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08/20/08 12:00am

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James  605 Carlton Ave, 718-942-4255
Price range:  $25-$40   Rating:  4L’s

When you enter James, an upscale New American eatery in Prospect Heights, you encounter two disparate objects that encapsulate Bryan Calvert’s vision. One is an image of his great-grandfather, James Calvert, dapper in a pre-Prohibition barman-cum-gambler way, with cravat and handlebar mustache. The other is a Lucite cross-section of a chandelier, unfurled like an accordion, emanating an LED glow. This contrast of 1908 and 2008 continues through the decor (of polished wood and unfinished walls), and the food and the drinks, provoking a timeless yet contemporary character.

Calvert, a veteran of Union Pacific and Bouley, brings this touch of timeless romance to a 100-year-old brownstone at St. Marks and Carlton, a bucolic ‘hood still wanting for restaurants — he and his partner, Deborah Williamson, have created a real neighborhood place, destined to last a long time.

Perhaps the best item on the menu was a plate of crispy sweetbreads with a rhubarb glaze and dandelion greens, a bittersweet adult version of chicken nuggets. Actually, kids would love em, too — if you don’t mention their origin. Grilled prawns with sunchoke shone as well. These both went great with James’ Revenge (named after the great-grandfather, not the restaurant), a take on the old-school Manhattan with rye, cointreau, bitters, sweet vermouth and kumquat juice, one of many reinvented classics. The wine list also presents some gems at prices appropriate for a neighborhood hangout.

Pine nut-crusted lamb saddle, ruby red and high on rosemary, was a welcome break from the usual rack, nearly as tender and way meatier, but an accompanying white bean stew transported it to Toulouse. Roast chicken delighted equally. A notoriously difficult test for the restaurant kitchen, this Amish bird was juicy with crispy skin, and came with non-homestyle couscous with pea shoots and lemon thyme. Even dessert, or the half of it we could still eat, lived up to Mr. Calvert’s vision. His ricotta beignets with raspberry red wine coulis were airy, perfect for the delicate sweet cheese filling.

Some may balk at this chef’s abandonment of high-end Manhattan for neighborly Brooklyn, but James is a statement and a gift to an under-served neighborhood. In Manhattan, nine out of ten new restaurants close in the first year. Without sacrificing quality or originality, I’d bet that ain’t going to happen in Prospect Heights. Not to James. Any takers?

07/30/08 12:00am

Scarpetta  355 W 14th St, 212-691-0555
Price range:  $32-$48   Rating:  3L’s

Historically, the Meatpacking District is where good chefs come to sell out. Just look at 5 Ninth, once one of the most promising restaurants in the city, it now caters to the scenesters shelling out $150 a head for mediocrity. This is why some critics were shocked when Scott Conant, formerly of impressive Uptown locales Alto and L’Impero, decided to bring his haute Italian riffs to the cursed former space of Gin Lane on 14th Street.

And if he sticks around, making sure the kitchen doesn’t descend into the laziness that afflicts most of the ‘hood’s eateries, he’ll add a sheen of class to all the surrounding clubland crass. The large dining room, modern, austere and cozy, is decorated with brown leather banquettes, odd mirrors and entrancing minimalist curio-cube chandeliers. The room books three weeks in advance, so take advantage of the first-come bar area.

Conant has brought many of his august recipes from prior ventures to Scarpetta — one reason the average age here is at least 15 years older than its local competition — but sanely leaves the overly baroque behind. Our meal started on a down note. Chilled pea soup with crab and riesling ($12) had a perfect late-summer flavor, but the soup was unpleasantly gritty and the crab stringy. A large plate of scallop carpaccio ($12), on the other hand, was so suffused with lime that acid is all that registered at first. Later, the sublime sweetness of the shellfish peeked out along with rich avocado, and it shone in the three bites with orange flesh.

Likewise, main courses were both brilliant and flawed. Duck and foie gras ravioli ($23) were overly al dente, robbing the sinful filling of its silkiness, but a sweet marsala wine sauce had me dragging bread through the plate after I was done. Black cod with fennel and tomato ($25) was a welcome break from the sweet miso version Nobu ubiquitized, and it was the night’s savory star.

We hadn’t eaten much, but the food sure was rich, so my dining companion and I split the lightest dessert on the menu, coconut panna cotta with guava soup, caramelized pineapple and coconut sorbet ($11) and we suddenly had our appetites back. The interplay of four textures and the impossible harmony of coconut and pineapple with an elegant guava edge made this the best dish of the night and one of the best desserts of the year.

I see what this kitchen is capable of, and it can either fulfill that promise or descend into MPD mediocrity, hints of which were on display as well. I know what I’m hoping for, but it’ll be fun to see it play out.

07/09/08 12:00am

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B & B 
109 S. 6th St, 718-782-2333, Williamsburg
Price range: $18-$30   Rating: 1 L

Bedford and Berry — B&B to the kids — fancies itself a hipster speakeasy, with Edison bulbs (how original!), mismatched furniture (school-house chairs, those are comfy!) and schmaltzy antique photographs (puke!). And it appears a lot of attention has gone into creating a modern take on middle-American comfort food and reimagined pre-Prohibition cocktails. That is, it appears that way. After suffering through a meal here (12 blocks from the L  — damn you South 6th), it’s clear appearances can be deceiving.

But apparently someone is enjoying the fare, as half of the appetizer options were gone. After being told the crispy frogs’ legs (and our next three choices) were unavailable even though the waitress recommended them, my dining companion and I split a Thai shrimp dish. Extremely spicy but not quite hiding substandard shellfish, the dish went back half eaten, as a cloud of regret hung over our table. Cocktails were somewhat better, with an ingenious but overly sweetened take on a mojito (substituting gin for rum and cucumber for lime) and another sugary play on a sidecar.

Mains were no better. A shrimp-stuffed ravioli was downright nasty: a seized-up mass of ground shrimp draped in a gummy pasta shell, all coated with sugary, cafeteria-grade tomato sauce. Best of the night was a cheeseburger. Tasty and pink, it had obviously been sitting around a bit before being served, but still had the intense beefiness of grass-fed beef, paired with undercooked truffle-oil-scented fries. A side of collards came singed, blackened and basically inedible. (Not that I’m opposed to the concept; one of the best Caesar salads I’ve ever had was wood-fired.) And an ample side portion of mac & cheese came coated with red pepper, obscuring any flavor the fun, twisty tube-shaped pasta once knew.

With three-quarters of our meal to take home as leftovers — and then to be left in the fridge to rot — we decided to skip dessert and make the trek back to the L, but instead stopped somewhere on North 6th for something decent to eat. B&B might make a fun night out if you happen to live on South 6th Street and don’t want to leave your block, but better can be had cheaper almost as conveniently, so why bother?

07/02/08 12:00am

Red Egg   202 Center St, 212-966-1123
Price range: $28-$38   Rating: 4L’s

Red Egg, a new Chinese-Peruvian venture from Darren Wan, whose dad was involved in Shun Lee’s glory days, is just steps north of Canal but miles apart in concept. The room looks like a set piece from a big-budget remake of Barbarella: white faux-snakeskin, inset silver-and-pink panels, two extraordinary competing lighting schemes — one featuring 88 Edison bulbs set in a slatted-wood ceiling, the other shimmering globes descending from a chrome firmament — and circular leather banquettes. Though it all feels a little crammed in the mid-sized space, it’s a shock to see a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown go to such great lengths with décor, and that focus continues with the food.

Lest you be scared away by imaginings of Sino-Peruvian fusion monstrosities, the cuisines are kept separate, and the Peruvian offerings are relegated to the appetizer menu. While our cold mussels ($5), topped with tomato, corn and hot pepper, were reminiscent of good ceviche, they nevertheless seemed an afterthought, a gift to the owner’s Peruvian mother. We stayed with Chinese — from the à la carte menu instead of the dim sum menu — the rest of the night and were not disappointed. Shanghai steamed juicy dumplings ($5) were fresh and soupy, but suffered slightly from uneven dough.

Our mains were better still. Peking duck sliders were pricey at $20; I imagined a hoisin-glazed duck patty, but something far more wonderful came out. They brought out half a Peking duck and carved off all of the bronze lacquered skin tableside, with only hints of meat on the crisp, fatty slices. These were stacked on soft, steamed Chinese buns, slathered with hoisin and accented with cucumber sticks and green onion. Then the naked duck returned to the kitchen, presumably to be used in some other dish. This was a modern yet classic service of this beloved duck dish, as in China the meat is often eaten separately.

After heaping helpings of skin and fat, our next dish of tofu and mixed mushrooms ($12) was a healthy respite that tasted no less sinful. The tofu was seared yet nearly melting inside, while dark, meaty mushrooms and a gelatinous soy-based sauce made an incomparably rich complement. Sated (stuffed), we pressed on, intrigued by a coconut pudding cooked and served in a whole coconut ($7). A tremendously smooth, sweet, tropical end to a surprising meal. Unlike nearly every other restaurant in Chinatown, where no matter how good the food may be, there’s always something you have to overlook — nasty décor, ugly plating, rude waitstaff, poor pacing or a huge yet useless menu — at Red Egg they’re bringing New York restaurant standards to Chinatown. Finally.

06/11/08 12:00am

Madangsui    35 W. 35th St, 212-564-9333
Price range: $20-$33   Rating: 3L’s

Korean food in this city is synonymous with 32nd Street, that stretch from Broadway to Fifth thronged with people speaking Korean, people seeking barbecue or karaoke and confused tourists wondering how they ended up in Seoul. Just three blocks north, on 35th, there are no crowds, but one of the city’s better longstanding Korean joints, Han Bat, is there, along with some more forgettable ones. This year, Madangsui joined them.

Things started well. The Panchan, small plates served gratis at the start of a meal, were the most varied I have ever seen, from the expected kimchi, seaweed, salad, tofu and various pickled vegetables, to things I’ve never seen served free: spicy tofu stew, an omelet in a hot stone pot and  Japanese-style fried fish. A seafood pancake appetizer ($9) was an elegant dish, though it was not served before our main courses. Studded with shrimp, squid and scallop, the pancake’s texture was perfect, barely greasy and loaded with spring-fresh scallions.

For entrees, our party split two meats from the barbecue section, a thick pork belly ($21) and marinated butterflied short ribs ($25), which was plenty of food for four. We knew this wasn’t going to be the finest barbecue when we first spied the pork belly, partly frozen, lean and unseasoned — it ended up tasting like jerky over the inconsistent heat of the gas grill in our table. The menu advertised charcoal, which would have added a smoky flavor to this one-note meat, but that was not to be.

After we finished half the pork belly, the waitress dumped our short ribs onto the now-underheated griddle, which couldn’t caramelize the meat before it was overdone, so we had to choose between a beefy crust or a juicy interior. Both together inside a lettuce leaf, garnished with sesame-oil salt, hot sauce and scallion was a nice compromise but not the exalted experience I’ve had in the past. It didn’t help that I was washing all this down with a nasty $10 glass of cold sake (should’ve gone with the sochu).

I still don’t understand why, if the griddle is in the table, the waitress cooks your meat, often poorly and always all at once. To Westerners not used to the rushed pacing of these meals, which my Korean companion said was common and expected, it may come off as disappointing. If you take your time, everything may get cold or tough; if you rush, it seems a waste. And Madangsui did. But from the abundance of Panchan to the high-quality, well-seasoned but poorly-cooked short ribs, I can see the promise of a great restaurant lurking beneath its flaws. Especially if you cook the bbq to your own liking.

06/04/08 12:00am

Ghenet  348 Douglass St, 718-230-4475, Bklyn
Price range: $15-$25   Rating: 4L’s

In the New York ethnic food pantheon, Ethiopian ranks somewhere between Mongolian and Dutch, which is a shame because it’s the most festive and communal dining experience out there. And Ghenet’s new Brooklyn location, an offshoot of the popular Soho eatery, is a fine and comfortable place to experience it.

The restaurant, cozy by Brooklyn standards, avoids kitschy ethnic-restaurant pitfalls, encasing the space in intricately stamped metal sheets, partitioning the warmly lit dining room with pillow-strewn benches from a small bar area. Start your meal with a strong glass of tej, a native honey wine similar to mead, or a complex Ethiopian beer instead of the saccharine house cocktails.

We started with two appetizers, both excellent but too much food considering the bounty awaiting us. Sambusa ($6), an Ethiopian delectable similar to samosa, was crunchy and spicy, as was Kitfo Tiklil ($11), raw seasoned beef rolled in spiced injera.

As for that injera, it’s the backbone of Ethiopian cuisine: massive flat sheets of spongy, slightly sour bread made from teff. It’s a dietary staple, serving as vessel and — primarily — utensil. Diners feast on bounteous main courses from a three-foot wide communal bowl, scooping out stewed and roasted meat and vegetables with pieces of injera. Not for the germ-phobic, it’s a uniquely rewarding way to share a meal with close friends.

The three of us ordered the Ghenet Combination for three ($46), seemingly the universal of fellow diners. Heaped on our platter were a chicken dish, a beef dish and seven of eight available vegetable creations, ranging from pleasingly bland to heady. Doro wett, a tender chicken quarter and boiled egg stewed in the Ethiopian national spice mixture, berbere, was a big hit. Unique to Ethiopia and Eritrea, berbere’s a mélange of chile, ginger, clove, coriander, ajwain, allspice, cardamom and rather a lot else, forming a smoky, pungent background to many hearty dishes.

Abundant mounds of lentils, split peas, collard greens, string beans, cabbage, potatoes and more, stewed or sautéed, all intricately flavored, rounded out the delightfully messy feast. Afterward, surrounded by scraps of injera and small puddles of multi-colored goo, we passed on dessert. We weren’t sated; we were completely stuffed. We rolled out and made our way to a cozy pub near 5th Street, hardly talking for the next half hour, sipping bitter beer to aid digestion, grateful for the cuisine of Ethiopia, our hardly dented wallets and our miraculously unstained clothing.

05/07/08 12:00am


Tet

83 Ave. A, 212-253-0800
Price range: $12–$18   Rating:  4 L’s

Ever since a large group of Americans acquired a taste for the cuisine of Vietnam 40 or so years ago, certain dishes have gained traction in the U.S., specifically bahn mi and pho. Yet this rich tradition, an amalgamation of delicate and heady Asian cuisine shaped by 100 years of French rule, hasn’t had the exposure it deserves.

Tet, a new restaurant in Alphabet City from O Mai’s Steven Duong, presumably named after the Vietnamese New Year and not the Offensive, is poised to lead a cadre at the higher end trying to change that. In this airy, glass-fronted space done in deep purple and burgundy, cozy banquettes under macramé chandeliers are an oasis from, and a vantage point to, this rapidly changing ‘hood. But maybe everyone’s just here for the food.

From the first appetizers and a cold bottle of nigori sake, this seemed a likely motivation. Delightful glazed ribs came first, not the baby back ribs the menu advertised, but meatier, more flavorful (yet less rich and tender) spare ribs. This additional meat — lemongrass-crusted with a spicy honey-plum sauce and chopped peanuts rendering them irresistible — was a welcome tradeoff. No tradeoff was needed for a yam, eggplant and onion tempura. All julienned, tossed en masse into a gauzy batter and deep fried, it arrived cut into four generous slices, each bite suffused with complex, addictive flavor. Less remarkable, but still fine, was a “salad roll,” really a summer roll stuffed with herbs, greens and sweet sausage.

Our two main courses were less even. A rice noodle soup with a rich, herbacious pork-tomato broth was unique yet homey, perfectly accenting the lump crab chunks slowly yielding within. Amazing. Yet a “house special” roast duck was atrocious. Overcooked, greasy, unseasoned, paired with a generic sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. Finishing our meal with banana tapioca cream cloaked in jackfruit and palm seeds again reminded me of childhood — not my childhood, mind you.

Unlike some new Asian restaurants, lunging at the culinary firmament but destined to close after the buzz dies down or better opportunities appear in a few years, Tet seems poised to stay, seeking neither fame nor fashion, instead channeling home. A rare aim on the new Avenue A.

01/16/08 12:00am

Irving Mill, 116 E. 16th St, 212-254-1600
Price range:  $40-$55

Irving Mill, in its way, is quite a beautiful restaurant. Dark wood beams, light paint, wrought-iron chandeliers and expert, caramel-hued carpentry recall a carriage house. But sit for a while and the place becomes more troubling. From the grand size of the space clashing with the design philosophy (just how green is a room with 30-foot ceilings?) to the “Washington Irving” signatures self-consciously emblazoned on the large (yet uncomfortable) banquettes, fusion woodwork and the heavy dose of kitsch strewn about — nothing seems quite right. A 12-foot millstone as a bar table is a nice touch. But why is there a wagon wheel on the wall? All this is after you get past the visual focal point of the room: the waitstaff’s station, whose glowing touch-screen is jarring but better than the cutesy copper kettles.

Our waitress was fantastic (and actually told us which dish is liked least!), as were the beer and cocktail menus (and, of course, the wine list). I had a Belgian-style ale from Victory, and a friend had a blood orange Manhattan, a faithful take on the classic using Rittenhouse rye whiskey, blood orange bitters and, thankfully, no juice.

The food was more uneven than this unrepresentative sample of wonderful drinks. Surprised to see so much fish on the menu, I decided to start with Grilled Baby Octopus, peppers and fennel ($15). The whole baby sea beast was the biggest disappointment of the night, with insipid, unseasoned sides failing to detract from octopus that was both undercooked and overcooked — no char flavor yet with the mouthfeel of an inner tube. At the other end of the spectrum, perfect, if familiar, Cauliflower Ravioli ($13) showed the success that devotion to market-fresh ingredients can provide, melding whole and puréed cauliflower, hazelnut and parmesan in homemade, al dente wrappers.

Braised Rabbit ($24) and Braised Lamb Shoulder ($28) were impossibly tender, a true feat with temperamental rabbit prone to stringiness. But the sauces just didn’t hit the right mark. Both were rich and brown-stock-based. The flaky lamb came with mushrooms, cabbage, squash and orecchiete pasta, yet somehow remained one note, unless one carefully constructed a bite of everything. But who wants to eat like a surgeon? The rabbit’s brown sauce tasted like another kitchen altogether, with an abundance of chopped olives obliterating the delicate flavors of the meat, garlic sausage, herbs and caramelized shallots. And the underside of the plate was like a middle school desk, rough from dried-on detritus. That was a turn-off.

Losing our appetite with this heavy but not particularly fulfilling meal, we opted against dessert, though the check did include a heavenly peanut- and-bourbon cookie. Since then, I’ve been trying to understand the restaurant. Is it about market-fresh, classic American luxury? Eco-conscious farmhouse fusion? Everywhere it’s beautiful and delicious; everywhere contrived and confusing.

01/02/08 12:00am


Graffiti
, 224 E. 10th St, 212-677-0695
Price range:  $40-70   Rating:  5L’s

Graffiti is an art form, a “FUCK YOU” to The Man, improvisation, and now a restaurant. At former Jean Georges pastry chef Jehangir Mehta’s new joint, it’s all of these, and it’s definitely not vandalism. The food and the scene are Banksy and Basquiat, controlled, purposeful and passionate, not just random tagging.
In this East Village neo-Persian hole-in-the-wall, you’ll find a cuisine unlike anything else in this city, in one of its smallest rooms. With just four tables and a studio apartment-sized kitchen, Mehta and crew somehow turn out an inventive menu of 16 small plates and three desserts of shockingly high quality at a seamless pace.
From our first plate of green mango paneer, the kitchen’s attention to detail is clear. Paneer is never this memorable, soothing the bitter young flavor of green mango dancing with hot chilies. A plate of farmers’ market tomato encapsulates the restaurant’s global ethic. The flawless yellow and red slices, some of the season’s last, are paired with olive and balsamic sorbet and sprinkled with those candied fennel seeds found at Indian restaurants. Using Indian, Persian, Asian and European ingredients, Chef Mehta displays a Thai ethos: every dish balances salty, sweet, sour, bitter and hot, yet feels organic, as in chili pork dumplings paired with grapefruit confit and crispy noodles. Flavor and textural contrasts like these are the hallmark of a great pastry chef, which Chef Mehta is, but he has found a way to succeed with this same approach to savory — a leap most aren’t prepared to make.

The menu is divided by price, from $7–$15 a plate, but all are roughly the same size. For my party of two, the chef, who was also our waiter that evening, chose the progression. Again, he was spot on. A few dishes reveal his Persian origins, an unexpected tapestry of flavors to the uninitiated, as in a braised pork bun, heady with sweet and savory spices, paired with apricot chutney and tantalizing unshelled bitter almonds. Some stay planted firmly in Europe, such as a foie gras and raspberry crostini with walnut salad.

A dessert of halva and mascarpone date cream was too laden with nuts and fruit for me after such a wide-ranging meal (we split a total of seven courses). And it tasted a bit too authentic for this restaurant, but maybe the biggest shock, the ultimate culinary F-U of the moment, is an unironic, traditional festive favorite direct from Tehran. Now that’s art.

11/07/07 12:00am

Hakata Tonton,  61 Grove St, 212-242-3699
Price range:  $16-28  
Rating:  2L’s

Himi Okajima, chef at Hakata Tonton in Greenwich Village, claims to have discovered the fountain of youth. It’s an ingredient that (he claims) makes skin supple, eyes bright, teeth white and probably helps your sex life. What is this miracle of modern science, you ask? You guessed it: Pig’s feet, or tonsoku in Japanese.

It’s all about collagen and cartilage, and since Shark Fin is too pricey for New Yorkers’ wallets, pig foot it is. Served in a nondescript space at Grove Street and Seventh, with yellow walls unadorned and the former sushi bar underutilized, it’s an unexpected choice for such high-concept grub.

Grub, I will add, that ranges from delicious to pernicious. Himi’s Special Salad ($10) was a delicious item. A surprisingly deconstructed salad, it was loaded with par-cooked vegetables, nearly uncut. Two full carrot halves, two jumbo spears of asparagus and Brussels sprouts were just a few of the additions. The choice of miso or French dressings was nice, and both were so sprightly, either one worked. Best of all was a thorough cloaking with serrano-esque ham slices. That was perhaps the best dish and our only one that did not require a pig being dependent on a wheelchair for the rest of its life.

The next items, which we munched on while enjoying our BYOB beer (Kirin), didn’t scream “foot” either. Crab Cream Croquetas ($7) and Tonsoku Gyoza ($7) both had an unexpected blandness, though chock full of “pied à la jambon” squish.

The unadulterated Tonsoku, simply grilled with salt ($6) seemed necessary to order. Necessary for my review, that is. Please don’t. It lacked either the intense or subtle flavors worthy of it being a star. Other than some crunchy skin, it was a chewing chore nibbling through semisolid fat, soft cartilage and bone.

Best were those times when tonsoku was treated as — gasp — a mere ingredient. In a spicy cold Korean noodle dish ($8) and with fried rice and garlic ($8), the tonsoku was right at home, lending a luscious mouthfeel that made both dishes better, and a subtle, permeating pork essence, rebalancing flavors without rewriting history.

They also had great (Japanese-fluent) service, a gift of Pez at the end of the meal and the most amazingly overstocked free bathroom I’ve ever seen outside of a private club — they had: two perfumes, emery boards, bar soap, liquid soap, mouth wash, cotton swabs and five kinds of hosiery. Still, the next morning, I remembered little of note about the food, my skin didn’t look appreciably clearer, and my new pantyhose had a run.