Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bored - The Breslin - 16 W. 29th, b/tw BWay & 5th Aves

I realized I was bored with the NY restaurant scene upon my first visit to the Breslin.  One of the most anticipated, awaited restaurant openings of 2009 in NYC and, frankly, I just felt played.  I've seen this artisanal-burger, faux euro-comfort food movie before, and I somewhat resent the piped-in Arcade Fire, Cold Play soundtrack that screams you're 30-something, living in NY, trying to be a non-chalant hipster, but really working for and making enough money to support a family of six.  I was a living cliche the first try.  Tonight was my second try and I can't say that it's gotten much better, as with all of the buzz and it being one of the hardest rezzies to score right now, the Breslin is overrun with diners, drinkers, happy hour revelers, too many Wall Streeters and, dare I say it, too many boys!  More importantly, the food--assuming you can choose something from the eclectic menu that actually really tempts your palate--while packed with flavor, is overly salted and not at all subtle, elegant, or refined.  Actually, just give me real, earthy, flavorful, natural and not overwrought, and I don't need elegant or refined at all.  I will come clean, though, and admit that the food and NY restaurant scene has failed to deliver much inspiration for me as of late.  This must be a winter malaise and reflective of a season in which it's much better to just cook at home, but from my winter rundown so far--Sorella, Corsino, Balthazar, Spotted Pig, Maialino, Travertine, Minetta Tavern, Faustina and Breslin, twice, the only true highlights were Travertine's glam decor and milk-braised, pork-shoulder gnocchi and Minetta Tavern's cozy bar area and perfectly-fired filet mignon with Roquefort cheese.  Breslin doesn't even hit the radar screen, unfortunately.  Been there. Done that. And don't want to be smacked in the face with it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

JL Far West - Joseph Leonard - 170 Waverly Place at Grove St.

A few disclaimers: Joseph Leonard's chef is a friend of a friend, he sent over a complimentary appetizer and, more importantly, he offered me a support-staff spot in his kitchen for "Cochon Sundays". JL is definitely a restaurant that you want to spend time in, particularly if you live in or near the West Village. It's small, cozy, and warm, but still hip, buzzing and friendly.  It's the Spotted Pig part deux, but focused on ensuring that you'll dine rather than just drink - there's no real drinking bar here and they'll move you out of seats at "le zinc" if you're not actually having a meal.  I plan to go next for brunch on a Sunday, to fuel myself before heading into the kitchen to help (probably just watch) the cochon preparation, for said Cochon Sundays.  Every Sunday, the chef prepares a pig, head to tail, in varying styles, depending on the part of the pig.  As the dishes and parts of the pig sell out, they are crossed off a chalk board in the dining room, which shows a pig in full and the various cuts of pork its body comprises.  It's a cute concept to generate demand and urgency of consumption.  I like everything about JL, and will head back there and encourage you to try it too, but I cannot lead you astray on the food: there are high points and low points. Lucky for me, one of the high points was my entree of baked and braised rabbit (yes, I ate a bunny) with sausage and fava beans.  The dish was flavored well, tender and moist and the meat explosion was balanced well by the starchy beans and some wilted greens.  Our appetizer of octopus and white bean salad, on the other hand, was disappointing, given the miniscule portion of octopus (this is one of the cheap fish, folks, be generous with it!) and the overcooked beans. And, not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but our complimentary appetizer of bone marrow bruschetta was relatively flavorless, other than the well-oiled bread and smothering of capers.  I was unaware that bone marrow could actually be flavorless??  Nevertheless, chef McDuffee, who heralds from Thomas Keller's Bouchon, "gets it", seems to be fearless with food and understands service and vibe.  With a few tweaks here and there and some time to let JL hit its stride, my prediction is that this is one of the great spots in the City that hits that fine-tuned balance of extreme comfort and refined cuisine.  I'm going back.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Good Grief - Hotel Griffou - 21 9th St., b/tw 5th & 6th Aves.

Whatever you do, do not go to Hotel Griffou for the food.  It's been a while since I've had as near an upalatable meal in New York City as dinner tonight at Griffou. The menu is caught between lots of lobster and some, supposed, American classics, e.g. Steak Diane (was this ever considered good eating and was it ever really acceptable to serve this outside of the home?) The selection is poor and among what we chose (lobster thermidor fondue, lobster succotash, duck confit poutine, pork cutlets and salad nicoise) there was not a discernable flavor among any of the dishes other than maybe salt and/or fat.  Frankly, I really just assumed that it was all flavored with MSG, given that everything was saucy, glistening and maybe narcotically flavorful, but truly just disgusting.  Also, unless you're willing to go $150 or above on the wine, there are not many choices on the list and I'm pretty sure the insipid $75 bottle of Sancerre we had, retails for about $14.  Food-wise, Griffou is extremely disappointing and I'm not sure how a kitchen in Manhattan, serving $27 entrees, could get it this wrong.  Nevertheless, I'm clear on why they get away with it: Griffou has appeal and intrigue in its ambience, which is clandestine, cozy and varied in that there are six rooms, all decorated differently.  Moreover, it's a "scene" and somehow has become a hot-bed for celebrities.  A few months ago a friend went and shared in JLo's birthday dinner.  Tonight, a friend spotted Sienna Miller.  I doubted my friend, until I saw Jude Law walk in the front door, probably fresh from his performance in Hamlet (which is great by the way, but I'll stick with the food critiquing).  Not only did we get a good, long look at Mr. Law, but I think we got some scoop too--spotting Jude and Sienna in the same place.  Is it reconciliation?  Whatever it is, call out to all celebs: please demand better in your food.  NYC has so much more to offer than stylized joints, like Griffou, that serve the expensive equivalent of greasy nachos and wings. If you want to check out the scene, go for drinks only.   

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Disappointment on the West Coast - The Slanted Door, 1 Ferry Building, #3, San Franciso, CA

Expectations are admittedly high when you've been reading about a restaurant for several years, it's been labeled as one of the iconic restaurants in the U.S. and you make a trip across country to celebrate your father's 65th birthdy and your sister's 40th birthday at this very restaurant.  Correcting for high expectations, my slant on the the Slanted Door was that it is disappointing, average at best, and riding on a brand name that it created a decade-plus ago when it was a small, unique spot in the Mission district in San Francisco, established by a Vietnamese immigrant focused on delivering authentic Vietnamese food with fresh local ingredients.  Fast forward to 2009, The Slanted Door is a behemoth space in the Ferry Building with minimal character and soul (my father's assessment: an intimate restaurant transmogrified into an airplane hangar) it's noisy and cold and our table was, unfortunately, too close to the open, jarringly-bright kitchen.  The service was seemingly overwhelmed, and unattentive as a result, and the food was nothing special.  In fact, I was having trouble discerning it from anything I've had at other, non-descript, Vietnamese or even pan-Asian spots.  If I had to choose some food highlights, perhaps the green papaya salad (but you can get this anywhere) and the Berkshire pork chop with a shallot, ginger soy-sauce.  The daikon rice cake was mushy, the dumplings were unrecognizable as dumplings, the glass noodles were coagulated and the chicken clay-pot, which was talked up quite a bit, seemed to be flavored with no more than soy and black pepper.  I was truly disappointed.  What I was pleased by, though, was the wine selection: Riesling-heavy for the spice in the food.  We had two German Rieslings, one floral and dry and the other purely sweet and both went fabulously with the food - a bright spot in an otherwise lackluster dining experience.     

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Drinking in Church? - Tipsy Parson, 156 9th Ave., b/tw 19th & 20th

I think I met Tipsy Parson down south while in college and no surprise he (she?) made it up north and is now cooking southern-ish comfort food in Chelsea.  Only a week or so old, I hand it to Tipsy Parson for having things relatively in order.  They didn't have a reservation available for my group of five for primetime on a Thursday night, but after I left my number and suggested if they could figure something out, they should give me a call back - they actually did!  This never happens.  The hostess worked hard once we got there and, despite her page-long list of names, reassured us she would "make it happen".  She did make it happen, and I give her credit for that, but we sat almost two hours after we arrived, at which time I was about ready to gnaw my arm off.  Which brings me to the food.  Tipsy Parson was a good meal, with some bright highlights: the hush puppies and their pungent vinegary sauce; the blue cheese, served with figs and pancetta, but also made by students of animal husbandry at Clemson University (South Carolina for those of you who have never been south of the Mason Dixon line. But maybe one of you can tell me what animal husbandry actually is?) and the braised pork shank with stewed apples and prunes.  I couldn't get too excited about the food, though, or Tipsy Parson overall, as it fits a mold that is already getting a little moldy in the NY dining scene: southern, comfort, locavore-ish, down-homeish cuisine.  Case in point - for the second time in less than a week, I saw a Concord grape mint julep on the drink list and a glammed-up mac and cheese and braised shank of something on the dinner menu.  I succumbed to the shank and didn't regret it, but overall wanted something more interesting.  Tipsy Parson is worth a try, but unfortunately this jaded palate, seeking newness, boldness and innovation, needs more than just a good meal.  

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Don't Find Yourself in a Dark Alley Unless it's...Freeman's - Freeman's Alley, off Rivington, b/tw Bowery & Christie Sts.

Folks, I'm going to level with you, the food at Freeman's is not great--only ok at best, although striving for the right things--but Freeman's is a spot you want to try to feel like you've had a NY dining experience or an experience in NY at all.  Freeman's has been open since 2004 and I've been there several times, but there's always a small thrill in even finding the spot that is off of an alley, aptly named Freeman's alley, off of Rivington St. on the Lower East Side.  NYers (myself included) are notorious for wanting to be the first to find and try something new and then be able to talk about it unabashedly.  I tried Freeman's in 2004 after moving back to NY from spending a year in London and upon finding the spot and entering the den (or really a lair, given the taxidermy on the walls) of a restaurant, I felt justified in shunning lovely Europe for forever-striving and pushing-the-envelope NYC.  I recall the food being much better back then - there was something on the menu with butternut squash and sour cream that was just divine - but again, it was never ultimately about the food.  It was and is about the fact that Freeman's is still clandestine in its locale, hip and cutting edge in its ambience, staff and clientele (I liked the Nick Rhodes thing that the hostess was trying to pull off) and now four times the size of the original, but still cozy, hunting lodge-esque and serving artisanal cocktails and very tolerable food.  Good luck finding it, but go with friends, enjoy the scene, the cocktails and the artichoke dip, reserve the back room for a birthday celebration, but don't expect culinary wizardry.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Could do Better - Civetta - 98 Kenmare b/tw Lafayette & Mulberry

New York does not need another French bistro/brasserie mock-up nor another Italian, faux-rustic trattoria.  For Italian, we can survive just fine with Morandi, Gemma, Il Buco and so many others that Civetta is just one more entrant in an already crowded scene.  Civetta, unfortunately, does not stand out--neither with its decor, which is only a meager imitation of Gemma, nor with its food, which I found very salty, ill-conceived, and really only a step-up from any average Italian joint you'd find in any city in this country.  Dare I say, only a step-up from the Olive Garden?  The service was fine, but unnoticeable when you're striving to find something redeeming in the food.  Just when you think all hope is lost, though, there is still reason to go to Civetta and that is the downstairs lounge.  As I was finishing dinner, at a "respectable" (read early) hour with friends and friend's parents from out of town, it was clear that anyone entering the restaurant was really headed for the lounge downstairs and probably didn't even know that Civetta serves food.  The lounge is a sizeable, but still cozy space with bar on one side and a grotto of booths on the outer walls.  Add a DJ, stiff cocktails and a crowd dressed and liquored for Thursday night in NYC and you have yourself one little hotspot.  Civetta, enjoy, but no dining allowed.