Friday, April 28, 2017


On a warmish spring evening, descending into the subterranean darkness of Omar's might seem a bit blasphemous.  A hostess brightened things immensely with a welcoming smile, but the only other light sources are dim, moody lamps and flickering votives, making this swanky supper club a better choice in the winter months, perhaps, than on one of the few nice-weather days New York offers from
 portfolio.  An earlier reservation on any given day will find a rather vacant dining room: the scene here picks up after nine pm.  You'll be ushered into a shadowy "Library", with all of a single shelf of books, and none of which looked like they have ever been touched.  A better bet might be to ponder the cocktail list, divided in Nouveau offerings like the tropical L'Exotique  or Classique, although those, too, have been tweaked into modernism, a Negroni of tequila spiked with strawberry and hibiscus, or an Old Fashioned sweetened with "rich" syrup rather than simple.

Once you've found your table, the menu doesn't challenge much, but it reads like a very appealing list of contemporary favorites, and some ingredients, like truffles and aioli, makes several cameos.  Mushrooms croquettes are an excellent way to start: encased in a crisp bronze crust just substantial enough to maintain their spherical form, four of them sit atop a zesty sweep of ramp aioli, lighter and fresher than a
 croquette might normally present. If you want really light and fresh, a crab and avocado salad fenced in by columnar hearts of palm deftly fills that bill, although it could have used used a spritz more salt.  At first there it seemed bereft of crabmeat, but it was just that the sweet morsels were masquerading as pale avocado, and in the end there was plenty of both.

A fat tentacle of octopus furled over a garlicky mash of potatoes, and a smudge of unfortunately bitter black olive aioli, although it was thankfully scarce and far enough to the side to avoid.  The cephalopod could have been more assertively seasoned, but it was tender itself if a bit diminutive for a $16 appetizer.

We didn't have to, but after that we went all veggie.  By far the most intriguing -sounding entrees are PETA-friendly , although in the thick of winter short ribs with pistachio gremolata or organic chicken fricasseed with mushrooms would have more draw.  And as we could've tricked ourselves into negating the imminent vernal transition given the lack of windows, but the veggies jumped higher to entice.  A deliciously roasty hen-of-the-woods mushroom
 bedded in charred broccoli got a kick of dijon in the beurre blanc below it, and it was hearty for purely vegetal option.  So too a sassy head of cauliflower, nestled into a nutty porridge riddled with black garlic to up the umami- a prominent flavor feature throughout the menu.  It florets were burnished buttery, and big, whole Marcona almonds clinging to them added crunch and heft.

Wrapping up, Roasted Pineapple with coconut pound cake seemed perfectly winter-into-spring transitional, as well as keeping that sexy, seductive vibe that fuels the menu.  Drizzled with a lip-smacking lime caramel, it flipped the coconutty richness of cake with fruit to keep things buoyant.   If I could've fit more in, though, all the desserts really had their own appeal- from a cheesecake with chocolate pretzels to a toasted marshmallow gelato.  

Omar's certainly has it's appeal.  It's not the cheffiest destination ever, but it's pretty much nailed the clubby swank vibe, and the food is really seductively satisfying.  It would be kind of a see-and-be-seen kinda joint if the place weren't so dark, but as it is it allows for a good bit of privacy.  It calls itself a "Private Dining Club", although it appears to accept reservations via its website and phone, so I'm not sure how private it is in actuality, although maybe they are discerning in who they accept.  At any rate, as it is and how it  is promoted, Omar's seems to be attracting exactly the kind of clientele is seems like it wants to.

Friday, April 7, 2017


The original Acme was a divey Southern/Cajun bar and grill that closed half a decade ago, which was then swept up in the New Nordic trend in 2013.  One year ago it reinvented itself once again, retaining only the the name and address which has proven versatile enough to function in accordance with its new identity, a contemporary bistro with global influence and a decidedly New York appeal.  It sadly lost the cool neon sign that had remained even into it's first reimagining, but apparently this new rendition was too cool for old school.  The dining room is shadowed and moody, with leather banquettes and an eclectic private collection of
 art adorning the walls.  Chef Brian Loiacono combines French technique with his Italian-American roots into a menu that basically results in spiffed-up comfort food, cooked with no fear of fat, salt and flavor, but mostly good effect.  The best dishes are vegecentric, although even those are not bikini-friendly fare.

Except for the little amuse sent out to whet our appetites: a tiny arrangement of crudités- one carrot, one cucumber plank, one spear of fennel for each of us- served with a lusciously garlicky aioli dusted with a kiss spicy cayenne.  A love it when a starter actually provokes your hunger and curiosity, and this one did just that.  


And a good whetting was needed, with what was to come.  We started with the crispy artichokes, which may have been the best dish of the night, but were perfect examples of assertive dirt candy.  Smashed into submission and decimated with the high heat of a hot-oiled skillet, they were then interred into a cool pillow of whipped lemon ricotta, until we ourselves did the decimating.  Certainly, they are listed as a House Specialty for a reason, but they are no dainty salad.  So too an appetizer of roasted carrots, shrouded in a tahini sauce flecked with crunchy pops of toasted quinoa.... who needs meat with
 vegetables this salacious?  That said, there is beef in the form of both tartare and marrow bones, a porky pate enriched with fois, and buttery Oysters Rockefeller updated with chives and nettles. 

There are a smattering of pastas to choose from, in hearty preparations like a cheesy risotto with black garlic and mushrooms, or pappardelle tangled into a ragu rich with lamb and rosemary ricotta.   Entrees showed three fishes, two poultries and a steak in the form a NY Strip, the priciest option at $45.   Grilled scallops, 
however, at notable $36 appeared voluminous on the plate, but mostly for the mountain of crispy fried Brussels sprouts rather than the three scallops it included.  Fat as they were, three scallops could be considered an appetizer portion, and at this price seemed skimpy.   As it were, the sprouts, rich as their frying rendered them  (in good keeping with fearless approach to vegetables), became too heavy atop the bizarre clod of cashew butter (for lack of a better term) beneath- a good quarter cup of dense nut puree is excessive.  I was counting on the elderberries noted on the menu to refresh the dish, but they were M.I.A. as far as I could tell.  It made for a strange counterpart to the scallops that were
 cooked rather delicately, still slightly translucent within and mildly seasoned.  True, anything else would have been overkill, but the dish failed to meld.   A roast chicken in comparison was positively spartan.  An adequately flavored breast, skin-on, was gently perfumed with orange, perched atop a sauté of mushrooms that tasted faintly musky, faintly....... past due.  They were well-cooked but in freshness definitely lacking, as if they were on their last legs before betrothed to the chicken.  Little frills of micro-greens decorated both entrees, adding an iota of freshness otherwise lacking.  I'm being severely critical here, though, because while both entrees were edible, the pedigree of the restaurant and those involved demands much more.   Were this the quality at the original Acme, I might probably have been relatively pleased.  

Some of this might have been exacerbated by a staff sporting even less enthusiasm than the kitchen.  But some of that energy might have siphoned off into a subterranean lounge below featuring excellent cocktails and a a succinct menu including some full menu items and a smattering of small plates, as well a nightly entertainment ranging from local djs to drag performances.  And the highlight of the evening might have been the magnificent wallpaper in the bathrooms.  I spent far too much time in there trying to decide which character I most associated with.   From this post, one might assume it was the Drudge, but it's not that I was entirely displeased with Acme.  I suppose I just really loved its prior incarnation, and the current one just did not live up to expectations.  Although we were dining early, the relatively empty dining room illustrated it might not be just me who harbors this opinion.  I do think they have the potential to improve, however: the menu is enticing, and those artichokes would be worth returning for.  More along those lines, and a little lightening of the hand, and maybe next time I might even stay for dessert.  

9 Great Jones Street

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


Oceana in the hands of chef Ben Pollinger was a laudable destination for seafood in midtown, not that it actually needed either of those qualifiers: it was simply a wonderful restaurant.  So who knows why whoever decided it was time to switch up the team, but with no warning I suddenly found my friend Bill Telepan at the helm, and the prior Bill has yet to bob his head up at another outpost.

Oceana knows its customer, though.  Seafood fresher than fresh is a given, as is its appropriate dominance of the menu.  We were welcomed with a divine little amuse of crabmeat simply perched on a salty, seeded wafer: a pure and elemental bite.  But a salad may have been even too much of an afterthought even seafood is the focus here, dressed heavily though flavorfully, a plain-jane mix of greens.  But as one of the scarce vegetable options on the menu, more thought should be put into it.   Another salad with roasted acorn squash was more interesting, plonked
 with daubs of fresh cheese.  The rounds of squash were roasted sweet, their nuttiness augmented with a sprinkling of crunchy pistachios.   The menu takes is real footing from the sea, however, so with a lobster fried rice things really start to get interesting.  Chewy fat grains of rice and nubs of roasted cauliflower, nutty and sweet, nuzzle together with sumptuous morsels of lobster meat and spears of green onion.  This is a heftier option though, and decidedly rich, so while it is listed as a side dish, it would make a better shared appetizer, or even
 an entree for someone looking for big flavors in a smaller portion.  But the flavors are a good indication of things to come, for while the fish is pristine enough to speak for itself, Telepan exhibits a good measure of cheffiness in its preparation.

For entrees, a glossy hunk of halibut perched over rich mushroom broth, studded with more wild mushrooms and deep green leaves of spinach.  Earthy sunchokes countered the salinity with their rooty charm, crushed as if by the weight of the hefty piece of fish, bronzed golden atop, flaky and moist beneath.  An even less traditional preparation is the monkfish,
roasted with hearty pastrami spices on knotty rye noodles slicked with mustard.  Smoky slips of cabbage further the parallel with a Jewish grandma, but it remains far more elegant than any bubbe's pickled beef ever was.   He doesn't funnel all his creativity into iterations of fish, though- a special of braised short ribs might
 sway even the most seaworthy.  But if it's not on the docket when you visit, a Flying Pigs pork chop could stand in nicely, and either of the beef options from Niman Ranch would be hard to criticize.

Desserts have always been a strong suit at Oceana.  I remember the dessert I had under Janssen Chan at the original location (am I showing my age!??), an apricot-almond souffle that turned me into a souffle lover.  Prior to that, I was never a fan.  But I have always loved apple and caramel desserts, and the warm apple cake at Oceana puts both of those components to good use.  The moist cake is plump with roasted lemon salted-caramel apples, smothered in a nutty, gooey caramel.  The apples retain a hint of tartness with the lemon, augmented by a cool apple cider gelato.  I didn't regret that choice one iota, but a Tropical Vacherin with lime meringue and pineapple granita gave it a run for its money, and as the souffle happened to be chocolate that ruled it out for me, but chocophiles would love it with its boozy armagnac scoop of ice cream.

Honestly, it's hard to mess up a meal at Oceana.  It's obviously a little silly not to go seaworthy with your order, but Chef Telepan's entire menu is ace, so salties and landlubbers alike can indulge.  In the restaurant desert of midtown Manhattan as well, Oceana is one welcome oasis.

120 West 49th Street
tel.  (212)759-5941

Tuesday, April 4, 2017


For twenty years Uskudar squeezed itself into a tiny freckle of a space on the Upper East Side, but its popularity allowed for expansion into the adjacent space recently gone vacant.   Both share rusty exposed brick walls and warm, glowy lighting, with white-clothed tables lining the periphery to maximize every possible inch of seating.  So the new addition provides a welcome increase in square footage, but creates an odd dual-entry scenario that needs to be addressed.  So too do some menu items, which too often take a safe and lazy route rather than capitalizing on a sparsely represented cuisine in our city.

Uskudar is a bit expensive for what it is, a rustic traditional Turkish that aspires to something somewhat more sophisticated.  Most strikingly, however, is a lack brightness and pizzazz.  A braised artichoke appetizer special was bland and gummy, a single deflowered choke served stem-side-up in a pale, cloudy sauce with muddy peas and steamed "baby carrots", those whittled plugs of the real deal.  Better was the Imam Bayildi, but still, it tasted more of charred green pepper than the rich roastiness the dish is famous for- no imam would faint in
 delight over this eggplant.  Do take advantage of the warm puffy pide alongside, however, which also serves to bulk out the smallish portions. 

For mains, grilled branzino is plated whole and amply charred, flavorfully fresh but unimaginatively sided with generic mesclun greens- a missed opportunity to impart a stronger Turkish impact with a native salad like Coban, fresh with cucumbers, or Piyaz's white beans and zippy onion.... anything but generic mesclun.   Chef's Mixed Grill provides good meaty variety, tender hunks of lamb and chicken and juicy, crumbly sausages, all flavorful but too mildly seasoned, garnished with a tidbit of pepper and wan tomato.
Saucier options are significantly more enticing, like Etli Bamya's lamb cubes simmered with okra and tomatoes, or Manti, poached beef dumplings in a rich garlicky yogurt.

The wine list is rife with well-priced bottles, most in the mid-$30 range, in addition to a smattering of cocktails. Or skip the booze with a citrusy Camlica soda, sour cherry juice, or the Ayran, a salty yogurt drink, frothy and frosty, which could also serve as a not-too-sweet finale.

That said, if you are jonesing for dessert, they too have greater appeal in writing than reality.  Kayisi are but plump dried apricots, chilled, tucked with an almond and fresh whipped cream.  Rice pudding is noticeably sturdy, denser than cheesecake and dusted with cinnamon, but with a milky flavor and subtle sweetness.  This pairs well with a strong coffee, but ironically an Americano is a smoother, richer brew than the Turkish coffee that was more grit than joe.

The potential is here, the ingredients are premium and Chef Ibrahim Ozdemir exhibits as deft hand in many of the dishes he concocts.  But there is an unnecessary timidity that too often displays itself, making much of the menu simplistically lackluster.  With the added space, and the imminent completion of the Second Avenue subway line, now is the time to push the envelope, and go for bold.

      1405 Second Avenue
                                                                   tel. (212)988-4046