing dinner the night after as well.

527 Broome Street (near Thompson)

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Sometimes a stint of mediocre restaurants befalls me such that I start to question my palate and passion.  And then I hit a place like Kat and Theo that completely renews my spirit.  Perhaps nothing being done here at this new American Chelsea nook that is so wildly innovative or provocative, but it is attractive and comfortable in decor, swift and pleasant of service, and consistently, remarkably delicious in cuisine.  It is actually strikingly similar to Black Barn, the previous restaurant I reported on, but on a smaller scale, and superior on most all counts.  Rustic, heavy wooden beams, again,  criss-cross
 the ceiling over walls of crumbling, uneven exposed brick.  Even the tabletops are striking: imported wood is oxidized to a pewter hue striated with black lines, and deep purple velvet covers comfortably plush banquettes, their color mollified by flickery shadows cast from a real, live fireplace we were lucky enough to snuggle up right next to.

The menu is not too big, not too small- just Goldilocks-right.   And it is formatted as such that you can sort of make of it what you will.  I chose a side as a starter, or a hodge-podge of small plates could make up your meal.  Certainly, regardless of your strategy, the charred octopus needs to be a component one way or another.  Deliciously bacony tentacles nuzzle into a puree of gigante beans, a few of which are left whole, but these are undercooked and chalky, performing only as leguminous decor rather something actually edible.  But that's okay: you'll
 be fully under the spell of the tender cephalopod, glazed in orange and oregano down to its crispy edges.  The cauliflower side that I upgraded to begin with is a winner as well, its florets roasted into submission and mounded under a sweetly tangy fig compote, a modern American take on the Sicilian classic.

Only open for months, the aggressively seasonal menu has already morphed through several iterations, the main dishes we tried cycled out in favor of new creations.  Thus it goes when your chef (Paras Shah) honed his craft at El Bulli, Per Se and Momofuku: good things will evolve from the  menu but there will be more good things to replace them.    As for the skate, however, it will be missed.  That wing was perfectly crisped, just accentuating the tender filaments of the fish with a delicate crust
 without overcoming them.  Dark leaves of sturdy kale lay gently across the top, anchored by toasted hazelnuts.  A sauce ahlinho beneath was viscous enough not to sog the skate, although we never got a very explanation of what this mysteriously delicious sauce is (although garlic and saffron were notable components, our waiter said it translated directly as "sauce", which is just.... not accurate).  But no harm no foul- it was just another attribute of the wildly successful dish.  So too was the halibut in bouillabaise, thickened with a creamy celery root puree and dotted with plump mussels.  Two ravioli crowned the affair, which seemed superfluous and sort of out
of place, but they cached the world's silkiest filet of halibut, pristine and snowy white, almost indecent in its moistness.   Veggies are a little scant in the main dishes, so I was happy to have commandeered a side of charred bitter greens,
although they were more braised than charred,
cooked down and stewy, with kicky flecks of chili much like calalloo.

Serena Chow is in charge of the sweet stuff, from which we settled on a concord grape panna cotta, after much wrangling between a chocolate mousse with lavender and lemon curd and a much-lauded carrot cake with white chocolate and espresso, all of which I'm sure were marvelous if our final choice was any parameter.   The grapes came in the form of an intensely flavored sorbet, perched over delicate panna cotta glazed with a a gently earthy fennel gelee, separating the sweetness from the tartness until a spoon broke its glossy surface, impaled with  crunchy shards of delicate maple brittle.  No decaf is on hand, but Toby's Estate provides their fine coffee to accompany if you can handle the buzz,  along with an assortment of teas and digestifs to choose from.  For once, I was okay with post-prandial caffeinated joe- I was happy to stay awake a little longer, ruminating on the delicacies of Kat and Theo. 

5 W 21st St
New York ,  NY  10010
+ 1-212-380-1950

Friday, November 6, 2015


The transformation from SD26 to Black Barn is absolutely astounding.  What was once a vacuous, beige rectangle with the feel of a corporate cafeteria is now a sexy, rustic haven.  Big wooden beams criss-cross the ceiling, casting provocative shadows from bright, suspended Edison bulbs.   The only vestiges of the prior incarnation are the chef and owner, Matteo Bergamini and John Doherty respectively, but they have swapped out Tony May's Italian for American creative, farm-to-tabling it
 and nose-to-tailing it as much as possible.  And on these counts, Black Barn is meritorious, but sometimes the execution falters to live all the way up to the concept and surroundings.

The menu reads pretty pricey, but portion sizes are legitimately large enough to share, whether it falls under the menu category of "To Share" or not.    Nothing small plates about Black Barn.  Our server talked up the Mangalitsa pork to such a degree that we went with a charcuterie board from that division of the menu, even though I'm not such a cold cuts kind of girl.  It's a bountiful and beautiful array, furls of thinly sliced variations of the pig: soppressata, salty prosciutto, zesty salame, hearty rillettes... all from the heritage breed from Mosefund Farm in Jersey.  Accompanied by hearty, chewy sourdough and a small crock of mild, tender house-pickled
 vegetables, there's enough meat here for five to enjoy a bite of each variety- if your appetite can take it.  A grilled corn salad from Appetizers was similarly plentiful, but the focus is on summer's grand finale of produce, showcasing sweet
kernels against bitey arugula in a cool buttermilk
dressing. A halved avocado bookends the greens in case you didn't get enough good fats with the charcuterie board (although trust me, you probably did).

The next four categories on the menu are meant as entrees (Garden, Ocean, Slow Cooked and Wood Grilled), but regardless of my passion for vegetables, I still have a tough time making my main course a plant, even if they call it a Cauliflower Steak.  But shared as a starter, it makes a shareable beginning, even if it is technically more stack than steak.  A glistening pile of curried florets, perhaps a touch over oiled, are toasted, roasted, and melted into submission, brightened with raw cucumber half-moons, chopped cherry tomatoes and sliced rainbow beets, it makes quite a picturesque pile.   Smooth daubs of cilantro raita anchor the elements, and in the end, it is hearty and satisfying enough to warrant its $24 dollar price tag.

For a protein fix, a striped bass with crispy skin lured me away from the waiter's recommendation of the grilled swordfish with caponata.  After the fact, however, I wish I would've listened to him, although the bass was harmless.  Sure, the skin was crispy-ish, but the nubs of tomato didn't do much to revitalize a milky potage of plain sorana beans and undercooked green ones, making the whole dish pretty lackluster. Which our server was not- he actually became an integral part of the enjoyment of the whole evening, faithfully attentive and pleasantly funny throughout the
 course of the meal.  Even if he did forget (or was it the kitchen?) the side order of brussels sprouts, that arrived tardy scorchingly hot; they expedited their arrival but somehow still managed to overcook them, and even the smoky hunks of bacon nestled within couldn't quite unmuddy their flavor.  An unlikely winner of the evening, however, was a slow cooked Vermont Shivanne Farm baby goat... or maybe it wasn't unlikely, given we are dining in a barn.
The hulking platter  included bone-in chops, a roasted loin, and (my favorite) a tender braised shoulder.  The meat was mildly gamey, but mostly just beefily rich and tender, and a rustic hash of rosemary potatoes and artichokes gave a humble, earthy balance.   Dishes came out in a very timely manner, but be wary of the up-pour.  Despite our table's drinking by the glass, our server was tip-toe ready to top off our wine glasses even before they were emptied-  a fine practice if you have ordered a bottle, but confusing if not.  An ever mounting tab can result if one isn't quick to moderate the refills, so let the drinker beware.

Now there's an apple pudding on the dessert menu that would've easily captured my fancy, but at the time, the  cremesicle appeal of an orange-vanilla eclair piqued my interest.  Although impressive in longitude, it wasn't at all the flavor profile I was expecting.  Candied orange peel and chocolate chip-studded vanilla creme is a long stretch from the tangy orange sherbet classic I inferred.  Pronouncedly elongated, the eclair was sort of a holdover from SD26, its flavor a solid
 adaptation of a Sicilian cannoli Frenchified into a delicately puffy choux....  well, at least the plate was a holdover.  Doherty retained these custom rectangular dishes from the old restaurant, and then came up with the dessert to put them to use, but either a tweak of ingredients or menu description is in order.  Brooklyn Roasting Company stepped up to compensate in part, though, with a smooth toasty brew that made a lovely pairing.

Overall, the setting and service, ambiance and bounty are the restaurant's strongest points.   The less fussy plates are the best, which is in good keeping with a place called Black Barn.  Any urban cowboy should be happy kicking off his boots here.

tel.  (212) 265-5959

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


On a desolate stretch of Ninth Avenue, Oovina garners a lot of attention.  The  cobalt neon framing the restaurant's glass facade showcases a thatch of white-washed ivy garland festooning the ceiling, creating an impression much more impactful than the square footage of the tiny restaurant itself.  Passersby seemed to be attracted by what I perceived a rather gaudy
 display,  but what Oovina lacks in
subtlety, it strives to make up for in flavor.  In many cases it succeeds, with its Guatemalan-inspired tapas menu from chef Giovanni Morales of the beloved Market Cafe.

Oovina derives its name from a complicated flow-chart of oenophilic references and phonetic Spanish, and the menu follows suit with a sort playful inauthenticity.   Cooked simply, the food is aggressively seasoned, perhaps to a fault, but never apologetically... and never with gluten.  Gnocchi are crafted from cassava, corn and rice are prominent in Latin cuisine, so the concession (which will appeal to many) does not seem forced.   Garlic and chilis prevail, with many dishes cooked in wine to complement the diverse list of global varietals.  Our server/sommelier, despite his apparent youth, was surprisingly accomodating with the wines, guiding us to a funky, fruity Soave and a sweeter, winier Chenin Blanc to replace the riesling which they had run out of.

We began with sauteed artichokes in a kale pesto pungent with dried herbs, five of them served up on a wooden plank.  I'm not sure these were remarkably better than a best quality preserved artichoke one could find in a specialty store, but they were tasty.  Same kind of thing for the brussels sprouts: I could've steamed some of these guys and whipped up a simple brown
 butter (if I had on hand some champagne with which to spike the sauce), so in terms of complexity there might be a little left to be desired.  A good home cook could replicate a lot of these dishes themselves, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  And everything we tried at Oovina was tasty and satisfying, if not revolutionary.

Chicken tacos, on the other hand,  might be harder to recreate: flavorful white meat pulled into shreds, and dripping with a cilantro slaw... that although the menu specified all the other taco varieties came with red (there is a tofu vegan, grilled shrimp or steak, and crispy pork loin) the chicken was supposed to come with a green cabbage, but ours was red as well.  Speaking of
 color, disregard the terribly distorted hues in these pictures: an annoying pink overhead light shone down on our table, which while matching the casino-esque pink under-lit bar, threw the color profile off on most of my photos.

After each dish, which were each served one at a time, the table cleared before the next would arrive, our server inquired "how is everything tasting?" which is a rookie move, but might've been forgivable had it occurred once.  After EVERY dish,  it became irksome.  Had we not so much time between courses to ponder this, it might've gone unnoticed, but luckily I was in great company, so the extensive lapses occurring in between became an enjoyable conversation interludes.  A place like this, I'd prefer to have a bit of bounty on the table simultaneously and the tempo picked up demonstrably; it would add a more festive atmosphere that I think is what Oovina is going for, but instead the pace is waltz instead of disco.  Next up came a super salty, but nostalgically homey stewed beef, with chunks of carrot and potato alongside tender bites of beef in a rich consomme floating over white rice.  Aside from its salinity, the broth was deep and meaty, a perfect antidote to the cold night air that was starting to push through the windows we were seated next to.
  Come the real plummeting temperatures of deep winter, these front tables may become uninhabitable.  But at any rate, out repast was almost complete at this point, as our waiter brought back menus for dessert.... or wait, was it?  Didn't we order the Shrimp Ajillo?  Yes, we did:  a small oversight.  But the kitchen shot it out as quickly as possible, and although we probably didn't even need that one last savory dish for satiety purposes, the garlicky, oily, sriracha-spiked sauce almost compensated for the fact that the shrimp were slightly overcooked.  The masa cake they hovered around was delicious, though: pleasantly lumpy and nubby with corn, it crumbled loosely into the bold sauce, making the shrimp almost superfluous.

Like the riesling and the green cabbage, they had also run short of one of the desserts, but I was leaning towards the flan-brulee, anyways. I'm not sure why it was hyphenated.  I'm not sure, either, why it was so... .firm.  This was the densest, sturdiest flan I've ever had, actually a lot more like cheesecake than the gently wobbly versions to which I am accustomed.  Made a sort of weird counter to the crisp-bruleed sugar top, and the raspberry-pomegranate preserve underneath was so jammy and sweet it left me hankering for an English muffin.  But by far the standout dish of
 the night were the Rellenitos Colocha- fruity steamed plantains split and stuffed with cinnamon sweetened black bean puree.  The recipe was apparently rustled from Morales' aunt, which she was reluctant to share.  We're glad she did.  More dishes like these, with an elemental simplicity and soulful appeal, would increase the restaurant's appeal.  Although that might fight with the Vegas-worthy decor and the convoluted name, but therein lies Oovina's strength.

496 Ninth Avenue, Hell's Kitchen
(between 37th & 38th streets)
 tel. 212. 967.3892