Friday, July 21, 2017

LA SIRENA

Frankly, La Sirena hasn't been around long enough to have changed it's m.o. as much as it has, and thus it appears to be having something of an identity crisis.  The megalith housed in the Maritime Hotel began with a befittingly nautical theme and the Italian bella figura of the Batali-Bastianich legacy.  All this made sense, especially given the popularity of its predecessor, La Bottega, and while the vast square footage of the restaurant could be daunting to an unseasoned prospect, these guys would be able to handle it.  Right?  Well, well into a year now that it has been opened, the south dining room remains virtually untouched, and the bar has now switched to a Spanish tapas theme, as too has some of the main dining room's menu.  There are gems to be found at La Sirena, but for them, you'll have to dig.

The service was friendly enough upon encouragement, but left to their own devices seemed much more concerned with something other than where they were.  The room is as gorgeous as it was, much improved, in my opinion, from La Bottega, with a glittering expanse of hand-laid tile flooring and sweeping archways, all in a soothing, muted color scheme blitzed with highlights of signature Batali orange.  That's probably his biggest imprint here, as Josh Laurano oversees the kitchen.  He can do some wonderful things.... pastas are definitely a strong suit, and they offer an appealing option of the bis, a half-and-half plate of two selections of your choice from the twelve or so on offer.   A black spaghetti with lobster, corn and chive blossoms was spectacular both in visual appeal and flavor: Meyer lemon sweetened the tender chunks of crustacean, with ample nubs of jalapeño adding a bit of summery heat.





Before that, though, we tackled some appetizers, which were both less successful and less Italian.  Asparagus served with a poached egg weren't the most flavorful spears, although I'm not sure how much of anything else anyone could taste at all aside from the overpoweringly fishy boquerones polluting the whole dish.  This is one only some massive anchovofile could like, which wasn't me, but I enjoyed the burnt Japanese eggplant much more.  A lusty sweep of black garlic intensified the char, the far side of the plate countering with
 a kicky tomato chili broth, and roasted peppers tangled on top with their earthy sweetness.   Other appetizers juggle Italian vs. Spanish, some quite literally like the Prosciutto vs. Jamon with pan con tomate and gnocco, respectively, and other, like the snapper crudo showing more of a ceviche flair with Spanish melon and cucumber.   A lackluster Spanish langoustine (priced per beast) was draped with garlic scapes in a peppery drizzle of olive oil, and has since been swapped out for a more tempting charred octopus with peach mostarda and those crunchy pop-rocky darlings of the garnish world, finger limes.







Entrees proceeded with a downward trajectory- my suggestion would be to continue in a pasta state of mind, such as the aforementioned spaghetti or a classic version with grilled octopus, chorizo and mint or thick, toothsome
 pici with morels and thyme.  If you do venture into Secondi territory, all I can suggest is choose something we didn't, for while the black bass with grilled apricot, spring onion and eggplant was soundly enough prepared, the fish wasn't strikingly fresh and ultimately the whole dish was kind of forgettable.  The plate was fairly sparse, too, although the eggplant and spring
onion tucked underneath was savory-sweet with a tangy citronette and grilled apricots.  A side of sautéed mushrooms went well to round things out, and they were nicely burnished, nutty and earthy.  Lamb scottaditto was impressively plated, with its
 showy bones protruding proudly, but it wasn't my order, and from the small taste I had (not a big lamb person), I remember nothing except for the shishito peppers below were tough.  So I asked the orderer, and he doesn't remember anything, either, which speaks more than either my unrecollecting words or this (cruddy) photo does.



Thankfully Thea Jabjanic swooped in to salvage the evening as deftly as any Dolci possibly could.  She is a masterful pastry chef, utilizing the best of the market to their greatest advantage, and artfully sculpting them into presentations as beautiful as they are delicious.  Our Semifreddo
ai mirtilli was a showstopper, it's Heat Miser-
esque spiked meringue topping cool lime sherbet over a dense, mi-sweet polenta cake nuzzled into a jammy blueberry puree.  I would've been just as happy with her Strawberry crostata or apricot panna cotta , though, although the overall crowd-pleaser is apparently the bomboloni, doughnuts stuffed with hazelnut gelato and lily-gilded with chocolate truffles.   So if want to experience the best of La Sirena, explore the extensive wine list and indulge in dessert, and hold off on dinner there until they figure out what they want to be as a restaurant..... if they can do it in time.





LA SIRENA RISTORANTE

88 Ninth Avenue
 Tel: (212) 977-6096 



Monday, July 17, 2017

PUBLIC KITCHEN

Another celebrity chef to drop his name but leave his soul out of it.  Public Kitchen opened up in Ian Shrager's new Public Hotel down on the Bowery, and despite it's buzzy vibe and picturesque design, that Jean-George Vongerichten is the name on the restaurant is more for pomp than for posterity.  Some chefs escalate to having their names be more valuable than their talent, and such is the case at Public Kitchen.  Which is a totally fine restaurant... especially a hotel one where they're sort of guaranteed traffic, but nothing about the food that we tried said anything but "you have been fed".  And J.G. himself was IN the kitchen that evening, or at least making the rounds and keeping his eyes on the dining room, populated with his investors, buzz-seekers and an attractive overflow of hotel guests.  They were turning people away in order to keep things manageable at this early stage, so some were bumped back to a communal dining table or seated at the bar, where more casual food options are available.










So the dining room is spare and industrial, but it has an attractive coolness to it, the cool of both qualities.  The waitstaff is attractive and attentive, worthy of better food.  That said, vegetables are a stronger suit, and we began well with a multi-colored beet salad interspersed with market strawberries strewn with crushed pistachios and flounce of arugula.  Pickled shallots married the berries and beets, tempered with a generous lashing of olive oil.  Less successful were a Snack of roasted asparagus spears wrapping melted fontina in salty prosciutto- they were a little greasy and heavy, improved with a generous squeeze of lemon but not saved.  The menu shows elements of classic Vongerichten nods to Asia, but Public is of a decidedly global influence.  There are potstickers with corn, basil, lime and soy alongside smoked
 salmon and potato latkes, tuna tartare with ginger and yuzu as well as De Palo's burrata with heirloom tomatoes.  We're definitely going for melting pot here rather
 than any locationally focused cuisine.   But that burrata is a sumptuous affair, plump and milky and surrounded with magnificently juicy tomatoes.  There is also a quartet of pizzas to choose from, of unconventional ilks such as tomato and mozzarella spritzed with chipotle or three cheese with asparagus and pepperoni (two p's ... the salami kind not the nightshade).  A couple of pastas present as well: I guess it's a hotel restaurant so you have to have a ton of variety.









Then Fish and Meat round out the entrees, although an $11 side of roasted cauliflower was big enough to serve as an entree had it be served with a steak knife, AND had it needed it.  But it was far overrated, so tender to verge on mushiness, which is a pity because it had fantastic flavor with grainy mustard sauce popped in its seediness.  Roasted hake with peas and carrots was pleasant and light, tinged with a barely perceptible kiss of saffron but otherwise not too memorable.  The grilled short rib we tried didn't share any of those qualities, nor was it in any way short.  Nor is it still on the menu, which was probably smart, because it was uncomely to eat and the meat was tough.  The bone was the best part, because my tablemate owns a dog.  



 

 We were full enough from all of that to not have much interest left for dessert.  There's no dessert menu listed online, so I can't even know what we missed, but I can't imagine it was that much.  Additionally, service had some noticeable lags and the duration of the meal was about time and half what it should've been.  Wrapping things up, we moseyed past the delicatessen-style eatery in the lobby and out through the front garden of the hotel, which is definitely the strong point of Public.  The grassy patio is magical, trees underlit and just dense enough to offer glimpses of a starry midsummer sky.  Couples laughing on benches and sharing clinking glasses of cool summer wines... and SMOKING.  Which killed everything, especially looking down to notice the scads of discarded butts amassing in piles on the little lawn.  My friend asked my why all smokers are such slobs, and I responded that probably they care as much about that as they do about their lungs, which he agreed made perfect sense.  It's kind of sad, though, because a little like Public Kitchen, it has so much potential.





215 CHRYSTIE STREET 
PHONe  1 212 735 6000 







Thursday, June 22, 2017

CHUMLEY'S

I know it's one of those places that prides itself on being under the radar, but had I not run into a friend directly outside the front door I might've continued probing about cluelessly until by a process of elimination I tried the correct door.  The forest green one, nondescript and bereft of signage is the one you want, opening into just what you would expect of the notorious, historical address.  It is dark and shadowy, with just enough swank and mystery to keep things interesting.  As if it's reputation weren't fascinating enough, and a lot of that intrigue endured the transition and reinvention into Chumley's 2.0.  But even the original's fairly ambitious menu could not surpass its notoriety for drink: it retains the title of speakeasy even now as it's used in conjunction with a culinary destination-worthy restaurant.











Cocktails, of course, remain a strong suit.  On the menu, DRINKS are featured as prominently as DINNER.  A fourteen page list of tipple ranging from modern concoctions with yuzushu or brennavin to a $5 Budweiser to a $400 Cabernet.  But the chef, Victoria Blamey, deemed "badass" by one particular conoscento lives up to the title.  The lady might hate vegetables, and seems rigorously opposed to creating anything that might be considered dainty or frou-frou.  But this results in a bold, unique menu, unabashedly creative and gutsy, if not at all vegan or vegetarian friendly.  There is one entree that would qualify as such, but it doesn't present as a concession: I was drawn to the Spring Porridge with favas and green garlic almost as much as any other of the alluring,
 provocative dishes.  Some of them embody a bit of mystery.... I'm fairly well-versed in the vegetable spectrum, but Hon Tsai would've tripped me up without the help of Google.  Were it not for the trout roe, it could've served a vegetarian, but it wouldn't be nearly as delightful without it.  The juicy orbs popped with a smoky salinity, enhancing the garlicky daidai ensconcing the sturdy vegetable.


From there on, things trend animalian.  Don't think that the rose Harissa imparts some sort of daintiness to roasted cod; it is bold with pepper-inflected pancetta and a smoked coconut jus applied table side.  Normally I'm not a skin-eater, but this one was crispy as the best of bacons and tasted not unlike it.  Some intensely softened sugar snaps nestled underneath, as a reminder of the season which could get forgotten in the windowless hall.   The 86'd Burger was not and never will be 86'd from the menu.  There was one on nearly fifty percent of the tables, and usually is.  For good reason: it's an impeccable sandwich, its bun plush and yeasty anointed with bone marrow.  Crispy shallots are tucked within
 anchored by smooth American cheese and Chumley's special sauce, gleefully oozing out the sides.  With a winky emoji alongside the handwritten menu entry comes the disclaimer that they "must decline any modifications to this item," which is beyond reasonable, because I cannot imagine what it would need for improvement, nor why any one would want to leave off any of its accouterments.    The crispy fries accompanying are deliciously hot and salty, some with bits of potato skin and char, and the only thing skinny about that whole ordeal.


A more enthusiastic nod to the Greenmarket was given by a scrumptious strawberries-and-cream dessert, prime berries in a pillow of milky whipped cream and smooth vanilla ice cream sprinkled with candied pistachios.  Even more playful is a foil wrapped ice cream sandwich, elevated to adult standards with naughtily dark wafers still crisp to the tooth, and a dense fruity ice cream rich with Luxardo maraschino cherries.  Maybe it's the low light, or the history of the joint, but both seem naughtier than they might in other surroundings.


 Which is a compliment, along with pretty much everything else I have to say about Chumley's.







86 Bedford Street
tel. 212-675-2081




Monday, June 19, 2017

CASA APICII

Our chef at Casa Apicii arrives to us from Los Angeles.  Casey Lane's cooking isn't particularly Italian as far as pastas and burrata have become fairly ubiquitous menu items, but his execution is on point.  In the space that formerly housed The Lion, Casa Apicii has lightened and brightened the venue, and from what I can discern, improved the culinary options substantially.  He wasn't in the night of my visit... apparently he rarely is, spending more time at his Tasting Kitchen in L.A., but our servers were attentive and friendly, so I felt in good hands.  And whoever he has trained in the kitchen is deftly holding up the bar.

It was a little sketchy that none of the notable figures highlighted on the website were actually still a part of the organization, aside from Lane, but I didn't see any immediate negative effects, so I suppose I shouldn't be preoccupied (that said, these things should be kept up to date, especially in a digital world).  The name derives from the Latin Apicius, a collection of Roman cookery, long associated with the love of food, and the lofty, airy dining room's simplicity leaves the focus on just that.  There are some spectacular chandeliers, however, and a elegantly monochromatic color scheme of pale ivories that lend a classy touch.  The menu is pointedly Italian; it is behooving to have at least a minimal grasp of the language for ordering purposes, or to be dining with someone who does.  I fall into the former camp, and that knowledge was extremely useful to my dining companions (even if I did incorrectly describe paccheri as a filled pasta OOPS.  Yeah.  It's like a big rigatoni, for the
 record.). I DO know what strozzapreti are, though (priest-stranglers: always a crowd-pleaser), which here are sauced in a classic bolognese.  The pastas are main-course sized, though,  not primi as on a traditional Italian menu.  So before we got there, we shared a plate of meatballs in sort of a topsy-turvy sequence.  Not sure how they really decide what should be antipasti vs. secondo (sic) (which should be secondi) especially since these polpettine came four to an order, and were big ones at that.  For the pork, beef and veal combination that compromised them, the sauce was the most flavorful component.   Maybe better off with another starter, like the calamari or if you're in the mood for cheese, burrata or straciatella should fit the bill.







But then back to those pastas, the noodles of which are splendid, regardless their form.  Bucatini (my favorite shape) al'amatriciana were just the right amount of spicy to perk up those long, toothsome hollow tubes.  Tagliatelle were more sauced more delicately with a light, creamy cheese, tossed with English peas and a ruffle of
salty prosciutto.   But my favorite overall was the fettuccine tangled with fresh shrimp, some zippy chiles and a spritz of buttery breadcrumbs.  But regardless, the pastas are a strong suit, although the secondi don't play second fiddle.  Menus items change really frequently, and the halibut that I ordered not only has been swapped out to a Dover Sole, I also forgot to photograph it nor remember much of it in detail, so we're just gonna mention that I recall it was quite delicious, and sizable enough I had a bit leftover... which was good, because Apicii's prices are fairly steep, and the pastas are pretty expensive for their size.  They could be, in fact, primi in terms of portion, but their price tags ($22-$28) do command entree consideration.        















I was thrilled to see Brussels sprouts still on the menu despite their inarguable unseasonality, and they were good- well, correction: some of them were.  Because they were cut up very irregularly, the the biggest halves were perfectly cooked but the smaller bits got overcooked to decimation and swallowed up in too much in the
 lemony bagna cauda.  Some fresh snow peas made good partners with sautéed shiitakes and were probably the most successful, but mostly just a two delicious separate entities with not a lot to draw
 the two together besides a natural affinity. They were pleasant nonetheless.  The broccolini alla piastra spent either too much or too little time on that piastra, or wasn't properly trimmed, rendering it quite tough, something the heavy dusting of lemony breadcrumbs didn't help mask.


Desserts by pastry chef Suji Grant are quite attractively described, a citrusy mascarpone panna cotta with caramelized almonds piqued my interest, but the bill had already reach rather elevated proportions and none of my other tablemates seemed into it.  And at twelve dollars I suppose it was a consideration.  But what bothered me most was the menu title : Dolce Piatti.  In Italian, the adjective goes after the noun, and there must be agreement between the two in gender and quantity, neither of which are correct in this phrase.  Nitpicking this would be, had the rest of the meal been superlative.  Instead, I feel like it's mini-indication of carelessness: the chef is not on-site, the Italianness isn't quite assertive enough, the service wasn't engaging, and the empty-ish room and sort of lack of energy left no motivation for a return.  It just didn't feel special, and it was too expensive not to.  I don't discourage giving it a shot, especially if it's convenient, but I guess the dining room sparse population was understandable.  New York's bar is high, and this just doesn't quite make it.







62 West 9th street
        tel212.353.8400









Monday, June 12, 2017

MOTEL MORRIS

Motel Morris isn't a motel.  It's not a hotel.  It's not even really in the remote vicinity of any such type institution that I can think of, until avenues over.  But it's got hospitality to spare and oodles of other fine qualities that might make you wish that there WERE sleeping accommodations nigh.




The room is painted dark shades of blue, but while the space is deep and lighting is low, it is in no way gloomy.  A kinetic energy somehow imbues the space with a livelier ambiance than the architecture itself might imply.  The room is centered with a large bar, and this night and every night I've peered in, it's been two deep by prime time, and that imparts a festive vibe that appeals to many.  The menu is new old school Americana, in keeping with the motel theme.  A BLT&A salad gives a naughty wink to a leafy version of the sandwich, although
I'm nor sure what the A stands for... but you can add lobster to it, making it a meal for
just $7 extra.  A wilted kale and radicchio salad is voluminous and savory, but disappointingly had zero hint of wilt, char, or any other indication of the presence of heat, which would've made the roughage exponentially more interesting.  As it is, it's an okay salad, hearty enough for sure with big, fat dates and big, fat gigantes beans padding up the greens.  If, in fact, the greens (and reds) would've been charred, it would've become a pretty excellent salad.
 Pierogies are pretty hearty too, as pierogies usually are.  These are plumped with a creamy, cheddary potato filling and elevated
 with knobs of lobster meat, a global nudge is provided by chewy slivers of
shiitake mushrooms.  Sweet chili charred octopus uses deliciously fresh and meaty tentacles, cooked tender, but the sweet might override the chili somewhat, imparting a more saccharine impression than a fiesty one, even with nubs of Chinese sausage and a drizzle of chili oil.





Now while some of these starters would be filling enough to pair up and make for dinner, the entrees might actually be Morris' stronger suit.  They have a lineup of daily specials, like Monday's Lobster Pot Pie and Saturday's beef cheek stroganoff.  I think we were there on a Tuesday, whose chicken thigh paprikash gave NO competition to a sautéed skate wing.  So often chefs plate mild-mannered skate in a broth, and while those flavor profiles offend meld well, the texture of the fish is always compromised by the sog.  Here, it is proper upon a super flavorful sautéed of spring vegetables, including baby corns that I'm pretty sure are actually the fresh, premature cobs.... they had no inkling of that canned,
ascorbic acid-taste and were too crunchy and dense to have ever been frozen.  Kudos on that- a rare find.   I wasn't as impressed with a side of grilled asparagus, whose spears achieved not nearly enough grill.  They were pretty abruptly raw and crunchy, and the piquillo romesco beneath was slightly bitter, but mostly just saw limp and watery it pooled listlessly below, with zero chance of adhering to the vegetable.  They would've been better given more time on the flattop and simply strewn with the almonds- like Coco Chanel said, "look in the mirror and take one thing off".  Simplicity
 can be a virtue.  In that vein, grilled marinated skirt steak was a winner, cooked precisely as requested  and charred salty crisp on the edges.  A savory, bacon-enriched gruyere fondue beneath was judiciously applied, and bitter greens and tart shards of Granny Smith balanced the richness, of which there was plenty.    



Desserts are but two, plus "Mom's Dessert Special", all of which are $10.  In a nod to Americana, we went with Butterscotch Banana
 Pudding Pie, a perfectly cool and creamy slice crusted in a crumbly, buttery graham cracker cookie crust and dolloped with fresh whipped cream, spritzed with crushed butter bricks.  My tablemate ordered a second, which was entirely unnecessary but hard to resist.  And that's pretty much the overall impression I took from Motel Morris.  It's got a lotta yum, a lot of fun and even with the neighborhood stalwart Cafeteria just right across the avenue, I think Chelsea's got herself another keeper.












132 Seventh Avenue
                                                                       tel 646 880 4810

Saturday, June 10, 2017

ATLA

As I was approaching, my dining companion texted me to say we were going to starve to death.  My impression of the menu online had not been that far off that assessment.... but I have been to Cosme.  I know chef Enrique Olvera is ridiculously talented enough to pull some serious magic out of the sombrero, so I was actually pretty sure that in the end, we would depart both sated and satisfied.  I was right.

Atla opened up about three months ago as a more casual, accessible venture compared to Cosme, it's big, fancier sister in the Flatiron.  The room is about as small as the menu, and the space is not necessarily that expertly utilized: round tables that are much too small to handle their load of plates when sharing multiple plates is kind of the only way to approach the menu don't utilize every square inch, and with these close quarters, that needs to happen.  But vast plate glass windows give an ample glimpse of open sky, and pale grey walls of sparkly marble provide a sleek and soothing backdrop for  the vibrant food to come.  The noise level is what they'd call lively- you may or may not enjoy the 80's/90's soundtrack, but you could kind of sing along without disturbing much of any one too much one way or another, what with all the conversation noise, kitchen rumblings and probably a little automobile traffic filtering in from outside as well.  So conversation might be held to a minimum, and neither is it the best date food, either- most if it was spicy enough to make my nose run a little, and other bites were unwieldy and/or challenging to navigate.  Company you're not trying to impress too much might be a better choice, but any food-savvy diner would have trouble not
appreciating the flavors encountered.  Like a tangle of nopales and mache which clumped together in a zesty dressing dusted with queso Bianco that you ended up having to twirl somewhat like spaghetti, some trailers might not make it into your mouth on the first go.  But slurp them in with the assistance of a thick, profoundly corny corny chip, lick your lips and start again until it's gone, and then swab the bottom of the bowl with the deliciously fresh and pliant warm tortillas that come along gratis in a small woven basket.  Chicken soup is deceptively ordinary looking, but it is a lovely
 bowl of tender breast meat and large hunks a vegetables, bolstered with nubby white rice and floating rings of zippy jalapeño with a flounce of chopped cilantro.  Still, it's a large bowl and took up a lot of real estate on the little table.  But the worst part was the small, flat-ish spoon provided to tackle it, which was insufficient to handle more than one solid bit of poultry or vegetable and a drop broth at a time, and frankly not enough of either to eat the soup before it got unpalatably cold.



Unlike most Mexican restaurants in America, here at Atla there is no paucity of green.  In fact, all of the dishes we ordered, aside from a side of mushrooms, presented green, although I saw other tables loaded with chicken enchiladas, a ruddy, soulful red and farro, wheat and quail meatballs were pooled in a thick tawny sauce.
Our ceviche was a bright, pea-pod hue with juicy cucumbers and a cool bracing brine that hid delicate ivory slips of pristine fish- absolutely refreshing and invigorating.  Admittedly not a huge ceviche fan, this one was the BEST one I have ever had.  The menu is just a list of dishes, but also gives a few extraneous addition options that can also be treated as sides.  A sauté of mushrooms didn't really work to add to anything that we ordered, but that was perfectly okay because they were outstanding in their own right, crisped along the edges but chewy and earthy and magnificent within.  They worked exceptionally well, too,
with the fish Milanese, which achieved a perfect crust of thin gold, although the fish itself might've been slightly fishy tasting.  It had an impeccably delicate flake and the snappy, crisp salsa verde served alongside brightened things immensely, although I wish the filet (I'm guessing it was sole) had been slightly thicker to offer more meatiness to contrast with the crust.



There were only two dessert options, not listed on a menu but described by our waiter, so a lot was left up to the imagination.  But my feeble little noggin' could never have conceived of the wonder of that moist, warm corn tamale swathed in a faintly cinnamon perfumed crema.  A sugary crumble atop gave it a trompe l'oeil appearance of a cotija-dusted savory tamale.   I know Cosme's husk meringue is the one that got all the ooh-la-las, but this thing (in my opinion) is nine times better and just as deceptively humble looking.  The other dessert was a simple strawberries-and-cream, delightful, too, in its own right, but contributing its fresas intermittently with bite of the tamale created ad spectacular combination that make it a literal
 requirement to order both desserts, and enjoy them symbiotically for as long as they are on the menu.


Atla's menu is small.  So is the space.  But the flavors and impact are enormous, and the price tags are more in keeping with the menu and square footage so get there sooner rather than later... if you miss that tamale you'll kick yourself all summer long.










 (I can't find a phone number and I don't think they take reservations, but the space is small and the buzz is large.... so get there really early or really late to avoid a wait)